Death is an inescapable reality. And so real is our obsession to overcome it. Immortality has been at the core of fundamentals that drives us. As old as the quest of Greek philosophers’ about life, through the Egyptian era of mummifying, to the present day, scientific endeavors to uploading our minds into a computer, living forever has been a fundamental struggle throughout time. Who does not want to live one more day, year, a decade and so on, if they were told today was to be last day of their lives.
All religions have used one or more of the immortality narratives to sell better. From reincarnation to a never-ending life after death, religions have used the argument to their own use. As described by Stephen Cave, in his book ‘Immortality-The Quest To Live Forever And How It Drives Civilizations’, the immortality takes shape of four popular narratives touched upon below.
First and foremost is the desire to live forever. It includes all our attempts to prolong our lifetime indefinitely here on this earth. Tackling the problem of death and aging, it is the first plausible narrative. A healthy lifestyle, medical interventions and its interplay with technology are all attempts in achieving, what Cave calls, the ‘staying alive’ narrative. Finding elixirs that would make us immortal has been a recurring theme in fables in numerous traditions.
In the recent years, the life expectancy has almost doubled owing to the better health conditions and medical treatments. As we have done already, more of medical advancement might enable us to double or triple our current life expectancy by better understanding our bodies and deployment of the duo of medical science and technology. However, the fear of an accidental death still looms higher. Dying in a car accident or a plane crash are some of the many possibilities that still can level out our all attempts at achieving a life forever. Our recent scientific endeavors of uploading a human mind into a computer so, after the bodily death, their mind can then be restored into another body that would carry on the same person in a new body. Might seem like a fantastic idea, however, we are still decades away from achieving this fully. And even if it is done so, it’s not the same person anyways. It’s only a part of the same person now in a new body.
The second narrative, widely incorporated in religious dogmas is that of resurrection. Islam, Christianity, Hinduism and even Buddhism use it in one shape or another. The promise of an afterlife, reincarnation or an end to a cycle of reincarnation; nirvana, are all different accounts of the same story. Unlike the first one, it does acknowledge that the body can and must die. But it’s not the end. For the same body will be re-assembled one day to live again, this time without the fad of death. Looking around us into nature, this cyclic narrative is found in plenty. Trees grow, live to their full, die and then a new sapling takes the place of the old tree. Flowers grow, bloom full, and begin to die, wither away before a new flower takes place of the old dead flower. Celebrations of seasons or of other events, e.g. Easter, are all observances of the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. This narrative whose pattern is found in nature does, however, seems to be inconsistent too when scrutinized. The main problem in this narrative is that what ensures if the risen creature is the same one as the one who died. If an omnipotent god is to lift us out of our graves (or from ashes) and put back our decayed bodies into the all-perfect shape in which they once were, which seems to be impossible but lets assume it to be a child’s play for an all-powerful god, then what happens to me if a part of my body had been donated to your body in this life on Earth. Or what would be the case of those born with dysfunctional body parts? Will they meet the same fate again? If not, where would the other flesh come from? If it comes from the god’s backup stock and it had not belonged to me in this life, then it’s again not the same person risen up by definition for it has parts that did not belong to him/her earlier.
Our third narrative solves the above-stated problem. It tells us that we are more than what body and brain combined is. We are not just a conjuncture of our material flesh and mental accounts. We are more than that. And that ‘more’ is our soul. That immaterial sole survivor post bodily death. We are what our souls are. This body is just a container to house this weightless, immeasurable, invisible soul that is the real us. The soul lives on and on after getting freed from our bodies after it dies. Religion again uses this narrative. While some Hindus believe the soul to be the essence of a life and considering this body as only an obstacle. Similarly, early (as well as today’s) Christians and present-day Muslims believe that souls live on and they will then be united with their respective bodies on the final day when god wills to hold the Day of Judgement. Although compelling like other narratives, the soul narrative is not free from shortcomings. The lack of evidence for a soul has never been disapproved as much as it is today because of the revelations by neuroscience. The simple argument that if the soul is what we are, then why does soul not keep us the same way as we were before an event that alters our neuron system. There have been cases when a person’s personality was totally changed after only a part of their brain got destroyed, the remaining body unchanged (so should be the case with soul). In other cases, damage in brain took away one’s memories, so as to say altering the real person.
We are a complex blend of our personalities, beliefs, memories, consciousness, mind, memories, hopes, etc. All these things, as we understand them today, have to do with our brains. If, however, all these things have to do with something else other than brains, then why changes in our brain tend to affect them. If an unseen soul is what holds control of what we are then why do we not remain what we were before our brain’s wiring gets altered.
The fourth narrative caters the shortfalls of the three narratives discussed so far. It believes that we are in fact a package of our bodies, personalities, mind, memories, hopes etc. With our death, this overwhelming package bursts and the fragments tend to live on. Our hopes continue to live on in the pursuits of other. Our personality lives on in the habits of our progenies. Our loved ones remember us, so that way our memories live on. We live on as a legacy. We reproduce and take pride in seeing our little ones and mini-me’s hoping that we will live on in our children’s features, in their voice, gait, habits, and choices.
“Our death is not an end if we have lived on in our children and the younger generation. For they are us; our bodies are only wilted leaves on the tree of life.”
A deeper look into the desire to be famous connects to this idea of being immortal through the legacy narrative. Living on in the hearts of our fans, in the archives of our performances, inside the history books. This might not be the evident reason for someone hoping to be famous but deep inside the psyche, this narrative appears to be at play. In my opinion, this narrative is also inconsistent. Understanding the pattern of life, this appears to be the most plausible of narratives. However, terming it immortality is slightly misplaced an ideal. I am when I consciously know I am. I am until I can remember that I am. I do not care if I live on in the hearts of my loved ones or in the hopes of my fellow-thinkers. It’s not the real me, but only a part of what used to be me.
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying. I don’t want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen; I want to live on in my apartment.”
Does it sound reasonable to say that Plato or Socrates lives on as thousands of years after them, we still talk of them? It sounds appealing to say yes as their name goes on, their work lives on but is it really Plato or Socrates that lives on or is it just a part of them? And if it’s not them fully living on, it’s not immortality then.
We have seen above that all of these narratives after scrutiny and analysis appear to be inconsistent. There is a more plausible narrative to adopt especially for those who don’t feel satiated with the solace of stories of above-discussed narratives. For those who want something more concrete, something more reasonable and logical. It is the narrative of understanding death as what it is. Jorge Luis Borges said:
Except for man, all creatures are immortal, for they are ignorant of death.
The idea here is not to be oblivious to one’s death. Rather being unafraid of it. By believing in here and now and making this world a better place. As in the words of a sage,
“What if that world is this world rightly seen”.
The narratives of immortality only exist by denying the fear of death. They proclaim death to be not the end and only a transition into a place with infinite time. The mere idea of infinity is repulsive enough. Imagine a place of eternity with infinite time. All things would lose their value for it’s the scarcity of thing that makes it valuable. (Basic Economics). If I had infinite time to do a task, why would I have any zeal to do that task?
Being a natural response does not make it a rational response. It goes for the fear of death too. Yes, death is scary. But by fearing it does not make it less scary or less real. The Greek philosopher Epicurus puts death in the best way. He argues it eloquently that death is nothing to us. For when we are here, death is not. And when death is here, we are not. None of us dead, alive, or to come will ever experience their own death. For death is itself an end of all experiences. Pondering over our gift of life one realizes that the best response to life is not by being afraid of death. But by being grateful for it exists as it is as long as it does. Improving it each day is what we should strive for, second only to enjoying it every day.
I was not; I was; I am not; I don’t care.
This article was also published in The Nation.