The always fascinating English philosophic intellectual John Gray has written a book about the various ways most of the leading philosophers and scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century were in rebellion against what Gray regards as the fact (and, on balance, the beneficial fact) of our self-conscious mortality. Here’s a thoughtful, pithy review.
These leading thinkers had two approaches. First, they meticulously searched for scientific evidence for the continued existence of particular human beings after death, that the soul or consciousness survives bodily demise. Second, they conceived of projects to grab hold of evolution with personal immortality in mind–to make us into a race of gods. Here’s the reviewer’s summary of Gray’s achievement:
Gray captures the hilarious audacity and absurdity of the search for immortality, one that could be conceived only by such charmingly quixotic creatures as human beings. He ably reconstructs one of the most preposterous and yet somehow deeply inspiring stories of human curiosity ever recorded.
It’s misleading, of course, to think of such efforts as simply products of the preposterous and quixotic past. I’ve read right here on BIG THINK, for example, about Mr. Kurzweil’s recommendations for the huge numbers of supplements and such we should be taking to keep us around until personal immortality kicks in, until we have made evolution conscious and volitional enough to defeat death.
Gray thinks that all human thought and action on behalf of immortality has been discredited by Darwin’s big insight: Human beings are animals with no special destiny beyond their natural, earthly home.
I’m not sure why that insight is particularly Darwinian. For Aristotle, for example, human beings, in a way, transcend the world of political animals through their minds. But that transcendence has nothing to do with particular human animals actually surviving death. Surely even our Darwinian scientists these days sitll think of themselves as different from the other animals because of their minds, because of what they can know through reason or science about the deterministic regularities that are characteristic of the natural world.
From one view (and here the Darwinian [and Aristotelian] criticism is important), our transhumanists make the error of thinking they ARE minds, and so they can think their way to consciously and personally transcending the world of bodies.
But can the Darwinians (or maybe even the Aristotelians) explain why members of one species alone are so dissatisfied wih their natural fate–with personal extinction? Can the news that we’re just like the other animals cure of us of this perverse dissatisfaction? Can we use it to tell the transhumanists that their best efforts are destined to be defeated by the nature that’s indifferent to the personal existence of us all?
We might also add that every effort by our Marxists and capitalists to make this world so free and prosperous that we will experience ourselves as totally at home–totally unalienated–in this world have failed. And in any case the world we techno-construct for ourselves is far from being a natural world.
It goes without saying that I prefer the relatively tough NEW ATHEISM of Christopher Hitchens to wimpy transhumanism and socialism and libertarianism and all that. But THE NEW ATHEISTS, it seems to me, still have a lot of explaining to do before doubting Thomists such as myself are convinced. They’ll have to show me they know something THE OLD ATHEISTS didn’t.