Peter Thiel, who has invested millions into the SENS rejuvenation research programs over the past decade, has of late been talking much more in public on the topic of treating aging. Having wealth gives you a soapbox, and it is good that he is now using it to help the cause of treating aging as a medical condition. One of Thiel's recent public appearances was a discussion on death and religion in this context.
In the struggle to produce meaningful progress in rejuvenation research, the tipping point can come from either a very large amount of money, hundreds of millions of dollars at least, dedicated to something very similar to the SENS research programs, or from a widespread shift in the commonplace view of aging. At the large scale and over the long term medical research priorities reflect the common wisdom, and it is my view that public support is needed to bring in very large contributions to research. The wealthiest philanthropists and largest institutional funding bodies follow the crowd as a rule, they only rarely lead it. They presently give to cancer and stem cell research precisely because the average fellow in the street thinks that both of these are a good idea.
So it is very important that we reach a point at which research into treating degenerative aging is regarded as a sensible course of action, not something to be ridiculed and rejected. Over the past decade or two a great deal of work has gone into this goal on the part of a small community advocates and researchers. It is paying off; the culture of science and the media's output on aging research is a far cry from what it was ten years ago. When ever more authorities and talking heads are soberly discussing the prospects of extended healthy life and research into the medical control of aging, it is to be hoped that the public will follow. Inevitably religion is drawn in as a topic in these discussions once you start moving beyond the scientific community:
The Venn diagram showing the overlap of people who are familiar with both Peter Thiel and N.T. Wright is probably quite small. And I think it is indicative of a broader gap between those doing technology and those doing theology. It is a surprise that a large concert hall in San Francisco would be packed with techies eager to hear a priest and an investor talk about death and Christian faith, even if that investor is Peter Thiel.
Thiel has spoken elsewhere about the source of his optimism about stopping and even reversing aging. The idea is to do what we are doing in every other area of life: apply powerful computers and big data to unlock insights to which, before this era, we've never had access. Almost everyone I talk with about these ideas has the same reaction. First there is skepticism - that can't really happen, right? Second, there is consideration - well those Silicon Valley guys are weird, but if anyone has the brains and the money to do it, it's probably them. Finally comes reflection, which often has two parts - 1. I would like to live longer. 2. But I still feel a little uneasy about the whole idea.
The concept of indefinite life extension feels uncomfortable to people, thinks Thiel, because we have become acculturated to the idea that death, like taxes, is inevitable. But, he says, "it's not like one day you'll wake up and be offered a pill that makes you immortal." What will happen instead is a gradual and increasingly fast march of scientific discovery and progress. Scientists will discover a cure for Alzheimer's and will say, "Do you want that?" Of course our answer will be "Yes!" They will find a cure for cancer and say, "Do you want that?" And again, of course, our answer will be "Yes!" What seems foreign and frightening in the abstract will likely seem obvious and wonderful in the specific. "It seems," Thiel said, "that in every particular instance the only moral answer is to be in favor of it."
One of Wright's objections was to articulate a skepticism about whether the project of life extension really is all that good, either for the individual or for the world. "If [I] say, okay I'll live to be 150. I'll still be a sinner. I'll still be conflicted. I'll still have wrong emotions. Do I really want to go on having all that stuff that much longer? Will that be helpful to the world if I do?" This roused Thiel. "I really have to disagree with that last formulation...it strikes me as very Epicurean in a way." For Peter Thiel, Epicureanism is akin to deep pessimism. It means basically giving up. One gets the sense he finds the philosophy not just disagreeable but offensive to his deepest entrepreneurial instincts and life experience. "We are setting our sights low," he argued, "if we say everyone is condemned to a life of death and suffering."