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TEDxBratislava

Stephen Cave: The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death

July 18, 2013

Philosopher Stephen Cave begins with a dark but compelling question: When did you first realize you were going to die? And even more interesting: Why do we humans so often resist the inevitability of death? Cave explores four narratives -- common across civilizations -- that we tell ourselves "in order to help us manage the terror of death."

Stephen Cave - Philosopher
Philosopher Stephen Cave wants to know: Why is humanity so obsessed with living forever? Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
I have a question:
00:12
Who here remembers when they first realized
00:14
they were going to die?
00:17
I do. I was a young boy,
00:20
and my grandfather had just died,
00:23
and I remember a few days later lying in bed at night
00:26
trying to make sense of what had happened.
00:30
What did it mean that he was dead?
00:34
Where had he gone?
00:36
It was like a hole in reality had opened up
00:38
and swallowed him.
00:41
But then the really shocking
question occurred to me:
00:43
If he could die, could it happen to me too?
00:46
Could that hole in reality open up and swallow me?
00:50
Would it open up beneath my bed
00:53
and swallow me as I slept?
00:55
Well, at some point, all children
become aware of death.
00:58
It can happen in different ways, of course,
01:02
and usually comes in stages.
01:04
Our idea of death develops as we grow older.
01:06
And if you reach back into the dark corners
01:10
of your memory,
01:12
you might remember something like what I felt
01:14
when my grandfather died and when I realized
01:17
it could happen to me too,
01:20
that sense that behind all of this
01:22
the void is waiting.
01:25
And this development in childhood
01:28
reflects the development of our species.
01:30
Just as there was a point in your development
01:33
as a child when your sense of self and of time
01:36
became sophisticated enough
01:40
for you to realize you were mortal,
01:42
so at some point in the evolution of our species,
01:46
some early human's sense of self and of time
01:50
became sophisticated enough
01:53
for them to become the first human to realize,
01:55
"I'm going to die."
01:58
This is, if you like, our curse.
02:02
It's the price we pay for being so damn clever.
02:04
We have to live in the knowledge
02:08
that the worst thing that can possibly happen
02:10
one day surely will,
02:13
the end of all our projects,
02:14
our hopes, our dreams, of our individual world.
02:16
We each live in the shadow of a personal
02:19
apocalypse.
02:22
And that's frightening. It's terrifying.
02:24
And so we look for a way out.
02:27
And in my case, as I was about five years old,
02:29
this meant asking my mum.
02:33
Now when I first started asking
02:36
what happens when we die,
02:38
the grown-ups around me at the time
02:40
answered with a typical English mix of awkwardness
02:42
and half-hearted Christianity,
02:45
and the phrase I heard most often
02:48
was that granddad was now
02:50
"up there looking down on us,"
02:52
and if I should die too, which
wouldn't happen of course,
02:54
then I too would go up there,
02:57
which made death sound a lot like
03:00
an existential elevator.
03:02
Now this didn't sound very plausible.
03:05
I used to watch a children's
news program at the time,
03:08
and this was the era of space exploration.
03:11
There were always rockets going up into the sky,
03:13
up into space, going up there.
03:15
But none of the astronauts when they came back
03:18
ever mentioned having met my granddad
03:20
or any other dead people.
03:23
But I was scared,
03:26
and the idea of taking the existential elevator
03:27
to see my granddad
03:30
sounded a lot better than being swallowed
03:31
by the void while I slept.
03:33
And so I believed it anyway,
03:36
even though it didn't make much sense.
03:38
And this thought process that I went through
03:41
as a child, and have been through many times since,
03:43
including as a grown-up,
03:45
is a product of what psychologists call
03:47
a bias.
03:50
Now a bias is a way in which we systematically
03:51
get things wrong,
03:55
ways in which we miscalculate, misjudge,
03:56
distort reality, or see what we want to see,
03:59
and the bias I'm talking about
04:03
works like this:
04:05
Confront someone with the fact
04:06
that they are going to die
04:08
and they will believe just about any story
04:10
that tells them it isn't true
04:13
and they can, instead, live forever,
04:15
even if it means taking the existential elevator.
04:17
Now we can see this as the biggest bias of all.
04:21
It has been demonstrated in over 400
04:26
empirical studies.
04:29
Now these studies are ingenious, but they're simple.
04:30
They work like this.
04:33
You take two groups of people
04:35
who are similar in all relevant respects,
04:36
and you remind one group that they're going to die
04:39
but not the other, then you compare their behavior.
04:42
So you're observing how it biases behavior
04:44
when people become aware of their mortality.
04:48
And every time, you get the same result:
04:52
People who are made aware of their mortality
04:55
are more willing to believe stories
04:58
that tell them they can escape death
05:00
and live forever.
05:02
So here's an example: One recent study
05:04
took two groups of agnostics,
05:06
that is people who are undecided
05:09
in their religious beliefs.
05:10
Now, one group was asked to think about being dead.
05:13
The other group was asked to think about
05:16
being lonely.
05:18
They were then asked again
about their religious beliefs.
05:20
Those who had been asked
to think about being dead
05:23
were afterwards twice as likely to express faith
05:26
in God and Jesus.
05:29
Twice as likely.
05:31
Even though the before they
were all equally agnostic.
05:33
But put the fear of death in them,
05:35
and they run to Jesus.
05:37
Now, this shows that reminding people of death
05:41
biases them to believe, regardless of the evidence,
05:44
and it works not just for religion,
05:48
but for any kind of belief system
05:50
that promises immortality in some form,
05:52
whether it's becoming famous
05:55
or having children
05:57
or even nationalism,
05:59
which promises you can live
on as part of a greater whole.
06:00
This is a bias that has shaped
06:03
the course of human history.
06:05
Now, the theory behind this bias
06:08
in the over 400 studies
06:11
is called terror management theory,
06:12
and the idea is simple. It's just this.
06:15
We develop our worldviews,
06:17
that is, the stories we tell ourselves
06:20
about the world and our place in it,
06:22
in order to help us manage
06:24
the terror of death.
06:27
And these immortality stories
06:30
have thousands of different manifestations,
06:31
but I believe that behind the apparent diversity
06:34
there are actually just four basic forms
06:38
that these immortality stories can take.
06:41
And we can see them repeating themselves
06:44
throughout history, just with slight variations
06:46
to reflect the vocabulary of the day.
06:49
Now I'm going to briefly introduce these four
06:52
basic forms of immortality story,
06:54
and I want to try to give you some sense
06:57
of the way in which they're retold by each culture
06:58
or generation
07:01
using the vocabulary of their day.
07:02
Now, the first story is the simplest.
07:05
We want to avoid death,
07:07
and the dream of doing that in this body
07:09
in this world forever
07:12
is the first and simplest kind of immortality story,
07:13
and it might at first sound implausible,
07:16
but actually, almost every culture in human history
07:19
has had some myth or legend
07:23
of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth
07:25
or something that promises to keep us going
07:28
forever.
07:31
Ancient Egypt had such myths,
07:34
ancient Babylon, ancient India.
07:35
Throughout European history, we find them
in the work of the alchemists,
07:38
and of course we still believe this today,
07:41
only we tell this story using the vocabulary
07:43
of science.
07:46
So 100 years ago,
07:48
hormones had just been discovered,
07:49
and people hoped that hormone treatments
07:51
were going to cure aging and disease,
07:53
and now instead we set our hopes on stem cells,
07:55
genetic engineering, and nanotechnology.
07:58
But the idea that science can cure death
08:01
is just one more chapter in the story
08:04
of the magical elixir,
08:07
a story that is as old as civilization.
08:09
But betting everything on the idea of finding the elixir
08:13
and staying alive forever
08:16
is a risky strategy.
08:18
When we look back through history
08:19
at all those who have sought an elixir in the past,
08:22
the one thing they now have in common
08:24
is that they're all dead.
08:26
So we need a backup plan,
and exactly this kind of plan B
08:29
is what the second kind of immortality story offers,
08:33
and that's resurrection.
08:36
And it stays with the idea that I am this body,
08:38
I am this physical organism.
08:40
It accepts that I'm going to have to die
08:42
but says, despite that,
08:45
I can rise up and I can live again.
08:46
In other words, I can do what Jesus did.
08:48
Jesus died, he was three days in the [tomb],
08:51
and then he rose up and lived again.
08:53
And the idea that we can all be
resurrected to live again
08:56
is orthodox believe, not just for Christians
08:59
but also Jews and Muslims.
09:02
But our desire to believe this story
09:04
is so deeply embedded
09:06
that we are reinventing it again
09:08
for the scientific age,
09:11
for example, with the idea of cryonics.
09:12
That's the idea that when you die,
09:15
you can have yourself frozen,
09:16
and then, at some point when technology
09:18
has advanced enough,
09:21
you can be thawed out and repaired and revived
09:22
and so resurrected.
09:24
And so some people believe an omnipotent god
09:25
will resurrect them to live again,
09:28
and other people believe an
omnipotent scientist will do it.
09:30
But for others, the whole idea of resurrection,
09:34
of climbing out of the grave,
09:37
it's just too much like a bad zombie movie.
09:39
They find the body too messy, too unreliable
09:42
to guarantee eternal life,
09:45
and so they set their hopes on the third,
09:47
more spiritual immortality story,
09:50
the idea that we can leave our body behind
09:52
and live on as a soul.
09:54
Now, the majority of people on Earth
09:57
believe they have a soul,
09:59
and the idea is central to many religions.
10:00
But even though, in its current form,
10:03
in its traditional form,
10:05
the idea of the soul is still hugely popular,
10:07
nonetheless we are again
10:09
reinventing it for the digital age,
10:11
for example with the idea
10:13
that you can leave your body behind
10:14
by uploading your mind, your essence,
10:16
the real you, onto a computer,
10:19
and so live on as an avatar in the ether.
10:20
But of course there are skeptics who say
10:25
if we look at the evidence of science,
10:27
particularly neuroscience,
10:29
it suggests that your mind,
10:31
your essence, the real you,
10:32
is very much dependent on a particular part
10:34
of your body, that is, your brain.
10:36
And such skeptics can find comfort
10:39
in the fourth kind of immortality story,
10:41
and that is legacy,
10:43
the idea that you can live on
10:46
through the echo you leave in the world,
10:47
like the great Greek warrior Achilles,
10:49
who sacrificed his life fighting at Troy
10:52
so that he might win immortal fame.
10:54
And the pursuit of fame is as widespread
10:58
and popular now as it ever was,
11:00
and in our digital age,
11:02
it's even easier to achieve.
11:04
You don't need to be a great warrior like Achilles
11:05
or a great king or hero.
11:07
All you need is an Internet connection
and a funny cat. (Laughter)
11:09
But some people prefer to leave a more tangible,
11:14
biological legacy -- children, for example.
11:16
Or they like, they hope, to live on
11:19
as part of some greater whole,
11:21
a nation or a family or a tribe,
11:23
their gene pool.
11:26
But again, there are skeptics
11:28
who doubt whether legacy
11:30
really is immortality.
11:31
Woody Allen, for example, who said,
11:33
"I don't want to live on in
the hearts of my countrymen.
11:35
I want to live on in my apartment."
11:38
So those are the four
11:40
basic kinds of immortality stories,
11:42
and I've tried to give just some sense
11:44
of how they're retold by each generation
11:46
with just slight variations
11:48
to fit the fashions of the day.
11:50
And the fact that they recur in this way,
11:52
in such a similar form but
in such different belief systems,
11:55
suggests, I think,
11:58
that we should be skeptical of the truth
12:00
of any particular version of these stories.
12:02
The fact that some people believe
12:06
an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again
12:08
and others believe an omnipotent scientist will do it
12:11
suggests that neither are really believing this
12:15
on the strength of the evidence.
12:18
Rather, we believe these stories
12:20
because we are biased to believe them,
12:23
and we are biased to believe them
12:25
because we are so afraid of death.
12:26
So the question is,
12:31
are we doomed to lead the one life we have
12:33
in a way that is shaped by fear and denial,
12:36
or can we overcome this bias?
12:40
Well the Greek philosopher Epicurus
12:43
thought we could.
12:46
He argued that the fear of death is natural,
12:47
but it is not rational.
12:51
"Death," he said, "is nothing to us,
12:53
because when we are here, death is not,
12:56
and when death is here, we are gone."
12:59
Now this is often quoted, but it's difficult
13:02
to really grasp, to really internalize,
13:04
because exactly this idea of being gone
13:07
is so difficult to imagine.
13:09
So 2,000 years later, another philosopher,
13:11
Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it like this:
13:13
"Death is not an event in life:
13:17
We do not live to experience death.
13:20
And so," he added,
13:23
"in this sense, life has no end."
13:24
So it was natural for me as a child
13:27
to fear being swallowed by the void,
13:30
but it wasn't rational,
13:33
because being swallowed by the void
13:35
is not something that any of us
13:37
will ever live to experience.
13:39
Now, overcoming this bias is not easy because
13:42
the fear of death is so deeply embedded in us,
13:45
yet when we see that the fear itself is not rational,
13:48
and when we bring out into the open
13:52
the ways in which it can unconsciously bias us,
13:54
then we can at least start
13:57
to try to minimize the influence it has
13:59
on our lives.
14:01
Now, I find it helps to see life
14:03
as being like a book:
14:06
Just as a book is bounded by its covers,
14:08
by beginning and end,
14:10
so our lives are bounded by birth and death,
14:12
and even though a book is
limited by beginning and end,
14:15
it can encompass distant landscapes,
14:19
exotic figures, fantastic adventures.
14:21
And even though a book is
limited by beginning and end,
14:24
the characters within it
14:28
know no horizons.
14:29
They only know the moments
that make up their story,
14:32
even when the book is closed.
14:35
And so the characters of a book
14:38
are not afraid of reaching the last page.
14:40
Long John Silver is not afraid of you
14:44
finishing your copy of "Treasure Island."
14:46
And so it should be with us.
14:49
Imagine the book of your life,
14:51
its covers, its beginning and end,
and your birth and your death.
14:53
You can only know the moments in between,
14:56
the moments that make up your life.
14:58
It makes no sense for you to fear
15:00
what is outside of those covers,
15:02
whether before your birth
15:04
or after your death.
15:05
And you needn't worry how long the book is,
15:07
or whether it's a comic strip or an epic.
15:10
The only thing that matters
15:13
is that you make it a good story.
15:15
Thank you.
15:18
(Applause)
15:21

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Stephen Cave - Philosopher
Philosopher Stephen Cave wants to know: Why is humanity so obsessed with living forever?

Why you should listen

Stephen Cave is a writer and philosopher who is obsessed with our obsession with immortality. In 2012 he published Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, an inquiry into humanity's rather irrational resistance to the inevitability of death. Cave moves across time and history's major civilizations and religions to explore just what drives this instinct -- and what that means for the future. Cave writes for The Financial Times and contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

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