The prospect of achieving human immortality through scientific and technological advancement is not alien to the annals of science fiction, and frighteningly enough it will soon no longer be an issue of science fiction. The scientistic view that human beings will find in Science the kind of salvation one looks for typically in religion is extremely hopeful and unhealthy – it is unhealthy not because it is hopeful, but because it is vacuous. I think it appropriate, being Lent, that a few points should be made about this whole issue apologetically, as a counter-cultural response to the movement towards technological Soteriologies.
The first is that death invites the question of meaning and God in its most pressing form. When one is faced with their own mortality in such a way that they can no longer evade the issue, one is forced to come to terms with themselves. One is forced to examine their lives, wondering not only about regrets, but also about meaning – and these questions are not desperate confusions but rightly ordered natural questions. The death-bed brings with it a clarity and sobriety; there are few sins that one chooses to commit on one’s death bed because even though there is less and less time to regret anything, the existential angst of having regrets is more and more highlighted. Therefore, if one lives according to a religious worldview (normally), or according to normative pre-modern philosophy, they are deciding to live as though they are on their death bed already. The Christian religion is perhaps the most radical example, since Christ, the figurehead, actually calls people to die to themselves, and then, being already dead, to live to God (the life expected in the hereafter) already. What licenses this attitude in Christianity is precisely the resurrection, in which God, in the person of Christ, has already inaugurated the kingdom of God here on earth, and has set in motion his dynamic process of new creation. Death, therefore, is the existential foundation of religion, and resurrection is the solution which Christianity offers in response. Death, is thus the existential starting point for ethics on Theism. The question “why bother being good” is curiously answered with “because you will one day die” – more specifically the confrontation of the fact that we will die invites us to find meaning in something which transcends corruption, and this is where transcendental ethics come from (as Nietzsche recognized). The denial of such trascendentalism of course tempts one towards existential nihilism, which is precisely why the inevitability of death seems to imply moral indifference on Atheism. Of course I am not saying that there are no clever atheistic systems of ethics, but I am claiming that such systems are without ultimate justification. Imagine that the whole world was going to end in three minutes from now – what good reason is there not to tell somebody a lie which will make them feel good, or to rape somebody if it will make you feel good? It isn’t simply a matter of accountability, but rather a matter of balancing pleasure and pain. One’s altruism, ultimately, is misplaced if it is oriented away from personal benefit (that was Ayn Rand’s insight).
As William Lane Craig, in a recent podcast, has asked rhetorically – [paraphrase] What if you were given the choice to have all of your memory or self-constitutive cerebral information copied and uploaded into a machine, and then the doctor tells you “there you have it, once the transfer is complete ‘you’ will be stored in this form over there, and therefore we can dispose of your body; you’re now immortal – There remains a sense in which you would naturally feel as though you were about to die, even if somehow your consciousness was duplicated elsewhere. In other words, personal identity is not fundamentally found in the amalgam of psychological features belonging to any given cognizer. Even if one’s whole psychological-situation were replicated and stored elsewhere, one would still think that the prospect of destroying the current cognizer’s body would be to ‘kill’ the person.
A response to this might go something like what follows: perhaps if consciousness were itself transferable to an altogether different ‘body’, there would be a possibility of transferring consciousness from one body to another. One can at least imagine that they go to sleep in one form, and wake up in an entirely different form (it seems to be logically possible). Perhaps another similar roundabout could be replacing physical body parts through a series of successive operations until eventually not a single piece of brain-matter or surrounding corruptible tissue remains original, and in its stead there exists all the necessary ‘tissue-substitute.’ Alternatively, what if one were to undertake such a project as part of their medical care when dying in old age? One might think they can simply live out their last weeks knowing that they will soon experience physical death, while having the assurance that they will in some real sense ‘live on’.
These solutions are interesting thought experiments, but they don’t ultimately seem to help dissolve the fundamental problem. Consider in the third solution that a person who is facing the prospect of death is existentially facing the prospect of death for themselves. In other words, that person’s last weeks are in an existential sense really their last weeks. It does no good to be told that somewhere else there is a conscious state identical to yours in every way which will live on, if you will not live on. In fact it does no more good than the idea that a significantly infinite set of universes which exist in some multi-verse construct ensure that there is some real universe in which some subject perfectly identical to you will not die as soon as you will. The first two solutions to the problem of death only really prolong the inevitable, since no material thing is incorruptible. Moreover, since the composition is always possibly decomposed, death is always a lingering possibility. Therefore, these treatments no more cure death than a doctor who saves a patient from dying has cured her from the condition of mortality.
Moreover, ultimately all such attempts to prolong death inevitably are not germane anyway, since, as cosmologists tell us, the Universe is facing inevitable heat death after which no form of sustainable life will be allowed to continue existing. This physical reality itself incredulously stares all Naturalistic Soteriologies down, and reduces them to dust.
Finally, there is a point to be made about what some philosophers have called Metaphysical evil, as opposed to either Moral or Natural evil. Moral evil concerns all those evils which arise as a result of the regrettable exercise of Free Will (at least generally, though some cases may be exceptions, as I may freely will to do something like drive a bus when it entails crushing an animal or a child placed under the bus without my knowing it, in such cases my Free Will was not exercised towards the end it entailed). Natural evil, by contradistinction, concerns all the occasions of evil which result from operative natural forces which are morally blind, such as earthquakes or avalanches. Metaphysical evil, then, has to do with the way the world was created such that Natural and Moral evils are possible. For instance, why must a world created by God involve hurricanes, volcanoes and even the inevitable collision of galaxies, not to mention the oncoming heat-death of the entire universe. Here, I think an appropriate response is to note that in a fallen world such possibilities are there precisely to ensure the inevitability of death, and thus the world by its very nature presses the question of death.
In conclusion, all Naturalistic solutions to the problem of death are helplessly naive. They, at best, prolong the inevitable unnaturally, and thus seem to push the problem back. The basic human problem which invites the phenomenon of both religion and philosophy is the recognition of the reality and inevitability of death, and the subsequent search for meaning and Ultimate truth (Ultimate here is intended in the same sense defined by Frederick Streng). Thus, on Ash Wednesday, when we received the ashes on our foreheads, we ought to remember this central theme of the Lenten season:
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.’