August 30, 2011

UK: Imagining the Downside of Immortality

NEW YORK, NY / The New York Times / Sunday Review / Opinion Pages / August 28, 2011

'Torchwood' Gives Glimpse of Eternal Life

 
“The Fountain of Youth,” painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1546, illustrates our long obsession with immortality. Gemaeldegalerie, Staatliche Museen, Berlin/Art Resource, NY

By Stephen Cave

Stephen Cave is the author of the forthcoming book “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.”

Berlin

IMAGINE nobody dies. All of a sudden, whether through divine intervention or an elixir slipped into the water supply, death is banished. Life goes on and on; all of us are freed from fear that our loved ones will be plucked from us, and each of us is rich in the most precious resource of all: time.

Wouldn’t it be awful?

This is the premise of the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” a co-production of Starz and the BBC that has been running over the summer and ends in September. The “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens to end civilization. The show is a nice twist on our age-old dream of living forever. And it is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. It shapes what we do and what we believe; it has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop.

Poets and philosophers have long been attuned to the fact that the quest for immortality drives much of humanity’s peculiar ways. But only in recent decades has scientific evidence backed this up.

In a study that began in 1989, a group of American social psychologists found that just briefly reminding people that they would die had a remarkable impact on their political and religious views.

In their first experiment, the researchers recruited court judges from Tucson. Half the judges were reminded of their mortality (via an otherwise innocuous personality test) and half were not. They were then all asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution similar to those they ruled on. The judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t (averaging $455 compared to $50).

These psychologists — Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski — were testing the hypothesis that we have developed our cultural worldviews in order to give us the sense that we might defy death. They reasoned that if this were not the case, when faced with reminders of mortality, people would cling more fiercely to their beliefs and be more negative about those who threatened them. This is just what happened with the judges: when reminded that they would one day die, they were more severe in punishing those who violated their worldview.

Social psychologists have since tested this hypothesis in more than 400 experiments that aim to explore different aspects of our worldview, from patriotism to religion. So far, their results consistently support a thesis — known as Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Every civilization has had such systems. They are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. Odds are that you too, dear reader, subscribe to at least one such system — a set of beliefs that motivates you and somehow promises life’s continuance. Perhaps you believe that if you attend church or a synagogue or a mosque, your soul will endure in another realm. Perhaps you are encouraging your children’s confidence that something of you will live on in them; or perhaps you are taking vitamins and jogging in the hope that you can outrun the Reaper.

Some of these systems overtly flaunt their death-defying promise: Christianity and Islam, for example, make a great deal of the prospect of eternal bliss. As do the arts, in particular cinema and its accompanying celebrity culture — as the film star James Dean acknowledged when he said that “the only success, the only greatness, is immortality.” But when we look deeper we also find the promise of deathlessness in places where it is not at all explicit: in the accumulation of wealth, with its attendant aura of life-sustaining power; through immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

The real question posed by the “Torchwood” scenario is: what would happen to all our death-defying systems if there were no more death? The logical answer is that they would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. Suddenly, we would have nothing to do, yet in the greatest of ironies, we would have endless eons in which to do it. Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality.

Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude.

© 2011 The New York Times Company

Read Steve Cave's article in the FINANCIAL TIMES
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