The Quest For Immortality

We wish for longer lives because we seek immortality.

We seek immortality because we fear death.

Humans are the world’s apex inhabitants.

Our ability to think symbolically and imagine potential future outcomes made us an unstoppable force.

Humans discovered the skill of abstract reason. With it, we have dominated the planet and even built technology that has allowed us to leave it.

This advance in abstract reasoning came at a considerable cost.

Our leap forward was a discovery of the future.

But in the future, we laid bare our mortality.

The future held only one guaranteed outcome for us; our death.

This would not do.

And so began the quest for eternal life.

All advanced civilisations have attached themselves to a story of afterlife or rebirth. A story where the worldly body decays, but an eternal soul lives on or is reborn. In this way, we achieve literal immortality.

Heaven, Nirvana, and Val Halla are among the destinations of those seeking immortality. The key ingredient to this pathway was religion.

Philosophers from Plato to Descartes have attempted to solve this problem in a secular fashion using the eternal soul.

The alchemists searched for the philosopher’s stone and the elixir of life, hoping to turn base metals into gold and achieve immortality through its regenerative properties.

With the arrival of the enlightenment and Nietzsche's proclamation that:

“God is dead, and we have killed him.”

the option of religious immortality soon decayed.

The scientific method laid waste to alchemy. The philosophers moved on from the ideas of a timeless soul.

However, the mantle of literal immortality was not abandoned.

Contemporary science now aims to take its place with the pursuit of cryogenics and the study of longevity. Longevity researchers such as the charismatic Aubrey de Grey believe that ageing itself is a disease.

A disease we can cure. And by doing so, achieve literal immortality.

Maybe not in this decade, but the future of longevity research holds great promise. Whether it will lead to immortality or step-function increases in our maximum lifespan remains to be seen. But for now, we remain mere mortals.

Achieving literal immortality may not even require the continuation of our biological selves. Ray Kurzweil and others envision the singularity. A time when computer processing speeds and neuroscience will have reached a point whereby our minds can be uploaded in a digital form. We will live forever as immortal digital beings in cyberspace.

The pace of technology is hard to predict, but even if we become cyber beings, I suspect it will be beyond my lifetime.

I do hope I am wrong, of course.

Although the option of literal immortality is fading, most of us still yearn for some form of immortality.

With our lives limited to the briefest moments in cosmic time, we deeply wish to be ‘persons of value in a place of meaning’ and just maybe be remembered after we have gone.

And so, we pursue ‘symbolic’ immortality.

Unable to ‘literally’ live forever, we could make our lives about achieving something that would resonate long after we had died. The significance of our lives would echo far beyond the lives of our corporal bodies.

We aimed to transcend death in other ways.

How would we do this?

1867 Edward Poynter - Israel in Egypt

The American psychiatrist Robert Lifton describes five modes of death transcendence:

  1. Biological - Through children.

  2. Theological - Religion or Soul.

  3. Creative - Works of literature, art or science.

  4. Natural - Being a part of the infinite mystery of the natural world.

  5. Experiential - Transcendence of the self or Ego Death.

We have already discussed theological or religious means to achieve ‘literal immortality’.

Humans have used the remaining four mechanisms to achieve symbolic immortality for millennia.


We have children knowing that although we will die, our offspring will live on when we are no longer here. Hoping that they, too, will continue the unbroken biological chain that stretches back billions of years to our earliest organic ancestors. Our time here may be brief, but we can be reassured that we have been the link that will see humanity endure for many billions of years.


Great works of art and literature also act as a means to symbolic immortality. Long after we have gone, maybe someone will appreciate the beauty of our work and, in a sense, keep our spirits alive. Monuments stand as eternal reminders of great leaders or human achievements. The pyramids of Egypt still stand 4500 years after they were built in homage to the great pharaohs of that time.


The German philosopher Rudolf Otto coined the term ‘numinous’, which is that sense of awe or mystery when we fully experience the natural world. It is the tingle you feel when you look up at the night sky or witness the beauty of a snow-capped mountain in the moonlight. It is that feeling that we are a tiny part of an enormous cosmic dance. A dance we have no true understanding of but an appreciation that humbles us. A sense that we are one with the world. Or at least one tiny piece of a universal symphony that lives on in eternity.


The experiential transcendence of death is the hardest to explain. It goes by many names, including ego death, transcendence or enlightenment. It is an experience so intense and all-encompassing that time and self disappear. There is no ‘I’; there is just the universe and a freight train of significance bearing down upon you. Yogis and mystics have encountered it through meditation. Others have used chemicals known as entheogens, including LSD, psilocybin (magic mushrooms) or ayahuasca, to achieve this state. The entheogen-assisted transcendence experience is typically administered by a guide or Shaman who navigates the journey with you. This process has been scientifically investigated, and participants describe it as one of the most significant experiences of their lives—an experience on par with the birth of a child or the death of a parent. The significance of this encounter persisted for decades after the event.

Jan Swart van Groningen - The Triumph of Death. Creative Commons.

On some level, we all seek immortality.

We do so because we fear death.

To dampen our fear of death, we spend much of our lives in the pursuit of achieving ‘literal’ or ‘symbolic’ immortality.

It is what the American philosopher William James described as:

“The worm at the core”.

It is what motivates much of our lives.

You may have taken a leap of faith and pinned your hopes on literal immortality.

You may have seen the quest for symbolic immortality play out in the actions of your own life.

Regardless of which path you choose, we all live in a world of uncertainty where death looms, and our fear of death drives much of what we do.

We can only live by the words of Ernest Becker, author of 'The Denial of Death':

“To live fully is to live with the awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything”.

But we must always hold this message in contrast to the words of Marcus Aurelius:

“It is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live.”

The dance between these two perspectives is the art of life.

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