Immortality

The Archdruid Report has an interesting recent post on religious sensibility, which the author John Michael Greer defines as a

substructure of perceptions, emotions and intuitions on which religions are built, and to which religions owe both the deep similarities that link them to other faiths of the same general age and historical origin, and the equally deep divides that separate them from faiths of different ages and origins.

I’ve been fascinated with this subject for a long time, but it leapt into stark relief when I started doing some research for a novel I wanted to write, set in the late 1400’s in Italy. Renaissance Italy is practically yesterday in historical terms: it’s very nearly what we would call the modern world. Yet as I read, I was increasingly astonished by how differently people from that time viewed the world.

Or we can take the following from Barbara Tuchmann’s book, A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century, dealing with a world only a century earlier than that:

People of the Middle Ages existed under mental, moral, and physical circumstances so different from our own as to constitute almost a foreign civilization.

Greer’s post explores the idea that we’re on the cutting edge of a new religious sensibility, perhaps as big as the one Europe and the Levant saw two millennia ago when the idea of praxis was replaced by credo: when religious faith became more important than religious practice.

His previous post — a fun little speculation about what the next ten billion years on Earth might look like — turned out to be a rather sharp litmus test for this predicted shift in religious sensibility. I understand it caused quite a stir in Futurist circles, and he was accused by at least one person of being a “pocket vest version of Sauron.” That’s actually kind of cute.

A lot of people were disturbed by Greer’s vision of the future. And yet, paradoxically, a lot of other people — myself included — saw it as both natural and comforting.

strive-on-31I’ve been wrestling with this new religious sensibility for most of my life. I think the side image to the right exemplifies it admirably: this was inscribed on the Engineering Building at the University of Wyoming when I was an undergraduate.

“…Strive on — the control of nature is won not given…”

This is the old sensibility. It is at the core of the Futurist vision, which still has flying cars and spacecraft, and which asserts that Progress is the nature of Life Itself — per ardua ad astra, “through adversity to the stars” — and is thus inevitable; that Man is the pinnacle of an evolutionary progress that has been going on since the first flagella wiggled in the primordial muck, and will eventually be replaced, but only by his own distant descendant, homo superior. We must therefore strive to overcome Nature in the name of Life, else we represent anti-Life: a pocket vest version of Sauron.

The new sensibility can’t be precisely described, because it hasn’t yet come into existence; we still struggle along with the degenerate and degenerating remains of the old religious sensibility. But one of its likely features is to intuit that humanity is part of nature, rather than its master. We can’t control nature: we can at most dance with it. The struggle for the control of nature is not only futile, it is at best misguided, and at worst, suicidal.

It seems to me that where this has come to the sharp point of hysteria is in the idea of the sanctity of individual life. This idea is all around us, like fleas or a bad smell.

I recently badmouthed the film Olympus has Fallen over this issue. But the sentiment is everywhere in the entertainment world: everyone is ready to turn over the empire, or the world, or the entire bloody universe to the bad guy just to try to save the life of a little girl, or a dog, or a cute hamster — or (more typically) the smoking-hot proto-girlfriend the hero met ten minutes ago. There is simply nothing more important than cute bunny-rabbit sentimentality or the prospect of getting laid (and producing a litter of new little individuals).

It’s not just entertainment: this is also part of our real-world politics. We measure war by casualty counts, not victories. We measure the worth of nations by infant mortality, not literacy rate or number of musical composers per capita. And without the idea that the sanctity of individual human life is above all other moral considerations, what on earth is the abortion fuss all about?

For the Futurists, the moral problem is that unless we keep on expanding technology, and energy sources, and lebensraum — unless we learn to control nature and force it to do things that aren’t natural — we aren’t going to be able to feed our exponentially growing hordes of individual people, each and every one of whom is more important than any other consideration. We have to develop new energy sources. We have to expand into space. It’s a moral imperative: we have no choice, because if we don’t, lots of people are going to die.

Newsflash: all seven billion people on this planet are going to die. All of their children will die, too. And all of their grandchildren. And their great-great-great-grandchildren. Every last human on the planet is going to die.

It’s called the Circle of Life: a geometric metaphor used to describe the nature of Nature.

Futurists don’t accept the nature of Nature as a given, of course, so the Holy Grail of Futurism is personal immortality, achieved through science and technology. They have different visions of this: for some, it is a biological Fountain of Youth that reverses the aging process, while for others, it is the idea of transferring consciousness into an indestructible computer system. Personal immortality is viewed by Futurists as self-evidently desirable.

Immortality is hardly a new idea, but in the past, it was viewed as a superficially desirable wish that — if granted — became a curse or doom. In Medieval Europe, for instance, there was the tale of the Wandering Jew, said to be a man who mocked Christ on his road to crucifixion and was cursed to wander the earth until Christ returned. Further back was the tale of Eos, Goddess of Dawn, and her mortal lover, Tithonos; when Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonos immortality, she neglected to ask for eternal youth as well, and so Tithonos descended into deathless senile decrepitude, unable to speak or move, shut away in a room to babble senselessly for all eternity.

The tales of the Golden Apples of Youth run through both Classical and Norse mythology, and always portray the apples tucked away in some safe location, available only to the gods, who are few in number and barren. In the Levantine tale of the Tree of Life in the Garden of Eden, people are driven out of the Garden so that they do not obtain immortality.

At the root of all these traditional dooms is the simple observation that if people continued to breed and never die, there would be, within a few short generations, no room for anyone to lie down to sleep: our compressed bodies would literally push our neighbors into the seas and pile up in ever-rising mounds of aging, deathless flesh. This is surely a vision of Hell.

But eternal youth is not much better, because what is memory but the aging of the mind? If we erase all aging, we erase memory as well: we remain, in all respects, exactly the same, our memories, experience, and wisdom erased with each rejuvenation. If we instead retained our memories forever, they would eventually overwhelm our mental capacity and drive us mad. The best we could manage would be to remain young forever while recycling our memory, gradually replacing older memories with more recent memories. After a few thousand years, our earliest memories would be gone.

When as look at it just a little differently, however, it’s clear that individual physical death solves the whole problem rather neatly. We purge our old memories by dying, and the new memories are taken up, not by us, but by our children. We pass along only our most important thoughts and memories, through stories, culture, and civilization.

We already have the most desirable form of eternal youth. It just isn’t individual eternal youth.

The Futurists who want to add ten, twenty, or fifty years to the human lifespan need to answer the question, how much is enough? Why is “threescore and ten” not enough? Under the old religious sensibility, the answer is self-evident: more life is always better. As the new sensibility takes hold, that answer will become as absurd as the idea of immortality without eternal youth.


This is particularly poignant for me today, in last night’s passing of Andreé, my children’s grandmother. She was a second mother to me, and a dear friend. She lives on in my memory, and her children’s,  and my children’s.

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