Junípero Serra’s Legacy Versus Modern Takes on Immortality

Every day, each of us makes our mark on the world we live in, for better or worse. Leaving theological considerations aside for the moment, the effects we have on those around us can easily persist for years, and in the case of some notable figures, centuries.

The mark Junípero Serra left on the world is undeniably a persistent one. California may have become predominantly Anglican, Baptist or even Russian Orthodox, the gold rush of 1848 would have occurred much later and there might even still be a Native American nation-state in North America.

In religious terms, Saint Junípero’s feast day is celebrated on July 1. He watches over California, Hispanic Americans everywhere and particularly those who devote their working life to pious vocations. Although he is a controversial figure in death as he was in life, the Catholic Church reveres him for his heroic missionary work in the face of physical infirmity and danger, his contempt of the flesh and the enormous impact he had on the religious development of the American Southwest.

Numerous monuments in California, including some of the original missions he founded, a collection of his writings and several eponymous public works remain to celebrate his legacy. In addition, the lay organization Serra International, operating in more than 40 countries, is named in his honor.


Attempting Physical Immortality

Cryonics is the term used to describe freezing a recently dead person’s body or brain. The hope is that future advances in medical science will make it possible for these cadavers to eventually be revived in some form. In the view of most doctors and biologists, this is extremely unlikely and paying for such a service is literally a last gasp attempt to cheat death.

While it may or may not be a good idea to freeze yourself if you have the money to squander, successful thawing is doubtful. In addition, we have to wonder whether future generations will be charitable enough to devote the necessary resources to resurrect the long dead instead of simply having children of their own.

Living on Electronically

Facebook already offers users the option of keeping their accounts active after their demise, nominating another user to curate it as a digital memorial. It’s estimated that the dead will outnumber the living on social media by 2098.

More pertinently for the transhumanism crowd, biologists have now mapped the entire nervous system of a simple worm and hope to “teach” a silicon replica of its brain worm-like behavior, such as reacting to being touched.

This may bring us somewhat closer to being able to download human personalities into digital storage or programmable logic chips, but certainly not for a while: the c. elegans worm has 302 brain cells with about 700 connections between them – the human brain can boast 1011 (one hundred billion) neurons and as many as 1015 synapses. These numbers are literally astronomical, with the total number of stars in our galaxy estimated at around 3 x 1011.

Digital Phantoms

woman robot

Somewhat creepily, developments in artificial intelligence may also have a role to play. Although not capable of affecting the ultimate fate of the deceased, software that is intended to comfort the living and help them come to terms with their loss has actually been developed already.

These chatbots are “trained” by digesting text messages, social media posts and other words from the departed – the more digitally active a person was in life, the more accurate the simulacrum will be. Although wishful thinking may play a major role here, friends and relatives of the person in question often claim that they sometimes cannot tell the difference while talking to such a program. This brings us to two interesting question: can computers be haunted, and what would these ‘bots say if fed the words of former popes and cardinals?