Life Extension and Fear of Death

So, I read this morning a  piece on The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies website about ‘Life Extension’. The piece itself (Don’t Drag Me Along into Your Grave, Daniel Callahan) by Maria Konovalenko is quite normal in regards of life-extension arguments. It makes ethical claims that failing to ‘treat’/look for a ‘cure’ to death is like being unwilling to treat/look for a cure for disease.

It also claims that the goals of life extension are not merely likely - but nigh-on inevitable:

even if the current biomedical advances are not yet powerful enough to cure aging and prolong the youthful state of the body, they definitely will be in the future.

I am not convinced – at all. Below is part of what I say in the Dispirited book about this..

we-all-die-the-goal-isnt-to-live-forever

The Strange Case of the Longevity Movement – An Aside

If death provides the impetus for understanding life; once we drag it from behind the Wizard of Oz-like curtains in our mind, it offers us the means to learn who we might be. But what if death really might be indefinitely postponed? Heidegger’s three features of death83 include the absolute inescapability of death, but close behind the growth in ‘happiness’ features in Sunday newspaper magazines, popular science publications and TV documentaries is the Longevity movement. The general line of thought is that given the prior rate of medical advance, and the prospect of genetic manipulation (especially the idea of an ‘ageing gene’84), indefinite human lifespans are surely only just around the corner. 85 The Daily reported in 2008 ‘Why Man COULD

Live Forever’86 and the Independent, in the same year, asked ‘Who wants to live for ever? A scientific breakthrough could mean humans live for hundreds of years.’ 87 Probably the most notorious advocate of this movement is Aubrey de Grey, with his view that the first humans to live for lifespans of around 1000 years will be born in the next decade or so. 88

While any detailed examination of the science invoked will promptly dispel the idea that such an ambitious extension to our lives is likely at all, and even a moment’s reflection will generate a host of reasons as to why it may be even less desirable that it is likely, it is still a compelling narrative. Who really wants to die – when they could just keep living? Of course mortality is necessary, and the species needs it – but not for me. Surely my survival, my ever-accumulating wisdom, will be a noble exception, a major benefit to society? We could all advance such self-serving arguments, but if we really take the idea seriously, we have to see it as an attempt to impose stasis on the inevitable flux that is reality, as John Gray recognises:

Seekers after immortality look for a way out of chaos; but they are part of that chaos, natural or divine. Immortality is only the dimming soul projected on to a blank screen. There is more sunshine in the fall of a leaf.

The longevity movement shares one notable feature with much of the spirituality movement, which is the desire to appear somehow at the very cutting edge of science, but also in some type of tension with ‘the establishment’ of science. The tone of longevity writers often makes little or no explicit reference to spirituality, although they do often share an interest in the ‘holistic’, and the idea that somewhere in ‘ancient wisdom’ secrets may be hidden away. The issue that makes them interesting here, though, is the motivation itself. Given that death is inevitable, that mortality and finitude is blindingly and undeniably the frame in which we live our lives – why engage in these grand acts of self-delusion? Of course, some life extension may be possible, but death will not be denied, and, even if delayed a little en route by healthy living and medical advances, is coming for us all soon enough. I can only see a single psychological motive underpinning the longevity movement, and this is the same reason it sells newspapers and fascinates so many of us. This motive is our absolute and total fear and dread. The more we have suppressed death, the more we may fail to express our anxiety – but it has gone nowhere. I would contest that underneath the cheery hopes of living for centuries is a screeching, desperate flailing panic at the knowledge of our own, personal, death. The fact of death is, alas, still a fact; and longevity and immortality are as useless as the cheap trinkets of ‘heaven’ and post-death-life. What little we can do, surely, consists of the staring down, and confronting of the truth of death. This choice promises no escape, but at least offers us the chance to live a life where death’s long shadow does not taint every thought via poorly-repressed anxiety.

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8 comments

  1. AbelardLindsey · · Reply

    Biological immortality is really about individual liberty. You are wrong to oppose efforts to develop biological immortality. If you don’t want it for yourself, that is fine. No one will push it on to you. However, what others may choose is none of your business.

    1. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t saying that I want to prevent others pursuing this path. What I was doing was speculating on the existential motivations at play here..

  2. Yikes. You demonstrate a profound ignorance of the science of aging research. Hollistic? Ancient wisdom? Good grief. Whether or not they will ultimately prove to be successful, the SENS proposals developed by Aubrey De Grey are incredibly detailed, with not the faintest whiff of pseudoscience, and have the support of many of the most respected minds in regenerative medicine. I single out De Grey only because you did, as there are many other people and institutions working on aging and forging ahead with potentially life saving research while you criticise from the sidelines. It’s unbelievable, and frankly a little embarrassing, that one would write such things about a field they clearly know so very little about. What’s more, since age related diseases claim 100,000 lives every single day, and cause enormous quantities of suffering, it’s also entirely irresponsible. You are on the wrong side of history, and your pseudo-religious arguments in favour of illness and death are hypocritical. Unlike you who flees from the horror of diseases such as alzheimer’s, stroke and cancer by romantically referring to them as “necessary”, we truly are “staring down and confronting the truth of death”. The truth of death is that two thirds of it is caused by ageing, as will be the case until we have done something about it.

    1. Time, I guess, will tell.

      I’m more interested that you see my view as pseudo-religious. For me, I see acceptance of death as the true meaning of atheism. To continue to deny its inevitability seems to perpetuate the religious instinct.

      Romantic? No. Brutal and painful, yes. But despite the ‘on-the-cusp-ness’ of regenerative medicine- I’ve yet to see even a glimmer of death’s inevitability being diminished one iota.

  3. Time will tell us whether the research in question will yield life extending results, but then I never said otherwise. The facts, however, are in as concerns the legitimacy of the science being pursued, and the facts are that it has not one bit to do with holistic treatments or so called ancient secrets. That is, simply, ignorance, and you should be prepared to acknowledge as much.

    And yes, I consider the view that suffering, disease and death are necessary to be pseudo-religious. Necessary for what? Do you oppose seeking cures for cancer on similar grounds? If so, why? If not, why not? Why is ageing in a special category?

    The true meaning of atheism, as may be found in any dictionary, is a disbelief in deities. Being an atheist and thinking sick people should be given medicine are far from mutually exclusive concepts.

  4. I don’t read that this article is saying that suffering should not be alleviated when it can, but that the pervasive desire to avoid death at all costs is one which ought to be questioned. Life extension seems too often to be seen as a good in itself, aside from the context of sickness in which it might be useful. And I think this article highlights and questions such assumptions.

    Also, I would question whether the dictionary is the best place to search for “true meaning”.

    1. On the contrary, Sara, before dovetailing into it’s discussion of the motivations for supporting life extending research, the article makes several points having nothing to do with those motivations whatsoever: that death is necessary, that indefinite life extension is not feasible, and that indefinite life extension is, for “a host of reasons”, undesirable. None of these is supported by evidence or argument.

      As to the aforementioned discussion of motivation, David claims that the desire to extend life is self serving and rooted in existential panic. Were this the case I would still think it perfectly legitimate, as people make self interested decisions to extend their own lives everyday. I’d no sooner criticise someone for not wanting to die of ageing than for looking both ways before crossing the street. However, the fact remains that, in many documented cases, people’s support for and participation in this research is motivated by the admirable humanitarian goal of ending disease and impeding suffering, for all mankind and not merely for themselves. To attempt to discredit the life’s work of these scientists, advocates and philosophers by characterising them as fearful narcissists is, in my opinion, as unfair, shallow and dishonourable as it is untrue.

      Re: the dictionary definition of atheism, my point was that I felt David was, by implication, applying the ‘no true Scotsman’ fallacy. Some atheists may wish to accept the inevitability of their own death. Others may wish to rail against and subvert it. Neither is more meaningfully an atheist.

  5. I fear this may be my last word on this topic for a while – as a wave of work stuff is headed for me..

    Before I begin though – I wanted to note that have I spotted that life-extension advocates on-line generally seem to go for a very combative tone. Mind you, I’ve been called a lot worse than ‘unfair, shallow and dishonourable’…

    Further – there is often an argumentative, rhetorical gambit that I find rather distasteful. This is the claim that those who are sceptical about the idea that death can ever be ‘defeated’ are somehow pro-disease, and that we wish to impose our ‘deathist’ views on others. Actually, I quite like the idea of less disease, of science helping us prolong the extent to which we can live healthy lives. I take daily medication to avoid death. I quite like being alive. So perhaps we can set this rhetorical bifurcation to one side.

    But: Ben’s first point about my claims about the holisitc milieu and affiliated assertions about ‘ancient wisdom’. Perhaps he has a point – much life-extension material is keen to dress it self solely in Scientific clothes. Of course, you will encounter claims that Ayurveda contains life-extension therapy, and sites like http://www.extendlife.com – but to be fair these are a minority. What I think lay behind my comments was a similarity in the discourse, and the motivation. The discourse is often one that wants to present itself in terms of victim-hood – or that some kind of ‘mainstream’ (religious groups vs SBNR; Old school medical world vs life extension advocates) is trying to delimit or suppress their work. Look online at SBNR and at Life-extension sites – see just how much effort goes into rebuttals.. Secondly – both share the feature, often, of offering consolation to those in fear of death. That was what I meant – but in terms of plain invocation, Ben may have a point here..

    I am sure some of the science is useful – it may help us with diseases. That is a good thing. But often what riles is the scope of the claims, and smallness of the progress provide a drastic contrast. We have seen stuff with other species that is impressive – but claims that it is inevitable that we ‘defeat death’ (which exist in the original piece by Maria Konovalenko) seem overblown. We are moving back the average age of death (also good!), but the upper limit still looks somewhat stubborn ( http://www.slate.com/articles/technology/future_tense/2011/07/the_worlds_deadliest_distinction.html) – the oldest humans aren’t really getting older. de Grey’s 2004 claim that ‘I think the first person to live to 1,000 might be 60 already.’ seems hugely overblown…

    This 2004 piece ( http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk/4059549.stm ) seems to have, as it were, stood the test of time than de Grey’s claim.

    When you claim that I see death as ‘necessary’ and then ask ‘necessary for what?’: isn’t this to confuse functional / instrumental sense of ‘necessary’ (as in ‘sufficient and necessary conditions’) with an metaphysical sense of necessity? Maybe – but to claim I ‘romanticise’ stroke and cancer? Really? That’s just not true.

    As I said about disease- fight it- yes- make life better- longer maybe, better for sure: but stop it ending? This seems truly the ancient wish of the species that will not acknowledge its true nature.. Allow me to do what I frown on (sort of) and cite a Buddhist Sutta (Pabbatopama Sutta):

    Like massive boulders,
    mountains pressing against the sky,
    moving in from all sides,
    crushing the four directions,
    so aging and death
    come rolling over living beings:
    noble warriors, brahmans, merchants,
    workers, outcastes, & scavengers.
    They spare nothing.
    They trample everything.

    Here elephant troops can hold no ground,
    nor can chariots or infantry,
    nor can a battle of wits
    or wealth win out.

    What isn’t finite? Have we the arrogance to imagine that we can be different to all other conditioned phenomena? We came into being and will cease to be. We are not necessary beings, but contingent ones.

    Now – did I do a ‘no true Scotsman fallacy’? I should have avoided the ‘true meaning’ phrase – and put it better. Let me try – I see the removal of any type of theistic entity (or underlying ground of being, like a monistic divinity of Advaita Vedanta) as leaving us alone in a universe without necessary, permanent phenomena. A universe of finitude. Immortal life seems somewhat at odds with that. We may wish to downscale our go to radical life-extension: by all means, be my guest. Personally, I’ll end with the words of the Greek poet Pindar, who seems to offer some psychologically rather sound advice. You are mortal. You will die. Soon. Choose what to value, and live fully:

    – We must ask from the Gods
    Things suited to hearts that shall die,
    Knowing the path we are in, the nature of our doom.

    Dear soul of mine, for immortal days
    Trouble not: the help that is to be had
    Drain to the last

    ‘Pythian III’, in The Odes of Pindar.

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