The philosopher Stephen Cave starts with a dark but exciting question: When did you first realize how you would die? And even more interesting: Why do we so often resist the inevitability of death? In an exciting speech Stephen Cave explores four narratives common to all cultures that we say to ourselves "to help us manage the terror of death.
The translation was made by Miriela Patrikiadou and edited by Stefano Reppa for the Ted Talks.
I have a question: Who among you remembers, when did he first realize how he will die?
I remember. I was young and my grandfather had just died, and I remember a few days later, lying in bed in the evening, trying to make sense of what had happened. What did he mean to die? Where had she been? It was like having opened a hole in reality and swallowed it. But then the really terrible question arose: If he could die, could it also happen to me? Could this hole really open and swallow me? Will he open under my bed and swallow me as I sleep? At some point, all children realize death. Of course, this can happen in different ways, and it usually happens at different stages. The idea of death evolves as we grow older. And if you look back in the dark corners of your memory, you may remember something like what I felt when my grandfather died and when I realized that this could also happen to me, this feeling that behind all this, the vacuum waits.
And this development in childhood reflects the evolution of our species. Just as there was a point in your evolution as a child, when your sense of self and your time evolved so that you realized you were mortal, so at some point in the evolution of our kind some part of the early human sense of self and the time, has evolved enough to become the first people to realize that, "I am going to die." That is, if you wish, our curse. It's the cost we pay to be so smart. We have to live with the knowledge that the worst that can happen, one day will actually happen, the end of all our plans, our hopes, our dreams, our personal world. We all live in the shadow of a personal revelation.
And that is scary. It's scary. So, we are looking for a way out. And in my case, when I was about five years old, that meant asking my mom. When I began to ask what happens when we die, the adults around me at the time responded with a typical English embarrassment, mixed with reluctant Christianity, and the phrase I heard most often was that my grandfather was now "up there looking at us," and if I died too, which of course would not happen, then I would go "up there too", and that made death sound like an existential elevator. This did not sound very convincing. At that time I was watching a children's information program and it was the time of space exploration. Rockets were constantly flying in the sky, in space, they were going "up there". But none of the astronauts when he returned mentioned that he had met my grandfather or any of the dead. But I was scared, and the idea of taking the existential elevator to see my grandfather sounded a lot better than being swallowed up by emptiness while I slept. And so I believed it, even though it didn't make much sense.
And this thought process that I went through as a child, and that I have gone through many times since then as an adult, is a derivative of what psychologists call prejudice. Prejudice is a way in which we systematically misunderstand, misjudge, misjudge, distort reality, or see things the way we want, and the prejudice I am referring to works like this: Bring someone face to face with the fact that you are going to he dies and will believe almost any story that tells him that this is not true and that instead, he can live forever, even if it means taking the existential elevator. We can see that this is the biggest prejudice of all. This has been proven in more than 400 empirical studies. These studies are intelligent, but they are simple. It goes something like this: You take two groups of people who are similar in all opinions, and you remind one group that they are going to die, but not the other, and then you compare their behavior. You observe how prejudice affects behavior when people realize their mortality. And each time, you get the same results: People who realize their mortality are more willing to believe stories that tell them they can escape death and live forever. Here is an example: A recent study used two groups of agnostics, people who are undecided about their religious beliefs. One group was asked to think they were dead. The other group was asked to think they were alone. And then they were asked again about their religious beliefs. Those who were asked to think they had died were then twice as likely to express faith in God and Jesus. The double chances. Although previously they were all equally agnostic. But if you put the fear of death in them, they run to Jesus.
This shows that the reminder of death to people makes them believe regardless of the proofs, and this applies not only to religion but to any belief system that promises some form of immortality either by becoming famous or by doing children, or even nationalism, that promises you can live as part of a larger ensemble. This is a bias that has shaped the flow of human history.
The theory behind this bias, in more than 400 studies, is called terror management theory, and the idea is simple. It's just that. We develop our worldview, that is, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place within it, to help us manage the terror of death. And these stories of immortality have thousands of different ways of expression, but I believe that beyond their seeming varieties, in fact there are only four basic forms that these stories of immortality can take. And we can see them repeated in history, with only a few variations that reflect the vocabulary of their time. I will briefly present these four forms of the history of immortality, and I want to try to give you a sense of how they are repeated from every culture or generation using the vocabulary of their time.
The first story is the simplest. We want to avoid death, and the dream of doing this with this body, in this world, forever, is the first and simplest story of immortality, and it may initially sound unlikely, but in reality, almost every culture in human history has a myth or legend about an elixir of life or a source of youth or something that promises us that we will exist forever. Ancient Egypt had such myths, ancient Babylon, ancient India. In European history we find it in the work of the alchemists, and of course we still believe it today, but we are only telling this story using the vocabulary of science. So, before 100 years, the hormones had just been discovered and people hoped that hormone treatments would heal old age and illness, and now we are putting our hopes on stem cells, genetic engineering and nanotechnology. But the idea that science can cure death is just another chapter in the history of magical elixir, a story that is as old as culture. But betting everything to the idea of finding the elixir and staying alive forever is a risky strategy. If we look back in history and all those who were looking for an elixir in the past, what everyone now has in common is that they are all dead.
So we need a backup plan, and this second plan is what the second immortality story offers, and that is the resurrection. And it maintains the idea that I am this body, I am this natural organism. He accepts that I have to die, but he says that despite all this, I can be resurrected and live again. In other words, I can do what Jesus did. Jesus died, was in the tomb for three days and then rose again and lived again. And the idea that we can all be resurrected and live again is an Orthodox faith not only for Christians but also for Jews and Muslims. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we reinvent it for the scientific age, for example, with the idea of cryogenetics. This is the idea that when you die, you can be frozen, and when at some point technology has evolved enough, they can freeze you, repair you and bring you back to life, so you can be resurrected. Thus, some believe that an almighty god will resurrect them and they will live again, and others believe that an almighty scientist will do it.
But for others, the idea of the resurrection, of getting out of the grave, is very much like a bad movie with zombies. They find that the body is too messy, too unreliable to guarantee eternal life, and so they place their hopes in the third and most spiritual story of immortality, the idea that we can leave our body and continue to live as souls. The majority of people on Earth believe that they have a soul, and this idea is the essence of many religions. But even though in its current form, in its traditional form, the idea of the soul is still very popular, yet, again, we reinvent it for the digital age, for example with the idea that you can leave your body and upload your spirit, your being, what you really are, to a computer and thus continue to live like an avatar in the ether.
But of course there are the skeptics who say that if we look at the evidence of science, especially of the science of neuroscience, it suggests that your spirit, your being, your real self, depends to a large extent on a particular part of your body, your brain. And such skeptics find comfort in the fourth kind of immortal history, and this is the legacy, the idea that you can continue to live through the echoes you leave to the world, like the great Greek warrior Achilles, who sacrificed his life in the war of Troy in order to win the immortal lieutenant. And the search for fame is so widespread and popular in the days that it has always been, and in our digital age, it is even easier to achieve it. You do not have to be a great warrior like Achilles or a great king or a hero. All you need is an internet connection and a funny cat. (Laughter) But some people prefer to leave behind a more tangible biological heritage. Children, for example. Or they want, hopefully, to continue living as part of a larger ensemble, a nation, a family, a race, their genes. But again, there are skeptics who question whether the legacy is indeed immortality. Woody Allen, for example, said, "I do not want to continue living in the hearts of my fellow citizens. I want to keep living in my apartment. "
So these are the four main types of immortality stories, and I tried to give some sense of how they are telling each generation again with just a few variations that match the fashions of the times. And the fact that they reappear in this way in such a similar form but in so different belief systems suggests, I think, that we must be skeptical of the truth of each specific version of these stories. The fact that some people believe that an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again, and others believe that an all-powerful scientist will do so, suggests that neither of them believes it based on the power of evidence. We probably believe these stories because we are biased to believe them, and we are preoccupied to believe them because we are so afraid of death.
So the question is, are we doomed to live the one life we have in a way that is shaped by fear and denial, or can we overcome this bias? The Greek philosopher Epicurus believed we could. He claimed that the fear of death is normal, but it is not reasonable. "Death," he said, "is nothing to us because when we are here, death is not, and when death is here, we are gone." This is often said, but it is difficult to catch it, to internalize it indeed, because the very idea that we are gone is one that is hard to imagine. So, 2.000 years later, another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it this way: "Death is not an event in life. We do not live to experience death. And so, "he added," in this sense, life is not over. "
So it was normal for me as a child to be afraid of swallowing the gap, but it was not logical, because swallowing it is something that no one will live for to experience it.
Overcoming this prejudice is not easy because the fear of death is so deeply ingrained in us, yet when we see that the fear itself is unreasonable, and when we openly see the ways in which it can unconsciously lead us makes us biased, then we can at least start trying to minimize the impact it has on our lives.
I find it useful to see life as a book. Just as a book is bounded by its covers, from beginning to end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death, and although a book is bounded by a beginning and an end, it can include distant landscapes, exotic features, fantastic adventures. And although a book is limited by a beginning and an end, its characters know no horizons. They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is closed. And so, the characters in a book are not afraid to get to the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid to finish the copy of "Treasure Island". And so it must be with us. Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end and your life and death. You can only know the intermediate moments, the moments that create your life. It does not make sense to be afraid of what is beyond the covers, either before you are born or after you die. And you do not have to worry about how big the book is, or whether it is a comic or an epic. All that matters is making a good story.