Respectable Manias and Well-Thought-Of Delusions

Manias and delusions: both words that found their modern footing in Victorian times, alongside the formation of a populism that links insanity with any belief declared to be wrong. In an earlier century, Shakespeare inked the accusation "Thou art mad," but readily casting the slur of insanity upon everyone who fails to agree with you is a more recent cultural creation, I think. Politics has not been improved by it, for all that there is still little real difference between contemporary reds and blues and the blues and greens of antiquity.

It is unfortunately the case that we live in a world in which a great many people choose to hold self-evidently incorrect and harmful beliefs. It really doesn't matter where you yourself stand in the grand spectrum of ideas, there is still at least one vast group of people who hold beliefs - and undertake actions based on those beliefs - that you would consider nothing short of madness. Take the comparative few of us who rationally value human life and scientific progress, for example: our view is of the other 99.9% of humanity clearly and deliberately walking a path of individual self-destruction. The masses reject or shun or remain in deliberate ignorance of every available path that might lead to longer healthy lives or a chance at avoiding oblivion at death.

The world is populated with people who fail to take care of their health, who avoid thinking about progress in medicine, who laugh at cryonics, and who declare that they want to age and die. Every year, more than fifty million of them do die, decay, and the data that makes up their minds, encoded in the fine structure of the brain, is lost to oblivion. Every year, hundreds of millions suffer in terrible pain and frailty caused by age. And yet we know, from our everyday experience with the human nature of those around us, that after the advent of working rejuvenation therapies, the vast majority of people will use those technologies.

So it is challenging at times to avoid throwing up our hands and declaring the inhabitants of the world delusional. Mad, the insane populace of a wasteland in which every structure is ruined as soon as it is built. But stepping back, you might look on the way things are as one more aspect of the attention economy: a person only has so much attention to give, and the specialties of work, networking, and hobbies eat up most of that available attention. Everyone seems like an idiot - or ill-informed, or delusional - if they venture into areas where they haven't been paying attention. Unfortunately, it is the human urge to avoid both looking like a fool and appearing ignorant, no matter the circumstances. Better to say your piece and glare at everyone who might gainsay you than to retreat in silence - or so says the inner ape. It is not always a good idea to listen to that voice, of course.

I think that this sort of interplay of activity, economics of action, and the less useful base human urges contributes somewhat to the prevalence of people finding smart ways to say profoundly stupid things, as I mentioned in an older post. Such as, for example, the legion of pundits and common folk who line up to proclaim their willingness to age and die, offering little more than puffery and empty platitudes in support of that notion. I have nothing against people who genuinely feel that way: turning away from the opportunities offered by biotechnology should be, like all things pertaining to your own life, a free and respected choice. But it is painful, just painful, to read and listen to the meandering, content-free, non-arguments that the pundits amongst these folk tend to make. I can respect a simple "it's just not for me." You don't need a justification for a personal choice - and staying silent is certainly better than something of this ilk:

Would I want to live forever? No way. Do I want to die? Certainly not now. But I do need to die, hopefully for my ultimate individual good as Meilaender states, but beyond that - corporeal cessation is the right, natural, and ultimately necessary way of things.

That referenced piece of work frustratingly combines clear thinking on the mechanics of longevity science with what is still largely a rejection of the possibilities it offers. As is often the case, that rejection is framed as the desire to avoid change, any change:

Once we begin to attend to the parent-child bond, to the relation between generations, we have begun to think not just of life but of a 'complete life' - a life marked in some way by stages and movement, a life that has shape and not just duration, a life whose moments are not identical but take their specific character from their place in the whole. Moreover, it is difficult to imagine a 'relation between the generations' that does not include aging - coming into being and going out of being. This may stand in some tension with the thirst for indefinitely more life that most of us sometimes experience, but it is hard to imagine a characteristically human life without it. And from this perspective, a simple thirst for more (and more) life might seem to carry an unmistakable whiff of narcissism, for it is hard to imagine how we can act responsibly toward the generations that succeed us if we cling firmly (and desperately?) to our own continued youth.

These authors seem so very willing to sacrifice countless lives for their vague need for the present state of the world to continue. It is hard to see past that willingness to embrace the suffering and death of millions to the thought processes underneath - harder for me to understand than the thinking of people who, like I once was, are simply ignorant in youth, numb with indoctrination and yet to develop their own ideas.

Still, there are people in this world who, as of the moment, genuinely feel no need to extend their lives or do anything about the painful, debilitating degenerations of aging they will suffer in the years ahead. They have thought this through and that is where they stand. I think that this shows a distinct lack of foresight and empathy, but you have to respect the positions developed by other people. The right thing to do is make the attempt to persuade them to see things otherwise, but ultimately peace of mind in this life comes with accepting that most people do not hold your views - or even views that you can easily understand. Progress in advocacy and raising up mass movements lies in working steadily and well to change that fact, not in running around in fits of existential angst appropriate to the scale of the problem. As in so many aspects of life, the instinctive response provided by the ape within is not the helpful one.

When the world is delusional, work to change it. You can do no better, and certainly a great deal worse.


I'm familiar with the deathists over on First Things blog. What's funny about these people is that First Things is a Catholic blog and it is well known that Christianity admonishes people to seek life, not death. I would claim that deathist attitudes are un-Christian.

Posted by: kurt9 at March 28th, 2011 7:30 PM

Over on the New Atlantis, some guy is whinging about how transhumanism will lead to parallel populations of those who choose to enhance and those that don't. I don't see any problem with this. If radical life extension becomes an option for those of us who do want it, it will not take any life option away from those who don't want it because they can still continue to make the same choices they do today. Transhumanism adds options. It does not delete options at all.

It is true that certain fields that require high IQ (scientific R&D, financial engineering perhaps) will become the domain of enhanced people. However, I don't see this as a problem either. There are certain cultures of people even in the U.S. that shun advanced education and the opportunities it offers. These cultures recognize and accept the trade-off that comes with the rejection of advanced education (and the cosmopolitanism that results from it) in the form of reduced participation in certain fields. This if life. Everything is life involves trade-off and opportunity costs. It seems that the people who dislike transhumanism want to both have and eat their cake. They don't like the changes in personal life that would result from radical life extension, yet they are unwilling to accept the trade-off in reduced opportunities and life style options that rejection of life extension and transhumanism will necessarily result.

I don't see any problem with their being parallel populations of post-mortals and emphemerals. I think the key issue is making sure that radical life extension is cheap enough, financially, so that those who do want it can afford it. If people don't choose it for reasons having nothing to do with affordability, I see no problem with this at all.

Posted by: kurt9 at March 30th, 2011 11:43 AM

Yes, First Things is a religious blog, so one needs to understand that's where they're coming from. Religion by its nature is obsessed with the status quo, with remaining static in the past and not progressing. I do sometimes wonder if some religious leaders are against curing aging because doing so would make the false promise of immortality that they offer virtually meaningless. (though humans wouldn't be technically immortal, just ageless) Without the fear of death I imagine few people would belong to organized religions.

Regardless, it's of course absurd for anyone to be for curing things like cancer and against curing aging. Any argument against anti-aging science could also be applied to any other science that helps us live longer, like nutrition, immunizations, surgery, etc.

Accepting the main cause of death and suffering in the world, aging, is the most immoral thing I can imagine. I don't see how the Church can claim to respect life and also hold such a position. I guess they're more concerned about dogma than life.

Posted by: Kim at March 30th, 2011 11:29 PM

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