Stephen Cave writes on a wide range of philosophical, ethical and scientific subjects, including for the Financial Times, New York Times, Wired and others. His first book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation was published in spring 2012 and was described by The Economist as "fascinating" and by the New Scientist as "a must read" and a "best book of 2012". Stephen earned a PhD in philosophy from the University of Cambridge, then subsequently spent some years as a diplomat for Her Britannic Majesty before taking up writing full time. He now lives with his wife and daughters in Berlin.
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This is a remarkably poor book considering it is written by a contemporary 'philosopher- journalist' with a PhD in Metaphysics. Admittedly it has to perhaps be accepted more an exercise in journalism than anything else, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that approach, but the subject he is covering is more complex and worthy of deeper thought and consideration than he gives it in the 300-odd pages here, and if you are looking for a considered, intellectual analysis of the concept of Immortality within the human psyche and it's culture, you won't find it here.
He approaches the subject from a firmly secular, materialistically rooted position which again is fair enough if that is the base of his ideological worldview, but as so often with writers wedded to the metaphysical ideology of materialism he promotes that ideology with sweeping statements and a dismissal of alternative views with amateur blandishments- or when the going gets particularly tough- ignoring outright the scientific evidence that counters his position. To be generous this may be ignorance on the author's part, but I suspect it is more to do with a need to support his own materialist agenda than anything else. Nor can the book be excused as an exercise in journalistic polemic- Cave doesn't even seriously challenge views [and evidence] opposing his own, he just ignores it.
It has to be said the worst section in the book- and the most central one to his argument so that's the one I'll address specifically- has to be the 'Soul,' because of course if there is such a state of being, the basic tenet of this book that the concept of Immortality is a cultural invention, doesn't hold up.Read more ›
Stephen Cave does not take enough time to build up the background to make the sweeping assumptions that he does. This may have been helped if there is been Footnotes all along saying here somebody else to says this or some other thing that shows this.
He flippantly assumes that all societies, people are built on the thought of four types of immortality. That would be okay in itself except very seems to be a snot when it comes to who is immortality can trump whose immortality as if it was all a game.
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Stephen Cave's "Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization" is a well-organized, meticulously argued, elegantly written book. Cave's thesis is to descirbe what he calls the world's four "Immortality Narratives"--"Staying Alive" (prolonging physical life via medical and technological means), "Resurrection" (the traditional Christian teaching that we are reborn in the same body), "Soul" (the idea that our individual consciousness survives bodily death), and "Legacy" (gaining immortality through great deeds or our descendants). Using the stories of Nefertiti, St. Paul, Dante and Beatrice, the Dalai Lama, Alexander the Great and Gilgamesh to organize his book and argue his points, Cave demonstrates in a clear, intelligent style how each of these narratives informed society and led to great advances in art, literature, law and politics.
However, Cave--a philosopher, and thus a logician, by training--also uses scientific evidence to assess the chances of any of the Immortality Narratives being true. He concludes that all of them are almost certainly false. He is particularly scathing toward the idea of the soul, the Immortality Narrative most of the world's residents accept: "(E)verything the soul was supposed to explain--thoughts, consciousness, life itself--has been shown to be dependent on the body. We therefore have every reason to believe that all these faculties--from memory to emotion to the most basic form of awareness--cease when the body ceases. There is simply nothing left over for the soul. As a hypothesis, it is redundant."
In place of the soul, Cave offers this as consolation: "We do not linger like uninvited guests at our own funeral, nor are we plunged into the lonely void. We stop. The conscious experiences we have had are the totality of our lives; death, like birth, is just a term that defines the bounds of those experiences...The second step along the path of wisdom is therefore this realization that we can never be dead, that fearing being dead is therefore a nonsense." An elegantly phrased, neatly thought-out idea. And one that was effectively refuted more than a hundred years ago by Ambrose Bierce in his story, "Parker Adderson, Philosopher," as well as more recently by Philip Larkin in his poem, "Aubade."
Cave is correct in praising the wisdom of the "Carpe Diem" philosophy of life, and everyone--no matter their spiritual or philosophical leanings--can find much to admire in the Epicureans and Stoics. They constitute a wonderful defense against the pain and arbitrariness of life. But, for non-secularists, they aren't enough.
I also could have done without Cave's condescension. "No doubt some people are muddling along just fine with, for example, their reassuring belief in an immortal soul," he says toward the end. "Muddling along"? Even worse is his bald assertion that "most immortality narratives foster a profound selfishness," as if only atheists could care about others besides themselves. It is precisely because I care about my family, friends, neighbors, and about those who perish in wars, genocides, natural disasters, that I find the idea of a godless universe unbearable.
Of course no one truly knows what comes after death, and Cave's guess is as good as mine. We will see--or not--when the time comes. Cave is a fine, thoughtful writer despite his flaws, and millions of people will find his book totally satisfactory. Those who are wedded completely to one narrative or another will reject his book in anger, or--more likely--never read it. Those of us who try to follow a middle way--accepting the evidence of science while seeing the Universe as divinely created--find much to infuriate and frustrate us in this book. But it also forces us to think about what we believe, and why, and that is never a bad thing.
22 of 24 people found the following review helpful
An Everlasting Book! Fantastic!9 April 2012
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization by Stephen Cave
" Immortality" is the fascinating and thought-provoking book about life, death and civilization. It's about humankind's quest by one or a combination of four paths that promise immortality and whether any of these paths can deliver on that promise. Finally, with the newfound wisdom it's about following a philosophy of life that provides us with a meaningful existence. Stephen Cave holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University and a writer who skillfully provides the reader with a gem of a book that is enlightening and a joy to read. This 338-page book is broken out into four parts that correspond to the four narratives of immortality and a conclusion: Part I. Staying Alive, Part II. Resurrection, Part II. Soul, and Part IV. Legacy.
Positives: 1. A well written, accessible book for the masses. 2. A mesmerizing topic: immortality. The author treats the topic with utmost care and respect. 3. A fantastic format that follows logically with the author's overall thesis. 4. The four immortality narratives: Staying Alive, Resurrection, Soul, and Legacy. The entire book revolves around these four main paths. 5. The author clearly presents three main goals upfront and thoroughly succeeds in achieving them. 6. Each chapter begins with an interesting historical vignette in which the author highlights the main topic of the chapter. 7. In the first path of immortality the author goes through a number of examples that clearly show how the determination to stay alive and reproduce is one thing that all life forms have in common. 8. The Morality Paradox. The immortality narratives were created to resolve the paradox. 9. Great use of secular, religious and scientific viewpoints to go through all the arguments. Great stuff! 10. Thought-provoking quotes and ideas: "These psychologists were testing the hypothesis that we have developed our cultural worldviews in order to protect ourselves from the fear of death". Interesting. 11. The author goes through various and diverse civilizations to explain his thesis. Thus keeping the book fresh and interesting. "Civilization is built on the promise of immortality". 12. Attempts to engineer immortality. The Engineering Approach to immortality. Transhumanists... 13. The significance of resurrection and the three major problems with it. 14. The impact of Paul to Christianity. 15. The importance of rituals, "This is the function of religion at its grandest: enabling mere mortals to attain cosmic significance, to become one with their gods and so to attain immortality." 16. Cryonics, interesting stuff. 17. My favorite section of the book, the thorough debunking of the soul. 18. The idea of the soul, its claims and the implications. 19. The history and evolution of the concept of the soul. From soul to self... 20. The argument from neuroscience against the existence of the soul. 21. The concepts of heaven. 22. Scientific and religious looks at the soul. Eastern and Western religions. 23. Legacy what it means and how it is achieved. Great examples. 24. Great quotes, "Jean Rostand wrote in 1939, "Kill one man, and you are a murderer. Kill millions of men, and you are a conqueror. Kill them all, and you are a god." 25. Fascinating facts, " By spring 2011, Facebook, had over 600 million active users and counting." 26. The "bundle theory" of the self and the problems associated with it. 27. Nation's myth of common ancestry. 28. Planet Earth, the biggest superorganism, Gaia. Global consciousness. 29. The author does a wonderful job of summarizing his finding into a satisfying conclusion. 30. A positive, secular outlook to death. The Wisdom Narrative. 31. Some great closing thoughts that will stick with me, " This is no doubt why medieval European rulers found Christianity so useful--it taught their exploited subjects to avert their eyes from the horror of their daily lives and dream instead of a future paradise." 32. How these narratives contribute to what our civilizations are. 33. A look at the impact of infinity. Enlightening. 34. The three virtues on our view of life and death. 35. A page turner of a book.
Negatives: 1. No formal bibliography. 2. A notes section was provided but it was not linked to the body of the book. 3. The author overstays his welcome a tad with the last chapter. That is, it was too long and started becoming preachy but if that's the worst thing I can find about this book well you know you got yourself a gem. 4. Charts and illustrations would have added value. For example, a chart illustrating the worldview on immortality would have been welcomed.
In summary, I really enjoyed this book. First of all, this is philosophy at its best. It asks the big questions and it follows a path that is logical and reasonable. It tackles fascinating topics surrounding immortality and it ends with a satisfying conclusion. My favorite part of this book was Part III. The Soul; finally, an author who spends some time addressing the soul in a comprehensive manner. This book was a real treat for me, treat yourself and get it! I highly recommend it.
Further suggestions: "Physics of the Future: How Science Will Shape Human Destiny and Our Daily Lives by the Year 2100" by Michio Kaku, "Paranormality: Why we see what isn't there" by Richard Wiseman, "Scientific Paranormal Investigation: How to Solve Unexplained Mysteries" by Benjamin Radford, "The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" by Carl Sagan, "The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths" and "Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time" by Michael Shermer, "The Problem Of The Soul: Two Visions Of Mind And How To Reconcile Them" by Owen Flanagan, "God Soul Mind Brain: A Neuroscientist's Reflections on the Spirit World (LeapSci)" by Michael S. A. Graziano, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life" by Paul Thagard, and "The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life" by Jesse Bering.
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Like any other unprovable assumption1 Sept. 2014
T. Fort, PhD
- Published on Amazon.com
Stephen Cave's book on Immortality deserves to be read and digested by anyone who sincerely wonders about the possibility of a post-death existence. According to Cave, that would be nearly all of us. Those who have already drawn a conclusion based on whatever belief system they have should stay away, given that they want to preserve their belief system. Cave methodically picks apart then discards each of the four major immortality narratives one by one.
However, he may be wrong. His scientific biases show up throughout the book and his materialism assumption is ever-present. I would have preferred an upfront admission of his underlying premise that scientific materialism is the only valid source of knowledge. Like any other unprovable assumption, regardless of how rational it may feel, it requires a large measure of faith in it to move forward with whatever argument one is weaving.
While Cave does a nice job of presenting each immortality narrative, at the end it seems that he set up four strawmen in order to knock them down and to present his fifth narrative, the Wisdom Narrative, as the champion. He may not be entirely wrong but it's a bit transparent.
That said, it is easy to agree with Cave that the Resurrection Narrative has exhausted any currency it may have once had in our collective cultures. Likewise, it is not difficult to accept the Legacy Narrative as a poor proxy for immortality. However, it is a bit surprising that he so easily dismisses the Staying Alive narrative, since it is fundamentally based on scientific materialism and perhaps offers the greatest hope for the possibility of immortality, if not at least a sufficient extension of life to make it feel like one could be immortal and perhaps even have the ultimate freedom - the choice to decide when to die.
This seems to be the Achilles Heel of the book, as the inconsistency is apparent. On one hand, he acknowledges the progress that science has made to extend life and as noted earlier, much of his positioning is based on scientific materialism. And he encourages the researchers to continue trying to "buy us a few more years." Yet, he also states that while science is allowing humans to live longer, they then only suffer from the diseases associated with old age. Does science have nothing to say or do regarding the eradication of these diseases much like other diseases that have been eradicated? Does science have nothing to say or do about increasing our understanding of the aging process?
It seems somewhat arrogant to assert that the "longevity escape velocity" (living long enough to be able to live forever once science has it figured out) is rubbish, given today's science. Who knows what we will discover in another 200 years regarding life extension, eradication of diseases, and reversing the aging process. Technology advances apace.
Finally, the Soul Narrative is quickly dismissed perhaps because it simply does not fit with a scientific materialism assumption. There is good rationale to assert that brain equals mind from the neuroscience literature. It seems correct that mind (and thus, personality) cannot live on because it is dependent on brain for functionality. But the claim that there can be no more, does not logically follow.
The idea of a life force, or energy source, or Qi, has been around for millennia. The first law of thermodynamics is the Law of Conservation of Energy, which clearly states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, but it can change form. At death where does that life energy go? Does it change form? The animus that energizes each life must transform into something else if the Law of Conservation of Energy is correct.
The acquisition of knowledge is not single-threaded. Science is not the only source of knowledge; experience produces knowledge for each of us each day. Experience is the most immediate source of knowledge and is as valid to the scientist as the data he receives and interprets from research. For those who have experienced the sight of a dead person (e.g., at a wake or open-casket funeral), it is abundantly clear that the energy that gave life to that same living person is now gone. Wherefore did it go? Who knows? But if the Law of Conservation of Energy is correct, it was not simply destroyed at death. This side of the Soul Narrative argument is missing from Dr. Cave's analysis but that may be because it did not serve his larger purpose.
That purpose is to put forward a Wisdom Narrative in which he admonishes us to quit worrying about death and immortality and instead start cultivating gratitude, mindfulness, and collectivism as life principles. These ideas are not new and philosophers have been telling us how to live the good life since Socrates. It is hard to deny that living life more gratefully, in the present moment, and in greater connection with others is a good thing.
I recommend Cave's book because it creates an interesting dialogue and makes one contemplate what the future holds for each of us. Will science allow me to live long enough to have more choices about my health and ultimately my death? What really does happen at that moment when the me that I have always known extinguishes? Personal answers to these existential questions will depend on the unprovable assumptions we hold and the degree of faith we have in those assumptions.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
intro look into humankind's obsession with immortality30 May 2013
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Kindle Edition
This book reminded me my Intro to Philosophy course in college where we were immediately hit with "everything you know is wrong, life is meaningless, and we are all going to die and that is it". Okay, it wasn't quite as grim as my Intro to Philosophy course but at times came close. The author did include enough thought provoking points that it kept me turning the page but this book didn't end up being much of what I expected at all. I really thought it would use more historical accounts of humankind's quest for immortality and how it shaped civilization instead of calling upon a few stories of a few individuals.
For the most part, I think that the author argued his points well. I guess what makes philosophy books frustrating is I cannot argue back lol The author's opinion is set in stone so you have to take what he is saying and leave it in order to get through this book.
If you are open to the idea that this life may indeed be all we have then this book does a fairly good job at convincing you that this might very well be the case. I liked that the author took the time to explain why this is not the most horrible thing that could happen to us. It allows somebody, like myself who is constantly questioning the meaning of existence, to explore the option comfortably.
I do feel like the author somewhat missed the point completely though of humankind's immortality quests. The author tries to convince us that there is absolutely no point to any of it and even if you make enough history to be mentioned 2000 years later guess what? Eventually the sun is going to go out anyway so it doesn't matter anyway. The immortality projects of humankind have shaped this planet for better and for worse and that was what I was hoping the author would explore further in depth. I really wanted this book to be than a long drawn out story on why it is all pointless and unfortunately that seems to be what most of it boils down to.
10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
Livin La Loca Vida -- Forever!28 Aug. 2012
Adam L. Gruen
- Published on Amazon.com
Reduced to a fortune cookie insert or a tweet? "You're going to die. Get over it. Don't worry, be happy."
I provide this service for those with time management issues. The rest of you should read the book because, quite simply, Cave is an excellent writer. His thoughts are clear but not simplistic; his style is elegant but not bombastic. He marches through 6000 years of accumulated philosophy the way Sherman's Army marched to the Sea, cutting a wide swath and leaving nothing in its wake.
It is an unfortunate truism of publishing that either a title or a subtitle is false advertising. Usually the title is the culprit and the subtitle provides an escape hatch, but in this case it is the reverse. The book really is exactly about immortality -- what does it mean, and why is it not only impossible to achieve (d'oh!) but also stupid to pursue (D'OH!) -- and the subtitle fooled me into reading 150 pages before I realized that it was not and was never going to be a historical paradigm ala Hegelian dialectic. "The quest to live forever drives civilization" is a stupendous thesis. Cave didn't write it. At best he makes progress on the weaker case: the search for immortality *shapes* civilization. Assuming we can agree on what the heck is a civilization.
First things first, a skeletal summary of what he *does* have to say. Brains are bastards, basically. All living things (even brainless ones and those without any central nervous system at all) have one thing in common, they attempt to survive. Go read Geerat J. Vermeij's The Evolutionary World on adaptation theory. Brains evolved because they provided useful services; mind consciousness is an emergent property of brain. The sufficiently sophisticated brain (unique to humans? Unprovable) owns The Mortality Paradox: it knows it will cease to exist, but it cannot imagine a state of non-existence. It is trapped in its own brainhood. Being a mind/brain, it does what it always does, and creates a map or a narrative scenario.
Cave outlines the four categories or flavors of how mind/brain attempts to resolve the Mortality Paradox: 1)Stay Alive Forever; 2) Resurrection; 3) Soul; 4) Legacy. This is cafeteria buffet, mix & match -- an individual or a culture can choose some or all, and is free to debate the One True Path until the cows come home.
Staying alive *forever* is quite different from merely staying alive for some finite period of time. Doctors do not save lives, they postpone deaths. I was excited when Cave started to explain the history of medicine, which was intricately connected to the history of science. Alchemy a precursor to chemistry, etcetera. The problem is that it's not possible to point to a specific technological innovation created so that it might improve quality and quantity of life and state with certainty that the quest for immortality was the sole or even chief motive. Astrology was a precursor to astronomy that drove optics and microscopics and medicine. Casting horoscopes led to germ theory and washing hands with soap & hot water, in short. Immortality didn't show up for that one. The quest for a little bit more life and the quest for an infinite amount of it are the same highway with different off ramps.
Anyway, Cave does a clever dance to the disco beat of 'stayin alive'. I think he does an excellent job of explaining how and why the effort to keep a specific human body alive forever (and, critically importantly, healthy and active and happy) is doomed. Still, it's impossible to prove a future negative ("It won't be done") so the philosophical Plan B is: what are you, crazy? Even if you COULD do it, the implications of doing it are staggeringly horrible. Not to mention that it's going to cause one heck of a push and shove among seven billion humans to get the magic elixir available to ten. Individual bodies MUST die, otherwise all Hell breaks loose.
Resurrection theory can be demolished in about five minutes. Cave takes 60 pages mostly out of self-defense. He probably knows there are a LOT of lunatics out there with pistols and ammo who might come unhinged at the thought that their entire resurrection narrative is a bunch of hooey. So it pays to be nice and speak quietly on this subject.
Soul theory is pure mysticism. It's impossible to prove or disprove the existence of soul. Cave doesn't even bother, he just merely points out that the soul is pretty pathetically useless for the purposes of mind/brain. He's got a point. Soul never steps in to fill in the consciousness gaps during periods of brain damage, for example. Not that we know of. Ghosts or angels or spirits have their own realm that doesn't seem to have anything much to do with ours. They might as well be works of historical fiction. This is actually pretty familiar to me as a Reform Jew. One thing I have noticed about modern Judaism is that it talks a good game about angels and the hereafter but doesn't much care about it otherwise, since the real work is here on planet Earth. If Cave isn't Jewish, he ought to be. Or, in sum, as my Dad once said, "When I'm alive I deal with that, and when I'm dead I'll deal with that." Okay then.
Legacy is an interesting immortality strategy that falls of its own weight. As a historian I am happy to inform you that no matter what message you leave behind, it will eventually either be ignored or misinterpreted. Fame is not only fleeting, it can be expensive. Biological legacy is a better approach but there are no guarantees. Most *species* go extinct. Planets die. Galaxies collapse. So legacy is, shall we say, a bit iffy. You're doing well if your legacy survives through the interglacial stitch, best to call it a day.
Having defeated, demolished or simply roasted all four paths to immortality, Cave returns to where he started which is to point out the obvious: brains need to get over themselves. Thus he conjurs the fifth (and hidden) narrative, the Wisdom Narrative. It's actually very simple. You are like an ocean wave. Be the wave! Give up on the idea of a frozen sea, it's loathsome and stupid. Instead, do what you want, do what you must, and then pass it on. Life is good, enjoy it. And then, let it go. Detach. If he's not Jewish and doesn't want to be, Plan B is to be Buddhist.
Having finished the book, I am happy that I took the time to read it, and yet half an hour later I'm hungry. As an historian I think that the quest for immortality is an under-appreciated causative factor in the profession. I may have to write the book that Cave didn't. I don't know that immortality drives civilization, but it certainly has one hand on the steering wheel, let's put it that way.