The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

Book - 2012 | 1st ed.
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A narrative citing the activities of historical figures and leading modern scientists demonstrates how the innate desire to live forever has contributed to humanity's most significant achievements in science, medicine, religion, and art.
Publisher: New York : Crown Publishers, c2012.
Edition: 1st ed.
ISBN: 9780307884916
Branch Call Number: 129 CAVE
Characteristics: x, 320 p. ; 25 cm.


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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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