Tuesday, August 28, 2007

If we stumble upon the Fountain of Youth...

It seems to me that we live in an era of unbridled enthusiasm for science and technology. Just about the only criticism I see directed against these aims comes from the Christian Right. The arguments from that camp are faith-based rather than determined by logic. The praise in secular segments of society for the "march of scientific progress" almost assumes the trappings of religion. It's a result of an unquestioned acceptance that technology is ultimately "good". But what historical evidence do we have to back that position? The student of Twentieth Century history can easily find a number of examples whereby technological advancements resulted in brutal conditions. If you are not sure that you agree, check into Chernobyl or Hiroshima- the tragedies that occurred in these cities are two of the more obvious incidents I could point toward to reinforce the point.

Don't get the wrong idea- I am no "Luddite", though I do sometimes lean that way. (By the way... the Luddites were English textile artisans of the Nineteenth Century who smashed automated machines that threatened their jobs. They believed that the Industrial Revolution would negatively affect their standard of living.) Somewhere in the archives you could locate a blog post that describes all the modern wonders that I would not like to live without. In fact the majority of time I feel lucky to have been born into this age. One obvious benefit has been the Internet. I believe that this innovation has almost unlimited capacity to improve the lives of human beings. The ways it has increased our opportunities for communication and education are amazing. It's the type of tool with such a pervasive presence in my life that I wonder how I ever got by without it. If I woke up tomorrow and it was gone forever, I would certainly mourn the loss.

Yet there are negative consequences of our technological reach. I've written extensively (and recently) about my concerns over fossil fuel consumption. I'll spare you the rehash so soon. I bring it up merely to demonstrate my fundamental ambivalence. Unfortunately people have such great faith in the power of technology that they take for granted that any harm it causes can be ameliorated by future advancements. I don't think that is necessarily so. We have transformed areas of the Earth into uninhabitable spaces that won't repair themselves for hundreds (if not thousands) of years. We have such unmitigated hubris that we honestly believe our potential is limitless. But there are a few basic realities that we ignore when we think in those terms.

One of the great hopes of mankind has been the possibility of defeating death. Ever since Juan Ponce de Leon, we have been searching for the "Fountain of Youth". The individual resistance to dying is one of the most intrinsic drives we can experience as men. Until the last several decades, this dream was strictly the province of fantasy. Since ancient times societies have accepted that life is only for the Gods to give and/or take away. Now that resignation has started to slip away. With the rapid progress in genetic research, we are starting to think about the feasibility of immortality. Could we indeed live forever? In 1920, J.F. Rutherford (a prominent Jehovah's Witness) wrote a book called Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Upon the book's publication, many thought the author was a "kook". I wonder if so many would be quick to condemn the assertion today.

Perhaps the essential question is not whether or not immortality is attainable within our lifetimes- but whether it is desirable. Human beings have consistently shown that our scientific progress out-paces our philosophical, ethical, and spiritual development. Likewise technological advancements have benefited some more than others. Do you believe that, if scientists learn how to keep people alive forever, that the opportunity will be extended to all in a democratic way? Or will it be the privilege of the wealthy? How will society justify withholding it from the disenfranchised? And what kinds of resentment, conflict and strife will such inequities bring?

Do you think that you would be able to age gracefully while your "leaders" and the upper classes flaunt their perpetual youth? On the other hand, is the best in health care an essential human right? How would the problems of overpopulation and resource management be confounded if the possibility of immortality was extended to everybody on earth? These are not easy questions, but I believe them to be necessary.

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