My children think tech will let them live forever. Our faith tells us why we shouldn’t try.
My teenage children think they are going to live forever. And I do not mean that figuratively. They believe that by the time they reach the age of advanced decrepitude currently inhabited—winningly—by their honorable father, modern science, through a cunning combination of technological, medical and pharmaceutical interventions, will have so thoroughly disarmed the grim reaper that they can expect to live on indefinitely. I’m not sure why anyone thinks this is a particularly great idea, but I am beginning to understand where my kids are getting it.
In my imagination, the ruthlessly prolonged life looks something like Mr. Burns’s disembodied head, floating in a bowl atop a metallic body seeking a new Smithers—no doubt his clones will do—to perpetually torment. But on YouTube and social media, digital immortality is discussed with seriousness and enthusiasm by ardent transhumanists, “singularitarians” and futurists whose fanciful expectations make their way into pop culture on TV and streaming services in shows like “Upload” and in speculative designs for A.I.-powered griefbots and memory creators.
The idea of a technologically secured eternal life has become a theme our screen-happiest generation is regularly imbibing. The result is that, in the analog world, real people are pursuing something beyond mere longevity, something slouching toward immortality.
My teenage children think they are going to live forever. And I do not mean that figuratively.
Members of the American billionaire club are trying in their own ways to follow Mr. Burns’s lead, but with better muscle tone. Former Twitter C.E.O. Jack Dorsey, Meta/Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos are only a few of the uber wealthy rumored to be among a growing community of “life-hackers” or “bio-hackers.”
Mr. Bezos’ physical transformation during his mid-50s—look at that gun show!—is hard to deny, and he is a prominent investor in Unity Biotechnology, a Silicon Valley start-up conducting research on senescent cells—“older cells” that have stopped dividing. These cells appear to be one of the drivers of the various aches and ailments associated with aging. Meanwhile, among the scores of other start-ups and enterprises seeking to turn your desire for an extended life into a tidy profit, researchers at emerging bio-tinkerers BrainEx and OrganEx are experimenting with processes that threaten something close to the events fictionally described in the horror film “Re-Animator.” These scientrepreneurs aren’t too sure yet where their cutting edge work is leading, but at least in the film version, the mad scientist revived dead flesh to disastrous effect.
Bryan Johnson, described in Futurism magazine as a mere centimillionaire, has put his digital finance fortune to use in pursuit of a forever young future. According to a report that originated in Bloomberg, Mr. Johnson spends approximately $2 million each year to keep something approaching the 18-year-old iteration of himself going, providing a steady revenue stream to upwards of 30 doctors, nutritionists and trainers. And I thought my Peloton subscription was expensive. His obsession with self appears set to be monetized through something he has dubbed Project Blueprint, one algorithm to rule them all. His latest not-creepy-at-all, youth-preserving gambit is a “multi-generational plasma exchange” with his father and 17-year-old son.
With these role models at play in the fields of the Lord, what exactly am I supposed to tell my children about coming to terms with our middle-class, natural lifespans? They already perceive my resignation to inevitable decline and demise a charming relic of a time that is swiftly passing.
Members of the American billionaire club are trying in their own ways to follow Mr. Burns’s lead, but with better muscle tone.
They’ve all enjoyed those Percy Jackson stories—overloaded with immortals as they are. Maybe I should get them to spend some time revisiting the story of the centaur Chiron. An immortal but not free from worldly suffering, balancing the gloom of an eternity burdened with the pain of a wound from a poisoned arrow, he welcomed instead the merciful release of death.
I don’t pretend to be facing the big uncertain end with cheerful, courageous resolution. Dealing with my own accelerating limitations and managing elderly parents and frequent trips to assisted living, memory care and E.R. units has not exactly filled me with anticipatory joy for the next few decades of my own life. But neither have I felt the burning desire, that my kids appear to take for granted, to somehow get in the way of my shortening telomeres. I am no deep thinker, but I think I can spot a con when someone is trying to work one on me.
While the rich have the opportunity to toy with longevity, in the real world of scarcity and limits the rest of us inhabit, life expectancy is not straining toward eternity. It has actually been heading in the opposite direction. A national legacy of poor investments in nutrition, health care and mental health, the Covid-19 and opioid epidemics, and gun absolutism have reversed years of progress in average longevity. In 1900, U.S. life expectancy was 47; by 1950 it had reached 68 and 79 by 2019. In 2020 it fell to 77 and to 76 in 2021.
I would like to live a long and healthy life, sure, but I don’t desire to live past my naturally allotted time. Yes, “past my time” is a hard thing to define, and harder still is to convince my kids that this vague standard represents something morally better or humanly richer than the tech immortality they are growing to believe is their birthright.
While the rich have the opportunity to toy with longevity, in the real world of scarcity and limits the rest of us inhabit, life expectancy is not straining toward eternity.
But there just seems something juvenile and greedy in that expectation. Since life began, it has been the proper rhythm of life for the old to make way for the young, not to stand in their way or pull up the ladders behind them or worse mine them for their own comfort and consolation. The church already wisely speaks of intergenerational justice that would inevitably be harmed by a society bent on life extension at all costs.
There are of course any number of practical problems created by these dubious advances in longevity. Like many other Western nations, the United States already commits vast resources to support its elderly, creating imbalances that in the end deny important investments in the just beginning lives of children and young people and in addressing other acute social needs (and I hasten to add those imbalances apply to the lives of the elderly themselves in our market-driven system where natural life spans seem to wax and wane based on ability to pay). How much more lop-sided will our society become if “radical life extension” moves into the mainstream?
Does having a longer life say anything about how happy, productive or fulfilling that life will prove? Does greater longevity = greater satisfaction or does it just create more opportunities for heartache and self-seeking and self-serving?
Forbidding as the specter of the end is, there is an art in living well and in dying well, something Kenneth Woodward captured in his account of the final days of Chicago’s Joseph Bernardin in 1996. Announcing to the press the return of his liver cancer and the coming conclusion of his life, Cardinal Bernardin admonished those who sorrowed. Do not to despair; in Christian hope, death comes as a brother, as a friend, he said.
Birth and death bookend our temporal experience, but we are called to fill everything between them with love and mercy and decency, not cling to fantasies of a fraudulent eternity.
My church indeed helps with understanding and accepting the inevitable and not just because of the expectation of life everlasting it heralds, a belief I frankly struggle with all the time, but in its constant emphasis on the sacredness of life in the great now, our personal responsibility to it and to each other while we are living it.
In his Easter Vigil homily in 2010, Pope Benedict acknowledged “humanity’s anguish at the destiny of illness, pain and death that has been imposed upon us.” Surely someday “people have constantly thought—there must be some cure for death…the medicine of immortality must exist.” But Benedict challenged this desire for extending life as an unassailable good in itself.
“There would be no more room for youth,” he cautioned. “Capacity for innovation would die…endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation.” Benedict continued:
The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in fullness.
That “medicine of immortality” is already within our reach, he promised. “In baptism, this medicine is given to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed.”
Birth and death bookend our temporal experience, but we are called to fill everything between them with love and mercy and decency, not cling to fantasies of a fraudulent eternity through a digitally replicated life or dabble in costly bio-interventions while a world of want swirls around us.
Maybe that message is worth streaming, too. Maybe it is one that takes a lifetime to accept.
Correction, July 8, 2023: The names of the BrainEx and OrganEx initiatives were misspelled.
Update, June 2, 2023; 11:31 a.m.: This article has been updated to more clearly attribute the quote from Pope Benedict XVI.