For much of history, religion has been the avenue through which people have sought eternity. Today's secular West tries to think about death outside of the language of spirituality. Paul Bickley raises the question of what it is we are prepared to believe about death, the body and the ‘soul’, in a society where religious affiliation is in rapid decline. Do transhumanism and technological development really offer us a non-spiritual concept of immortality? Or are we just rehashing religious ideas for a secular age?
Jang Ji-sung lost her seven-year-old daughter Nayeon to cancer in 2016. Four years later she met Nayeon again – or at least she met a virtual reality avatar of Nayeon. The Munwha Broadcasting corporation had invited Jang and her family to be part of a documentary, Meeting You, the central moment of which saw Jang don a VR headset and interact with her ‘daughter’. The result was simultaneously creepy and gut-wrenchingly sad. Jang weeps, and reaches out to touch Nayeon’s face. She asks how Nayeon has been, and says how much she has missed her. The avatar’s scripted sentences don’t seem to diminish Jang’s sense that her daughter is really there, and that they are really reunited.
Technological developments, even those in the last three years, will have brought us that much closer to real time interaction with virtual simulacra of lost loved ones. But why would anyone even consider such a process?
As Nietzsche said, “Alle Lust will Ewigkeit” (all lust wants eternity). Or, less cynically, all love wants eternity. A death is an end not just of a creature’s biological existence, but to the world of meaning that an individual has built with others. No matter how long a life has been, it is hard to say that it has been enough. Finitude sometimes seems right, but rarely. Most of us do want at least a little more, even if our lives have given us a lot, when they are longer, richer and more pleasant than at any time in history.
A death is an end not just of a creature’s biological existence, but to the world of meaning that an individual has built with others. No matter how long a life has been, it is hard to say that it has been enough
For much of humanity and much of history, religion and spirituality has been the avenue through which we have sought eternity. But the unbelieving west is perhaps unique in trying to think about the meaning and nature of death outside of the frameworks and language of spirituality.
According to a YouGov poll in 2021, a third of UK adults (33%) believe in an afterlife, but 42% do not. Three in ten Britons (30%) believe that heaven exists, with 18% saying they think hell exists too. Over half of the population (54%) don’t believe in either. Similar conclusions were found in Theos’ own poll through YouGov indicating only 29% of UK adults believed that there was life after death.[i]
What is happening? Given the pressing nature of the question of death (we are all going to die), most people will have reflected, even if superficially, on what will happen to them or to loved ones after death. If not eternal life or some kind, then what? Eternal oblivion is the obvious answer. It is perhaps one of the clearest indications of our overwhelming unbelief that when it comes to an issue in which every single human being has skin in the game, we opt against the frameworks of faith and embrace a fundamental reductionism on the question of what a human being is. If consciousness, and if my personhood, is dependent on a functioning brain, then once the brain has ceased to function there is no ‘me’ to exist anywhere.
But what is it that we are no longer prepared to believe? In our context, the most familiar script has been the one that has been offered by Christianity’s folk children. Here, the idea of the afterlife rests on the notion that perishable bodies are occupied by eternal souls, and that when these two part ways, the soul must go somewhere else: heaven (good) or hell (bad). Arguably, this view drew more on the Platonism of the ancient world than the first century Jewish imaginary that held out the possibility of physical resurrection which, in turn, shaped the earliest Christian thinkers (more of this later). Reincarnation is pleasant and popular alternative, though one which still rests that you only temporarily reside in your body, and will find yourselves in others in the future. In popular and non-institutional spirituality are picked up, discarded, mixed and riffed on in a way that seems most satisfying at the time (remember England manager Glenn Hoddle’s comments that disabled people were being punished for the sins of a past life – made all the more bizarre that it was mixed with the statement that he was a ‘born-again’ or ‘evangelical’ Christian).
In the last 300 years, these ideas have died a death of many cuts. Descartes on the soul (and his pesky Pineal gland). Hume on miracles. Biblical criticism, which slowly eroded the authority of these ancient texts. Darwin’s evolution and its impact on the doctrine of the Fall. Throughout history, plenty of Christian theologians had recognised that the biblical creation narratives were more mythical and lyrical than ‘literal’, but all these things could be believed at the same time as holding on to the specialness of humanity. With Darwin, the possibility emerged that humans, for all the wonder of the self-aware intelligence, came to be through the same creative process as the rest of the animal kingdom. As he put it in The Descent of Man (1871), “man with all his noble qualities… with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated in the movements and constitution of the solar system… still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”.
Alongside all this, it becomes much harder to hold to a single account of the human soul and its future when exposed to the bewildering variety of religious pluralism. It is not as if there is a way to adjudicate these claims. Except in the highly dubious arena of near-death experience, death is a realm we can’t explore, there is only one way through the barrier, and no way back. No wonder if people conclude that we must reject the childish belief that in death it’s just that the party has just moved next door. A largely unobserved ‘tell’ has been a dizzyingly rapid change in our memorialisation practices – funerals are now almost exclusively a rearward glance, ‘a celebration of life’, there to help the grieving ‘move on’, rather than a committal of the deceased to some other place or power, let alone to eternal communion with them.
while institutional religious practice seems to be increasingly unattractive, there is more than a residual interest in our post-mortem future.
Except we haven’t really rejected these beliefs. They have just been transmuted.
First, a kind of secularisation does not equal the reductionist materialism which equates consciousness and personhood with brain activity. It is true that there is a correlation between religious affiliation and belief in life after death, bit it is not a perfect or total correlation. Amongst the non-religious – the fastest growing group in the UK with 53% of Britons now identifying as non-religious[ii] – a 2022 Theos report found that a fifth (20%) stated they definitely/ probably believe in life after death, and 27% of Nones believe in ghosts, 11% believe in Heaven.[iii] This is an indication that, while institutional religious practice seems to be increasingly unattractive, there is more than a residual interest in our post-mortem future.
Second, and more importantly, from the ashes of the idea of a disembodied future in an alternative state rises the phoenix of technological immortality. If ‘I’ am a sophisticated pattern of data and data processes in that spongy computer we call the brain, then there is nothing in principle that should prevent that ‘me’ from existing somewhere other than it’s current, all too impermanent, platform.
In aid of this, large amounts of money (including from some of tech’s biggest names) are pouring into new technologies aimed at extending or digitising life. Artificial neural networks, inspired by biological ones, already exist, though they are vastly simpler than anything in the natural world. A complete ‘connectome’, the system of neural pathways in a brain, for the Caenorhabditis elegans – otherwise known as the roundworm – has already been mapped, although the little creature does only have 302 neurons. Somewhat more ambitiously, the Blue Brain project has, since 2005, been working to build “the world’s first biologically detailed digital reconstructions and simulations of the mouse brain.”[iv] Such successes have made some people inordinately enthusiastic about the possibilities allegedly on offer here, envisaging that some combination of brain scanning, artificial intelligence, digital uploading, and human augmentation might one day “save” and “resurrect” or “reincarnate” humans, thereby securing for us the immortality we apparently crave.
The religious language is not inappropriate. Indeed, it is an intricate part of transhumanism, the title under which such efforts are known. Transhumanists talk openly about transcending earthly humanity and achieving eternal life. Articles breathlessly wonder “whether transhumanism can save our species?”[v] or whether it is “saviour of humanity or false prophecy?”[vi] Some new religious movements enthusiastically embrace transhumanist ambitions, whereas (corners of) other more traditional ones have appropriated its ideas. The Christian Transhumanist Association, for example, believes, among other things, that “the intentional use of technology, coupled with following Christ, can empower us to grow into our identity as humans made in the image of God.”[vii]
The actual feasibility of such proposals should be met with some scepticism. The Blue Brain project has now managed to map fully one cubic millimetre of mouse brain. They found that it contained more than 100,000 neurons with more than a billion connections between them, and that it required two petabytes of data to store (i.e. two million gigabytes). The average human brain is around 1400 cubic centimetres, contains approximately 100 million neurons (of around 1,000 different types), and probably around 100 trillion synapses (contact points between neurons).
But that’s not the point. The point is that, in spite of the seeming rejection a sort-of-Christian account of the afterlife, these transhumanist visions seem eerily familiar. The language has changed, but the conceptual picture is the same. There is some essential you inside of you, that could exist outside of you, if only you can find the right kind of place. Instead of your soul leaving your body, the data that constitute your consciousness will be mapped, transferred and recreated. It looks as if the questions we thought we had rejected have merely been sublimated, and the answers which we are shifting towards are in essence no different to those which we think we have found wanting. And we haven’t even cited the myriad questions about whether the mind or consciousness is reducible to the brain and the information contained therein. To say so seems more like a claim of ideology than science. We are indeed in the borderlands of science, philosophy and religion.
In spite of the seeming rejection a sort-of-Christian account of the afterlife, these transhumanist visions seem eerily familiar. The language has changed, but the conceptual picture is the same.
A thought experiment: imagine that Nayeon’s personality, memories, character, and the rest had been mapped prior to her death, and that through a sophisticated language engine and deep-fake VR technology Jang had interacted with those data, and indeed could do so at will? Would Jang and her family have no reason to grieve? Would her daughter be living on? No, of course not. Intuitively we know that Nayeon was so much more than data and processes in wet wear. A human life is the opportunity to learn, love, forgive and seek forgiveness, imagine, hurt, care and so much more. To be human is also to operate within a physical world, such that a disembodied mind would not be human in the same way that a Nayeon was a human.
It is worth reflecting that the orthodox Christian account of the afterlife was and is not that our bodies are inhabited by a soul which will go one way or another at the point of death. Rather, it is the resurrection of the body. So much so that the apostle Paul says, “If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is worthless, and so is your faith”. That is quite the hill to die on, so to speak.
Of course, there are endless amounts to say about religious conceptions of post mortem existence, but this has value at least in that it reflects what is a more compelling and intuitive sense of what we are than the body-soul dualism of popular religion and transhumanists. Even if we did manage to upload ourselves into the cloud, we would at that point have ceased to be ourselves, robbed of the physical contingencies and storied nature of our bodies which, in the end, we are.
[i] YG-Archive-11082020-TheosSpirituality.pdf (yougov.com)
[ii] 1_bsa36_religion.pdf (natcen.ac.uk)
[iii] The-Nones---Who-are-they-and-what-do-they-believe.pdf (theosthinktank.co.uk)
[v] Beyond our ‘ape-brained meat sacks’: can transhumanism save our species? | Australian books | The Guardian
[vi] Transhumanism: Savior of humanity or false prophecy? - Big Think