“Who wants to live forever?” – Queen
In the Christian tradition, the account of the Garden of Eden in the first few chapters of Genesis in the Bible, Genesis, describes our first human ancestors, Adam and Eve, and their experience with two trees. We may have heard of the account of their Fall by taking of the “tree of knowledge of good and evil”, but rarely think about the “tree of life”. In my recent understanding of the Christian Scriptures, approaching them in a holistic manner, I have become a conditional immortalitist – ie Adam and Eve needed to continue to eat from that “Tree of Life” in order to live forever. Access to this Tree being blocked by God in order that they may not physically and spiritually live forever in a “fallen” state, analogous to the vampires Lestat and Louis in Anne Rice’s book and film “Interview with the Vampire”. The fact God stops mid-sentence in declaring what the consequences of reaching out and taking from the Tree of Life would be for a “fallen creature” shows how terrible that would be.
The intrusion of death into this world would require some major spiritual machinations involving the death and resurrection of the Innocent One, Jesus (another analogy being Aslan in Narnia) that we may receive new spiritual life now and new, incorruptible bodies when the new heavens and earth are combined at the end of time in the full revelation of the “Kingdom of God”. Here the Tree of Life would once again be accessible and the leaves used for the “healing of the nations”. This is the Christian hope of life everlasting in a perfect world with no more death, pain and suffering when the current chapter of this world has ended and restoration of the former time occurs (see the last book of the Bible, Revelation, chapter 22 for more information on this glorious imagery).
So “in the beginning” everlasting life was accessible through the provision of the Divine Creator in the Tree of Life. Ever since that access was withdrawn humanity has dreamed of being able to physically live forever. From ancient days mummification / embalming a person’s body would be the process used to attempt to achieve immortality, but with the advent of modern science, there are tentative glimpses that this may one day be a reality. One has to ask what price will be the price we pay in the process? Will it really be “us” that exists, a copy of us, or just a computer generated, artificial intelligence driven avatar in the body of an android? What our our consciousness, which we’re only starting to realise is something much more than just collections of biochemicals and neural links in our brain?
In pre-modern times, people would carry around parts of their ancestors in order to remember them, ranging from the quite gory – fingers – to the fairly innocent lock of hair in a brooch. Some would attribute mystical healing properties to these relics, whilst others would assume they contained the power of their ancestor whose part they carried with them – either way, the deceased would somehow “live” with the living person. With the advent of photography, people would carry around images of their beloved in lockets. Now, if you think this is all a bit far-fetched and that there is no “otherly” power in these objects, take a photograph of someone you have lost, or even someone you love who is still alive… take a knife and stab the photograph now! If the thought of that action makes you recoil, then what is it that does this, for certainly there’s no power in the paper and ink alone which is making you feel that way. There is something more than just the physical which is linked to the past, as you have just experienced.
My attention was first brought to the realms of science and possible immortality through an article I read about eighteen years ago regarding telomeres and how they are responsible for biological cell aging and death. They are the caps at the end of each strand of DNA that protect our chromosomes, like the plastic tips at the end of shoelaces – ensuring they do not unravel. Every time a cell divides, the telomere “remembers” this and shortens a chemical sequence in the DNA. When this reaches a certain length, the cell dies. The thinking back then was that it would be possible to stop this shortening and thus extend life indefinitely. Even back then I wondered if there was something in the Tree of Life which was affecting this biochemical process.
Much progress has been made since then in the fields of data storage and mining, artificial intelligence and cryogenics, and with the development of social networking where people upload their lives online (and their diets from the number of food images they share!) various possibilities have opened up to allow us to “live forever”. I would put these into various categories of “living”: In memorial – eg Facebook memorial pages for those who have died, in an artificial cloud of data consciousness – eg Lifenauts, and in stasis – eg cryogenically frozen after death. I will explore the latter two here.
Artificial Consciousness – Here one’s experiences in life are uploaded to a data storage centre where data mining and artificial intelligence algorithms attempt to breathe “life” into a physically constructed manikin… I’m reminded of the phrase “It’s alive, It’s alive. Now I know what it feels like to be God!” uttered by Dr Frankenstein in one of the early black and white films. I’m also reminded of Kelly Le Brock’s entrance scene from the 1985 film Weird Science….. Cough… Enough! If you think this is far into the future, take a look through the following video TEDX lecture from last month:
Listen carefully to the chilling response of the artificially intelligent android when it is questioned about its thoughts on starving people in Africa. Also note the messianic language uttered by the lecturer from Lifenauts when he offers people the opportunity to “save themselves” through their system.
Cryogenics – Here one’s body (or if you’re a cheapskate, your head) is physically frozen just after the point of death, with various chemicals injected to replace the blood, and the body stored at -196°C in liquid Nitrogen. The hope being that at some point in the future medical science will have advanced enough to allow the person to be thawed out and medical treatment applied to bring the person back to life and full health. Hundreds of bodies are frozen in perpetuity by various companies, such as Alcor, with no real knowledge that the future will allow them to be brought back to life. Further information on cryonics is available here.
All of these scientific processes make the assumption that we are the sum of our parts, and that there is nothing beyond the physical make up of our being. And this is the crux of the issue for me – as a scientist, I know the Scientific Method’s limitations, and I know that it really has no possible mechanism to measure the existence of the soul / spirit, that which I would say was the real core of our consciousness. As such, I believe that these methods are ultimately doomed to fail because they fail to take account of that which is intangible, and that at death, consciousness / soul / spirit whatever you want to call it, is not bound by the moral coil of the physical body. As Jesus is recorded as saying, what is the point of gaining the whole world and losing your soul? What is the point of physically living forever, if one’s soul is not really present but elsewhere? Surely the important thing is to ensure one will spiritually live forever and leave the physical living forever up to the Eternal Physician?
If you’re thinking that consciousness doesn’t exist after death, then have a listen to the following BBC Focus magazine interview from May 2013: http://www.sciencefocus.com/podcast/focus-magazine-podcast-may-2013 starting at a time of 20:21 into the file. It does indeed appear that there is some evidence for the existence of consciousness apart from that which we currently call death – ie brain stem death – which can come back to the physical shell of the body if appropriate medical intervention takes place. But then, anyone who has studied near death experiences (NDEs) and out-of-body experiences (OBEs) or maybe even in lucid dreaming, has first-hand experience of that which medical science is only starting to catch up with.
So, would you want to live forever? In what state would you want to live? Can ancient systems of belief have anything to bring to the table of knowledge alongside the scientists which would be a good compass and guide to their explorations of the scientifically uncharted waters of human existence? Feel free to post your thoughts below so we can all learn from each other.
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