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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