The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

Book - 2011
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A fascinating work of popular philosophy and history that both enlightens and entertains, Stephen Cave's Immortality investigates whether it just might be possible to live forever and whether we should want to. But it also makes a powerful argument, which is that it's our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization.

Central to this book is the metaphor of a mountaintop where one can find the Immortals. Since the dawn of humanity, everyone - whether they know it or not - has been trying to climb that mountain. But there are only four paths up its treacherous slope, and there have only ever been four paths. Throughout history, people have wagered everything on their choice of the correct path, and fought wars against those who've chosen differently.

While Immortality takes the reader on an eye-opening journey from the beginnings of civilization to the present day, the structure is not chronological. Rather it is path driven. As each path is revealed to us, an historical figure serves as our guide.

In drawing back the curtain on what compels humans to "keep on keeping on," Cave engages the reader in a number of mind-bending thought experiments. He teases out the implications of each immortality gambit, asking, for example, how long a person would live if they did manage to acquire a perfectly disease-free body. Or what would happen if a super-being tried to round up the atomic constituents of all who've died in order to resurrect them. Or what our loved ones would really be doing in heaven if it does exist. Or what part of us actually lives in a work of art, and how long that work of art can survive.

Toward the the book's end, we're confronted with a series of brain-rattling questions: What would happen if tomorrow humanity discovered that there is no life but this one? Would people continue to care about their favorite sports team, please their boss, vie for the title of Year's Best Salesman ? Would three-hundred-year projects still get started? If the four paths up the Mount of the Immortals lead nowhere -- if there is no getting up to the summit -- is there still reason to live? And can civilization survive?

Immortality is a deeply satisfying book, as optimistic about the human condition as it is insightful about the true arc of history.
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2011.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780307884916
Characteristics: x, 320 p. ; 25 cm.


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IndyPL_SteveB Dec 09, 2018

A fascinating and well-written book that many people will hate; but nearly everyone will find useful in some way. Cave has obviously been obsessed with this topic for many years (it takes a LOT of time to read all of the books he quotes from). I wouldn’t say he gets all of the answers right – e.g., he misses the most important point about cryonics and he sometimes claims to have “proven” a point that he didn’t come close to proving – but he asks the right questions. I also disagree with some of his final conclusions, and especially with his implication that if you DON’T agree with him, you are a victim of self-delusion; but the trip you take to supply your own answers to the universal questions he asks is enlightening on its own.

One of the most interesting techniques he uses is to point out a problem dealing with death, then showing how a particular religion or philosophy deals with it, then pointing out what the historical objections are to that approach, but THEN giving the historical answers back to the objections. In that way, this is like being in college, hanging out with people of many different backgrounds, arguing about life and death. If you LIKE that kind of party, I think you will find this book enjoyable, whether or not you agree with any of the conclusions.

Aug 03, 2012

Philosopher Steven Cave argues that humans have invented 4 "immortality narratives" to resolve what he calls the Mortality Paradox. The paradox is that we, as intelligent beings, know that we will die, but we cannot imagine what it's like to actually be dead. We therefore try to find ways to become immortal and so avoid the unimaginable state of death. Cave argues that attempts to become immortal have driven the development of all human cultures.

The immortality narrative he calls "Staying Alive", for example, was a key driver in the development of public health, agriculture, and cities as we tried to live longer without dying. The other immortality narratives led to religion, art, science, heroism, and many other aspects of modern life.

What I found most fascinating was Cave's analysis of immortality narratives in Western religious thought. He explains how early Christianity differentiated itself from Judaism and from Greek and Roman pagan religions by promising bodily resurrection. But later logistical and philosophical problems with resurrection led to incorporating, with some updates, the Greek idea of an immortal soul into medieval Christianity. I knew this transition had occurred but hadn't read a good explanation for it. Cave's explanation makes sense.

Cave proceeds to argue why none of the four narratives really works and concludes with an alternative narrative that could lead to a happier life in the here and now instead of worrying about preventing the inevitable.

Cave's style is very easy to read and his arguments, laced with metaphors and examples, are easy to follow. I think he may over-emphasize our fear of death and its role in human history, but there is still much food for thought here. Highly recommended.


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