In the first part of our interview with Stephen Cave, he talked about how, once we decide that we are fundamentally different in kind from the other animals, we can then view them as having a lower moral status, and how that, in turn, opens up “a whole world of possibilities for how we treat them.”
In this second part, he talks about how we need to develop a new world view and a new kind of “story” that we tell ourselves to describe who and what we are. It would be a story that can replace the increasingly destructive one we tell ourselves about how we’re a separate and superior creation whose mission is to take “dominion” over the other animals and to “subdue the Earth.”
Michael Mountain: So, what might be the kind of worthwhile and productive story that we should be telling ourselves about who we are and how we should be living our lives? And obviously not one that we are just making up, but one that combines the truth about who we are as mortal, physical animals, while giving us a sense of how to live in a constructive way with all the other animals.
Stephen Cave: Yes, exactly. This is our challenge: to come up with a story that is satisfying for us emotionally and can help us to do the right thing in terms the ecosystem on which we depend and at the same time actually reflect the facts as we know them. Putting these three things together is quite a puzzle.
Many great thinkers in the last hundred years have given up on the Judeo-Christian narrative. Ernest Becker, the great anthropologist who developed the theory of death denial and its role in our culture and in our relationship to animals, really despaired of us being able to construct a true and yet positive and inspiring and helpful story.
M.M.: But there are certainly people who have come to terms with their mortality and with the fact that we are animals and just one species among others.
S.C.: Yes, and that is at least a basis for us to be able to start having a more humane relationship with other creatures. It’s worth remembering that there was a long period in the ancient world before Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire when most people were basically atheists and had a world view that many of us today would recognize and feel comfortable with.
In traditions like Stoicism and Epicureanism, people accepted that it is irrational to be afraid of death. If you see us humans as altogether separate from the rest of the physical world, then it’s understandable that we might be anxious about death because we don’t know what comes next. But if you accept that we are living things like all the others, then you can accept that we will never actually experience death.
The Roman philosopher Epicurus said death is nothing to us because when we are here death is not, and when death comes we are gone. He was perhaps the first person in history to say that we do not need to be afraid of death. It’s instinctive and natural, but it’s not rational.
Another philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein, said that death is like a horizon; it’s not an event in life, and we won’t actually experience it. Even though our instincts are raging against accepting our mortality, our animality, our creatureliness, we can remind ourselves that it isn’t anything to be afraid of and we can rejoice in our kinship with other creatures and the beauty and wonder of the natural world. And that can be the start of a more positive and more accurate relationship to other species.
M.M.: Perhaps we can even go a step further when you see and experience the cycles of life going on all around you and can understand that you’re part of something much bigger. Part of our fear is motivated by the fact that we feel like individuals who are kind of locked in our own individual consciousnesses, instead of realizing that I’m just a part of something much bigger. You can have a certain level of comfort with that In our modern Western view of ourselves, everything is about self-fulfillment. But when we see ourselves as part of a greater whole, our own individual death seems less important.
S.C.: I agree completely. Particularly in the Western tradition of the way we tell ourselves immortality stories, that we are individual souls, we are going to live on individually and we will be judged individually and go to heaven or hell.
In our modern Western view of ourselves, everything is about self-actualization and self-fulfillment. There are other traditions such as Buddhism and Taoism which say that the self – and actually our separateness itself – is a kind of illusion. When we see ourselves as part of a much greater whole, our own individual death seems less important.
It’s difficult for those of us who live in cities in a very individualistic world to really understand the power of this view, but for people living in more traditional societies this is very much part of their lived reality and a great comfort.
M.M.: In today’s world, of course, we’re no longer having to come to terms just with our individual death, but with the possibility of mass extinction that could include our whole species. That’s a whole other kind of quandary.
S.C.: Yes, and it reveals a deep paradox. Ultimately life on Earth is going to end. Whether it is our fault or because the sun expands and swallows the earth, it is going to end. But people find deeply meaningful experiences in the natural world. Just watching a bumblebee going about its business or a flower growing and birds coming to feed can all bring great happiness. It gives meaning to our own lives as well. When we get out into nature, it shows us a way to accept death and at the same time rejoice in life.
There is a great deal of evidence that people who engage with other creatures and the natural world benefit in all sorts of ways such as less stressful, less depressed, and can concentrate better.
M.M.: And then there’s the matter of how we relate to each other. Most of the news these days is just a litany of terrorist attacks and school attacks and wars and atrocities. Some of these wars are about competition for water and other resources, of course. But how does our quest for immortality, and our denial of death and our insistence that we are not animals relate to all the fighting and killing that’s going on? People who can accept that this is the one life they have are more likely to make an effort to preserve it and less likely to go off to war.
S.C.: Each of our various world views contains some kind of immortality story, some story about why death is not what it seems. So when different world views clash, there are very high stakes.
[Our wars] are not just about life here and now, they’re about forever. All wars become holy wars, if you like. And in any conflict where people feel like they are defending their world view, they can be willing to sacrifice everything in the here-and-now, because the prize is much greater than the here-and-now.
If you look at recent terrorist attacks, particularly suicide bombings, these are people who are willing to sacrifice their lives and the lives of others for this greater prize as they see it. They believe they are getting a place in heaven. But if people can accept their mortality, that this is the one life that they have, they are more likely to make an effort to preserve it, and less likely to go off to war.
M.M.: How would you sum up the two world views that are currently competing as immortality projects – between what we might call the West and Islamism?
S.C.: The Islamic world view is, in fact, not very different from the modern Western view. They both have the problem of Abrahamic religions which is a certain type of dogmatism. People see their own interpretation of a particular text as absolute and believe they are promised a place in the afterlife if they go to war to defend this world view. I don’t really see the clash between Christian culture and Islam as a clash of two different world views at all. They seem very similar to me.
In the countries I know best, Britain and Germany, the people who are complaining about Islam are really talking about people whose values are very much like the values their own grandparents had when their grandparents took Christianity seriously.
People who are more ecologically minded and willing to see themselves as part of nature, and who are willing to widen their circle of concern to all humans and other species, have a radically different world view from, say, Christians and Muslims.
M.M.: They are not at war though.
S.C.: Not all world views have the same propensity to war. If you are going to widen your circle of concern to include oak trees or sharks, then it certainly includes all humans.
I’m not saying that anyone who believes in an ecological or environmental cause will be unwilling ever to harm a human. Human nature is what it is, but a more ecological world view means seeing other humans as being part of our family, part of our circle of moral concern, as well as others species, too.
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Stephen Cave is the author of “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization.” Here’s his TED talk on the how we pursue the quest.