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The Mortality Paradox

11 March 2014, 08:25

This writing is based on a recent TED talk by British philosopher Stephen Cave (1).

A paradox:

We humans are set apart from other animals by our highly evolved brains. Average athletes we might be, but our cognitive abilities are unmatched on earth.

A curse of our intelligence, and an integral part of the "human condition", is that it creates a paradox with respect to how we view our own mortality: We understand that we are going to die, but at the same time, we find it hard to believe and accept. We are in a form of denial, as we cannot imagine being dead. Technically one cannot "be" dead, as it is not a state of being (similar to the situation before you were conceived). The day you die, you cease to exist, and thus, death is not a state you can be in. This differs from being unconsciousness or to be in a very deep sleep. It is therefore almost impossible to objectively think about not existing, as it is not something that we can ever experience or easily envisage.

Death is not usually a topic we dwell on, especially not during our "invincible" and carefree youth. Throughout life, we suppress the thought very effectively, as it is almost unthinkable that all we worked for, all our aspirations, all our projects, our hopes and dreams, will one day, somewhere in the poorly defined future, come to an end...


Many humans follow at least one or more of four approaches to try and attain immortality in order to solve, or at least ameliorate, the problem posed by the mortality paradox. Even if we don't fully believe that immortality is actually attainable (or even desirable), following these approaches numbs the inner turmoil this paradox can create.

a) Eternal life: One of the earliest pursuits of man is to find a way to live forever. This includes the quest for the elusive "elixir of life", reversing or halting the aging process (remember Chris Barnard?) and more contemporary, trying to obtain immortality in artificial intelligence (AI).

Many have enthusiastically proclaimed actual or imminent success, but alas, all they have in common, is that they are now all dead...

Cryogenic storage have become in vogue over the last few decades. The hope being, that one day, when humanity is advanced enough, you will be thawed, revived and your ailments will get fixed. In addition to the immense (likely impossible) technical challenges in "reviving" the dead, there is also healthy skepticism in exactly how long we can (or should) medically prolong human life. We have progressively been increasing average life spans, but it comes at a cost. We might live longer, but the quality of these added years, is not necessarily that ideal.

So many elderly people spend their last years confused, demented, incontinent, depressed, over medicated, socially isolated and under financial pressure. It seems that we are evolved to only live a quality life for a century, give or take.

At present, it does seem that the dream of living forever as yourself, in your own body, is nothing more than just that: a dream. 

A short note on "living" on in cyberspace, or having your consciousness transferred into some form of AI or android: Although this might one day become a possibility, it will never be YOU living on. It will always be a copy (or more challenging even; copies) of you. This is encapsulated by the concept of "transitivity of identity", on which I will not go into detail here.

b) Resurrection: This ideal, or hope, falls squarely into the domain of religion. The idea of bodily resurrection clearly requires a miracle. Just the idea of a decomposed, worm-infested body re-assembling back into your old self, can make even the hardiest stomach turn. Only the staunchest of fundamentalist believers still view bodily resurrection as a means to deal with the mortality paradox. Most believers have moved on to the next option: Immortality in the form of a soul.

c) The soul: The hope, or belief, in an eternal soul, which will survive bodily death, is what most modern religions promote or teach in one form or another. This includes reincarnation, which is believed in by some Eastern religions.

This nebulous and ethereal concept is difficult to prove or disprove, hence its persistence in religions.

Modern science, and specifically neuroscience, has systematically shown all the functions that have traditionally been attributed to a "soul", to be distinct functions of brain matter. Furthermore, these functions are inextricably linked to the brain. A large body of evidence, mainly from studying stroke victims, brain-damaged patients and functional MRI studies, has verified this (3).

If there really is an ever-present soul that is inextinguishable and/or continually monitoring your internal and external world, empirical evidence for it is lacking. Higher faculties that is lost with permanent brain damage, is irretrievably lost. The more extensive the damage, the more is lost. Patients, who undergo surgery under general anaesthesia, do not recall events from their period of unconsciousness (unless human error occurred, e.g. wrong drug or not enough drug). There is no verifiable evidence for a soul that fills in the gaps during periods of unconsciousness, or one that substitute for damaged brain matter.

Phenomena such as Near-Death Experiences and Out-of-Body Experiences, all have sound neurobiological explanations (3) (6) (7) (8).

Neuroscientists will be the first to admit that we still need to discover a lot about various complex functions of the brain. However, based on what we do know, there is no compelling reason to believe that there is a soul that will exit the body, and continue to exist, when the brain finally stops to function at death.

As with resurrection, belief in a soul as the ticket to immortality requires the belief in a miracle. This cannot be rationally accepted as a viable option to solve the paradox.

d) Legacy: The final route, by which many people try to achieve immortality, is by leaving a lasting legacy. This can be biological (passing on your genes so as to "live" on in your offspring) or in name. Regarding the latter; a point in case is Nelson Mandela's recent passing. His name will truly "live" on for a very long time, and we, as a nation, can be extremely proud of him.

However, with both forms of legacy, it should be clear that neither result in YOU being there to experience it.

Review of solutions:

There is good reason to believe that true immortality is an illusion, and viewing it as a viable option to solve the paradox, represents wishful thinking at best.   

An alternative solution:

There is a way to deal with this paradox: Firstly, you need to accept your own mortality and fully come to terms with it, without living in hope for immortality (in whichever form).

Secondly, one must come to the realisation that although it is natural to worry about death, it is irrational.

As Epicurus (341-270 BC) noted: "Death is nothing to us, for all good and evil lies in sensation, and death is the end of all sensation. While we are, death is not; when death has come, we are not". The German philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951), subsequently explained it as follows: "Death is not an event n life: we do not live to experience death."

Thus, in this sense, life has no end, as we can never be aware of it having an end.

I am astonished by how well ancient philosophers appreciated the irrationality of fearing death.

There is a concern that, accepting the finality of death, will inevitably lead to nihilism and despair.

I strongly object to this, and contend that there is everything to live for, especially if you understand that this life is the only opportunity you'll ever get to experience consciousness (ever).

A brief summary of an approach that could help to ensure a fulfilled life (2):

a) Identify with others: Have a deep and genuine connection with those close to you. It will help you to "get over yourself"...

We are a social species after all.

b) Focus on the present: Take time to free yourself from the past and future. The past is water under the bridge, and the future is mere speculation. Only the present is real. If you are happy now, you're happy always, as there is only now. It goes without saying that somewhere between focusing on the present and planning for the future, a happy medium (or balance) has to be found.

A good summary is: "Live so you'll have no regrets if you die tomorrow, but also no regrets if you don't" (Stephen Cave).

c) Gratitude: We are here despite incalculable odds. We should be grateful, extremely grateful, to have a shot at life at all (and to be able to appreciate this fact).

To repeat: this is the only chance you'll ever get at life.

And of course, the cycle of life and death is ultimately responsible for our presence...

Acknowledgements and further reading:


(2)   Cave, Stephen. Immortality    (A brilliant book and a must read)

(3)   Churchland, Patricia. Touching a nerve: The Self as Brain.

(4)   Churchland, Patricia. Braintrust: What neuroscience tells us about morality

(5)   Yalom, Irvin. Staring at the sun




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