We all believe in some sort of immortality, more or less, yet it is fashionable among certain crowds to mock and ridicule particular kinds of these beliefs. But is, for instance, belief in heaven more ridiculous or more dangerous than belief in technological immortality? Is belief in reincarnation as fanciful as skeptics would assert? In short, is our attitude towards different ideas about immortality in any way balanced?
Let us begin by looking at technological immortality, the kind most likely to be believed by scientific materialists and exclusive humanists. There are a variety of ways this might come about, all at this time constituting metaphysical speculations about the future of technology. For instance, we might develop nanotechnology capable of repairing cell damage at the level of the proteins themselves, which could lead to immortal humans, or we could acquire immortality through transplanting consciousness in the manner of Rudy Rucker’s Wares tetralogy – destructively reading the contents of the brain, and then rendering it digitally.
Perhaps the appeal of this approach to immortality for those with a materialistic bent is that they offer relief against the fear of death, which lurks to some degree in all our psyches. Perhaps also, this is why we rarely stop to consider the implications of this sort of technology, for if we did find a path to immortality this way it would represent one of the greatest threats to human life as we know it (or at the very least, to human society as we know it). As we discussed previously in the topic of population, death is a vital part of the life process – there is an essential tension between longevity and reproductive rights, and the only way immortality could realistically be allowed to flourish would be to enforce sterilisation – to give up children in return for exceptionally long life.
Yet even in this kind of scenario, death is still inevitable. Even an immortal being, in the sense of not being at risk from old age, must face death eventually – either from accidental causes, or from the eventual end of appropriate living conditions in the universe (from heat death, say). And would we even be human without the renewing cycle of death, to bring us each to our final rest, and the arrival of new births, to replenish and invigorate humanity? A society of sterile immortals risks becoming bitter and joyless.
By contrast, the Christian idea of heaven is a very different notion of immortality. In fact, it is many different ideas, since we have long since moved beyond the point of there being any consensus about an afterlife. Few if any people believe in the old doctrine that at a future time the bodies of believers will be disinterred from their graves and restored to life, to live on immortally (a belief that made the cremation of cadavers unacceptable). The sheer cost of burial in our ever more populous world may have helped force change in this particular belief. Today, Christian beliefs about heaven are generally of a less defined form; most feel that there is a place for their souls after they die, but few have specific ideas for what this would mean beyond the idea that death is not the absolute end.
The usual cause of attack against Christian beliefs about heaven isn’t just that people hold faith in an afterlife, but that a significant number of Christians contend not just that one only qualifies for this prize by choosing the correct religion (and perhaps even the correct denomination) – what I have previously termed a metaphysical lottery – but also that if you lose this luck-of-the-draw game, your penalty is to suffer forever in eternal torment. There has, as Charles Taylor observes, been a marked decline in the doctrine of hell in Christian theology recently, but any driver through the deep south of the United States cannot fail to see roadside signs with messages such as “If you died today where would you spend eternity?” which clearly maintain this belief in a strict win-or-lose attitude to the immortality of the soul. (Note, however, that the immortality of the soul is guaranteed either way – it is just a question of how pleasant your accommodations will be!)
To be quite frank, I agree with Hannah Arendt that this idea – be good and be rewarded after death, be evil and be punished after death – originated in Plato’s philosophy, and not in Jesus’ ministry. In fact, Jesus has precious little to say about hell, and as Samuel G. Dawson has noted, even what is attributed in this regard seems to refer to the fiery destruction of Jerusalem (which occurred in 70 AD, a few decades after Jesus’ death) and not to hell in its usual construed form, which is largely an invention of later Churches. The focus of Jesus’ ministry is on how we should behave towards one another on Earth; heaven is still alluded to – just not in “repent or die!” terms.
Plato, in the Myth of Er which concludes his Republic, presents the idea of moral people being rewarded after death, and immoral people being punished (although without any explicit reference to a judging deity). The idea has a longer history, however, in Persian and Egyptian mythology, from where Plato almost certainly encountered the idea. The concept found its way into Christianity in the early fourth century AD, when the Emperor Constantine was faced with the challenge of elevating Christianity – which up until this point had been forced to exist mostly in the persecuted shadows – to the state religion of the Roman Empire. There was no definitive Bible text to refer to at this time (the synod that established this occurred almost a century later), so Constantine had considerable latitude in interpreting the various Christian texts and oral traditions into a coherent religious framework. In doing so, he drew in part from Greek philosophical ideas, including those of Plato, which had already had considerable influence in Rome.
There is little doubt that the psychological urgency created by the threat of hell was a driving factor in the growth of Christianity, and also the source of considerable atrocities conducted by the Church at various times throughout history. However, apart from the boorish behaviour of some modern evangelists who dogmatically maintain such an attitude towards the afterlife today, this kind of viewpoint no longer represents a consensus belief within Christianity. Most Christians have faith that they will be with God when they die, but they do not presume to know exactly what this means, and there is an ever-increasing tolerance for other religions – a growing recognition that being Christian might not be the only path to God.
In the Dharmic faiths (Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism) quite different beliefs concerning immortality can be found. In these traditions, although there may be an immortality of the soul akin to the Abrahamic religions’ concept of heaven (a parallel can be made between nirvana and heaven, for instance), reincarnation is the more prevalent belief: souls achieve immortality in the sense that they return to live new lives over and over again. What one thinks of this kind of afterlife depends to a great degree on one’s concept of the soul: clearly, people who have no viable notion of a soul cannot believe in any kind of afterlife, while some concepts of a soul are so broad as to make reincarnation not only plausible, but essentially factual.
Consider the mathematical mysticism of Rudy Rucker, who I mentioned at the start of this piece in the context of immortality technology. In Software, the Phillip K. Dick Award winning first book of his Wares series, one character notes to another whose father has just died:
Potential existence is as good as actual existence. That's why death is impossible. Your software exists permanently and indestructibly as a certain possibility, a certain mathematical set of relations. Your father is now an abstract, non-physical possibility. But nevertheless he exists!
Reincarnation has even been the subject of scientific research, most famously in the work of Professor Ian Stevenson, who spent forty years investigating cases of children who claimed to have memories from a previous life, finding them for the most part to be quite compelling. In a typical case, the child has memories (sometimes including a name) of someone who died, usually in distressing circumstances – such as the case of a boy in Beirut who remembered dying as a 25-year old mechanic thrown from a speeding car. The details provided by the boy matched an incident that happened a few years before his birth with no apparent connection between the two families involved.
Of course, this kind of investigation is considered verboten by skeptics such has Paul Edwards, who dismissed the evidence as anecdotal. A commonly encountered counter-argument to reports of reincarnation is that there is no known mechanism that would allow for it - yet this puts the cart before the horse: we knew that objects fell downwards long before we had a theoretical framework to explain it. The philosopher Robert Almeder analysed these and other criticisms, and concluded that they all relied on the argument from personal incredulity – “I can’t believe this could be real, therefore it must be false.” More open minded critics at least acknowledge the need for more research – even arch-sceptic Carl Sagan recognised there was something worth investigating here.
Personally, I am somewhat agnostic about immortality in all of its forms. I am not convinced technological immortality is truly achievable (and am utterly unconvinced that is desirable), I find the evidence for reincarnation to be intriguing enough to warrant further research at the very least, and I find the idea of one’s soul joining God in death to be essentially true by definition in my belief system, as a consequence of what the terms “soul” and “God” mean to me, which says nothing substantial about what this would mean in practice. Even a scientific materialist could perhaps appreciate that if soul means “the information comprising my identity” and God means “the infinite” then saying “one’s soul returns to God in death” is far from an outlandish claim (whatever this might mean for the individual in question!)
What is troubling about immortality is not the many different views of it that people hold, but the hostility some people display to those with alternative perspectives. Consider the fanatical Christian who thinks that everyone who believes differently to them is doomed to an eternity of pain in hell versus the atheist bigot who, believing that they know the afterlife is certainly false, hurls abuse at Christians for believing otherwise. The former justifies their boorish or even abusive behaviour (in the case of “Hell Houses” and other abominable perversions of Christianity) as being in their victim’s best interests, but fails to comprehend the harm they cause. The latter warns of how dangerous and misleading belief in the Christian afterlife must be while standing silent on the very real risks implied by technological immortality, preferring instead to behave as anti-socially as the Christian zealots they despise! It seems that whatever you believe, there is a flavour of bigot who will abuse you for believing it.
Almost all beliefs about immortality are metaphysical, and thus largely untestable, and to claim one has all the answers in any such a field is the height of hubris. No-one can see the future clearly, and no-one can see beyond the veil of death with any clarity either. Given that we are all in this life together, perhaps a more balanced approach to this issue would be to accept the cornucopia of beliefs about immortality as another aspect of the wonderful diversity of human life, and celebrate it all, either (for those of us who believe in transcendence) as the whispering presence of the divine in the immanent world, or (for whoever believes solely in the immanent world) as an expression of the tremendous creativity of humankind. Life is short enough without fighting over what will happen afterwards.
The opening image is Phoenix II, copyright (c) 2008 Shoshanna Bauer, all rights reserved. It can be found here on her delightful watercolour blog at www.shoshannabauer.com, and is used with permission.