In Quest of Immortality

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Critique of academic debates from the "Immortality Project."

Thomas Powell


The idea of immortality grips everybody’s shorthairs at some point in life, and why not? Who has not thought of a life after death? How about avoiding death altogether? What of being the lone immortal amongst mortals, perhaps an emissary of the lost race of immortals. Maybe you are the product of a divine dad philandering amongst mortal lass, or the comic book protagonist of a cosmic drama? On a sobering note, immortality could require enormous work as in the canonization of one’s life achievements. Or conveniently, you’re shopping extra time with replaceable body parts? What could be the quality of a greatly extended life by medical intervention? How does one evaluate the moral pros and cons of life extension? Who knows exactly what immortality could possibly be, and how one goes about acquiring it? Or if one miraculously does, will immortality turn out to be desirable? Immortality it seems is a meandering and seductive concept, a whole passel of theories of atemporal opportunity brimming with myth and conjecture across the great expanse of human history, but now also, a concept ripe for philosophic scrutiny in our own time.

This past May 28-30, 2015 the University of California Riverside Department of Philosophy presented the findings of a three year academic and scientific investigation provocatively called the “Immortality Project.” Like all such university sponsored colloquium, the event’s Capstone Conference was an opportunity for scholars from related disciplines to socialize, speculate and share research. Over thirty presentations were made by university professors in three days of lectures and breakout workshops on topics in biology, psychology, theology and philosophy as they relate to the possibilities of immortality. It was a wide ranging discussion which brought scientific scrutiny to a foundational concept of religious belief which has previously basked unchallenged within the hallowed temples of mythology and religion. Unearthing assumptions and challenging dogma is a critical function of university research. This is a report of that discussion.

The Immortality Project was directed by Prof. John Fischer and his colleagues at the UCR Philosophy Dept. and funded by a $5M grant from the John Templeton Foundation. A midpoint conference in 2014 of scientific experiments attempting to verify post-mortem existence produced little fanfare. In spite of university researchers’ best efforts to locate consciousness after death, claims for the existence of a human soul or for any physical re-embodiment after death could not be substantiated. Near death experiences were validated as significant psychological life-changing events, but as phenomena they could better be explained as hallucinations, perhaps caused by the body’s own instantaneous production of adrenalin and psychoactive endorphins, or as the psychic trauma narratives of dramatic resuscitation after the heart has been stopped. Scientific method, through a wide miscellany of reasoned experiments, was not capable of discovering the human soul. Death remained a closed door to us. The hereafter, therefore, continued as an area of ripe speculation.

As post-mortem existence could not be ascertained, focus at the May capstone conference shifted to the more familiar and comfortable ground of Theory of Mind. The first presenter set the tenor of subsequent discussion reporting interviews with witnesses of dying patients. If a person is lucid upon their dying breath, as opposed to comatose, family members and survivors will attribute a longer post-mortem consciousness or continued presence to the decedent. Dying while awake also seemed to give one more “rights” in the hospital environment. Clearly, the subject of research had shifted from discovering post-mortem existence into the psychology of the living.

Then came an interesting topic, can an extended life be meaningful? In Heaven, as St. Thomas Aquinas preached, the saved souls are restored into physical, everlasting bodies (for all time) to pursue happiness and the fulfillment of human nature in the unending union with God. Aquinas’ version of Christian Heaven doesn’t sound particularly chaste, and it would be lots of fun hanging out with God. But it could also get boring once you’ve exhausted all the possibilities for eternal happiness and had to repeat again and again forever until Heaven became stale and repetitive. Paradise could conceivably morph into its opposite— monotony. This is a dangerous thought, for as Dante illuminates, monotony is the very nature of Hell. What then is perfect happiness in the permanent state of the eternal?

Heaven in God’s presence is perfection; it is an eschatological doctrine of Christianity, which means it is about end times as god’s promised future gift. Divine immortality can only be absolute; it cannot be relative. The existential concern with this divine gift laments the loss of the process of becoming, that is, of self actualization and personal struggle which makes human life fulfilling. What about our memories from life, our individual personality and our humor, do these qualities stay attached in the afterlife? Then, how is one to recognize perfect happiness without sadness or ugliness with which to contrast it?

Locke’s insight of “animalism” was soon discussed reasoning why we do not differentiate between the animal and its life? Another researcher asked, what do human beings really desire from the concept of immortal life? Do we simply wish for a longer life, or must it be a good life? To be good, wouldn't that imply avoiding physical problems such as aging, pain, and overcrowding? How about psychological issues such as the aforementioned boredom, also triviality, lack of novelty, no change! Apparently, there could be pitfalls to eternal life which must be avoided, but how? The presenter’s proposal was to limit memory and imagination in the afterlife. To avoid boredom, eternal existence would thus unfold at a dimmer level of consciousness than current life. This idea raised ethical concerns for me.

Next, it was proposed that social anxiety was at the center of our individual desire for immortality. Wanting more life is human and natural, thus validating the efforts of modern medical science to slow or stop aging. But medically extended life brings forward its own ethical issues, including Malthusian concerns for an overcrowded planet. Also, where lies the justice if life extension is prohibitively expensive and thus available only to the wealthy? If medical science were able to fend off aging and extend one’s life indefinitely, after a long duration of life one may evolve such that one is no longer the same person creating psychological conflicts of identity.

Personal identity was a featured topic in other presentations. In tribal West Africa, why is eternal life only for heaven? Why not eternal life in my village? “I am because we are”, the individual identity is completely enmeshed within the group identity of the village with its continued duration. One attains a form of immortality first as a member within the continuous tribal social construct, then later as an ancestor spirit. A report on Confucianism explained the soul has two components as “hun-po duality.” Annual rituals of family crypt maintenance are necessary to summon the po soul to return to the bones so it does not become a ghost. Ritual is central to forcing rulers to abide by moral codes of behavior and curb excess. Spirits have the power to make us virtuous through ritual observation. Confucian text attempts to achieve harmony in civic life and afterlife through hierarchy, rigorous propriety, and ritual practice.

The most startling discovery of the conference came from a large survey of Buddhist in India and concerned the doctrine of impermanence of the self. In Buddhist doctrine, there is no persistent self. Talk of the self is considered to be only convention while impermanence saturates culture in numerous demonstrable ways. What happens when the Christian concept of charitable giving is introduced to Buddhist followers in the extreme guise of organ donation? In the West, and especially among Americans, we have idealized this concept of self-sacrifice to benefit others. The excessive example of throwing one’s body upon the live grenade to save one’s buddies is considered morally commendable. Among Buddhist lay followers acceptance of organ donation was lower than in the West. As one enters Buddhist monastic life, it was presumed by investigators that one becomes less attached to “oneself” (one’s body) as training progresses, but surprisingly in the Buddhist monastic setting it was discovered that monks were unmoved to part with any bodily part for another’s benefit. Organ donation was a low priority. Impermanence does not apparently correlate with Western views of self sacrifice. No explanation was proposed for this anomaly and the research remains ongoing.

And so the Immortality Project wended through many curious topics— eternal life as a present possession through the ministry of Jesus Christ; does mind/body dualism effect beliefs in afterlife; is death necessary for a meaningful life; what goes on in the interim state between death and resurrection; the concept of “finitude”; the related concept of “flow”; more organ donation scenarios; the mythologies of Sisyphus, Tantalus, Zeus, Pandora, and Lazarus; current sci-fi plots; death as time horizon, “trans-humanism” or why should the afterlife resemble life including embodiment; “physicalism” or why posit additional realities beyond what we can observe; “fictionalism” as the immortality narrative of restorative justice, or to rephrase it, the “telos of redemption”; are emotions even possible in Heaven; and finally, a very cute little critter called hydra which possesses remarkable rejuvenescence and patentable qualities.

After three days of such esoteric wisdom, I had reached the altered state of consciousness familiar to Medieval monks. This had been an exercise in intense polite scholasticism. What was missing from this academic conference was the fisticuffs. A Marxist scholar like Zizek could have stirred things up by hammering the ideological role of immortality paradigms. Whose class interests do these immortality narratives serve anyway, and why is paradise always deferred? Why is it invariably pie in the sky when you die? Another huge void was the failure of any participant to discuss the aesthetic language which surrounds immortality paradigms. Perhaps this is a more glaring omission to a visual artist like me, but clearly if you use descriptive phrases such as “perfect happiness” or “restorative justice” you should drop one step back to see how aesthetic language insinuates your research. A slide presentation of Baroque frescos featuring the astounding allegorical heavens of Pietro da Cortona or Guido Reni would have been very informative to these mild mannered theorists, and would have cast a sunbeam of light onto the much neglected landscape of aesthetical judgment within theory of mind research. But then I had to remind myself that this was Riverside, an isolated cultural desert within the hip cohort of UC college towns.

Academic conferences in general are necessary to the relentless accrual of human knowledge and the greater expansion of our noosphere. In spite of its lack of drama, The Immortality Project capstone conference achieved a rather conclusive note. We can now rest assured that there is no location of afterlife which can be physically pinpointed; there is no afterlife hideout in the known material universe. Immortality narratives serve psychological, religious, and socio-political agendas. They do not describe any real place which can be ascertained with our current science tool kit. Philosophically and psychologically, afterlife exists only in the human mind in realm of imagination and belief. Death is final.

For the less than 10% of the visible Universe which we have observed scientifically, that illuminated realm of cosmic electro/magnetic radiation which includes this remarkably small and isolated planet Earth teeming with endangered life forms, this is an accurate assessment. There is, however, the remaining 90% plus of the universe hypothesized by quantum gravity which is “dark” to us, as “dark energy” and “dark matter.” Afterlife, possibly as a disembodied soul, could exist anywhere in a discretely inaccessible universe. As the conference did not address the possible existence of a non-material soul, the debate remains wonderfully inconclusive.

It was a great debate, and one question we can now set aside for posterity. Methodologies based in physical and rational investigation cannot validate the potential existence of an immaterial world. It is time to direct academic brain power away from afterlife and focus on the urgent issues of present life. How are humans to survive global mass extinction? Cataclysmic mass extinction appears to be unavoidable in every kingdom of this remote and cherished blue planet of ours. What are the potential scenarios and timeline for this great die off? What’s our survival strategy? This is a pressing new inquiry. Perhaps the good folks at the John Templeton Foundation could help underwrite this practical and worthy cause.

Thomas Powell is a sculptor who lives in Northern California and writes on issues of aesthetics and politics.

Images: 1. from "Al·legoria del sant a un volum de Disputationes theologicae"; gravat del s. XVII by Pedrarius, wikicommons, GNU. 2. Romano, Giulio. Painting, "Allegoria dell'immortalità". Housed at Detroit Institute of Arts, wikicommons,c. 1540.

Copyright © Thomas Powell . All rights reserved.

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