Scientific Advances and Death:
How Might They Affect our Thinking about the Worth of Life?
A Lecture in the Series titled
Exploring Death and Its Spiritual Dimensions
At Stone Science Center
April 16, 2008
In this series up till now we’ve had two good scholarly presentations. I’ve enjoyed them both. I like and appreciate good scholarship. But it’s only fair to warn you that I am not a scholar, and, so, these remarks tonight will not be scholarly -- at least not in the usual sense of that term.
In previous introductions, Regis has told us that death is a thing which none of us can avoid. But what if Regis were wrong? What if that were not the case? What then?
The genesis of this session, which was discussed fairly early in the organizing committee’s deliberations, was the idea that God and the sacred, rather than being creators of anything, might be, themselves, the creations of death. In other words, if there were no death, would there be any use for God and the sacred? Might they become simply irrelevant?
It’s a prospect which seems to have terrified God himself, that is if we can believe a text which many people do believe, the very first book of the Bible.
It may be useful here to interpolate that the Bible is a peculiar book in that it is professed by millions to be the veritable word of God and, therefore, the most important text anyone could imagine. And, yet, few people read it carefully, and most of those who do come to it with assumptions and tastes which can’t be drawn from the book itself. They read it for the sake of confirming cultural preferences more than for the sake of discovery.
In 1860, in London, a terrific controversy rose up over the publication of a collection of articles titled simply Essays and Reviews. This book marked the first time a wide section of the British reading public encountered what later came to be known as the higher criticism of the Bible. A majority of readers didn’t like the experience and were, in fact, infuriated by it. It disturbed their settled convictions. One piece of advice in the book seemed to make people more angry than all the rest. It came from Benjamin Jowett, the Master of Balliol College, Oxford and one of the best known intellectual figures in England. What Jowett said was merely that you should read the Bible just like you would read any other book.
How else one might read it was not a question most Englishmen could entertain. To read the Bible as you would any other book seemed to be placing the Bible on the same level as other books and that was outrageous.
I suspect that even now, almost a century and a half later, many people would have the same reaction. But, in a sense, Jowett’s advice is inescapable. The Bible presents itself to us as a text on the printed page made up of ordinary English words. Most of us are aware that it has been translated into English from other languages, and that linguistic scholars have wrangled among themselves about the best translations available. But if you compare respected translations, you find they are fairly similar to one another and with a very few exceptions tell the same story. What else can we do, in reading the Bible, other than to look at these words and ask ourselves what they are saying to us?
The translation I’m using tonight is generally called the Revised Standard Version, which is a mid-twentieth-century revision of the King James Version, which is now almost four hundred years old.
Having made this detour, we can now return to the question of God’s emotional state as it’s laid out for us in Genesis. You’ll recall that shortly after God formed the man out of dust and breathed life into his nostrils, well before the man was given a name, God told him he could eat of the fruit of any tree in the garden in which he was placed, with one exception (which, by the way, turned out to be a bit of a fib). He was not to eat fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, because if he did, he would die.
Then, after God had made woman out of a part of the man’s body, she listened to the serpent, who told her that she would not die if she ate of the forbidden fruit but rather that her eyes would be opened and she would be like God in knowing both good and evil -- a statement that was later confirmed by God himself
She saw that the fruit was good food and that it was delightful to the eye. So she ate some of it and, not only that, but took some and gave it to the man to eat. When God found out, he cursed the ground that the man would have to live on, and said that the man would be mortal and return to the dust from which he came. Then he drove the man out of the garden because he didn’t want the man to eat of another tree, this time, the tree of life. And why not? Here are God’s words:
Behold, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now lest he put forth his hand and take also of the tree of life, and eat, and live for ever ....
At this point, God simply breaks off, as though, for some reason or another, he doesn’t want to complete the statement. And we are left to infer his sentiments by being told that “therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden to till the ground from which he was taken.”
This brief story presents us with a raft of mysteries. Why did God tell the man there was only one tree in the garden he couldn’t eat from? Why did he tell the man he would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil? Who are the “us” God refers to as he prepares to banish the man from the garden? There are, of course, numerous theologians who profess to know exactly what these passages mean. But the words themselves remain mysterious. Yet, there is one clear conclusion we can draw from them. God does not want the man to live forever. It’s not a big stretch of interpretation to say that the idea of man’s living forever is frightening to God.
A paradox in the Western mind’s concept of God is his relationship to humanity. In most definitions, God is complete, whole in himself, needing nothing beyond himself. Why then did he create man, this blot of imperfection? Even more puzzling, why does he desire to be worshipped by imperfection? God has no need of worship. Why should it matter to him in the least? Why should he care? It’s a hard thing to figure out and yet, the same sacred scripture that tells us God doesn’t want men to live forever also says that God is jealous of man’s affections. You all recall the passage from the twentieth chapter of Exodus:
You shall not make for yourself an idol, or any likeness of what is in heaven above or on the earth beneath or in the water under the earth. You shall not worship them or serve them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God.
Again, there have been a plethora of theological explanations for this passage. I can’t claim to have read them all. But the ones I have read represent some of the most tendentious reasoning I have encountered in my entire life. If I wished to descend to the colloquial, I’d have to say they are plain out sappy.
If we step away from God’s perspective, which it appears we are never going to understand and, probably, are incapable of understanding, and scramble down to the views of men, then we can reach out towards a more graspable sense of God's function. God is perfection, and men, though they know they cannot be perfect are nonetheless drawn to the idea of it.
I don’t suppose it’s hard to understand why that should be the case. Imperfection hurts, and humans, like all biological creatures, are constructed to avoid pain. It’s pleasing to imagine a realm where all pain is banished and God’s perfection pervades every aspect of existence. And it’s even more pleasing to suppose that the realm of perfection is ultimate reality whereas the place we inhabit right now, charged with frustration and cruelty, is actually little more than a fantasy, a kind of parody of reality, which resembles it enough to give us a flickering sense of what it might be, but which itself is so flawed, so vicious, so pathetic that our deepest desire is to escape from it and to walk out onto the plains of paradise.
The distinction between the real and the earthly has been the ruling idea of Western civilization. It has generally been called Platonism, after the Greek thinker who wrote most beguilingly about it. And it’s most widespread form has been Christianity, which has famously been called “Platonism for the people.”
Though this split between the real and the physical has been the main current of Western intellectual culture, it has to some extent over the past three centuries been slowed down by a undercurrent, or countercurrent, that goes by a variety of names but is based on the sentiment that although the world is cruel it is also sweet. We become addicted to its sweetness and are reluctant to give it up. Consequently, we find our minds turning to the questions, what if we could have the sweetness of the earth without its cruelty and pain? What then?
This is a question that breaks up into so many parts we haven’t begun to sort them out. I’ll mention just a couple to remind us of how complicated, and how perplexing, all of them are.
One is this gigantic and maddening thing we call Nature. It is supposedly the law and the controlling force of this earth. But exactly how we should relate to it we cannot decide. Is it a thing to be opposed and conquered? Or, is it a thing we should bow down to and allow it to rule our lives? Truth is, we think we should do both, but we don’t know when to do one and when to do the other. Conflict over that choice is rapidly becoming the dominant political feature of our time.
People want to wage a war on cancer and at the same time they tell little children they shouldn’t do such and such because it is not natural. And they have no inking in their minds that they are at odds with themselves.
This brings me to another digression. In Beyond Good and Evil, Friedrich Nietzsche tells us that it is in a name that popular prejudice lurks. This is as much as to say that when we use words like “Nature” or “God” we have no clear referent in mind. We don’t know what we’re talking about so far as conveying meaning is concerned. But that’s okay, because most of the time when we use large abstractions we aren’t concerned with conveying meaning, in the way we are when we try to tell someone how to get to Shaw’s grocery store. What we’re after is getting other people to do what we want, and if we can succeed in doing that, we don’t care whether our words have any meaning. All you have to do is to listen to presidents talking about freedom and democracy to know that’s the case.
A considerable portion of our confusion about Nature comes from our habit of using the name as a political club. But even after we take account of that, we are left with the question, what does nature, in its basic sense, do? Once we ask that question, the answer is obvious: it endlessly brings things forth and it just as endlessly kills them. Of course, there’s a bit of time between the two actions, and many people argue that time provided is more than enough. The case is made quite nicely by the voice of J. Alfred Prufrock:
There will be time, there will be time To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet; There will be time to murder and create, And time for all the works and days of hands That lift and drop a question on your plate; Time for you and time for me, And time yet for a hundred indecisions, And for a hundred visions and revisions, Before the taking of a toast and tea.
This seems to be a fairly conclusive statement, that is until we reach the last line -- “Before the taking of a toast and tea.” -- And then we are inescapably confronted with the question: but how many times for tea and toast will there be? And will that number be enough?
If we turn from Eliot to the other unquestionably great English poet of the twentieth century we find the same question pushed at us in a slightly different manner:
Where the wave of moonlight glosses The dim grey sands with light Far off by furthest Rosses We foot it all the night, Mingling hands and mingling glances Till the moon has taken flight; And chase the frothy bubbles, While the world is full of troubles And is anxious in its sleep. Come away oh human child! To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, For the world's more full of weeping than you can understand. He'll hear no more the lowing Of the calves on the warm hillside, Sing peace into his breast, Or see the brown mice bob Round and round the oatmeal chest. For he comes, the human child, To the waters and the wild With a faery, hand in hand, From a world more full of weeping than he can understand.
There is no doubt that the world’s more full of weeping than any child can understand -- or any man or woman, for that matter. And chasing frothy bubbles while the world is full of troubles is a happy thought. Yet few can deny that the couplet which pierces our hearts in this verse is “Or see the brown mice bob/ Round and round the oatmeal chest.” That’s life, and it forces on us the question of whether there’s anything to be substituted for it that could be better.
The emotional thrust of our literature is continually telling us that we love nature too much to give way easily to her immoderate desire for permanent divorce. It’s true that human culture is an attempt to be different from nature. It is nature which decrees that we must die, so human life has to be seen -- at least to a degree - as an attempt to thwart her purposes. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that we want to get along without her.
A second element of the disintegrating question I mentioned earlier is the idea of immortality. It appears to be so gigantic it is also monstrous. Who can conceive of such a thing? Yet we need to remind ourselves it is no more inconceivable than other concepts we confront every day -- space, determinism, freedom of the will, the integrated self which initiates thought, the collective unconscious, and so on.
In our speculations, we are frightened not so much by the thought of going on indefinitely, but because the prospect of radically extended life is associated in our minds with perpetual decay. He or she who lives long is bound to experience weakness, fragility, loss of potency both physical and intellectual. Or so we say. But why do we say it? Obviously, we say it because it’s all we have ever known. Humanity finds it terrifically hard to imagine something genuinely new, something coming into life that has not been there before. In fact, many versions of wisdom are based on the proposition that’s there’s nothing new under the sun, and there can be nothing new. We’ve seen it all before.
Almost all philosophical or literary depictions of immortality employ some version of the myth of Tithonus. You’ll recall that he was kidnapped from the royal house of Troy by Eos, the rosy-fingered goddess of dawn, so that she could take him as her lover. But when Eos asked Zeus to grant Tithonus everlasting life she forgot to ask also for everlasting youth. What happened then has been a subject for poets ever since.
In Tennyson’s version, Tithonus makes a wrenching plea to his former lover:
Yet hold me not for ever in thine East; How can my nature longer mix with thine? Coldly thy rosy shadows bathe me, cold Are all thy lights, and cold my wrinkled feet Upon thy glimmering thresholds, when the steam Floats up from those dim fields about the homes Of happy men that have the power to die, And grassy barrows of the happier dead. Release me, and restore me to the ground; Thou seest all things, thou wilt see my grave: Thou wilt renew thy beauty morn by morn; I earth in earth forget these empty courts, And thee returning on thy silver wheels.
This is the overt message of the poem, but its force comes not from the message, but from the remembrance of how things used to be when Tithonus was young and love was sweet:
In days far-off, and with what other eyes I used to watch ‹ if I be he that watch'd ‹ The lucid outline forming round thee; saw The dim curls kindle into sunny rings; Changed with thy mystic change, and felt my blood Glow with the glow that slowly crimson'd all Thy presence and thy portals, while I lay, Mouth, forehead, eyelids, growing dewy-warm With kisses balmier than half-opening buds Of April, and could hear the lips that kiss'd Whispering I knew not what of wild and sweet, Like that strange song I heard Apollo sing, While Ilion like a mist rose into towers.
What if Tithonus’s feet were not wrinkled and cold? Would he then enjoy her kisses less because he had had them before? She was, after all, a goddess, and could not wither.
In almost all cases, it is the withering we fear, not the lastingness.
Now, we are just beginning to move into an era which will be marked by practical, scientific attempts either to eliminate the withering or to delay radically its onset. It is now no longer a matter of searching for a magic fountain that will confer eternal youth or even of hoping that beings from outer space with powers far beyond our own will turn up and show us that death is merely a product of our primitiveness. Instead, there are people with conventional scientific education working in laboratories with ordinary scientific instruments who are convinced they are on the verge of major breakthroughs. And the network of those efforts is far more extensive than is commonly reported in the major media.
There is, for example, an online network called The Immortality Institute, made up of thousands of members all around the world who are engaged in either research or advocacy concerning life extension projects. As you read down through the membership lists and check the profiles and statements of the persons involved, you find an impressive array of scientific talent. You also find, as you might imagine, some kooks, but the latter make up a surprisingly small element of the total. Most of the membership is serious and sober. They are engaged in such mundane projects as exploring the health potential of green tea and trying to lobby for greater taxpayer support for the National Institutes of Health.
The reason this work is not widely acknowledged in public debate is that scientific research requires both careful attention to detail and patience, neither of which are strong features of today’s journalism. And with the diminishing attention span of the average reader it’s not likely the public will become aware of the human potential that may be rapidly approaching. And what the public is not aware of, it cannot think about.
Another discouragement for the average person, which has been exaggerated out of reason, is the argument that modern science is now so complicated no one who does not spend decades of life mastering it can understand anything about what’s going on. Though it’s true that years of training are necessary for a person to participate in modern research, it has been shown, over and again, that persons of ordinary education can comprehend the implications of virtually all scientific activity. We do not have to be super experts in order to think.
When one begins to peek into the realm of biological experimentation he or she is confronted with an ocean so vast the idea of sailing across it becomes absurd. But one is always capable of sticking a toe in and getting a sense of what that ocean is, and then, employing imagination to speculate about where it might lead.
To offer an example of how that sampling can work, I suggest that some of you take the time to read the Nobel lecture delivered on December 8, 2002 by H. Robert Horvitz, who was awarded the prize for his work on the genetic behavior of a form of earthworm known as C. elegans. This little creature is one of the most intensely studied animals on earth because it is simple enough that its cellular makeup can be analyzed with relative ease, and yet is sufficiently complicated that its genetic system resembles fairly closely the system of more complex creatures, including mammals.
I’m not going to tell you that you can read this speech with complete comprehension -- unless you are a fairly advanced geneticist. But it’s not hard to get the gist of it or to imagine the implications of Mr. Horvitz’s work. About the latter, he is clear and easily understood.
He tells us that every cell can be considered to have a fate, and that fate works either to express what he calls “a particular differential state,” with programmed cell death being one such expression, or to divide in a particular pattern and thereby generate a particular complement of descendant cells. He summarizes by saying that programmed cell death is a process of cellular suicide.
He also explains that the decision about whether a given cell is going to live or die is controlled by the actions of specific transcription factors. Now, I don’t know what a transcription factor is, except that it is a genetic activity that can be modified by mutation. And in that process a cell that was once fated to die can become fated to live.
At this point, it needs to said very loudly that the path to immortality is not simply preventing all cellular death. If none of our cells ever died, the results would be monstrous. On the other hand, the death of some cells is the cause of the disease we commonly call old age. So, understanding why and how cells die is a step towards being able to let some cells die as nature intended (you understand, I hope, that speaking of the intentions of nature is simply a rhetorical device), but to thwart nature with respect to the death of other cells.
Horvitz speaks of the implications of his research in this way:
One point that emerges from the studies of programmed cell death in C. elegans and other organisms is the striking similarity of genes and gene pathways among organisms that are as superficially distinct as worms and humans. Many studies over the past 10 or so years involving C.elegans, yeast, the fruit fly Drosophila melanogaster and other simple organisms have repeatedly led to analogous findings concerning evolutionary conservation and have established one of the most striking themes of modern molecular biology. I like to refer to this theme as “The principle of biological universality,” and it underlies my strong conviction that the rigorous, detailed and analytic study of the biology of any organism is likely to lead to findings of importance in the understanding of other organisms, including ourselves.
I’ve offered this inadequate explanation of a tiny portion of the work of one scientific researcher in order to make the point that there are thousands of analogous researchers and that their collective enterprise gives a good deal of credence to the hypothesis that within a few more decades humans will be able to control their life span far more effectively than has ever been the case in the past.
If that hypothesis turns out to be true, how will it affect our mode of thinking about ourselves and about our place in the universe? I don’t know the answer to those questions any more than anyone else does. But at the least we can speculate, and ask ourselves about some possibilities.
Leaving aside the prospect of immortality, which is probably beyond our imaginative grasp at the moment, let’s think about a much more likely occurrence, the doubling of the normal human life span from about eighty years to a hundred and fifty, or sixty. How would life be different if that were to happen?
One might say it wouldn’t be very different at all. People would keep on doing what they do now. They would just do it longer. Maybe. But I doubt that would be the case.
We are now somewhat brainwashed in our thinking about intellectual growth, based on an assumption concerning the total number of years available to us. That may not be true of everyone, but it is true of a large majority. We now figure that it takes most people about three decades to grow up and become fully mature in their thought. And we also figure that the final ten years are marked by decline, both physical and mental. That’s not true, at either end, for many, but my point here is not about what’s true but about what a majority thinks is true, because it’s what people think that shapes social behavior. So, in the popular mind, we are left with forty years for thought of full vigor. But, in trying to assess what a mature mind might achieve, it’s not enough to calculate how many years it has. You also have to ask what that mind is engaged in thinking about over the course of those years. And here the situation is clear. Most people expend their intense mental energy on their work, or their careers, or their ambition, meaning their desire to rise up in one hierarchy or another. Reflection about the meaning of life, or the meaning of death, or the source of moral order in the universe-- if there is any such order -- receives but scant attention. In fact, people who do manage to break themselves free of what is called practical thought are generally scorned as aimless dreamers.
If the period of mature thought were increased from forty to one hundred and twenty years, I suspect the nature of thought would change with it. Here’s one reason it might happen. Many people who pursue conventional careers -- and perhaps most -- after they’ve been at it for thirty or thirty-five years arrive at the conclusion that much of what they’ve been doing hasn’t amounted to a hill of beans. It has been little more than exercise in juvenile egotism. But at that point they’re in their early sixties. So what can they do? They grit their teeth, push on to the time when they will receive an adequate pension, and then begin to look around for a place where they can retire comfortably, and, perhaps, park a golf cart in the driveway. This is often presented to us as a major feature of the American dream. And if, because you live in Vermont, you don’t believe the part about the golf carts in the driveways, take some time off to tour around Florida and observe what’s going on there. Of, if you don’t want to go that far, just read a Florida newspaper to give you a sense of what’s occupying the minds of the citizens of the Sunshine State.
I know. This is a caricature and somewhat unfair. But it’s also somewhat true. And the true part speaks to vast human waste.
I can’t be sure the waste would diminish if there were a hundred and twenty years for thought. But, if I were wagering, I would bet it would.
Some of my sense of all this, I admit, is based on my own personal experience. But whose sense of anything is not influenced by personal experience? That human beings are not fully capable of objectivity is one of the things we learn as we get older, and if we had a hundred and twenty years, I suspect we would learn it ever better than we do now, and, also, know better what to do about it.
I’ll end this with a practice that, actually, I’m quite suspicious of. When I was a boy in Baptist churches in Georgia and Florida, I and my fellow Sunday School students, were often urged to make testimonials about the wondrous working of God in our lives. I could never think of a damned thing to say. So, during those times, I never opened my mouth. But fairly often some kid, feeling the teacher’s eyes on him, would get up and proclaim something like, “I prayed to God that my momma would make a cherry pie. And sure enough, she did make a cherry pie. Praised be the Lord!”
At the time, it was not a particularly enlightening experience. But now I say that if it did his heart good, then God bless him for it.
We might all benefit from occasionally testifying to what we really care about and be somewhat less concerned with talk about things we think other people will praise us for caring about.
If someone -- with authority -- would come to me this evening and say I had the extra eighty years people in the future may well have, I would be glad. And if he or she were to add that I had another eighty years besides, I would be gladder still.
If someone were to ask me how many more afternoons of toast and tea I wanted, I don’t think I could come up with a precise number. But I suspect that I would always want at least one more, as I would always want another morning to wake up and ask myself what the day would bring -- that is, if science had found a way to make my days more than pain, weakness, fragility, and confusion.
If I were to be taken to the table Ted Brennamen mentioned in the first lecture in this series, and be presented with a glass of water that would give me ongoing life on this earth, and also a glass of wine that would usher me into the, perhaps, quite glorious existence that comes after this one, I would say, with no hesitation, “Gimme that water.”
Over the course of my extra eighty years, I’m not sure what would happen to my thoughts about God and the sacred. They might disappear altogether, but I doubt it. Yet, of this, I am fairly sure: they would diverge ever more widely from the description of the divine offered to us by current churches, synagogues, and mosques. And I would be glad for the divergence.
I don’t think I would become wiser because I would come to understand even better than I do now that “wisdom” is simply a word we fill up with our own prejudices. But I do think I would come to enjoy the workings of my own mind more fully than I have up till now. I would be less neurotic than I’ve been, and my mind would grow healthier.
If I had the desire to thank God -- which I might or might not have -- I would thank him for a sane mind and pray to him that he would make it saner still.
And I would reflect that sanity is a concept, and sometimes a product, of this sweet, green earth, and not of any other place I know anything about.
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