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Stephen Cave“What sets us apart is, of course, our massive, highly connected brains. These too have evolved to help us perpetuate ourselves indefinitely, and they are enormously useful in the struggle to survive. Our awareness of ourselves, of the future and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. 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 that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible. This I will call the Mortality Paradox, and its resolution is what gives shape to the immortality narratives, and therefore to civilization…

We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. ‘Man has created death,’ wrote the poet W. B. Yeats. Other creatures blindly struggle on, knowing only life until their moment comes. ‘Except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death,’ wrote the Argentinean author Jorge Luis Borges. But we bring death into life: we see it coming for us in every storm or forest fire, snake or spider, illness or ill omen.

This is a central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortals. It is represented in that most ancient and influential of stories, the book of Genesis: if they eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve are told, they will die— mortality is the price of knowledge. 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.

But the second idea— and the other half of the Mortality Paradox— tells us quite the opposite: that our own obliteration is impossible. The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our own deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing. Try it: you might get as far as an image of your own funeral, or perhaps a dark and empty void, but you are still there— the observer, the envisioning eye. The very act of imagining summons you, like a genie, into virtual being.

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. ‘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,’ wrote Sigmund Freud in 1915. He concluded from this that ‘at bottom no one believes in his own death . . . [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.’ Or as the English Romantic poet Edward Young put it: ‘All men think all men mortal, but themselves.’

This applies no matter how far into the future we attempt to look: whether one or one thousand years from now, we cannot help but be present in what we see. There is no limit to just how far into the future we can project; it is not as if our imagination stops at a million years, or a billion. And so, to quote the Bible’s book of Ecclesiastes, God— or nature—‘has set eternity in the hearts of men.’ In our own minds, we are part of the very fabric of the universe, ineradicable, here forever. The great German writer Goethe is reported to have concluded that ‘in this sense everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.’ We cannot conceive of our own nonexistence, he reasoned, and therefore our nonexistence is impossible.”

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From Stephen Cave’s book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.

I started reading this book late last night and got through about a third of it before falling asleep and into dreams about it. I’m convinced there is something very significant about this sort of software glitch in the human mind — this firewall that stands between us and the full picture of our own individual extinctions. (I’ve heard some people defiantly claim exception to Freud’s rule, but I’ve never found a convincing explanation as to what it looks like or how it’s conceptually possible.)

A fact that Cave doesn’t mention is that the second part of the Mortality Paradox applies even in our sleep. Strangely, even when our conscious minds are shut off and shut out from external sensory stimuli, we still cannot picture our own demise (you wake up at the moment you die in dreams). François de La Rochefoucauld coined a memorable epigram: “no man can look at the sun or his own death with a steady eye.” And it seems that’s true also when we’re asleep — when the sun is set.

Many poets have nodded to this strange feature of human cognition — that even when our conscious mind is shut off (like in REM sleep), we cannot die.

Ernest Dowson imagined our lives unfolding out of “a misty dream… within a dream” (isn’t that the plot of a Chris Nolan movie?)

Oscar Wilde complained, “reality is a dream that keeps me from sleeping”; a sentiment that sends a smirk to my face while on the bus most Monday mornings.

James Joyce — through his protagonist Stephen Dedalus — reflected soberly, “History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.”