Engineering Eden: The quest for eternal life

Editor’s note: This post is related to The Enhancing Life Project, funded by the John Templeton Foundation. The project is comprised of an interdisciplinary group of scholars who examine aspirations that move individuals and communities into the future, and the intersection between spirituality and technology.

If you’re like most people, you may associate the phrase “eternal life” with religion: The promise that we can live forever if we just believe in God. You probably don’t associate the phrase with an image of scientists working in a lab, peering at worms through microscopes or mice skittering through boxes. But you should.

The quest for eternal life has only recently begun to step out from behind the pews and into the petri dish.

I recently discussed the increasing feasibility of the transhumanist vision due to continuing advancements in biotech, gene- and cell-therapies. These emerging technologies, however, don’t erase the fact that religion – not science – has always been our salve for confronting death’s inevitability. For believers, religion provides an enduring mechanism (belief and virtue) behind the perpetuity of existence, and shushes our otherwise frantic inability to grasp: How can I, as a person, just end?

The Mormon transhumanist Lincoln Cannon argues that science, rather than religion, offers a tangible solution to this most basic existential dilemma. He points out that it is no longer tenable to believe in eternal life as only available in heaven, requiring the death of our earthly bodies before becoming eternal, celestial beings.

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Would a rational person choose to believe in an uncertain, spiritual afterlife over the tangible persistence of one’s own familiar body and the comforting security of relationships we’ve fostered over a lifetime of meaningful interactions?

From a secular perspective, the choice seems obvious. But from a religious perspective, weighing faith and science is not as clear. It’s not even clear whether a choice must be made.

If you’re Mormon, for example, you believe that humans should and will become Gods themselves, a view consistent with transhumanist ambitions to take human capabilities and nature into their own hands.

From a Christian perspective, too, there is no inherent contradiction between religious principles and the use of science to extend our life spans or change who and what we fundamentally are. Francis Schaeffer, credited with launching evangelicals and fundamentalists into politics in the late 1970s, said that if he were offered a pill to stop aging, he would take it in a heartbeat. “Because mankind’s duty is – as much as it’s within our power – to undo the work of The Fall,” he said.

Schaeffer was referring to Adam and Eve’s rebellion and subsequent fall from divine grace in the Garden of Eden, an event believed by evangelicals to be the cause of all death, disease and suffering in the world.

Enhancing human capability and putting a stop to aging buys us more time to reverse original sin and do God’s work more effectively. Spreading compassion and love to our fellow human beings and pursuing the moral virtues extolled in the scriptures may require better tools, greater reach, and radically longer timeframes.

Perhaps you’ll be surprised to hear that the Catholic Church strongly supports extending life and health, citing Jesus’s commandment to disciples to go forth and heal the sick, even raise the dead, in his name. Some Lutherans, too, might see no essential contradiction between religious principles and the quest for earthly longevity.

Ted Anton, who wrote a book about the science and business behind longevity research, has long been head usher at his Christian Lutheran Church. He told us, “Whatever created [our technological] capabilities is endlessly interesting, beautiful, complex, and probably holds a moral requirement that we are children of God. We owe it to each other to research to the very best of our ability, with a goal of helping those who need the help first.”

The futurist, Ted Peters, a professor at the Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, said that his religiosity encourages rather than prohibits his support for even controversial technologies, like emotional bio-enhancements. A neuro-enhancement for compassion? A genetic fix for selfishness?

Peters said, “Bioethicists want to defend human freedom, so they don’t want us [bio-enhancing] against our will.” He continued, “But I myself would be happy to give up my freedom if my heart would be sanctified so that I’m loving all day long. If you could do that with a hypodermic needle, give me a shot. I’ll take it.”

Loving all day long doesn’t sound so bad. Still, the policy implications of an emotionally bio-enhanced populace spark fear somewhere deep in my gut. Does everyone get to sit and love all day? Or will we love in shifts, to make sure someone is running the nation, or constructing our roads? Is it possible to love while driving effectively in LA traffic? You’d never get anywhere, letting everyone pass in front.

Part of me feels lucky not having any religious beliefs to reconcile with the engine of science which, to me, just seems like it will keep running faster and faster until the wheels fly off and we begin to fly. But other times I think, what deep satisfaction people must have to understand the commotion of scientific progress within a framework that provides meaning and context for our goals and concepts of self. Without these, anticipating the future is “like a vase giving shape to emptiness,” to use Michael West’s poetic description.

While science may be heralded as a “new religion,” it is by definition devoid of values. It’s a method more than a system of meaning. If we admit that meaning and discovery provide fundamentally different enhancements to the human (or post-human) experience, perhaps there is room for both in our increasingly long futures.

-By Kristin Kostick, Ph.D., research associate in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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