The Argument from Personal Incredulity

Anne C. attended the recent Future Salon debate between Aubrey de Grey (for more healthy life and the defeat of aging) and William Hurlburt (for the continuation of death on a massive scale) and wrote up an excellent account. A couple of high points from the report:

Aubrey de Grey began by noting two mutually exclusive positions (associated with science and ethics) that tend to come into play when people state opposition to longevity research:

Position 1: "I refuse to think seriously about whether defeating aging is feasible, because it is clearly not desirable."

Position 2: "I refuse to think seriously about whether defeating aging is desirable, because it is clearly not feasible."

Two argumentative frameworks tend to be associated with the above two positions, according to de Grey: the "Argument from Superficial Authority", and the "Argument from Personal Incredulity".

My impression is that people taking Position 1 most often tend to argue from superficial authority. I would imagine that this includes people who invoke "Nature", the words of conservative bioethicists, or possibly their deity of choice when attempting to explain why seeking to extend the healthy lifespan is a bad idea.

People taking Position 2, on the other hand, tend to argue from personal incredulity -- that is, they consider it a foregone conclusion that human lifespan is basically fixed at a particular point, and that our chance of moving this point outward is so small as to be functionally negligible.

I - and I'm sure any of you who take the time to talk to folk about healthy life extension - have seen a great deal of Position 2, the argument from personal incredulity. It's a real challenge to talk points with someone who has already fully vested their position in "no." In terms of making headway in the marketplace of ideas, I think Position 2 is a bigger problem than Position 1, the argument from superficial authority. Superficial authorities - pro-death advocates, bioconservatives and the like - seem to more readily understand that significant healthy life extension is, in fact, plausible for the near future. I'm not sure how much of that stems from the very human action of bolstering a threat in order to strengthen one's own position, but there you have it. Deathist bioethicists are often just as convincing as advocates for healthy life extension when it comes to the plausibility of and timeline for healthy life extension technologies.

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