Heavens on Earth: The Scientific Search for the Afterlife, Immortality, and Utopia
pub. 2018 Michael Shermer
Alone among the animals, human beings live in the knowing shadow of our own mortality. It is rarely a specter which is embraced, and escaping death has attracted more than its share of brainpower and creative force. In Heavens on Earth, Michael Shermer appraises religious, scientific, and somewhere-in-between attempts to deny the boatman his due. Although winsomely varied and compassionately delivered, Shermer’s latest could have delivered more.
Although Heavens on Earth opens with a chapter on religious views of the afterlife, the real heart of this book is what lays beyond. Obviously, the founder of Skeptic magazine won’t be embracing ideas of heaven and hell, or reincarnation for that matter. What attracted me to this book was the fact that Shermer also addresses scientific and political attempts to dodge mortality — scientific, in the form of cyrogenics and transhumanism, and political in the form of creating utopias. Although many people have had themselves frozen in time, in the hopes that one day a way to restore them to life without destroying their tissues will be invented, that hasn’t surfaced yet. Anti-aging cures, too, are not just around the corner. Aging, like cancer, doesn’t have one cause: it’s a collective name given to several things happening at once. Shermer doesn’t believe human life can be extended realistically beyond 125-150 years. (Not mentioned is the fact that even if we replace most of our innards with synthetic organs, we still can’t stop our minds from going.) Also covered in the scientific section are attempts to copy the mind digitally, and then recreate it — but even we had the capacity to copy a mind in full (and the psychologist Shermer does not believe we do, given the sheer complexity of neural networks), re-creating an active intelligence from that copy wouldn’t preserve the original life. It would create a new one, effectively.
The last section addresses utopias, and it is here that Shermer misses a step by only examining one family of utopian experiences in full, those associated with neo-tribal Nazism. Guessing the reason why isn’t difficult, as Shermer alludes to an uptick in neo-tribalism in the present day, and covers the alt-right by name. Connecting utopias to immortality is a bit of a stretch, but if one buys into a tribal or group identity strongly enough, then its story envelops one’s own, and individual mortality is forgotten. It’s well and good to point to the dangers of national socialism, but communism should have been included as well: it is equally utopian, and far more murderous historically speaking. He may have also been influenced by a quoted review from George Orwell, who spoke to the lure of Nazism: while other worldviews promised comfort and hedonic pleasures, Nazism offered the invigoration of ‘struggle, danger, and death’. The human need for challenge is one Shermer revisits.
Ultimately, Shermer concludes, the only real answer to defeating the fear of death is to embrace life, and to make the most of what which we have. If you’ve ever taken to Star Trek, what Shermer suggests won’t be surprising — a life emphasizing connections to family, friends, and a political community, with individual goal, a little room for contemplation, and a decided place for awe of the cosmos.