Death and the ultimate denial
Posted December 13, 2008on:
It’s been a while since those stories first started circulating about crazy nutters who have organised for their bodies to be kept in cryogenic suspension after their death, in the hopes that one day medical science will have improved sufficiently to be able to revive them. I think I’d written it off as yet another Hollywood craze, like the Atkins diet or adults having braces fitted. But it appears there is a growing group of active campaigners who claim that we ‘owe it to the people of the future’ to have ourselves preserved.
Transhumanists are not fond of death. We would stop it if we could. To this end we support research that holds out hope of a future in which humanity has defeated death. Death is an extremely difficult technical problem, to be attacked with biotech and nanotech and other technological means. I do not tell a tale of the land called Future, nor state as a fact that humanity will someday be free of death – I have no magical ability to see through time. But death is a great evil, and I will oppose it whenever I can. If I could create a world where people lived forever, or at the very least a few billion years, I would do so. I don’t think humanity will always be stuck in the awkward stage we now occupy, when we are smart enough to create enormous problems for ourselves, but not quite smart enough to solve them. I think that humanity’s problems are solvable; difficult, but solvable.
For Yudkowsky, death is: defeatable, a technical problem, a solvable problem. Clearly he represents a fairly extreme end of the spectrum. And yet…
The language that he uses and the mindset that represents really isn’t that different from what we see in the mainstream of society. We talk about doctors ‘saving lives’; we use statistics that say certain groups of people are ‘less likely to die’; we put our hope for the future in technological advances. All of which construe death as something which can be defeated through scientific advancement. Clearly there have been great scientific advances in the last 100 years, which have dramatically improved life expectancy. This is a good thing. We are looking forward to the time when the young man shall die a hundred years old.
But Yudkowsky is missing one crucial point. He recognises that death is a great evil but he does not recognise the inherent inability of man to overcome this evil. He’s right to feel that ‘death is not part of the plan’ and that this is not how it ought to be. The bible tells us that death is the consequence of humanity’s sinfulness. It is punishment and protection. It is imposed upon us because of our wickedness.
And that’s the problem with Yudkowsky’s solution. He asks us to have hope in the future but offers no basis for this hope. Why should we suppose that future generations will be any less wicked than our own? What reason is there to think that they will be any more successful at throwing off the bonds of death than any previous generation?
I came across the links to Yudkowsky’s articles on a blog I occasionally read, written by a physicist working in a good university in the US. He is not a crackpot. He is an atheist who likes to claim he thinks rationally. He read Yudkowsky’s articles and immediately signed up for cryogenic suspension, then blogged, urging his readers to do the same. People want hope for the future. They want to believe their lives matter. They don’t want to believe in death.
I think we have an obligation, as Christians, to confront people with the reality of death. Not everyone needs this reminder, but increasingly it seems that as a society we are living in denial. Death is hidden away from sight. In the UK, I think we can still use the language of death, but in the US I only ever heard it referred to euphemistically – Americans don’t die, they pass. We need to hold on to the language, and hold on to the reality. We can’t allow death to be re-imagined purely as a technical problem for the scientists.
But let’s also remember the real hope that we do have to offer of death defeated – not by our efforts, but by the glorious resurrection of our wonderful saviour:
For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 1 Corinthians 15:22-26
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