Science Offers Its Version of Immortality

There’s a story one of my college mentors liked to tell. He was chaplain for our Protestant Bible Fellowship and sometimes attended schmoozey events. At one, a trustee remarked to him that he was convinced that due to medical advances, theirs was the last generation to die. The exchange was probably brief, since the response was almost certainly a perfect rendition of the King James: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment.” Everyone knows we evangelical types don’t go in for all that. But could we be wrong?

Immortality is humanity’s fundamental preoccupation. The great myths speak of gods and those who would become gods. The mere possibility of a fountain of youth is enough to inspire men to set sail in uncharted waters. Even our dogmatically materialist friends can’t deny the yearning for legacy, for immortal fame. Will humans ever stop dying?

Today, the world’s hope lies in medical science and related fields. Recent headlines suggest that it is now medically possible to transplant a human head, a procedure also known as “getting a new body”—assuming what we think we know about the brain-mind link is true. Here’s another incredible claim for you: a medical researcher in New York “believes resurrection is a medical possibility.”

Look closer, and you’ll see in both cases we’re only cheating death by a few years. A head transplant will work if your body is fatally injured or diseased, but would obviously do nothing for a stroke or head trauma.

And Dr. Parnia, the necromancer up there, is actually a “resuscitation expert” challenging the way we think about what counts as “dead.” My wife, an ICU nurse, often regales me with tales of patients dying (we’re saving the best as bedtime stories for the kids). Sometimes in these stories, a patient dies only to reappear later in the story. In her world, “dead” means something very particular about a patient’s heartbeat, brain activity, blood flow. She will sometimes even say that a single patient died several times in a night.

I, annoying pedant that I am, always remind her that we don’t really think those people are “dead.” Death is generally irreversible, and the very few exceptions we call “resurrection.” Are you saying you resurrected your patient, wife?!

This silly exchange is just semantics, of course. But the notion that man can overcome death is not silly. It is hubris. However you want to read Genesis, death came into the world because of Adam’s sin. It is a condition of our race, not one that we can simply pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and cure. Pelagian grit is not going to undo the curse.

The pity is that we were made to be immortal in the first place. Indeed, in Lewis’s famous formulation, “It is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.” The irony, then, is that death was conquered millennia ago—and yet man still looks everywhere but to there for answers. Death is far, far stronger than humanity. The only power great enough to overcome it has already done so.

Looking to make people healthier and live longer is a worthy pursuit, and we should celebrate the genius required for the task. But let us not confuse the techne of erecting tall buildings with the power to touch the heavens.

About S. L. Whitesell

Lee studies law at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his wife Joanna live in Philadelphia.


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