Like I said in my post "We can never be dead (but we're not immortal," in his book Stephen Cave does an excellent job of describing ways we humans attempt to achieve immortality -- then showing why they aren't up to the job.
Staying alive... we can try to make our years on Earth as many as possible, but it's obvious that everybody dies eventually.
Resurrection... Jesus supposedly did it, but there's no solid evidence of this, and no proof anyone else has pulled off the trick either.
Soul... nice idea, that a conscious non-physical aspect of us continues on after the body dies, but the getting-hit-on-the-head argument effectively demolishes the notion that consciousness isn't dependent on the brain.
Which leaves Legacy, the approach to immortality I've been reading about the past few days.
I've always been skeptical of relying on some legacy to make sure that I exist forever ever since I heard Woody Allen's apt "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work... I want to achieve it through not dying."
Yeah, me too.
That's why I believed in soul, reincarnation, and such for over thirty years. I much preferred the idea of me living on as me, compared to me living on through blog posts, books, professional achievements, tree plantings, child/grandchild, memories in the heads of others, and so on.
In that last sentence I mixed together several sorts of Legacy, symbolic aspects like writings that came from my brain, and biological aspects that came, um, from lower down in my body.
Regarding the latter, my child and grandchild, Case talks about how we humans are related to other living things and arguably can't be considered as separate from the Life that permeates our planet.
In evolutionary terms, it is not long ago that all humans had a common ancestor -- a mere two hundred thousand years. A more positive ideology based on the biological Legacy Narrative would encompass the whole human race as our immortality vehicle. And indeed there are idealists, such as Einstein and Linus Pauling, who advocated just this.
But why stop at humans?
... A few simple creatures that started replicating a very long time ago have covered the earth with a tissue of life -- the biosphere -- all of which is profoundly interconnected. The question is, can any of these super-macro perspectives of nation, species, or biosphere provide a plausible immortality vehicle -- one that might even solve the problem of consciousness?
...The Gaia hypothesis is the claim that our entire planet is an integrated system that regulates itself in a way that is conductive to life.
...From this super-macro perspective, the human quest for personal immortality looks increasingly like a kind of mix-up. Individual humans are merely temporary forms taken by the single, shifting web of life on earth. To suggest one should live forever is like trying to preserve the shape of a particular dune in the shifting sands of a desert.
If humans are not really separate things, then their births and deaths are also not real, but simply one way of seeing the rhythms of life.
[Lynn] Margulis thinks so: "Death is illusory in quite a real sense," she writes. "As sheer persistence of biochemistry, 'we' have never died during the passage of three thousand million years. Mountains and seas and even supercontinents have come and gone, but we have persisted."
I like this way of looking upon life. My life isn't mine. Never was, isn't now, never will be. I'm an integral part of a much greater Life from which I bloomed, and which will live on long after I'm gone.
Cave says that the biological Legacy Narrative "dissolves you into a greater whole; it releases you from the struggle to become someone special, emphasizing instead the natural connectedness and continuity of being."
This strikes me as a naturalistic, non-mystical sort of enlightenment: an existential realization that nobody is an island, an isolated part that is born, lives, and dies alone, disconnected from all the life that has come before and will live on after.
It's a form of family consciousness described by Cave in an earlier section of his book. Except, the family with which we identify isn't just our recent human relatives, but the entire spectrum of life on Earth.
This is a worldview that would also be instantly recognizable to people from China, Japan, Korea, and many parts of Africa. ...It offers a strong sense of collective immortality, in which the particular person recognizes that he or she is a part of an ancient and continuing whole. For people in such societies the conclusion that we are a mere link in a chain of life would not have come as a surprise at all, but rather reflected a deep, lived reality.
Sure, this isn't the sort of immortality most people visualize when they imagine themselves living forever. But hey, likely it's the best we're going to be able to do if we've got a craving for eternal life. Or at least, super long life (life on Earth has been around for over four billion years).
We like to think of ourselves as a separate self. However, what if each of the cells that make up my body thought this way? Would that make any sense? Maybe just as much as me thinking that I'm an individual entity who is born, lives, and dies.
Stephen Cave writes:
It might seem obvious that a human is something over and above a lump of individual cells. But if this seems obvious when looking at a fully grown human being, it is much less obvious when looking at a newly conceived one.
The fact is, you were quite literally once a single cell: you started out as the fusion of an egg cell produced by your mother and a (much smaller) sperm cell from your father.
...As it grew, this clump of cells slowly acquired new abilities as a collective, over and above what an individual cell could do alone -- such as the capacities to do math and make music. This clump can also produce further cells -- eggs or sperm -- that are capable of fusing with another cell to produce a whole new clump carrying 50 percent of the first clump's genes.
...Therefore from the point of view of your genes, traveling the world in their little cells, the chain of life looks unbroken from generation to generation.
...From this perspective the history of life does not look like a series of discrete organisms that live and die but rather an unbroken chain of splitting and fusing cells, driven by busily replicating genes.
...You live on in your children because you are not really the distinct individual that you think you are; you are just a widening of a chain of life that is billions of years old and has no end in sight. Talk of you as a particular person with a date of birth and one day a date of death is therefore just a convenient shorthand.