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:

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Politics & Current Affairs

Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?

Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.

Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.