Yuval Noah Harari in The Guardian:
The modern world has been shaped by the belief that humans can outsmart and defeat death. That was a revolutionary new attitude. For most of history, humans meekly submitted to death. Up to the late modern age, most religions and ideologies saw death not only as our inevitable fate, but as the main source of meaning in life. The most important events of human existence happened after you exhaled your last breath. Only then did you come to learn the true secrets of life. Only then did you gain eternal salvation, or suffer everlasting damnation. In a world without death – and therefore without heaven, hell or reincarnation – religions such as Christianity, Islam and Hinduism would have made no sense. For most of history the best human minds were busy giving meaning to death, not trying to defeat it. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice, the Bible, the Qur’an, the Vedas, and countless other sacred books and tales patiently explained to distressed humans that we die because God decreed it, or the Cosmos, or Mother Nature, and we had better accept that destiny with humility and grace. Perhaps someday God would abolish death through a grand metaphysical gesture such as Christ’s second coming. But orchestrating such cataclysms was clearly above the pay grade of flesh-and-blood humans.
Then came the scientific revolution. For scientists, death isn’t a divine decree – it is merely a technical problem. Humans die not because God said so, but because of some technical glitch. The heart stops pumping blood. Cancer has destroyed the liver. Viruses multiply in the lungs. And what is responsible for all these technical problems? Other technical problems. The heart stops pumping blood because not enough oxygen reaches the heart muscle. Cancerous cells spread in the liver because of some chance genetic mutation. Viruses settled in my lungs because somebody sneezed on the bus. Nothing metaphysical about it.
And science believes that every technical problem has a technical solution. We don’t need to wait for Christ’s second coming in order to overcome death. A couple of scientists in a lab can do it. Whereas traditionally death was the speciality of priests and theologians in black cassocks, now it’s the folks in white lab coats. If the heart flutters, we can stimulate it with a pacemaker or even transplant a new heart. If cancer rampages, we can kill it with radiation. If viruses proliferate in the lungs, we can subdue them with some new medicine.
True, at present we cannot solve all technical problems. But we are working on them. The best human minds no longer spend their time trying to give meaning to death. Instead, they are busy extending life.