What if science provided an afterlife?
by guest poster David K. Spencer, a review of Beyond Technologies by Jens Hughes. Author Hughes said he got the idea for the book after being asked if soldiers returning from war should be asked if they believe in God as an indicator of PTSD risk.
Everlasting life for atheists.
Now that’ll raise some eyebrows. But that’s part of what author Jens Hughes writes about in his book, Beyond Technologies. Well, really everlasting life for anyone—provided by science. Yet, this will be new math for many in the secular community, or at the least a return to unskeptical waters they thought they would never re-enter.
Of course this is science fiction, but the book and its associated philosophical issues will also be of interest for those who enjoy grappling with new, thought-inspiring ideas—especially those related to ethics. And many secular folks spend time grappling with the best way to find or make meaning in life (versus finding meaning for life).
Hughes presents a technology that would likely cause a tectonic shift in how secular people think about these topics. Also, since Hughes is a former U.S. Army paratrooper who apparently brought his experiences and thinking into the book (with a light sprinkling of humor), the story will resonate with those interested in the military.
Beyond Technologies is a company in the not too distant future which develops a way to preserve brains and brain function after death in order to place a person’s consciousness into a “tank” that can maintain communities of people in a pre-selected state of bliss indefinitely—artificially created everlasting happiness.
After a rocky start, the company goes global and changes the way many people think about our most important topics: the good life, morality, mortality, and others. Not surprisingly, a company of this size and influence gains detractors. Some point to the fact that this technology is a direct challenge to those religions that propose to answer the question of what happens after we die. The fallout of this tension turns violent, and the main protagonist, Wells Taylor—a former soldier turned security guard for Beyond whose life is sliding downhill from a devastating setback years before—is chosen by the company to help defend it against its looming, existential threats. The reason why he was selected for this job remains hidden from him and the reader for some time. The insights into the minds of the “fanatics” who oppose Beyond and even a covert high-level political opponent provide plenty of drama and intrigue. This, combined with the personal struggles of Taylor will be enough to satisfy those who enjoy a good action story with well-developed characters that moves at a brisk pace.
The story line is intellectual as well. For example, there is the book’s probably-necessary dive into how to define “happiness” that has engaged philosophers for thousands of years. If you can enjoy artificially produced eternal bliss, is that happiness? Or do we need something more to be happy?
Some of the most interesting issues generated by this technology that Hughes explores reside in the realm of ethics and morality. For example, Hughes outlines an early public interview with Beyond’s founder, Dr. Schneider, who invented the technology and a religious commentator. The interviewer asks whether people should be able to offer others artificial afterlives. The religious commentator expresses concern, stating that introducing a chosen afterlife will erode religious faith. He further asserts that, “Divinity is the basis for current concepts of morality,” implying that undermining this will be damaging to mankind. This tension over who gets to define morality is certainly not science fiction and will resonate with those who tend to approach issues of right and wrong from the standpoint of the well-being of others versus a start point based in theology. At the end of the interview, Schneider falls back on the position that he’s doing what he can “to take away people’s pain and fear” about the afterlife. This interview is a turning point, generating the public and political support needed for Beyond to successfully launch.
Hughes draws out other plausible ethical issues throughout the book. The altruistic founder of Beyond Technologies grappled with the possibility of someone entering an afterlife tank but later changing their mind. They could then be in an undesirable afterlife … forever. (Or at least for a very long time.) Hughes also briefly touches on the ghastly possibility of someone intentionally placing another person in a horrific, tortured afterlife as a punishment. The author presents technology that allows humanity to play both sides of our concepts of the divine: good and evil. Combine this premise with a good plot and enough thought-provoking material to occasionally make you pause and think, and you’ve got a story worth reading.
David K. Spencer is a U.S. Army strategist. He was a former colleague of the author, Jens Hughes. The views expressed in this review are the author’s and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.