In 1783, a french noblewoman sat in her carriage at the Tuilleries observing for the first time a hot-air balloon rise into the sky. "Oh yes, now it's certain!" she cried out with with anguish. "One day they'll learn to keep people alive forever, but I shall already be dead!!"
So begins Andrew Stark's thoughtful review in a recent issue in The Wall Street Journal, of the book, "Mortal Coil," written by David Boyd Haycock (Yale Press, $30). Stark observes further that: "Spurred by a similar sort of anxiety and desire, Western scientists long ago set out to find the key to immortality -- a quest that David Boyd Haycock chronicles with wit and learning in "The Mortal Coil." In the 17th century, alchemists led the hunt; in the 18th, hygiene fetishists; in the 19th, monkey-gland transplanters. Today's questers would seem to dwarf them all. Credible researchers, backed by major investors, are seeking out antioxidants to minimize cell damage, genetic engineering to curb the aging process, enzymes to keep tissues supple and stem cells to grow new organs."
One of the most fascinating techniques that Mr. Haycock discusses in this quest for immortality is the rather macabre practice of cryonics: freezing people just after death but before brain damage begins, and then hopefully "resurrecting them," as Mr. Haycock suggests, when medicine is finally able to cure that "fundamental problem of life...death." Companies that currently offer this service (honest to God truth...) will typically freeze a person's severed head, which is fondly referred to in the longevity industry as a "popsicle," with the hope that eventually the head will be thawed out and transplanted onto a robotic torso, one invulnerable to the ailments that killed the body.
While Mr. Stark (author of "The LImits of Medicine," Cambridge Press) in his review briefly overviews how traditional religious faith, or the lack thereof, has dealt with death (annihilationism, reincarnation, and resurrection), he doesn't offer what seems to be an even more fundamental question that is raised by our disdain and dis-comfort with mortality. And that question is, why do we have this longing for life everlasting? If this universe truly has little or no meaning, but is simply a random result of chance, why would we want to live forever? Why go to such extremes to stave off the inevitable?
A number of years ago, Woody Allen was interviewed by Rolling Stone magazine, and he was asked how he wanted to be remembered. Allen lamented, "Someone once asked me if my dream was to live on in the hearts of my people, and I said I would like to live on in my apartment. And that's really what I would prefer...You drop dead one day, and it means less than nothing if billions of people are singing your praises every day, all day long."
Despite Allen's annihilationist view of life (like the beer commercials, we only go around once), the Good Book suggests that we have this fundamental, intrinsic belief, that we will live forever, for a very good reason. As Qoheleth, the Preacher of Ecclesiastes tells us, "God has put eternity in our hearts" (Ecclesiastes 3:11). All other views, apart from Resurrection, pale in comparison to fulfill this deeply cherished belief, that we will live forever.
"They, of all men, must not conceive spiritual joy and worth as things that need to be rescued or tenderly protected from time and place and matter and the senses. Their God is the God of corn and oil and wine...These small and perishable bodies we now have were given to us as ponies are given to schoolboys. We must learn to manage; not that we may some day be free of horses altogether but that some day we may ride bare-back, confident and rejoicing, those greater mounts, those winged, shining and world-shaking horses which perhaps even now expect us with impatience, pawing and snorting in the King's stables." -C.S. Lewis, Miracles