A recent interview with The Guardian revealed that the 46-year-old’s days are painstakingly choreographed to try and slow down, and ideally cease, the ageing process.
To most of us, Johnson’s life sounds highly unappealing; all meals eaten by 11am, bed alone at 8.30pm. He’s possessed by the question of whether “somebody who’s willing to say yes to an algorithm like myself can stay the same age biologically.” Johnson’s efforts are extreme in the growing culture of biohacking; a movement which views the body as a computer to be programmed and hacked, and has become fixated on leveraging technology to alter our biology.
While Johnson certainly has eccentric methods, he’s not alone in this quest for immortality. Within Silicon Valley there’s a clutch of fabulously wealthy tech optimists including PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel and Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, who have ploughed considerable resources into slowing or stopping the ageing process. While these attempts to defy death become more tantalising as technology advances, they’re far from new. Cryogenic freezing was first attempted on Lenin (though the term was not used then), with the hope of one day reanimating his body – various others have since followed suit. Then there are those other attempts at immortality where the thinking follows that if consciousness can be reduced to information, perhaps it would be possible to upload our minds to a computer.
These efforts to defeat death with technology all fall within the umbrella of the transhumanist movement. The vision of transhumanism encompasses a future where humanity transcends our biological limits through integrating AI, nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and cybernetics to enhance physical and cognitive abilities, repair or replace damaged organs, and ultimately replace or reverse the ageing process. Central to this movement is the belief that through the convergence of man and machine, the way will be paved for a post-human era where death will become an option rather than an inevitability.
While transhumanism appears to be a (proud) child of rationalism and scientific progress, its philosophical roots seem to fit a distinctly religious mould. Like all religions, the movement is underpinned and driven by the search for salvation.
In a fascinating essay called Sex, Atheism and Piano Legs, philosopher John Gray argues that when we suppress a natural human urge, it will emerge in a perverted form.
The Victorians famously suppressed sexual urges, to the extent that alluring looking piano legs were often covered up; such suppression only led to sexual expression becoming perverted. Similarly, when cultures suppress basic religious urges, they also emerge in perverted forms (communism being a good example of this). With a materialistic and disenchanted view of the universe, humans have looked to technology for their salvation. As if to make this point exactly, when Google’s Head of Engineering Ray Kurzweil was asked whether he believed in God, he replied, ‘Not yet.’
How troubled you are by this thinking will depend on how much you’ve bought into the narrative that technological progress is moving inexorably towards salvation and emancipation. Though it seems like history, as well as the wisdom of religious traditions, would caution against looking to technology for salvation. While there have been seismic shifts in science and technology, moral progress seems to have remained in a state of arrested development. However clever and good we humans can be, we also invariably tend to break and ruin things; and when power is amplified, so is the damage we’re able to do. In Christianity, this inevitability is known as ‘sin’, and according to the writer G.K Chesterton, it’s the only Christian doctrine that can be proved as ‘an observable fact one can see in the street’. The contemporary writer Francis Spufford arrestingly describes sin as the ‘Human Propensity to F* things Up’ (or HPTFTU), and likewise sees this written across all human endeavors.
“If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” C.S Lewis
Central to the Christian story is the belief that we’re unable to save ourselves. Our desire for salvation isn’t unhealthy or bad (quite the opposite), but where we look to satisfy that desire matters. The writer C.S Lewis observed that where there’s an innate desire, it must correspond to something that can satisfy it; we are born with appetites for food, love, sex and so on – these are innate to our wiring. Similarly, if we’re born with a desire that this world cannot satisfy (that desire for salvation and immortality), perhaps this points us beyond this world.
Transhumanism is a modern salvation story with hubris, innovation and technology at its core. While it seems to provide hope to a privileged few who seek an elixir of immortality, others might think more critically about where to look for salvation. Perhaps we can turn elsewhere for a ‘better hope’, as the writer in the Bible’s book of Hebrews urges.