Tag: Stephen Cave

David Foster Wallace: The Mortality Paradox


David Foster Wallace, in an interview with Larry McCaffery, found in Conversations with David Foster Wallace, comments on our dread of both relationships and loneliness.

It’s always tempting to sit back and make finger-steeples and invent impressive-sounding theoretical justifications for what one does, but in my case most of it’d be horseshit. As time passes I get less and less nuts about anything I’ve published, and it gets harder to know for sure when its antagonistic elements are in there because they serve a useful purpose and when they’re just covert manifestations of this “look-at-me-please-love-me-I-hate-you” syndrome I still sometimes catch myself falling into. Anyway, but what I think I meant by “antagonize” or “aggravate” has to do with the stuff in the TV essay about the younger writer trying to struggle against the cultural hegemony of TV. One thing TV does is help us deny that we’re lonely. With televised images, we can have the facsimile of a relationship without the work of a real relationship. It’s an anesthesia of form. The interesting thing is why we’re so desperate for this anesthetic against loneliness.

You don’t have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are like sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I’m going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I’m not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny.


This reminds me of a passage by Stephen Cave, in his book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, where he describes the Mortality Paradox:

Our awareness of ourselves, of the future and of alternative possibilities enables us to adapt and make sophisticated plans. But it also gives us a perspective on ourselves that is at the same time terrifying and baffling. On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is that very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.


Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

The survival benefits of these faculties are obvious: from mammoth traps to supermarket supply chains, we can plan, coordinate and cooperate to ensure our needs are met. But these powers come at a cost. If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety— it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.

And so we realize, as we see the other living things around us fall one by one, that no one is spared. We recognize that death is the real enemy; with our powerful minds we can stave him off for a while with sharp spears or strong gates, full larders and hospitals, but at the same time, we see that it is all ultimately fruitless, that one day we not only can but surely will die. This is what the twentieth-century German philosopher Martin Heidegger famously described as “being-toward-death,” which he considered to define the human condition.

Conversations with David Foster Wallace and Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization offer glimpses into how we use stories to both hide and unearth reality.

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.