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Awareness of our mortality is a major driver of civilization

We have often discussed how fear of death is one of the driving forces of religious beliefs. Most religions offer immortality through an "afterlife" and that is a very appealing concept to many people. It is hard enough losing a loved one and thinking we will never see them again. It's easy to understand why any promises of meeting them again in an afterlife sound so "believable": we desperately want to believe it, because it offers comfort. 

But a new book, Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, by British philosopher and essayist Stephen Cave, suggests that to deal with the inevitable, we humans resort to 4 "immortality narratives":

  1. Staying alive: the hope to physically live forever, either due to science and technology, or some supernatural way.
  2. Resurrection: we physically die, but we will inhabit our bodies (or at least our minds) once again after we "resurrect" (supernaturally or through technology, remember there are people who are cryopreserved in the hope of being resurrected, and there is talk out there of "downloading" one's mind to some kind of cyber entity)
  3. Soul: the survival is not physical, but "spiritual", because the "soul" is immortal.
  4. Legacy: this is extending the memory of us through fame, historical impact or through our children.

None of these provide immortality, but the only sort of real one is the 4th one. We remember and talk about famous people for a long time (not that it makes any difference to them when they're dead), and we do in a way, "live" through our children or other people we had an impact on. This legacy narrative, according to Cave is the major impulse for civilization, the major force behind works of art, science and technology, and other works of civilization, like literature, music, etc. It makes perfect sense to me. I will probably read the book, it sounds very interesting.

Michael Shermer wrote an article in Scientific American about the book's premise:

Climbing Mount Immortality

published April 2012 |
How awareness of our mortality
may be a major driver of civilization

IMAGINE YOURSELF DEAD. What picture comes to mind? Your funeral with a casket surrounded by family and friends? Complete darkness and void? In either case, you are still conscious and observing the scene. In reality, you can no more envision what it is like to be dead than you can visualize yourself before you were born. Death is cognitively nonexistent, and yet we know it is real because every one of the 100 billion people who lived before us is gone. As Christopher Hitchens told an audience I was in shortly before his death, “I’m dying, but so are all of you.” Reality check.

In his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (Crown, 2012), British philosopher and Financial Times essayist Stephen Cave calls this the Mortality Paradox. “Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible,” Cave suggests. We see it all around us, and yet “it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.”

The attempt to resolve the paradox has led to four immortality narratives:

  1. Staying alive: “Like all living systems, we strive to avoid death. The dream of doing so forever—physically, in this world—is the most basic of immortality narratives.”
  2. Resurrection: “The belief that, although we must physically die, nonetheless we can physically rise again with the bodies we knew in life.”
  3. Soul: The “dream of surviving as some kind of spiritual entity.”
  4. Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children.

Read the rest here.

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The legacy part is hard

Legacy: “More indirect ways of extending ourselves into the future” such as glory, reputation, historical impact or children

The impact of DNA goes away after a few generations and even if you are remembered such as Alexander the Great - you are more of name than a person to remember.

You need to be the best you at the current time and plan to be a better you in the future. 

Yes, to me the only real legacy is if I managed to teach my children to be good people, people who make this worlds better for themselves and future generations. This requires for me to be the best person i can during my lifetime, so I agree with you, doone. 

My children have never met my father, he died before they were born. For them he is just a legend. Now, a century after his birth, there are perhaps two dozen people who still remember him in the flesh and when we're gone he's gone. That's what ordinary folks' legacy is all about. Like you say, just a few generations.

That's all the scope I can ever hope to get, to put my historical footprint in perspective =)

I would think most reasonable people would think that number 4 is the only way to obtain a semblance of immortality, but I'm surprised that number one mixes science and the supernatural. If it only stated science and technology, I would think that at some time in the future, if immortality is not achievable, at least a longer lifespan would be.

Well, the first one comprises transhumanism, which has as one goal to achieve immortality or at least extend our life span dramatically, as well as our capabilities (physical and intellectual) using science and technology.  In its present form, its too pseudoscience-y to be appealing to me, plus it seems to me that there are other more pressing goals for humanity.

I added the supernatural there but in reality perhaps the supernatural pertains more to categories 2 and 3. 

I don't have a narrative for immortality. I used to but not anymore. Perhaps eventually humanity will drop the fantasies altogether and figure out a new paradigm for doing what needs to be done.

Apr. 2, 2012

funny science news experiments memes - Thank you, Carl

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Someone once wrote, "We all die. The goal should not be to live forever, but to create something that will."

pax vobiscum,

I feel like now that the so called 'Four Horsemen' have become bestsellers and so many atheists have come out of the closet, there's a need for a new discourse and that more people are turning to philosophical questions like this one from a secular perspective.

I think it's good that these conversations are happening because many people lack coping mechanisms.  I've had atheist friends who've lost friends violently and became extremely introspective and changed and stopped talking to their friends.  This isn't healthy.  People need to talk about death and accept it and come to terms with it.

Transhumanism is the most that science can offer, but it raises serious questions.  At what point do we cease being human and become machines?  And then, if we reach the point that science fiction enthusiasts call 'the singularity', does that mean we are replacing ourselves with something better?  And would it be an intelligent choice, to produce a post-human species not by accident and by the natural mechanism of survival of the fittest and through natural evolutionary pressures, but through manipulation of genes and technological enhancement?

Interesting article:

Human evolution at the crossroads ; Genetics, cybernetics complicate forecast for species


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