It turns out that Peter Thiel quotes Hamlet.
For Thiel, a line in the play’s second scene throws open the pessimism that runs throughout the tragedy and, in his opinion, our current cultural moment. “Thou know’st ‘tis common; all that lives must die,” says Gertrude to her son, Hamlet. Her words are a cold comfort to the young prince, who is grieving the death of his father. All that lives must die. “At some level it’s a statement about reality. At another level,” Thiel postulates, “it’s a statement about accepting the rottenness that is in Denmark.” Death is a fact of life, Gertrude says. There’s nothing to be done. Get over it.
But Peter Thiel isn’t getting over it.
“Why,” he asks, “must we die?”
On a recent Monday evening in San Francisco, 700 members of the Silicon Valley tech scene swarmed the SF JAZZ Center for something of a fireside chat between Peter Thiel and N.T. Wright, hosted by The Veritas Forum. It’s not unusual for the technorati to show up in droves to hear from the billionaire technologist-philosopher Thiel, who co-founded Paypal, made the first outside investment in Facebook, and co-founded the behemoth private data analytics firm, Palantir (recently valued at $15 billion). He is one of the most successful tech investors in history, and has been called “America’s leading public intellectual” by Fortune magazine. Thiel’s fans have made his new book on entrepreneurship, Zero to One, an instant bestseller. But this Monday night he drew a crowd for an unusual reason: to talk about death and God with one of the world’s leading Christian theologians.
N.T. Wright, bald and bearded with the Gandalf-wise accent of the British upper crust, is known simply as “Tom” in personal conversation, but has been hailed by Time Magazine as “one of the most formidable figures in the world of Christian thought.” He is an Anglican priest and former Bishop of Durham and has taught at McGill, Cambridge, Oxford, and now at St. Andrews University in Scotland. The author of dozens of academic and popular books on theology, Wright is both prolific and profound. And like Thiel, N.T. Wright holds some non-conformist views about the reality of death that make some people quite uncomfortable.
I listened to Thiel and Wright during their public conversation and had the chance to sit down with them privately. I came away with a new perspective on religious faith and the prospect of death. I also grew more convinced that there is a dangerous lack of moral philosophy and theological reflection about the rapidly emerging technologies that are forever changing our understanding of death and of life itself.
The Undiscovered Country
Peter Thiel sat on the stage in a trim suit and open-collared white oxford. He has made more than $2 billion by betting big on contrarian ideas that cut against the conventional wisdom. To hear him speak can remind you of the smallness of your own dreams. So it was unsurprising that the conversation this evening eventually turned to what is perhaps his most ambitious project and most controversial idea: trying to extend human life indefinitely.
Thiel, whose speech patterns combine a jarring number of unsure-sounding “ahs” and “ums” with some confidently stated and precisely articulated original aphorisms, summarized the basis of his interest in life extension in the self-evident way an intelligent ten year-old might: “I think the thing that’s really incompatible with life is death.”
The line drew laughter, but one got the feeling the joke was unintentional. For Thiel, life is a self-evident good and death is the opposite of life. Therefore death is a problem, and as he says there are three main ways of approaching it. “You can accept it, you can deny it or you can fight it. I think our society is dominated by people who are into denial or acceptance, and I prefer to fight it.” Whether we can successfully fight death is a question about the nature of nature and about our ability to understand it. Whether we should try to fight death is a question of our philosophy and our theology.
In his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, psychologist Ernest Becker argued that death, or more precisely our fear of death, is the primary driving force in human culture. Unique among the animals, humans are aware that someday we will die. The fundamental irony of our life is that we are so limited that not one of us can escape death, yet we are so magnificent that every one of us conscious of the factwe can’t escape it.
“Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever…”
Most of us, most of the time don’t think about our own mortality. We avoid the idea because if we really think about it, it is terrifying.