Pros: very well-researched and argued; thought-provoking; pages of his resources/suggested reading
Cons: none for me, but immortal hopefuls will find it disturbing
A couple of weeks ago a college girl approached me and asked if she could ask me what I thought about the afterlife. Being in a good mood and obviously opinionated, I replied that I didn’t presume to know what it was like and it was mysterious. She seemed a bit perplexed because I also explained that I had studied the subject for many years, but she assumed I only meant the Bible (only a small part of my study) and tried to find out if I understood the Bible or perhaps was an idiot. It’s too bad I hadn’t then read Stephen Cave’s Immortality; Our Quest To Live Forever And How It Drives Civilization. Now I know just what I would’ve told that unsuspecting missionary.
What seems most crucial in understanding the afterlife or immortality is that it has no time. Time is meaningless in eternity and, as Cave points out, nothing can happen outside of time (or our mind, which means when our brains die, our minds die and death has no meaning for us). That means it is completely different than our lives with goals, desires, structure, memories, communication, whatever, and a Christian can only look forward to spending infinity simply in a zombie-like trance like a worshipping angel. This is what Jesus and every pope and theologian has taught or believed. Cave quoted the scripture passage in Luke where Jesus was asked about the afterlife and if a woman had married seven brothers after they all died on her and she then died, whose wife would she be? He corrected the person on his view of the afterlife and said we would be like angels and unmarried. Cave also quotes the current pope about his identical views in his 2007 book Eschatology: Death and Eternal Life. Cave calls it the theocentric view and that the anthropocentric view where we visit deceased family, friends, pets and sainted idols is considered impossible, illusionary.
Priests and preachers don’t preach the theocentric view because what Christian or religious follower wants to hear that? Eternity doesn’t sound too attractive anymore, does it? I will go further than the philosopher Cave and posit that since God would have to live in timeless eternity God could not have created life or anything unless God broke into time, which means life was then created in time without a divine spark or soul independent of time. I think evolution (and death) proves we were created in time. Cave includes scientific/medical research into the possibility of a soul, observing that when people lose consciousness they never remember being conscious because their soul took over. I’ve fainted a few times, once in church as a teen during a hot summer, and down I went like I was dead.
The author has for decades studied our seemingly innate craving for immortality and how it has inspired civilizations, art, religion, capitalism, technology, advertising, and celebrity obsession, as well as crime, wars, genocide, terrorism, racism, and a me-centered society. Until Christianity with its promise of immortality with a personal god who loves you (become an individual-in-relation-to-God), people believed they only attained immortality through their family, society or nation and that gods were distant, malicious creatures who played with human lives. Stoicism was all the rage, such as practiced by Marcus Aurelius whose book Meditations may still be enjoyed. It followed the teachings of wisdom literature, which is a significant part of the Christian Old Testament (Job, Ecclesiastes, Psalms, Proverbs, Song of Songs). The wisdom came from exhortations to live everyday with gratitude and awareness that it may be your last.
Immortality: Our Quest To Live Forever And How It Drives Civilization is organized according to Cave’s beliefs that there are four immortality myths that everybody in all of history has been compelled to believe in to distract them from the knowledge of their death. Cave calls it the Mortality Paradox when we rationally accept our inevitable deaths, but cannot imagine it. The myths are Staying Alive, such as with elixirs, drugs, science or vitamins; Resurrection, which is of Judeo-Christian origin, was preached by Jesus and St. Paul, remains in the still-recited Nicene Creed, and has nothing to do with a soul; Soul, which has not been found because our minds are dependent on our functioning brains; and Legacy, the desire to either biologically or culturally leave something of ourselves to survive us.
Cave discuses each myth or narrative in fascinating, very helpful detail. I couldn’t wait to pick the book up again. It was so thought-provoking in a good, balanced way, although I’m not religious and so I didn’t get upset with his conclusion that none of the myths will help us live forever. It was depressing to realize there’s no evidence of a soul and that science could only replicate a version of ourselves if anything, but his concluding chapter reminds us of the ancient Gilgamesh story where the king finally understands that immortality is elusive and this life is a great gift not to squander away in looking for it. Cave encourages us to practice Eastern methods like meditation to help us focus on the present and to make lists of what we’re grateful for. He has also discussed Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, the two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling, Paul of Tarsus, the Dalai Lama, Dante’s Divine Comedy and numerous philosophers from as far back as Epicurus and Plato as well as celebrities and a pharoah.
I can’t recommend this fascinating book more highly with its excellent write-up in the back of his resources and suggested reading. Cave makes a strong case that civilization will not collapse if we stop believing the immortality myths and may likely be more interested in justice and peace and living our lives as passionately as possible. It’s true that people who know they’re dying will become much more grateful for what they have in life. Hopefully we can start living like that now.
I love his way of describing our lives, like a wave crashing on shore to be swept up by the sea or like characters in a novel who no longer exist after the book is closed (but only in our memories).