IMMORTALITY is an age-old obsession. Plenty of literature deals with the subject, from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamish to the poems of Homer and the writings of the Old Testament. The quest to live for ever has motivated medieval alchemists, modern techno-Utopians and mystics through the centuries.
In his survey of the subject, Stephen Cave, a British philosopher, argues that man’s various tales of immortality can be boiled down into four basic “narratives”. The first is the simplest, in theory at least: do what the medieval alchemists never managed and discover an elixir to simply avoid dying. The second concerns resurrection, or coming back to life after dying, a belief found in all three of the Abrahamic religions. The idea of an immaterial soul that can persist through death dates back, in a formal form, at least to Plato, and forms Mr Cave’s third narrative. His fourth narrative deals with immortality through achievement, by becoming so famous that one’s name lives on through the ages.
For the aspiring undying, Mr Cave unfortunately concludes that immortality is a mirage. But his demolition project is fascinating in its own right. The section on the soul is an able attack on the related doctrines of “vitalism”, the soul and mind-body dualism—the intuitive and still widely held body of ideas that hold that living creatures are animated by some sort of supernatural spark, and that an individual’s personality or consciousness can survive death. The chapters on resurrection will interest Christians, as Mr Cave examines how the literal recreation, by God, of dead people’s bodies remains the doctrine of most branches of Christianity. The idea of one’s soul, as opposed to one’s body, ending up in heaven or hell is a subsequent embellishment.
If anything, readers might want more of Mr Cave’s crisp conversational prose. There could be more on living longer; Mr Cave barely has time to give even the briefest overview of the emerging science of life extension, which has allowed researchers to lengthen the lifespans of mice by a third or more in the lab.
There are a few quibbles. Mr Cave’s repeated claim that the quest for immortality drives every human activity feels overdone. Others might dispute his definition of immortality itself. Mr Cave’s chief argument against the desirability of living for ever (even assuming it is possible) is the familiar one of boredom. As the uncountable billions of years tick away, the argument runs, even the most vivacious will come to realise that they have done everything there is to do, hundreds of times. With yet more billions of years looming ahead they will be struck down with a debilitating ennui.
That argument only applies if these notional immortals are also invincible, and therefore impervious to accident. But that is an odd definition, and not one that crops up very often, especially in scientific research into ageing. The holy grail there is simply to arrest the ageing process. Indeed, Mr Cave quotes an actuary who has estimated that the average “medical immortal” would persist for around 6,000 years before dying in a plane accident or a car crash or the like. And besides, boredom seems to be a non-problem: after all, if an immortal does ever get truly bored of his vastly extended life, there would be nothing to prevent him from ending it.