The Magazine

Indestructible Dream

Exploring the human instinct to live after death.

Dec 3, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 12 • By PETER LOPATIN
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The soul bridges the gap between this world and the next; it keeps an essential part of us out of the grave even when our bodies fail and permits us to fly directly to the next world without an embarrassing interim as a hapless pile of bones.

Finally, the “Legacy” narrative offers us the alternative of a cultural or biological “solution” to the problem posed by the mortality paradox: because homo sapiens is, as Ernst Cassirer put it, the “symbolic animal,” we can, in a sense, survive beyond the grave insofar as our achievements—whether artistic, scientific, military, or otherwise—survive us. Biologically, we may take comfort in the thought that, in our offspring and in the memories of those who knew us, we will—at least in some respect—“live on.” On a grander biological scale, we may find peace of mind in the realization that we are but a small part in a great web of life (“Gaia,” or whatever), or that, as Richard Dawkins has put it, “the genes in the world have an expectation of life that must be measured not in decades but in thousands and millions of years.”

But as to each of these immortality narratives, the devil is in the details, as Cave so deftly makes plain. We may live much longer lifespans, but how will we deal with the problems of overpopulation and social conflict that will result? And what about the inevitable boredom and sense of purposelessness of simply continuing “as is”? If I am going to live forever, what need is there to do this—or anything—today rather than tomorrow? What difference will any of my deeds make? All mistakes will be correctable. Eternal life—whether corporeal or spiritual—seems to entail the eternal indifference of “whatever” and “why bother?” Faced with the challenge of Hillel’s “If not now, when?” the reply would be, “Whenever.” 

As to resurrection, whether through cryo-preservation of the recently deceased, or “computational resurrection” whereby the contents of one’s brain are uploaded (or is it downloaded?) to some “virtual person in a virtual world who would have all of your recollections, opinions and quirks,” or turned into software and installed in a robot, these schemes raise serious conceptual questions (apart from doubts as to their scientific plausibi-lity) concerning the nature of personal identity. Is the downloaded duplicate a counterfeit you? Will the resurrected me be the disease-wracked specimen I was at the moment of my death? The questions are many, and the problems raised by those questions are genuine and disturbing. 

Although it avoids the pitfalls of the other immortality narratives, the “Legacy” narrative loses much of its luster in Woody Allen’s quip that “I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.” Whether I survive as brief memories in the minds of those who knew me (memories whose duration is limited by their bearers’ own mortality) or in some “symbolic” form—perhaps through a hospital wing dedicated in my name, or in tales of my valor on the field of battle—I will be, nonetheless, as dead as a doornail.

Cave’s philosophically and scientifically informed skepticism concerning promises of immortality leads him to propose an alternative that might enable us to face our finitude without being reduced to mere “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their surroundings.” The alternative is Cave’s “Wisdom” narrative. Drawing on such diverse sources as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the philosophies of Epicurus and Ludwig Wittgenstein, among many others, Cave fashions a plausible and compelling view of a life that does not recoil in horror at the thought of mortality. In place of that fear, he proposes a way of valuing the present—and of cherishing finitude itself—based on the convictions that: (1) unending life would be a curse, not a blessing; (2) fear of death simply makes no sense; and (3) we should devote ourselves to cultivating those very virtues which, if grasped, would obviate the existential angst that gives rise in the first instance to the desideratum of immortality.

A passage from Wittgenstein—one which, ironically, Cave does not cite—is very much on point: “If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present.” This exhortation is one that we would do well to heed. But we must hurry, for time grows short.

Peter Lopatin teaches at the University of Connecticut at Stamford.