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Paradise may look a little different. . .

by
28 March 2024

What does the science of life extension mean for the theology of death and eternal life, ask Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite

Alamy

A depiction of Dante’s paradise and the singing of the blessed, in his Divine Comedy, in a coloured engraving after Gustave Doré

A depiction of Dante’s paradise and the singing of the blessed, in his Divine Comedy, in a coloured engraving after Gustave Doré

IN SO FAR as religion has any USP — unique selling point, in marketing jargon — it is the promise of eternal life. Marxism assures us of justice on earth. Communism promises material equality. Liberalism gives us freedom, and nationalism a sense of belonging. Religion gestures towards each of these goods, but it is its commitment to eternal life that really differentiates it. As the great Australian poet, Les Murray, once wrote: “Whatever the great religions offer, It is afterlife their people want.”

“Eternal life” is an unhelpful phrase — vague to the point of misleading. The religious promise to conquer, circumvent, or somehow cheat death comes in rather different flavours. “Eternal life” can be material or immaterial, universal or selective, joyous or bleak. Moreover, not all religions have formal beliefs about eternity, still less ones that are codified.

Nevertheless, even with all these caveats in place, it is beyond serious doubt that ideas and promises about the possibility of conquering death are a characteristic of religions, and not shared by other human ideologies or practices. For better or worse, the religious own “eternal life”.

Or they did until recently — because the ancient, arguably innate, human hope for eternal life has, over recent decades, caught the attention of scientists and billionaires alike. Immortality, whether biological, genetic, cryonic, cybernetic, or digital, is now subject to serious scientific research, and serious money.

As you read this, there are approximately 500 people around the world who have paid good money to have their bodies pumped full of liquid nitrogen and stored upside down in a giant refrigerator for an unspecified period of time. A few have elected to be decapitated first, storing their head alone, “neuropreservation” being a cheaper option than full-body immersion. Some have even paid for their pets to join them — mainly dogs, but, on occasion, cats, and also, apparently, five hamsters, two rabbits, and a chinchilla.

The idea that “deceased” organs can be revivified is well attested. A rather ghoulish 2019 paper in Nature reported how researchers, working with the severed heads of 32 pigs that had been killed for meat in a slaughterhouse, managed to “revive the disembodied brains . . . [up to] four hours after the animals were slaughtered”.

Scientists are keen to downplay the implications of this for humans, and their caution is well advised. The science of “neuropreservation” is primitive. Researchers have seen no signs of the revival of co-ordinated electrical patterns or “consciousness” in animal brains, and human brains are likely to be considerably more difficult to recover.

 

HOWEVER primitive, speculative, and downright gothic cryonics may be, though, it set the hares of “scientific immortality” running. Perhaps science could enable us to defeat death, if not by cryonics, then by some other approach?

There are plenty of pseudo-scientific approaches available. Life extensionism is the attempt to dramatically increase longevity by a “scientifically tested” regime of vitamin and mineral supplements, calorie restriction, hormone replacement, and programmatic exercise. Parabiosis, by contrast, is the practice of preserving youth through young-blood transfusion. Neither works.

But their appeal is indicative of a mental reframing of this whole issue. The World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD), in its 11th edition, has now included ageing (as opposed to age-related conditions) in its compendium, treating it as a disease “associated [with] decline in intrinsic capacity”.

Understood in this way, ageing is not some kind of mysterious build-up of negative energy or loss of vitalist life force: it is, for want of a better phrase, a matter of wear and tear, accompanied by the rising costs of replacement. There’s only so far you can drive your car, however carefully you look after it, before it becomes more economical to buy a new one.

Where that analogy breaks down is that no car of any age produces perfect, shiny new baby cars. Humans do. The genetic material each of us inherits at birth is free of any age-related degeneration that might have affected our parents at the time of conception. Old bodies can generate young cells.

This opens up a more realistic approach to holding back age and death than that offered by young-blood transfusion or life in the deep freeze. In 2012, the Nobel committee awarded the prize in medicine to Shinya Yamanaka, a Japanese biologist who had worked out how to “reprogramme” mature cells so that they become young — or, more precisely, “pluripotent”.

Another option is found in telomeres, the repeated DNA sequences found at the end of a chromosome. They act a bit like aglets — the plastic or metal tubes on the tip of a shoelace — preventing the ends of the chromosome from fraying and decaying, thereby protecting its information-carrying portions. Their protective function is not cost-free, however, and, whenever a cell divides, the telomeres are shortened. After a certain point, when they have become too short, the cell is unable to divide and dies.

This may not be an inevitable process, however. Telomerase, an enzyme that is expressed naturally in stem cells but not in most mature, adult cells, restores damaged telomeres, thereby prolonging the health and age of cells. Boosting the level of telomerase in the body might help protect telomeres and thereby slow cell senescence.

 

THERE are other genetic possibilities. Professor Cynthia Kenyon has worked out that it is possible to double the lifespan of the roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans by disabling a single gene, and has pointed out that studies have shown that humans who live to 100 are more likely to have mutations in daf-2, the relevant gene.

Whether or not these options bear fruit, science had other options up its sleeve, such as “improving” humans by splicing them with technology. Brain-computer interfaces, in which brain signals control external devices without using conventional neuromuscular pathways, have been the subject of intense research over the past 20 years, and have met with some success.

And then, of course, there is mind-uploading, also sometimes known as “whole brain emulation”, based on the idea that the brain can be deconstructed into the kind of digital information that computers process. Fantastical and far-distant as this sounds, scientists point to the baby steps so far taken on the road. The Blue Brain Project has, since 2005, been working to build “the world’s first biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the mouse brain”.

Such successes have made some people inordinately enthusiastic about the possibilities allegedly on offer here, envisaging that some combination of brain-scanning, artificial intelligence, digital uploading, and human augmentation might one day “save” and “resurrect” or “reincarnate” humans, thereby securing for us the immortality we crave.

The religious language is not inappropriate. Indeed, it is an intricate part of this “transhumanism”. Ray Kurzweil, the St Paul of this movement, has proposed bringing his dead father back to life, albeit it as an avatar, and has popularised the idea of the “singularity”: a kind of tipping point at which artificial intelligence surpasses that of humans and sends us plunging into a post-human future. Not without reason has it been described as a kind of secular eschatological moment.

 

THE quest for scientific immortality clearly does not want for enthusiasm. It needs it, because the practical problems facing these attempts are almost incalculable and make the resurrection of Christ seem like a mere conjuring trick with bones by comparison.

Take transhumanism. The Blue Brain Project has now managed to map fully one cubic millimetre of mouse brain. They found it contained more than 100,000 neurons with more than a billion connections between them, and that it required two petabytes of data to store. The average human brain is about 1400 cubic centimetres, and contains approximately 100 million neurons (of about 1000 different types), and probably about 100 trillion synapses (contact points between neurons).

Even if one were to solve such stupendous technical challenges, more theoretical ones would remain. The idea that mind can be reduced to information is questionable to say the least. The idea that it is ever static enough to scan is equally doubtful, as is the belief that the mind can exist without the body. And, even were your uploaded mind to be subsequently downloaded into a reconstructed body, it would not be you, so much as a copy of you, not only endlessly replicable but, once reincarnated in its new robotic form, set off on a different experiential path.

In short, such speculations would simply be fancy — scientific pie in the sky, so to speak — were it not for the fact that a number of extremely rich people are very interested in the whole affair at the moment, and are pouring considerable sums of money into it. The life-extension industry, which is already large, will be worth more than half a trillion dollars by the mid-2020s. And it is not simply confined to humans. Loyal is a biotech start-up dedicated to extending the lifespan of dogs.

The religious dimension within all this is complex. A 2021 Theos-Faraday study found that the more individuals participated in religious practices (attending religious services, praying, and reading holy texts), the less likely they were to want some kind of scientific immortality. In the United States, Pew Forum found that white Evangelical Protestants were among the least likely to want life extension (only 28 per cent wanted it), whereas black Protestants (47 per cent) and Hispanic Catholics (46 per cent) were more divided.

On the one hand, it should not be surprising to learn that religious attitudes to scientific attempts to cheat death are generally colder than the non-religious. After all, why pin your hopes on an imitation when you have the real thing to look forward to?

On the other hand, we should not be surprised that there is a range of religious (in this case, Christian) opinions on the issue, from Christian transhumanists, who find salvation (or at least hope) in technology, to those (a minority in our own time, but not in the past) who reject any attempt to cheat death through human ingenuity as a form of blasphemy. Christian believers do not appear to speak with one voice when it comes to the topic of scientific immortality.

 

THERE are various reasons for this polyphony of Christian voices about scientific attempts to cheat death. Some are bad — confusion, ignorance, indifference — but one is good. It is, in effect, that the Christian tradition itself does not speak with one voice here. There is a polyphony — or, better still, a genuine, creative tension — at the heart of the Christian vision of life, death, and immortality.

This will seem like a contentious claim; so it is important to be clear about what is and is not being said here. This is not the (familiar) point that Christians themselves have held different views on this matter. Popular Christianity, for example, has often slipped into a kind of implicit dualism in which the soul or spirit plays pretty much the same part as the uploaded mind of transhumanism.

However much individual believers or heterodox theologies have slipped into such dualistic beliefs, it does not change the orthodox position that, from the earliest days, Christians believed in the bodily resurrection from the dead on the basis of Christ’s own bodily resurrection from the dead. Eternal life, in Christian orthodoxy, was never spiritual in the disembodied, ghostly sense of the word.

Moreover, there was never a question that this final bodily resurrection would be anything other than an act of God. Christians were charged to live as aliens in the world, or as if time were short, but there was no sense that their efforts would somehow effect the coming of the Kingdom, as if they could twist God’s arm into delivering on his promises.

In short, however much there has been confusion and tension within Christian minds, and debates on life, death, and immortality, this is not what we are referring to. There is no polyphony here: orthodox Christian belief is that eternal life is (1) bodily and (2) a gift of God.

The polyphony, or creative tension, comes when we look at what this means for our attitude to life and death while on earth. It would, for example, be easy to take the short step from acknowledging the beliefs just outlined to reaching the conclusion that believers should simply acquiesce in the face of death. Don’t bother raging against the dying of the light. There’s no point.

Were this the only voice, the response to scientific attempts to cheat death through biological, genetic, or digital means would be straightforward. They are at best pointless, at worst wrong, blasphemous attempts to achieve what only God can.

But it is not the only voice, as there is another that threads through the Bible, which insists that death is not simply to be accepted without demur. On the contrary, the New Testament, in particular, is clear. Death is the enemy: a dehumanising, alien and invasive force, a foe to be fought rather than an ally to be embraced.

Herein lies the tension. On the one hand, death is the enemy, an attitude that inspires resistance. On the other hand, victory over death is not in our gift, and death can be defeated only by the grace of God — an attitude that naturally breeds resignation (and hence, at best, suspicion of, and, at worst, hostility to, the cause of scientific immortality).

What, then, is Christianity to make of this scientific quest for immortality? Does the programme of technological life-extension and immortality merit support (born of our resistance to death) or criticism (born of our resignation to it)? Navigating this question is far from straightforward, but may be helped by two relevant but sometimes overlooked elements within the idea of “resurrection”: community and transformation.

 

MODERN Western societies naturally approach the idea of eternal life in an individualistic way, as if what we are really talking about is the enduring existence of a single organism. Christians are hardly immune to this. However, the New Testament claims that the resurrection of Christ is the “first fruit” of a general resurrection, the offering at the start of the harvest in which all is gathered in. By this understanding, eternal life is nothing if it is not communal.

Ezekiel’s vision of dry bones in chapter 37 imagined an almost medically vivid resurrection of the Israelite dead: “I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel.” The book of Daniel proclaimed: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt.” The prophet Isaiah declared that “your dead will live . . . their bodies will rise — let those who dwell in the dust wake up and shout for joy”. Resurrection is a collective recreation of a people, not the ongoing survival of an individual. It is not simply the continuation of normal life by other means.

This connects with a second point: transformation. The problem with earthly humans is not simply that they are mortal, but that they are sinful. Christian “immortality” is not and cannot be divorced from the idea of transformation. Eternal life is not only embodied and a gift of God, but it is relational, in a way that humans could be — or, rather, in the way that we should be, but so rarely are.

Eternal life is not so much a place, still less a reward, but a state of mutual love and gift — a state that we taste in this life, but only fleetingly. As George Eliot remarks at one point in Middlemarch, “we mortals have our divine moments, when love is satisfied in the completeness of the beloved object.”

Resurrection involves not simply the defeat of death, but also the defeat of sin, which is so often paired with it. Eternal life, resurrection life, is life in community — community that remains unfractured by sin — which means it is necessarily transformed life. It is not simply the continuation of a particular organism, or even a group of them, but its/their re-creation. It may be helpfully understood qualitatively rather than quantitatively: an infinite extension of the quality of love and grace we experience, sometimes, on earth rather than an infinite extension of the quantity of time we have here.

In the final chapter of Julian Barnes’s novel A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, the narrator wakes up in heaven. He has a wonderful time there. The food is great, the wine excellent, the sex sensational. He plays golf to his heart’s content, and gets impossibly good at it. Millennia tick by. Eventually, things begin to pall a little, and he discovers that, in spite of heaven affording every pleasure you can think of, 100 per cent of people who end up there decide, in the end, “to die off”.

People like him usually go first. “People who want an eternity of sex, beer, drugs, fast cars . . . they can’t believe their good luck at first, and then, after a few hundred years, they can’t believe their bad luck . . . they’re stuck with being themselves. Millennia after millennia of being themselves.”

The narrator tries to find a solution by becoming the kind of person “who never gets tired of eternity”, but he is informed that people have tried it and it never works. “You can’t become someone else without stopping being who you are [and] nobody can bear that.” Eventually, he acquiesces. “It seems to me”, he reflects at the end, “that Heaven’s a very good idea, it’s a perfect idea you could say, but not for us. Not given the way we are.”

The story is remarkably acute and relevant as a “religious” perspective on the scientific quest to cheat death. Human life is a complex, multi-layered thing, at once biological and cognitive, communal and spiritual. Science may hold out some hope of being able to transcend some of those layers — the biological and, perhaps, even the cognitive — but (the religious perspective insists) humans are more than biological organisms or thinking machines. Being able to transcend and transform some layers or dimensions of our humanity, without touching others, may end up the worst possible option for us.

 

This is an edited extract from Playing God: Science, religion and the future of humanity by Nick Spencer and Hannah Waite, published by SPCK at £19.99 (Church Times Bookshop special price £15.99); 978-0-281-09003-7 (Books, 22 March).

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