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The Mortality Paradox

“Our overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not.”

“It is quite impossible for a thinking being to imagine nonbeing, a cessation of thought and life,” Goethe, who ceased to be 181 years ago this week, proclaimed as he concluded that “in this sense, everyone carries the proof of his own immortality within himself.” Since the dawn of time, it has been the human instinct to resolve the psychological dilemma by constructing various immortality narratives — one of the hallmarks of our species. In Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization (public library), Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave explores the inner workings of that ancient impulse, inviting us on a mind-bending, intense, at times unsettling and at times deeply comforting journey into the most cavernous quarters of the human psyche.

Cave argues that besides our immortality narratives, what sets us apart from other sentient beings are our highly connected brains and our self-awareness — adaptive developments that have enabled us to foresee different possibilities and make sophisticated plans, but also, in envisioning the future, to grapple with the terrifying prospect of our own demise. He terms this the “Mortality Paradox” and argues that it gives shape to both immortality narratives and civilization itself:

On the one hand, our powerful intellects come inexorably to the conclusion that we, like all other living things around us, must one day die. Yet on the other, the one thing that these minds cannot imagine is the very state of nonexistence; it is literally inconceivable. Death therefore presents itself as both inevitable and impossible.


Both halves of this paradox arise from the same set of impressive cognitive faculties. Since the advent some two and a half million years ago of the genus Homo, the immediate ancestors of modern humans, our brain size has tripled. This has come with a series of crucial conceptual innovations: First, we are aware of ourselves as distinct individuals, a trait limited only to a handful of large-brained species and considered to be essential for sophisticated social interaction. Second, we have an intricate idea of the future, allowing us to premeditate and vary our plans — also an ability unseen in the vast majority of other species. … And third, we can imagine different scenarios, playing with possibilities and generalizing from what we have seen, enabling us to learn, reason and extrapolate.

But while the survival benefits of these faculties are indisputable, Cave argues, they come at a cost:

If you have an idea of yourself and of the future and can extrapolate and generalize from what you see around you, then if you see your comrade killed by a lion, you realize that you too could be killed by a lion. This is useful if it causes you to sharpen your spear in readiness, but it also brings anxiety — it summons the future possibility of death in the present. The next day you might see a different comrade killed by a snake, another by disease and yet another by fire. You see that there are countless ways in which you could be killed, and they could strike at any time: prepare as you will, death’s onslaught is relentless.


We are therefore blessed with powerful minds yet at the same time cursed, not only to die, but to know that we must. … This is the central theme of philosophy, poetry and myth; it is what defines us as mortal. … Since we attained self-awareness, as Michel de Montaigne wrote, ‘death has us by the scruff of the neck at every moment.’ No matter what we do, no matter how hard we strive, we know that the Reaper will one day take us. Life is a constant war we are doomed to lose.

What Cave neglects to mention, of course, is that Montaigne shared not so much a lament over our mortality as one over our preoccupation with it, famously writing that “to lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Still, Cave does consider the second half of the Mortality Paradox — our inability to even conceive of our own obliteration:

The fact is, whenever we try to imagine the reality of our deaths we stumble. We simply cannot envision actually not existing.

He points out that even in trying to imagine your own funeral, or the “dark empty void” of death itself, you’re still present as the observer, the virtual eye doing the envisioning.

We therefore cannot make death real to ourselves as thinking subjects. Our powerful imaginative faculties malfunction: it is not possible for the one doing the imagining to actively imagine the absence of the one doing the imagining.

He cites Freud, who wrote in 1915:

It is indeed impossible to imagine our own death; and whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators. … [Therefore] at bottom no one believes in his own death … [for] in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.

A century after Freud, contemporary science has dissected the inner workings of this quintessentially human phenomenon:

Modern cognitive psychology gives a scientific account of this ancient intuition. Our acceptance of new facts or possibilities depends upon our ability to imagine them — we accept, for example, that playing with matches could cause our house to burn down because this is something we can easily picture. But when our minds come across an obstacle to imagining a certain scenario, then we find it much more difficult to accept. Our own death is just such a scenario, as it involves the end of consciousness, and we cannot consciously simulate what it is like to not be conscious.

(Unless, that is, we were to do as Buckminster Fuller did and conclude that “all phenomena are metaphysical, wherefore … life is but a dream.”)

And while Christopher Hitchens, always the contrarian till the very end, claimed to “love the imaginary struggle,” for most of us, Cave points out, it’s a source of endless cognitive dissonance:

And thus we have a paradox: When we peer into the future we find our wish to live forever fulfilled, as it seems inconceivable that we might one day cease to be. Thus we believe in our own immortality. Yet at the same time we are painfully aware of the countless possible threats to our being. . . . And thus we believe in our own mortality. Our very same overblown intellectual faculties seem to be telling us both that we are eternal and that we are not, both that death is a fact and that it is impossible.


The paradox stems from two different ways of viewing ourselves — on the one hand, objectively, or from the outside, as it were, and on the other hand, subjectively, or from the inside. When we deploy reason to view ourselves as we do other living things around us, then we realize that we, like them, will fail, die and rot. From this outside, objective perspective, we are mortals. But when we switch to our own perspective and try to make sense of what this means subjectively, then we encounter the imaginative obstacle — the inability to accept the prospect of annihilation. Our introspection tells us we are imperishable as the angels, indivisible and everlasting; yet when we look in the mirror we see ourselves as others see us … an imperfect and impermanent creature fated to a brief existence. . . .

But while the friction between these two perspectives might explain how the Mortality Paradox arises, Cave argues, it doesn’t make light of the fact that most of us don’t live with the constant, all-consuming tension such a conflict might suggest. Henry Miller’s timeless words — “The aim of life is to live. . . . No why or wherefore…” — reverberate as we amble along the increasingly dimly lit corridors of existence.

From ancient mythology to today’s dominant world religions to modern scientific models like Terror Management Theory, the remainder of Immortality explores precisely how we’ve enlisted storytelling in weaving powerful immortality narratives that lift us out of our cognitive dissonance and, in the process, lay the very groundwork for human civilization.

Thanks, Filip; public domain images via Flickr Commons


In Which Bertrand Russell and George Bernard Shaw Collide on Their Bicycles

“Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been.”

“How many intellectuals does it take to crash two bicycles?” asks Craig Brown in Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings (public library) — the same wonderful daisy chain of famous encounters that gave us Rudyard Kipling’s warm memories of Mark Twain and Walt Disney’s copyright contentions with Igor Stravinsky — before introducing us to a calamitous encounter between George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell. And, yes, it does involve bicycles.

Brown chronicles the unusual encounter, which took place in September of 1895, while the two then-young men were visiting the socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at their house in Monmouthshire:

Though aged twenty-nine, he is still learning to ride a bicycle, and is doing so with a recklessness at odds with his usual physical timidity. He regularly falls off at corners, simply because no one has satisfactorily convinced him of the need to lean into them. Faced with a steep downhill slope, he places his feet on the handlebars, and is then unable to steady himself when he hits a bump. Whenever he falls off his bicycle, which is often, he never admits to a mistake, behaving as though it had always been his intention.

“Many of his falls, from which he would prance away crying ‘I am not hurt,’ with black eyes, violet lips and a red face, acted as trials for his optimism,” notes his biographer, Michael Holroyd. “The surgery afterwards was an education in itself. Each toss he took was a point scored for one or more of his fads. After one appalling smash (hills, clouds and farmhouses tumbling around drunkenly), he wrote: ‘Still I am not thoroughly convinced yet that I was not killed. Anybody but a vegetarian would have been. Nobody but a teetotaller would have faced a bicycle again for six months.’ After four years of intrepid pedalling, he could claim: ‘If I had taken to the ring I should, on the whole, have suffered less than I have, physically.'”

Also staying with the Webbs was up-and-coming philosopher Bertrand Russell, twenty-three at the time. Years later, he would come to use the bicycle — like Steve Jobs famously did — as frequent metaphor for his intellectual arguments. In the 1926 treatise Education and the Good Life, for instance, he offers learning to ride a bicycle as an example of overcoming fear by acquiring skill.

But on that particular September afternoon, the bicycle carried an urgency of a far more practical nature for Russell and Shaw, who could’ve used this vintage bike safety manual. Brown details the farcical incident:

The two spindly intellectuals set off on their bicycles through the rolling hills of Monmouthshire. Before long, Bertrand Russell, slightly out in front, stops his bike in the middle of the road in order to read a direction sign and work out which way they should head. Shaw whizzes towards him, fails to keep his eyes on the road, and crashes right into the stationary Russell.

Shaw is hurled through the air and lands flat on his back “twenty feet from the place of the collision,” in Russell’s empirical estimation. Following his normal practice, Shaw picks himself up, behaves as though nothing is wrong, and gets back on his bicycle, which is, like him, miraculously undamaged.

But for Russell, it is a different story. “Russell, fortunately, was not even scratched,” Shaw tells a friend, adding mischievously, “But his knickerbockers were demolished.” Russell’s bicycle is also in a frightful state, and is no longer fit to ride. Russell says of his assailant: “He got up completely unhurt and continued his ride. Whereas my bicycle was smashed, and I had to return by train.”

Shaw, true to his bravado, reinforces his “victory” in a rascally demonstrative manner:

The train is extremely slow, so Shaw is easily able to outpace it. Never one to let tact get in the way of comedy, he pops up with his bicycle on the platform of every station along the way, putting his head into the carriage to jeer at Russell. “I suspect that he regarded the whole incident as proof of the virtues of vegetarianism,” suggests Russell sixty years later.

Their relationship never fully recovers, though it bumbles on for half a century or so. Russell concludes that, “When I was young, we all made a show of thinking no better of ourselves than of our neighbours. Shaw found this effort wearisome, and had already given it up when he first burst upon the world. My admiration had limits … it used to be the custom among clever people to say that Shaw was not unusually vain, but unusually candid. I came to think later on that this was a mistake.”

The rest of Hello Goodbye Hello goes on to recount such similarly riveting encounters between luminaries like Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin, Maxim Gorky and Leo Tolstoy, Andy Warhol and Jackie O, J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway, and a wealth of others.


Iconic Painter Agnes Martin on Art, Solitude, and the Secret of Happiness

“Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.”

Agnes Martin (March 22, 1912–December 16, 2004) — legendary abstract painter, revered minimalist, celebrated reconstructionist — would have celebrated her 101st on March 22nd. She has arguably done for modern art what John Cage has for music. In this short 1997 interview by Chuck Smith and Sono Kuwayama, an 85-year-old Martin shares her wisdom on art, solitude, and the secret of happiness. Highlights below.

Martin makes a case for finding your purpose and doing what you love:

There are so many people who don’t know what they want. And I think that, in this world, that’s the only thing you have to know — exactly what you want. … Doing what you were born to do … That’s the way to be happy.

Adding to history’s famous definitions of art and echoing Susan Sontag on music, Martin observes:

Art is responded to with emotion … and the best art is music — that’s the highest form of art. It’s completely abstract, and we make about eight times as much response to music than any of the other arts.

She admonishes against the egocentricity of the artist:

The worst thing you can think about when you’re working is yourself.

Seconding Maira Kalman on the value of the empty brain, Martin professes:

I’m an empty mind. When something comes into it, you can see it.

She echoes Hemingway’s insistence on solitude:

The best things in life happen to you when you’re alone.

Complement with Martin on pride, failure, and happiness and how to cultivate the optimal environment for creative work.


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