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Virtual immortality

The dream of virtual immortality

The digital revolution has changed the way we live—but it has also changed the way we die.

When George Washington died it took a week for the news to travel from Virginia to New York. Boston didn’t learn our founding president had died until 11 days after it happened.

Compare that to my father’s recent passing. I was at his side, so I knew right away. And within the hour, his far-flung but digitally connected family knew he had moved from this life to the next. Many of his long-time friends knew just a day or two later, thanks to email addresses on his hard drive.

In addition to making communication quicker, the digital age has made saving memories easier. My dad’s computer contained sermons he preached and Bible studies he led—a spiritual legacy he left behind. His Facebook account will live on, and it now carries news of his passing, along with greetings and memories from loved ones.

Speaking of saving memories, some companies have begun engraving QR codes on tombstones. Scanning the code with a smartphone can open a website about the deceased that includes pictures, video, favorite music, and a guestbook for mourners.

While technology is changing the speed with which we learn of death and the ways we remember those we have lost, some of those building our high-tech future dream of something much more radical: banishing death completely. While people in the life sciences work on ways to extend our biological lives, technologists hope to replace our temporary flesh and blood with something more durable—a sort of silicon immortality.

The dream is to find a way to download a person’s consciousness into a computer, where it could live forever. Supporters of “transhumanism” hope to find a way to scan the synapses of the human brain’s structure, then recreate the conscious mind digitally, allowing us—or simulations of us—to “live” forever in a virtual world.

Don’t expect this any time soon. For starters, we don’t really understand consciousness. We’re pretty sure it has something to do with the brain, but we don’t really understand that either. Advances in technologies such as fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) are helping us learn about the brain by monitoring cerebral blood flow in real time, but that’s a little like trying to figure out what people are buying at a mall by counting cars entering and leaving the parking lot.

The dream of virtual immortality is also inextricably bound to materialist philosophy—the idea that the material world is all there is. Are we more than our biology? Does the meat of our brain create our consciousness, or merely host it in some way we can’t begin to understand? It’s an important question for those hoping to replicate themselves in computer code. If it turns out that our mind, will and emotions are somehow more than mere physical phenomenon, then the longed-for download process might turn out to be like photocopying the cover of a book: It might look the same, but the real content won’t be there.

Why do we even dream of living forever? British novelist Susan Ertz wrote, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” Yet the dream of endless life runs deep. Could “forever” be part of our design? Ecclesiastes 3:11 tells us that God “set eternity in the human heart.” It’s how we were made.

I’m not really interested in spending centuries as a computer simulation. But I do like the idea of God recreating me when this life is done, and giving me forever to explore His creation. The universe is huge, and it doesn’t seem to be exactly overrun with intelligent life. An infinitely large universe seems ridiculous and wasteful, until you factor in having an infinitely long time to enjoy it. Then the universe seems to be just the right size.

My dad began that joyous journey late last year. And thanks to the promise of the Christian faith, I didn’t really have to say goodbye to him—just “See you later.”

Doug Trouten


 — by Dr. Doug Trouten

Dr. Trouten is professor of journalism at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul.