Nick Spencer gives his opinion on Theos’ research paper ‘The promise of scientific immortality – who wants to live forever?’ 05/07/2022
Optimism, apparently, can help you live longer. According to more than one study, having a positive attitude can increase your lifespan by over 10%. So can wealth. The richest areas in the UK enjoyed up to 10 years more life than the poorest. By that reckoning, the rich and optimistic have a long life to look forward to. Perhaps even a very long life.
But… “who wants to live forever?”, as Freddie Mercury once sang with passion. Well, tech billionaires for a start. Able to buy pretty much anything on earth, many have now set their sights on what used to be the preserve of heaven. Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Peter Thiel, co–founder of PayPal, are among the superrich who are deploying their wealth in pursuit of the dream that has haunted humans from earliest times: the idea of eternal life.
The idea seems crazy at first, but the possibility of extending human life is far from mad. After all, life expectancy nearly doubled in the West in the 20th century, and we know much more about the genetic causes of death today than we did even a generation ago. Perhaps long… very long… eternal life need no longer be the preserve of fairy tales, literature and religion?
Except that, assuming the tech entrepreneurs do take big strides in that direction, it is unlikely that the British public will be following them there.
Research commissioned by the think tank Theos and The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion has reported that only 19% of Britons say they “would like to live forever if scientists were able to engineer it”.
It’s hardly an overwhelming vote of support, and when you get to the details of how we might achieve that, it falls even further. Cryonics? No thanks. Even fewer people (12%) say they “would like to be cryogenically frozen after [their] death so [they] can be revived centuries later”. Fewer still, 7%, would clone themselves if they could.
There are small differences within the population. Men are keener on this than women (no surprise there). The young keener than the old. The better educated more than those who know less about science. There is undoubtedly an element of unfamiliarity in all this. Most people objected to vaccination when it first became a possibility. A few, sadly, still do. We might all get used to extreme longevity, even immortality.
And yet, this is more than just a case of early adopter nervousness. There is almost certainly a healthy dose of common sense in the public’s view when it comes to scientific immortality. After all, would you really want to live forever?
Putting aside the obvious sustainability problems eternal (or even extreme) life on earth would create, and even assuming scientists managed to find a cure for ageing as well as death (the classic mistake made by several famous literary ancients), the prospect of going on forever should terrify us.
Humans are feeble, fragile, fallible creatures. We might be, as Hamlet opined, the paragon of animals but, when all’s said and done, we are still animals. Keeping on keeping on in our present frail form has limited appeal, even if we’re given a regular, thorough MOT. Presumably that is why older people are less keen on scientific immortality that the young. Having been around a bit, and accumulated life’s bruises, you’re less eager to prolong the process indefinitely.
That is perhaps why Christianity does not simply envisage eternal life but also transformation, a change whereby earthly bodies become spiritual bodies (note, not, spirits) … “sown a natural body… raised a spiritual body” (1 Cor. 15.44). The alternative – immortality as the endless extension of the here and now – whether in the Californian refrigerator, cellular regeneration, or cloning, will, after a while, lose its novelty. If immortality is on offer, it’ll need more than good tech to recommend it.
Julian Barnes’ novel, A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, ends with the speaker enjoying a dream of heaven. The experience is, well, heavenly – at least by his estimation. He gets to eat what he likes, have sex with whoever he wants, and play golf to his heart’s content. But he nonetheless still, after millennia of such pleasure, asks to be switched off. Everyone does. “Heaven’s a very good idea”, he says towards the end, “but not for us. Not given the way we are.”
It’s a perceptive observation and something that the billionaires and their gene–tech companies might want to consider as they pursue this latest goal. Eternity has its appeals but eternity without transformation will soon become a bleak prospect indeed. We should be careful what we wish for, even – especially – if we have lots of money to make it happen.
Nick Spencer is Senior Fellow at Theos
The research paper The promise of scientific immortality – who wants to live forever? is available here
Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.