The Mortality Paradox
By Maria Popova
“It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” Goethe, who ceased to be 181 years ago this week, proclaimed as he concluded that “in this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Since the dawn of time, it has been the human instinct to resolve the psychological dilemma by constructing various immortality narratives — one of the hallmarks of our species. In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library), Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave explores the inner workings of that ancient impulse, inviting us on a mind-bending, intense, at times unsettling and at times deeply comforting journey into the most cavernous quarters of the human psyche.
Cave argues that besides our immortality narratives, what sets us apart from other sentient beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness — adaptive developments that have enabled us to foresee different possibilities and make sophisticated plans, but also, in envisioning the future, to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise. He terms this the “Mortality Paradox” and argues that it gives shape to both immortality narratives and civilization itself:
On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.
Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.
But while the survival benefits of these faculties are indisputable, Cave argues, they come at a cost:
If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety — it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.
We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. … This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortal. … Since we attained self-awareness, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.’ No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, we know that the Reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war we are doomed to lose.
What Cave neglects to mention, of course, is that Montaigne shared not so much a lament over our mortality as one over our preoccupation with it, famously writing that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, Cave does consider the second half of the Mortality Paradox — our inability to even conceive of our own obliteration:
The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing.
He points out that even in trying to imagine your own funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the virtual eye doing the envisioning.
We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.
He cites Freud, who wrote in 1915:
It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. … [Therefore] at bottom no one believes in his own death … [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.
A century after Freud, contemporary science has dissected the inner workings of this quintessentially human phenomenon:
Modern cognitive psychology gives a scientific account of this ancient intuition. Our acceptance of new facts or possibilities depends upon our ability to imagine them — we accept, for example, that playing with matches could cause our house to burn down because this is something we can easily picture. But when our minds come across an obstacle to imagining a certain scenario, then we find it much more difficult to accept. Our own death is just such a scenario, as it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.
(Unless, that is, we were to do as Buckminster Fuller did and conclude that “all phenomena are metaphysical, wherefore … life is but a dream.”)
And while Christopher Hitchens, always the contrarian till the very end, claimed to “love the imaginary struggle,” for most of us, Cave points out, it’s a source of endless cognitive dissonance:
And thus we have a paradox: When we peer into the future we find our wish to live forever fulfilled, as it seems inconceivable that we might one day cease to be. Thus we believe in our own immortality. Yet at the same time we are painfully aware of the countless possible threats to our being. . . . And thus we believe in our own mortality. Our very same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not, both that death is a fact and that it is impossible.
The paradox stems from two different ways of viewing ourselves — on the one hand, objectively, or from the outside, as it were, and on the other hand, subjectively, or from the inside. When we deploy reason to view ourselves as we do other living things around us, then we realize that we, like them, will fail, die and rot. From this outside, objective perspective, we are mortals. But when we switch to our own perspective and try to make sense of what this means subjectively, then we encounter the imaginative obstacle — the inability to accept the prospect of annihilation. Our introspection tells us we are imperishable as the angels, indivisible and everlasting; yet when we look in the mirror we see ourselves as others see us … an imperfect and impermanent creature fated to a brief existence. . . .
But while the friction between these two perspectives might explain how the Mortality Paradox arises, Cave argues, it doesn’t make light of the fact that most of us don’t live with the constant, all-consuming tension such a conflict might suggest. Henry Miller’s timeless words — “The aim of life is to live. . . . No why or wherefore…” — reverberate as we amble along the increasingly dimly lit corridors of existence.
From ancient mythology to today’s dominant world religions to modern scientific models like Terror Management Theory, the remainder of Immortality explores precisely how we’ve enlisted storytelling in weaving powerful immortality narratives that lift us out of our cognitive dissonance and, in the process, lay the very groundwork for human civilization.
Published March 25, 2013