Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Vulnerable, But Not Doomed

Do we really need to "come to terms" with death in order to be psychologically healthy? Many would assume that the answer to this question is "yes", but where does that leave the rational life-extensionist?

Some of us today might very well reach some degree of escape velocity, through a combination of healthy living, luck, and simply being in the right place at the right time -- but no one person can afford any degree of complacency. And while the laboratory work and technological development continues, those directly or indirectly involved with such efforts will continue to struggle with developing what we feel is the most rational outlook with regard to the future, and our prospects of living to see more of it than a traditional human life expectancy would allow.

Considering that we don't have real anti-aging medicine yet, and that human bodies are extremely vulnerable to all sorts of random destructive phenomena that could hit at any time, and that the planet itself isn't likely to be a habitable home forever (and we've yet to establish a viable means of escape in the event that Earth does become a fatally hostile environment), a belief that one will somehow manage to escape all possible threats to personal existence for as long as time exists can't possibly be based on much of anything in the way of real supportive data. However, I don't think most life-extensionists see things that way.

Certainty about the distant future is not something any of us can possibly have -- there are too many things that could happen, too much data that could come to light just when we think we might have everything "important" figured out.

This is actually part of the reason why I don't think that life-extensionists should concern ourselves with making sure we come to an absolute acceptance that yes, we are definitely going to die, particularly of age-related causes.

I'm not saying we should all assume we won't die -- that would be just as bad, and less supported by the presently-obtained historical data to boot. I'm saying that making absolute assumptions about the distant future is irrational, and does not add value to any conception of reality, except in the sense of lending someone personal comfort (and remember that it is just as possible for a person to be comforted by the idea of eventual death as by the idea of immortality -- pessimism is a great refuge for those who want to be right a majority of the time without having to personally lift a finger to influence the outcome of events).

What I do think life-extensionists would do well to accept, and come to terms with (and I'd wager most of us already have), is the fact that each of us is vulnerable. With regard to psychological well-being, I think that developing a sense of perspective regarding one's own vulnerability and fragility (particularly with regard to the present human form) can enable people to face reality with minimal distortion -- which, ostensibly, is the same goal that the death-acceptance advocates have in mind.

Except for the fact that we don't make an exception for aging, we life-extension supporters aren't really much different from anyone else in our desire to live.

Try as I might, I just can't see how death due to "old age" is somehow more palatable than death due to a brain tumor or drowning or getting hit by a car -- and yet you'll hear plenty of people waxing eloquent with metaphors about blooming and dying flowers or melting snowflakes or the turning of leaves in reference to aging into death.

Personally, I'm no more a rose or a snowflake than I am an E. Coli bacterium or a blowfish -- poetry is one thing, but it most certainly should not be invoked in the context of trying to convince people that while it's a good thing to wear their seatbelts, it would be a bad thing to undergo treatments that could (for instance) clean up accumulated damage due to old age, or support the development of such treatments.

There's a difference between working to make healthy life extension a reality and "dreaming of immortality". And there is definitely a difference between mythical ideas of immortality and the kinds of lives people are likely to be able to lead in an era of life-extending treatments.

Life extension technology can (and probably will) allow a lot of people more time to live, but it's doubtful that it will ever offer anyone the kind of certainty with regard to continued existence that mythical immortality does. Vigilance and maintenance (it will be interesting to see what is necessary to keep a four-hundred-year old alive!) will probably always be necessary, and regardless of what technology is developed, none of us really knows for sure how long we'll be able to take in data, form memories, and interact with other minds.

No matter how long we live, there's always a chance that we might not live to see another day. But at the same time, the longer we live, the closer we move toward an era when people might be able to access treatments enabling them to live a lot longer than they might otherwise have. The chance that we will live to see another day is always there, as well. And this can be acknowledged without any kind of faith, without any sense of certainty, and without the need to think of onesself as invulnerable or indestructible.

Reality may not be there to cater to your every whim, but it's not out to get you, either.


JTierney said...

There's a difference between working to make healthy life extension a reality and "dreaming of immortality".

Excellent post, and this line in particular struck a chord with me. I've been getting rather frustrated latley with some overall assumptions in the life extension community that if the technology 'can' come about in time to save any particular person, than it 'will'.

It's one of the reasons I'm overjoyed to see things like the mprize come about. It potentially shows a shift in thinking, and in action, away from just talking or thinking about the issues and to actual development and support of them. In some ways I look at our movement and see the marijuana legalization efforts in the states. They have both the science and the logic behind them. But what they don't have is a high ratio of members willing to walk the walk, and in the ways that will allow their voice to be heard by the people who need to be convinced. Only a few years ago that would have been how I'd catagorise most of the life extension community as well. Things are improving quickly though, enough that I have hopes that the technologies might actually have a chance of being developed in time to move me along with them.

But, most of that semi-manic motivation to actually have us actively working to get these things researched, made, and out there comes from the fact that I'm not convinced I'll make it. I've worked in a hospital, and death plays no favourite. It can happen to anyone, anywhere, at any time. And if someone is going to do something about it to save themselves, there may very well be no time to waste.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post indeed.

It would be foolish to assume that one is going to live forever and that's that -- no one can claim to be certain of such a thing, though I think my own odds are better than 50-50 (and a younger person like you has even better chances). Remember that there's not going to be some one sudden spectacular innovation that "saves" everyone who is still around when it happens. Rather, every incremental improvement in technology in your lifetime means you will live a little longer and be around for further improvements which will increase your life span still further, and so on.

I do know that being aware of possible life extension in the future has completely changed the way I look at risk. Taking even a small chance of being killed by going into any kind of even mildly dangerous situation takes on a different significance when death might mean losing centuries or millennia of experience rather than decades. It has also motivated me to be more concerned about health, in hopes of being around for as many future innovations as possible.

It's not so much the assumptions we choose to make or the hopes we choose to have -- it's what we can do to improve our own chances.

abfh said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
abfh said...

The way I look at it, there really isn't any such thing as a traditional human life expectancy. Humans have been developing life extension methods ever since our prehistoric ancestors learned how to build huts and use fire. People nowadays live to 80 or 90 because of good sanitation, more availability of food, less wars, better medical care, and other modern improvements, but that lifespan is no more sacred than living to 40 or 50 was a century ago, or living to 25 was for a caveman.

AnneC said...


I don't come across many life-extensionists who see their own life extension as an absolute given -- though there are a few, they are few and far between.

Rather, my concern is directed at those in the community (however you might define it) that might, if they're not careful, allow themselves to get drawn into personal disputes and quibbles. Nobody's ego is worth their life, after all.

Happily, the healthy life extension community seems to be far lower-drama than practically any other I've encountered -- probably because most people who are serious about it DO realize that their lives (and the lives of their loved ones) are worth more than the short-lived satisfaction that could result from making a good jab at someone.

Anyone who wants to get into serious scientific discussion needs to (a) develop a thick skin, (b) develop the ability to keep their mind on the gravity of the situation, and (c) learn how to back out of a discussion and get back to productive work if emotions start running too high.

I've seen some people do this in a few cases and I applaud them for it, since I know that the dominant human social paradigm right now can make people feel pressured to try to get the last word in. Anyone who cares more about getting the last word in than about making progress that could result in saving lives probably isn't going to go very far with regard to helping make that progress.

You said:

But, most of that semi-manic motivation to actually have us actively working to get these things researched, made, and out there comes from the fact that I'm not convinced I'll make it.

Indeed -- until there's evidence of actual life-extending technology nobody can assume it exists, so the urgency to develop it is there by default.

There's definitely a lot of potential nowadays to develop it and I certainly think escape velocity is a very solid concept, but it's also important to be fully cognizant of one's survival instinct and use it as a source of motivating energy.

I think that what happens to some people is that they get "tricked" by their own survival instinct -- that is, they want very badly to survive, but they don't think anything can be done to help them survive, so they resign themselves to fatalism so that they're able to function on a daily basis.

And a lot of people seem to think that there's nothing besides fantasy escapism or fatalism, when in fact there is!

AnneC said...


I don't try to speculate precisely about my own odds of living to age [fill in the blank with your number of choice] since the data I have at any instantaneous moment is so limited, however, I think it is fairly safe to say that anyone who is presently alive has a greater-than-zero chance of continuing to live another day (or month, or year).

And I also think it is reasonable for anyone presently alive, in reasonable health, and interested in doing things that could help him/her achieve escape velocity to consider their chances of living beyond 120 or so to be nonzero as well.

You make some good points regarding risk as well -- there are a lot of "little things" everyone can do to help ensure their future survival. Things like eating well (that is, consuming things with at least some nutritional value rather than "empty" calories while at the same time avoiding malnourishment), practicing good hygiene, and avoiding obviously risky activities like smoking and excessive alcohol consumption all comprise small but significant contributions to the possibility of continued survival.

And in my case, I've certainly got no interest in participating in activities like skydiving or bungee jumping -- sometimes it amazes me what people will do for the sake of a short-lived thrill (Maybe my having a low stimulus threshold is a kind of survival adaptation -- I find a good book to be every bit as stimulating as some people probably find riding roller coasters!)

Mind you, I'm not advocating everyone stay locked up in bomb shelters all the time -- there's a delicate balance to be maintained between being too cautious and being too adventurous.

For instance, someone with heart trouble who doesn't go to the doctor out of fear of getting in an auto wreck on the way to the office is probably making a poor trade-off.

AnneC said...

abfh: I completely agree -- "traditional life expectancy" seems to be a very nebulous idea, based only on the very short-term perception of the average person living as a member of a particular generation.

At the ethics conference I attended in May, one point made in Aubrey DeGrey's presentation was that there really isn't any difference between saving lives and extending lives.

Anything that saves a person's life by default also extends it, so all medicine can, in that regard, be considered "life extending". The idea that young people (or people considered "young" according to the dominant social climate of any particular time) deserve to have their lives saved but old people do not is discriminatory, pure and simple.

Regarding the caveman life expectancy thing: one silly argument I ran into a while back was one that suggested that people need to keep dying at age 80 or so because otherwise "evolution would be halted".

By that "logic", we should all just work on popping out as many kids as we can as soon as possible, and then making sure we die by the age of 25 or so. Somehow, I think that a society devoid of elders would end up "de-evolving" socially quite rapidly.