Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The Immortalization Commission:
Science and the Strange Quest to Cheat Death

by john gray
farrar, straus and giroux, 288 pages, $24

Few historians of culture would think to suggest a similarity between the death throes of Victorian England and the first decades of Soviet totalitarianism—but then, London School of Economics professor John Gray is neither predictable nor merely a historian. A world-famous philosopher almost as famous for discarding his views as he is for the views he has espoused, in his latest book he rolls out the new philosophic prerogative of interpreting select histories so as to render unimportant questions that would otherwise urgently call upon the resources of faith.

In The Immortalization Commission he tries to persuade his readers that after reflecting upon immortality rightly understood, “you may not want to be resurrected or to survive in a post-mortem paradise.” That suggestion follows his examination of two different episodes in the history of science, occurring between 1870 and 1940.

In late Victorian England, those engaged in what Gray calls “the strange quest to cheat death” attempted to use the methods of science to identify evidence of conscious life after death. In the early Soviet Union, science became a “God-building” tool in the utopian quest to deify future humankind, whether by overcoming natural scarcity in the short run or by actually inventing resurrection techniques in the long run. Both of these quests, Gray argues, were reactions to the intellectual and cultural legacy of Darwinism—and on this historical point, his argument is persuasive.

But his smuggled-in theological conclusions, especially that we should not desire an afterlife, far exceed the legitimate purview of any historical analysis. They are unpersuasive, to be sure, but more importantly his approach to justifying them is deeply flawed if not sophistical.

Victorian elites saw Darwinism as a grave threat to the traditional religious and ethical teachings that supported social order. The moral philosopher Henry Sidgwick, for example, held that “all knowledge of duty falls into chaos” unless some form of theism is true, and Darwinism undermined theism by reducing human consciousness (in Gray’s phrase) to a “local episode in the history of matter.” This new reductive materialism strongly implied that life ended with the death of the body; terrible doubts therefore arose in Victorian minds regarding the meaning of human existence as well as the binding status of moral norms.

Unable to trust in faith alone, Sidgwick and other Oxbridge elites “looked to science for salvation from science.” Their quest for scientific evidence of postmortem survival led to the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) and the emergence of “automatic writing” as an alternative to séances and other methods of contacting the dead, which the SPR denounced as fraudulent. The new method depended on the verifiability of interconnected “cross-correspondences”—two or more sufficiently similar paranormal communications that had been received by different mediums unknown to one another.

The stricter evidentiary standard also comported with the only fact the SPR considered to be worth proving, namely, the persistence of conscious life after death, rather than, say, the persistence of an impersonal life force. For these Christianized Victorians, any heaven deserving of the name had to be a heaven of intentional individuals who retained at least a tincture of their this-worldly personalities.

According to Gray, the chief error made by interpreters of the automatic “scripts” was to take as scientific evidence what were only, in fact, their own acts of interpretation. The high culture they shared, and often their mutual acquaintance with the deceased, accounted for the interpreters’ ability to find meaning and proof in the abstruse fictions the mediums created, and both groups were subconsciously inclined to support the project, out of grief or romantic longing or anxiety arising from a sense of impending social crisis. In these automatic writings, Victorian elites saw what they saw because they needed to see it.

Gray’s extensive focus on their biographies slyly sets up the book’s philosophic agenda: to make a case for David Hume’s account of human personality. According to Hume, identity is not a whole enduring over time but merely a contingent collection of “continuities” in memory and behavior, a fragmentary, changing bundle of experiences. The view implies, in the words of one of the Victorians Gray features, that “the individual is absolutely impermanent, a kind of illusion, a flash in the pan.”

Gray attempts to argue for Hume’s view by emphasizing the ruptures in personality of the various figures he portrays, whether they were English or Russian. In his presentation their different lives become ciphers for human life simply; their divided identities are supposed to testify to personal identity per se, disclosing its very nature. He treats Sidgwick’s suppressed homosexuality, for example, as evidence supporting his speculation that “personal identity might be chimerical.”

Gray then sets out to clarify immortality in light of Hume’s teaching. Assuming for the sake of argument that there is an afterlife, he begins speculatively, offering only conditional statements. “If personal identity is merely a matter of continuities” in this life, any self that survives into the next life will likely be “unrecognizable as the self one has been.” But if that is true, “it is not clear why one should care [now] about one’s post-mortem self at all.” One might even prefer eternal death to an identity-challenged afterlife, which would resemble the shadowy netherworld of Greek myths more than it would any paradise of self-identifying souls.

Speculation gives way to a more assured tone as Gray surveys two different Soviet responses to Darwinism. Darwinism and communism made uneasy bedfellows: While the theory of natural selection supported the utopian faith in human nature’s malleability, communists abjured the teaching that actual evolution is and can only be directionless, the source of species “drift” and nothing more.

On the one hand, the strengthened faith in malleability inspired Soviet “God builders” like Leonid Krasin to propound cryonics as a means of conquering death. One result was the formation of the Immortalization Commission (from which Gray takes his title), the committee that authorized the freezing of Lenin’s body so as to make possible his eventual scientific resurrection.

On the other hand, Bolshevik authorities such as Trofim Lysenko, the “dictator of Soviet science,” revolted against Darwinism’s vision of drift, subscribing instead to the Lamarckian teaching that acquired characteristics are heritable. This implied, for Lysenko and for Stalin too, that human will could and should play a role in evolution, instilling purpose where nature had omitted it. As God builders they imagined heaven being built on earth through the progressive improvement that scientific control could bring about within the human species. For Gray, this millennial bent of Soviet science set the stage for agricultural collectivization, the terror of the purges, and millions of state-ordered murders.

It is so easy to be horrified by the history Gray recounts that readers may find it difficult to be on guard against other claims he makes along the way. Nested stories about individuals who became Soviet double agents in order to survive are cited as proof of Gray’s Humean thesis regarding the fragmentary nature of identity.

By the book’s conclusion the speculative restraint regarding the issue of the afterlife has disappeared altogether, as Gray reminds his readers of those select Russian lives so that we may “see more clearly that the self we want to save from dying is already dead.” It is as if, by invoking his readers’ certainty of Stalinism’s evil, Gray no longer feels the rhetorical need to disguise his polemic against faith as a history of science.

That polemic stands or falls with Hume’s theory of the self, but the case Gray makes for that theory is at best a study in myopia. It is much more plausible, for example, that the fractured identities of the book’s Victorians and Russians were the contingent products of social contexts than that they testify to the universal nature of personal identity. Either this interpretive possibility has suddenly eluded Gray or he has chosen not to mention it.

Thoughtful individuals will recognize the stakes involved in The Immortalization Commission—whether heaven can make sense as an object of faith—and will not be tempted by Gray’s siren song. Though it is true that we are capable of deceiving ourselves and others, and though memory or imagination often refashions the self, none of this entails that by nature each of us is reducible to “a bundle of personalities” or that “the conscious individual [is] an illusion.”

Inconveniently for post-Darwinian materialism, there remains in each of us a mysterious potential for an enduring conscience, transcending both the diversity within individual identity and the unity of species being. That potential allows us to understand our disparate “continuities” as aspects of a coherent personality enduring over time, while the mystery of its very possibility justifies our faith in embracing other possibilities, including resurrection to a postmortem paradise.

Jeffrey A. Smith is tutor and the NEH Chair in Modern Thought at St. John’s College, Annapolis, Maryland.