Fifty Years From Now, You're Either Dead or Dying - So Do Something About It

Much of the more active end of the present transhumanist community is very concerned with existential risk on a grand scale: the Singularity Institute, the Lifeboat Foundation, the Center for Responsible Nanotechnology, and so forth. It doesn't hurt to have some people thinking about the end of the world - it seems like a good plan, given the balance of risk and odds as we presently understand it. A tiny risk, gargantuan consequences, a lot of people in the world, and just a few thinking meaningfully about how it might all fall into the pit. A sort of inverse Pascal's Wager, if you like.

As a fraction of the community of folk focused seriously on advancing technology and pushing out the horizons of what is considered possible - as opposed to those who are short-sighted or merely along for the ride - I think that the existential analysts are somewhat overweighted, however. There are too many people finding reasons to say "hold up a moment here" and too few with the pedal floored to the metal.

I'm of the opinion that "hold up a moment here" is a poison of this age. It's in the air, a toxin that seems right at home in the cultural background mix of NIMBY, death by precautionary principle, environmentalist Malthusianism, bioethicists whose funding depends on finding roadblocks, and comfortable, wrong-headed assumptions that next year will look just like last year. Vast numbers of people are trapped in the illusionary moment, fighting every change in an age of change - and there are so many of them that some little part of their attitudes inevitably seeps into every part of the grand multi-threaded conversation that is our culture. Even those parts that are ostensibly focused on achieving progress.

The precautionary principle is a distillation of inaction forced by excessive caution. More extreme expressions of the precautionary principle have been seized upon and promoted by all sorts of opponents of progress because they represent a halt to all progress: no advance is ever risk-free. Demanding - and attempting to enforce - risk free progress is one and the same with halting the engine of science and technology. Many foolish people want just this, sadly, and would condemn every living person to suffer and die from degenerative aging to achieve their ends.

Sadly, the popularity of extreme expressions of the precautionary principle obscure the high costs of adhering to even moderate versions. If you attach a ball and chain to those working on medical progress, medical progress will be slow. How can anyone advocate slowing down progress in the face of 100,000 deaths each and every day? Yet this seems to be the mainstream position; those who do not contribute to getting the work done have largely fallen down the rabbit hole of doing nothing but throwing roadblocks in the path ahead. Great job, you all - I hope you manage to live with yourselves if scientists create working anti-aging medicine within our lifetime despite your efforts. If science is held back well enough ... well, then we all age, suffer and die. Well done. Applause. A pity you won't be there to receive the gratitude of the masses - who won't be there either.

While this all takes place, hovering over us all is the grand sword: that in fifty years, barring a big fat revolution in the entire ethos and strategic direction of the life science community, we're all dead or dying. There's your existential risk. A very large "certainly dead, all of us, unless we do something" existential risk. Not a small or unknowable or yet to be quantified risk, but a certainty ... unless we act to develop rejuvenation biotechnology.

So we can floor the pedal, or we can talk about why it's a terrible idea to floor the pedal without doing all sorts of other things first. I know which approach I think will dig us out of the hole we're in - and it's not the one that involves moving ahead slowly.


Imagine one is hooked up to a computer than can read the output of the brain after a cardiac arrest. After about 20 seconds, "you" go unconscious. The doctor looks on the monitor and sees the perspective of the patient. A classic out of body experience. This proves nothing the doctor shrugs. But then something strange happens. The patient experiences a reunion with his family. Again, the doctor shrugs. Reunions are another aspect of the NDE delusion that occurs with surprising frequency. But then the doctor sees something amazing. The patient has been ordered back into his body by a family member, but he cannot find it. He is wondering around the hospital in areas he could never have access to.

I admit this is a logical impossibility. Just a story, but if it occured, it would convince me the NDE's are real solid evidence of life after death.

But what they have instead are very detailed stories with lots of corroborative features. And the claim that the EEG flatlines after cardiac arrest, yet these experiences occur after EEG being flatlined (so therefore brain does not equal mind).

Now I really doubt the events are as described but several researchers independent of each other make this claim -- that the EEG is flat but there are veridical reports after resuscitation of an experience occuring.

Anyway, I think this proves nothing because its clear we need a better understanding of what EEG measures. Most skeptics dismiss this as surface activity but the believers doubt this. Anyway, I think the evidence is strong enough to be worth attention, if only as an exercise.

AFter all, cryonics is probably the best bet for a real afterlife...and knowing where the boundary really lies would be helpful. So to that extent, NDE research is going to be vital to the cause of cryonics.

Posted by: Matthew Fuller at January 21st, 2011 8:54 PM

Liberals will try to tell me that global warming, species extinction, and a host of other politically correct problems are a threat to my future. Conservatives try to tell me that it is the Muslim terrorists or too many people getting abortions or some other issue that is a threat to my future.

All of these people are full of crap. I consider the aging process itself to be the single greatest threat to my personal future. All of these other "threats" are nothing more than fanciful boogiemen that are thrown up by these people to promote their political agendas, which themselves are much more likely to be a threat to my future than any of the boogiemen they try to scare me with.

Deathists are assholes, plain and simple.

Posted by: kurt9 at January 22nd, 2011 2:57 PM

Keep up the fight against aging! In Germany we just started the first german forum against aging where I found your Blog!!
Best wishes

Posted by: Simon Hasbach at January 23rd, 2011 9:05 AM

Global warming, species extinction, terrorism and abortion are all issues that merit attention Kurt. Also, the comment about 'deathists' (a label I despise even on those rare occasions when it's at least partially apt) was a non sequitur.

Advocacy for extended lifespans will remain on the fringes for as long as we all insist on looking crazy.

Posted by: Ted at January 23rd, 2011 8:49 PM

Of the issues you mention, Islamic terrorism is the only one that is legitimate. Global warming is proven fraud. Abortion? Are you kidding me?

This Islamic problem we have today is small potatoes compared to the threat of Soviet Communism (which was a real threat), who actually had 10,000 nuclear warheads aimed at our country. During the cold war we were all 30 minutes away from complete nuclear annihilation at any given time.

Deathist is a perfectly reasonable label to describe such people. And yes, they are assholes.

Posted by: kurt9 at January 23rd, 2011 9:58 PM

To describe WHAT people?

Soviets? People who are concerned about terrorism? Pro lifers? Again, total non sequitur.

But give an ideologue a hammer...

Posted by: Ted at January 24th, 2011 3:31 PM

Post a comment; thoughtful, considered opinions are valued. Comments incorporating ad hominem attacks, advertising, and other forms of inappropriate behavior are likely to be deleted.

Note that there is a comment feed for those who like to keep up with conversations.