The Guardian, UK
13 April 2017
Good Friday seems a suitable day to consider the fact that, in an era in which life expectancy everywhere has almost doubled, humankind is more confused than ever about death. Nearly half of the British population supposes that death is complete annihilation; an almost equal number still believes in some form of life after death, and, for a subject notably lacking in eyewitness data, a surprisingly small proportion, less than 10%, acknowledge they do not know what happens. Meanwhile, in California but also elsewhere, there are enormously rich men who believe that death is a problem with a technological solution which they hope to live to profit from.
Ideals of technological immortality come in two sorts. There are those who hope that their bodies will be preserved or at least prolonged almost indefinitely, usually by freezing. There is absolutely no reason to suppose that the present technology allows brains to be frozen and rethawed without being reduced to a unworkable state. To hope that this will be changed by some future breakthroughs is an act of faith at least as remarkable as supposing that Jesus rose from the dead. That belief was at least marked since its earliest appearance by a saving ambiguity about what it might actually mean. Saint Paul, for example, was absolutely certain it had happened but nowhere managed to explain what it materially might have been.
The second kind of technological immortality presumes an immaterial soul – a pattern of electrical and chemical activity that can be copied from brains into silicon and then reactivated, either inside a computer or transferred back into a conveniently available human brain. Possibly both: one contemporary science fiction novel, Cory Doctorow’s Walkaway, takes the idea of personalities as computer programs to its logical consequence, and envisages multiple copies of the same program – the same person – running simultaneously on different networks. This is the closest anyone will ever get to the fantasy of cloning identical human beings.
These approaches to the afterlife differ from most of the world religions in that they have no moral aspect. Perhaps to the believers it is a moral quality to be rich enough to afford such fantasies, but to the rest of the world it looks like a giant leap backwards. This amoral approach to immortality reaches back to a world before the great proselytising world religions. Christianity, Islam and Buddhism all have conceptions of an afterlife which will make up for injustice before death. This was an important novelty. Most other religious systems, if they had any concept of an afterlife, had one without justice. The twittering shades whom Odysseus fed with blood were not being punished for anything except being dead. The nearest that a ghost can come to justice is a craving for revenge. Although belief in heaven and hell can gratify that craving, so that a Christian journalist, outraged by the slaughter of Christians in Egypt this week, consoles himself that the murderers will “suffer a thousand times worse in hell”, it has also served to underpin a concept of justice wider than revenge and capable of bringing an end to reprisals.
A belief in heaven and hell tends to enforce social norms, discouraging cheating on the one hand, but also holding the potential to make this life pretty hellish for those who fall outside the norms for any reason, including gay people. Social liberalism often goes hand in hand with a rejection of the afterlife, but so does destructive libertarianism. If this life is all we have, success before death is the only kind worth having. But who is to judge that success if not posterity? This itself implies a kind of afterlife. “To evoke posterity is to weep on your own grave,” as Robert Graves pointed out, and if you are truly dead you cannot leave your grave to weep on it.
Suppose, though, that the tech billionaires get their wish. Would they be happy then? They’d certainly be envied. Immortality is after all a promise that people are prepared to die for, whether in expectation of heaven, or of some earthly miracle that will revive their frozen corpses. The possessors would certainly be prepared to kill to retain it. But once attained, at whatever cost to the rest of us, would it satisfy?
The prospect of a life infinitely prolonged becomes after some time the prospect of infinite futility. It’s often said that heaven would be extremely boring because all the interesting people end up in hell. But even the company of saints would be preferable to that of the disciples of Ayn Rand.