Published on: 2020-05-01
Prolonging life is about the optionality, not about the immortality
There is no such thing as death. No, there’s the fear of death, and that is an awful fear. Sometimes it even makes people do things they shouldn’t. But how different things would be if only we could stop fearing death.
It has come to my attention that, although I themed this blog after a Swedish movie, with hopes of tackling transhumanism related topics, those themes have been awfully absent from my writing. To address this, I might as well aim at two warblers with one shilling and talk about human longevity from the standpoint of a Swedish movie (granted, it was made by a Russian, but such are the concessions I have to make).
An awful lot of people seem to be inherently against the idea of prolonging human life, prolonging it in the sense of figuring out ways to affect our cellular machinery or transfer out of our bodies, to grant us indefinite youth. I contrast this with the cruel mockery of “prolonging”, advocated and practiced by our medical systems, which serves only to make sure our demise is infernally long and sprinkled with horrible physical and emotional pain.
Some typical arguments for and against prolonging youth are:
Counter: You can’t reach a sweet spot where you provide de facto immortality to everyone, without controlling our individual right to create new humans on a whim. Any compromise on this topic is such that it would result in a society collapsing.
Pro: De facto immortality is so great from a utilitarian standpoint (i.e. a few hundreds of millions of times better than managing to eradicate every single pathogen-induced disease, in terms of years-of-life saved), that it’s worth trying to achieve it
in spite of the risk.
Counter: Humans would no longer be human, the finitude of our condition is an essential part of the good life. Prolonging youth would twist us into things which as grotesque and horrible, human-looking, but nothing like what we are.
Pro: Humans that live for a very long time, would have much higher stakes in everything. People don’t care about e.g. the climate when they are old, because they will be dead in a few dozen years anyway. Or, to put it on a higher level, people discount tail risks because of their short life. Immortal humans would have already destroyed all nuclear weapons except those needed to arm their well-tested asteroid defense system, prepared for a global pandemic, a supervolcano, a solar flare, and switched to 100% clean energy a long time ago.
Counter: No human would want to live forever, people wish to die at some point, you get bored with life. I think the counter to this argument is a bit more subtle. I also think the counter to this argument stands to reinforce the whole pro-prolongation position quite a lot.
This argument has to do with the optionality that not having to decay and die brings to the table. It has to do with the deep-seated fear of death that’s built into the human psyche.
The power of optionality
Having options is an awesome thing, I think everyone that has a lot of options available to them can vouch to this being true.
The thing about options is that they not only act as a safety mechanism, they also act as an anti-biasing mechanism.
Say, for example, I've been more or less a basement-dwelling stoner until age 35, I work a McJob, I watch TV, I eat junk food, I smoke and I hang out with my 3 friends that I know since high-school.
For the sake of argument, let's assume that being a growth-mindset, independent, healthy adult in a healthy relationship working on something I love is better than the aforementioned condition.
I think that, even if I were to accept this, I'd find it hard to find the motivation to move from the former condition to the latter. Partially, due to a twisted version of the sunk cost fallacy, the idea of sunk time.
Now, the idea of "sunk time" into doing mostly nothing is silly, but it is true, it goes something like: "Well, yeah, I guess I should be doing
X, but look at all the people that started doing
X 10 years ago, they are so far ahead, I have no chance to catch up".
If I were a fallacy naming tzar I'd call this the "late start fallacy" it's the assumption that starting too late makes the whole journey pointless. This is a rather silly assumption most "games" one engages are not zero-sum, engaging in them late is better than never:
- If you work a dead-end job and switch into programming at age 35, you're probably never going to get the same (interesting) projects and (high) salaries that someone who started at 16 will. But it's still going to be a net gain over working at Starbucks.
- If you are obese, and at age 35 you start dieting and exercising, by age 45 you'll have a relatively healthy body. However, you're not going to be as healthy as the guy that started at 20. But it's still a net gain.
- If you learn to play an instrument or sing at age 35, you're not going to become a virtuoso, but you can still have fun with it, find new friends by joining a band, use it to de-stress, do whatever the heck Schopenhauer was talking about, play well enough to entertain your friends. It's still going to be a net gain.
Death and cognitive dissonance
I think, part of the problem with death, is that it's inevitable. Given the option to live forever, people might just call it quits after a few hundred years. However, the problem is that nobody can make that choice. Even worst, while death doesn't claim us until our 60s or later, decay takes its toll much sooner.
These are fairly straight forward ideas, everyone has to die and everyone will decay with each passing moment once they reach the age of 20 or thereabouts.
Yet I feel like most people, even the most happy and successful people, can't really fit these into their worldview.
There's a cognitive dissonance between saying "life matters, the people around me matter, I will try to lead the best life possible" and "time is potentially infinite, life is a blip so tiny that it could be discarded as a rounding error when talking about our impossibly large universe. Your consciousness will suddenly stop one day and then you will be returned to nothingness, no haven, no haze, no sleep, within mere milliseconds you go from experiencing the world to not being, as if nothing ever existed".
The decay thing is similar, I've noticed my brain become worst as I age, this worsening seems noticeable when going from a teenager to an adult (e.g. from 16 to 30), but I think most people are in denial about it. It becomes less than subtle between ages 30 and 60 and from there on out it's obviously downhill no matter which way you look at it.
I know some people might be rather sensitive about this issue, at least if I am to judge by the reactions of my friends when I bring this up. But that's specifically why I use this example, to mention a fairly well-backed idea that most of my readers are probably uncomfortable with.
The main references I use for this claim are:
- Fairly well-established drop in number of neocortical neurons, the study cited here only starts in adolescence (which is enough to back my claims). However, I'm fairly sure this starts almost as soon as we are born, but I can't find the relevant studies.
- High level functions fo intelligence plateau and then decline in the 20-60 age range, this is, a very positive perspective.
- IQ decreases as people age, even adjusting for the Flynn effect, though note, study is comparing 20yo with 70yo.
- Again, adjusting for education, but tracking multiple ages, we see that verbal IQ is stable or slightly increasing (maybe an artifact of the adjustment ?), but Performance IQ takes a linear path down from ~103 to ~75, roughly 1/2 points down every year.
- Also, there's a bunch, of article, showing a more in depth model of the IQ decline. But I can't find a source for any so maybe the graph they have is bogus? (I'm fairly sure once cited this book but I can't find that graphs or similar numbers to those presented, maybe I'm not looking carefully enough though.
- Anyway, I'm kind of losing track of the main point, if need be I'm willing to discuss the literature around this point more in the comments.
Disclaimer: My personal opinion borders on believing that adjusting for confounders is a technique that doesn't actually work, as currently implemented by most statisticians, in most areas where one can do epidemiology. I take the adjusted data here to be potentially further away from the truth than the unadjusted data, but I'm still citing studies with adjustments because I think the consensus is against my opinion here.
Even if you don't choose to interpret the literature on brain structure and function this way; I think it's fairly uncontested that your physical ability declines very fast.
If we assume being an olympian or winning an Olympic medal in some sport is roughly equivalent with a peak in a broad range of physical abilities, well, the numbers aren't pretty. You're looking at a peak somewhere between 19 and 40, but usually bellow 30 for most sports (and one outlier, sailing, has a gold medalists over the age of 50)
So hopefully you understand why at least one of those 3 tings, those being the impermanence of life, the aging of the brain, and the aging of the body, might be uncomfortable to many people
This leads to a situation where you either have to accept the cognitive dissonance, or you guard against it.
The problem with guarding against it is that you are basically denying reality. Usually, especially when you're still young, it's just harmless denial, you ignore the fact that you need to keep your house tidy in order to find stuff, that you sometimes forget about meetings, that your hairline is declining, that you're actually halfway through the game of life and it all passed by awfully fast.
However, in the more extreme cases, guarding against reality means killing people in a holy crusade that grants you access to heaven. Guarding against reality means getting severe Alzheimer's and refusing to step down as the president of the US... heck, look at the composition of the US political class nowadays. What are people with dementia doing there? I get why you'd be still power-hungry at 60, but once you're almost 80 and can't even form cohesive beginner-level English sentences, it's time to consider getting that mountain home you always dreamt about.
The same thing happens in the upper management of companies, though, especially in the US, it's less obvious because companies are less hierarchical and status based than politics.
Maybe I'm overstepping by saying the only reason these people are still in the political or business arena is that they are delusional about their own age?
However this perspective perfectly aligns with the few times I went inside hospitals or read about hospitals. I saw the unbearable magnitude that delusions about age can be taken to, so I'm fairly certain I can attribute a lot to them.
Both individuals and their relatives care about avoiding death so much, that they can go through years of suffering in the most inhumane conditions imaginable in order to delay facing the reaper.
"Who By Very Slow Decay" does an amazing job painting a picture of this, I wholeheartedly recommend it if you have 30 minutes and want to get a bit depressed.
The optional resolution
So, I hope I've at least established cognitive dissonance about death and aging, as well as the late-start fallacy, as two potentially horrible things that plague our species.
Is it obvious how prolonging youth is a fix for both of these?
Well, it's rather obvious in the case of death and aging, since removing aging and (potentially indefinitely) delaying death would give them a voluntary trapping.
You might still choose to die, you might even choose to allow death to come naturally through the decline of aging. But this is the difference between knowing that you have the option to visit the Cheesecake factory whenever you want, versus being forced to eat lunch there every day... one of those things is much more unhealthy than the other.
It's also somewhat obvious in the case of the late-start fallacy. Once lifespan and healthspan are no longer issues, late starts go away. You can do something until your late 90s, decided it was complete rubbish, and completely change your life around, after all, you've still got potentially millions of years ahead of you.
I can see this leading to more slacking, because you have infinite-time to pick up the pace. But I can also see it leading to people pursuing interesting but niche things, things thatc aren't actualizing enough to constitute a life's work, but might well be worth 50 years out of a de-facto infinite life.
Even if this ends up causing people to slack until they are 335, you're still left with people that have 99.9999% of their life potential ahead of them, so I doubt they will fall into the late-start fallacy, and at some point smoking weed and playing video games is bound to get boring for anyone.
Thus, curing aging not only helps in the obvious ways, but it also helps by removing biases and mental blocks that are causing people to lead unauthentic lives and get radicalized into harmful movements.
It could be argued that e.g. a peaceful Vajrayana style tradition might suffice to alleviate the fear of death. Heck, it might be argued that well practice western religions could be enough, but philosophy and dialogue are traditional and well-proven cures for depression... yet it seems that people much prefer SSRIs and I don't blame them.
For 50,000+ years people have been trying to cope with the issues stemming from their own mortality and failed. By "failed" I don't mean "got a bit sad" but rather "Poured that fear and anger into murdering and enslaving billions of their fellow men".
So maybe, just maybe, our current coping mechanisms are bad.
Maybe, even if most people don't really want to live forever, or even for longer than 100 years, a cure for aging would still be nice, just as a corrective tool for our irrational death-fearing behavior.
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