Although “in their developed forms, phantasy-thinking and reality-thinking are distinct mental processes,” wrote psychoanalyst Susan Isaacs, “reality-thinking cannot operate without concurrent and supporting … phantasies.” We might not have calculus without grave goods, or dentistry without the tooth fairy.
The first known written story [Gilgamesh], inscribed on tablets and based on an epic poem from ancient Sumeria, is a tale of a consuming passion for immortality that springs from an overwhelming fear of death.
The mission statement of the twenty-first-century Immortality Institute states that its primary goal is “to conquer the blight of involuntary death.”
Religious faith does indeed serve to assuage concerns about death. Strong faith in God is associated with emotional well-being and low death anxiety. Additionally, after a reminder of their mortality, people report being more religious and having a stronger belief in God.
Otto Rank proposed that the soul is one of humankind’s earliest and most clever inventions, enabling humans to dodge death by perceiving themselves as more than just physical beings. As Rank’s translators put it, “the soul was created in the big bang of an irresistible psychological force— our will to live forever— colliding with the immutable biological fact of death.”
The alchemists were at the vanguard of striving for literal immortality by not dying in the first place, thus bypassing the need for, and uncertainty surrounding, the existence of heavens, afterlives, resurrections, reincarnations, and souls.