Immortality by Stephen Cave

Have you ever fancied, in an idle moment, that you’d like to live forever? Or just a little longer than the apportioned three score year and ten? According to Dr. Stephen Cave ( (and with apologies to Eddie Cochran) there are actually 4 steps to heaven. These are not sequential – they are alternatives. Cave sets out these four approaches to the life everlasting in his 2012 book  Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilisation.

These are:

1) Survival by staying alive. The individual aims to extend the lifespan by healthy living/good diet etc. In effect this is about holding back death for as long as possible. We are here in the territory of alchemy and elixirs. This approach also includes modern techniques such as cryonics (

2) Survival through bodily resurrection. The individual, by the exercise of religious faith, hopes to be re-born in a rejuvinated and eternal version of their existing body. Some readings of the Old and New Testaments are cited to support this. Expectations of this sort emerge in many of the world’s religions (Cf.

3) Survival of the soul. The individual, by the exercise of religious faith, hopes that their incorruptible soul will be released from the body at death and enter paradise for eternity. The idea was expressed poetically by Hamlet when he expects to “shuffle off” his “mortal coil” (the body being entangled in suffering and strife). With the body disposed, the diamond hard enduring ‘soul’ remains. Mainstream theologies in Judaism, Christianity and Islam hold to this doctrine.

4) Survival through leaving a legacy. The individual rejects the previous 3 approaches as delusionary but hopes that their creative efforts in this life will leave a positive and lasting legacy. William Wilberforce, for example, ‘lives on’ in the sense that slavery is abolished by law almost throughout the entire world. The biggest effort that the vast majority of people make towards a legacy is by having children. Their nature drives them to it. What else could explain the continuance of the species?

The author’s central contention is that it’s our very preoccupation with defying mortality that drives civilization. In drawing back the curtain on what compels humans to ‘keep on keeping on’, Cave engages the reader in a number of mind-bending thought experiments.  He teases out the implications of each immortality gambit, asking, for example, how long a person would live if they did manage to acquire a perfectly disease-free body. Or what would happen if a super-being tried to round up the atomic constituents of all who’ve died in order to resurrect them.  Or what our loved ones would really be doing in heaven if it does exist.  Or what part of us actually lives in a work of art, and how long that work of art can survive.

These are all deeply unsettling thoughts and are added to by others – What would happen if tomorrow humanity discovered that there is no life but this one? Would people continue to care about their favourite sports team, please their boss, vie for the title of Lanark’s Model Citizen? Would three-hundred-year projects still get started?  If the four paths up the ‘Mount of the Immortals’ lead nowhere – if there is no getting up to the summit – is there still reason to live? Can civilization, indeed, survive? All things considered, is immortality that appealing after all? See if you agree with Stephen Cave. Enquire at your local library or available at

Really get down to the hard core logical problems about immortality by embarking on Survival and Disembodied Existence (1970) by Terence Penelhum. Enquire at your local library or available at

Go on to the excellent Death and the Afterlife (2013) by Samuel Scheffler. Suppose you knew that, though you yourself would live your life to its natural end, the earth and all its inhabitants would be destroyed thirty days after your death. To what extent would you remain committed to your current projects and plans? Would scientists still search for a cure for cancer? Would couples still want children? Scheffler poses this thought experiment in order to show that the continued life of the human race after our deaths – the “afterlife” of the title – matters to us to an astonishing and previously neglected degree. Indeed, Scheffler shows that, in certain important respects, the future existence of people who are as yet unborn matters more to us than our own continued existence and the continued existence of those we love. Without the expectation that humanity has a future, many of the things that now matter to us would cease to do so. By contrast, the prospect of our own deaths does little to undermine our confidence in the value of our activities. Despite the terror we may feel when contemplating our deaths, the prospect of humanity’s imminent extinction would pose a far greater threat to our ability to lead lives of wholehearted engagement. Scheffler further demonstrates that, although we are not unreasonable to fear death, personal immortality, like the imminent extinction of humanity, would also undermine our confidence in the values we hold dear. His arresting conclusion is that, in order for us to lead value-laden lives, what is necessary is that we ourselves should die and that others should live. The book concludes with commentary by four distinguished philosophers – Harry Frankfurt, Niko Kolodny, Seana Shiffrin, and Susan Wolf – who discuss Scheffler’s ideas with insight and imagination. Scheffler adds a final reply. Enquire at your local library or available at This is one for any mortal to read.

Into your stride now, reach for Thinking Clearly about Death (1998) by J.F. Rosenberg. Topics discussed are: Life After Death; The Limits of Theorizing; The Limits of Imagination; Death and Personhood; Values and Rights; Mercy Killing; Prolonging Life; Rational Suicide; and One’s Own Death. Lucid and invigorating stuff. Enquire at your local library or available at

Do provide yourself with the exceptionally useful anthology edited by Paul Edwards (1997) Immortality. This covers topics of soul and body, transmigration, materialism, epiphenomenalism, physical research and parapsychology, reincarnation, disembodied existence, and much more. A 70-page editorial introduction offers an in-depth discussion of the forms which the fantasy has taken. There are then selections from Thomas Aquinas, A.J. Ayer, Paul and Linda Badham, John Beloff, C.D. Broad, Joseph Butler, Rene Descartes, C.J. Ducasse, Paul Edwards, Hugh Elliot, Antony Flew, John Foster, Peter Geach, John Hick, John Hospers, David Hume, William James, Raynor Johnson, Immanuel Kant, John Locke, Lucretius, Donald MacKay, John Stuart Mill, Derek Parfit, Plato, H.H. Price, Joseph Priestley, Thomas Reid, Tertullian, Peter van Inwagen, and Voltaire. You’d almost need eternity to digest it all, but it’s so much well worth it. Enquire at your local library or available at

Given that the world is imperfect and can often seem drenched in suffering and disappointment it is hardly surprising that humans have yearned towards another life. This has taken the form of Utopias. Some of these are located on Earth at some distant place or some distant time. Others are located in the afterlife or some transcendental realm. Bernard Levin (d. 2004,, long time columnist for the Times newspaper and author gives us an amusing Cook’s Tour of these Shangri-Las in A World Elsewhere (1994). Fancy a fantasy tonight? Take your pick. To go with this, listen to the BBC Radio 4 ‘In Our Time’ 30 minute episode on Utopias. Available at the link  With  Anthony Grayling, human rights campaigner, lecturer in philosophy at Birkbeck College, London and Fellow of St Anne’s College, Oxford; John Carey, distinguished critic, journalist, broadcaster, Merton Professor of English, Oxford University and editor of, The Faber Book of Utopias. Chaired by Melvyn Bragg. First broadcast Thursday 7 Oct 1999.  For the book enquire at your local library or available at

For a theologian’s take on the matter reach for  Eternal Life?: Life After Death as a Medical, Philosophical and Theological Problem (1984) by Hans Kung ( Enquire at your local library or available at

If pressed for time read the short articles and be guided by the bibliographies in the IEP at and Stanford Encyclopedia at

 340 pages in Biteback paperback edition

First published 17 April 2012

ISBN  978-1849544931

Stephen Cave

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