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05.14.11

Our Crazy Quest for Immortality

Why are we always driven by the elusive goal of living forever? A new book argues that we should give up on perfectability and embrace our mortality. Malcolm Jones talks to philosopher John Gray.

The English political philosopher John Gray has a quarrel with progress. It's not that he doesn't believe in it. Indeed, he cheerfully admits that science and technology have, in many ways, improved our lot. "Remember what DeQuincey said in the 1820s in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater: a quarter of all human suffering is toothache. It would've been true then. Now we don't suffer that," Gray says, by phone from his home in Bath. "Progress in dental science is real. And it's only one example of a respect in which the growth of knowledge is absolutely real."

The problem, according to Gray, is that while technology improves, human nature does not. "I'm old enough to remember that when photocopiers came along we were told that they would destroy tyranny," says the 62-year-old philosopher. "I'm sure people said the same thing about radio or the telegraph, just as now they say the same thing about the Internet. I suppose you could say that all these people in the Middle East are partly triggered by social networking and all the new technologies. But whatever comes out of the profound and complex turbulence that's going on there, I think one can be pretty confident that it won't be a situation in which technology will have worked consistently to promote freedom, because all technologies that enable people to communicate with one another can also be used for surveillance, and are. The ambiguity is just built in to the way humans use knowledge."

That ambiguity is everywhere in his latest book, The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death. Beautifully conceived and executed, it is a dark cautionary tale on what happens when we mix science and religion. Deftly blending philosophy and history, it rips along with the narrative drive of the most vivid fiction.

The incident with which Gray opens his book reads like a scene from a Tom Stoppard play: on January 16, 1874, Charles Darwin attended a séance at the London home of his brother Erasmus. Also in attendance were Frances Galton, anthropologist, eugenicist and a founder of the modern science of psychology, and the author George Eliot. The séance did, indeed, take place, and there were reports of table rapping, sparks flying, and chairs being lifted onto tables, but Darwin, who found it all only "hot and tiring," left before the fireworks. Galton and Eliot remained, but they, like Darwin, departed unconverted. The three Victorian luminaries had only attended in order to, as it were, check out the enemy. "All three were anxious," Gray writes, "that the rise of Spiritualism would block the advance of scientific materialism." They were right to worry.

"Without spurning any of the advances of science, we could be friendlier to our mortality. The transience of our lives is one of the things that makes it valuable."

Spiritualism petered out in England sometime before World War II, but not before it seduced, at least a little and often entirely, an amazingly long list of Victorian and Edwardian figures, including William James, Henri Bergson, Henry Sidgwick, Arthur Balfour, John Ruskin, and Alfred Lord Tennyson. Their interest had less to do with belief than with hope—that somehow they could find a way out of the dark corner into which Darwinism had painted them. They did not want to accept a world where man was merely one more animal, where species, including ours, go extinct with no good reason and where death was absolute—if man was really just another animal, a creature without an immortal soul, then nothing survived physical death. But these intellectuals were not feckless. They sought to apply the rules of science to their exploration of a possible spirit world. Before they were done, "the boundaries between science, religion and magic were blurred or non-existent."

Gray devotes the second half of his book to a similar quest that took root in the early days of the Soviet Union, where within the intelligentsia there arose a group called the God-builders. It included Maxim Gorky and Anatoly Lunacharsky, the Commissar of Enlightenment (but never Lenin or Stalin, who scoffed at their aims). The God-builders were not religious, but they did believe in the idea of human perfectability—and in the oxymoronic notion that new technologies afforded by science could help them escape from the very world that science, in the form of Darwinism, had created. The results of this quest in the Soviet Union did not lead directly to the mass deaths perpetrated under Lenin and Stalin, but the willingness to experiment on human beings and to see humans as mere fodder in the quest for the Soviet version of the Nietschean superman certainly went hand in hand with the terrors.

In print, Gray comes across as the sort of man who, while he may not always go looking for a fight, has never backed away from one. Over the course of a long and distinguished career as a very public intellectual, he has argued fiercely with both the right and the left and nearly everyone in between. He has something in his arsenal of ideas to discomfit almost anyone. A Berkeley economist once blogged that Gray was "the stupidest man alive." On the other hand, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, author of The Black Swan, has called Gray the modern thinker for whom he has the greatest respect.

In conversation, he is no less articulate, but he is decidedly more temperate, cheerful, even conciliatory. "I'm not a believer, but I'm friendly to religion, partly because it goes with being human—it's an odd kind of humanism which is hostile to something which is so quintessentially human as religion." That said, "I'm very opposed to investing science with the needs and requirements of religion. I'm equally opposed to the tendency within religion, which exists in things like creationism and intelligent design, to turn religion into a kind of pseudo-science. If you go back to St. Augustine or before, to the Jewish scholars who talk about these issues, they never regard the Genesis story as a theory. Augustine says explicitly that it should not be interpreted explicitly, that it's a way of accessing truths which can't really be formulated by the human mind in any rational way. It's a way of accessing mysterious features which will remain mysterious. So it was always seen right up to the rise of modern science—as a myth, not a theory. What these creationists are doing is retreating, they're accepting the view of religion promoted by scientific enemies of religion, and saying, no, we have got science and it's better than your science. Complete error."

Equally, erroneous, he argues, was the Bolshevik notion that "science would enable human beings to conquer death, to take death by storm by developing new technologies. That sounds pretty farfetched, but these ideas have recurred in such writers as [the futurist theorist] Ray Kurzweil, who's even got a diet book called Transcend. It's essentially a resurfacing of this dream that existed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries whereby using science we could conquer death and in a sense escape the world that science had revealed."

book-cover---the-immortalization-commission
The Immortalization Commission: Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death By John Gray 288 pages. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $24. ()

Sometimes, after reading too much Gray, you want to escape the world that HE reveals. His more polemical books, such as Black Mass and Straw Dogs, often posit a worldview bleak enough to make Beckett blanch. The Immortalization Commission is a blessedly different case. Tethering his arguments to the historical record, he achieves a sort of nuanced reasonableness not always apparent in his other work. The result is a book that, while not exactly a ray of sunshine, is ultimately persuasive—and almost encouraging.

"In my last short chapter I suggest—I'm not trying to convert anyone—a different attitude toward mortality," he says. "Without spurning any of the advances of science, we could be friendlier to our mortality. The transience of our lives is one of the things that makes it valuable. We might, at least as individuals, actually shake the hold of some of these dreams of technological immortality." Then, Gray being Gray, he can't resist a caveat: "Although I don't think the culture as a whole can be changed, because the culture as a whole is possessed by the idea that science can deliver us from our actual condition." In Gray's cosmos, it would seem, the only things that are immortal are bad ideas.

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Malcolm Jones writes about books, music, and photography for the Daily Beast and Newsweek, where he has written about subjects ranging from A. Lincoln to R. Crumb. He is the author of a memoir, Little Boy Blues , and collaborated with the songwriter and composer Van Dyke Parks and the illustrator Barry Moser on Jump! , a retelling of Brer Rabbit stories.