The Four Immortality Stories We Tell Ourselves


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Since the moment humans became aware of their existence, they have been haunted by the knowledge that it will inevitably come to an end and the hope to change this unfortunate fate.

This month, during Brain Bar Budapest – Europe’s leading conference on the future – Stephen Cave talked about the four immortality stories we tell ourselves and how they are changing in the context of new scientific discoveries and technological advancements. Stephen Cave spent a decade studying and teaching philosophy, and was awarded his PhD in metaphysics from the University of Cambridge in 2001. He is Executive Director of the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence and Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge.

Stephen Cave

Stephen Cave / Credit: Speakerpedia

Thinking about our own mortality has significant effects on the mind. Studies show that when people are reminded that they are going to die, those who are religious become more religious, those who are patriotic, become more patriotic – whatever makes up the core of their worldview, they defend it more aggressively. They are also more likely to believe any kind of story that tells them they may live forever.

We need to tell ourselves stories that deny the reality of death so that we can manage the paralyzing fear of death. In social psychology this is called terror management theory (TMT) – where humans embrace stories, cultural values, and symbolic systems to alleviate the fear of death. Stephen Cave points out that civilization as a whole can be viewed as a collection of life-extension technologies, the motivation for its existence being again – immortality.

In the age of unprecedented technological advancements, stories about how new scientific discoveries will extend our lives abound in our cultural narrative. As new as these may seem they are nothing but upgrades of four basic narratives we’ve been telling ourselves for.

Immortality Story I: The Elixir Story

Almost every culture has some version of the story of the elixir of life or the fountain of youth. It is the most basic form of immortality story – avoiding death physically by staying young and healthy day after day and somehow managing to keep it up forever. To some extent civilization has helped us do that – our ancestors had a life expectancy of 30-40 years, while ours has doubled. This longevity revolution is one of the most important ones in human history and thanks to science and technology perhaps we are on the verge of even another doubling of life expectancy.

To sober us, Cave reminds us that the ancient Egyptians believed exactly the same thing 4000 years ago, and the ancient Chinese believed it 2000 years ago – seeing their civilizations as incredibly advanced and believing beating death must be just around the corner. Cave urges us to be skeptical about these stories. Perhaps in our lifetime we will live till 120 or even 150 – an unprecedented technological marvel – but that is still far from eternity.

Physicist Geoffrey West explains why we don’t live for more than 100 years:

Immortality Story II: The Resurrection Story

If we are not able to extend our lives indefinitely, there is the hope that even if we die, we could rise again and live again. We see a symbolic resurrection in nature every year with the changing of…

Sasha Harriet

Sasha Harriet

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Sasha Harriet

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