Why the Technological Conquest of Death Won’t Make Us Happy
“The mission of the Immortality Institute is to conquer the blight of involuntary death.”¹ It may be the world’s most ambitious mission statement. But it’s a dream attracting many scientists, technologists, and futurists. These transhumanists expect that new scientific breakthroughs will allow technicians to do everything from injecting disease-fighting nanobots into our bloodstreams to uploading our brains to the cloud. The transhumanists hold out the promise of divinity, achieved through a project of self-will and self-definition whereby we massively increase our capacities and extend our lives into eternity. Eternal life no longer need be the gift of God: the angels barring Eden with their flaming swords can be defeated, and the fruit of the Tree of Life will soon be within our grasp.
Fundamental to this project is the conviction that control over nature is an unqualified good. This arises from the technological habit of mind that dominates late modernity. For the autonomous modern self, everything is an object to be manipulated: material reality, other people, and ultimately our own selves. All human problems will eventually yield to the application of technical-rational means. Transhumanism may not yet be mainstream, but its proponents rely on a widely-shared cultural assumption when they take for granted the desirability of massively increased human capacities in every possible direction.
Human beings were not always so optimistic about the liberation of the will. The pagan philosophers and Christian saints had agreed that true flourishing required the acquisition of self-control through ascetic disciplines. One must deny one’s base urges to align the self with its true nature. Thus limitations that frustrate desire may be salutary, pruning the untamed will so it may grow up into God. But the transhumanists are in too much of a hurry for the slow acquisition of virtue. They resent as obstacles to self-realisation the old “givens” that once defined human nature. Flourishing now requires that the will not only be unleashed, but furnished with godlike capacities so that no desire may go unrealized.
Of course, the approach of death mocks human pretensions of mastery. The ancients believed the experience of aging provided the opportunity to gain wisdom. The weakening of the body, the cooling of desire, and awareness of death’s approach, offered insight into the meaning of life and one’s destiny. But the transhumanists see no beauty in this perspective. The inexorable loss of freedom, autonomy, and control: this modern man dreads above all. As John Gray observes insightfully, “The pursuit of immortality through science is only incidentally a project aiming to defeat death. At bottom it is an attempt to escape contingency and mystery.”²
If we define our personhood by our capabilities, then the physical and mental decline of old age is a devastating prospect, and the onset of dementia, for example, represents the loss of the self even before physical death. Therefore, the conquest of aging and its associated ills is at the top of the transhumanist agenda. Dylan Thomas once urged us,
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light—³
but the poet’s impotent lament can now be resolved with hard-headed engineering. Aging must not be merely managed or minimised, it must be erased altogether through emerging technologies, so the transhumanists can live as long as they please without suffering any diminishment of their powers.
Some condemn this quest without reservation. Bioconservatives such as Leon Kass and Martha Nussbaum argue passionately that we should be satisfied with humanity as it is.⁴ A genuine human life seeks flourishing entirely within the boundaries of ordinary human life, and our finitude, including aging and death, must be embraced as that which makes us human. In fact, “it is exactly the evanescence of human accomplishments and strivings that give them dignity,” and to transcend these things would destroy our humanity.⁵ Christians have much to learn from these thinkers. We affirm that God not only created us as embodied, limited and contingent beings, he declared man and woman to be “very good” (Gen 1:31). If true humanity involves dependence on God and self-giving love for others, then a dramatic increase in our capacity for self-sufficiency, far from enriching us, may profoundly dehumanise us. Yet we must go beyond the bioconservatives to insist on a vision of flourishing beyond the purely immanent frame. Adam and Eve may have been formed out of the dust, but they were made for communion with their Maker. Although we can only speculate on what was held out to them in the Garden, ever since the Fall we are aware that things are not the way they are supposed to be. Thus although the Preacher in Ecclesiastes acknowledges the immanent frame when he observes that “there is a time to be born, and a time to die”, he is also aware that “God has put eternity in our hearts” (Ecc 3,11). We cannot help longing for transcendence.
Thus Christians acknowledge the thirst for immortality as a basic human desire, and we perceive in the transhumanist project a latent religious impulse. Death is profoundly unnatural, an alien intruder in God’s creation. But the details of the transhumanist vision are quite at odds with the Christian longing for everlasting life — the resurrection of the body into the world to come. Genuine transcendence is not an escape from human nature, but the fulfilment of its original design. Even when patristic authors speak of divinization — that is, being made partakers of the divine nature — they stress that we do not thereby cease to be human. Thus Maximus the Confessor states, “He completely divinized us, without in any way violating or essentially altering our nature.”⁶ Deification “is both an ecstasy out of human nature and a fulfillment of its proper destiny” — a destiny defined and secured by God.⁷
But for the transhumanists, there is no “human nature”, and the only design they recognize is whatever purpose we choose to give to our plastic selves. In this quest nothing is too sacred to discard, not even our own bodies. Therefore, if cellular aging cannot be reversed, transhumanists are quite willing to take more drastic measures. Perhaps as our limbs and organs wear out, they will be replaced (and upgraded) with bionic prosthetics. Even better, we might transfer the information in our brains to a computer, so that we can live forever through virtual immortality, freed from the limitations of the body at last. This desire has a venerable pedigree. Brent Waters points out the echoes of the old Manichaean contempt for the body, resented as the prison of the soul.⁸ Nothing should be allowed to fetter our wills.
Is the unconstrained exercise of the will in every-increasing power a satisfying vision of eternal life? The TV series The Good Place concluded with the main characters (and one demon) escaping hell-disguised-as-heaven and arriving in Paradise.⁹ Here every possible human desire is satisfied. But one by one, after many centuries, the characters exhaust any meaningful reason to continue living, and walk through a doorway into self-annihilation. It was the only plausible way the show’s writers could end the series, because infinite life without an infinite source of satisfaction will eventually become too tedious to endure.
Paul Scherz observes that modern man thinks of the good life as a collection of experiences. The chief aim is to “have more wonderful vacations, try out the latest restaurant, engage with the trending sport.” The transhumanists offer a kind of technological salvation by offering unlimited time in which to consume without limits. Yet infinite life extension does not address the anxiety created by the acceleration of modern life, the lack of rootedness and connection, and the insatiable desire for experiences without transcendent purpose. Transhumanism offers a massive upgrade in human capacity without supplying any telos worthy of immortality. This is no solution to the deepest desires of humanity, for as Josef Pieper astutely observes, “The allaying of the thirst cannot consist simply in the mere continued existence of the thirster.”¹⁰
Finding transcendence requires going outside the self. The master story of the Christian faith is that the Son of God relinquished his power, took on the form of a slave, and died on the cross. Naked and vulnerable, bound to the stake, he voluntarily surrendered his freedom, control, and autonomy as an act of self-giving love. As the archetypal human being, Christ shows us what it means to be truly human. Thus the way of the cross is, paradoxically, the path of true human flourishing. Our descent into death may then become a profound identification with Christ. The awareness of our embodied frailty, our humble dependance on others, and our sheer contingency may be received as invitations to childlike trust in God, the only state of lasting rest. Our humblest experience of creatureliness and dependency can thus become a revelation of divine love, as our very contingency reminds us that we are held in the hands of God.
In comparison with this profound experience of communion with God, the transhumanist vision appears quite constricted. Their ultimate goods are self-definition, self-actualization, self-sufficiency, and self-absorption — the familiar obsessions of late modernity. In the end, nothing exists outside the self. “Love is one of the fundamental aspects of human existence,” acknowledge transhumanists Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg. But they quickly add: “It is to a large part biologically determined. We should use our growing knowledge of the neuroscience of love to enhance the quality of love by biological manipulation.”¹¹ Hence even the Other can be dispensed with; the judicious regulation of dopamine, norepinephrine, and oxytocin levels can induce the chemical experience of love far more reliably than any human lover with their own will resistant to our control. Thus is in the transhumanist vision, the autonomous self is eternally curved in on itself, free at last of any need for the Other.
The Christian vision of human flourishing, on the other hand, is emphatically and literally ecstatic: our telos lies in God, the source of all being. As Calvin remarks, “For whatever the philosophers may have ever said of the chief good, it was nothing but cold and vain, for they confined man to himself, while it is necessary for us to go out of ourselves to find happiness. The chief good of man is nothing else but union with God.”¹² The patristic and medieval theologians before him taught that the highest good, the summon bonum, for human beings was beholding the face of God. Gregory of Nyssa speaks of taking in “the luminous outpoured rays of the divine nature,”¹³ an experience that satisfies but never satiates human nature, for God has so formed us that our destiny is to “never to stop growing towards what is better and never placing any limit on perfection.”¹⁴ Thus human beings are called to embrace our embodied creatureliness as a divine gift, while ever ascending by the Spirit as we increasingly participate in the infinite life of God through Christ.
No other vision but the infinite goodness of God can satisfy the human longing for transcendence. Indeed, as Hans Boersma observes, “when such infinite desire is directed away from its proper telos of the vision of God in Christ, the objects of desire inevitably end up holding their immanent sway over human existence in frightening ways, holding us in a form of bondage that, ironically, we have willed into existence by our own misshapen desires.”¹⁵ The technological mastery proposed by the transhumanists bears a disturbing resemblance to the self-willed autonomy offered by the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is for this reason that the Eastern Orthodox theologian Brandon Gallaher argues forcefully that transhumanism is Satanic. “Unlike the case of deification — which assumes the patient, arduous self-work of askesis (ascetic discipline) in Christ — autodivinisation, and transhumanism is a contemporary instance of this, is the impatient attempt at seizing our divine inheritance before we are ready for its responsibility.” Without the painful process of being conformed to Christ in self-giving love as we follow him in the path of the cross, the quest to transcend human limits will become the self-absorbed craving for power that characterises Lucifer himself.¹⁶
Yet even in the eschaton, we will remain contingent creatures, human beings still, held in the love of God. Instead of escaping our bodies to become pure spirits (or information stored in the cloud), our bodies will be returned to us, risen, exalted, and glorified. As St. Paul puts it, “The body that is sown is perishable, it is raised imperishable; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power; it is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor 15:42–44). The resurrection body will greatly transcend our current physical forms, yet Paul is not interested in upgraded capacities, per se. The point is that we will bear the image of Christ, the heavenly anthropos, the true human being, and rejoice in God’s victory over death in Christ. Whatever new capacities God graces us with, those powers will serve greater ends than themselves: beholding the face of God, reflecting the glory of Christ, and manifesting the reign of God in his new creation. That is the only transcendence worth seeking.
- Immortality Institute, The Scientific Conquest of Death: Essays on Infinite Lifespans (Buenos Aires: LibrosEnRed, 2004), 7, http://www.imminst.org/SCOD.pdf.
- John Gray, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), 213.
- Dylan Thomas, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” in Literature and Society: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, Nonfiction, eds. Pamela J. Annas and Robert C. Rosen, 4th Ed. (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 2006), 194.
- President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy: Biotechnology and the Pursuit of Happiness (Washington, DC: President’s Council on Bioethics, 2003), 287–90; and Martha Nussbaum, The Therapy of Desire: Theory and Practice in Hellenistic Ethics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996), 192–238.
- Paul Scherz, “Living Indefinitely and Living Fully: Laudato Si’ and the Value of the Present in Christian, Stoic, and Transhumanist Temporalities”, Theological Studies 79, no. 2 (2018), 360.
- Maximus the Confessor, Ambiguum 31.8 in Maximus the Confessor, On Difficulties in the Church Fathers: The Ambigua, ed. and trans. N. Constas (2 vols; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), II:49.
- Eugenia Torrance, “Acquiring Incorruption: Maximian Theosis and Scientific Transhumanism,” Studies in Christian Ethics, 32, no. 2 (2019), 180.
- Brent Waters, “Whose Salvation? Which Eschatology? Transhumanism and Christianity as Contending Salvific Religions”, in Transhumanism and Transcendence: Christian Hope in an Age of Technological Enhancement, ed. Ronald Cole-Turner (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press: 2011), 171.
- The Good Place, NBC, 2016–2020.
- Josef Pieper, Happiness and Contemplation, trans. Richard and Clara Winston (New York: Pantheon, 1958), 36.
- Julian Savulescu and Anders Sandberg, “Neuroenhancement of Love and Marriage: The Chemicals Between Us,” Neuroethics 1 (2008), 42.
- John Calvin on Heb. 4:10, Commentaries on the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Hebrews, trans. John Owen (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1853), 98.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On the Beatitudes”, trans. Stuart George Hall, in Gregory of Nyssa: Homilies on the Beatitudes: An English Version with Supporting Studies, ed. Hubertus R. Drobner and Albert Viciano (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 71.
- Gregory of Nyssa, “On Perfection”, in Saint Gregory of Nyssa: Ascetical Works, trans. Virginia Woods Callahan (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1999), p. 122. Cited by Boersma, 140.
- Hans Boersma, “Becoming Human in the Face of God: Gregory of Nyssa’s Unending Search for the Beatiﬁc Vision,” International Journal of Systematic Theology 17, no. 2 (April 2015), 151.
- Brandon Gallaher, “Godmanhood vs Mangodhood: An Eastern Orthodox Response to Transhumanism,” Studies in Christian Ethics 32, no. 2 (2019), 201.