The philosopher and author of Immortality talks with Susie Neilson about elixirs of life, the fallacy of the singularity, and why we should all get up early to meditate on our inevitable demise.
Image from Flickr via tanakawho
When I spoke to Stephen Cave over Skype, he had just returned from a 20-mile run through Berlin. I wanted to know about dedicating his research to running from death; the philosopher wasted no time in defending himself:
“I suppose you could say I’m running away from the reaper,” Cave said, leaning forward in earnest. “But I see myself as running towards, if that makes sense.”
Running occupies much of Cave’s time and mental energy–yours, too. According to Cave’s latest book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, you and everyone you know are spending life on the run from death. Cave writes that this escapism “is the foundation of human achievement: it is the wellspring of religion, the muse of philosophy, the architect of our cities, and the impulse behind the arts.”
Immortality has made a splash in the pop-academic community over the last year. Immortality repurposes traditions like Epicureanism and Buddhism to explain anti-death behavior, but it adds several new dimensions to the argument–that every human story falls into one of four death-defying narratives, for instance, or that our quest to cheat death is coded into our very genes.
As Cave settles behind a laptop to chat about his work, he beams. But it’s not the quasi-fluorescence of the overenthusiastic or pointlessly ambitious—he’s measured, quick but not hasty, earnest and willing to share. If every human being is embroiled in a fight against death, Cave’s 336-page treatise on the subject seems to have earned him, for the moment, an amicable ceasefire. After dedicating himself to studying the thing we’re all running away from, he does seem to be running towards something.
— Susie Neilson for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve said that humans would be better off if we thought more about death. Why is that?
Stephen Cave: Someone clever once said that death is the source of all our deadlines, but we’re continually in denial about death, tons of research out there. As long as you’ve got all the time in the world, you’ve got time to waste. When you realize how limited our days are, you realize how precious they are. There are a lot of wise traditions, Buddhism for example, where meditating on death is encouraged. Which sounds morbid, but it’s the opposite; it gives you the sense that every moment is precious, every moment must be grasped.
Guernica: You wrote an article for WIRED entitled “sorry, Dr. Kurzweil, the singularity is way off.” In it, you say some controversial things about cancer cures and technology’s potential to extend life. What is the singularity, and what’s wrong with it?
Stephen Cave: Since the very beginning of recorded history, the very oldest documents we have—papyrus or epic of Gilgamesh—think we’re on the brink of living forever. Every generation has its prophets with the same formula, just different vocabulary. In our society it’s technology. The idea that we, as chosen generation, can defeat death. The technological singularity is an idea developed by [Ray] Kurzweil and others, and it’s really the idea that, at some point, artificial intelligence is going to become so powerful it will vastly exceed human intelligence.
At that point, all bets are off. We can’t see what will happen after that, because any vision of the future we create, we create with our human minds. Kurzweil and others see this development positively; they hope that a super intelligence would solve our problems for us, like limited resources or renewable energy or how to solve the little problem of death.
But there are two kinds of skeptics. There are those who think it won’t happen, or isn’t inevitable; and the other kind of skeptic, and this is the camp I’m in, is that if we really did create this super intelligence it might not be a great thing. We only need to look at the way we treat beings of lower intelligence—we ignore them, we enslave them and let them die out.
There’s nothing to tell that this super intelligence would be well disposed to us—it might eat us.
Guernica: I feel like there’s this interesting duality in human nature. While our drive to achieve feats of technological genius and scientific discovery has made immortality closer to possible than ever, we’re also closer to massive destruction than ever; and yet, though we’re terrified of dying, we’re ignoring these fatal threats. How does this fit in with your immortality theory?
Stephen Cave: Good point. I would say that climate change doesn’t come into your apartment, if that makes sense. It’s easier to think of [death] in terms of your individual life. Climate change is an enormous risk, but it doesn’t have a solution that you, as an individual, would implement.
There are studies that show we associate climate change with existential risk—that is, the fear of death. The easiest way of dealing with it—unlike aging, which does come into your apartment—is denial.
It’s scary; climate change is a byproduct of technologies that are helping us live longer—all of the infrastructure around us: the houses that protect us from the elements, the heating, the medical industry and even the energy industry. There are seven billion people on this planet, and we wouldn’t be able to feed about half of those without artificial fertilizers, which are dependent on the creation of artificial fuel. We’re stuck either way.
Guernica: We see lots of people dying on TV, in very gruesome ways—lots of samurais, for instance—but very few old people get screen time. Why is that?
Stephen Cave: There’s a long tradition of people achieving immortality by killing others—the idea you become a master of death by dealing death. Traditionally, the hero is the one who decides who lives or dies. The enemy is darkness or death and the hero vets to live on. In all of these series that portray death, we are identifying with the hero, who triumphs over death. It’s a shocking exception when you identify with some character who dies.
That’s different from seeing living reminders that we actually all age, and aging only has one end: the grave. These figures are not heroic figures for us. We spend all this time trying to look young and stay fit. According to our current cultural standards, they’ve failed.
Guernica: It’s interesting you say “current cultural standards.” Because many societies have venerated elders over the centuries. Why the recent switch?
Stephen Cave: In an average society where the life is 35, anyone who’s made it to 70–they are the great survivors. They are the “knower” figure, who have triumphed over the adversity that’s left everyone else in their generation in the grave.
In older societies where everyone dies young, these people represent triumph. In our societies where everyone’s living old, old people are reminders of defeat.
Guernica: I read this Atlantic article the other day that claimed that living a “meaningful life” could be a wellspring of longevity. Is that something you’ve found?
Stephen Cave: I’m not sure… Certainly happiness is correlated, and various factors you might associate with living longer…having work that is meaningful to you, having a strong social network, having a family, these are also associated with longevity.
Significantly, I mean, people can live 10 years longer. There was a famous study conducted in the ‘60s, called the Whitehorse study, that looked at British civil servants. Those who were more senior, and had more meaningful work, were valued…lived on average a lot longer regardless of other factors than those at the bottom of the hierarchy.
Victor Frankl wrote about the Auschwitz survivor in Man’s Search for Meaning. If you have some sense of the broader narrative, that can stop you from giving up to disease, old age, whatever.
Ironically, though, all of these things—a sense of community involvement, et cetera.—I can also help you to accept death.
A lot of my work is around what happens when we’re denied death. If the fear of death drives us to do these crazy things, is there a greater way to manage this fear? The same kinds of answers keep cropping up.
Guernica: Such as?
Stephen Cave: Thinking less about yourself, more about other people and other causes, so your own death doesn’t seem as important to you, because these other causes and people will live on. Those other things will help you come to terms with death.
Care more about other things, and less about yourself, and your own death will seem less important. There are ways to combine a meaningful life without being afraid of it ending.
Bertrand Russell wrote about this. He lived to be 97. A man who lived this incredibly rich life, incredibly engaged, a philosopher, a writer. His life clearly had a lot of meaning for him. But also writing then already as a very old man about this, he wrote, ‘fear of death is not a noble thing, and the best way to deal with it is to break down the walls of the self, to emerge your ideas into the great stream of humanity.’ Care more about other things, and less about yourself, and your own death will seem less important. There are ways to combine a meaningful life without being afraid of it ending.
Various Buddhist traditions have excellent strategies for dealing with this. The Buddhist tradition realizes that the fear is so deep within us that we have to remind ourselves every day. I once heard that Dalai Lama wakes up at 4 am and meditates for 3 hours on the fact he’s going to die. It’s part of the Buddhist tradition to contemplate one’s mortality. Doing that will help give you the right focus. Help you decide what’s important and not important, to help you live with meaning but without fear.
You can legends of elixirs of life in the work of the alchemists, the epic of Gilgamesh…the The New York Times recently had a story called, ‘Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” The answer is no, by the way.
Guernica: You say there are four paths to immortality?
Stephen Cave: Although there appears to be a huge diversity of immortality stories, they ultimately fall into four, and these recur throughout history.
The first of these is the most straightforward: if you’re afraid of death, then live forever, here in this body, in this world as we know it. As crazy as that might seem, actually every culture in human history has a legend of the elixir of life, something that would keep us living forever. You can find it in the work of the alchemists, epic of Gilgamesh…The New York Times recently had a story called, ‘Can a Jellyfish Unlock the Secret of Immortality?” The answer is no, by the way.
That’s the most straightforward story, but it’s a good idea to have a backup plan given the fact that most people still seem to die. The second one is resurrection. We see this with the celebration of spring rites, like Easter, which is the celebration of a very literal resurrection. The idea we can physically rise again is in Christianity but you can also find it in Islam, Judaism. It’s a hugely widespread. Still, many traditions find the idea of living on as a body to be messy; Greeks thought the idea of bodies messy, and Buddhist and Hindus too.
Anyone who thinks this wants to find the third idea: living on as a soul. Leaving behind the body for something that’s immortal by its nature. If you believe some part of you is immortal, then you might see death as a liberation. freeing yourself from this body so you can begin your true life as a soul.
Of course, the evidence for the soul is limited. Science is saying we probably don’t have one. So you turn to the fourth one: legacy, living on through the echo you leave behind in the world. It can be cultural or genetic. The Greeks knew biology was completely unreliable; much better to shift yourself into the cultural sphere; culture is what lasts. Achilles when he was sitting on the beach of Troy, thought a few things: if he fought Troy he would die, but he’d become the most famous warrior of all time. Of course, he died and here we are talking about him. He sacrificed his physical life for his legacy. This is a very influential idea. The idea of legacy–people say it’s not real. As Woody Allen said, I don’t want to live on in hearts of my countrymen I want to live on in my apartment.
I don’t think any one of them is the answer. I don’t think any of them is true, or we wouldn’t need four. In a way, each story tries to solve the one before it. There’s no bit where you’re dead in between.
I don’t think any of them offer immortality.
Guernica: Which path are you on?
Stephen Cave: Well, I’ve got three children, and I write books. The casual observer might think I was worrying about my legacy. But to be honest, the book was a journey for me. I didn’t start out as a skeptic: when I started researching this topic I was genuinely optimistic about the possibilities of science and technologies delivering infinite lifespans. I worked out that there are these four doors, and behind them is the prize. Each time I was hoping it’d be behind the next door, and by the time I’d gotten to the end, I was wondering: ‘what’s driving me to want this so much? Is that good? I’m effectively living my life here, driven by this fear of death.’ What I found out was the fear of–I don’t want to spend my life pursuing these stories that aren’t true. Are there better ways of overcoming this fear? And that’s what comes at the end of this book. Epicureanism, Buddhism, stoicism–there are better ways of dealing with this fear.
As a small boy I realized, “That’s going to happen to me, too!” And, whoa, there was this sense of–existential vertigo, the fear of your bed opening up and swallowing you.
Guernica: What drove you to write this book in the first place, then?
Stephen Cave:I wanted to know what happens! Don’t you want to know how to live forever, what makes you want to make sense of it all? My grandparents died together at an early age. As a small boy I thought about this, and I realized, ‘That’s going to happen to me, too!’
And, whoa, there was this sense of–existential vertigo, the fear of your bed opening up and swallowing you. All children have these realizations, but most people in the get over it in the course of their teenage years, believe certain stories. But I didn’t find my parents’ explanations very convincing, and somehow I never let go of these questions. They influenced much of my work as an academic philosopher.
Guernica: A soul weighs 21 grams. How’d you come up with that figure?
Stephen Cave: That is an American doctor [Dr. Duncan "Om" MacDougall] a physician in the early twentieth century. He built this…enormous hospital bed that was a set of scales. He’d take dying patients, put them on it, and weigh them as they died. And suddenly this scale (which wasn’t at all accurate, a sort of ludicrous medical machine!)
It was an interesting idea for all sorts of reasons. That someone who’d think the soul, which isn’t even material, would have a weight, is a deeply confused idea.
Guernica: In your Brainpickings interview, you quoted the writer Susan Ertz: “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” What’s your advice for these people?
Stephen Cave: We’re all compelled to tell ourselves these stories because of the fear of death. Some people are conscious of that and will admit to it, and for others, the stories are working so well, they’re not conscious of that fear. The question is: How can we cope with death in a way that’s constructive? And I do think it’s possible. The idea of identifying with other people is important. But that’s a huge challenge; we live in a society where the prime source of individual value is the individual. Society says, your life should be about you, as a project. But of course, if that’s the case, then death is the end of that project. What I’m saying is, don’t make you the center of all your projects. Care about other people, other causes, whether that’s the world or other causes, because then your death will be less important.
There are two things I’d add to that.
Live more in the present. Death can only be something that comes in the future. We do not live to experience death. When death comes, we are gone. Death can never be in the present for us, it can only be in the future. If you live in the present, you get the eternal now.
The third thing is gratitude. We lack perspective on our own lives, of course; the last thing we want is to die. When we think instead of how incredibly likely it is that we exist at all, our evolutionary history is full of coincidences–how crazy is it your parents met, how crazy it is their parents met…all the coincidences that’ve made your possible. We’re incredibly lucky to be alive at all, and when you know that it seems churlish or ungrateful [to fear death]. My advice is spend every moment like an unexpected gift, as a stroke of luck, as opposed to worrying about this life, that’s so unlikely, ending.
Susie Neilson is a junior at Northwestern University, where she studies journalism. She is feisty and bookish. Reach her in Seattle, Chicago or on Twitter.