Stephen Cave: The Four Stories we tell Ourselves About Death

In a great interview with NPR, Philosopher Stephen Cave delves into the simple question: Why are human beings afraid to die?

In answering Cave, the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, illuminates the four stories we tell ourselves about death.

I think all children are philosophers. All children are asking themselves these questions. We make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories. And in particular, we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things that don’t otherwise seem to make sense, that defy understanding.

And one of the big problems is of course death. So we tell ourselves these stories to help us cope with the fear of death.

Specifically, we tell ourselves 4 stories.

1. The Elixir Story

… in every culture in human history there is some story of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth that promises we can live forever. But actually if we look back through history, the one thing that all elixir drinkers have in common is they’re all now 6-foot under.

2. The Resurrection Story

It accepts that I’m going to have to die, but says despite that I can rise up and I can live again. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age.

3. The Soul Story

But some people are skeptical about the idea of living on as a body, it’s so messy. Instead they dream of living on as a soul. Now this is the third basic kind of immortality story, the idea that when you die you can leave your body behind and live on as a spirit.

4. The Immortality Story

Like Achilles, for example. The great Greek warrior who fought and died in Troy knowing that if he did so he would still be spoken about in years to come. And here we are 3,000 years later telling his story. Or for example, the idea that you can live on through your children or through your nation or through your gene pool.

The fear of death is always there, despite these stories.

… these worries go through our minds all the time, there’s no question there. And it’s a struggle to keep them in perspective. To separate the fear that is natural from the fear that is actually rational. I mean, if you think, for most of the evolution of our species we were in the forest or in the jungle in dangerous situations where really every single day could be our last. We’re built to be scared. But because we’ve got these massive brains, we can generalize and abstract and so we can worry about things that aren’t even right in front of us. And so the sense that one day it’s all going to be over is always with us.

Cave believes it’s helpful to see life as being like a book. In his TED talk (below) he says:

Just as a book is bounded by its covers by a beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, the characters within it know no horizons.

They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is closed. And so the characters of a book are not afraid of reaching the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid of you finishing your copy of “Treasure Island.” And so it should be with us. Imagine the book of your life, its covers, its beginning and end, your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life.

It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn’t worry how long the book is or whether it’s a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story.

Still curious? Cave is the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, an inquiry into humanity’s irrational resistance to the inevitability of death.