August 1, 2007

Transcription of my Longevity Dividend Seminar talk


[Via IEET: "People Database Project Blog recorded and transcribed George Dvorsky's and Anders Sandberg’s talks from the IEET’s July 23rd Longevity Dividend Seminar. Thanks!]

Popular Arguments For and Against Longevity

“There are five broad categories in which I hope you could pigeonhole any argument you can find in opposition to radical life extension. There’s the appeal to nature. There are undesirable psychological consequences to radical life extension. That there are undesirable social consequences. That the desire for life extension comes from questionable ambitions and skewed priorities. And we are also going to talk about the fallacies used to argue against life extension.”

“There are four broad categories to the arguments of pro-longevists: the value of life and undesirability of death, the ethical and legal right to life extension, that there are desirable social consequences, and that it is more a matter of working toward the inevitable than striving toward the feasible.”

Radical life extension is, in many ways, an event horizon. I will be speaking today about the most popular arguments both for and against longevity. This is not going to be a discussion of the scientific arguments that are put forth. I’ll leave that to the biogerontologists. These are the kind of arguments that do come out of academia and some of the political lobbies. These are also the kind of arguments you hear from the person on the street that you bump into. And if you mention this in casual conversation, you can almost assuredly expect these kinds of retorts and objections to the issue of life extension. So this is in a sense a way to arm ourselves in thinking about various ideas that are out there.

When I first prepared this, I went through all the arguments I could find, synthesized it, wrote it all out, and it was hideously long. Well over an hour. So the challenge for me was to compress the material, both in terms of which arguments to put forth, but also to find some common ground and consistencies to categorize them. Hopefully, that’s what I’ve done. Again, these are not necessarily the best arguments. By no means are these the most valid or credible arguments. It’s simply a discussion of what’s out there today. Also, I’m not going to be analyzing the arguments for their worth. We might discuss afterwards whether these particular arguments are valid or invalid.

I’m going to start off with the opposition to radical life extension. And I discovered that there tends to be three main arguments. There are the moral and ethical arguments. The practical arguments–actual realistic reasons why life extension would be difficult to attain. And then, I kept finding what might be called faulty arguments, which had logical fallacies built in. Because I found so many of them, I thought I should probably include them.

Here is what I came up with. There are five broad categories in which I hope you could pigeonhole any argument you can find in opposition to radical life extension:

-The appeal to nature

-Undesirable psychological consequences

-Undesirable social consequences

-The desire for life extension comes from questionable ambitions and skewed priorities

-Fallacies used to argue against life extension

1. The appeal to nature

Critics make the claim that life extension is a violation of the natural order–that humanity is tampering with nature, which is inherently good. It’s often argued that the quest for life extension goes against the natural cycles of birth and death, and if we attain immortality we will have stepped so far outside the natural order that we could no longer be considered humans. Advocates of this view believe that life extension is a dehumanizing usurpation of the natural order. Some of the most outspoken proponents of this view include Leon Kass, Francis Fukuyama, Bill McKibben, and Daniel Callahan. For them, death is seen as good, something very much in our collective and personal best interest.

McKibben, for example, argues that without death, life would be robbed of its meaning. Humans would not have the opportunity to sacrifice for their children. There would be no concept of pouring a life’s worth of work out of the time preceding the literal deadline of mortality. The adjunct of the appeal to nature essentially states that meaning to life is something that you pull out of your mortality–a limited lifespan motivates people through a sense of urgency to spend what time that they have left refining and exploiting their best qualities. Even things like courage, heroism, sacrifice, and creativity arise from the acknowledgment that I and everyone else only have so much time here. Consequently, the implication is that life extension would create a population that is lazy, spoiled, apathetic, self-centered and indulgent, and that life would not be serious or meaningful without death.

Death, apparently, also provides us with morality and a need for morality. We could not and would not sacrifice ourselves for something if we were immortal. In this sense, attributes such as virtue and morality have a direct relationship with our condition as vulnerable, transient entities capable of suffering and sacrifice. Death therefore has a social function in this regard.

Another argument against life extension is the idea that it would cause people to become extremely conservative and risk-averse. I mean, who wants to risk their indefinite lifespan to go hang gliding or parachute jumping and so forth? I guess the argument here is that if you are only going to live to be about 80 years-old, it’s not so much that I’m putting at risk. But if it’s a thousand years, or 10,000 years, suddenly the stakes are much higher. The fear is that you would have a very conservative, risk-averse society as a result of life extension.

It’s also been argued by such thinkers as Leon Kass that not only would life be devoid of meaning but actually all beauty is derived by both the object’s and the subject’s impermanence in the world, and therefore as the result of life extension beauty could be sapped from our lives. Quoting Kass, “Just as a pretty flower is beautiful because we know it will eventually wilt, the sunset is beautiful because it is short-lived.”

James Hughes: Unlike mountains, which….

The anti-life extension camp is also very sensitive to what might be called broader utopian ideals. They often champion imperfections of humanity. Bill McKibben, the author of Enough: Staying Human in an Engineered Age writes, “I like this body and all its limitations up to and including the fact that it’s going to die.” Arguments against life extension and other transhumanist technologies like cybernetic enhancements are interventions that will somehow dehumanize us or lessen what we currently are. Again, quoting from Kass, “The pursuit of perfect bodies and further life extension will deflect us from realizing more fully the aspirations to which our lives naturally point: for living well, rather than merely staying alive.”

As a subset to the call to nature there is the call to the unnatural: there are broader metaphysical implications to death–transcendental rebirth or what have you. I have heard that from time to time.

2. Psychological consequences

The assertion that life would be boring and people apathetic with longer lives is really set up by the idea that we are not psychologically prepared for indefinite lifespans. It is however a more practical objection to the question of life extension as compared to the more abstract arguments for the preservation of the natural order. The argument is that we will be bored given an indefinite lifespan, and life with be full of repetitious tedium. So severe would this boredom be actually that we should probably forgo life extension altogether. It is an unpredictable social experiment–we do not know what will await us beyond our expected normal lifespan right now. It is dangerous and reckless for us to go down that path. As John Cougar Mellencamp once said, “Life goes on long after the thrill of living is gone.”

The view that older people lack passion is a common argument against life extension. As Mark Walker noted in a paper called “Boredom, Experimental Ethics, and Superlongevity,” that increased lifespan is seen as ushering in debilitating apathy and disdain for life. “Ennui” is derived from the Greek term ‘to be annoyed.’ It is defined as a reactive state to repetitive or tedious stimuli, suffering from a lack of interesting things to see or do. It is a condition of pervasive boredom to the point where one tires of the earth itself. And the only solution, as some philosophers have posited, such as Bernard Williams, is death.

There is also considered the possibility of madness–that people would go insane for having such long lives. The idea is that one would lose a sense of psychological self-continuity over time. And I know that as someone who is 30-something, I can certainly relate to this. I do remember what it was like to be in my early 20’s, and even as a teen, but I am so far removed from that person as to be a different person altogether. The suggestion is that given hundreds of years, if not thousands of years, that one would be so detached from your previous self, the self that bought into life extension, that the decision would not have been yours at all. This is the argument–I’m not saying it’s a great argument.

3. Social consequences

One could be in favor of life extension on moral grounds, while being against it on the subject of practical applications. For instance, there might be severe and intractable social consequences. There are of course the concerns attending social and distributive injustices. Life extension interventions are bound to be both cost inhibitive and involving issues with access. The assumption here is that the widening gap between the rich and the poor will lead to greater social inequality and I guess an overall social regression to the quality of life.

Another potential problem with life extension would be undesirable demographic skews. For example, if only the rich have access, both racial and class balances might be upset, and you will end up in a divided world with parallel populations and new classes altogether. Francis Fukuyama has warned that we risk creating a nursing home world filled with aging, miserable, debilitated people draining resources from the young to keep themselves alive. More realistically, in a world where elderly people would remain forever physically and mentally vibrant, workplace demographics and the issue of retirement, younger people would be withheld positions of greater authority if the older generation never has to give up those roles. This is what legal philosopher Steven Horrobin has called “The Problem of Incumbency.” In a world of life extension, people holding authority, wealth, or power would retain those properties indefinitely. There would be the problem of generational dominance. Misguided and deviant people would not wither away and die. And elites would not give up their positions, either in business or in politics.

There is also perceived to the be threat of scientific and cultural stagnation. It has been argued that the well-known cycle of life may provide other benefits to society, and that the elimination of death may curtail the important social processes that we take for granted. There is the possibility that there would be fewer fresh ideas. Quantum physicist Max Planck once said, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” Similarly in the context of social issues, attitudes about same-sex marriages are almost exclusively divided along demographic line, where you have an older generation that is very uneasy about it and a younger generation for which it is an absolute no-brainer. So eliminating sources of death is considered a risk for cultural and social stagnation.

Issues of overpopulation, environmental sustainability, and other Malthusian scenarios are extremely common arguments brought up against the concept of radical life extension. Environmentalist E.O. Wilson has calculated that for every person in the world to reach present U.S. levels of consumption with existing technology, you would need four planet earths. Suffice to say, life extension could compound the issue. And this is very much a neo-Malthusian argument. In terms of the eart’s food, water, and energy, everything that makes up our global footprint, cannot possibly keep up with a perpetually increasing population.

4. Questionable motivations and skewed priorities

Opponents of life extension frequently question the motivations of those in search of longer lives and press for other concerns to be given greater priority by human civilization. A number of critics like Callahan believe that the motivations for wanting extended lives is deeply problematic, and there is no known social good coming from the conquest of death. The quest for life extension has been referred to as ‘anti-social.’ Its advocates have been called selfish, arrogant, hubristic, irreverent, childish, and narcissistic. And those are the nice things they have to say about us. Critics are also aware of the potential for life extension to hit the mainstream. Consequently, some critics have already made the proclamation that governments should be required to intervene and do what is right for society, because individuals cannot be trusted to do what is in society’s best interest. The state will be required to uphold the social good.

Brian Alexander, who authored the book Rapture: How Biotechnology Became the New Religion, once asked Francis Fukuyama if the government has the right to tell its citizens when they have to die, and Fukuyama answered, “Yes. Absolutely.” Leon Kass has noted, “The finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.” John Harris, author of “Immortal Ethics” has referred to this threat, I suppose, as “generational cleansing.” Again from Kass, “Simply to covet a prolonged lifespan for ourselves is both a sign and a cause of our failure to open ourselves to procreation or to any higher purpose. The desire to prolong youthfulness is not only a childish desire–to eat one’s life and keep it–but it is also an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish, incompatible with the devotion to posterity. Again, the argument is that there is something wrong with life extension advocates. Furthermore, there are more important problems to be dealing with right now: global warming, human poverty, disease.

5. Logical fallacies

Now, arguably at times life extension has been the target of pseudo-skepticism, which is characterized by biased, unfair, presupposed and overzealous lines of thought. Everyone is familiar with ad hominem attacks leveled against life extensionists, which I think speaks to the fact that people are emotionally invested in the issue. The suggestion is that there is something deeply wrong with life extensionists. A couple years ago, Technology Review’s Editor in Chief Jason Pontin laid into Aubrey de Grey, using the opportunity not so much to critique Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence but to launch a personal attack, referring to Aubrey, forgive me, as a “troll.” He slammed Aubrey as a person, questioned his life choices, and criticized his personal habits and appearance. And we’re not talking about man on the street, this is the editor of Technology Review magazine.

Nor does it have to be a personal attack like this to undermine the validity of life extension as a legitimate pursuit. One can also suggest psychological instability or eccentricity underly the desire for extended life. Psychology Today recently put out an article about life extensionist Michael Anissimov called “Champions of the Lost Cause.” The presence of the piece in a psychology magazine, even if it might be a popular magazine, hinted that Anissimov’s quest for life extension was somehow psychologically quirky or eccentric, not something a normal person would want to pursue for themselves.


George Dvorsky presenting at the July 2007 IEET conference in Chicago, Illinois

Arguments for longevity

To date, the arguments for why radical life extension have been almost exclusively about why life is valuable, not really having the evidence from a social or economic perspective why life extension is viable. One can make the case that arguments for the social good of life extension are beginning to coalesce. I find that arguments for life extension tend to be somewhat on the offensive. We are under attack and many of the arguments are meant to deflect criticism.

There are four broad categories to the arguments of pro-longevists: the value of life and undesirability of death, the ethical and legal right to life extension, that there are desirable social consequences, and that it is more a matter of working toward the inevitable than striving toward the feasible.

Life is good, death is bad. That pretty much says it all for life extensionists. There is the general notion that death at 17 is tragic, while death at 87 is natural. That is based on our conditioned response and expectations regarding maximum lifespan. If we could live to 1000, we would consider the death of someone at 350 to be just as tragic. The Greek philosopher Epicurus stated that death is nothing to us when we are dead. That said, death is most certainly to the frustration of the living. People who desire to go on living, they have objectives for the future, objectives which they hope to translate into real experiences, and death might be seen as the denier of future experience. A great quote from J.R.R. Tolkien. “There is no such thing as a natural death. Nothing that happens to Man is ever natural, since his presence calls the whole world into question. All men must die, but for every man his death is an accident. And even if he knows it and consents to it, an unjustifiable violation.” The quote is the obverse to Leon Kass’s assertion that the finitude of human life is a blessing for every individual, whether he knows it or not.

Another argument is that death is wasteful, destroying memories and experiences. Moreover, it is a terribly thing to have to deal with death. Eliezer Yudkowsky, who experienced the death of his sibling a few years ago, wrote that “No sentient being deserves such a thing.” Life extensionists are cognizant of the fact that people are dying every day of age-related diseases.

Let me skim the ethical and legal issues underlying the argument for life extension. Some might define the ability to transform and manipulate our bodies as we see fit as being an issue of civil liberties, personal freedom and choice. In denying affluent groups the right to life extension out of consideration for the societal divides, John Davis has said that in other contexts taking from the haves is only justifiable when it makes the have-nots more than marginally better off. The IEET is working to ensure that these technologies have as broad access as possible.

As for the desirable social consequences, it has been said that it would result in an increased concern for personal responsibility. Individuals would have a longer time to deal with the repercussions of their negative actions. Given longer lifespans, people could cultivate deeper and more profound wisdom. Nick Bostrom has argued that with longer life expectancy, people will have a personal stake in the future. And this will lead to more sustainable policy. It also make utilitarians happy. Michael Anissimov has said that life extension is important to utilitarians because billions of people want it.

Another interesting take, one I am somewhat partial to, is that in opposing life extension we’re actually talking about arguing against the plow. This argument says that life extension at some point is inevitable given the accelerating rate of technological progress and the human desire to exist. We should therefore be talking about how to manage the process of increasing longevity. It has been argued that life extension is the logical extension of the medical sciences. Another way of looking at it, instead of arguing for the abolition of death, one might argue for the medical conquest of disease up to and including age-related illness.

Injunctions against life extension once it exists would open up a Pandora’s box of problems. The demand for illegal life extension technologies would have to endorced by a transglobal regulatory agency, foreseeably leading to the proliferation of black markets and the possibility for risky end-user experimentation.

Finally there is the issue of feasibility. If we can show that the seemingly practical inhibitors to life extension are surmountable , non-tractable problems, in what ways are we now obligated to do these things? Aubrey de Grey has argued that we are responsible for future generations. Technology experts point out that many opponents to life extension ignore the progress being made in remediations to reduce our global footprint, harness safe alternative high-energy sources, and so on. Quoting Ray Kurzweil, “We need to expand our intelligence and our capacity for experience, which is exactly what new technologies will enable us to do.”

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