Should We Be Afraid Of Death?

May 23, 2014

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode What We Fear.

About Stephen Cave's TEDTalk

Philosopher Stephen Cave delves into the simple question: Why are human beings afraid to die?

About Stephen Cave

Stephen Cave is a writer and philosopher who is obsessed with our obsession with immortality. He's the author of Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization, an inquiry into humanity's irrational resistance to the inevitability of death.

Cave moves across time, religion and history's major civilizations to explore just what drives this instinct. Cave also writes for The Financial Times and contributes to The New York Times, The Guardian and Wired.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

If you think about, like, the things that we're most afraid of, it all comes down to death, right?

STEPHEN CAVE: Exactly. Behind all of these fears, whether it's us being afraid of our plane crashing or a terrible fire or a nuclear war - whatever it is - behind it lurks the reaper.

RAZ: This is Stephen Cave.

CAVE: I'm a writer and philosopher. And I'm interested in the kind of stories we tell ourselves to help us cope with the fear of death.

RAZ: And Stephen's been thinking about those kind of stories since he was a kid. Here's how he opens his TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CAVE: Who here remembers when they first realized they were going to die? I do. I was a young boy and my grandfather had just died. And I remember a few days later lying in bed at night trying to make sense of what had happened - what did it mean that he was dead? Where had he gone? But then the really shocking question occurred to me - if he could die, could it happen to me too? And that's frightening. It's terrifying. And so we look for a way out. And in my case, as I was about 5 years old, this meant asking my mum.

Now when I first started asking what happens when we die, the grown-ups around me at the time answered with a typical English mix of awkwardness and halfhearted Christianity. And the phrase I heard most often was that granddad was now up there looking down on us. And if I should die too, which wouldn't happen of course, then I too would go up there, which made death sound a lot like an existential elevator. Now this didn't sound very plausible. I used to watch a children's news program at the time and this was the era of space exploration.

There were always rockets going up into the sky up into space, going up there. But none of the astronauts when they came back ever mentioned having met my granddad or any other dead people. But I was scared and so I believed it anyway, even though it didn't make much sense.

RAZ: Wow, you were a precocious kid, like, you were destined to be a philosopher.

CAVE: (Laughing) I think all children are philosophers. All children are asking themselves these questions. We make sense of the world by telling ourselves stories. And in particular, we tell ourselves stories to make sense of things that don't otherwise seem to make sense, that defy understanding.

And one of the big problems is of course death. So we tell ourselves these stories to help us cope with the fear of death. And the scene, when we look throughout history, there's been an enormous diversity of different stores. But actually I think when we look closely we see there are just four basic forms that these immortality stores, if you like, can take.

RAZ: Can you tell me a little bit about some of those stories?

CAVE: So the first one I'll call the elixir story because in every culture in human history there is some story of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth that promises we can live forever. But actually if we look back through history, the one thing that always elixir drinkers have in common is they're all now 6-foot under. So we need a backup plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CAVE: And exactly this kind of plan B is what the second kind of immortality story offers. And that's resurrection. It accepts that I'm going to have to die, but says despite that I can rise up and I can live again. But our desire to believe this story is so deeply embedded that we are reinventing it again for the scientific age.

For example, with the idea of cryonics. So some people believe an omnipotent God will resurrect them to live again and other people believe an omnipotent scientist will do it.

But some people are skeptical about the idea of living on as a body, it's so messy. Instead they dream of living on as a soul. Now this is the third basic kind of immortality story, the idea that when you die you can leave your body behind and live on as a spirit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CAVE: But of course there are skeptics who say if we look at the evidence of science, particularly neuroscience, it suggests that your mind, your essence, the real you, is very much dependent on a particular part of your body that is your brain. And such skeptics can find comfort in the fourth kind of immortality story. And that is legacy.

Like Achilles, for example. The great Greek warrior who fought and died in Troy knowing that if he did so he would still be spoken about in years to come. And here we are 3,000 years later telling his story. Or for example, the idea that you can live on through your children or through your nation or through your gene pool.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CAVE: But again there are skeptics who doubt whether legacy really is immortality. Woody Allen, for example, who said I don't want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen, I want to live on in my apartment.

And if you want to live on in your apartment then of course what you need is an elixir, which is our first story. And so we're back to the beginning.

RAZ: I mean, even though we have these stories to help us cope, I mean, the fear of death is sort of - it's like always there.

CAVE: Yeah, these worries go through our minds all the time, there's no question there. And it's a struggle to keep them in perspective. To separate the fear that is natural from the fear that is actually rational. I mean, if you think, for most of the evolution of our species we were in the forest or in the jungle in dangerous situations where really every single day could be our last. We're built to be scared. But we because we've got this massive brains, we can generalize and abstract and so we can worry about things that aren't even right in front of us. And so the sense that one day it's all going to be over is always with us.

RAZ: Is it bad though? I mean, is it like - 'cause death is real. We're all going to meet that end so why is it irrational to have fear about it?

CAVE: Now, this is a very good question because it might seem like if there's one thing that we really ought to be afraid of it's death.

RAZ: Yeah.

CAVE: It doesn't get worse than death. Death is the end of everything we care about. So we ought to be afraid about it, right? Well, on the one hand, I think it's completely natural to be afraid of death.

And on the other hand, it's completely natural to want to live for as long as possible or for as long as you're enjoying life, to keep going. But being afraid of being dead, being afraid of what's on the other side - that is not rational. This is very hard to grasp because we're not very good at imagining not being, just stopping just ceasing to exist.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CAVE: Now, I find it helps to see life as being like a book. Just as a book is bounded by its covers by a beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures. And even though a book is limited by a beginning and end, the characters within it know no horizons.

They only know the moments that make up their story, even when the book is closed. And so the characters of a book are not afraid of reaching the last page. Long John Silver is not afraid of you finishing your copy of "Treasure Island." And so it should be with us. Imagine the book of your life, it's covers, it's beginning and end, your birth and your death. You can only know the moments in between, the moments that make up your life.

It makes no sense for you to fear what is outside of those covers, whether before your birth or after your death. And you needn't worry how long the book is or whether it's a comic strip or an epic. The only thing that matters is that you make it a good story. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

RAZ: Stephen Cave, his book is called "About Immortality." You can watch his full talk at ted.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SCARE ME")

NEW BEAT FUND: (Singing) These things scare me, scare me, scare me. Maybe I'll just close my eyes and hide under my sheets. Politicians and television, find out why you're going to die. Tonight at eleven. Depressed best friends and how the world ends, stock market blah blah blah equals dividends. These things scare me, scare me, scare me...

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to this episode - what we fear. For more, check out ted.npr.org. I'm Guy Raz and this is the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.