Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization
by Stephen Cave
(Crown Publishers, 2012)
320 pp.; $25.00
There's a tendency among humanist and atheist writers to make their books dense and detailed, recognizing that the usual audience wants all the facts comprehensively collected in one place. Their readers may not need or even desire the many popular approaches to storytelling, such as creating suspense or tossing in entertaining sidelights to stir interest in the content. Those who just want to "get the information" tend to grow impatient with all that. I know I do.
But this isn't the case with every candidate for a humanist worldview, or aspects of it. In particular, many aren't yet sure what philosophical conclusions to draw; so they need to be gently sold rather than bombarded with arguments. Thus they can be put off by books that seem too heavy, or that sound too decisive and settled from the get-go.
British writer Stephen Cave, who got his PhD in metaphysics from Cambridge University, understands this. As such he's written a book, innocuously titled Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, designed to impart to a wider public a portion of the humanist outlook--the idea that no form of immortality is truly attainable. It's a book crafted to reach beyond the audience included within the current humanist movement. This becomes clear not only from his title but from the first sentence. Cave starts out by taking us on a journey to ancient Egypt, opening the first chapter, "A Beautiful Woman Has Come" with a paragraph that could have begun a popular novel.
They tried to destroy her. Hammers swung to smash the elegant nose and break her long and graceful neck. All across the kingdom, the statues and busts of the great queen were pounded to dust. Her name was chiseled from the monuments, its utterance banned. This embodiment of regal womanhood was never to be seen or spoken of again.
For many, that sort of nonfiction writing is exciting. It gets the juices flowing and draws one into the material. Now compare the above passage about Nefertiti to the opening of the only other major book devoted exclusively to a careful analysis of life after death: Corliss Lamont's The Illusion of Immortality. Chapter One is entitled "Importance of the Problem" and starts thus:
"All men are mortal" begins the most famous of all syllogisms, and it proceeds to tell us that "Socrates is a man" and "therefore Socrates is mortal:' The branch of philosophy known as logic has made much of this syllogism as an example of perfect reasoning; what is more significant is the prodigious amount of time and energy which philosophy as a whole has spent on inquiring into its true and complete meaning.
And so the first paragraph goes, continuing for four more long and complex sentences. Which is appropriate for a book that originated as a doctoral dissertation.
Cave relies heavily on Lamont and gives him due credit. But he reorganizes Lamont's essential arguments (and those of others) in a particularly memorable way, reducing "the apparent diversity of stories about how immortality is to be attained" to four basic narratives: staying alive, resurrection, soul, and legacy. He then begins his exploration of the staying-alive narrative with the story of the first emperor of China and that man's pursuit of an elixir of life that would allow him to live forever. Cave wraps up with modern techno-optimist and trans-humanist ideas of nanotechnology and life extension, revealing their many hidden problems.
For the resurrection narrative he begins with the New Testament and Paul's resurrection of the flesh doctrine, takes us through Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, analyzes cryonics, and leaves off where Star Trek "beams down" Captain Kirk. All the while Cave exposes the …