John O. Campbell
Death comes for us all. Over a long life, prior to our end we will witness life wink out in many of those close to us. Our mortal lives are truly doomed, leaving little consolation. This foreseeable but inevitable tragedy may shape our lives, inclining us to depression, denial, and futile escapism (1).
Religions attempt consolation with promises of rebirth or a continuing life in heaven. But since Nietzsche declared that even God has died (2), such promises ring hollow to the modern mind. Yet, these promises may hold clues to an understanding that does offer some consolation. I refer mainly to the promise of a Christian heaven and some aspects of it that might be understood and believed within a scientific context.
My father was a devout Christian and expected upon his death to be reunited with my sister who had died at a young age. He died at ninety-three with severe dementia – he could not recognize me or anyone else. Once when telling him family stories to try to jog his memories, he found it hard to believe that I could be his son. And when I asked why, he said it was because I was so much older than he was.
Upon his death I wondered about his ascension to heaven. Would he remain demented, or would he be restored to his prime? Could he recognize his daughter if he encountered her? Would his saintly qualities be the only part of him to endure? How much of his earthly identity would make it into heaven?
Biblical texts offer very few details and given the conflicting accounts of self-styled priests and experts we are pretty much free to imagine it as we wish, but one thing is clear; if we are washed of our sins upon entering heaven, we are not the same individuals we were on earth. The drive for reproductive success is probably absent or severely constrained, as are the joy of the high-life, high status, and worldly ambitions. The usual impression is that we are immersed in bliss and all inhabitants have only saintly characteristics.
All of this hints that the transformation to death, even in the Christian account, does not retain much of our personal identity, that the heavenly I is very different from the earthly I. Once earthly sins and ambitions are washed away, presumably heaven’s inhabitants are all quite similar, only their very best traits remain in existence.
The religious vision teaches that our individual mortal lives are only part of a much bigger picture in which our earthly life is but a short prelude in which we must do our best. And the religious consolation is that this bigger picture is immortal and that by doing our best we might earn access to it, finally escaping death.
Science views the situation in a similar light. Life has two complementary aspects, phenotypic and genotypic. The phenotypic mortal life, from birth to death is short and often brutish. The genotypic life is more perfect and nearly immortal, retaining only successes accumulated over billions of years.
And science even suggests the purpose of our mortal phenotypic lives. Largely through doing our best with a measure of trial and error, it is to generate those rare successes and bestow eternal life upon them within the immortal genome.
Phenotypes engage in what Darwin termed a struggle for existence and their success in this struggle provides evidence that updates their species’ genomic model. In part, the phenotype is an experiment whose purpose is to provide evidence for the evolutionary process, evidence that increases the species' knowledge in its struggle for existence.
Some might consider this inferential view of life as a degradation of the phenotypic role to that of disposable or mortal experimental probes, that our purpose as a phenotype is merely the testing and selection of knowledge. This view suggests that the purpose of life is to evolve a nearly timeless and immortal repository of knowledge concerning increasingly powerful strategies for life’s existence and phenotypes exist merely to provide experimental evidence as grist for this mill of evolving knowledge.
It may be difficult for us to accept a diminished role for phenotypes. After all, for centuries before the existence of genetics was even known, the phenotype was biology’s sole focus of study. More personally, we identify with the phenotypic aspect of our lives. We experience ourselves and our short mortal lives as phenotypes as we strut and fret our hour upon the stage. We are actors following genetic, neural and cultural scripts, and those scripts almost completely define us. A timeless and endlessly creative bard wrote those scripts, and surely the bard’s role is more admirable than is the poor player’s.
It is difficult to accept that all our strutting and fretting may be mainly in vain, may signify nothing, and that any lasting influence or meaning is unlikely. This bleak outlook offers us little consolation in our brief, perhaps even disposable, phenotypic roles. We might gain some solace if we shift our focus from our mortal phenotypes to the more nearly immortal aspects of ourselves, our generalized genotypes in the form of genomes, learned cognitive models and cultural knowledge.
While it is true that those aspects of our generalized genotypes marking us as unique individuals are nearly as mortal as our phenotypes, some may prove meaningful for the future. Regardless of our personal contribution, it is our generalized genotypes that directly connect us to a more nearly immortal chain of being. In this context, we assume a cosmic identity within an eternally evolving nature, or as Spinoza and Einstein saw it, a perpetually evolving God.
On the other hand, the purpose of our timeless genetic knowledge is to achieve existence, and existence is the realm of the phenotype. In this view, the purpose of life is to discover phenotypes that can exist. For ourselves, our life as a generalized phenotype motivates us to take part in the cutting edge of evolution and to create novel forms that may have a continued existence. These activities may include having children and participating in the cultural and social issues of our time.
The present is our time, as phenotypic players, to strut our stuff on the stage of existence. It is our turn to bring to life, one more time, that dead, musty knowledge stored in timeless genotypes. We are the growing green shoots of evolution; we revive that dead knowledge and give it a dynamic new interpretation. We play our role in a reinvigorated drama of exploration into the unformed and unknown future, maybe even leaving behind some novel ad-libs for the inspiration of future players.
Perhaps a middle ground in deciding the relative merits of our identities, either as generalized genotypes or generalized phenotypes, is in order; we must consider that both are but two sides of the same coin. They are two elements of an inferential system, and their synergies may provide a more suitable context for understanding our existence than either element alone. As an inferential system, our generalized genotypes contain timeless knowledge for bringing structures and behaviours (generalized phenotypes) into the world, and the evidence generated from their existential success updates generalized genotypes to greater existential knowledge (3). Perhaps a balanced identity for us is that of an inferential system as it validates both our short-term strutting and fretting and our longer-term role in the evolution of timeless knowledge.
At birth, our phenotypic life begins with all possible advantages, in the form of biological, learned, and cultural inheritances capturing successes of our ancestors. But though our lives are subject to many harsh experiences and a brutal end, this view of life may offer some consolations. Our lives are truly part of a bigger picture that is nearly immortal. In this heavenly realm the failures of phenotypic life are washed away - only the best of all prior generations is retained.
1. Becker, E. The denial of death. . s.l. : Free Press., 1973.
2. Nietzsche, Friedrich. The Gay Science. 1882.
3. Campbell, John O. The Knowing Universe. s.l. : KDP, 2022.