Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

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A fascinating work of popular philosophy and history that both enlightens and entertains, Stephen Cave’s Immortality investigates whether it just might be possible to live forever and whether we should want to.  But it also makes a powerful argument, which is that it’s our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization.
Central to this book is the metaphor of a mountaintop where one can find the Immortals.  ...

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Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization

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A fascinating work of popular philosophy and history that both enlightens and entertains, Stephen Cave’s Immortality investigates whether it just might be possible to live forever and whether we should want to.  But it also makes a powerful argument, which is that it’s our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization.
Central to this book is the metaphor of a mountaintop where one can find the Immortals.  Since the dawn of humanity, everyone – whether they know it or not – has been trying to climb that mountain.  But there are only four paths up its treacherous slope, and there have only ever been four paths.  Throughout history, people have wagered everything on their choice of the correct path, and fought wars against those who’ve chosen differently.
While Immortality takes the reader on an eye-opening journey from the beginnings of civilization to the present day, the structure is not chronological.  Rather it is path driven.  As each path is revealed to us, an historical figure serves as our guide. 
In drawing back the curtain on what compels humans to “keep on keeping on,” Cave engages the reader in a number of mind-bending thought experiments.  He teases out the implications of each immortality gambit, asking, for example, how long a person would live if they did manage to acquire a perfectly disease-free body.  Or what would happen if a super-being tried to round up the atomic constituents of all who’ve died in order to resurrect them.  Or what our loved ones would really be doing in heaven if it does exist.  Or what part of us actually lives in a work of art, and how long that work of art can survive. 
Toward the the book’s end, we’re confronted with a series of brain-rattling questions: What would happen if tomorrow humanity discovered that there is no life but this one?  Would people continue to care about their favorite sports team, please their boss, vie for the title of Year’s Best Salesman? Would three-hundred-year projects still get started?  If the four paths up the Mount of the Immortals lead nowhere — if there is no getting up to the summit — is there still reason to live?  And can civilization survive?
Immortality is a deeply satisfying book, as optimistic about the human condition as it is insightful about the true arc of history.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Informed and metaphysically nuanced…Cave presents his arguments in a brisk, engaging style, and draws effectively upon a wide-ranging stock of religious, philosophical, and scientific sources, both ancient and contemporary.”
—Weekly Standard

“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”… For the aspiring undying, Mr Cave unfortunately concludes that immortality is a mirage. But his demolition project is fascinating in its own right…If anything, readers might want more of Mr. Cave’s crisp conversational prose.”
—The Economist

“A must-read exploration of what spurs human ingenuity.  Every once in a while a book comes along that catches me by surprise and provides me with an entirely new lens through which to view the world…Such is the case with Stephen Cave’s book Immortality…Cave presents an extremely compelling case – one that has changed my view of the driving force of civilization as much as Jared Diamond did years ago with his brilliant book Guns, Germs and Steel.”
—S. Jay Olshanksy, New Scientist magazine
"Cave explains how the seeking of immortality is the foundation of human achievement, the wellspring of art, religion and civilization...The author is rangy and recondite, searching the byways of elixirs, the surprises of alchemy, the faith in engineering and all the wonder to be found in discussions of life and death...Luminous."
—Kirkus Reviews
“A dramatic and frequently surprising story of the pursuit of immortality and its effects on human history.”

“A beautifully clear and entertaining look at life after death. Cave does not shrink from the hard questions. Bold and thought-provoking.”
—Eric Olson, author of The Human Animal and What Are We?
Immortality plumbs the depths of the human mind and ties the quest for the infinite prolongation of life into the very nature of civilization itself. Cave reveals remarkable depth and breadth of learning, yet is always a breeze to read. I thoroughly enjoyed his book—it’s a really intriguing study.”
—David Boyd Haycock, author of Mortal Coil and A Crisis of Brilliance
I loved this. Cave has set himself an enormous task and accomplished it—in spades. Establishing a four-level subject matter, he has stuck to his guns and never let up. As he left one level and went to the next, I was always a little worried: Would he be able to pull it off? This was especially true as he approached the end. There is a sense in which each level, as he left it smoking in the road, looked easy as he started the next. In fact, the last level, while it is the most difficult, is the best, the most satisfying. I am happy to live in the world Cave describes.”
— Charles Van Doren, author of A History of Knowledge
“Cave is smart, lucid, elegant and original. Immortality is an engaging read about our oldest obsession, and how that obsession propels some of our greatest accomplishments.”
—Greg Critser, author of Eternity Soup
“In Immortality Stephen Cave tells wonderful stories about one of humanity’s oldest desires and comes to a wise conclusion.”
— Stefan Klein, author of The Science of Happiness and The Secret Pulse of Time
“Cave has produced a strikingly original and compelling exploration of the age-old conundrum: Can we live forever, and do we really want to?”
—John Horgan, science journalist and author of The End of War

Kirkus Reviews
A categorical account of humanity's attempt to achieve immortality, from European philosopher and Financial Times essayist Cave. "Death is meticulous in collecting every living thing sooner or later," writes the author in this architectural examination of what we think about when we think about death--or rather the ways we devise to trick the inevitable out of its reward. Cave explains how the seeking of immortality is the foundation of human achievement, the wellspring of art, religion and civilization. Our institutions, rituals and beliefs are efforts to clear the path of immortality, and they can be comfortably culled to four impulses: that of simply staying alive, via food, safety and health; the resurrection narrative, rooted in nature's rhythms, then blossoming into cryogenics and digital avatars; the survival of the soul, what anyone who has had an out-of-body-experience can readily appreciate; and legacy, the indirect extension of ourselves. The touch of the matter, however, is that we know we are going to die, but we can't accept, or even imagine, nonexistence, so we create institutions that deny or distract us. The author is rangy and recondite, searching the byways of elixirs, the surprises of alchemy, the faith in engineering and all the wonder to be found in discussions of life and death. "Our lives our bounded by beginning and end," he writes, "yet composed of moments that can reach out far beyond ourselves, touching other people and places in countless ways." When death harkens, Cave provides a luminous, mindful taste of the alternatives.
The Barnes & Noble Review

To say that Stephen Cave's metaphysically provocative Immortality is an extended gloss on the famous Woody Allen joke — "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work...I want to achieve it through not dying" — is both accurate and trivializing. Allen (actually quoted for a different quip in chapter 8) gets full props for succinctly and memorably encapsulating two paths to immortality, those that Cave dubs "Legacy" and "Staying Alive." But the comedian utterly neglects to reference the other two strategies of "Resurrection" and "Soul." Cave, however, considers every possible angle of humanity's eternal anti-death quest in his highly readable treatise. His impeccable, insightful, invigorating chain of reasoning about death and its role as the driving force behind nearly every cultural institution and action in human history leaves no tombstone unturned.

After laying out his clear-eyed and tightly reasoned thesis about the perpetual sting and lash of the "Mortality Paradox" at the heart of human activity (we know we must die, but our personal extinction is literally inconceivable to us), Cave dives right into an examination of the first of the four strategies for the perpetuation of life, "Staying Alive." His approach toward the search for physical immortality blends vibrantly recounted history (the quest by China's First Emperor for an elixir of immortality) with scientific journalism (the prospects of nanotechnology and the transhumanist philosophy). Myths and fiction are also shown in their supportive roles.

The next section concerns "Resurrection." The body dies, but can be reconstituted, good as new — or even better! Of course, Jesus Christ is the paradigm for many adherents of this belief, and Cave provides an empathetic rendering of the early Christian efforts to perfect this credo. That he manages to segue effortlessly into Star Trek and its teleporters (teleportation would actually work by killing and rebuilding, hence is a form of resurrection) is typical of his wide-ranging and inclusive theorizing. Throughout the book, science, religion and art will be shown as separate but allied handmaidens to immortality.

Dante and his poetic oeuvre form the main illustrative artistic thread in the "Soul" chapter, while scientific investigations into consciousness and near-death experiences are arrayed as they seek to prove or disprove the soul's existence from the other side of the intellectual fence. Cave looks separately at Western versus Eastern concepts of the soul, finding both similarities and differences. His merciless dissection of various conceptualized afterlives highlights his understated humor: "The aforementioned theologian Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, for example, writes that heaven 'lies neither inside nor outside the space of our world' but rather is 'the new "space" of the body of Christ, the communion of saints.' Well, that clears that up, then."

The final section, "Legacy," begins with a summary of what we've so far discarded: "In chapter 7 we gave up the ghost of a hope that your mind might literally outlive your body and float up to heaven?we also saw earlier that the chances of your dodging the Reaper and staying alive are vanishingly slim and that the idea of physical resurrection is fundamentally flawed." So what of the two kinds of legacy, cultural and biological? Cave has a grand time using Alexander the Great's story as a teaching instance on the limitations of the former, and then he delves deeply into the notion of immortality through progeny and even as part of the planetary consciousness surmised as Gaia. This segment concludes as soberingly as the previous three, with no satisfactory outlets for the Mortality Paradox. "We have now examined all four immortality narratives and seen that none of them has a credible chance of delivering on its promise."

But then, in a final chapter, Cave builds up the Wisdom Narrative, a syncretic creed of mindfulness, stoicism, spirituality and existentialism that he believes can lead to "a civilization of those who face up to their mortality." Having much in common with certain current atheism-based arguments about the moral life without God, Cave's generous, selfless, ultimate lamp on a lurking darkness casts much hopeful light.

Author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, and Neutrino Drag, Paul Di Filippo was nominated for a Sturgeon Award, a Hugo Award, and a World Fantasy Award — all in a single year. William Gibson has called his work "spooky, haunting, and hilarious." His reviews have appeared in The Washington Post, Science Fiction Weekly, Asimov's Magazine, andThe San Francisco Chronicle.

Reviewer: Paul Di Filippo

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780307884916
  • Publisher: Crown Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 4/3/2012
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 303,196
  • Product dimensions: 9.52 (w) x 6.14 (h) x 1.14 (d)

Meet the Author

Stephen Cave holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University and, before turning to full-time writing, worked as a diplomat.  He writes regularly for the Financial Times and also contributes to the New York Times.

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 A Beautiful Woman Has Come 1

The Four Paths to Immortality

Part I Staying Alive

2 Magic Barriers 31

Civilization and the Elixir of Life

3 The Vitamin Cure 55

Science Versus the Reaper

Part II Resurrection

4 ST. Pauls and the Cannibals 85

The Rise of Resurrection

5 Frankenstein Redux 113

The Modern Reanimators

Part III Soul

6 Beatrice's Smile 141

What Happens in Paradise

7 The Lost Soul 169

Reincarnation and the Evidence of Science

Part IV Legacy

8 Look on My Works, Ye Mighty 201

Everlasting Fame

9 The Immortal Seed 227

Genes, Gaia and the Things in Between


10 He Who Saw The Deep 253

Wisdom and Mortality

Acknowledgments 287

Notes and Further Reading 289

Index 311

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Reading Group Guide

1. Would you want to live forever? Do you think a never-ending life would lose its meaning? Or be boring?

2. Cave mentions the psychological experiments that show how all worldviews help us to deal with the fear of death (ʻTerror Management Theoryʼ). Do you think this is true? Does it fit with your experience?

3. Cave argues that there are four paths to immortality. Do you recognise them in our contemporary culture? Are you on any of them?

4. The first ʻimmortality narrativeʼ that Cave discusses is simply Staying Alive. Do you think science and technology will ever enable us to stay alive forever?

5. If science and technology could allow us to stay alive forever, do you think they should? What ethical considerations do you see on either side of the argument?

6. The second immortality narrative Cave introduces is Resurrection. If God or some omnipotent future scientists could reanimate a corpse—or re-create someone—would it really be the same person as the one who died?

7. Caveʼs third immortality narrative is the Soul. Do you think we have one? What do you make of the evidence from neuroscience that suggests the human mind and personality are dependent on the brain?

8. The fourth immortality narrative is Legacy. Do you hope to leave one? Would you sacrifice your life for eternal fame as Achilles did? Do you believe you can live on as part of your nation, gene pool, or of Gaia—the sum total of life on Earth?

9. How plausible do you find the ʻWisdom narrativeʼ that Cave sketches in chapter ten? Do you think we can accept the fact of mortality?

10. Do you agree with the ʻthree virtuesʼ that Cave argues could help us to cope with mortality? Do you have other suggestions?

11. Are you afraid of death? Why, or why not?

12. In what way has this book changed your beliefs about life and death?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 2 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2014

    missing some points

    This was a fairly interesting book, with some very insightful comments on the human condition. However I got a little bored in the middle, and it quickly became apparent that the author intended to shoot down all immortality narratives so that he could promote what is obviously his own belief system, which he calls the wisdom narrative.
    While he claims several times to have proven the 4 immortality narratives false, I felt there were many arguments he left unaddressed and also his "proven false" claim can only be justified on the most sophomoric interpretations of these narratives.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 6, 2012

    Thought provoking

    An engaging read and philosophical study on humanities quest for immortality. Highly recommended .

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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