Immortality, pro and con

Two popular articles on radical life extension have recently been making the rounds — dueling articles, in a sense, in dueling publications.
Gustav Klimt, The Tree of LifeFirst, Sonia Arrison, H+/World Transhumanist Association board member and one of the founders of Singularity University, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on longevity, presumably a snippetized version of her upcoming book 100 Plus: How the Coming Age of Longevity Will Change Everything, From Careers and Relationships to Family and Faith. The article is a lengthy litany of the same basic longevity claims that have been made for years — worms, rats, and monkeys on restricted diets, social-science data about changes in marriage and Social Security if lifespans were greatly extended, etc. — followed by an ethical analysis on the subject. The analysis does not consider whether any of the aforementioned potential social changes — for instance, increased divorce rates (perhaps intentionally facilitated by “sunset clauses” in marriages) and periods of living alone, which even social scientists acknowledge as harmful to individual and social metrics of wellbeing — could be disruptive or otherwise bad. In fact, the crux of the ethical analysis at the end seems to be: “Arguments against life extension are often simply an appeal to the status quo.” Hmm. Could arguments for life extension then often simply be an appeal against the status quo? Perhaps, then, an ethical analysis either way deserves a bit more fleshing out than the 105 words of meditation Arrison expends upon it here. Maybe that is in her book, but I wouldn’t say this article promises much for it.On the other side, a recent opinion piece in the New York Times by Stephen Cave (also author of the forthcoming book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization) discusses the premise of the TV show Torchwood: Miracle Day (the new fourth season of the British TV show Torchwood), in which all of humanity suddenly becomes immortal. This piece is much more philosophically serious. But it makes an old and on its own rather inadequate argument: “our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality,” and so we need death to motivate our value systems and our personal drives to action. Cave also adds in a novel sprinkling of social-scientific research to his article to give it a sheen of scientific authority. Still, the force of his argument is tantamount to trying to make lemonade out of existential despair. At any rate, as wild as immortality premises inherently go, this one is particularly outlandish; a more serious inquiry would look at a gradual scenario like the one in Arrison’s article, in which we can watch the social fabric progressively unweaving (or uplifting — your mileage may vary).UPDATE: This post has been corrected to reflect that Torchwood: Miracle Day is not a new TV series in its own right, but a new season of the existing British TV show Torchwood.

Long Live the King

Aubrey de Grey, a great advocate of immortality, is not worried about “immortal tyrants” for three reasons. First, because tyrannicide will still be possible. Second, because the spread of democracy will preemptively forestall tyranny. Third, because one immortal tyrant may not be so bad as a succession of tyrants, where the next guy is worse than the last. Each argument shows characteristic limits of the transhumanist imagination.

As far as tyrannicide goes, like many transhumanists de Grey stops well short of thinking through the possible consequences of the change he proposes (we are all speculating here, but we can try to be thorough speculators). Remember that tyrants already tend to be fairly security-conscious, knowing that whatever happens they are still mortal. Why would the prospect of having power and immortality to lose make them less risk-averse? It seems rather more likely that the immortal tyrant will be extremely risk-averse and hence security-conscious, and therefore represent a very “hard target” for the assassin — who will have equally much to lose if his mission is unsuccessful. As it is, most people living under a tyrant just do their best to keep their heads down; tyrannicides are rare. Throw immortality into the mix, and they are likely to be rarer still.

As far as democracy goes, de Grey exhibits a confidence characteristic of transhumanists generally: he knows what the future holds. I would certainly join him in hoping that democracy is here to stay and increasingly the wave of the future, but I don’t know that to be true and I don’t know how anyone could know that to be true. The victory of democracy over tyranny in the twentieth century was a near thing. History tells us that good times readily give way to bad times. The belief that democracy represents a permanent cure to the problem of tyranny is facile, in the way that all easy confidence about the direction of history is facile.

Finally, de Grey falls back on the proposition ‘better the devil you know than the devil you don’t’ — better Lenin than Stalin, to use his example. Leaving aside the question of how different the two leaders actually were, here de Grey is apparently trying to be hard-headed: It may not be all sweetness and light when we’re all immortal after all! Like many transhumanists, he is not very good at moral realism. You have to wonder: would the character of the immortal tyrant really stay the same over time? If, as the old maxim holds, absolute power corrupts absolutely, it would seem very much more likely that life under an immortal tyrant would get worse.

Finally, the problem is not really just tyranny, it is evil. In his Wisconsin State Fair speech of 1859, Lincoln notes, “It is said an Eastern monarch once charged his wise men to invent him a sentence, to be ever in view, and which should be true and appropriate in all times and situations. They presented him the words: ‘And this, too, shall pass away.’ How much it expresses! How chastening in the hour of pride! — how consoling in the depths of affliction!” Immortal evil means a world where the prideful will never be chastened, and the afflicted only consoled by giving up the very boon that de Grey promises us.

The problem with defending death

Todd May has a short essay on death at the New York Times‘s Happy Days blog. The argument is age-old (so to speak), but he reiterates it in a concise, compelling, and beautiful way:

Immortality lasts a long time. It is not for nothing that in his story “The Immortal” Jorge Luis Borges pictures the immortal characters as unconcerned with their lives or their surroundings. Once you’ve followed your passion — playing the saxophone, loving men or women, traveling, writing poetry — for, say, 10,000 years, it will likely begin to lose its grip. There may be more to say or to do than anyone can ever accomplish. But each of us develops particular interests, engages in particular pursuits. When we have been at them long enough, we are likely to find ourselves just filling time. In the case of immortality, an inexhaustible period of time.
And when there is always time for everything, there is no urgency for anything. It may well be that life is not long enough. But it is equally true that a life without limits would lose the beauty of its moments. It would become boring, but more deeply it would become shapeless. Just one damn thing after another.
This is the paradox death imposes upon us: it grants us the possibility of a meaningful life even as it takes it away. It gives us the promise of each moment, even as it threatens to steal that moment, or at least reminds us that some time our moments will be gone. It allows each moment to insist upon itself, because there are only a limited number of them. And none of us knows how many.
Well put. But wouldn’t Todd May’s argument about the importance of omnipresent death in shaping our lives become somewhat twisted and strained if it actually were possible to halt aging (as life extension advocates believe will someday be possible)? It is one thing to argue for the wisdom of accepting death when it is an inevitability. But it would be very different to make a positive case for death when it is no longer inevitable.
In his blog post, May notes that “it is precisely because we cannot control when we will die, and know only that we will, that we can look upon our lives with the seriousness they merit.” But, although we can already decide to die if we so choose, might it not be much harder to look upon our lives with the same seriousness if we had to control when we died? Whatever the choice, our lives would take on a farcical quality, either from the emptiness of living without limits or the tragic absurdity of choosing to die rather than face that prospect.
(Hat tip: Brian Boyd)
[Image: “Q” from Star Trek: The Next Generation, portrayed by John de Lancie]