The four stories we tell ourselves to get over our fear of death

“The Fountain of Youth” (1546),  Lucas Cranach the Elder.
“The Fountain of Youth” (1546), Lucas Cranach the Elder.
Image: Gemäldegalerie Museum Berlin
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Death is inevitable. At the same time, it’s impossible for any of us to quite picture ourselves snuffing it.

And so humans keep finding creative ways to convince ourselves that death is not the end, according to Stephen Cave, an expert on death and immortality and the executive director at the University of Cambridge’s Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence. As Cave explains in his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, the stories that we’ve told ourselves, across every culture and era, can be sorted into one of four categories.

Dr. Stephen Cave.
Dr. Stephen Cave.

The first, “elixir,” promises some kind of medicine that we can swallow or drink—perhaps a magic pill or sip from the fountain of youth—to ward off aging. The second, “resurrection,” holds that we can be reborn, either in our own bodies (as with modern cryonic preservation) or in a new one (reincarnation). The third, “soul,” has us ditch our bodies and live on as a spirit, either on Earth or in a different realm. And the fourth, “legacy,” suggests that while we may not be able to preserve our consciousness past death, we can achieve a degree of immortality by achieving fame and creating change within our lifetime, so that we will be remembered for thousands of years to come.

In 2019, billionaires, investors, and tech giants may believe that they’re on the way to finding new ways to overcome death with supplements, spirituality, and the singularity—but they’re actually playing out the same age-old tales. Cave spoke with Quartz about his advice for Silicon Valley’s longevity-obsessed elite, the value of confronting our mortality, and why the much-criticized rise of the selfie is actually democratizing access to immortality in previously unimagined ways.

In the book, you share those four basic immortality stories. What story do you think today’s pursuits of immortality are closest to?

Certainly, all four of them are being deployed at the moment. I suppose the elixir narrative is always the most attractive. It’s always Plan A, staying alive and healthy in this body, on this Earth that we know, which seems to be the most straightforward way of achieving immortality. At the same time, as always, people have realized they need backup plans. And so the other routes of immortality also still have their fans.

“Resurrection” and “soul” are the immortality stories historically relied upon by organized religion. These narratives still exist, but technology and medicine are promising them through cryonics or by uploading the brain into the cloud. For the first time, there’s an absence of God and religion in this story. What, if anything, do you think that says about the human condition? Have these narratives ever not involved religion?

Religion hasn’t always taken the form that it does today when we think of organized religion. At the moment, we have a particularly clear conceptual separation between science and technology on the one hand, and organized religion on the other. But I think that distinction is relatively new and would not have been made so strictly 500 years ago or a thousand years ago. So for example, the alchemists who were pursuing immortality did so through a mixture of what we would consider religion and magic and technology. So they believed they were using technical arts. But these technical arts might summon demons.

So is it new that people are now pursuing immortality without recourse to religion? I don’t think the two can be distinguished. Even now, for example, people are using what they think are purely scientific and technical methods, and yet at the same time, they ascribe to these methods hopes that go far beyond what the evidence would support. So I think we still have a great deal of that kind of magical thinking.

How do you advise we manage our fear of death?

This basic awareness of death is so terrifying and potentially paralyzing, it seems to make everything we do futile. We manage it by telling ourselves stories about how death is not what it seems. How it isn’t really the end, or how maybe it’s somehow avoidable. These immortality stories can be found in every civilization. There’s now a body of empirical research coming from a field within social psychology called “terror management theory.” So it’s trying to identify how a fear of death is informing and shaping our views.

And what they found is that when people are reminded of their death, of their mortality, then they immediately reach for and become more willing to believe any story that promises they can somehow get away from the reaper. That might be believing in the power of medicine or the power of Jesus or the pursuit of fame or children. All of the classic immortality stories you can think of, people become much more inclined to believe them when they’re reminded of their death, which suggests that they’re doing this work of helping us manage this otherwise terrifying notion of our mortality.

What kinds of behaviors and traditions do you see today that are motivated by this fear of death?

Obviously, all of the traditional ones are still quite popular. Religious belief is still very widespread. But at the same time, I think the four basic kinds of immortality stories are being retold in the language of science and technology. And so life extension, the belief that we can somehow stay alive, is also an extremely ancient one that often sat alongside other more spiritual views.

I mean, when we think about ancient Egypt, we think about how they used mummies. We might think of very complex spiritual beliefs, but actually they also had sophisticated medicine, amulets and rituals, and potions that promised to keep people eternally young. The mummies and pyramids, that was all very much Plan B. They very much believed or hoped, aspired, to stay alive in these bodies.

This belief is becoming more widespread now and is very popular in Silicon Valley … And of course we are making great progress in life extension. I think one of the least-talked-about but the most important revolutions in human history is the revolution in life extension in last 200 years. In most parts of the world, in developed countries, life expectancy has doubled, and it’s extraordinary what that means. And the optimists say, well, if we’ve doubled it once, we can double it again and again and again. And if we can do that doubling before I die, if we can do that so we’re advancing life expectancy quicker than my age, then I can stay alive forever.

People, particularly in Silicon Valley, are throwing more money and resources at this than maybe ever before. Historically, has immortality always been pursued by a sort of wealthy, privileged class?

Absolutely. I mean, if we look at some of the great monuments we find in human history, they are basically monuments rich people have made to themselves in the hope that it would help them achieve immortality. The Terracotta Warriors are a tiny part of a massive complex that the first emperor of China built to guarantee his immortality. These are extremely powerful people. And we all know the power goes to your head. And I think for very powerful people, it can seem outrageous if they can’t have something that they want. They’re so used to getting what they want. And as they get older, the one thing they really, really, really want is not to get old and die.

Immortality has, to a large extent, been a rich man’s game. And it’s interesting, then, to contrast that with something like Christianity. Why did Christianity become so successful so quickly? Obviously, it had the Roman Empire through which to spread. But it also promised immortality for everyone. It democratized immortality and said, you know, poor person, marginalized person, believe in me and you can have what until now has been the preserve of the rich and powerful.

There seems to be a vast inequality when it comes to who can pursue life extension treatments and therapies. Is there anything “democratizing” immortality today?

I think perhaps the most interesting form of democratizing we’ve seen in the last few decades has been the ability of people to pursue legacy through digital technology. I mean the ability to reproduce your own image was once, in most cultures, in most of history, incredibly restricted. It was both incredibly hard, incredibly expensive and often controlled. In ancient Egypt, if having your own image created meant having it carved out of stone—well, not many people could afford to do that. And even if they could, the pharaoh wouldn’t have allowed it.

So this kind of reproduction of the self that has long been associated with a form of immortality was long the preserve of the rich. There have been periods in English history where it was illegal; you could be beheaded for having a self-portrait made. Having self-portraits is forbidden in some parts of Islam. So this capacity to live on by reproducing yourself in some way, this kind of cultural legacy, has been highly protected. And now it’s of course completely open for anyone to take, you know, amusing pictures of themselves with their cat and to put it up on the internet and millions of people might see it. I think what we’ve seen in recent years is a huge democratization of access to this kind of cultural legacy.

If you were able to speak to a room of billionaire immortality financiers, would you have anything to say to them?

I guess we have to think about what’s good and what’s bad about what they’re doing. One positive might be that genuinely useful research might get done that might help to manage the process of aging in a way that gives many people better lives, maybe longer, but also maybe better. If they’re pouring money into anti-aging or perhaps looking at the diseases associated with aging, that might be a great thing, and I wouldn’t want to stand in anyone’s way.

Why might it be bad? Well, of course, if disproportionate amounts of available resources go to researching effectively for diseases of the rich and privileged, those that people only encounter after long and pampered lives, that would seem unjust given there are, of course, millions of people who don’t get to be in that place. Millions of people without clean water or what have you. But I don’t want to say that I know the distribution of resources into research is wrong already. I don’t have the oversight to say that. It might be that the amount of resources going into research into aging is still a tiny fraction.

Taking the very long view, perhaps for the proselytizers and those who promise something like immortality, I think there are a few things we have to be careful of. One is bringing science and technology into disrepute because of promising what you can’t deliver.

I think I would also worry about—I’m not inside the minds of the rich funders of this research—but if they think that people in white coats are going to sort out immortality for them, I think they’re wrong. I’d be interested to know how it might be affecting them to not be realistic about their own mortality. Steve Jobs is an interesting case because he was such a definitive Silicon Valley figure, who died at a sort of youngish age, by Western standards, and lived with cancer for many years. And he said in a speech he gave, I think when he was at Stanford, maybe, that living with the knowledge of mortality helped him more than anything else to make the big decisions in his life.

I think there is real value to confronting mortality, the fact that our time is limited and thinking about how we best want to spend it. And so I would worry about people who are in denial of that because they think they’ve outsourced mortality to the scientists or some such.

Do you believe in an afterlife? What happens to us when we die?

No, I don’t believe in an afterlife. I don’t think the idea makes sense. Certainly, I don’t think there’s any kind of soul that is separate from the brain and survives the brain. It’s an old view, but one motivated by wishful thinking, and that becomes even less plausible the more we understand the brain.

My father died of brain cancer. And I saw his personality be destroyed by the cancer. Well, you know, if he has a soul that represents, that somehow captures, embodies, his personality, his mind, and so forth, why should I think it can survive and flourish when the whole body dies? If the real him is an immaterial thing, why was it being eaten by cancer, you know?

The fact is, we are this organism. So what do I think happens? I guess we return to the Earth from which we came.