Early this year I interviewed Jason Silva, founding producer for Current TV and current host of Still Up. We spoke about his short film, The Immortalists, along with his own take on science’s goal of ending death…forever.
Jason paints a compelling argument. He believes death is an evolutionary flaw that needs to be overcome, rather than satiated by weaker philosophies or religion.
“By labeling death a problem,” he says, “it shifts our complacent attitude about death and turns it into an engineering problem, one that we can solve, much as we have solved impossible problems in the past.”
Since then, Jason’s interview has gnawed at my own personal beliefs on life.
I found similarities in his worldview and my own explorations in Buddhism – both which share the goal of ending our fear of death. Yet, both could not be more different in their approach.
I decided to contact Jason for a follow-up discussion. I start first with my own understanding of the Buddhist’s approach to life, then share Jason’s rebuttal.
The Buddhist: Ian MacKenzie
“Everything changes, nothing remains without change.” – Buddha
The first of the Four Noble Truths, as discovered by the Buddha 2500 years ago, is the realization that “life is suffering.” For this reason, many people believe Buddhism is essentially transfixed with suffering.
But this is not the case. In fact, the second noble truth reveals the origin of suffering: attachment.
Why does attachment cause suffering? Because life is inherently transient. Nothing stays the same; not the birds, the trees, your job, friends, even your own thoughts, moment to moment. Our egos like to believe that we’re individuals, that we have an exalted place in the world.
And so we have a difficult time handling all this transience. We cling to what we enjoy and avoid what we don’t.
This is suffering.
While it’s tempting to believe that most people are affected by mortal anxiety, the knowledge they will die someday, I believe the opposite. I think most people vaguely realize they will die, but they don’t seriously contemplate it until they have a near death experience, or they’re on their deathbed.
So the problem is not quantity of life, but rather quality.
Our egos are not content to live with the present moment, instead we grasp at transient moments, never happy, never content. We can’t remain content for more than 10 minutes, let alone infinite.
For Buddhists, enlightenment is the deep realization that nothing is permanent. To fear death is to actually go against the fundamental law of the universe: everything that arises must pass away.
The goal is to become content with this transience, and therefore, content with life. Suddenly there is no more fear; life becomes eternally now. We aren’t worrying about moments beginning and moments ending.
In contrast, the idea of “living forever” seems the ultimate triumph of the mind (ego) winning over the heart (soul). The mind is so terrified of death it refuses to let the soul go. Life would become eternally static. Like a beautiful painting of a sunset…but nothing like a real sunset.
When you step back and attempt to see reality, to imagine yourself in the larger context of life, you realize that there would be no life without death.
Steve Hagen, a Buddhist author, captures it beautifully:
Pick up a flower – a beautiful, living, fresh rose. It smells wonderful. It reveals a lovely rhythm in the swirl of its petals, a rich yet dazzling color, a soft velvety texture. It moves and delights us. The problem is that the rose dies. Its petals fall; it shrivels up; it turns brown and returns to the earth.
One solution to this problem is to ignore the real rose and substitute a plastic one, one that never dies (and never lives). But is a plastic rose what we want? No, of course not. We want the real rose. We want the one that dies. We want it because it dies, because it’s fleeting, because it fades.
It’s this very quality that makes it precious. This is what we want, what each of us is: a living thing that dies.
Perhaps one day, through science, we will finally be able to preserve the body from dying. What then? We’d still have a lot of unconscious people, who now don’t have the face the ultimate moment of awakening…death.
I’m reminded of a quote from John Steinbeck, who spoke about his own impending death in Travels With Charley:
“I see too many men delay their exits with a sickly slow reluctance to leave the stage. It’s bad theater as well as bad living.”
And so, the fear of death is revealed for what it truly is: the ego’s fear of ceasing to exist. The essence of a human is not contained in the mind. It is temporarily channeled into a body for a moment of existence, before sinking back into the ocean of life. As Osho says:
“You have to pass through fear and accept it as a human reality. There is no need to escape from it. What is needed is to go deeper into it, and the deeper you go into your fear the less you will find it is. When you have touched the rock bottom of fear, you will simply laugh, there is nothing to fear.”
– Ian MacKenzie
The Immortalist: Jason Silva
“The philosophy that accepts death must itself be considered dead, its questions meaningless, its consolations worn out.” – Alan Harrington, The Immortalist.
The mindset of an Immortalist is simple and straightforward: death is an abhorrent imposition on a species able to reflect and care about meaning.
Creatures that love and dream and create and yearn for something meaningful, eternal and transcendent should not have to suffer despair, decay and death. We are the arbiters of value in an otherwise meaningless universe. The fleeting nature of beautiful, transcendent moments feeds the urge for man to scream: “I was here; I felt this and it matters, goddamn it!”
In the face of meaningless extinction, it’s not surprising that mankind has needed to find a justification for his suffering. Man is the only animal aware of his mortality – and this awareness causes a tremendous amount of anxiety.
As a child I wanted to understand the world. Nothing much has changed – the sense of urgency has not dissipated; I’m still running around trying desperately to understand things. To have emerged; to be self-aware, to know that I know that I am; all these things were troubling mostly because they fueled the panic over having some semblance of control over my experience.
I think that when I first understood what love was at a visceral level was when I first grasped the concept of death- death felt real when I pondered losing someone I loved. Imagining that everything and everyone I loved was temporary was unbearable, even as a young child.
This is not to deny that my life isn’t sunny and lusty, packed with fascinating hours; in fact it is. But when we start to grow a little older, when we pause for just a moment, there begins to intrude on all our scenes a faint disquiet.
The psychologist Ernest Becker wrote in his pulitzer prize winning book, “The Denial of Death,” that in the face of an acute and agonizing awareness of his mortality, man has developed three main devices to sustain his sanity. These illusions act as temporary solutions to the problem of death.
The Religious Solution
The Religious Solution invents the concept of God and projects onto him the power to grant us what we all really want: the ability to bestow eternal life on ourselves an our loved ones; to be freed from disease, decay and death.
This belief in an all powerful deity made perfect sense during the dark ages when people lived short, miserable, disease-ridden lives. With no explanation for their suffering, people were better able to bear their hardships by having faith in God and believing, that in the end, their gods would ‘save’ them.
However, the gods never came. Suffering persisted; people lived and people died.
In an age of science and reason, however, the Religious Solution has all but become obsolete. The irrationality of religious dogma has become clear in our modern time of scientific enlightenment, and rather than alleviating our anxiety, it has only served to exacerbate it.
Alan Harrington, wrote in the Immortalist, that “Anxiety increases with education. As we grow more sophisticated, ever more ingenious rationalizations are needed to explain death away.” Man still needs something to believe in.
The Romantic Solution
Enter the The Romantic Solution; the second illusion Becker identifies – when we no longer believe in God, we then turn our lovers into gods and goddesses. We idolize them, write pop songs about being saved by their love, and for a little while we feel immortal; like gods beyond time.
Becker elaborates: “If the love object is divine perfection, then one’s own self is elevated by joining one’s destiny to it.” All our guilt, fear, even mortality itself can be “purged in a perfect consummation with perfection itself.”
When in love, man can “forget himself in the delirium of sex, and still be marvelously quickened in the experience”. We are temporarily relieved from the drag of “the animality that haunts our victory over decay and death.” When in love, we become immortal gods.
But no relationship can bear the burden of godhood. Eventually, ours gods/lovers reveal their clay feet. It is, as someone once said, the “mortal collision between heaven and halitosis.”
This is the revelation we all come to in a romantic relationship when sex is revealed to represent “species consciousness;” a mere process of reproduction in service of propagation, not in service of “man as a special cosmic hero with special gifts for the universe…”
Man is revealed to be a mere link in the chain, with no lasting purpose or significance. Passionate love then tends to transition into housekeeping love; boredom and routine coupled with the impossible standards we have for our lovers collides in a flurry of disappointment, and perfection begins to show its cracks.
This is why most marriages end in divorce and why love doesn’t ever quite seem to last forever.
The Creative Solution
At this point Becker identifies the last illusion man has devised: the Creative Solution. This explains our urge to leave a legacy; to create a great work of art that has lasting impact and value; in essence to create something that carries our signature and lives on after we’re gone.
“This is the artist’s way of scribbling ‘Kilroy was here‘ on the wall of the final and irrevocable oblivion through which he must one day pass,” Harrington explains. This is quite touching and clever, but ultimately fails where it counts: still, everyone dies.
The absurdity and ache of our condition can be summed up by the opening line from the documentary Flight From Death:
“To have emerged from nothing; to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feeling; an excruciating yearning for life and self-expression. And with all this; yet to die. Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. With our minds we have the capacity ponder the infinite, seemingly capable of anything, yet we’re housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body. We are godly, yet creaturely.”
The Immortalist Thesis
The time has come for man to get over his cosmic inferiority complex. To rise above his condition – to use technology to extend himself beyond his biological limitations. Alan Harrington reminds us: “We must never forget we are cosmic revolutionaries, not stooges conscripted to advance a natural order that kills everybody.”
While Ernest Becker identified our need for heroism and our extensive attempts to satisfy it symbolically, Alan Harrington proposes we move definitively to engineer salvation in the real world; to move directly to physically overcome death itself: “Spend the money, higher the scientists and hunt down death like an outlaw.”
While some cry heresy and might gasp in protest at the pretense of ‘playing god’, Harrington simply states: “The truth is, of course, that death should no more be considered an acceptable part of life than smallpox or polio, both of which we have managed to bring under control without denouncing ourselves as pretentious.”
What must be eliminated from the human drama is the “inevitability of death as a result and natural end of the aging process. I am speaking of the inescapable parabolic arching from birth to death–the point is “being alive now, ungoverned by span, cycle or inevitability.”
Alan Harrington also rails against any philosophy that teaches complacency: “All philosophical systems insofar as they teach us sportingly to accept extinction are a waste of time… the wisdom of philosophers may nearly always be found trying to blanket our program to conquer death.”
“Death seems simply to be a return to that unknown inwardness out of which we were born,” state thinkers like Alan Watts.
But Harrington critiques those that embellish ‘nothingness’ as: “Voices preaching false consolation will not help us, no matter how skillfully and soothingly they arrange nothingness. This may be appraised as fine writing, but it serves also to glamorize death, and therefore, in the context of humanity’s mission to conquer death, to weaken and tranquilize our rebellion.”
The Immortalist point of view, then, could be described as a project that uses technology to “Individualize eternity, to stabilize the forms and identities through which the energy of conscious life passes.”
This is hardly a stretch for human beings, as Harrington proclaims: “We have long since gone beyond the moon, touched down on mars, harnessed nuclear energy, artificially reproduced DNA, and now have the biochemical means to control birth; why should death itself, ‘the last enemy’, be considered beyond conquest?”
I want to leave you with this biting and eloquent passage I read somewhere on the internet:
“There is nothing about death that is less than abominable. I am forever bewildered by the placating palaver wasted in efforts to quell this irrational horror. The cessation of all that is, the chasm that devours every memory, every fleeting intellection, every redeeming fragment of meaning and love and lust and friendship and hunger and hopeless vitality, and reduces it all to the inconceivable cosmic ash of nothing – That is my enemy.”
Enjoy your day.
– Jason Silva
In the end, there’s no right or wrong answer. It’s up to the reader to decide based on the evidence, and most importantly, their direct experience of following certain beliefs. Keep what works, and discard what doesn’t.
After all, very soon you may have all the time in the world to ponder life’s big questions…
What do you think of the debate on ending death (and the nature of life)? Share your thoughts in the comments!