Wishing for eternal life, then and now

Humans have always (as far as we can tell) resisted the idea of their mortality. Many people simply refuse to think about it, and others refuse to believe it. In the face of all the evidence of creatures that die and rot or get eaten, and don’t come back to life, humans will confidently state that we are different.

True, some groups have accepted that even if we have a “soul”, our body rots in the grave and our “soul” gradually fades away underground. This was one of differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees in the time of Jesus. The former believed in a resurrection of the body and a divine rebalancing to reward the virtuous and punish the evildoer. The latter felt that life ended at death, and there was no reckoning in an afterlife. Therefore the Pharisees tended to be morally upright and religious puritans, while the Sadducees were generally more venal and collaborated with the Roman Occupation. Fair enough.

Jesus surrounded himself with Jews of all types in his attempt to bring all of Israel to repentance and purity. Of the four philosophies of his time, he was close to the Pharisees, Zealots and Essenes, less close to the Sadducees.

The promise of a physical resurrection of the body, together with the promise of an eternity in paradise if you are a believer or an eternity in hell if you are an unbeliever, is basic to Christian and Muslim belief. It has been a very powerful meme for persuading people to donate their time and cash to the promulgators of the religion. The Mormons have upped the ante by promising their adherents that they can become gods of their own planets… at least, if they are men; the status of women in all these religions is less than equal.

The religious afterlife may be an increasingly laughable idea, but the desire to avoid death is as strong as ever. Last year Google launched a new company, Calico, to focus on health and aging in particular. It is run by Arthur Levinson, former CEO of Genentech and currently Chairman of the Board of Directors at both Genentech and Apple. This is a serious attempt at life extension, backed by Google and its $54 billion in cash.

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In Google, Larry Page and his cohorts Sergey Brin, Eric Schmidt and Astro Teller have created a company that is known for two things: crunching data phenomenally well, and going after data-heavy speculative ideas (officially identified as “Moonshots”) that – even if they work out – will take many years of development to pay off. The original Google search engine was the product of vision and a data-heavy opportunity. Currently under development are a raft of others, including Google Glass and self-driving cars. Looked at in this way, medicine is just another information science with vast amounts of data – seven billion case histories walking around on the planet… data to be assembled and crunched for a path to understanding everything about our life processes. Google’s Calico should then be able to cure disease – eliminate all cancer (which would add some three years to average life expectancy) – and presumably tinker with our cellular and genetic structures any way we can imagine. To me, that suggests an indefinite lifespan in a body that would gradually move away from current human norms.

Timeframe for this? The only hint is from Larry Page: “In some industries it takes 10 to 20 years to go from an idea to something being real. Health care is certainly one of those areas. We should shoot for the things that are really, really important, so 10 or 20 years from now we have those things done.”

Larry Page is only 40, but I’m 63. Let’s get a move on, guys!

And what will it cost? Google is “not a philanthropic organization. But,” says Astro Teller, “if you make the world a radically better place, the money is going to come find you, in a fair and elegant way.”

Or in other words, just like with the priests of old, the promise of eternal life will get you to give them a ton of money. The big difference is that this time around, it is grounded in scientific developments, not wishful thinking.

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No one (well, almost no one) wants to die

The human desire to avoid death is instinctive, genetically programmed, and can only be overcome with great difficulty. People don’t think of actual “immortality”, of living “forever”, but they don’t want to die quite yet. Not this year. And if they are offered the option of somehow continuing to live on after death, in a nice place, and made young and healthy again, they will choose to believe it’s possible, unlikely though it might seem.

Rumors were always out there, inspired by hopes and dreams and visions, that there was a place on Earth where you could live forever. Maybe Dilmun (now Bahrain) where Gilgamesh sought out Utnapishtim the Faraway, survivor of the Flood… Maybe in the West, where the sun goes, beyond the Gates of Hercules, the Isle of Avalon, you can get there from the Grey Havens…

And others (more primitive in their thinking, or more advanced) say No, when you die you get put in a hole in the ground or your body is burned and that’s the end. In the time of Jesus, that was the Sadducees’ position. As wealthy and influential collaborators with the Romans, they didn’t like the idea of any Egyptian-style afterlife and assessment of their morals. But the Pharisees expected a resurrection of the body, so that God could manifest his essential justice and reward the good and punish the evil, and balance out their otherwise unfair lives.

Religious Jews of Jesus’ time certainly thought resurrection of the dead was possible. There are three stories in 1 and 2 Kings of people being restored to life: one an intervention by God after Elijah prayed; one a raising from the dead by Elisha; and the third being a dead man who was thrown into a tomb and came back to life when his body touched Elisha’s bones.

Raising the dead was therefore a good indicator of a prophet. Jesus not only claimed to have brought back the daughter of Jairus, and a young man in his own funeral procession, and his friend Lazarus, but he commanded his disciples to raise the dead (as well as heal the sick). Peter and Paul were each said to have raised a dead person on different occasions, as recorded in Acts.

And at the moment that Jesus died, Matthew records that the earth shook and tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people were restored to life. (They were a little slower than Lazarus, because Matthew also says that they didn’t come out of their tombs until Jesus’ own resurrection, a day and a half later, when they went into Jerusalem and appeared to many people.)

So not all these stories are coherent, let alone credible, but that’s not the point. The point is that humans want to believe that they aren’t going to die. In fact when you offer a belief in the afterlife to someone for the first time, they rarely assess it on grounds of logic, but they choose what to believe regardless.

Modern thinking about an ancient problem

A classic example is the story of Radbod, ruler of Frisia from about 680 to 719. He was nearly baptized a Christian, but then refused when he was told that he wouldn’t find any of his ancestors in Heaven after his death, because they hadn’t been baptized. He said he would rather spend eternity in Hell with his pagan ancestors, than in Heaven with his enemies – especially the Franks. He chose not to be a Christian because he preferred the idea of the Germanic afterlife to the Christian one. Or because his family loyalties were more important than the wishes of God. Or because he couldn’t really tell the afterlife ideas apart, and feasting with Woden is more fun than sitting around on a cloud singing hymns of praise.

The pagan afterlife party (until it all ends in Ragnarok) is one version; the Muslim paradise for believers is another; Hindus and Buddhists see you coming back to life in a different way; Taoists and others let you keep on living as long as your descendants keep on looking after you – buying and burning the things the priests sell, paper money, paper houses.

And as science slowly puts an end to all this wishful thinking, is it any wonder that we start looking to science for genetic intervention and rejuvenation, with the fallback of cryonics as a sort of ambulance to the future if we die before the medical miracles are fully developed?

Crows and ravens as an omen of death

Here is the story of a recent event, a mystical experience if you want to think of it that way.

Ten days ago I and my wife Eliza arrived in Nairobi, a city that is remarkably full of trees and birds, with hawks and storks and pied crows visible almost anywhere, including from our hotel balcony. The first morning (Monday, March 5th) we were walking back from the hotel office to our building when we saw a gardener with a BC Ferries baseball cap. Eliza and I had both lived in BC for 10-20 years, had met there, and Eliza had been the Project Manager of the BC Ferry Terminal expansion at Horseshoe Bay. (And I still kept contact there with my ex-wife, and two kids, and my ex-sister-in-law, and my ex-mother-in-law Molly, among others.) But the gardener didn’t have any connection to BC – he didn’t know where it was, or what his cap was about. Fun!

Pied Crow, cawing.

Back in our rooms I opened my email, and the first I read was from the friend I first went to BC to meet, almost 40 years ago. I had met him in Quebec the year before, and I hitchhiked over to BC to stay with him and his wife in Vancouver. I ended up staying in BC for 17 years. I haven’t seen him in decades, probably hadn’t heard from him in 10 years. Nice!

The next email I opened was from my son in Toronto – and he was writing to say that his Gran in BC (my ex-mother-in-law) was is her final days. At age 96 she had stopped eating and drinking, and the doctors gave her not more than a week to live. The four other family members previously mentioned were coming over from Vancouver Island on the BC Ferries to be with her in White Rock.

A couple of hours later Eliza and I walked out to get some food. As we went along one of the driveways of the hotel, a pied crow (a big raven-sized bird) flew down onto a tree branch just ahead of us: “Caw! Caw!” It was a very loud, somewhat rusty noise. Then as we came up it flapped a little further away onto a fence: “Caw! Caw! Caw!” And as we came up closer, it again flapped a little further away onto a tree branch: “Caw! Caw!” And then, communication complete, it flew completely away.

I have been around crows in many countries, many times, but this has never happened to me before. In Kenya there are, apparently, no superstitions regarding crows or ravens. But with my northern European background I know many stories of crows and ravens being messengers of death. The stories include Odin and his two ravens, Thought and Memory, who fly throughout the world and bring him news, and Odin is a god of death. Celtic beliefs included the crow as an omen of death and conflict. The English have superstitions about a crow cawing three times as it flies over a house as an omen of death. And so on.

We walked on and talked for a minute or so, and then checked the time: 1:07 pm. “So that was about five after two in the morning in BC,” we said.

Molly indeed died that night – very peacefully, not even waking her daughter who was sleeping in the same room. She was not found dead until 8 in the morning, and the reports give her death as either 1 or 2 in the morning.

“Magical Thinking” – I’m always railing against accepting it as a physical reality. So what happens when something woo-woo occurs? I accept it, I enjoy it, I delight in the Universe being such a rich and mysterious and poetic place… and I speculate about where a physical explanation may eventually be found.

There was a time when the idea that animals knew an earthquake “was going to happen” was one of those woo-woo ideas. People swore they had seen it – a dog snapping awake and running out of the house, or other creatures behaving in a panicky mode a few seconds before an earthquake struck. Eventually, once we had developed good seismic tracking devices, it was shown that animals are simply able to pick up on the earliest beginnings of an earthquake, while we humans aren’t aware until larger, slower and more powerful signals arrive a little later.

So… could a subconscious awareness of death generate a chemical reaction in the brain? Is it possible that a crow can smell that chemical reaction in a human, and respond that they want a taste of the carrion? Is it possible that there could be some quantum entanglement involved between people who have known each other for decades, such that a change of state in one will register in the subconscious of the other?

Or was it all nothing but statistically insignificant chance?

Regardless, the Universe is a rich and mysterious and poetic place! Goodbye, Molly, I am glad to have known you, and grateful for all you did.

Witchcraft and Magical Thinking

What is religious ritual except witchcraft? You are performing rites with no practical purpose, in an attempt to influence the future outcome of earthly events by either begging from a god (or angel, or demon, or saint, etc) – or else by symbolically replicating the outcome you want by dropping blood where you want rain or dressing up as the animal you want to kill – or else by sacrificing (“making sacred”, i.e. killing or destroying) an animal, child, or other valuable object.

Not all circumcisions are successful

So Abraham hears voices in his head. God tells him to sacrifice his son. He’s ready to do it, when he sees a ram caught in a bush, and the voices tell him to kill that instead. Lucky for the boy. Then God says he’ll make a deal with Abraham: worship Him only, and He’ll favor Abraham’s descendants as the Chosen People. (Seems like a good deal. It’s not being offered to anyone else. Except somehow every people on earth seems to think it’s more special than the others.)

And to prove they’re still committed to the deal, all Abraham’s descendants – forever – have to have their foreskins cut off. Which is a better blood-offering than actually killing yourself or one of your family. But this God is definitely one of the gods that likes to see a bit of blood.

And Abraham, being the first, circumcised himself. Nowadays we would just assume he was insane.

And then there are people like this man in British Columbia who figured things weren’t going right with the family because he hadn’t had his son circumcised. The doctors wouldn’t do it now that the boy was four. The man botched it. The son was hospitalized and is damaged for life. The father was convicted and jailed, and it was noted by the court that he had tried to circumcise himself a couple of years earlier.

So he’s just a lunatic, you say. (But not that different from Abraham.) You can’t apply that criticism to trained religious practitioners, you say.

Strictly speaking, the father is meant to do the circumcision if he’s able, but there’s always someone willing to be paid to do it for you. So there’s the Jewish practitioner, the mohel. Orthodox Judaism prescribes circumcision as a religious ritual, to be performed according to strict Talmudic laws. According to those laws, the mohel must suck the infant’s bleeding penis with his mouth. (How Abraham achieved this isn’t explained.) So when a mohel has a sexually transmitted disease like herpes, might there be a risk? Here’s a report of a two-week-old boy who died in New York, thanks to his mohel.

It’s not just uneducated people whose magical thinking leads to witchcraft and deaths. A religious education can be just as dangerous.