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Scientific American

Climbing Mount Immortality

published April 2012 | comments (19)
How awareness of our mortality
may be a major driver of civilization
magazine cover

IMAGINE YOURSELF DEAD. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case, you are still conscious and observing the scene. In reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you can visualize yourself before you were born. Death is cognitively nonexistent, and yet we know it is real because every one of the 100 billion people who lived before us is gone. As Christopher Hitchens told an audience I was in shortly before his death, “I’m dying, but so are all of you.” Reality check.

In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012), British philosopher and Financial Times essayist Stephen Cave calls this the Mortality Paradox. “Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible,” Cave suggests. We see it all around us, and yet “it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.”

The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four immortality narratives:

  1. Staying alive: “Like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.”
  2. Resurrection: “The belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.”
  3. Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.”
  4. Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children.

All four fail to deliver everlasting life. Science is nowhere near reengineering the body to stay alive beyond 120 years. Both religious and scientific forms of resurrecting your body succumb to the Transformation Problem (how could you be reassembled just as you were and yet this time be invulnerable to disease and death?) and the Duplication Problem (how would duplicates be different from twins?). “Even if DigiGod made a perfect copy of you at the end of time,” Case conjectures, “it would be exactly that: a copy, an entirely new person who just happened to have the same memories and beliefs as you.” The soul hypothesis has been slain by neuroscience showing that the mind (consciousness, memory and personality patterns representing “you”) cannot exist without the brain. When the brain dies of injury, stroke, dementia or Alzheimer’s, the mind dies with it. No brain, no mind; no body, no soul.

That leaves the legacy narrative, of which Woody Allen quipped: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve it by not dying.” Nevertheless, Cave argues that legacy is the driving force behind creative works of art, music, literature, science, culture, architecture and other artifacts of civilization. How? Because of something called Terror Management Theory. Awareness of one’s mortality focuses the mind to create and produce to avoid the terror that comes from confronting the mortality paradox that would otherwise, in the words of the theory’s proponents—psychologists Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski—reduce us to “twitching blobs of biological protoplasm completely perfused with anxiety and unable to effectively respond to the demands of their immediate surroundings.”

Maybe, but human behavior is multivariate in causality, and fear of death is only one of many drivers of creativity and productivity. A baser evolutionary driver is sexual selection, in which organisms from bowerbirds to brainy bohemians engage in the creative production of magnificent works with the express purpose of attracting mates—from big blue bowerbird nests to big-brained orchestral music, epic poems, stirring literature and even scientific discoveries. As well argued by evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller in The Mating Mind (Anchor, 2001), those that do so most effectively leave behind more offspring and thus pass on their creative genes to future generations. As Hitchens once told me, mastering the pen and the podium means never having to dine or sleep alone.

Given the improbability of the first three immortality narratives, making a difference in the world in the form of a legacy that changes lives for the better is the highest we can climb up Mount Immortality, but on a clear day you can see forever.

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19 Comments to “Climbing Mount Immortality”

  1. Collin Braun Says:

    While certainly not discounting the efficacy of the legacy narrative, I have to side with Woody Allen and the Bee Gees. Staying alive is the only sure way to achieve personal immortality. I’m not exactly sure how near science is to radically extending human lifespan, but between advances in genetic engineering, nanomedicine, robotics and the rise of artificial intelligence, there seems good reason to believe that extending human life is possible, likely, and – for many people – desirable. I would disagree with the statement that science is “nowhere near” this holy grail, not because we are very close, but because we can actively choose to support research into human longevity in order to bring longer life sooner.

  2. Dave Gutekunst Says:

    @Collin: I am curious what you think about the ethics of a radical extension of the human lifespan. Living as we do on a crowded planet with finite resources, is there not a point where we owe it to our fellow humans to exit the party and allow the other guests some room to dance? (That said, I plan to dance as long I can…)

  3. Greg Linster Says:

    Since we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious, we fear it. But is there anything really to fear?

    Anyway, this post reminds me of an aphorism written by Emily Dickinson.

    “That it will never come again
    Is what makes life so sweet.”

  4. Bob Rollins Says:

    While we may not be able to simulate what it is like not to be conscious, we may be so used to and comfortable with an analogous state that we overlook it. We go through periods of dreamless sleep most nights (and/or days).

  5. BillG Says:

    Perhaps equally frightening is the thought of being immortal. For many life is a struggle and a nightmare where a quasi comfort resides knowing – theist and atheist alike, that no situation is unescapable.

    Regardless, I would suspect humanity would be very different if death was not certain.

  6. Josh Cogliati Says:

    I don’t see how both scientific resurrection and soul can both fail to provide immortality. As I see it either the body is fully material, in which case it can be duplicated just by putting the atoms in the right place, or a person is not fully material, in which case some kind of soul exists. So as I see it, if you believe in philosophical materialism, then the body can be duplicated, and if you believe in something like cartesian dualism, then a soul of some sort exists.

  7. Bill Newnam Says:

    Look, it is as simple as this: we exist as a temporary and exquite organization of atoms, which, apparently as all things in the universe, reaches a point of decomposition of the organization back into it’s constituent atomic parts. That’s the way it is and the discussions of the likes contained in the book under review are pointless. Long ago Omar Khayyam understood this and put it thus: Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

  8. Collin Braun Says:

    @DaveG: I think you said it perfectly. Most of us recognize the utility of our death on the macro scale. It’s good for the planet, it’s good for a species, and it has been the natural course of all organisms that reproduce sexually. But applied to one’s self or loved ones, we are less willing to accept the utility of death. Remember that, on average, humans are already living significantly longer than our ancestors and we have every reason to believe this trend will continue, further populating the planet and using up its resources. Instituting a “death age” of 120 won’t be a very popular solution if we have the means to live longer. A more likely solution to overpopulation is limiting reproduction or colonizing new worlds when we are capable of doing so.

  9. T Payne Says:

    Without the certainty of death, would life be worth living?
    I don’t think so.
    If you couldn’t lose in Vegas, nobody would go.
    That’s life.

  10. Fred Kohler Says:

    To me just having been alive and conscious of the expanding view of the universe’s history and makeup that science, which is a collective human accomplishment, has made possible is worth the trip. It is a secular “miracle” that evolution has brought about organisms that understand evolution and are likely to control it in the not so very distant future. To have had the privilege to be part of this process has made life worthwhile for me, I will be 92 years old this month. I imagine death to be like being under a general anaethesia without awakening. Mark Twain said it very well when he answered the question of how he imagined being dead by saying “before my birth I was dead for billions of years.”

  11. Mike Anzis Says:

    It’s inevitable that humans will continue pursuing life extension and physical immortality. I expect that skeptics give science at least a credible chance of acheiving much greater life expenctancy, and, eventually, something close to immortality. In addition to continually accelerating medical advances extending life, there is a good deal of well-funded scientific work being done on immortality now, e.g., that of Aubrey de Gray on regenerative medicine funded by zillionaire Peter Thiel. (See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8iYpxRXlboQ.)

    I give near immortality a very good chance, with the operative word being “eventually”. So I am a cryonicist and have made arrangements to be frozen (suspended) on death with the hope of revival. I view my gamble with the money it will cost me (my estate) not as to whether the science will eventually be there, but that my body and especially my brain with my memories, personality, consciousness, etc., can make it to that time, as well as whether “that time” will be worth living in.

    Certainly “humanity would be very different if death was (sic) not certain”. But humanity is very different now than it was 5000, 1000, or even 200 years ago. We adapt and find joy and meaning, and I’m optimistic enough to believe that humans will continue to do that in more and more rapidly and inevitably changing times.

    As for the Malthusian “scarce resources” argument for population control and for limiting life extension, well-documented basic economics and history refute that, and basic moral principles are in the way of implementing it. (Anyone for forced sterility, geronticide, or “Soylent Green”?) Besides, our long-term future is probably off the planet, where vast additional resources exist. Think of how astonishing it would be for a person just 200 years ago to imagine the health, wealth, and well-being that humans have created since then. It would be no less astonishing to us to see what will happen in the future. If we can just get there to enjoy it…

  12. randy bessinger Says:

    My late uncle had severe heart disease and on one particularly notable stay died several times on the table only to be brought back to life with the paddles. He was a very funny guy and of course, the Dr. asked him if he had any near death experiences and saw any blinding white lights. He very seriously replied, “No, I only saw naked women” I heard this story and thought it was hilarious. Before he died my aunt told me that he was really calm and happy after his near death experiences. My uncle then proceeded to tell me “death is nothing to be afraid of, just like going to sleep (without any dreams). Anyone who has been out during surgery with no recollections knows what is like.

  13. David Abramis Says:

    I’m genuinely surprised that nobody has mentioned the absolutely seminal work on this subject, “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. Published in 1973, it won the 1974 Pulizer Prize for general non-fiction. Reading this book changed my life. It explained experiences I’d already had, not to mention my observations of virtually everything that humans do — especially *not* thinking about death and doing everything possible to avoid the topic.

    I should add that Becker’s book is not easy reading, and ready access to Wikipedia and/or a really good dictionary and encyclopedia will be of great use.

    “The Denial of Death” may be the most important book I’ve ever read. Here’s more:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death

    http://www.amazon.com/The-Denial-Death-Ernest-Becker/dp/0684832402

    I’d love to hear others’ thoughts about this book and about whether the relatively new “Terror Management Theory” adds anything of import beyond Becker’s words.

  14. Bill Newnam Says:

    To David Abramis,

    Becker’s seminal work is also one of my favorites. He eplains eloquently how this great fear of ours distorts our thinking. Face up to the reality and give up the self delusions.

  15. Harold Geroge Says:

    Another very-dated-but-still-interesting book is “The Illusion of Immortality” by Corliss Lamont.

  16. Liam McDaid Says:

    I guess it depends on one’s attitude toward death. Here’s a Middle Egyptian poem (loosely translated – The Man Who Was Tired of Life):

    Death is before me today:
    Like the recovery of a sick man,
    Like going forth into a garden after sickness

    Death is before me today:
    Like the odor of myrrh,
    Like sitting under a sail in a good wind.

    Death is before me today:
    Like the course of a stream
    Like the return of a man from the war-galley to his house.

    Death is before me today:
    Like the home that a man longs to see,
    After years spent as a captive.

    Clearly not everyone lives in in perfect, constant terror of death.

  17. David Abramis Says:

    To follow on the above comments regarding my reference to Becker’s “Denial of Death”: (1) Becker maintained that dealing with our mortality is, ideally, a balancing act between a *healthy* *necessity* of denial through a kind of “healthy narcissism” or “healthy self-delusion” (e.g., I’m powerful, wonderful, beautiful, brilliant, etc.) *and* (2) confrontation with the reality of our ultimate non-existence. In other words, for Becker the healthy human requires *both* recognition of death *and* its denial.

    To Liam, Becker would likely have said that most people, if not virtually all people do *not* live in a *conscious* constant terror of death. Further, Becker would regard the Egyptian poem (and all other forms of making death less scary, e.g., belief in an afterlife) as yet another manifestation of the powerful denial of the writer.

    (As an aside, I recognize the potential circularity of Becker’s argument, though it is framed rather nicely within neopsychoanalytic theory and I personally found it extraordinarily convincing. Nonetheless, I hope that this is one place where the new “terror management” research will shed scientific light.)

  18. Bob Adams Says:

    Regarding the “soul” it occurs to me that science can not measure or prove something that is not in the four dimensions of our material world. And studying souls can not be done using the scientific method. It is not repeatable I suspect. In any event like our consciousness souls have no weight, energy, or any other measurable substance. I “believe” that I have a soul, but I can never prove it.

  19. Gerald Fnord Says:

    All the assurances that it’s better that we are mortal have a strong ring of sour grapes to them.

    The Duplication Problem doesn’t bother me because I have lost consciousness nearly every single day since I reached it, yet I still feel that there were an “I” which wants to persist, can be held at least partially justifiably responsible for what previous editions have wrought, and seeks to make the future versions of itself happier rather than sadder even if it means making this consciousness-period less happy (e.g., any day I wake up to go to work—nothing _too_ bad will happen if I slack off _today_, yet I act to avoid Bad Things happening years from now when our money would run out).