An article on the way Buddhism and science intersect on certain key issues features this line: "Unlike Christ, who promises eternal life, the last words of the Buddha reportedly began, 'Decay is inherent in all things.'"
It's timely and appropriate that I came across this piece right around the same time I started reading Miguel de Unamuno's The Tragic Sense of Life, that man's philosophical treatise on the collision between the romantic impulse to live forever and the grim certainty that eternal life is more of an idea than it can ever be a reality, and how that collision is vital to human life and not an obstacle to it.
There's been much talk of these two modes of thought. On the one hand we have the positivist, futurist, extropian, techno-progressive model, one which has been rightly criticized as promising its own variety of eternal life with dubious results. The other is what I guess could be called the "resignationist" model — that we can only do so much, that human life is limited, and that there's no point in belaboring the obvious. Both have their delusions, which is where Unamuno comes in: he tries to find a way in which the two strains can be synthesized.
What's striking is how the allegiances on either side of this argument seem to have shifted over the decades. Religion in general seems to have become the repository for resignation about the limits of human possibility, while science — or maybe I should say scientism? — has gone in the opposite direction, preaching infinite possibility and inexhaustible resources. I suppose it's possible to say I have maliciously caricatured the latter position, and that no responsible scientist would say that anything is possible, etc., but the attitude and the tone surrounding the people who boost such things is pretty plain.
Bear in mind, I'm with that second crowd most any day of the week. I would rather see people not die of curable diseases and not be born with no feet, if there's anything to be done about it. I am by no means an atavist.
Where I break from the pack, though, is in the assertion that there is no upper limit to the amount of good that can be derived from such things. If everyone gets to live forever, or as near to it as we can conceivably get, what does that do to our ability to renew and rejuvenate as a species — not just our bodies, but our ideas, our notions of life?
And this is where things get even thornier: if I say that all things are bound to die as a matter of course, does that mean I'm advocating death for any one person, myself included? It's not an easy discussion to have, and that's why I'm not surprised many people have not waded into that particular tarpit.
When I tried to aphorize the thoughts I had on this, I came up with this phrase: "The better we make life for all, the easier it is to make life miserable for any given one of us without trying." It's only a first draft, but then again I haven't even finished reading Unamuno yet.