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  • Good evening ladies and gentlemen.

  • So I have a question:

  • who here remembers when they first realised 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 occured to me,

  • if he could die, could it happen to me to?

  • 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 you 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 humans' sense of self and of time became sophisticated enough

  • for them to become the first humans 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 Grandad 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 programme 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 grandad.

  • Or any other dead people. But I was scared.

  • And the idea of taking the existential elevator

  • to see my Grandad 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 am 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 then can instead live for ever.

  • 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;

  • and then you compare their behaviour.

  • So you're observing how it biases behaviour

  • 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 then that they came 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 again asked 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 before they were 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 nearly 400 studies is called

  • terror management theory. And the idea is simple, it's just this:

  • we develop our world views, 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 am 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 a 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 a hundred 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 that they now have in common is that they're all dead.

  • (Laughter)

  • So we need a back up plan, and exactly this type of plan B

  • is what the second kind of immortality story offers,

  • and that's resurrection.

  • And it's staged with the idea that I am this body,

  • I am this physical organism,

  • it accepts that I am 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 he rose up and lived again.

  • And the idea that we can all be resurrected to live again is orthodox belief,

  • 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 is advanced enough,

  • you can be thawed out and repaired and revived and so ressurrected.

  • So some people believe an omnipotent God will ressurect them to live again

  • and other people believe an omnipotent scientist will do it.

  • But for others, the whole idea of ressurection,

  • of climbing out of the grave, is 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 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 and 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 dependant 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 Achilies, 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 Achilies 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 family, or tribe, their gene pool.

  • But again there are skeptics, who doubt whether legacy really is immortality.

  • Woody Allen for example, who said,

  • "I dont want to live on in the hearts of my countrymen,

  • I want to live on in my apartment".

  • (Laughter)

  • And if you want to live on in your apartment

  • you need a elixir of course.

  • Which was our first kind of immortality story.

  • 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 reccur 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 ressurrect 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 bias 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 internalise,

  • because exactly this idea of being gone is so difficult to imagine.

  • So two thousand years later another philosopher, Ludovic 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 the book are not afraid of reaching the last page.