To an atheist, death is the end of oneself. The thought of losing yourself, even if you no longer know you have been lost after it happens, is frightening to many (see Julian Barnes). Andrew Stark attempts to offer some consolatory thoughts to the modern atheist in his book The Consolations of Mortality: Making Sense of Death.
Stark tries out several suggestions to get you to be glad you won’t exist anymore. He proposes that the imminence of death motivates us to live life to the fullest. Or he reminds us, as the Buddhists proclaim, that there really is no self to lose. I don’t know if these would offer Mr. Barnes any consolation, but Stark has a real ace up his sleeve when he asks us to consider what actual immortality might comprise.
Unfortunately, the immortality Stark proposes is just unending life extension—not an eternal “after life.” Stark imagines the sad results of living an earthly existence that you could never escape—boredom, more time to accrue suffering, and unbridgeable gaps between generations. But even the Bible doesn’t propose that an unending earthly life would be a joy. In fact, God sees unending earthly existence as a curse to be avoided. One of the graces God bestows on Adam and Eve after the Fall is that they are deprived of access to the Tree of Life lest they eat of it and live forever in their fallen state.
The Greek myth of Eos and Tithonus cautions mortals against wishing for immortality. Eos asks Zeus to grant eternal life to her young lover. Her lover remains alive, but Eos forgot to request that he also remain young, and so Tithonus slowly devolves into a frail tiny grasshopper. Not much fun for either of them.
The young adult book Tuck Everlasting tells the tale of a family that inadvertently drinks from the fountain of youth and acquires unwanted immortality. They are stuck perpetually at the same age, so their young boys never attain maturity and the parents never get older. This means the family must constantly be on the move so as not to arouse suspicion. It is not an enviable life.
Ray Kurzweil is part of the transhumanist movement that hopes to overcome the obstacles to immortality by merging our brains with machines, which sounds delightful, no? Well, maybe to some, but are we really no more than our brains? I guess some people may find out, to their horror what that may entail.
So Mr. Stark has a point. Living forever on this earth is not the solution to our fear of extinction.
We human beings find ourselves in a paradox. Death takes from us and leaves us bereft. And we usually seek to avoid it ourselves. But the thought of no Death is almost as frightening. Unending life on this planet without a possibility of escape is terrifying: How is such a paradox to be resolved? Why do we both long for immortality and dread it? What is it we really want? I’ll take up that question in another post.