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

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

by Stephen Cave


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

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780307884916
Publisher: Crown/Archetype
Publication date: 04/03/2012
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 9.52(w) x 6.14(h) x 1.14(d)

About 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.

Table of Contents

Foreword xi

Preface xv

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. Paul 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

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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Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization 3.5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An engaging read and philosophical study on humanities quest for immortality. Highly recommended .