Survival and Longevity: Why Bother?

Live or die: why does it matter to you? Why strive, why bother? The first stoics long ago pointed out that dead is dead; fear dying by all means, but do not fear being nothing. Or, from Epicurus, we have the epitaph "I was not, I was, I am not, I care not."

I recently engaged in a passing conversation with a young lady on the topic of the progress of medical science towards enhanced longevity. She recognized that medicine was improving but chose to do nothing to improve the odds for her own future - to be a person who will take advantage of future medical advances when they arrive, but who is content to live whatever life and life span falls out of chance and the actions of others. One wonders if the many people who think and act this way have an accurate picture of the suffering involved in being aged, frail, and decrepit, but it is a common viewpoint. These folk head towards death in the distance, but feel no urgency, no urge to do anything but die alongside the rest of the herd. Yet when the damage of aging presses its claws in, these are the very same people who, decades from now, will reach out for the best medical help available. It is a puzzle to me, the absolute contradiction of individuals who intricately plan out finances and life courses for the decades ahead in all matters except helping to build the better medicine that will ease their future. Their view of technological progress is passive, that it is something that just happens, perhaps.

But why be different, why bother? Why survive at all, given the stoic view? Why live? Why put in all this effort for a shot at a life span far longer than the measly four score or so years that is all that most of us would get in the environment of today's medical technology? That is a question with no answer but the one you fill in yourself, alongside the meaning of life and the laundry list of goals you feel you are here to achieve. It is self-determination all the way down.

In the case of rejuvenation research, there are obvious and compelling reasons to work on technologies to halt and reverse degenerative aging even absent a will to avert death. Rejuvenation treatments are the only long-term reliable solution to prevent the great suffering, pain, and cost that comes with aging while still alive. Preventing the breakdown of the body is a worthy, useful, and rational goal regardless of your position today on when you'd like to die. Many young people express the desire to die on the same timescale as their parents, but few are ready to volunteer for heart disease, chronic pain, cancer, and Alzheimer's disease if the question is put to them.

Cryonics and plastination, the preservation of the brain and the mind it contains against a better-equipped future in which restoration is a possibility, has a different dynamic. Because euthanasia is illegal in much of the world - a squalid state of affairs, in which disinterested bureaucrats force you into an undignified and horrible end simply because they can - cryonics cannot be used to bypass the suffering of aging. Instead the motivation here must be survival, pure and simple. The desire to live and act and see tomorrow's news.

Here's a post on this topic from one of the folk involved in the Brain Preservation Foundation, a group that favors plastination as an approach but runs a technology-agnostic research prize for the best contending approaches, presently vitrification and plastination. It is a reminder that there are as many views on survival as there are people willing to survive:

Brain Preservation: Why Bother? Getting to the Zen of Life

This talk explores the "Why Bother?" or Zen of Mortality perspective, which I think is the main reason that most folks, and particularly secular folks, don't yet see the value of [survival via plastination]. While I acknowledge the validity and great value of the Zen of Mortality perspective, and I used to hold it myself, I think there's an even more exciting and valuable perspective, the Zen of Life, waiting patiently for all of us who are ready to embrace it.

People who know how redundant the majority of their own memes are in culture, including most of the aspects of their individual self, are often very Zen (accepting, calm, serene) about dying. Today, in surveys done by David Ewing Duncan only 1% of people in the US, roughly 3 million of us, are interested in living beyond our biological death. This percentage may be even smaller in other developed countries, and particularly in the developing world. Certainly our unique religious and cultural beliefs play a role, but I think the main reason this percentage is so small is this strong Zen of Mortality, in almost all of us who think about this issue. Most of us know, in our gut, that our individual lives really don't "need" to be preserved, and are quite similar to those others around us who will live on. So why bother?

Let me now propose another Zen state, emerging now in a few places in our society, that is even more productive and enlightening than being comfortable with death. Let's call it the Zen of Life. There's something unique about Life as a process, that causes it to continually grow, learn, progress, and even accelerate at the leading edge of change. Transhumanists tend to focus on this latter process of accelerating change, and of transcending our prior limits, of continually being able to rejuvenate, grow, and learn. Understanding and imitating Life, in our thinking and practice, is even more interesting and rewarding for us than understanding and imitating Mortality. We can accept the Zen of Mortality, if that's the hand we're dealt. But if we are industrious, and lucky, we may turn ourselves into a continually improving and renewing system as well. That is the Zen of Life.

Let me now propose a vision. I believe having the option of affordable brain preservation at death, even if far less than 1% of us exercise this option, will nevertheless powerfully shift all societies where the option exists. We can imagine that these major positive social changes would happen at the moment social adoption reaches a significant minority (say, 100,000 preserved), regardless of when or how much mental information is eventually uploaded from preserved brains into computers in the future. Everyone would begin to know someone who had made the brain preservation choice. Conversations and values would start to shift now, as a result.


Reason, this is one of best posts I've read. Beautifully written. I am under 30 so this hit home.

Posted by: johnathan at March 22nd, 2014 12:44 AM

Until a monkey is successfully frozen and then thawed out and is functioning normally again cryonics will have a massive credibility gap in the public's mind, even if that is unfair.

In some ways it is even tougher to bring the public round to the idea of cryonics than it is to bring them around to the idea of SENS and rejuvenation biotechnology. At least bits of SENS can be demonstrated in mice (e.g. the benefits of the removal of senescent cells). With cryonics you have to demonstrate the full technology of preservation then revival before the layman will take it seriously.

Still, very good post.

Posted by: Jim at March 22nd, 2014 10:47 PM

ParaBioEmpathy would solve this...or if as Mr. Clinton said "I feel your pain" could really happen. If someone in their 20s could literally experience the pain, loss, suffering of the aged, you can BET your life they would do something about it. As things are though, humans at large behave like herd animals - as long as the wolf doesn't catch ME, I will only pay attention during the wolf's attack - after that, it's back to grazing and the general business of life in the moment.

Posted by: David Gobel at March 24th, 2014 9:06 AM


1) We have grandparents and aging parents just like everyone else. The pain, loss, and suffering is obvious.

2) What about the people twice my age (50's+)? What are they doing about it? They have experienced more age related problems than myself and they have the most to gain or lose. Yet, like everyone else they do nothing.

People just have zero idea this stuff exists and even if they did there is no effective call to action.

Posted by: johnathan at March 24th, 2014 2:56 PM
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