ZIPAR Staff Consider the Consequences of Engineering an End to Aging

The folk at ZIPAR, the Zurich Institute of Public Affairs Research, have academic futurist interests somewhat analogous to those of the Future of Humanity Institute (FHI) in the UK, though with more of a short-term horizon and consequent consideration of what some might consider fiddly, unimportant policy details. If the true legacy of the FHI and its network is to give rise to many peer organizations, where an increasing number of people put time into thinking seriously about the future of technological progress and radical enhancement of the human body and mind ... well, there are certainly worse legacies than that. It might be regarded as one facet of the later stages of the quiet, sweeping victory of the past generation of futurist and transhumanist thought, in which it becomes a field of policy academia, at the same time as the first transformative technologies are implemented in order to remove limits on the human condition.

Technology is intertwined with epistemic progress: technology is the practical application of knowledge and skills obtained through rational inquiry, and in turn, technology allows us to further our rational understanding of the world. However, technology is more than just the product of and the means to a more accurate and a more complete understanding of the world. Technology allows us to do things that are beyond the natural limits of our biology. For the most part, we do not think much about this property of technology. When we ride a bicycle, for example, we are using a piece of technology that allows us to go from A to B in a much more efficient way than by going on foot.

Sometimes, however, transcending the limits of human biology via technology does not only raise eyebrows, but widespread concerns. Most people intuitively accept most ways in which technology changes or completely removes biological limits. Some biological limits, however, seem to be off-limits, so to speak. One such limit is the finite natural lifespan of humans: death is a natural part of life, and trying to end natural death might seem outlandish. Our visceral response to the idea of ending death, of course, is little more than status quo bias coupled with a variant of the is-ought-fallacy. Whether something is morally desirable is not determined by whether it is the status quo.

Ending natural biological death has a number of benefits that go beyond the intuitive idea that not existing feels weird. We humans are systematically irrational in many domains, due to our cognitive biases. One such domain is the assessment of risks. One source of our biased risk perception is our natural life cycle. Things that will happen some time in the future matter less to us than things that will happen immediately, simply because there is uncertainty about the future. If we end natural biological death, then we are radically changing our future prospect. We are not trying to imagine a world in which we do not exist anymore, but we are instead thinking about a future world that is some time off, but that we will be part of nonetheless. Such a radical shift in perspective might help alleviate some problems of the present bias.

Our biased time-preferences are not only present in the domain of risk perception, but also in the ostensibly simple domain of planning ahead. Ending natural biological death through rejuvenation could have a positive impact on our long-term planning capabilities. From an individual, micro-level perspective, knowing that the long-term future (in terms of traditional human lifespan) is not some uncertain world that one might not even live to see, but instead a state of the world that will come about in due time, might nudge individuals towards automatically correcting some of their planning biases. After all, if I know that 50 years into the future, I will still be physically the same as I am now, thanks to rejuvenation, then I might think more carefully about the decisions I make today that might affect me in the future.

Humans are capable of remarkable rationality, both in the sense of epistemic as well as instrumental rationality. Unfortunately, all sorts of "afflictions" prevent us from realizing our rational potential to the fullest. There are two ways in which an end to natural death could cumulatively increase individual rationality levels. First, active epistemic engagement by individuals would have a positive effect. Increasing human lifespan (potentially practically indefinitely) would mean that humans would experience changes in the world of the kind that was previously observable only on an intergenerational level. The second way in which the end of natural death might result in cumulatively higher rationality is accidental experience. The longer a person lives, the more probable it is that some strongly held belief will be accidentally challenged. Accidental contact with members of the outgroup can challenge our beliefs and reduce intergroup bias.

Most people fear death, or at least feel uneasy about death. Fear of death is a unique feeling that is, at once, both perfectly understandable and irrational. Ending natural biological death would mean removing death dread, either completely or to a large degree. Fear of death is probably one of the most unpleasant negative feelings because, contrary to almost all other causes of negative feelings, we cannot do anything about death (yet). Death dread is an unnecessary, cruel burden of nature; humankind loses nothing by getting rid of it.

But our lives do not consist only of the search for ways of higher-order progress. In our lives, there are many things that we simply enjoy. Enjoying things means that, every day and mostly without being fully aware of it, we experience some form or another of pleasure. Experiencing pleasure is something we value on an individual level, but it is also a general moral goal. Ending natural biological death could increase the amount of pleasure people experience. One reason why is obvious: The longer a person lives, the more pleasureable experiences can she or he have. But there is also a second reason why doing away with natural death would have a positive impact on pleasure: Technological and social progress. One of the most notable effects of technological and social progress is that it makes human life more pleasurable, in all kinds of ways.

Creating as much pleasure for as many people is a classical utilitarian goal, but pleasure is only one side of the utilitarian medal. The other, and perhaps more important moral aspect of existence is suffering. All things being equal, we should reduce suffering for as many people as much as possible. Ending natural death would reduce would almost certainly have a great positive impact on reducing suffering. Human morbidity is compressed towards later stages in life. Ending natural death through rejuvenation would mean avoiding the stage of compressed morbidity altogether, and with it, avoiding a lot of suffering associated with afflictions that are likely in later life stages. If we assume diagnostic and therapeutic medical treatments to advance in the future, then the overall suffering caused by disease will gradually approach zero. This means that people who live beyond their natural biological age limit will experience less and less disease-induced suffering the longer they live.

In conclusion, death is a natural part of human existence, but human progress is essentially a story of overcoming undesirable natural limits. In the near future, technological progress might make it possible to stop natural biological death. Should humankind embrace such technology? Yes: Even though such technology would not be without risks, the risks are almost certainly manageable. The benefits of ending natural death, on the other hand, are immense. Death is an obstacle that is slowing down human progress. If we remove that obstacle, humankind could increase the speed of both its moral and its epistemic progress.

Link: https://zipar.org/discussion-paper/killing-death/

Comments

Wow... just... wow...

I haven't read the whole thing yet, but....

Can someone pinch me? Am I really reading this?

Please confirm I haven't slipped into another reality.

Posted by: Mark Borbely at January 15th, 2018 9:52 AM

This really was an inspiring and motivating read, please keep them coming!

Posted by: Corbin at January 15th, 2018 1:23 PM

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