The immortality of the soul has been on the philosophical agenda arguably since day one. On the scientific agenda, however, it registers fairly low down. Until now, that is. In his new book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death, political philosopher John Gray explores the history of scientific attempts to prove the existence of, and to even achieve, immortality. A history, it seems, that is more rich and contemporary than one might at first expect of the traditionally pragmatic and non-metaphysical subject.
In a lengthy article for the Guardian, Gray gives a summary of some of the more eyebrow raising events which go to make up this particular part of the history of science. The first is the reaction of post-Darwinian scientists, who for one reason or another felt compelled to respond to the anti-spiritualist worldview that Darwin’s work entailed. They did so by meticulously examining thousands of automatic-writing scripts – a popular phenomena in 19th century clairvoyance whereby the medium channels a spirit in such a way that a message from beyond can be written out – in search for evidence that might suggest their authenticity, such as information about the purportedly channeled spirit that would otherwise be unknown to the medium, or the occurrence of “cross-overs”, where separate mediums appear to be channelling the same thing independently of each other. Another interesting and complex story is the predicament of Leonid Krasin, the Russian engineer entrusted with the important task of how to preserve and to ultimately resurrect the body of dead Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin. From early experiments in cryogenics to new developments in embalming techniques and strange architectural tombs, Soviet Communism clearly displayed a belief in the limitless powers of science.
As fascinating as this history is, what is perhaps more relevant is the scientific future of immortality. It should not come as too much of a surprise that, in this modern era, accounts of this future are distinctly digital. Author and inventor Ray Kurzweil expects that the rapid developments in technology will eventually allow us humans to convert our minds into digital information and ‘upload’ our them into the virtual world. Philosophers of mind, as well as those dealing with the philosophical problem of personal identity, may have questions loaded. A more digestible suggestion Kurzweil makes, in his book Transcend: Nine Steps to Living Well Forever, is that the technological advances in medicine, combined with our increasing knowledge of nutrition and exercise, may in the future provide us with unimaginable longevity of life, and perhaps indefinite longevity.
What does immortality have to do with philosophy? The extent to which it does is in fact vast. One need only to speculate on the motivations behind the historical attempts to prove and/or achieve it. The spiritualist scientists who came after Darwin, as Gray appears to suggest, had each suffered some kind of existential trauma. It may have been the loss of a loved one, which FWH Myers, a psychologist who sought the gifts of mediums, reportedly went through, or the sheer disorientation people who had faith in the afterlife and the values which it underpins experienced in the wake of Darwin’s ideas. Again, amongst the members and supporters of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the mortality of Lenin, as an inspirational figure, was unacceptable. This was perhaps not only because he was lost to death, as Myers’s loved one had been, but also that he was in some way reduced by it. The people wanted their hero to become the immortal god that they had conceived him to be. What we have here, then, is a set of values premised upon immortality, such as meaningfulness, powerfulness and the goodness of a prescriptive religious-ethical life. Our attempts to disavow our own finitude are the result of the attempt to retain of these values, and therefore both the successful attainment of immortality through the discoveries of modern science and the realisation that chasing after immortality is futile, which seem the only two progressive options, will not fail to raise dust in the field of the philosophy of value.
Finally, philosophers ought also to reflect on those who premised the value of their very discipline squarely upon mortality. That is, if, as the French essayist Michel de Montaigne put it, to philosophise is to learn how to die, does immortality undermine the practice of philosophy itself?
Alan G. Padgett
Philosophy Compass, Volume 3, Issue 1, January 2008
Philosophy Compass, Volume 2, Issue 2, March 2007
Philosophy Compass, Volume 3, Issue 2, March 2008
John Gray will be taking part in a discussion of his latest book on immortality soon.