This is a fascinating extended essay on the nature of religion, science and death.
Gray takes as his starting point the publication of Darwin's 'The Origin of Species
'. It is perhaps difficult now, even with the continuing furore in some quarters over the theory of evolution, to really comprehend the enormous impact that this had on Victorian society. Darwin situated human beings firmly in the animal kingdom. And animals die. They do not have immortal souls. As Gray says in the Foreword:
'Science had disclosed a world in which humans were no different from other animals in facing final oblivion when they died and eventual extinction as a species. That was the message of Darwinism, not fully accepted even by Darwin himself. For nearly everyone it was an intolerable vision, and since most had given up religion they turned to science for escape from the world that science had revealed.' (P 1)
Gray follows the results of this huge and probably final displacement of humanity from the centre of creation in two closely linked but radically different situations.
The first section, entitled 'Cross Correspondences', looks at how many in the English upper and upper-middle classes resorted to trying to develop psychic research in order to find a way of subverting or avoiding the conclusions forced on them by evolution theory.
In the second section, 'The God Builders', he looks at the more material (and murderous) attempts at transcending base humanity utilised in Lenin's and Stalin's Russia. He also draws fascinating links between these two apparently disparate approaches.
In the third and final section of the book, 'Sweet Mortality', Gray brings the threads together and considers current attempts to transcend our inevitable biological and evolutionary demise. He looks at both cryonics - the hope that deep frozen bodies may be revived at a later date once science has reached a sufficiently sophisticated level, and at Kurzweill's ideas of 'The Singularity
', where computing power becomes so huge that humans may transcend their mortal bodies and live eternally in virtual worlds and virtual bodies.
However, this is not simply a book about a 'quest for immortality'. Gray uses the conflicting ideas and approaches as the basis for a critique of science itself. As he says in the Foreword:
'...it was the rejection of rationalism that gave birth to scientific enquiry. Ancient and medieval thinkers believed the world could be understood by applying first principles. Modern science begins when observation and experiment come first, and the results are accepted even when what they show seems to be impossible. In what might seem a paradox, scientific empiricism - reliance on actual experience rather than supposedly rational principles - has very often gone with an interest in magic.' (P 6)
The sections are filled with the biographical details of the main protagonists - and a fascinating (if unsavoury) bunch they were. The first section looks, in particular, at the Society for Psychical Research (SPR). Using mediums, automatic writing and so on, he relates how various attempts were made by the researchers to establish 'cross-correspondences'. Briefly, members of the SPR promised to attempt to communicate after they had died. These communications would be cross-referenced to try to 'prove' their validity.
However, Gray doesn't simply stop there - he attempts to unravel what the members of the SPR considered the afterlife might consist of. Not simply a 'heaven', would the afterlife be a dissolution of the individual into a 'god-mind', a universal whole, or would there still be individual consciousnesses and, if so, would these consciousnesses be the same as their previously living counterparts or would they in some way be better, more 'perfect'? In trying to answer these questions, Gray narrates, in some detail, the associations, friendships, affairs and lives of members of this English elite, from Arthur Balfour, H G Wells, Frederic Myers, Bruce Lockhart and Russian emigres such as the amazing Moura Budberg.
Moura Budberg also features heavily in the second section of the book. Russia certainly had its fair share of psychical researchers and spiritual thinkers as, along with Budberg, characters such as Gurdjieff and Ouspensky
make appearances. But the main thrust of this part of the book is a consideration of how the Bolsheviks attempted to recreate humanity, to go beyond what they saw as the degenerate peasantry to create a New Man. Of course, the way to do this was to slaughter millions, pitilessly, remorselessly, but the aim was to transcend evolution in a thoroughly Modernist sense.
Again, there are detailed histories of several of the individuals involved - Lenin, Stalin, Gorky and many others. And there are many links between these people and their SPR counterparts in the West - H G Wells being the most obvious example. The title of the book also comes from this section - 'The Immortalization Commission' was the body set up to decide on how best to bring Lenin back to life or, failing that, how best to preserve him.
The final and shortest section of the book takes the themes developed previously and shows how they are still alive and well today - in the attempts at physical immortality through cryonics or a less material life in virtual realities. But more interesting than that, the section also includes Gray's thoughts on the relations between religion and science, implicit in the previous sections. For example:
'Enemies of religion think of it as an intellectual error, which humanity will eventually grow out of. It is hard to square this view with Darwin's science - why should religion be practically universal, if it has no evolutionary value? But as the evangelical zeal of contemporary atheists shows, it is not science that is at issue here. No form of human behaviour is more religious than the attempt to convert the world to unbelief, and none is more irrational, for belief has no particular importance in either science or religion.' (P 224)
Finally, Gray suggests:
'Science is like religion, an effort at transcendence that ends by accepting a world that is beyond understanding. All our enquiries come to rest in groundless facts. Just like faith, reason must at last submit; the final end of science is a revelation of the absurd.' (P 227)
There is so much more to this book that I have not been able to cover. I admit I found the biographical details a bit lengthy, but they serve a purpose. The final section, though, apart from providing a really interesting view of the relationship between religion and science, is also almost poetic and quite beautiful. It has made me reassess quite a few of my beliefs and assumptions.