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..


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.