Healthy Life Extension Versus Living Forever

Phil Bowermaster is commenting on an article I also noticed the other day. It touches on transhumanism, if not terribly respectfully, improving the human condition, and the far reaches of healthy life extension. Phil notes:

But living forever could rob life of its meaning, said Bill McKibben, author of "Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age." In the book he argues that without death, humans have no opportunity to sacrifice for their children, no reason to pour out a life's work under the literal deadline of mortality.


Well, first off: there aren't that many transhumanists who see "living forever" as being in the cards. Aubrey de Grey talks about life extension that might buy us a few centuries. Eliezer Yudkowsky has a more expansive view, promoting a Theory of Fun that would help us to make the most of a life that extends to millions or even billions of years. The only transhumanist I can think of offhand who talks in terms of "living forever" is Frank J. Tipler in The Physics of Immortality. But to object to Tipler's model of living forever is to object to the religious idea of dying and going to heaven, since it amounts to the same thing. I wonder whether McKibben has the same objections to religious ideas about living forever as he does transhumanist ideas on the same subject?

First let me say that McKibben talks nonsense on this topic. Using his logic, we can surmise that we would all be better off living in a society in which people were executed at age 30. Ridiculous. Does he think that people were better off when disease claimed them at 40 instead of 80? Is suffering and death really such a wonderful thing? I am continually amazed at the lengths people go to in order to protect and rationalize the status quo, no matter how awful it is.

Secondly, on the differences between living forever and merely living for a lot, lot longer...I'm definitely of the opinion that it can't hurt to aim high (while remaining realistic about the underlying science that supports these goals). If you aim for immortality with a sound mind and good science, the worst that can happen is that you'll live a longer, healthier, more fulfilling life. Not all that terrible, right?

Looking at science and medicine, a number of serious futurists have postulated reasonable, physically possible paths through the future that lead to extreme longevity, as Phil points out. If the funding is obtained to make even Aubrey de Grey's comparatively modest proposals a reality, then we'll certainly have a nice long time to figure out what comes next - including how to avoid becoming a statistic along the way.


One problem that comes up is the definition of an individual. Just what does it mean to continue living?

While there is a lot of similarity, there is already the question of whether the "you" at 60 is the same person as the "you" at 15. Already, memories fade and attitudes change. There must to be finite limits on the amount of memory the human brain can store. Given the technology I see three basic possibilities for extremely extended life:

-You eventually lock your memories and personality so it can no longer change. You can continue but are more of a recording than a person.

-You prune memories to make room for new ones, either artificially or naturally. You may keep some core identity, but remember a very tiny fraction of your life.

-Use technology to expand your memory and ability to conteplate it (this may include "uploading" to a computer-like device). You may remember your life, but become less and less like the original person over time. Eventually, the early memories have little meaning.

I wouldn't mind trying the second or third options, but I really don't think it would qualify as "living forever." Something might continue, but it wouldn't be the "me" of today. Then again, I think the whole concept of "living" will get pretty fuzzy one of these days.

Posted by: VR at May 25th, 2004 5:40 PM

Clearly we change a little every day; I think that it is the rate of change - or size of individual changes - that is important, rather than the fact of change.

I'm fine with change, but not with discontinuities.

Posted by: Reason at May 26th, 2004 7:35 AM

I agree that the second or third option does seem better. Life itself is the adaptation to new conditions. Imagine living a life where all you do is get up, take a shower, go to work, perform your labor, come home, and go to bed, with meals along the way. The same thing every day. Some people are trapped in a life like that right now, living hand to mouth. I went through a two-month period like that. It was hell. I was so depressed, suicide suddenly wasn't a ludicrous option.

If we lock ourselves, then that's what our lives become, even if more complicated. No, I definitely see change as a good thing. And you know, I am a completely different person now than I was ten or twelve years ago. Completely different. But I changed slowly over those dozen years, and I have still been "me" the whole time. Each day, each month, each year, a slightly different version of me. And I want to live as much today as I did twelve years ago, and I want to pursue my goals and dreams as much now as then.

I don't really remember what it was like to be me when I was a teenager, but I'm glad I'm still around now in my late 20's. Twenty years from now, as I start getting grandchildren, my current life will be a far removed set of memories, and I will be a totally new person. But I'm pretty sure that as I approach my 50's, I will want to live another 20 years to pursue my dreams of the future. And at 70, I bet it will be the same. And at 90. And at 120.

I'm not saying I deserve to live to be 150 or 200 or 900 years old, certainly not any more than the billions that have died before me. But if offered the chance, I look forward to the new life.

As long as my brain can continue to evolve and learn and change as needed. I don't want to get into a redundant rut, because that is when life loses its worth.

Anyway, that's my two cents.

Posted by: Jay Fox at June 5th, 2004 3:09 PM

Truthfuly the reason I want to live forever is because the girls seem to get prettier everyday and I'd like to be young enough to be attractive to them. I think you think I am a shallow person but the most beautiful thing about life is that there is no dearth of sexy women. When I was ten they there making me yearn for them and at 55 I still feel I haven't had my fill of them.


Posted by: alec at December 16th, 2006 7:42 AM
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