Suffering death is the price that humans pay for their intelligence, yet through intelligence humans have long sought to overcome death, by means either of religion or technology. A single-celled animal such as the amoeba is in a sense immortal. While it can die, every living amoeba is many millions of years old, because it reproduces by splitting, whereas multi-celled creatures such as ourselves die of old age after a short life. Many animals suffer when they die, but probably only humans are fully aware of the meaning of death and know from early childhood that they are mortal. From the time of the ancient Egyptians, some cultures and individuals have sought partially technological solutions, but only in recent decades have fully non-supernatural alternatives become plausible.
Probably inspired by science fiction stories and the success of the frozen food industry, in the 1960s Robert C. W. Ettinger launched the cryonics movement to freeze dying human beings. The original idea was that cryopreservation could halt death for years until medical science had developed a remedy for the individual's fatal illness, at which point he or she would be thawed out, cured, and restored to a normal life.
A number of organizations set up laboratories to develop methods of cryopreservation, and a few dozen bodies were actually frozen. Ettinger and some other members of his movement began to think that future technologies could not only restore life but improve it, giving people saved by cryonics a chance to become superhuman and even possibly godlike. A number of technical problems would need to be overcome, however, especially the extensive chemical and mechanical damage caused to large, slow-cooling human bodies by the freezing process itself.
More recently, rapid progress in gene analysis and genetic engineering has led to the idea that much of an individual's character might be preserved in a sample of DNA. For example, the Center for Reproduction of Endangered Species at the San Diego Zoo has established a collection of cryopreserved animal cells. The Coriell Institute for Medical Research has established a research repository of cells from human beings with inherited diseases, and a sufficient sample is four teaspoons of blood.
Frozen DNA samples can be stored indefinitely without deterioration, and in future centuries they might be used to create a clone of the deceased individual, or the individual's genetic code could be employed in some other method of technological resurrection. However, DNA does not contain information about anything the person experienced or learned, so this approach would have to be combined with some method to preserve the individual's personality and memories.
In his 1953 novel, The City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke imagined that people could be archived inside an advanced computer, for technological resurrection thousands of years after their deaths. Many recent developments in computation, information storage, and cognitive science have provided both hope that this dream actually could be realized and some hint of how this could be done.
In his influential book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, computer entrepreneur Ray Kurzweil predicted that human beings and their computers will gradually merge over the next century, and that we will thereby become god-like spirits inhabiting cyberspace as well as the material universe. Specifically, Kurzweil suggests that magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) or some even more advanced technique could be used to read out the neural structure of a person's brain, which then could be simulated inside a computer.
A second approach is to videotape extensive interviews, then use computer graphics and artificial intelligence technology to create a virtual human. A virtual copy of a person is called an avatar. This term traditionally refers to a manifestation of a Hindu deity, including incarnation in human form. But it is used currently in computer engineering to refer to a software embodiment of a human personality.
The most impressive project to preserve interviews digitally is Steven Spielberg's Survivors of the Shoah Visual History Foundation which has recorded interviews with over 52,000 survivors of the European Holocaust. The same effort devoted to a single individual could preserve enough to make a convincing avatar, and the needed digital library and graphics technology is progressing rapidly.
A third approach is to employ the full range of psychological tests and sociological questionnaires to archive opinions, attitudes, beliefs, and other aspects of a personality. Even a relative simple computerized database permits a kind of conversation with such a corpus of personal data, querying it for information in the form of questions and answers. Existing scientific measures of personality are designed to compare individuals along a few standard dimensions. Researchers working on personality preservation have recognized the need to develop new approaches designed to capture an individual's unique characteristics.
Thus, several rapidly developing technologies are making it possible to record aspects of a person, and it seems likely that the technology will permit recordings of increasingly higher fidelity over the coming decades. The problem then becomes how to integrate the different kinds of data (genetic, neuro-structural, audio-visual, linguistic, and social-psychological), and there is much room for debate whether even a highly advanced computer system could accomplish this.
Death is a natural phase of human existence, but it is also part of our nature to seek solutions to problems, even the most challenging ones. For thousands of years, the preferred responses to mortality depended upon belief in a supernatural realm that transcended the limitations of material existence. Science, the systematic quest for the secrets of nature, now offers the possibility of technical solutions that conceivably could obviate the need for religion.
It may prove difficult to develop the technology, either requiring many decades or ultimately succeeding only partially. If science can preserve and reanimate only portions of the human personality, then future centuries may develop a hybrid approach to death that blends the technical with the sacramental, thereby building a bridge between the natural and the supernatural.
William Sims Bainbridge, "Religious Ethnography on the World Wide Web," pp. 55-80 in Religion on the Internet, edited by Jeffrey K. Hadden and Douglas E. Cowan. (Volume 8 of Religion and the Social Order) New York: Elsevier/JAI, 2000.
David Chidester, Patterns of Transcendence: Religion, Death, and Dying. Belmont, California: Wadsworth, 1990.
Robert C. W. Ettinger, Man into Superman. New York: St. Martin's, 1972.
Ray Kurzweil. The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence. New York: Viking, 1999.
Rodney Stark and William Sims Bainbridge, A Theory of Religion. New York: Toronto/Lang, 1987.