Immortality is usually considered the exclusive domain of the religious. Belief in God seems to be a prerequisite for belief in an afterlife. There are exceptions to this rule in the Western tradition and it’s not even a rule in Eastern traditions. But in the contemporary West, the religious have a monopoly on immortality. There’s a certain logic to this arrangement. First, belief in immortality is tied to belief in the soul. Since most atheists are materialists, they don’t believe in a soul or an afterlife. Second, belief in immortality seems to require belief in an omnipotent, or nearly omnipotent, being. After all, overcoming death is a hard job. There is no power in the universe that we know of that’s up to that task. However, an omnipotent God could conceivably do the job by, say, resurrecting the dead. Granted, that’s a tall order even for omnipotence. Not only does God have to reassemble all of the ‘stuff’ out of which bodies are made, he has to figure out which bits belong to which bodies (a process that gets complicated because material gets recycled), and then has to insure that the person who is recreated is identical with the person who died (as opposed to being a very clever duplicate). These are challenges even for omnipotence and you can find debates about how God would accomplish this in both ancient rabbinic sources and the early church fathers. However, all are agreed that without God the task does seem impossible.
I want to challenge the monopoly that religion has on the afterlife. It’s not that I believe in an afterlife; I just think it’s theoretically possible. It would be practically very difficult and expensive to achieve, but we might not need omnipotence to do it. For the first time in history, it’s plausible to think that we might not need God to raise the dead. We might be capable of doing it ourselves. The notion that death is a tractable problem for science to solve is growing along with our medical mastery. As we become more proficient in manipulating our genome, we may well be able to reprogram our cells to reproduce many cycles beyond their current capacity. This will yield a significant increase in human life spans. In addition, as nanotechnology advances, we may be able to integrate micro-robotics into our bodies which could repair and replace cells that were damaged or dying. This would also greatly extend human life spans. Granted, we are still a long way from this technology, but the precursors exist. Some, such as philosopher Nick Bostrom, have argued that fast-tracking this research is a moral imperative. But doubling human life spans is still short of immortality. Nevertheless, even this lofty goal may not be beyond humanity’s reach.
To get a running start, let’s return the religious paradigm. Actually, there’s a lot we can learn from religion here. After all, theologians and philosophers of religion, until recently, were the only ones thinking about the logistics of the afterlife. There are a few insights the materialist might glean. I’m not talking about the traditional pictures of heaven and hell; those are very much beside the point. Rather, I’m talking about the metaphysics of immortality. What has to be present to make talk of surviving death coherent? Well, what about the soul? This has been a popular solution since Plato (who probably got it from Pythagoras). Interestingly, the soul does not figure prominently in the foundational texts of Judaism and Christianity. The resurrection of the dead (which one finds in Maccabees and the NT) is a very earthy, material affair. God has the very humble task of putting Humpty Dumpty together again. This view has some problematic features, however, which perhaps partially explains why Christians incorporated the Platonic notion of the soul into their theology. First, there is the problem of personal identity over time. When someone dies and decays (or in the case of early Christians, is fed to lions or incinerated), one’s material stuff is scattered. Of course, God, being omnipotent, can reassemble that stuff. But that doesn’t necessarily solve the problem because now one’s existence has a temporal gap in it. There’s no continuity of consciousness between death and the resurrection. How, then, can I be sure that the resurrected ‘me’ really is me and not just an indistinguishable duplicate, a new person with my memories, personality, etc.? This is a tough metaphysical question. However, the soul, being immaterial and surviving the death of the body, can bridge that gap. There is continuity between death and resurrection. God’s job is made a little easier.
Of course, the materialist cannot help himself to the concept of a soul. If one is a materialist, one is unlikely to be a dualist. Perhaps it’s just as well. Dualism has fallen on hard times lately. The problem began with Descartes’ famous ‘substance interaction problem’ but has intensified as our understanding of the brain has evolved. The research indicates that we are not ‘ghosts in a machine’, or souls that can operate independently of the brain. Rather, consciousness is tied to brain activity. Consciousness often does not survive partial destruction of the brain. Given this fact, it seems very unlikely that it could survive the total destruction of the brain at death. Thus, the preponderance of the evidence is against the existence of a soul. The last refuge for the dualist is the phenomenon of ‘near death experiences’ or NDE’s. This is an intriguing phenomenon that warrants further study. Its evidential value in proving the existence of a soul, however, is often overstated by NDE proponents. Even if taken at face value, these reports are at best evidence of some sort of extra sensory perception. I’m skeptical about ESP too, but it’s theoretically possible without necessarily invoking the soul (maybe it’s some kind of weird quantum mechanical phenomenon as some have proposed). If we follow Ockham’s Razor and don’t multiply entities beyond necessity, we ought to be cautious about invoking the soul to explain NDE’s.
However, it seems that the materialist needs some kind of soul analogue to make immortality work. The answer might lie in a theory of consciousness called functionalism. To vastly oversimplify, the main idea is that matter, at a certain level of complexity, becomes conscious. The most complex arrangement of matter in the known universe is the human brain and properly functioning human brains are conscious. However, there is nothing magical about the human brain. There’s no law that states that consciousness can only be instantiated in human brains. Perhaps any sufficiently complex arrangement of matter will do. Thus, functionalists tend to be optimistic that consciousness will be achieved by computers, or artificial intelligences. One needs a substratum for consciousness, to be sure, but that need not be the human brain, at least theoretically. At this point, the implications for immortality become clear. If we could create sophisticated enough ‘hardware’ on which to run the ‘software’ of consciousness, we could attain immortality for all practical purposes. Some theists have even suggested this as a possible way of understanding the mechanics of immortality. To paraphrase John Polkinghorn, when we die, God will run our software on his hardware until he gives us new hardware to run it on. I grant there are several assumptions implicit in what I’ve said that I haven’t defended for the sake of brevity. I also admit that there are problems to be overcome before this vision is reality. However, these problems seem to be of a practical rather than metaphysical nature. In this respect, it is not unlike certain religious visions of the afterlife which essentially views death as a technical problem to be solved, albeit by God, because all the king’s horses and all the king’s men seem doomed to fail. For the majority of human history, we’ve needed God because the challenge of beating death seemed too far beyond our power to accomplish. For the first time, however, we’re able to plausibly envision achieving something approaching immortality. To modify a quotation from Ray Kurzweil, “Do I believe in an afterlife? Not yet.”