I AM GRATEFUL FOR MODERN MEDICAL SCIENCE. Along with the good things passed down to me by my parents, I also inherited high blood pressure, arthritis, and chronic acid reflux. These conditions are fairly well controlled by medications that didn’t even exist when I was born. Modern surgical procedures were needed to deliver my daughter, and my recently arrived grandson. Without these procedures child and maybe mother may have died in both cases. “Natural” child birth used to be a common cause of early death.
But a broad stream running through practice and research in modern medicine seems to be an obsessive quest to overcome human biological ageing and even endlessly defer physical death. This quest is not just kook fringe stuff either (though there is, indeed, a kook fringe here). It shows up in now common procedures, like organ transplants, and in mainstream longevity studies. Scientists are researching the humble nematode, 1 mm long worms that inhabit in large numbers nearly every square inch of organic soil on earth. Nematodes live only about 20 days, and researchers have been extending their life spans through dietary restrictions. Nematodes on tight diets live much longer (for a nematode) then ones that get to eat all the bacteria they want. Another area of research is human telomeres, DNA sequences at the terminal ends of chromosomes. Telomeres shorten with every cell division, which limits the growth of cells, the eventual outcome of which is systemic degradation, ageing, and death. Scientists want to understand this process, and eventually develop treatments to slow or even stop the ageing process.
THE DESPERATE QUEST FOR IMMORTALITY is also manifest through cutting-edge computer technology, in so-called “artificial intelligence” (a term I consider to be little more than an oxymoron). Ray Kurzweil, computer scientist, inventor, and futurist, has predicted, in his book The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology, that by 2045 human brains will be integrated with the “intelligent” machines we have created, achieving effective immortality. This event he calls the “singularity”, and it was recently popularized in the Johnny Depp movie, Transcendence. Popular culture itself often expresses the human desire to achieve at least the metaphorical “immortality” of fame. The best expression of this I’ve heard was the chorus of the song, “One Moment in Time”, that Whitney Houston recorded for the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, South Korea:
“Give me one moment in time ,when I’m racing with destiny. Then in that one moment of time I will feel, I will feel eternity.”
The song was played at a tribute to Houston in Great Britain after her death in 2012.
ALL OF THESE PURSUITS OF PERPETUAL EXISTENCE partake of equal parts desperation and hubris. Kurzweil, for instance, describes the human brain as “a complex hierarchy of complex systems, but it does not represent a level of complexity beyond what we are already capable of handling.” This is nothing more than the materialist conceit that human consciousness and the human mind itself can be reduced to brain chemistry and then emulated by human engineered nanotechnology. Echoes of “you will be like God” (Genesis 3:5) resound. Even if it were possible to endlessly prolong human material existence through human/machine synthesis, the phrase “a fate worse than death” would seem to be operative. Never-ending existence in this fashion, locked into merely human imagination and resources, would not be the kingdom of heaven or eternal life, it would be Hell.
THIS IS BECAUSE ETERNAL LIFE IS MORE than the indefinite prolongation of purely material existence. Life itself is a relationship. This is not just a metaphor. Even biological life is not merely a chemical process that can be isolated and synthetically reproduced. The original and only source of life is the living God, and to have life, and not merely existence, is to be in relationship with God. In his prayer for the disciples at the Last Supper, Jesus said that his Father had given him authority “to give eternal life to all whom you have given him.” Jesus then defined eternal life: “And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (Gospel of John 17:2-3). Eternal relationship with a supremely loving, imaginative, and creative Father sounds a great deal better than being maintained by perpetual spare parts replacement or downloaded onto a computer chip.