14 December 2006

The advocates of life

Chell from Minnesota wrote a comment on the posting "The advocates of death" below which really needs more of a response than just another comment. She mentions a number of issues which are sometimes raised by people who have qualms about the radical extension of the human life expectancy.

"If someone wants to live forever, and if they can take a pill to do so, so be it. I would not want to though....."

There isn't going to be a miraculous pill that makes people live forever, whose invention will suddenly be announced one day. Between 1900 and 2000 the life expectancy in the developed world rose from around 40 years to almost 80, not by some one dramatic invention, but by a series of technological achievements (antibiotics, vaccines, the discovery and understanding of vitamins, etc.) which tamed most of the problems which had previously killed most people long before they reached their maximum potential life expectancy. Today, pretty much anyone in a rich country who does not smoke, drink excessively, or get overweight has a good chance of living to be 80 -- a lifespan which was very rare for all of history until just a few decades ago.

From the viewpoint of the average person, the more radical innovations of the next twenty years will appear to be just an acceleration of the same process. Aging is now fairly well understood; it's a combination of several different forms of deterioration which start to happen within the body once a certain number of years have passed. No one "pill" could address all of these forms of decay, but there are various possible therapies under consideration which could theoretically slow down, stop, or even reverse each one of them, and some of these are already at the animal-testing stage. As in the past, each new innovation will allow people to stay healthier longer and live longer -- and the longer you live and stay healthy, the more future innovations you will live to see and be able to take advantage of. I am not an expert in the relevant sciences, but the people who have given the most thought to the issue seem to expect that aging, and death by old age, as we have always known them, can be pretty much eliminated from the developed world by around 2025 if we dedicate serious effort to the problem.

I cannot imagine why anyone would not take advantage of whatever technologies were available to improve his own health and life expectancy, but obviously every adult should have the right to refuse therapies he seriously objects to on whatever grounds. There are already people who refuse to allow themselves to be treated with one or another tool of modern medicine, usually for religious reasons; of course they thereby have that much greater risk of dying younger than they need to, but it's their own choice (children of such people, of course, raise thornier issues).

".....not unless a "celestial being".....made it happen."

I'm not sure why achieving the same goal is acceptable if done by supernatural means, but not acceptable if done via technology. If you had an ear infection, would you refuse to take antibiotics to get rid of it but welcome a miraculous cure by a supernatural entity?

More generally, I'm curious -- why would you not want your existence to continue indefinitely? I can't even imagine feeling that way. There will always be new things I want to do and experience, especially as the world continues to grow richer and more complex. And unlike me, you have children. Wouldn't you want to be around to keep knowing them and seeing what they are doing, even centuries from now?

"Probably I should get off m' lazy butt and do some searching and reading, but perhaps you have some ideas. What would happen to the human population if such a pill (just an example, since many things could extend life and comfort) existed? And to the resources we consume?"

You may find this posting and the links in its first paragraph to be of interest.

The underlying assumption behind objections of this type is that as the human life expectancy increases and becomes de facto unlimited, the rest of our technology will stand still and the world of 2025 will look pretty much like the world of today except that people won't die any more. Of course this isn't what's going to happen. The same exponential acceleration of technological progress which is happening in biology and medicine is happening in other fields too. This is a vast subject, but one effect will be to make our use of resources far more efficient. This is already happening. For example, the highly advanced US economy is far more efficient than the backward Chinese economy -- we produce far more wealth per unit of energy and resources consumed (and per unit of pollution released) than China does. Such gains in efficiency will continue and accelerate. Nanotechnology will be critical. Dramatic increases in productivity will mean more wealth available to spend on control of pollution and repair of damage to the environment, even as population and standard of living continue to rise.

Before the Enlightenment, the Earth's total human population was always less than five hundred million (at most times, far less than that), with almost all people living lives that were, by our standards, short and squalid. Today the population is more than a dozen times that size, with almost everyone -- even in the Third World -- living longer and healthier lives than most people before the Enlightenment did, with access to technological marvels that even kings a century ago could not have imagined. Because technological progress accelerates exponentially, most of this change took place during the twentieth century. Because it will continue to accelerate exponentially (while population growth slows down), the achievements of the twenty-first century will utterly dwarf even those of the twentieth. It is true that considerable ecological damage has been done to the planet, but some of this is already being repaired, and the rest of it can be -- it's just a matter of having the necessary technology and being wealthy enough that people are willing to divert the money needed to do it. Precisely because we must save the world from threats such as global warming, we can't afford not to push forward with technology and productivity growth as fast as possible.

We will not run out of resources. Technology has steadily broadened the range of what constitutes "resources" (by making use of things which were formerly useless) and has increased the amount of wealth that can be created per unit of input. It will continue to do so. Nanotechnology will eventually enable us to make almost anything out of "sunlight and dirt", as its advocates put it.

"Do you think the human birthrate would decline? If so, do you think it would be due to people choosing not to have children, or because of something else?"

The birth rate in most developed countries is already well below replacement level, a fact which has caused considerable alarm in certain circles. Thus dramatic increases in healthy life expectancy, with accompanying declines in death rates, would actually solve a problem rather than create one. I do expect the birth rate to continue to fall. I suspect that the average woman would be inclined to postpone having children, if she knew she could do so at any time in the future rather than being limited to just the years before the age of 40 or so. People will do what they want, as free individuals, not as mere utensils to serve the needs (reproductive or otherwise) of society. The overall effect of technological progress over the last few centuries has been to increase human freedom by widening the range of available choices, even though the nervous forces of religion and tradition always struggle (ultimately in vain) to limit this broadening of freedom, as people like Kass are still trying to do.

If you read only one book on these issues, read The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil. It's a big book and a bit technical, but well worth it.

Ultimately Aubrey de Grey said it best. Would widespread use of life-extension technology lead to problems? Obviously it would. Would it lead to any problems as serious as continuing to have a hundred thousand people die every day (the status quo)? No.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of us don't see death as a problem. I don't fear it (although getting there is quite a frightening thought! lol) or see it as something that should be warded off. To me, it's a natural part of one big cycle. I also don't believe it's the end. Again, to each his own. Now, this topic isn't one of spirituality but in that one aspect.

As far as population growth, although it may slow, the natural, built-in pull to make more of us might not slow enough. There was a really stupid movie, I think it came out in the 80's, can't remember the name, where people were locked up in prison for having babies. Scariness! I wouldn't want anything near that to become reality.

We do have a lot of technology that makes everything, us, our tools, our resource conservation, very efficient. But we don't apply it very well as is. What would possibly make us start? And there is some technology that shouldn't be applied to everything it can touch. One example is the genetic engineering of seeds. While it can produce more for us to eat, it can be harmful to other species, and so, to the environment.

The magical pill was just an easy example for me to use, taken straight out of one of those articles linked in your original post. Yes, we are living longer already, and the human lifespan grows constantly with medical advances and healthier lifestyles. Thank goodness for the advances that have made our quality of life better! Really, doesn't matter to me if a lifetime is thirty years or five hundred, as long as it's lived comfortably and well.

14 December, 2006 08:49  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I still can't imagine not preferring existence over non-existence, given a choice. Some may believe that consciousness can continue after physical death in some fashion, but the evidence for this is, to put it kindly, rather tenuous. Certainly not something I'd care to gamble my existence on.

Death is certainly natural, but so are plague, famine, abcessed teeth, death at 35 from some out-of-control infection, a 50% infant-mortality rate, etc. I have consciousness and free will, nature does not. I don't care to surrender my fate to a dumb, mindless, random thing.

We don't use technology well? Well, most humans are somewhat scatterbrained creatures, vain and obsessed with trivia, and if they are free, they will express their nature. It's part of our charm as a species, in a way. I would happily match the achievements of the last 60 years against those of the previous 6,000. It gives me confidence in the future.

But chacun a son gout.

14 December, 2006 19:41  
Blogger Unknown said...

Thankyou Infidel for your well written posts that articulate what a lot of us think.

Thankyou also Chell for your refreshing live-and-let-live attitude!

I do find the idea of 'disproving' religious belief with 'evidence' a bit odd though. I think as advocates of healthy life extension we need to be careful not to alienate the valuable folks who are okay with dying but don't mind other people living on as long as they want.

15 December, 2006 02:08  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

CheesyChimp -- thanks for stopping in and commenting. Say hi to Jane Goodall for me.

Let me make it clear that I have nothing at all against what might be called a die-and-let-live attitude on the part of others -- I have always strongly supported Oregon's law allowing doctor-assisted suicide for the terminally ill, for example. I can't imagine choosing death for myself if there were any way to avoid it (unless I were suffering terribly with no hope of surcease), but others should of course be free to do as they wish.

15 December, 2006 18:59  

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