January 25, 2011
Is it more implausible that Christian beliefs will lead to immortality, or that science and technology will grant eternal life? Putting aside the question of whether we should want to live forever –I for one have no interest in this appalling imaginary scenario – which kinds of immortality stories should we place our faith in?
I’ve written about immortality before, and this earlier discussion should be taken as a foundation for what I wish to explore now. Then, as now, I am agnostic about all kinds of eternal life, whether technological or spiritual, and have no desire to live forever whatever the proposed means. However, I do believe that while mystical immortality beliefs are essentially harmless and tangential to the core values of religion as a whole, technological immortality beliefs are either confused or dangerous and should be subjected to considerably greater scrutiny.
In respect of this strange impulse to believe in immortality I find myself particularly bemused by those people who, miserable and depressed in life, still hold out hope for new scientific breakthroughs that will grant them longevity or eternal life. What is it, exactly, that will make this extended life worth living if it is not so when it is finite? This is akin to finding yourself on a rollercoaster that you are not enjoying, and instead of looking forward to the end of the ride you desperately hope that the ride will go on forever. How can anyone wish this and still make a claim to sanity?
My purpose in revisiting this topic is to draw out what I see as a hypocritical contradiction that people of unfaith display when they betray their own commitment to minimising implausible beliefs by trusting in science to offer technological salvation. It begins as a simple orthodox science fiction story concerning extending the life of cells such that a treatment can be postulated that prolongs human life indefinitely. From this simple story, a ladder of increasingly improbable fantasies is projected to deal with subsequent problems, which are legion. Even if genetic problems with memory retention can be redressed, neural networks reach a point of saturation when they have absorbed all the information they can, and thus senility must inevitable occur at some point. Transferring consciousness to a new body may be offered as a fantasy to solve this. Subsequent conjectures can be deduced to address all the possible problems without stepping far outside of orthodoxy.
What of the end of our sun? This one is simple, since orthodox science fiction prophesies the ultimate expansion of our species out into space and on to the distant stars. Even a distinguished scientist like Stephen Hawking has no hesitation in taking the role of prophet in this regard, since it is a thoroughly conventional faith to believe that this can and will happen. What of the end of all suns? Here more severe scenarios for the continuation of human consciousness must be imagined, which have been criticised in detail by Mary Midgley in Science as Salvation. But what do criticisms matter when one is imagining what might be possible? Once one has chosen to set aside the tenuous chain of absurdity such beliefs rests upon, faith in science and technology can offer eternal life, yea, even until the end of the universe.
Yet proponents of such scenarios are often extremely vehement in their criticisms towards religions that offer “false hopes” of eternal life through metaphysical salvation. Examined with an impartial eye, or as much of one as can be found, this begins to look like orthodox scientism simply behaving as any narrow-minded religious tradition will tend to do when its metaphysics are placed on a pedestal above its ethics: other faiths are wrong, my faith is right, and woe betide you for following false prophets – only my faith will lead to eternal life. Yours must end in eternal damnation. This kind of tale is nonsense however you ground your faith, and the idea that what might be possible (that is, faith in the intersection between what is imaginable and what can be authorised by the science fiction megatext) has some superior claim to truth is frankly laughable.
Consider the following thought experiment, which I will call Uptime Resurrection:
In the distant future, temporal duplication technology is developed that is capable of transcribing information from the past in high resolution at a subatomic level. Because nothing is actually transferred through time except information, none of the restrictions implied by relativity are violated. A far future culture descended from those of the Earth constructs a gigantic interstellar environment, perhaps a Dyson sphere (or shell) built around an artificially generated quasar created by supplying matter to a supermassive black hole, the accretion disc of which generates vast quantities of energy and light. The interior of the Dyson sphere thus spans light years, and after it is completed it is populated with plants and animals cloned from original Terran species, their genetic and epigenetic factors acquired by uptime duplication – even extinct species with no preserved genetic material can therefore be reproduced. The benevolent descendents of Earth then proceed to use the uptime duplicator to resurrect each and every human being that ever lived, placing them in a specially created environment within the Dyson sphere, modelled upon the historical period their data has been acquired from. With the incredible resources of their technology, the whole of the history of the planet Earth is reproduced in its new environment, but by virtue of the advances in nanotechnology and biotechnology each of the resurrected humans is immortal and indestructible.
It is clear that the addition of one additional element to this story changes the tone of the Uptime Resurrection thought experiment completely: the people who create and populate the Dyson sphere are Christians, and believe they are doing God’s work by resurrecting humanity: they have used technology to bring about the parousia. Prior to this additional clause, we have a simple science fiction scenario that no person of unfaith need have a problem with, except perhaps on technical grounds. (Most of the individual elements can be found in, for instance, Phillip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld, Walter Jon Williams Knight Moves and Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker). But the additional clause that transforms it into the Christian Uptime Resurrection thought experiment is the least fanciful aspect of this immortality story – all it requires is for a specific religion to be prevalent in the culture responsible for implementing the scenario, and given the general absurdity of this outcome it might even require this justification to make sense of their motive for doing so.
Clearly, these future Christians would see themselves as “doing God’s work”, and the Christians who were resurrected would see this as the fulfilment of the prophecies they had been told when they were alive for the first time. Let’s assume the future Christians are universalists and thus decide to resurrect everyone, and not just some subset of people, believing this to be God’s plan. In this case we might well imagine that the more belligerent people of unfaith so resurrected would remain incredulous that anyone could be so naive as to believe that an unknowable entity had in any way been responsible for this state of affairs. They would point to the role of technology in bringing it about, thus believing that their own faith in science was equally validated by this outcome. Which just goes to show, even if the Christian afterlife were actually to happen it would in no way change the beliefs of those opposed to Christianity or religion, which were already set in stone.
The moral of this story is not that one kind of immortality belief is more or less plausible than another, but that the availability of justifications for absurd outcomes has nothing to do with people’s belief or disbelief in their likelihood. The decision to render certain stories acceptable and others dangerous is a natural result of orthodoxy of any kind, and has nothing to do with religion, per se, since scientism and political ideology yield similar outcomes. The important question concerning immortality is not whose faith is invested wisely, but whether we should be investing in eternal life at all. If we cannot live together contentedly as mortals, what sense does it make to pin our hopes on becoming immortals?
As an Orthodox Jew, I've always had problems with the concept of the dead eventually coming back to life. I've also always had problems with the idea that everyone should eventually agree with the Jews. (These are both popular positions among us.) The miracle of resurrection goes against my belief in, I suppose, what you call "orthodox science fiction", and the idea of unifying beliefs is personally repulsive to me. So I do interpret all references to bringing back the dead in a science-fiction light, as your thought experiment depicts, and it never once occurred to me that this would convince everyone to be Jews.
Posted by: Mordechai Buxner | January 25, 2011 at 10:54 PM
To be more accurate, I've always figured that "raising the dead" is a reference to time travel. Whether you go back or they come forward, none of the dead are quite so dead anymore. And I wouldn't assume that religious people will or won't be the first to have the technology.
Posted by: Mordechai Buxner | January 25, 2011 at 11:00 PM
Mory: thanks for your thoughtful comment here; although I have positioned this piece in tension between orthodox Christian beliefs and orthodox science fiction, the point I am making is far more general, of course.
I rather suspect that, since Judaism is explicitly founded upon an ethnic identity, it cannot easily take upon the concept of conversion in the manner that the other Abrahamic faiths sometimes take so very, very seriously. And the Dharmic religions seem to sidestep these issues rather completely. :)
All the best!
Posted by: Chris | January 26, 2011 at 11:04 AM
If you ever turn your thought experiment into a short story, I'd read it.
Posted by: Theo Malekin | February 01, 2011 at 11:28 PM
Theo: this is actually a small part of the plot to my unwritten novel Uptime, the sequel to my two published science fiction novels Downtime and Dreamtime. But I think it vanishingly unlikely I will complete the trilogy since the original books have vanished into the black hole that is fiction publishing. :)
Posted by: Chris | February 04, 2011 at 02:34 PM