One of the recent Gerontology Research Group list conversations drifted to the topic of those religious folk who oppose healthy life extension research. Their influence is a hurdle to be overcome in gaining wider support for funding and direction in real anti-aging science:
We live in a world where a significant fraction of reality (lifestyles, goals, economics, politics, religion, etc.) is built on a foundation that "death" is inevitable and nothing can (really) be done about it.
This inevitabilility used to be true, and so all the protective mechanisms put in place to avoid thinking about it once made sense. You become stressed, sick and crazy if continually focus on matters you cannot change - and so evolution has led to humans who are very skilled at avoiding this sort of result. People being people, simple rationales became vast, complex, overwhelming cultural edifices over the generations.
Now, at the dawn of the biotechnology era, the inevitable is no longer inevitable. The research establishment - if sufficiently funded and motivated - could make meaningful inroads into repairing and preventing the root causes of aging within our lifetime. The leftover cultural and hardwired human habits relating to our decay and mortality now actively hinder progress towards the elimination of age-related degeneration, disease, frailty and death.
It is especially ironic, after all, that the most vehement opponents of scientific research into extended longevity - into "immortality", in the restricted sense we have adopted - should be precisely those who foster belief in some other kind of augmented life, beyond death's door, a mysterious deeper life that allegedly surpasses the fact of physical corruption. What is religion's contribution to the debate, in the end, but a systematic and subtle blend of anguish, terror, bargaining, hope, and capitulation and embrace of the inevitable by denying its reality?
I am in no position to judge the validity of these claims, nor is any mortal, for none of us has returned from the grave to be probed on television or in the laboratory (although the believers in reincarnation would dispute even this). Still, I do not see in the avowals of believers any fundamental objection to the enhancement of life's prospects in this world. Perhaps it is true that mortal life, the only kind we know, is just a preliminary for fuller life in a more elevated condition (or perhaps for endless torment if our choices during life were evil). Well then, the longer we have to savour the rich joys and tests of earthly life, the more opportunities we gain to mature, love, help, build, to take and share responsibility.
Today we weep to see some child doomed to piteous early death by leukemia. Adults rush to contribute bone tissues that might reverse the errors in the child's genes. In another century, we will feel no less anguish at the sight of ageing and death in anyone at all. Life is as replete and meaningful as we make it, and if we can share in the glories of the world for a thousand years instead of a mere seventy or eighty, I cannot imagine that a loving deity would resent our tenure here, or punish us for living well and long.
Professor Arthur E. Imhof, a historian of the Free University of Berlin, has lately reflected on the need for a new Ars bene moriendi, one suitable for a time when already we have effectively doubled the traditional expectation of life. Imhof is by no means a technological prolongevist. If the promise of indefinitely extended life does, alas, prove to elude science, we will be well-advised to embrace his humanist prescription. "Let us transform every one of the years gained into fulfilled ones, taking advantage of our immense technical, economic, and cultural resources, and then let us die a natural death." But if it turns out that we need not die after all, if extended life is gifted us in technical solutions to ageing undreamed of by ancient alchemists and mystics, then Imhof's further advice still seems to me sound and bracing, an Ars vivendi for an all-but-immortal future population.
"Gained years are not necessarily fulfilled years. We have to fill them with meaning. If people spend their lives interested only in physical activity but not in spiritual cultural matters, they should not be surprised to find themselves confronting a great spiritual emptiness when their physical powers wane in old age and they do not know how to fill the extra days, months, and years. But this need not be so: the situation could be prevented with a lifelong cultivation of spiritual and artistic interests."
Those interests - obsessions, perhaps, indulged across centuries of freshly garnered information and insight - will include, for many, the topics we have touched on in this book: the nature of mind and consciousness itself, of life natural and artificial, and of cosmos great and small, the quest for intellectual clarity, and perhaps our emerging role as custodians and shapers of the whole future universe. And within that passionate quest for understanding, we will surely also seek to nourish the quiet, serene truths Imhof recommends: arts of living well, and if death is, after all, finally unavoidable, however long postponed, of dying well.