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The Four Immortality Stories We Tell Ourselves
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 / 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 ages.
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 the seasons as well as a literal one in Christianity. But even if you don't believe that an omnipotent god could resurrect you, you can believe that omnipotent scientists and doctors could do the same in the future. As of May 2017, The Alcor Life Extension Foundation, for example, has 151 “patients" in cryopreservation – whole bodies or brains preserved in liquid nitrogen, awaiting a moment in the future when they could be brought back to life.
Here, Cave reminds us of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein – the creature that rises from the dead but has no identity. The resurrection story has a deep philosophical flaw – if a person seizes to exist and is rebuilt again, it is impossible to know if we are bringing the same person to life or we are creating a copy.
By Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (Google books) [Public domain] / Credit: Wikimedia Commons
To save us from this philosophical flaw comes the story of the immaterial essence that lives on even after we die – the soul.
Immortality Story III: The Story of the Soul
If we embrace the idea of the soul, we can give up on the body altogether because our true essence becomes not a physical organism but an immaterial thing. Many thinkers from Plato to the Hindus have argued that the body is an obstacle to immortality and the main goal in life is to become pure spirit.
This story too is being reinvented by our technological age with the idea of mind uploading and scientific fields like Whole brain emulation (WBE). Organizations like Carboncopies hope to create accurate computational models of neural tissue at the scale of complete brains, as well as develop neuromorphic hardware to run simulations of these models.
According to Cave, as science progresses the idea of a separate immaterial soul is becoming less and less plausible, as we learn that the real "you" is dependent on your particular brain. As bits of the brains are destroyed, bits of the personality are destroyed as well. And it is not just the brain itself that makes up who you are but also the millions of chemical reactions that happen in the body to produce sensations and emotions.
Unable to save the body or the soul, we are left with the last immortality story, which says that the real you is a bundle of things, and as you die the bundle scatters but its elements can live on.
Immortality Story IV: The Legacy Story
Here Cave reminds us of the story of Achilles who was given the choice to go home and live a long and happy life or stay in Troy, fight and die but be remembered forever as the greatest hero of all times. Many people have been inspired by the pursuit of immortality through fame and cultural legacy. Nowadays, technology gives everyone the means to instant fame, enables us to build our own statues through tweets and instagrams, and allows us to capture and preserve every moment of our lives.
But many consider this route to immortality far too indirect. Cave quotes Woody Allen who famously said:
“I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment."
Having run out of stories to keep us alive forever, in the end of his talk, Cave urges us to embrace a fifth narrative. He explains that the fear of death is based on a misconception, and while it is natural, it is not rational. He reminds us of the words of the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein:
“Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits."
The fifth narrative is to look at life as if it was a book. Just like a book is bounded by its covers, our life is bounded by birth and death. However, even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, the characters in it know no horizons.
“You can only know what happens inside the covers – these are the moments of your life. It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of these covers – before your birth or after your death. In fact, if you think how unlikely it is that the book of your life should have ever come to be written – all of the coincidences from the beginning of life that brought you here - the proper attitude is not fear that it might come to an end but gratitude that it should have been written at all. So there is no room to complain how short life is - the only thing that matters is that you try to make it a good story."
Bill Nye's has similar thoughts on immortality:
Northwell Health is using insights from website traffic to forecast COVID-19 hospitalizations two weeks in the future.
- The machine-learning algorithm works by analyzing the online behavior of visitors to the Northwell Health website and comparing that data to future COVID-19 hospitalizations.
- The tool, which uses anonymized data, has so far predicted hospitalizations with an accuracy rate of 80 percent.
- Machine-learning tools are helping health-care professionals worldwide better constrain and treat COVID-19.
The value of forecasting<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNTA0Njk2OC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMzM2NDQzOH0.rid9regiDaKczCCKBsu7wrHkNQ64Vz_XcOEZIzAhzgM/img.jpg?width=980" id="2bb93" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="31345afbdf2bd408fd3e9f31520c445a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" data-width="1546" data-height="1056" />
Northwell emergency departments use the dashboard to monitor in real time.
Credit: Northwell Health<p>One unique benefit of forecasting COVID-19 hospitalizations is that it allows health systems to better prepare, manage and allocate resources. For example, if the tool forecasted a surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations in two weeks, Northwell Health could begin:</p><ul><li>Making space for an influx of patients</li><li>Moving personal protective equipment to where it's most needed</li><li>Strategically allocating staff during the predicted surge</li><li>Increasing the number of tests offered to asymptomatic patients</li></ul><p>The health-care field is increasingly using machine learning. It's already helping doctors develop <a href="https://care.diabetesjournals.org/content/early/2020/06/09/dc19-1870" target="_blank">personalized care plans for diabetes patients</a>, improving cancer screening techniques, and enabling mental health professionals to better predict which patients are at <a href="https://healthitanalytics.com/news/ehr-data-fuels-accurate-predictive-analytics-for-suicide-risk" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">elevated risk of suicide</a>, to name a few applications.</p><p>Health systems around the world have already begun exploring how <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7315944/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">machine learning can help battle the pandemic</a>, including better COVID-19 screening, diagnosis, contact tracing, and drug and vaccine development.</p><p>Cruzen said these kinds of tools represent a shift in how health systems can tackle a wide variety of problems.</p><p>"Health care has always used the past to predict the future, but not in this mathematical way," Cruzen said. "I think [Northwell Health's new predictive tool] really is a great first example of how we should be attacking a lot of things as we go forward."</p>
Making machine-learning tools openly accessible<p>Northwell Health has made its predictive tool <a href="https://github.com/northwell-health/covid-web-data-predictor" target="_blank">available for free</a> to any health system that wishes to utilize it.</p><p>"COVID is everybody's problem, and I think developing tools that can be used to help others is sort of why people go into health care," Dr. Cruzen said. "It was really consistent with our mission."</p><p>Open collaboration is something the world's governments and health systems should be striving for during the pandemic, said Michael Dowling, Northwell Health's president and CEO.</p><p>"Whenever you develop anything and somebody else gets it, they improve it and they continue to make it better," Dowling said. "As a country, we lack data. I believe very, very strongly that we should have been and should be now working with other countries, including China, including the European Union, including England and others to figure out how to develop a health surveillance system so you can anticipate way in advance when these things are going to occur."</p><p>In all, Northwell Health has treated more than 112,000 COVID patients. During the pandemic, Dowling said he's seen an outpouring of goodwill, collaboration, and sacrifice from the community and the tens of thousands of staff who work across Northwell.</p><p>"COVID has changed our perspective on everything—and not just those of us in health care, because it has disrupted everybody's life," Dowling said. "It has demonstrated the value of community, how we help one another."</p>
"You dream about these kinds of moments when you're a kid," said lead paleontologist David Schmidt.
- The triceratops skull was first discovered in 2019, but was excavated over the summer of 2020.
- It was discovered in the South Dakota Badlands, an area where the Triceratops roamed some 66 million years ago.
- Studying dinosaurs helps scientists better understand the evolution of all life on Earth.
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p style="margin-left: 20px;">"We had to be really careful," Schmidt told St. Louis Public Radio. "We couldn't disturb anything at all, because at that point, it was under law enforcement investigation. They were telling us, 'Don't even make footprints,' and I was thinking, 'How are we supposed to do that?'"</p><p>Another difficulty was the mammoth size of the skull: about 7 feet long and more than 3,000 pounds. (For context, the largest triceratops skull ever unearthed was about <a href="https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02724634.2010.483632" target="_blank">8.2 feet long</a>.) The skull of Schmidt's dinosaur was likely a <em>Triceratops prorsus, </em>one of two species of triceratops that roamed what's now North America about 66 million years ago.</p>
Credit: David Schmidt / Westminster College<p>The triceratops was an herbivore, but it was also a favorite meal of the T<em>yrannosaurus rex</em>. That probably explains why the Dakotas contain many scattered triceratops bone fragments, and, less commonly, complete bones and skulls. In summer 2019, for example, a separate team on a dig in North Dakota made <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">headlines</a> after unearthing a complete triceratops skull that measured five feet in length.</p><p>Michael Kjelland, a biology professor who participated in that excavation, said digging up the dinosaur was like completing a "multi-piece, 3-D jigsaw puzzle" that required "engineering that rivaled SpaceX," he jokingly told the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2019/07/26/science/triceratops-skull-65-million-years-old.html" target="_blank">New York Times</a>.</p>
Morrison Formation in Colorado
James St. John via Flickr
|Credit: Nobu Tamura/Wikimedia Commons|
Archaeologists discover a cave painting of a wild pig that is now the world's oldest dated work of representational art.
- Archaeologists find a cave painting of a wild pig that is at least 45,500 years old.
- The painting is the earliest known work of representational art.
- The discovery was made in a remote valley on the Indonesian island of Sulawesi.
Oldest Cave Art Found in Sulawesi<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a9734e306f0914bfdcbe79a1e317a7f0"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/b-wAYtBxn7E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Persian polymath and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age teaches us about self-awareness.