The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

Book - 2011
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Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2011
Edition: 1st ed
ISBN: 9780307884916
Characteristics: x, 320 p. ; 25 cm


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IndyPL_SteveB Dec 09, 2018

A fascinating and well-written book that many people will hate; but nearly everyone will find useful in some way. Cave has obviously been obsessed with this topic for many years (it takes a LOT of time to read all of the books he quotes from). I wouldn’t say he gets all of the answers right – e.g., he misses the most important point about cryonics and he sometimes claims to have “proven” a point that he didn’t come close to proving – but he asks the right questions. I also disagree with some of his final conclusions, and especially with his implication that if you DON’T agree with him, you are a victim of self-delusion; but the trip you take to supply your own answers to the universal questions he asks is enlightening on its own.

One of the most interesting techniques he uses is to point out a problem dealing with death, then showing how a particular religion or philosophy deals with it, then pointing out what the historical objections are to that approach, but THEN giving the historical answers back to the objections. In that way, this is like being in college, hanging out with people of many different backgrounds, arguing about life and death. If you LIKE that kind of party, I think you will find this book enjoyable, whether or not you agree with any of the conclusions.

Aug 03, 2012

Philosopher Steven Cave argues that humans have invented 4 "immortality narratives" to resolve what he calls the Mortality Paradox. The paradox is that we, as intelligent beings, know that we will die, but we cannot imagine what it's like to actually be dead. We therefore try to find ways to become immortal and so avoid the unimaginable state of death. Cave argues that attempts to become immortal have driven the development of all human cultures.

The immortality narrative he calls "Staying Alive", for example, was a key driver in the development of public health, agriculture, and cities as we tried to live longer without dying. The other immortality narratives led to religion, art, science, heroism, and many other aspects of modern life.

What I found most fascinating was Cave's analysis of immortality narratives in Western religious thought. He explains how early Christianity differentiated itself from Judaism and from Greek and Roman pagan religions by promising bodily resurrection. But later logistical and philosophical problems with resurrection led to incorporating, with some updates, the Greek idea of an immortal soul into medieval Christianity. I knew this transition had occurred but hadn't read a good explanation for it. Cave's explanation makes sense.

Cave proceeds to argue why none of the four narratives really works and concludes with an alternative narrative that could lead to a happier life in the here and now instead of worrying about preventing the inevitable.

Cave's style is very easy to read and his arguments, laced with metaphors and examples, are easy to follow. I think he may over-emphasize our fear of death and its role in human history, but there is still much food for thought here. Highly recommended.


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