The search for immortality has plagued humanity since the dawn of time. The only certain thing in life is death: we can run from the Reaper but we can’t hide. Eternal life, or the lack of, remains a problem that scientists and philosophers alike have failed to solve for millennia.
For centuries we have gone to extreme lengths to prolong our life, but so far physical immortality has eluded us. With drugs and surgery — and leeches and the warm blood of animals! — we can maintain the illusion of youth for decades, but evading death itself has proven a little trickier.
Enter religion with its universal theme of immortality of the soul, or in some cases reincarnation — the best get-out-of-jail-free card ever. ‘Hey, we can’t grant this body of yours eternal life, but how about another go if you mess up?’ The single most wished for trait of all time, that which all humans crave — more than wealth, or happiness, or progeny — immortality became available at a low low price of a few Hail Marys or donation to the church of your choosing.
Immortality: the frustratingly-close mirage, finally within reach! Trample each other as you try to get to it first; God doesn’t mind. Anyone can have it, at the price of your dignity and a handful of coins; who cares if you live this life in squalor, while a fat priest sleeps soundly, resplendent in his gold-trimmed vestments — there’s always the next life! A helpful, portly priest once told me that there’s surround-sound TVs in Heaven; The Kingdom of God, Araboth, Nirvana. In the old days there was obviously lots of black slaves, and taverns with lots of beer — and quaffing! — and Valkyries. But today, that doesn’t sell so well…
I wouldn’t be quite so pessimistic if all religions could at least agree on one common theme — immortality of the soul or reincarnation — but as they can’t seem to agree, and kill each other over the minutiae, it’s likely that none of them are right. God himself seems to vary a lot from religion to religion, and if you can’t agree on something as basic and omnipresent as God, what’s the point? Were the gods of ancient history (there were hundreds of them!) fake?
That’s the problem with a divinely-inspired canon – words, from the infallible mandible of God – if you disprove just a single facet of it, one breathlessly intoned phrase of God, the entire thing falls to pieces. So if the tribal shaman got it wrong about their deities, and the Greek priests got it wrong about their polytheistic Parthenon, why should we believe modern-day monotheistic religion? You can read a little more about my views on monotheistic religion, if you like, but that’s enough for this entry.
If you take God and paid-for immortality out of the equation what do you have left? A moral code of conduct and a few archaic rules that (sometimes) made sense in the religion’s hey-day: a moral code then, and not much else.
But wait… there has to be something to it. Unless humanity really has fabricated a belief in the supernatural (and geneticists will argue that this is the case) for the past 10,000 years, there has to be some truth in it all. What if we take God or any ‘higher power’ that we are subservient to out of the equation, and just leave the spiritual side of things? Current science is leaning towards something, a quantum force created by particles either millions of times smaller than atoms, or by something else entirely. We might never know what that force is, but the mere fact that there’s something outside the realm of empirical measurement — the most common argument against the existence of a spirit or soul — will certainly be a tricky one for scientists.
Physical immortality is just around the corner, or at least you’ll soon have new organs grown at a whim. Bust your heart? Buy another one — it might be grown inside a pig, but who are you to complain? You’ve probably seen or heard about the mouse genetically engineered to grow an ear on its back. There are projects working on the important biological aspects of aging (cell aging being the main one), but there are other caveats too. Is it ethical for us to live forever? Do we have the technology and the resources to sustain 40, 50, 60 billion people here on Earth? Perhaps most importantly: would we do anything today if we could always put it off until tomorrow?
It’s at times like this I wish I could remove myself from the equation. I have beliefs which interfere with my objectivity! It’s awfully hard to derive a solution or even an answer when my flesh-and-blood brain has to be consulted first — my brain which has been meddled with by my parents, my friends and the media. It’s comforting to know that everyone else suffers the same fate though; even philosophers had to grow up. It’s impossible for me to claim there’s a world beyond our own, but if science and technology has shown us anything in the last 50 years: don’t place any bets.
If we could give birth to a fully-grown adult — a test-tube human born into physical and mental maturity, without any of the pain or suffering sustained in childhood — how would they view the world? Without bias and with complete and utter objectivity, some pieces of the universal puzzle might just slip into place.
If immortality yet again slips between our greedy paws, we still have transhumanism to look forward to: augmented human bodies. Bionic eyes, mithril exoskeletons and steam-powered muscles — well, perhaps not so much the mithril or the steam-power, but it’s coming! I’ll talk about that after Terminator 4: Salvation hits the cinemas.