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How will religious institutions cope with technological immortality?
Jønathan Lyons   Mar 8, 2013   Ethical Technology  

“What the mind doesn’t understand, it worships or fears.” – Alice Walker Walker’s words ring profoundly true for me, at the moment. In my sci-fi course (which is actually all about science fiction becoming real-world, bleeding-edge science; personhood; and the technological Singularity; but sci-fi is better shorthand) we’ve just covered a number of approaches to concepts such as mind uploading and immortality.

I've wondered just how well religious institutions might rebound in the face of such technologies as mind uploading and radical life-extending technology, and the prospect that one may eventually need not necessarily worry about any form of the metaphysical afterlife scenarios that many religions trade in. Because, really, if one may upload oneself, then ze needn't bother contemplating an eternity standing on streets of gold, singing praises to some almighty or another, or any other possible afterlife.

 

In the past, the Catholic Church has had to admit such inconveniences as the fact that the universe does not revolve around the Earth, and that the Earth is not flat. I mean, sure, throwing people in prison for actually saying such things was practiced for centuries, but eventually – with Vatican II, in 1965! – they admitted that the Earth is spherical.

 

So I suspect that they will adapt to the arrival of mind-uploading technology after a while. Maybe after quite a while, but I think they might. (On the other hand, they still denounce in-vitro fertilization, which leaves them cemented in Ludditeland.) My best guess is that the Catholic Church will go through a period of denouncing mind uploading, should the science ever come about, and that at some point decades later, they'll find a way to embrace the practice. In my opinion, a religious authority that demands the deaths of its followers is – well – just not pro-life. In fact, the more pro-life position would be to embrace such technologies as might enable immortality. If one's creator is infinite, He'll still be around when a member of the flock is ready to go.

But a period of denunciation on the part of the Catholic Church – and many religious institutions – seems unavoidable. After all, if a religion can't use its promise of an afterlife in Heaven and avoiding the threat of burning forever in the fiery lake, in exchange for followers' submission to its stated beliefs, its orders, and their tithes, it will lose its sources of funding, along with its sway over its flock.

But as my classes – I'm teaching two sections this semester – tackle mind loading and technological immortality, I have witnessed as a surprising number of students were sent scurrying to their religious roots by the very ideas.

Discussing the 2045 Avatar Project, one had a metaphysical crisis: "The Russian mogul had a very good business method by asking the rich for their support. It is still a scary thought though. God created us and we are mortal. This world is full of sin and evil. If anyone sees that the riches that are built up her[e] on earth mean nothing in the end, why would they want to live 'forever.' It is important to remember that unless you are apart [sic] of the saved who will be blessed with the gift of eternal life in Heaven, there is no such thing as 'forever' here on earth. There is only until Jesus' second coming."

In fact, I received quite a few such religion-rooted freakouts in response to the idea of uploading the essence of who and what one is and living beyond one's mortal body. I suppose that if ze were to wax metaphysical, ze could ask whether life becomes less precious without the spectre of death; whether one can truly understand pleasure without pain. (As many transhumanists have pointed out, though, even if uploading the essence of who we are radically extends our time as sentient beings, death in some form or another, whether with the end of the tech sustaining us or with the end of the world or the universe, would still be lurking at some probably-uncertain point in the future. The fear of death would remain; it simply would not end, necessarily, with our own, biological deaths.)

Instead of exploring such questions, though, zir response reminds me a bit of the man-on-the-street reactions some had a few years back, when possible fossilized bacteria had been discovered within a meteor that had originated on Mars. Some crossed themselves and refused to believe the report. One man smiled tightly and proclaimed, "God will have the last word on this!"

And those reactions were triggered by the mere possibility that bacteria had once existed on Mars!

So I probably shouldn't have been surprised that, once some of the faithful connect the dots and realize that mind uploading would wrest one's supposed fate away from a religious institution's afterlife mythology, they would respond to the idea as a threat to their religious belief systems. They certainly have.

Perhaps in a few years they'll come around. Perhaps not. But as an individual who does not like the fact that his lifespan is arbitrarily finite, I do not understand the rush some people insist on making toward death.

When and if uploading one's mind becomes an option, I foresee a period of denial and rejection. But eventually, religious institutions doing the denying and rejecting will have to come around.

Jønathan Lyons is an affiliate scholar for the IEET. He is also a transhumanist parent, an essayist, and an author of experimental fiction both long and short. He lives in central Pennsylvania and teaches at Bucknell University. His fiction publications include Minnows: A Shattered Novel.



COMMENTS

>>But as an individual who does not like the fact that his lifespan is arbitrarily finite, I do not understand the rush some people insist on making toward death.

Jønathan, I loved this essay. You are a lot like my protagonist “Dan” in the novel “Memories with Maya”
My intent with that book is to bring up these topics in to people, and also the undeniable effect technologies such as Google glass (and it’s future iterations) will have on personal relationships between people.

I lightly touch on Quantum Archeology in the story…another taboo of course.

Do let me know if your thoughts if you get a chance to read it.
It’s on Amazon.
http://www.amazon.com/Memories-With-Maya-ebook/dp/B00BMAQVRS/

Best Regards.

Have no idea what to even think on this- let alone what could be done. But do know what can’t be done: we can’t trick them.. in both senses of can’t; we ought not trick them and we can’t fool them at any rate—because they’ll see right through it. If you tell a Christian the spirit of immortality involved in scriptural Eternal Life is admirable, such will not play in Peoria (nor in ‘Frisco, either). What they want to hear is that one is willing to give one’s life over to the Lord. Can see no way to find the other way on this without dissembling.
Humans being reactive, probably only reverse psychology would succeed: tell the religious we want to keep radical lifespans as a possibility for ourselves and for the religious to die off, then a reaction is guaranteed to ensue. However for starters such simply isn’t permissible without violating Buddhist Right Speech and Right-Think as well.
Related to the above, I’m continually trying to decide how to communicate with the religious on anything- the alternative is naturally not to talk to them, put them off by replying yes, very good, sorry can’t talk now, Goodbye. Anything which can be said to them is not what they want to hear and may serve to confuse them. In other words the outcome is both parties talking past each other.
Can’t say to them,

“religion is a great way to escape the unseemly realities of a carnivorous world.”

Or,

“religion is Marxism Lite: nexus, nomos without Lubyanka and barbed wire…”

That doesn’t play in Peoria, either.

@Jonathan:

Respectfully, a couple of points.

1) Historical Accuracy: The idea that you put forward that the Catholic Church was locking people up for centuries over scientific questions simply doesn’t match the historical reality. I am no defender of the numerous historical and moral crimes of the Church but a war against science was not one of them: Copernicus was supported by the Church, numerous early scientific figures were Jesuit priests including those who mapped the moon and gave us its nomenclature by which we call features things such as “The Sea of Tranquility”. The two most famous cases of the Church acting against figures who were engaged in science- Bruno and Galileo- had little to do with science and everything to do with more run of the mill heresy-Bruno- and seemingly eternal Vatican intrigue-Galileo. There was only ever ONE person- whose name escapes me at the moment who argued that the earth was flat before Columbus and the Church wanted nothing to do with him. Perpetuating these kinds of over-simplified myths about the war between science and religion does nothing to increase understanding.

2) Underlying assumptions about how human “immortality” will appear: I think you’re assuming that material human immortality
(if it ever appears) will arrive all at once out of the box. What seems more likely is that we will gradually push the limits of human biological longevity. We’ve been doing this for quite a while now almost doubling the human life span over the last 100 years. So perhaps the best analog we can look at is how the Church and other religious institutions have responded to this increased longevity? Well, at least as far as the Catholic Church is concerned they are one of the leading voice against euthanasia.
Will it raise any concerns with them at all if people live for extremely long periods of time? I don’t think so at all- more time for some one to be a member of the Church after all.  Actual biological immortality- if we ever achieve it- will take many generations to obtain. If there were a simple cure for death we would have found it by now. This time frame should give religious institutions plenty of time to adapt and change.

Mind-uploading is another issue entirely, but again, is likely to emerge so gradually step by step that religious institutions should have plenty of time to adjust.

3) The real cause of conflict: The most likely source of conflict between science and religion would be to continue perpetuating the idea that the two are necessarily in conflict over the destiny of the human species when in fact both sides represent the same interest in human transcendence and bring legitimate concerns to the attention to the other which is how I read the responses to these issues of your students.

“The most likely source of conflict between science and religion would be to continue perpetuating the idea that the two are necessarily in conflict over the destiny of the human species when in fact both sides represent the same interest in human transcendence and bring legitimate concerns to the attention to the other..”

———————————

More to it than that, unfortunately. If you get the impression many/some of the religious are somewhat in sympathy with us, they might be telling you what you want to hear. If you are told by a significant proportion of the religious they appreciate transhumanism, that’s encouraging; however if they merely say ‘let’s discuss these matters’, they perhaps are not serious and could even be changing the subject by saying so, e.g:
“interesting- let’s talk later. ‘Bye, it’s time for prayers.”
That is ‘yessing’. Admittedly am very skeptical/cynical concerning what differing interlocuters say. Now, such as Unitarians (goo goo mystics in general) might be no real problem to convince or seriously interest; but we can’t ignore the differences vis truer believers; not fundamentalists, but, rather, the in-betweens. For instance Christian scripture is nebulous in places yet the ultimate meaning is unambiguous: salvation is through Christ, no-one—nothing—else. Can’t smooth this over at this time. Again, it appears the convinced religious say what we want to hear, “yes, I’m interested in the future”, when in reality they are wholly dedicated to the past. They can say they are intrigued by transhumanism when they are thinking what does it have to do with my life, my family, with the price of groceries, with the price of tea in China. From reading between the lines I get that message over ‘n over, sort-of coming from another planet to have the earthlings respond,

“very interesting, but what has it to do with me, with my family, with Jesus…?”

Naturally it’s based on my idiosyncratic experiences with the religious in the South and then in the Midwest.

This is to write it you want to glean whatever it is they deep-down want, you could perhaps even have to hypnotize them to discover what it is they really want both spiritually and technologically.
We do know the religious today want cellphones and all the rest of it, whereas in the past there was more of a pride in being independent of gadgets; ‘roughing it’, it used to be termed, the Marlboro Man out in the wild with just his cigarettes and lighter. Today the Marlboro Man has a cellphone and a shack with a microwave and the rest of it.

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