Politics, Foreign Policy, Current Events and Occasional Outbursts Lacking Couth

Thursday, November 20, 2008

On Immortality

The Daily Galaxy had an interesting article about the ongoing scientific endeavor to, if not defeat, than certainly give it a good go against one of life's two absolute certainties. Death. The opening paragraph:

Cambridge University geneticist Aubrey de Grey has famously stated, “The first person to live to be 1,000 years old is certainly alive today …whether they realize it or not, barring accidents and suicide, most people now 40 years or younger can expect to live for centuries.”
Besides an account of the rather giddily optimistic geneticists there is an account of the moral opponents:
Leon Kass, the former head of Bush's Council on Bioethics, insists that “the finitude of human life is a blessing for every human individual.”
A purely subjective point of view that cites no objective nor logical reasoning to oppose the anti-ageists research beyond Kass' own personal ideology that death is a "necessary and desirable end." I'll be fair here and point out to those that won't read the wiki entry that Kass' ideology isn't nihilistic, rather a bit Gaia meets Christ. Or so it seems to me.

On to the other extent of opposition cited in the article:
Bioethicist Daniel Callahan of the Garrison, New York-based Hastings Centre, agrees: “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death.”
Without further context there, at least, lies the basis for a formative discussion. I dug a bit and found this Callahan article presenting a reasonable and logical riposte to the concept of immortality:
The late economist Kenneth Boulding once argued that “any major expansion of the span of active human life would create a crisis for the human race almost beyond imagining.” Speaking of the advantage of death for mankind, he noted that “it is the propensity of the old, rich and powerful to die that gives the young, poor and powerless, hope. When death is postponed, so is promotion.” Every society in human history has organized its work and social life around the fact that there are different generations, young and old, and people at different stages of life. I really wish we would be told, when the great day arrives and we have dozens, maybe hundreds of years ahead of us, exactly how it would all work. And to do so without invoking fairy tales. Nature knew what it was doing when it arranged, through natural selection, to have all of us get old and die. That is the price of species survival and vitality, and it has worked well. I don’t think we humans can invent a better scenario, but we can surely do much harm in trying.
As a human being who will, statistically speaking, be dead a fraction more than four decades from now I can't help but embrace the giddy optimism of geneticist Aubrey de Gray. But the realism that Callahan evokes via Boulding speaks to the overall reality of the human condition. Every facet of human society, whatever the society, is based on the real concept of mortality and the human want to first defy death and then allow our finances, innovations, ideals, philosophies, etc. to transcend our mortal existence and coalesce within our offspring. In other words, we are driven by the reality of our ultimate demise and so maintain an essence of tireless progress and when we grow tired we enable our children to enjoy and build upon the momentum born of our mortal efforts and reinvent the cycle again. Each and every cycle invites the "promotion" Boulding speaks of.

Artificial human longevity to the extent of preserving life expectancy to a millennium would lead to massive and complex global difficulties that could warrant a study of biblical proportions to discuss.

Shear immortality would lead to the demise of what it is to be human. Wouldn't it?


Adrian said...

Plus immortality would make us all procrastinators.

Mike said...

A slight tangent, but I think it's relevant...there was a ceremony on Veteran's Day for inducting some new servicemen into Gold Star Hall (it's the main entrance to the Memorial Union where all the Iowa Staters who have died in service to the country are remembered). One of the officers from the Army ROTC unit got up and gave a short speech, the thrust of which was that these guys, even though their lives may have been short, knew what it was to live. Point being that you can't truly live until you've faced down death. Without death, there would be no true life.

And yes, without a deadline I would probably sit around in my boxers watching TV and eating chips all day. What's the point if I've got eons to go?

Mike said...

Forgot to mention, a movie that has something to offer with regard to this subject is Aronofsky's "The Fountain." Doesn't hurt that it's visually stunning and overall very well done.

Jay@Soob said...

Adrian, heh.

Mike, thanks for the suggestion.

"Point being that you can't truly live until you've faced down death. Without death, there would be no true life."

Can't argue with that.

G said...

Hopefully this technology will come about after the last boomers die. Otherwise we will have to put up with reliving the 60s over and over and over FOR AN ETERNITY.

I was thinking about this the other day after your post on the antinatalist movement as well. The way I see it, we should gather up all the ideological wackos and tell them to calm down till we have terraforming and interstellar spaceship technology. Then anyone who pleases can travel to a planet, make claim to it, terraform it, then start their grand utopias without dragging the rest of humanity into it (plus on a long-term timeline we get to see which ideologies, political systems, religious beliefs etc. make it and which don't).

mark said...


1) Extending the lifespan to about 140 or 150 with a long, youthful, middle age of about a century seems more likely to me, on a mass scale,than living to 1000.

2) The change in timescale expectation would be disruptive and dismaying only to the generation to make the transition. Next generation would not know anything else.

3) Kass and his secular bioethicist couterparts are moral monsters. Their lust to control the lives and ensure the deaths of others is palpable.

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