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October 31, 2004

Nonreligious Immortality

Last night we had our neighbor the urologist over for a dinner party and he was telling us that the political skirmishing over stem cell research is just a fraud on ignorant enthusiasts and a cover for the abortion debate. There are plenty of stem cell lines available for research now, umbilical cord blood stem cells are as good as fetus ones, and we don't know how to "turn on" stem cells now anyway, so any medical use is still far away, though well worthy of research. Rather, proponents of the use of fetal stem cells are trying to show that abortion has a good side to it-- and to further their idea that a fetus is just like a blood sample, something to be bought, sold, or thrown away without qualms.

The topic of cell lines made me think about immortality and the odd lawsuit over Moore's Spleen, which I posted about this spring. (My last musing on this subject, in 2003, included an excerpt fromCaptain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven.) John Moore's doctor and UCLA took his spleen cells, created an immortal cell line, and made millions. The lawsuit was over the millions, but what I think of now is that Moore is immortal, physically-- at least, unless the researchers get tired of preserving his cell line. Yet, of course, it does Moore no good.

For that matter, we are all immortal in the sense that the atoms in our body do not disintegrate when we die. Isaac Newton's carbon atoms are still around somewhere, perhaps in a tree in Scotland and a hog in Surrey.

Nor, for most of us, does our DNA vanish. Many, though probably not all of our genes are still around, in different combinations, in our descendants.

Nor does our effect on the world necessarily disappear. For most of us, our direct impact on other people slowly dissipates, as they die themselves and do not tell of us to their descendants, but authors, builders, and inventors can have increasing impacts. Mothers can too.

So immortality, even putting aside our immortal souls, is a tricky thing to analyze. The soul is even harder, and must be, I think, one of those mysteries like the Trinity or the Creation that cannot be understood using available evidence and intellect.

Lines 253-262 of Canto 3 of Pope's Essay on Man has two important ideas:

Wants, frailties, passions, closer still ally

The common interest, or endear the tie.

To these we owe true friendship, love sincere,

Each home-felt joy that life inherits here;

Yet from the same we learn, in its decline,

Those joys, those loves, those interests to resign;

Taught half by reason, half by mere decay,

To welcome death
, and calmly pass away.

Whate'er the passion, knowledge, fame, or pelf,

Not one will change his neighbour with himself.

Idea 1 is that reason and slow decline teach us to accept death. That is true for the reasonable man, though I'd also be interested to see how IQ and age correlate with fear of death. I'm afraid there might, in practice, be a positive correlation, with intellectuals and [other?] old women having the greatest fear for their health.

Idea 2 is that "Not one will change his neighbour with himself." How striking! Who would abandon his own identity for another's? I may think I am unhappy, but would I destroy myself, to be replaced in someone else. Some people do, of course, commit suicide, but not to be reborn as someone else. We humans are selfish enough for just the idea of Self to be valued above all else.

Posted by erasmuse at October 31, 2004 07:54 PM

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