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How to bring back the dead
As our species reaches for the heavens with its growing scientific armory, Pascal’s Wager is going to be challenged. It just might need an upgrade.
Written by Zoltan Istvan.
Since the 17th century, a core part of Western thought has been Pascal’s Wager, created by French mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. It argues that it makes more sense to believe in God than not, since believing offers a possible way to a happy afterlife, and not believing offers either nothing after death, or maybe even eternal hell. But what happens if humans no longer age or die? Something that Silicon Valley and other science hubs around the world are now spending billions of dollars trying to accomplish.
I remember learning about Pascal’s Wager in Catholic grade school. As a young Christian, I became fascinated with it and its powerful logical advice. Later, as I grew out of religion and into an agnostic adult, Pascal’s Wager formed the antithesis to my own personal philosophy, rendered in my book The Transhumanist Wager. The concept of a Transhumanist Wager argues that if it’s possible to use science and technology to stop aging and overcome biological death, then that should be the primary goal and direction of one’s life. This way, if people are successful in avoiding death, they don’t need to worry about what happens after it—rendering Pascal’s Wager obsolete.
Right now, the ways humans are trying to overcome death are far-fetched and unproven. They involve using drugs and genetic editing to stop and reverse aging; cryonics, where frozen dead bodies hope to be brought back to life at a later point when the technology can do it; or even data collecting of media and historical experiences of the deceased—sometimes called Mind Files—to one day recreate the person as an uploaded cyborg or AI avatar of themselves. Famously, inventor Ray Kurzweil wants to do this with his father.
Regardless of the success of life extensionist’s current quests to live indefinitely, the complications of Pascal’s Wager in the 21st Century era don’t end there. Some scientists, philosophers, and even theologians are beginning to argue for a new theoretical philosophy and science called Quantum Archaeology, sometimes referred to as technological resurrection. It’s the ability to bring back the dead from any point in history, and it’s trying to give a new perspective on spirituality and religion.
Quantum Archaeology has two components: the ability to reverse engineer matter and the ability to 3D bioprint that matter. Based on the trajectory of how fast 3D bioprinting is improving—a tiny human heart was printed out in 2019 by scientists in Israel—it’s hard to imagine by the year 2100 we wouldn’t be able to print out full living human beings successfully. Dr. Tal Dvir at Tel Aviv University's School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, who led the team of researchers creating the bioprinted heart, believes by 2029, leading hospitals will already have organ-producing printers.
The other component of Quantum Archaeology is more dubious. It relies on the universe being deterministic, which some modern physics like quantum theory has shown unlikely. However, our grasp of the universe and its rules can change as humans become more sophisticated in their research, and plenty of scientists remain on the fence about determinism. Famously, Einstein defended determinism, but more recently the popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson has said it’s possible we live in a simulation, which also suggests a mathematical world of causality. Also, Stanford University theoretical physicist Leonard Susskind wrote a book about how information couldn’t be destroyed titled: The Black Hole War: My Battle with Stephen Hawking to Make the World Safe for Quantum Mechanics. Naturally, many theologians also believe in some form of determinism because they believe God is omniscient.
Putting the determinism debate aside, let’s assume for a moment that humans can at least reverse engineer the past because it has definitely occurred in a specific way. This would be done by massive supercomputers untangling the subatomic occurrences of certain geographical places in the universe—in our case, planet Earth and its surroundings. It sounds insanely large and complex to do this, but already in 2018, America’s largest supercomputer was able to do 200,000 trillion calculations per second. Quantum Archaeology supporters argue that if the microprocessor can improve for another 100 years following Moore’s Law, then the number of calculations a supercomputer can do could become greater than the number of atoms that compose them.
The subatomic structural blueprint of a human being at a precise moment in time is big but not unimaginable. Mike Perry, who has a PhD in Computer Science and has studied the possibilities of technological resurrection, believes that the precise data of all humans who ever lived could fit in a nine-square-mile databank. The argument goes that if we had the computational power via massive data crunching to reverse engineer and record a human’s subatomic structure to discover a point in time—let’s say one hour before a person’s death—then we could theoretically 3D bioprint those results out and that person’s human life would be restored, exactly as it once was. The mind, body, and even memories would be precisely the same person, down to every molecule and atom.
As a result of these speculative ideas, there are organizations, such as the Society for Universal Immortalism and the Turing Church led by Giulio Prisco—that gently embrace bringing back every dead person who has ever lived—all 100 billion of us since we became homo sapiens. There are also Christian transhumanists who believe in creating Quantum Archaeology so that when Jesus makes his Second Coming to Earth, this tech might be used to facilitate saving believers. Reincarnationists, such as some Hindus, are another group that is open to the idea of technological resurrection.
I’m not a believer in Quantum Archaeology. Not yet, at least. Bringing back the dead is not only wildly complicated but reeks of ethical controversy. For example, it would create far worse overpopulation issues on Earth. There would be 3D bioprinted spouses meeting their loved ones who may have remarried and had new families. There would be potential for misuse of the technology; dictators might bioprint out clone armies of themselves and family members. And who would get resurrected? What if some people did who didn’t want to be brought back to life? What would they do? And in case Quantum Archaeology isn’t bizarre enough: Should we begin to put “Do not resurrect me” or “Please resurrect me” in our wills? It’s an idea I recently discussed in my Practical Ethics class at Oxford, where I’m a philosophy graduate student.
On the other hand, who doesn’t want to bring back a loved one they lost? My father died recently from cardiac failure—he had already had four heart attacks in the two decades before—and I would love to bring him back to life. Like me, he was agnostic and didn’t believe in an afterlife, but I’m certain he wanted to live longer if his health could be improved. Naturally, that’s the promising thing about the possibility of such exceptional 3D bioprinting technology. Theoretically, one’s brain could be printed out identically to what it was, but one’s other organs could be improved to be disease-free and rejuvenated. And it’s likely by the year 2100, other new life extension and anti-aging therapies would also exist to help make people younger again.
Regardless of the ethics and whether the science can even one day be worked out for Quantum Archaeology, the philosophical dilemma it presents to Pascal’s Wager is glaring. If humans really could eradicate the essence of death as we know it—including even the ability to ever permanently die—Pascal’s Wager becomes unworkable. Frankly, so does my Transhumanist Wager. After all, why should I dedicate my life and energy to living indefinitely through science when, by the next century, technology could bring me back exactly as I was—or even as an improved version of myself?
Outside of philosophical discourse, billions of dollars are pouring into the anti-aging and technology fields—much of it from Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay Area where I live. Everyone from entrepreneurs like Mark Zuckerburg to nonprofits like XPRIZE to giants like Google is spending money on ways to try to end all diseases and overcome death. Bank of America recently reported that they expect the extreme longevity field to be worth over $600 billion dollars by 2025.
Technology research spending for computers, microprocessors, and information technology is even bigger: $4.3 trillion dollars is estimated to have been spent worldwide in 2019. This amount includes research into quantum computing, which is hoped to eventually make computers hundreds—maybe thousands—of times faster over the next 50 years.
Despite the advancements of the 21st Century, the science to overcome biological death is not even close to being ready, if ever. Over 100,000 people still die a day, and in some countries like America, life expectancy has actually started going slightly backward. However, like other black swans of innovation in history—such as the internet, combustion engine, and penicillin—we shouldn’t rule out that new inventions may make humans live dramatically longer and maybe even as long as they like. As our species reaches for the heavens with its growing scientific armory, Pascal’s Wager is going to be challenged. It just might need an upgrade.
Zoltan Istvan began his career at National Geographic as a journalist. Later he penned The Transhumanist Wager, a novel that launched the activist side of the transhumanism movement. He is the founder of the Transhumanist Party and the creator of the Transhumanist Bill of Rights, now a crowdsourced document.