Immortality junkies

A writer and philosopher explains our obsession with living forever, from the concept of heaven to modern cryonics

Published April 26, 2012 12:00PM (EDT)

This interview first appeared in The Browser, as part of the FiveBooks series. Previous contributors include Paul Krugman, Woody Allen and Ian McEwan. For a daily selection of new article suggestions and FiveBooks interviews, check out The Browser or follow @TheBrowser on Twitter.

Will it be possible to live forever? Is there such a thing as the soul, or immortality in one’s legacy? Stephen Cave, the author of the new book "Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization," explores the eternal questions, from elixirs of life to modern-day cryonics.

The BrowserWhy do we have this compelling, addictive interest in the idea of living forever?

It’s a human universal. Among all of the animals, we probably uniquely are aware that we’re going to die. We try to avoid the worst, to keep going one way or another, yet we must live in the knowledge that it is futile – that ultimately, the worst thing that can possibly happen will happen. That all our projects and all our dreams -- everything we’re striving for -- one day it will all be over. And this is terrifying. So we are very keen to hear any story that can allay this fear and say death isn’t what it seems, and we can just keep on going indefinitely.

In your book "Immortality," just out, you identify four paths to that goal. Will you take us through them?

These four paths are, I think, the only ways in which we can imagine living forever. They have a logical relationship that takes us from one to the next. The first one is simply living on, in this body and on this earth. That might seem a rather implausible idea initially, given the success rate of it during history, but almost every culture dreams of this in one way or another – whether through an elixir of life or biotech.

If we think that isn’t likely to work and we need a plan B, the next step is to think maybe this body that has to die can nonetheless rise again and live for a second time. This is the hope that we can be resurrected, and it has played an important role in various religions, in particular Christianity, Islam and ancient Egypt. We have modern conceptions of this too, such as cryonics – the idea that we can freeze our corpses and revive them at some later point.

But if you think this physical body is too unreliable, that ultimately we will crumble from disease and aging, then you want instead an immaterial thing that is immune to all this. This is the third path, the belief in the soul. Something pure, some spark of the divine that won’t age or succumb to disease, that we can live on through. Belief in the soul is probably the most widespread of all the immortality narratives, but it too has problems from the philosophical perspective.

And for those who don’t believe in anything as definite as an immaterial soul that can preserve our personality, then there is the more indirect route to immortality of legacy, which is the fourth route. There are different forms of legacy – biological legacy, in our genes and children; or cultural legacy, living on through our works and fame. Every culture has some kind of story about why death is not the end. And this story will draw on one or more of these four fundamental forms of how we might live forever.

Let’s start on your book selection at the beginning, as it were, with one of the earliest books ever: "The Epic of Gilgamesh" from ancient Mesopotamia. Will you give us a précis of the plot and tell us why you chose it?

Gilgamesh is a hero in the ancient mold. He’s half-god, enormously strong, a bit randy, a bit dim, and he goes through adventures that embody the human experience writ large. He starts off as the king of a small kingdom, making a nuisance of himself – enforcing droit du seigneur, sleeping with women on their marriage night, pushing other men around, being a bit of an arse. So the gods make a rival to him in strength, a wild man. They fight, realize neither can win, then become best friends and go off on all sorts of adventures. They kill all sorts of ogres and beasts, until the gods think this is getting a bit much and decide Gilgamesh’s friend has to die.

It’s then that Gilgamesh realizes the truth of mortality. He sees his friend die and thinks, If this heroic human being, the strongest of the strong, can die, that means I’m going to die too. He faces his own mortality, and it’s terrifying. He leaves his kingdom and roams the wilderness, looking desperately for some solution to the problem of mortality. Eventually he comes to the end of the world, where he finds a Noah figure called Utnapishtim, who survived the great flood and to whom the gods gave immortality. He’s disappointed of course. Utnapishtim says the gods gave him immortality as a special case – for mortals this life is all you can have.

Finally Gilgamesh meets this wonderful figure called Siduri, the barmaid at the end of the world. Siduri imparts to him the wisdom which is really the point of the epic, that you will never find immortality. The gods jealously keep eternal life for themselves. So let your belly be full, enjoy yourself day and night, make merry, dance, keep your clothes clean, wash, love your children, love your wife, lead a good life, and that’s it. Deal with it. “The life that you seek you never will find,” she says, “When the gods created mankind, / Death they dispensed to mankind, / Life they kept for themselves.”

The irony is that Gilgamesh does live on through his legacy and because of this epic.

It is ironic, and not straightforward. Here we have a story about a man coming to terms with mortality. At the same time, he does achieve the eternal fame for which many people have fought and died, in the Greek tradition of Achilles. There are also Sumerian legends in which he is king of the underworld, and so he lives on in a form there.

Is part of the message that he was wasting his life in seeking immortality?

When Gilgamesh is in the wilderness, he lives like an animal. He has left civilization behind. When he appears in the bar, Siduri at first tries to escape onto the roof because she thinks this wild animal of a man has come to murder her. He has abandoned his duties in pursuing what we might think of as a selfish or egotistical search for immortality. What he ought to be doing, as Utnapishtim says to him, is going back to his kingdom and ruling over it sensibly until the end of his days. So the search for immortality is an abdication of our real duties in life.

Is "Gilgamesh" a good read?

It’s brilliant. I love it. It has a very distinctive verse style that really stays with you. It’s haunting, beautiful and in a tradition with which we’re not familiar, but which speaks to us immediately.

Next, tell us about "Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in Western Religion" by Alan Segal, and the strand of soul and living on by religious promise.

In a way, the Segal book is the perfect accompaniment to reading "Gilgamesh" because he so brilliantly puts this into a broader context. This book covers the ancient history of the near East and the origins of the Abrahamic tradition of Western religion up until the beginnings of Islam. We tend to see religions as very monolithic, having a set doctrine that sprang from the earth or was handed down from the heavens. Segal is extremely good at showing us how the history of religion is the history of humans encountering one another and the common sets of problems among different traditions, and how they all intermingle and evolve in trying to find solutions to them. He does that, in particular, by looking at afterlife beliefs.

How crucial is the belief in some form of an afterlife to religion?

Luther famously said that if your god doesn’t deliver eternal life, then I don’t give a mushroom for your god. For a lot of people, it is exactly what they expect of religion. Religion is supposed to deliver immortality. That’s what it’s for. But it varies from religion to religion how prominent a role it takes. It’s interesting to look at the example of Christianity, which had a definite beginning in the crucifixion and resurrection of Christ. It’s all about the conquest of death. Saint Paul’s writings, which really created Christianity, are all about how Jesus conquered death for himself and for all of us, so we can all live on. Easter was when we celebrated that.

How literal do you feel that aspect to Christian faith is?

I think it was certainly meant very literally at the time of Jesus, Saint Paul and the apostles. There’s every indication that they believed in a literal resurrection that was also very imminent. Paul writes as if it may happen in his lifetime, and if not then, certainly soon after.

It’s been imminent for a rather long time now.

It has been, and you still have Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on your door telling you it’s coming soon. The fact that it didn’t happen within one or two generations posed a bit of a problem for Christianity, though. If you believe in physical resurrection, this means that all of our loved ones are rotting at the bottom of the grave waiting for the last trumpet to sound, and that we, too, will have this prospect to face. That’s both philosophically difficult and unattractive. We don’t want to imagine our loved ones or ourselves rotting in the grave waiting for the day of judgement that was supposed to come and hasn’t yet. The idea of the eternal soul – which was brought into Christianity by Greek converts – rescued Christianity from this problem.

What is immortality of the soul really supposed to mean?

It means that grandpa’s up there looking down on us, and when we die we’ll go up to join him.

So it means immortality of the consciousness?

People imagine it differently, and their imaginings are not always coherent. But if the soul is to do the work we expect of it, it’s got to bring our consciousness with it. That’s what people want. They expect their personality, their mind, to live on, and they expect our soul to do this. Not that long ago, this was not just a matter of faith but also a fairly sensible idea. How this overcooked cauliflower in our heads could produce thought was a great mystery – and still is to some extent – so it seemed like a perfectly sensible scientific proposition that there was some other immaterial thing that produced thought and carried our mind -- whereas resurrection required God to intervene and re-assemble all our bones. But now, of course, the soul looks less plausible from a scientific point of view.

Moving on to ["Escape from Evil" by] Ernest Becker, please explain why [Becker] felt the quest for immortality also spawned human evil.

Becker was a very interesting anthropologist working within a tradition of psychoanalysis who tried to bring together a lot of different disciplines in the sciences and the arts to create a kind of third culture in order to explain humanity. He thought the point of the human sciences – and indeed all science – was to stop us from being evil, and that evil resulted from our terror of death. We’re aware of our mortality, he argued, and would do anything to escape this prospect of death. Whatever we associate with death – with the challenge to our very existence – we think of as being evil. And if we have an idea of evil personified, it justifies any action.

George W. Bush called terrorists “evil doers,” and that seemed to legitimize everything, from Guantánamo to drone strikes. If something is defined as evil, we think it must be attacked at all costs. So the personification of death becomes the personification of evil. And in the name of combating evil, we can do all sorts of terrible things – we do evil ourselves.

What are some specific human acts of evil that have come about through fear of dying?

Becker would see almost any ideological or religious context in these terms. Jihad is the clearest example of people trying to cleanse the world for their own system in order to legitimate their own beliefs in the promise of immortality. The Crusades were the same. Or take Nazism for example, which is less obvious than jihad but was the example more in the minds of those writing in the '60s and '70s. Nazism was also a system that promised immortality for being part of the German volk. In order to become immortal, Germany had to become pure; and in order to become pure, it had to destroy what was impure – and that was Jews, homosexuals and so on. This was a ritual act of cleansing -- purging the evil as they saw it in order to create something pure.

"The Denial of Death" is Becker’s more well-known work. This one is a sequel?

This is the continuation of "The Denial of Death," and it’s easier to read, I think. "The Denial of Death" got a lot of attention when it came out [in 1973] and won a Pulitzer prize. But in "Escape From Evil," you feel he is more free to express his own views. He was dying when he wrote it, and a lot of it was done posthumously by his estate. It’s much more passionate and clear. It’s wild in places, speculative in places, but it’s full of ideas and wonderfully written.

Turning our eye to science, what does "Mortal Coil: A Short History of Living Longer" have to say about immortality?

This is very much about the first path to immortality, of just staying alive, here in this body, forever and ever. It begins with Francis Bacon – one of the founding figures of science – and the wonderful story of how he died trying to figure out how to preserve life. On a cold night, he went outside in the snow, bought a live chicken, killed it, and stuffed it full of snow in the hope of preserving it -- convinced that this was the key to preserving life, or at least organic matter. In the process, he caught pneumonia and died.

That sets the tone perfectly for this book. The Chinese emperor whose elixir of life ended up killing him is another great example of how the quest for immortality often leads to an early grave. Lots of immortality elixirs are useless at best and deadly at worst. Other people have claimed that they found the secret to immortality in ground-up dog testicles or by sewing monkey balls onto themselves. This makes them seem like charlatans or snake-oil salesmen, but they were very serious people who believed in what they were doing.

There are a lot of people today, like [gerontology theoretician] Aubrey de Grey, who believe that we are machines and, as such, are repairable and can be kept running indefinitely. If you only listen to people like him, you can start nodding your head and thinking maybe it is possible, maybe we are going to crack this. But that’s exactly what people thought 100 years ago, and 400 years ago, and right back to the ancient Egyptians. It can be difficult to refute the arguments of someone who says it’s all stem cells, but before we become too credulous we need to see it in this broader context.

Tell me more about where are we now. Beginning with cryonics, Francis Bacon’s idea a couple of centuries on.

We’re doing quite well at freezing organic matter. But no one has yet frozen a rat and reanimated it, though it may well happen soon. There are a lot of obstacles, and there is much debate in the scientific community over whether these are inherent obstacles – whether defrosting organic matter causes all of the cells in our bodies to explode or something. A lot of people believe these problems can be solved. But of course once you’ve solved the problems of freezing and defrosting, you’ve still got a corpse. Cryonics is like an ambulance into the future. You’ve got to hope that at the end there is this fantastic hospital that can repair whatever it is that killed you. It gets a lot of attention because it’s quite sci-fi, but it’s never going to be enough in itself.

So you are always dead when you’re frozen in our times?

Yes. You’re not allowed to freeze someone alive, because that kills them so it would be murder. This is a problem in the cryonics community, and they’re not happy about it. They argue that just as people go to Dignitas if they want to die, people who have a terminal disease should be able to be frozen before it destroys their body completely. But at the moment, you have to be dead to be frozen.

Genetic research has also made leaps and bounds over the last decades. I understand we have identified some genetic agents of mortality, such as telomeres, which are structures at the end of chromosomes that impact on their self-replication.

Great progress has been made, but the question of whether aging is pre-programmed in us and can be turned off or not is hugely controversial in the scientific community. There are a lot of gerontologists who believe that aging is a system failure that affects every part of our bodies – so we’re not just talking about telomeres, for example. It is a problem that there is this limit to how often cells can replicate through their telomeres, but we usually die before we reach that limit. So it’s unlikely that there is just one problem, which leads a lot of scientists in this area to believe that we will never crack aging completely.

There’s interesting research that even if we manage to find the cure for cancer, heart disease and stroke – the three biggest killers – we will only live on average an extra decade. Because by the time that we reach the age when we suffer from these diseases, our bodies are already fading. Some people even see cancer as a symptom of this more general disintegration. The fact is, there are no evolutionary pressures for longevity beyond reproductive age.

We must also not forget that we are already living much longer than our ancestors did.

Indeed. We often fail to acknowledge what an enormous revolution we have seen in the past two centuries, when life expectancy has doubled. It was, until a couple of hundred years ago, around 40, and before that around 30. So our great great great great great grandfathers, not that long ago, who lived lives not unlike ours in cities, had life expectancies not that different to cavemen. And now we can all expect to live to 80. This is perhaps the most important revolution in human history – and it is continuing, although not at the same rate. We can expect to live longer than our parents, and our children can expect to live longer again.

But this may have a limit. The oldest person to live so far reached 120. Whether we can go beyond that is yet to be seen. People like Aubrey de Grey, who proselytize for life extension research and investment, believe that any acceptance of the inevitability of death – or “deathism” – is a kind of resignation. My position is that all this progress is welcome, but we are still going to die. That’s not resignation or deathism; it’s just a fact. We have to accept that reality while supporting the research that is going to help us live until 150 – which is a long way from eternity. What is dangerous is death denial, because the way you look at life is very different if you accept that you’re going to die, rather than fantasizing about keeping on going indefinitely.

Let’s close by suspending our disbelief and imagining that we can live forever – but might not want to – with Jorge Luis Borges’ short story “The Immortal.”

This story is about a Roman officer who finds the Fountain of Youth, a river that cleanses men of death, as he puts it. He becomes an immortal and meets the other immortals who have found the river, and the story is about the consequences of this – namely, madness and meaninglessness. There’s a great deal of speculation among philosophers and religious types about what it might be like to live together. These 20 pages capture it so perfectly. It’s such a fine example of Borgesian writing – tense, lucid, packed with meaning so you immediately feel like reading it again in case you missed something.

This Roman soldier, at the end of his quest, comes across a group of troglodytes who are naked and withered and are doing nothing but staring at the sky and living on snake meat. One of them is so indifferent and apathetic that a bird has nested on his chest and he hasn’t noticed. After some time, the Roman realizes that these are the immortals, and this is what has become of them. He also realizes that one of them is Homer. He’s impressed at first that this man wrote "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey." But the man says: I’m immortal, and given an infinite amount of time, the impossible thing is not to write "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey."

Given all eternity, we all do everything – both everything good and everything bad – and we all become the same person, with nothing distinct between us. We are all victim and perpetrator, king and serf. Life becomes meaningless, like a series of jokes when we know the punchlines. It loses all sharpness and definition. This is wonderfully represented in the city of the immortals, which was at first a fantastic city of god, and then turned into this labyrinth with staircases leading nowhere.

The story has that Borgesian dream-like quality to it, which lends itself well to the idea of living forever. So our conclusion is to be careful what you wish for?

Exactly. I think we’re lucky we get to live for such a long time. I very much believe in Epicurus’s dictum that we ought not to be afraid of death, because we won’t be there when it happens. And yet the fact of mortality gives life urgency, so we have the best of all worlds.

By Sophie Roell

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