The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death | Stephen Cave

The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death | Stephen Cave

I have a question: 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? It was like a hole in reality had opened up and swallowed him. But then the really shocking
question occurred to me: If he could die, could it happen to me too? Could that hole in reality open up and swallow me? Would it open up beneath my bed and swallow me as I slept? Well, at some point, all children
become aware of death. It can happen in different ways, of course, and usually comes in stages. Our idea of death develops as we grow older. And if you reach back into the dark corners of your memory, you might remember something like what I felt when my grandfather died and when I realized it could happen to me too, that sense that behind all of this the void is waiting. And this development in childhood reflects the development of our species. Just as there was a point in your development as a child when your sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for you to realize you were mortal, so at some point in the evolution of our species, some early human’s sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough for them to become the first human to realize, “I’m going to die.” This is, if you like, our curse. It’s the price we pay for being so damn clever. We have to live in the knowledge that the worst thing that can possibly happen one day surely will, the end of all our projects, our hopes, our dreams, of our individual world. We each live in the shadow of a personal apocalypse. And that’s frightening. It’s terrifying. And so we look for a way out. And in my case, as I was about five 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 half-hearted 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 the idea of taking the existential elevator to see my granddad sounded a lot better than being swallowed by the void while I slept. And so I believed it anyway, even though it didn’t make much sense. And this thought process that I went through as a child, and have been through many times since, including as a grown-up, is a product of what psychologists call a bias. Now a bias is a way in which we systematically get things wrong, ways in which we miscalculate, misjudge, distort reality, or see what we want to see, and the bias I’m talking about works like this: Confront someone with the fact that they are going to die and they will believe just about any story that tells them it isn’t true and they can, instead, live forever, even if it means taking the existential elevator. Now we can see this as the biggest bias of all. It has been demonstrated in over 400 empirical studies. Now these studies are ingenious, but they’re simple. They work like this. You take two groups of people who are similar in all relevant respects, and you remind one group that they’re going to die but not the other, then you compare their behavior. So you’re observing how it biases behavior when people become aware of their mortality. And every time, you get the same result: People who are made aware of their mortality are more willing to believe stories that tell them they can escape death and live forever. So here’s an example: One recent study took two groups of agnostics, that is people who are undecided in their religious beliefs. Now, one group was asked to think about being dead. The other group was asked to think about being lonely. They were then asked again
about their religious beliefs. Those who had been asked
to think about being dead were afterwards twice as likely to express faith in God and Jesus. Twice as likely. Even though the before they
were all equally agnostic. But put the fear of death in them, and they run to Jesus. Now, this shows that reminding people of death biases them to believe, regardless of the evidence, and it works not just for religion, but for any kind of belief system that promises immortality in some form, whether it’s becoming famous or having children or even nationalism, which promises you can live
on as part of a greater whole. This is a bias that has shaped the course of human history. Now, the theory behind this bias in the over 400 studies is called terror management theory, and the idea is simple. It’s just this. We develop our worldviews, that is, the stories we tell ourselves about the world and our place in it, in order to help us manage the terror of death. And these immortality stories have thousands of different manifestations, but I believe that behind the apparent diversity there are actually just four basic forms that these immortality stories can take. And we can see them repeating themselves throughout history, just with slight variations to reflect the vocabulary of the day. Now I’m going to briefly introduce these four basic forms of immortality story, and I want to try to give you some sense of the way in which they’re retold by each culture or generation using the vocabulary of their day. Now, the first story is the simplest. We want to avoid death, and the dream of doing that in this body in this world forever is the first and simplest kind of immortality story, and it might at first sound implausible, but actually, almost every culture in human history has had some myth or legend of an elixir of life or a fountain of youth or something that promises to keep us going forever. Ancient Egypt had such myths, ancient Babylon, ancient India. Throughout European history, we find them
in the work of the alchemists, and of course we still believe this today, only we tell this story using the vocabulary of science. So 100 years ago, hormones had just been discovered, and people hoped that hormone treatments were going to cure aging and disease, and now instead we set our hopes on stem cells, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. But the idea that science can cure death is just one more chapter in the story of the magical elixir, a story that is as old as civilization. But betting everything on the idea of finding the elixir and staying alive forever is a risky strategy. When we look back through history at all those who have sought an elixir in the past, the one thing they now have in common is that they’re all dead. So we need a backup plan,
and exactly this kind of plan B is what the second kind of immortality story offers, and that’s resurrection. And it stays with the idea that I am this body, I am this physical organism. It accepts that I’m going to have to die but says, despite that, I can rise up and I can live again. In other words, I can do what Jesus did. Jesus died, he was three days in the [tomb], and then he rose up and lived again. And the idea that we can all be
resurrected to live again is orthodox believe, not just for Christians but also Jews and Muslims. 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. That’s the idea that when you die, you can have yourself frozen, and then, at some point when technology has advanced enough, you can be thawed out and repaired and revived and so resurrected. And so some people believe an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again, and other people believe an
omnipotent scientist will do it. But for others, the whole idea of resurrection, of climbing out of the grave, it’s just too much like a bad zombie movie. They find the body too messy, too unreliable to guarantee eternal life, and so they set their hopes on the third, more spiritual immortality story, the idea that we can leave our body behind and live on as a soul. Now, the majority of people on Earth believe they have a soul, and the idea is central to many religions. But even though, in its current form, in its traditional form, the idea of the soul is still hugely popular, nonetheless we are again reinventing it for the digital age, for example with the idea that you can leave your body behind by uploading your mind, your essence, the real you, onto a computer, and so live on as an avatar in the ether. 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, the idea that you can live on through the echo you leave in the world, like the great Greek warrior Achilles, who sacrificed his life fighting at Troy so that he might win immortal fame. And the pursuit of fame is as widespread and popular now as it ever was, and in our digital age, it’s even easier to achieve. You don’t need to be a great warrior like Achilles or a great king or hero. All you need is an Internet connection
and a funny cat. (Laughter) But some people prefer to leave a more tangible, biological legacy — children, for example. Or they like, they hope, to live on as part of some greater whole, a nation or a family or a tribe, their gene pool. 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.” So those are the four basic kinds of immortality stories, and I’ve tried to give just some sense of how they’re retold by each generation with just slight variations to fit the fashions of the day. And the fact that they recur in this way, in such a similar form but
in such different belief systems, suggests, I think, that we should be skeptical of the truth of any particular version of these stories. The fact that some people believe an omnipotent god will resurrect them to live again and others believe an omnipotent scientist will do it suggests that neither are really believing this on the strength of the evidence. Rather, we believe these stories because we are biased to believe them, and we are biased to believe them because we are so afraid of death. So the question is, are we doomed to lead the one life we have in a way that is shaped by fear and denial, or can we overcome this bias? Well the Greek philosopher Epicurus thought we could. He argued that the fear of death is natural, but it is not rational. “Death,” he said, “is nothing to us, because when we are here, death is not, and when death is here, we are gone.” Now this is often quoted, but it’s difficult to really grasp, to really internalize, because exactly this idea of being gone is so difficult to imagine. So 2,000 years later, another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, put it like this: “Death is not an event in life: We do not live to experience death. And so,” he added, “in this sense, life has no end.” So it was natural for me as a child to fear being swallowed by the void, but it wasn’t rational, because being swallowed by the void is not something that any of us will ever live to experience. Now, overcoming this bias is not easy because the fear of death is so deeply embedded in us, yet when we see that the fear itself is not rational, and when we bring out into the open the ways in which it can unconsciously bias us, then we can at least start to try to minimize the influence it has on our lives. Now, I find it helps to see life as being like a book: Just as a book is bounded by its covers, by beginning and end, so our lives are bounded by birth and death, and even though a book is
limited by beginning and end, it can encompass distant landscapes, exotic figures, fantastic adventures. And even though a book is
limited by 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, its covers, its beginning and end,
and 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)

100 thoughts on “The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death | Stephen Cave

  1. Theses questions were Ernest Becker's work from the 60's & 70's. He was the first to write about overcoming death awareness through culture – NOT STEPHEN CAVE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  2. His arguments seems to me so simplistic. He asumes that we all that believe in something that goes beyond death do so because of bias or fear and not by evidence, a common mistake and generalization. Opposition to death do is rational, and we do live to experience being absorbed by the void, it is called dying! The difference with the characters of the book is that we know for sure the book has a limit. Focusing in the obvious "make your life a good story" is silly and lacks of depth to answer the questions of death.

  3. Great presentation, but I think that most of us don't fear death but the process of dying. Only few people die in the sleep, most of us have to go through the process of decay which is often painfull.

  4. Angel of death is a fair one,
    I don't play with big words and use long, meaning less sentences, so here it goes,
    The beauty of death is that it makes people to think twice about what they have done to others in their past, as death get closer to them. All i know if you are straight as an arrow, then you don’t need to be afraid of the Angel of death at all.,How do i know this??? you might ask!! well,, i have seen it a COUPLE OF TIMES IN MY LIFE.

  5. I think the speech could not come up to any conclusion or answer. Anyways, the Holy Books (Quran, Bible) say us the real answers to this question: we are going to be given life again in the eternal life after being judged

  6. You see yourself aging, but in a certain sense you are your entire life, in every moment. We see only "now",that's the illusion. The idea of darkness is scary because we think that in terms of living it.
    However, dying is part of life, so first you learn to think beyond, and first you can live free, really free. Fear of death is natural, but we have the intelligence for understand it, and be owners of every day, of every moment of ourself.
    "Self" is temporary, and relative. We really are parts of All, but "we" (every "I") isn't forever. We must accept the fact that "now" you are a certain shape, but "then" "you" are going to be something else, like a group of white worms for example. And if you respect "yourself", than you respect everything "you" are going to become, because "you" are it already if we don't consider time.
    Why i say "free"? Because when you understand deeply your destiny, than you start to think higher than before.
    Watch yourself at the mirror, and consider that body like what it really is, an expression of everything.

  7. I d recommend reading his book. It s much more comprehensive in its explanations. What s important is the realization that fearing death is irrational because we will not be present, conscious of, being dead. We know, and will only ever know, being alive. Our realization of existence ends with death, thus we will not be present to actually fear it, which is why the fear is irrational. If one puts it another way; for a moment, imagine you didn t know of the concept of death. What would you then have? Only life. And such is it (I believe), with us, only we ve invented a story for what happens after life. A story which makes no sense, seeing as we ourselves will never know it. Savvy?

  8. Or if you want another legacy story, you could accept the death of your consciousness, but know you d exist elsewhere in the universe in which your atoms which temporarily constituted yourself lives on, engaging in reactions of all kinds as a part of the universe.

  9. i dont remember when i learned i would die, that must have been a really early age since i grew up in the funeral industry.

  10. Im now 22 and I have been living in this constant prison of my mind since I was 18. I think about dying and I have that fucked up feeling daily. Its such a waste of my life but the feelings are so god damn profound, they are impossible to ignore. Its a part of life we can't change and that is even more fucked. Oooh well.

  11. I used to be scared of death and was thinking about it all the time,it got to the point to where I was afraid of falling asleep,and then I realized:why would I think about death while I am alive,I wont have to think about it when I am dead,it kinda helped

  12. no one has yet to take away the fear you feel as you die… so don't share nonsense unless it really works… this is way scientists make more money

  13. However I see no comparison between religion/legendary stories and the scientific frauds, cos the way I see it is that we human being utilize our imagination to create religions, stories and the sort, so that we could better deal with the undealable, face the unfacable, it's quite a natural and elaborate way to cope with life, to battle fear, pain, anxiety or whatever it is.

    For example, say there's this person who just lost his beloved little daughter, at the time, a gorgeous little cat came into his door and stayed. He then adopted the cat and adopted the idea that the cat is the reincarnation of his little daughter, so that he could cope with his daughter's death, and emotionally live on.

    What I see is that often times it's a deliberate choice, that we are the storyteller and we are the believers of the stories we tell. It's easy to understand when we are physically ill, we take pills to heal ourselves, but when we're emotionally/mentally not well, we have those cope mechanisms too. That how I see it, and " bias" is the word the ted talker put it.

  14. People are so stupid to say that Death is like before been born? Wtf is that for an argument…first of all I didn’t exist at all before I was birn but now somehow magicaly I am here? How? Was I the lucky sperm cell? Also now that I exist the Universe can work on me meaning that Death won’t be like before I was born.

  15. The primative yapping human ape thinks moving between parallel worlds is death. You fall down in one world version and wake up in any of the other ones.

  16. Death isn’t what gives life meaning to me, Love is more absolute then death would ever be even in death it’s love that all we think about especially for the ones we love most.

  17. he talks about "bias" but is also biased himself, everyone is whether they like it or not. then essentially says that everyone's beliefs are wrong but doesn't give his own ideas on what he thinks happens after death.


  18. There is a significant amount of stupid in this thread. What if you didn't finish what you started? What if the very essence of their lives went unfulfilled?

  19. Ask yourself this. If nothing can come out of nothing and something has to come out of something then surely Religion is believing something that exists. The big bang couldn't have came out of nowhere so it has to come from something science rejects.

  20. I’ll honestly take whatever eternal damnation any religion has to throw at me in favor of nothingness.

  21. there is nothing after you die of course its just like being asleep forever or like how you were before you are born just nothing forever if you think there is something then you are the problem that nothing is being done to fix this there is no god there is no heaven its not fair to die just because you get old

  22. The first hominid who realised he would die would not have been understood by any or very many contemporaries. He would have been doubly lonely as a result. As lonely as a genius of 4 or 5 standard deviations above average in IQ. We can understand the Greek myth of Casandra and how she would have felt when she was cursed with both the gift of prophesy of forthcoming disaster and the disbelief of all around her. Necro (as will name the first personal death aware hominid) would have felt like Casandra.

  23. Well I just wonder why there is such fixation od death in some scientists … if We imagine the counterpossibility that we live forever wouldn't it also be bristling with existential issues – we would be chained to life we don't know what future will bring about, eventually we could get bored with everything that there is, no action would carry any burden , for everything can be eventually be reversed and dissolve in ocean of ethernity . Then Ted would be carrying lectures on "Anxiety of our ethernity, mechanisms of coping" , limited lifespan brings significance to everything we do and become, almost religious one

  24. Read a few Samuel Beckett novels and entertain the idea of what eternal, non stop consciousness might be like. That will easily reconcile most people to a ceasing of consciousness.

  25. The last part scared me… What about the book of the univers ending in a year? The only thing I hope, is that when this boring dramatic book of my life is over, I will not start reading Lovecraft…

  26. When you have a near-death experience and see the key events of your life flash before you, then decade after decade (after coming back) see those events come true, see the political events and private stories of the people around you unfold as you foresaw them, you will then have yet another amulet to wave in the face of Mr. D, only this one will be harder to discount then the others, because you have experienced a world beyond time and space. Of course your bias toward non-belief is a bias nonetheless, and if you are right, well then at least I can be happy my brain gave me the delusion of immortality to bring me the fuzzies that my cardiac arrest denied me.

  27. i fear death becuase when i go i am going to go crying and depressed and freaking out, there going to haveto sedate me, i dont have much faith in a better life.

  28. Science on one hand has had demonstrable exponential progress. On the other hand, religions tell the same old tales with no objective evidence. I think it's an unfair comparison. You could say that people expecting technological immortality might be overly optimistic, or that such technology will escape their lifetime, fine, but it's not like biological immortality is known to be impossible or even implausible. There are a few organisms which have become virtually immortal (biologically) already through evolution alone, such as the so-called "immortal jellyfish."

  29. The best explanation about physical death I ever read, was in The Holy Roman Catholic Bible, in 2 Esdras 7 Verses 75 to 101. *The Soul after Death*.

  30. I learned about death by near death at two. My Id was highly modified. A world without me has never been a crises to my imagination.

  31. The thing is bound harmonic energetics are mechanically measurable are "you" aware of it when the energies return to the Earth's magnetic feild? No one knows. Are those energies deconstructed before other living things use them?

  32. Another important aspect of belief in an afterlife that Cave doesn't mention but that I think is just as important as the anxiety over individual extinction has to do with the concept of universal justice, Judgment Day, the compensatory satisfaction that all the wicked, cruel, corrupt people who have the upper hand in this life will get their eternal comeuppance in the next. I was struck, as a teenager, in my first reading of Nietszche's "Beyond Good and Evil" by his quotation from Tertullian, one of the Fathers of the Christian Church, in which he (Tertullian) gloats over the prospect, when he is dead and gone to heaven, of looking down on the eternal torments of the wicked. It's indeed a bitter pill to swallow to go to the grave with ulcers over the realization that you're a total loser despite all your good deeds and that all the bad people who have lived their success to the hilt will never pay for it. As materially hard as people in the past had it, at least psychologically they were happier than current humanity, in the guarantee not only of eternal bliss (if you were good) but also the spectacle of eternal torment of the wicked.

  33. I fear that no one will care. I know I shouldn't but I feel like I'm just here I feel like nobody would ever really stretch out a limb for me. I fear I will die. Nobody will care, they will continue their daily lives like nothing ever happened

  34. Easy for some people to rationalise this but hard for others. Some of us don’t like the idea of leaving the party. Not so much the idea of not being here, but HOW we leave.

  35. I don't care about cryogenics but i guess we're ignoring natural observations of fish and insects that spring back to life after they're frozen.

  36. Great talk however , I for one trust that Creator God has left us enough facts that more than prove of His existence.

  37. i was afraid of death, then I got cured. Today, my teacher said the meaning of life is to have experiences. Now I'm afraid again.

  38. If I ever have to listen to this guy talk again, I would embrace death happily with a hollow point .45 to the temple. I have never wanted to punch someone in the face so bad.. And to have to tolerate the torment of listening to this asswipe only hear 1 good & valid atheistic argument on top of it ONLY TO HEAR NONE makes me want pay the torment forward. Listening to your speech was equivalent to my hearing of a person being skinned alive. SOW YOUR MOUTH CLOSED

  39. People not believing in life after death is kind of ignorant. Stay with me I'll tell you why.

    Concluding there is no life after death you close the door to the learning process and ignore it, how can anyone look for the truth when actively ignoring anything?

    The second reason its ignorant is we discovered the conservation laws of thermodynamics which describes how energy is not created or destroyed only converted, we utilize electrical and chemical energy within our bodies so we understand that energy can only get converted by entering a state of entropy two systems interact to an inevitable conclusion of thermal equilibrium. This proves consciousness is separate as thermal equilibrium of the energy that powers us is NOT reached until a parameter changes, we notice no change in the energy during life meaning the brain and body is still utilizing electrical and chemical energy. Of course we can say this energy is expelled over life but this is an incorrect assumption as there is no method to release the energy unless death is achieved and if that is the way to truly release all energy to be converted then in an instance of mass genocide the energy given off to be converted should be noticeable but it is not. So the only logical answer is consciousness is separate and if consciousness is separate then it means were have already been converted and the end result was consciousness thus a never ending life should occur.

    The final reason is simply because infinity exist and is unexplained, there is no answer in this world or universe that can conclude an answer of why infinity exists. It is easily observed in real world examples such as the mathematical answer to Pi or the continuum of space. Because infinity exists but has absolutely no physical manifestation then it is really clear that its presence is the largest system of all and is an absolute law that governs everything as an element of it is present in everything, for example there is no end to knowledge as the presence of humans constantly changes variable s within reality and we cause new discovery to happen while causing obsolete information to lay dormant subject to being recalled later or forgotten. The reason it should be deemed an absolute scientific law is it is a state in which we have no influence over and cannot change this makes it the most dominant system in the enter universe. So upon death when the variables change consciousness should interact with the first available system which is the force of infinity. And that force bends our consciousness to its will and the end result should be a continuum.
    Death can never be the end in a world and universe that has infinity in it. It is a defining force and makes true death impossible.

  40. The fact that death sorts everything out is basically the only good aspect of it.

    No matter what anything is or breathed it will all wither away like it wasn’t even there to begin with.

    It’s a sort of morbid beauty to it.

  41. The problem with that experiment is that not all belief systems involving immortality refer to it in a positive light. There are more people than you'd think who wouldn't want anything more than for immortality not to be a reality

  42. Sometimes what I hate most about these speakers, intriguing n thought provoking as their conversation may be, is how much they just probably deliberately ignore the loopholes in their arguments. Yes, our biases affect how we regard death, but everyone does fear death, even if they're aren't biased, bcs of intelligence: it's the worry of leaving things behind, incomplete; not knowing what's next, if there's a next. Animals don't have this fear–perhaps–bcs they dont have human intelligence.

  43. There is a clear explanation to death in the ancient texts.The flesh is vulnerable and therefore must surrender the soul that it may be born again,pending judgement.

  44. What he said is already covered in the Bhagwat Gita. Ignore all the stories and mythology in Hinduism and what you get is an amazing way to live life

  45. I hear this voice in my head consistently that I'm gonna die sufferingly as how my mother died and also how gradually my father is dying each day inch by inch, I don't know why these thoughts keep coming in my mind.
    Regards #Ashishchandrana

  46. Life matters for those who are left behind when someone dies… that feeling of someone suddenly not being here as if they were never here… where did they come from..
    somehow you are a branch of a great imortal tree… a branch of your mother and father… it is like a worm that grows in the front and withers away in the back… but the life and memories remains in the children… so somehow we live on and on through children.. It’s like a leg dies and rots off.. then another leg grows out.. we change bodyparts through life .. cell by cell… we still feel as we are the same person.. we keep memories…
    in some Way by going backwards through time, I come to the conclusion, that the atoms are the clothes of life, and the memories, the ideas, has shaped what we became, and why Would this part vanish completely?
    It does not..
    it makes sense that it keeps up With the dreams it is persuing.. it stays in the Living World.. death is just old clothings getting shredded..
    at least life matters to the World that goes on after we depart..
    did we contribute to the wellbeing of the World …
    if we come back.. what World Will we meet..
    I want to live life, as if I Will come back reincarnated and do my best to make the World a better place to come back to..
    having just this life gives me stress because there are so many things I want to do..
    it just feels so off to believe we are only here for 80 years.. …………..

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