Against Terror

You might have thought that terror was a bad thing, especially terror of death, which is why a war on terror would be a good thing (if it worked). But in today’s NYT, Stephen Cave praises terror:

[In] the TV series “Torchwood: Miracle Day,” … the “miracle” of the title is that no one dies anymore, but it proves to be a curse as overpopulation soon threatens. … [This] is right to be pessimistic about what would happen if this dream were fulfilled — but for the wrong reasons. Materially, we could cope with the arrival of the elixir. But, psychologically, immortality would be the end of us.

The problem is that our culture is based on our striving for immortality. … It has inspired us to found religions, write poems and build cities. If we were all immortal, the motor of civilization would sputter and stop. …

Asked to rule on a hypothetical case of prostitution, … judges who had first been reminded of their mortality set a bond nine times higher than those who hadn’t. …
In more than 400 experiments, … results consistently support … Terror Management Theory — that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.

Such systems … are embodied in the pyramids of Egypt, the cathedrals of Europe and even the skyscrapers of modern cities. … We also find the promise of deathlessness … in the accumulation of wealth; … [and in] immersion in a greater whole, whether a nation or a football team; or even in the pursuit of scientific research, with its claim to enduring truth.

… All our death-defying systems, if there were no more death, … would be superfluous. We would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. … Action would lose its purpose and time its value. This is the true awfulness of immortality. Let us be grateful that the elixir continues to elude us — and toast instead our finitude. (more)

So we want something so desperately that we delude ourselves to imagine that we’ll get it, and that makes it bad if we actually get it, because then we wouldn’t delude ourselves?! This seems another bout of insanity triggered by the word “immortality.” Once again, with feeling:

A big part of the problem, I think, is that talk of “immortality” invokes an extremely far view. But finite increases in lifespan really have little to do with immortality. Immortality means you never die, ever. But forever is a really really long time! In fact, nothing you can imagine is remotely as long. … A thousand year lifespan would be fantastic, relative to our lifespan. I want it! But it is nothing like immortality. It would have clear stages, and a very real end to anticipate. (more)

True immortality isn’t remotely an option anytime soon. What might be an option is a dramatic increase in lifespan. But death would remain, and with it a terror of death, and the cultural achievements such terror may inspire.  And if less terror leads to fewer cultural achievements, surely that seems be a price well worth paying!

P.S. Today is my birthday, which I like to call not-dead-yet day.

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  • Happy not-dead-yet day, may you have thousands more.

  • emm_fr

    Happy birthday!

  • What really bothered me about Torchwood is the overpopulation thing – people don’t die of old age *that* fast, and that’s one of the biggest causes. At, what, 50 million a year, that represents a modest increase in *existing* population growth rates.

  • Luke G.

    If I wish you a happy birthday, what am I signalling?

    happy birthday, regardless

  • Happy not-dead-yet day! Thank you for blogging so many interesting ideas over the years!

  • E. H.

    I made extra cash in college by writing papers for other students, and one that comes to mind was on the Picture of Dorian Grey.

    I fell into a similar trap as the NYT writer, and premised the thesis on the idea that Dorian’s predicament was a narrative on the idea that ostensibly No Mortality (physical repurcussions, cause and effect) means no Morality.

    But maybe profit and loss incentives can function just as well with some new, less drastic set of risk and reward than life & death.

    • E. H.

      PS: Happy N.D.Y. day!

  • richard silliker

    Somehow I thought this fitting, a piece from Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce.

    — Pity is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human suffering and unites it with the human sufferer. Terror is the feeling which arrests the mind in the presence of whatsoever is grave and constant in human sufferings and unites it with the secret cause.

  • Lord

    Some are motivated by deadlines, some are not. What would you start today if you had as long as it would take to accomplish it? Lowering the discount rate should increase current values and promote production, not reduce it, though the purpose would likely change since we would do it for ourselves rather than our children and there would be no afterlife, or, it would be afterlife, a heaven or hell of our design. Since the universe is likely finite, there would never be true immortality.

  • Slugger

    I think I understand the dour tone of the program. For the last thousand years, the dominant belief in our world is that we are immortal and after an initial phase we transition to the eternal life. The eternal is dichotomous, and while the exact details are under debate, only some of us make it to Paradise. Life on this earth can be very good, but it is certainly not Edenic. Eternal life on this earth is life in hell. Matt Groening, of course, uses the title ” Life in Hell” for cartoons that show everyday events.

  • Those of us who don’t want to die can reassure those who find that repugnant by pointing out that we’re probably all doomed anyways.

  • blink

    The argument is of a piece with those who lament the lose of obscure artisans, local farmers, and the like even though their replacements make us vastly wealthier. But it is difficult to blame the author: We seem very poorly equipped to think about “forever” (or even very large/small numbers for that matter). That the concept has been co-opted for religious/signaling purposes further muddies our thinking.

    And, of course, happy not-dead-yet day!

  • Albert

    Atheists are the only ones who really believe in death since all religions think something happens after you die, either reincarnation, heaven, limbo, etc…
    I reason that what comes after death has gotta be pretty similar to what comes before birth!

    Oh and congrats for not dying Robin! you gotta work hard in surviving this next year cause I’m finally getting to attend some of your classes.

  • Chris Pine

    I am so glad that you aren’t dead yet.

  • About accident rates, longevity and.. immortality, this could interest you:

  • mjgeddes

    If you’re alive you’re #winning , make sure you keep #winning and you’ll never die


  • Jeffrey Soreff

    Happy birthday!

    I always find arguments like Cave’s bizarre.
    Mortality doesn’t connect me to the future, it disconnects me from it.

    For example, at this point (I’m currently 52), I’m a lot less interested in nanotech that I was back in the 1990s, when it seemed that it might deliver medical applications in time to be useful to me. If we had full diamondoid atomically-precise nanotech right now, it would take more than the ~25 years I have left for it to be applied to medicine (particularly aging) and to make it through the FDA gauntlet.
    Given this, “Apres moi, le deluge” applies and it has stopped making sense for me to look for ways to contribute to that field. (there is, say, a 1% correction to this because of my cryonics arrangements, but that isn’t enough to alter my conclusion).

    “Lord” is right – if we didn’t age, we have a lower discount rate, and would be more interested in long term projects for our own sake.