By Paul M. Lewis
There’s an interesting article in the April 3, 2017 edition of The New Yorker entitled “The God Pill” by Tad Friend. It discusses the money invested, and the lengths people are going to, for the purpose of coming up with a medically or technologically assisted prolongation of life. In some instances even, there is talk of living forever, whatever that may actually mean for a body. The impetus, and the money behind the energy to engage in this kind of research, comes mainly from Silicon Valley billionaires. A number of different options are being looked at, but they fall mostly into two categories. One has to do with fixing genes that are thought to cause aging, turning them off, or tweaking them in certain ways, so as to slow down or even reverse the effects of the passage of time. The other more or less gives up on that approach and looks instead to a science that will find ways of creating replacement parts, ones that can be slotted in and take over from badly damaged or non-functioning ones (like putting a new carburetor into an engine). There’s even talk of a third possibility, a kind of wholesale transferring of one’s consciousness into “the cloud.” Apparently, or so the thinking goes, if you live in the cloud, you live forever.
Although enthusiasts like to claim otherwise, most of this is likely only to be a possibility that might take place, if it does so at all, in the distant future. Still, it’s no stretch of the imagination to see that things are already beginning, if slowly. Current medical science regularly puts new hearts, livers, kidneys etc. into people’s bodies. Still, such replacement parts come from other human beings, not off the shelf.
Unless you are someone with access to the almost unimaginable (for most of us, anyway) disposable wealth of the superrich, much of the above might just as well be science fiction. The majority of us are happy enough if we’re able to get regular medical coverage, the kind that takes care of ordinary illnesses that plague human beings. We’re delighted that doctors have antibiotics that can cure bacterial infections, which in the past might have brought a slow and painful death, or that medical knowledge has advanced to give us actual–if mechanical–replacement parts, like new knees or hips, or stents to open up clogged coronary arteries. In fact, these days we breathe a sigh of relief when we get to keep medical coverage at all, given the recent politics of wrath that would take coverage away from millions.
So, Silicon Valley billionaires don’t want to die? What a surprise! If you were to ask most of us, would the answer be so different? Obviously, the knee-jerk reaction of most living beings is to want to go on and on. And this is so whether you believe in an afterlife or not. Of course, there are exceptions here and there, like brainwashed suicide bombers, or poor souls so despondent they decide they no longer wish to live. But these are outliers. The tendency for almost everyone is to say they’d like to keep on living, even if we may not have thought through very well what that would exactly entail.
What would it really mean for us to live on endlessly? It’s not even easy to envision, this notion of going on decade after decade, century after century, in the same body we know and love. All of our experience as a species predisposes us to look for an ending in whatever we undertake. And this is true in all of nature; plants, animals, and insects all die. A few live long lives, like the Arctic Sea Sponge that can go on for 1500 years, and the Methuselah of them all, the California Bristlecone Pine that is reported to be 4,765 years old. But even these ancient ones come to an end. Suns, planets, whole galaxies die eventually, so why should we be an exception? Even practically speaking, there are difficulties and challenges. Where would we be, for example, if large numbers of people never passed on? Would they also stop having children? Because, if not, projections related to the overpopulation of the globe—as dire as they currently are—would quickly angle up entirely off the charts, in the most devastating of ways.
But practical issues aside (as important as they are), the real question may be: Why would we wish to live forever? Here we pass on from medicine and technology to matters more in the philosophical or even spiritual realm. How would it feel to live on and on, if friends and loved ones did not as well? Of course, a billionaire could pay for a few selected people to also be given the same treatment he or she got, though most of us could not do so. But even if we could, would that be enough? How many of us would really want to keep on going long enough to witness the horrors of what the future is very likely to offer? If there were appalling and shockingly devastating wars, and horrific, cataclysmic natural events in the past surely there will be others—and even worse ones—in the years to come. Given the already out of control population increases, dire new technologies of war, and the likelihood of massive destruction due to the ever-increasing warming of the globe, is this something we really wish to go out of our way to stay around and witness? Isn’t it bad enough that we condemn our own children and grandchildren to have to endure what is likely to come, due in part at least to our lack of foresight and unwillingness to act?
In centuries past, eternal life was thought of exclusively as the business of churches. Christians and many others cringed at the thought of dying unshriven, outside of God’s good grace, and winding up in hell forever. But is the traditional notion of heaven any better, sitting around in some idealized space somewhere, whatever it may look like, and doing, well, what exactly? Yet, whether or not one believes in such a scenario, is it reasonable to think that endless life in the body, or in “the cloud” somewhere, would be so much better?
Personally, my choice is to opt out of this endless life-in-the-body thing, or some super-cyber connectivity (who knows how one’s personality, or even one’s thoughts, would survive there; and who maintains the system, how does it keep itself going?). Better, far better, to concentrate on living each moment of one’s normal everyday life purposefully, conscientiously and compassionately; to care for one’s fellow beings (and not just one’s fellow human beings); and to honor and celebrate the earth as a living entity, rather than chase after some will-o-the-wisp concoction of everlasting life on earth. As if the earth itself would last forever, anyway. Far more appealing, to my mind, is the Hindu notion of God referred to as “Sat, Chit, Ananda.” It means “ever existing, ever new bliss.” A life not in a never-ending body, or tethered to some mega-web, but living instead in the constant awareness of a continually new and joy-filled consciousness.
So, live in the body? Yes, absolutely, and to the fullest extent, for whatever our time may be. But what has a beginning also has to have an end. If whole galaxies and star systems can die, so probably can we. Billionaires might do better to spend their money helping the poor and the dispossessed make a better life in the moment, rather than searching for some would-be Fountain of Youth they’ll never find.
In the meantime, I’ll keep on trying to attain a consciousness that transcends the body and anything material. Or, better, one that includes the body and all of matter. That’s not a quest limited only to the super-wealthy; it’s open to everybody. A consciousness that lives with the body or without it, now and later, here and there, in ever-new happiness, forever and forever more—now, there’s a “God pill” I can go for.