Wednesday, May 30, 2012

I have been reading two books on immortality, both by philosophers: John Gray’s The Immortalization Commission: The Strange Quest to Cheat Death (London: Penguin Books, 2012), and Stephen Cave’s Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation (London: Biteback, 2012). Both authors were present tonight to discussion the topical issue of living forever.

The philosopher’s interest in immortality and the ‘post-mortem’ has waxed and waned. From Socrates and Plato onwards, issues of death and mortality were central to the philosopher’s concerns. In more recent times they were pushed aside, surrounded by a ‘philosophical silence’ of sorts. Today, philosophers again thematically embrace immortality, perhaps reflecting the awareness that a life without death on its horizon may not be impossible after all.

Thoughts that struck me during tonight’s discussion…

Immortality as something desirable is not a new idea. What has pushed the concept of living forever further up the agenda is the awareness that it may be possible. We live in an era where medical advances continue to lengthen our expected life span, our physical lives. We are also witnesses, and participants, of the exponential digitilisation of our culture, and the possibility of a digital legacy, with an animated re-creation of our lives as logged via social networks, following our death as physical beings.

Immortality versus mortal longevity…as John Gray pointed out, very few of us, if any, would refuse the offer of an extra few years, but living forever is something entirely different. The relationship between the knowledge of our mortality and the meaning we ascribe to life is complex, but appears to be a dependent one. Or perhaps, and I was intrigued by this observation by Gray, we are overly needy for meaning…

Gray coined the term ‘death-defined animals’ for humans, which serves to differentiate us from other animals – we know and are aware that we are going to die (this caused some controversy in the audience; it is a tricky point to prove, as animals may experience more than we know or understand right now). This awareness of our own mortality creates a curious paradox: we believe that we are going to die (at some point), yet we spend most of our lives (subconsciously) denying the fact, living in fear of death, and therefore avoiding any contemplation of it.

Stephen Cave referred to some interesting psychological studies. When we are reminded of our mortality, our instinct is to adhere even more closely to our core values (for example a religious belief), whatever they might be. This strategy serves to distract and protect from the terror that death engenders.

The absurdities of immortality were discussed, and how much we deflect away from a real acceptance of death, and from a living to  a wasting of the life we have now. I was reminded of David Eagleman’s Sum: Tales from the Afterlives (London: Canongate Books, 2010), where in the end, following 40 tales of potential afterlife scenarios, we are left wondering whether the life we live may not be so bad after all. If we could just embrace that thought, and live it….

The greatest challenge is to enjoy and affirm life when one is faced with the absolute certainty of death. Philip Gould’s memoir (Philip Gould. When I Die: Lessons from the Death Zone. London: Little, Brown, 2012) immediately came to mind. As he realises that death from recurrent cancer is inevitable, Gould states:

‘I am going to die. My death is inevitable….It is real. It is a fact of my life.’ (p.117)

He goes on to say:

‘The awareness of death that I had throughout my life was, I see now, an illusion.’ (p.117)

‘I absolutely feel that the moment I accepted death and looked it in the eye and faced it, then I had…..freed myself from death.’ (p.119)

Our instinctive fear of death was also discussed tonight, which, though natural, is irrational as we have no personal knowledge of death, nor ever will, except through witnessing that of another.

Both philosophers appear to have similar views on the issues that surround immortality, particularly the burden it would potentially place on society.

Odd that we now speak more openly about immortality, which is good, yet mortality, a certain prospect for all of us, remains relatively hushed. Perhaps the hypothetical aspect of immortality makes it a safer bet. It is a topic that is certainly not settled. There are no rights or wrongs here, and the arguments can only be speculative.

Yet thought-provoking nonetheless.