This is a guest post by Greg Linster, a graduate student studying economics at the University of Denver. He blogs at Coffee Theory about things philosophical and shares aphorisms (almost daily) at Aphoristic Cocktails.
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death is the latest book by British political philosopher John Gray, and it explores the intellectual origins of the modern transhumanist movement in painstaking depth. Be forewarned, the book is not exactly a cheery read. However, Gray’s analysis is incredibly poignant and of utmost importance if we are to really understand what it means to be human.
In The Gay Science, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?
In a world that has become increasingly secularized, I think Nietzsche presciently understood that science would become heralded as the new religion. Technology, not a traditional deity, would then become the natural place to look for a human Savior and the Singularity would signal the technological Rapture.
The scientific quest for immortality, however, can trace its roots back to the psychical investigations that began in the late nineteenth-century, and the storied history behind this bizarre pursuit to use science in order to cheat death is largely the subject of this book.
There is a scene in the documentary Transcendent Man where Ray Kurzweil, on the verge of shedding a tear, shows that he is on the brink of an existential crisis. Kurzweil, like many of us, seems to struggle with the fact that all human life ends, and in order to assuage his fears he has become a prominent new age believer. And he is not alone in this belief either; in fact, there is a growing transhumanist movement that is spreading around the globe.
The Singularity, according to Gray, is best understood as a version of process theology. “Just as the Bolshevik God-builders imagined a deified humanity, so a number of twentieth-century theologians, mostly American, imagined God emerging from within the human world.” In this narrative, according to Gray, the likes of Kurzweil see God as the end-point of evolution and instead of a God that creates humans, humans are God in the making.
Darwin and the God-Builders
The first section of the book, “Cross-Correspondences,” is largely about the moral philosopher and economist Henry Sidgwick. However, Gray also discusses the importance of Darwin’s role in creating the new religion. Interestingly, we learn that Darwin never fully accepted the implications of his own theory of natural selection. Gray writes: “He knew that evolution cares nothing for humans or their values — it moves, as he put it, like the wind — but he could not hold on to this truth, because it means evolution is a process without a goal.” Most of Darwin’s followers have failed to acknowledge this teleological implication of their beloved theory too.
The second part of the book titled “God-Builders” is about the Russian God-Builders, who believed that death could be defeated using the powers of science. The section opens with a disturbing quote from Lenin: “Some day an ape will pick up a human skull and wonder where it came from”. In this section, we learn that H.G. Wells (the father of science-fiction) also failed to acknowledge the teleological implications of Darwinism. Wells believed that “an intelligent few — scientists, engineers, aviators, commissars — could seize control of evolution and lead the species to a better future…eventually, humans would become like gods.” Thus, the new religion was conceived.
This new religion was further embraced by a few of the great 20th-century European intellectuals. In fact, one member of the nineteenth-century Russian intelligentsia, Maxim Gorky, was discontented with the fate of humanity in a fashion eerily similar to that of Wells. Gorky would go on to become one of the pioneers of the “God-building” movement, which Gray describes as, “A kind of secular mystery cult…in which occultism and science marched hand in hand”. Furthermore, “The God-builders believed a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.” As history shows us, the Bolsheviks would try to, often in a brutal fashion, implement this idea. Tragically, however, as Gray put it, “Unnumbered humans had to die, so that a new humanity could be free of death.”
The Immortalization Commission
And what about the title of the book? Days after Lenin’s death, Leonid Krasin published an article in the communist newspaper Izvestiia titled “The Architectural Immortalization of Lenin.” Later, the Funeral Commission that was set up to organize Lenin’s burial was renamed the Immortalization Commission, hence the title of the book.
The Russians obsession with death, however, is merely a microcosm for humanity as a while. As Gray writes, “The hopes that led to Lenin’s corpse being sealed in a Cubist mausoleum have not been surrendered in the slightest. Cheating aging by a low-calorie diet, uploading one’s mind into a super-computer, migrating into outer space . . . Longing for everlasting life, humans show that they remain the death-defined animal.” Would Nietzsche be surprised?
“The irony of scientific progress,” writes Gray, “is that in solving human problems it creates problems that are not humanly soluble.” Science has certainly given humans an ability to manipulate the natural world in a way that no other animal is capable of; however, it has not given us the power to redesign and tailor the laws of the universe according to our desires. That, however, has not stopped the chase for immortality. Those realists, like myself, who oppose it are often called dystopians.
Those who have read Gray’s previous works (particularly False Dawn, Straw Dogs and Black Mass) certainly understand that he has a unique knack for crushing the quixotic hopes of dreamers like Kurzweil. Ultimately, however, this book reminded me what many transhumanists fail to realize: that without death we cannot truly have life. As such, what a travesty of life it would be to achieve a machine-like immortality!