A Glance at Reflexive Opposition to Radical Life Extension
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This columnist sees the signs of progress, thinks that extended longevity is plausible, but rejects radical life extension on the flimsy grounds that only death gives life meaning and removes the possibility of stasis. This seems particularly silly given that, I'm sure, this isn't someone who would advocate moving life expectancy back to where it was a century or two ago. So would he argue that life is less meaningful now, more of a "featureless expanse" as he puts it?

Death doesn't give life meaning - it strips meaning, and everything else, from us. Being alive is what allows us to inject meaning into life, and for so long as you are alive you can be a font of meaning if that's what drives you. We can draw lines and calculate totals and change careers and directions wherever we want, and then start over to work on something new and interesting. This already happens constantly throughout life, just the same as it did a century or two ago, and just the same as it will when people live far longer in good health.

The buzz around radical life extension is such that the dot-com gurus who brought us the likes of Google and PayPal now find themselves laser-focused on an Age of Longevity, as if transforming our lives was not enough whereas doubling them through moonshot thinking would be an incontrovertible contribution to human progress. Connectivity was O.K., but conjuring super-centenarians will be better. Larry Page, the chief executive of Google, and Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley billionaire, early investor in Facebook and co-founder of PayPal, are among those who, in separate ventures, have aging in their cross hairs.

"If people think they are going to die, it is demotivating," Thiel told me. "The idea of immortality is motivational." He described his ideas as "180 degrees the opposite" of Steve Jobs's, who once said: "Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart." It is probably wise to take Thiel's idea of an end to aging (or at least its radical postponement) seriously. Any extrapolation from technological progress over the past quarter-century makes the notion plausible. At least seriously enough to ask the question: Do we want this Shangri-La?

This year, the Pew Research Center found that in the United States, where current life expectancy is 78.7 years, 56 percent of American adults said they would not choose to undergo medical treatments to live to 120 or more. This resistance to the super-centenarian dream demonstrates good sense. Immortality - how tempting, how appalling! What a suffocating trick on the young! Death is feared, but it is death that makes time a living thing. Without it life becomes a featureless expanse. I fear death, up to a point, but would fear life without end far more: All those people to see over and over again, worse than Twitter with limitless characters.

Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/12/25/opinion/cohen-when-im-sixty-four.html

Comments

If I were a career journalist like Cohen, I would be looking forward to death also.

Posted by: JohnD at December 25, 2013 11:24 AM

Interesting.
All the more reason to believe that life-extension is not for everyone, or at least until more of the nay-sayers 'feel out' the society-wide implications and possibilities. Would the world be a better place, in a big picture type of way (however you define it) if 50% of the population was over 150 and showed little sign of deteriorating usefulness? Depends. As with every complex and pervasive issue, you will always have those that believe the world was better off before (i.e. cars, internet, nuclear power, industrialization, television, some legal precedents, prohibition repeal, affirmation of gun rights, etc.) But to me, the only truly 'absolute good' is in the increasing availability of choice to live out your life as you see fit while still contributing your 'share' (however you define that, GDP, taxes, useful work, community contribution, etc) and not impeding others from realizing their non-threatening choices (harder than one would think and don't mistake me for a libertarian). Technology, for better or worse, almost always enables that through the lens of human values (good or bad). That being said, there are probably some technologies that open society is not yet ready for (more towards military or costly socio-economic effects). Is life extension one of those? If life extension, why not cloning or custom babies or animal-human hybrids? How about implementation and roll-out? If there are only the resources to bring 20 doses the first year, then 50, then 100… who would get it? You can ensure that there would be riots - i would certainly riot for access. Would it otherwise be held back/hidden/denied existence for 5 or 20 or 100 years until a certain level of efficacy and availability was achieved? The issue is likely far more complex than simply enabling life extension and should not be treated as a universal human right, at first, for the pragmatic and social security issues (just as important as principles). Technology is not simply a cool gadget but a complex ecosystem of cause and effect with society trade-offs supported or denied by a democratic institution of fallible individuals. Point: more thoughtful plans, appeasing (rather than trouncing perhaps by compelling economic scenario modelling (do people of long-lived families put off retirement longer than others?)) rational skeptics, and information transparency (perhaps a charter of complete disclosure among all researchers) - less hype and 'religion-like' righteousness.

Posted by: Jer at December 26, 2013 12:05 PM

All the more reason to believe that life-extension is not for everyone, or at least until more of the nay-sayers 'feel out' the society-wide implications and possibilities.

Well, its certainly not for the nay-sayers. in any case, I see no reason to wait for the "nay-sayers" to do their feeling out. I say get on with life extension as soon as possible and leave the nay-sayers behind in the ditch.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at December 26, 2013 12:33 PM

One issue is social security. People undergoing life extension treatments should not receive social security. Likewise, they should not have to pay into it either. Widespread radical life extension will make the "old age" entitlement programs of social security and medicare obsolete. They can be phased out as the population becomes "immortal", thus making it easier to pay off the national debt.

I view the advent of biological "immortality" as a fundamental transition much like the neolithic or industrial revolutions. I think most human societies will pass through this transition. Present-day societies, based on people living the natural life cycle, will transform into immortalist societies. The natural life cycle will go the way of the horse and buggy.

I think the "nay-sayers" have a useful role in helping to smooth this transformation process and make it happen as quickly as possible, rather than engaging in the useless activity of trying to hinder this transformation.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at December 26, 2013 12:59 PM

Also remember that you have a massive amount of people in the world who are Christian or Muslim, and this group takes the 'afterlife' very seriously. Their hopes and desires and expectations are resting on the foundation of Heaven, and Reward, and being with their Creator for Eternity. It is who/what they really love, which is a powerful thing. I wonder how much Life Extension will really mean to them?

This group will possibly not care very much about radical life extension, although there are exceptions. That creates perhaps just a little bit of overlap between them and the pro-extension group. And I think the overlap or common-ground, includes Alleviating Suffering via medicine. Remember, many people of faith are mission-minded and dedicate themselves to physically helping people, and have put their money where their mouth is.

As many rejuvenation proponents have stated, it is about Health (and by extension I propose, Alleviating Suffering). Who knows how the world will change once a significant amount of illnesses are cured. But to be sure the issue of Faith will be a large one to consider.

Eugene

Posted by: Eugene at December 28, 2013 7:46 AM

Also remember that you have a massive amount of people in the world who are Christian or Muslim, and this group takes the 'afterlife' very seriously. Their hopes and desires and expectations are resting on the foundation of Heaven, and Reward, and being with their Creator for Eternity. It is who/what they really love, which is a powerful thing. I wonder how much Life Extension will really mean to them?

If they truly believe in what they claim, it won't mean anything to them at all. They will simply not do it. In any case, I think we all realize that there will be parallel populations of post-mortals and traditional peoples in most countries. There will be some conflict but I don't expect a whole lot. I think post-mortals and traditionals will tend to self-segregate into separate communities. This will certainly be the case in places like Malaysia where you have mixed races of Malays, Chinese, and Indians. I can see the Chinese going for life extension whereas the Malays, who are Muslim, will not.

Let me ask you this. Do you think post-mortals and traditional can coexist peacefully? Or do you think there will be some kind of envy and resentment on the part of traditionals? Even if there is, do you think both groups can peacefully coexist in the same country (e.g. places like the U.S. and Malaysia)?

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at December 28, 2013 3:14 PM

Perhaps lots of places will be like Northern Ireland around 2040 or so. post-Mortals and traditionals self-segregate into separate neighborhoods, towns and even cities and states. Everyone is OK as long as they stay out of the wrong neighborhood.

Posted by: Abelard Lindsey at December 28, 2013 3:17 PM

I wish people would stop quoting Peter Thiel. He just contradicts someone else, with essentially no new argument on offer other than 'this is how I feel so it must be true', and we're supposed to treat it like wisdom? I really don't have much respect for Jobs, but at least he framed it as his own insights about himself, and didn't try to pass it off as universal wisdom.

And using Cohen (or any single NYT op-ed, but especially Cohen) is basically picking a really weak target. Radical life-extension advocates never seriously deal with the really pretty indisputable fact that this is a technology by the privileged, for the privileged. Does that mean we shouldn't develop it? No, but let's at least stop pretending people are doing this for the good of mankind, and admit that we like it because it fulfills our own fantasies about immortality.

Posted by: eric at December 31, 2013 12:16 PM
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