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Nature, Personal Death, and Other Ash Wednesday Reflections

The question of my last post:  Why do we deny that it’s our nature to die?  The answer from many of my threaders:  We aren’t merely or even essentially natural beings!  Human beings are free to overcome their natures and achieve immortality through biotechnology.  The truth of evolution is not that we’re slaves to an impersonal natural process beyond our control.  Evolution can become conscious and volitional, and we can assume control over our personal destinies.  Particular conscious lives are no longer hopelessly haunted by inevitable death.  These are the times when we have reason to hope for immortality or at least indefinite longevity.  I can be happy in hope if I have reason to believe that I won’t necessarily die at any particular time.

Today, for Christians, is Ash Wednesday.  We’re reminded that we come from and end up ashes and dust.  Each conscious human life, as Pascal said, is a moment between two abysses.  Or, as that very emo band Kansas sang, all we are, after that moment, is dust in the wind.  A couple of the threaders agree that a true Darwinian would agree concerning that natural insignificance of any particular person’s existence.  Nature—all there is, in truth—is the very opposite of being all about me.

Both the Christians and Kansas don’t remind us of that the fact of being ashes to ashes in the spirit of joyful or resigned or serene acceptance.  The ancient philosophers and the Buddhists, in different ways, advised people to get over themselves and come to terms with their personal insignificance.  It’s possible, through intellectual discipline, to learn how to die, meaning  to learn to be okay with your momentary, insignificant existence.  So the Epicureans (and don’t forget that Thomas Jefferson and many other modern thinkers thought they were, deep down, Epicureans) wrote about a kind of serenity that comes when you truthfully get over your hopes and fears about your personal fate.  That kind of serene acceptance was characteristic of the recent tough-minded death of the deeply atheistic Christopher Hitchens.  It was also, we read, characteristic of Socrates, who taught that it was unreasonable either to fear death or hope for personal immortality.

The Christians say that the self-denial characteristic of the Hitchens and Socrates is itself self-deception.  Our longings to be more than merely biological beings define who we are all the way down.  Each of us is a person—a conscious, relational, willful being essentially different from members of all the other species that we know about.  So we can’t help but and quite rightly regard biological death as the terrible and random extinction of personal significance.  And each of us can’t help but only be happy in hope for personal salvation—a hope that some other person without our biological limitations can do for me what I so clearly can’t do for myself.  It is a deeply Christian thought that we can only be happy in hope.   Ash Wednesday, of course, begins the season that’s the prelude to Easter.

So almost all the readers of BIG THINK believe that the Christian hope is ridiculous, a fundamentalist fantasy that’s been vanquished by the enlightenment of modern science.  But there’s no denying that the transhumanists—to whom I pay the high compliment of having thought through the technological or “rational control” impulse of modern science—have just as personal an aversion to biological death, to being nothing, over the long run, but dust in the wind.  The transhumanist slogan is sort of the opposite of serenity now.

Is the transhumanist hope really more reasonable than the Christian one?  Immortality through biotechnology, I think, is clearly impossible;  particular conscious beings can never achieve for themselves the perfect invulnerability of complete disembodiment.   Even if our bodies become indistinguishable from other machines, no machine lasts forever. 

Indefinite longevity is hardly the same is immortality.  In light of eternity, as St. Augustine wrote, does it really matter all that much whether each of us lives fifty or five hundred years?  The latter is obviously much better than the former, because life is good.  But eventually each of us is still dust in the wind without help we can’t provide for ourselves.


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