At Death’s Door: Thoughts on Immortality and Spirituality

A few months ago there was another breakthrough in geriatrics. This time, scientists were actually able to reverse aging in mice.

draftimgTruthThe very thought of reversing aging has been considered insane for most of the history of science. Getting old happens — to animals, plants, buildings, planets, and stars. Bodies, like everything else, just wears out, and there isn’t much you could do about it. Sure, you could slow aging, you could keep healthy and avoid microbes and so on, and maybe double your lifespan. But reversing aging? Living forever? That’s crazy talk.

There’s no chance for us
Its all decided for us
This world has only one sweet moment set aside for us

Who wants to live forever
Who wants to live forever? …
Who dares to love forever?
When love must die…
–Queen

Humans have been ambivalent about immortality for a long, long, time. You can see it in our myths. People who want to live forever are almost always portrayed as shallow fools who end up living forever old, or mourning the deaths of their friends, or committing suicide, or similarly unhappy. The moral: quality of life is more important than quantity.

But by the time my grandchildren are born, I might be able to go to the doctor and get started on a simple drug regimen that would make me biologically younger than I am right now. I might have a lot of quality and quantity of life.

Imagine you were given that choice. Would you? Should you? It’s worth thinking about, because regardless of your own choice, some people certainly will.


The Vaccination Against Death

If this becomes possible, people will start living longer and longer. It won’t be a social security nightmare, with a huge population of senile, frail oldsters living off of the taxes of a small number of young workers. These long-lived people will probably be rich, since they’ll be more easily able to afford the drug regimens. And they won’t have to retire, though they may choose to. What they will be is consumers — rich, idle, populous, and eternal. Economies will adjust over decades and centuries to give these consumers what they want. (And what will they want? Travel, adventure, luxury. Buy stocks in cruise lines now.)

But they won’t just consume. Some of them will produce amazing things. Imagine Albert Einstein, or Tolkien, or Steve Jobs, or da Vinci, or some of our other geniuses, immortal. And there will be more of them: long, long life will give many people the chance to develop their minds and arts to amazing degrees. For someone born 100 years from now, it may simply be impossible to reach the top of your profession, since so many other geniuses have a head start. (There will still be work for young people. There is always work to do. Whether they’ll be paid well is another matter…)

This will create a huge disparity in lifestyle between the rich and poor for a while. But if the death vaccine is like other vaccines, then in a relatively short time, the drug regimen will become more and more inexpensive and widely available, until almost everyone can live forever if they wish.

Then what? Most people imagine disaster: overpopulation, which leads to disease, starvation, war. This is what often happens, among humans and other animals, when there is overpopulation. We will mismanage our resources, and pollute and overburden the Earth. Then civilization will collapse, the secret of immortality will be lost, and we’ll return to the Stone Age.

But I don’t think it’s that simple.

The Right Length of a Life

Immortality by itself does not necessarily lead to overpopulation. There are some species that live a very long time — tortoises, for example — and they are not in danger of overpopulating the Earth. As far as science can determine, there is no reason a yew tree should ever die; some have been estimated at almost 10,000 years old. And microorganisms that reproduce asexually — through division, rather than sex — never really “die” at all.

The lifespan of a species is determined not by how fast their bodies wear out, but by internal genetic clocks that turn on different parts of the aging process at different times. Our bodies are designed to live a certain time, and then stop. Death is timed and controlled by evolution, partly in order to keep the population at a reasonable size and maximize the chances of the survival of the young, and partly in order to allow mutations and genetic drift to drive evolution itself.

But that simple equation doesn’t apply to humans. In fact, we started cheating death a long time ago. Most mammals, including the other great apes, have about one billion heartbeats in their lifetimes, but humans have almost three times that. In other words, we live about three times as long as we “should” compared to other animals of our size and type. Why?

The change appears to have happened sometime in the last forty or fifty thousand years; and no one is sure why, but the best guess is that the key was language.

Without language, information about how to survive can only be passed from generation to generation by life and death. If you die before reproducing, you don’t pass your survival skills down, and that’s a good thing. With language, you can pass your survival skills down by talking. Evolution is replaced by education.

With language, an old grandmother who remembers the last famine, and how to survive by eating certain roots, is an asset to her tribe, even if she has to be hand-fed mashed gruel by the young folks because she’s lost all her teeth.

So humans have already done an end-run around the edges of our lifespans. There’s no reason to think we won’t do it again. And there’s no reason to think it will necessarily lead to overpopulation and apocalypse, or even terrible social consequences. It will be up to us — it will be our choice.

The Vaccination Against Jesus

Let’s take this whole discussion a step further. We’ve talked about the biological and social consequences of immortality. What about the spiritual consequences?

Some of the most popular religions in the world actually talk a lot about how great death is, especially for the righteous. Live well, they say, and you’ll get a great reward for your trouble: your body will die, but you won’t. (Implicit in that promise is that quantity of life is better than quality of life. Did you notice?) Some of the followers of these religions actually commit suicide (or take terrible risks) in order to reach heaven faster. For these religions, immortality drugs could be considered sinful, or at the very least, profoundly stupid. After all, since you only get to meet God after you die, why would you want to be alive any longer than you had to?

Other religions suggest that, righteous or not, you will be reborn in another body after death. You might think that this would mean that immortality is somewhat immaterial; you were going to spend your time on Earth anyway. But most who believe in reincarnation allow for rebirth in different worlds, in various heavens and hells, and in all sorts of different bodies, some of which are better or worse than others for spiritual advancement. If you’re stuck as a human, your spiritual development might be stuck as well. (Although as it happens, the human form is often cited as one of the best ones for breaking out of the cycle of reincarnation entirely…)

When pagans speak of death, we often talk about it as an essential part of life — part of the eternal arising and dissipating of all that is. Everything has its beginning, its prime, and its death; and seeking to interrupt or lengthen the cycle unnaturally is doomed to failure.

As a pagan myself, I agree with this. I also believe that our bodies are sacred, that they give rise to our spirits and give form to them, and that once I die, my spirit will be irrevocably changed; and whatever continues after death may or may not be recognizable as “me”. But I also believe that humans are part of nature; and because of that I believe that what we do is “natural” in a very deep sense. We have lengthened our lives in the past, by using language to change evolution’s sex-death equation. We may yet lengthen our lives in the future, using genetics. This will not, I feel, be unnatural or supernatural, but a new kind of natural.

Like so much of human experience, it will not be bad or good, unless we make it so.

“Death is a door. Go through the door… Or not.” — Odin, in meditation

Oddments:

The Pagan Calendar 2011.

I have received word from lulu.com, the publisher of our calendar, that for the next few days all calendars are 30% off. This means that instead of being $29.99, it will be about $19.99. You can get the sale price by registering at the site and using the sale code SEASON305. We have no control over this sale or its length, but we figured that if you were considering buying one of our calendars, now might be a good time…!

Remember, if price is an issue, you can always download the Calendar or the Daybook as a pdf for a donation of any amount.

The Vision of the Pagan: Creationism and American Exceptionalism.

I recently got a new blogging gig over at Pagan+Politics, a blog of political opinion pieces written by pagans. The articles I post here are supposed to be ‘immortal’ — no pun intended — i.e. not tied to any particular time or events. Ideally, they will be just as useful to people two or ten years from now. But the times are moving quickly, and I wanted the opportunity to comment on current events. In this first article, I talk about the link between Creationism and American exceptionalism. Let me know what you think!
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