August 25 2008 / by Mielle Sullivan
Category: Culture Year: General Rating: 7 Hot
An honest assessment of my exposure to the extreme life-extension meme.
Since being exposed to the idea of extreme life extension, which admittedly was only several months ago, I’ve found myself reacting in a more skeptical and reactionary manner than I often do when confronted with other radical new futuristic ideas and technologies. When I read about possibilities of faster than light travel, I get excited. Predictions of nano-assemblers make me hopeful. I find designs for colonies on the Moon and Mars fascinating. But when I read about trends in regenerative medicine and nanotechnology that some experts believe will conquer death, I am not enthusiastic. Instead I become very skeptical, nervous and even angry. On one level, I am surprised that I could be anything other than overjoyed that ending death could be a possibility, I very much enjoy life and, as a living organism, I have a strong instinct to stay alive. Yet I find it extremely difficult to wrap my head around the idea of life without death.
So why does extreme life extension make me uncomfortable? I’m not, nor have I ever been a religious person, though I have respect for those who are. I was raised by two atheists with PhDs in science and I haven’t ever held out hope for an afterlife. It’s not that I don’t value human life – I value it very much. As a humanist, I believe very strongly that each human life is sacred and unique and believe it is within our power, and is indeed our responsibility, to work towards giving every person as good a life as possible. I also don’t believe I am a Luddite. I am increasingly excited about technology in general, I love my cellphone and the new snazzier one I will someday get. I love my computer and wonders of the Internet. I’m fascinated by the promise of the Semantic Web. I also embrace any technology that could cure diseases or repair injuries. But when it comes to anything that may fundamentally change the way I am or the way people are in general, I am very hesitant.
I thought it would be interesting to explore some of the reactions, thoughts and feelings I have when pondering extreme life extension, as I think they probably overlap with those of the people who have been or will be exposed to these ideas.
The logic problem: Defying death seems to break down logic
When I think about the end of death, I find it hard to express myself in logical, objective terms. I am tempted to call my reactions against extreme life extension a “bias” because there is undoubtedly an emotional aspect and I do have a predisposition against the idea. But “bias” implies an illogical perspective – can considering death a certainty really be regarded as illogical? I begin to think, “Hasn’t everything that has ever lived also died?” Well, yes, except of course for the trillions of life forms that are alive right now. So the answer becomes not “Everything that has ever lived has died.” but “Everything that has ever died, has died.” This answer is so logically recursive that it isn’t even that useful.
But it does illuminate the point that every organism that is alive at a given moment has a somewhat uncertain mortality status – they haven’t died yet. However, 100% of empirical data tells us that living things die. Even for organisms that are older than human observation, like old growth sequoias for example which have lived thousands of years, we find evidence of older, longer-lived trees that have indeed died.
I realize that advances in regenerative medicine, if successful, would mark a change in the universal process of life and death and therefore the rules of the past would not necessarily apply. But we must remember that death has been a certainty up until now—a logical, verifiable certainty like gravity or 2+2=4. Life=death. If we start to consider death as an uncertainty we have begun to disrupt the logical frame work our minds have operated under hitherto. In other words, the end of death is very hard to think and talk about because it disrupts the logic we use to think and talk. When we say “a life” or “a lifetime” we envision a linear, finite span. To talk about something that is alive indefinitely seems to be talking about something else entirely.
Natural vs Artificial
Like many secular humanists I have a great respect for nature and I consider myself a part of nature. I find nature serendipitous, wondrous, beautiful and brilliant. I look at the last four billion or so years of evolution on this planet as a fascinating, complex, awe-inspiring system. A system human beings have yet to really understand, let alone surpass. In fact I wonder if even with our growing knowledge of DNA, nanotechnology and stem cells if we will ever completely understand every minute inner working of a cell or all the complex interactions of the worlds ecosystems enough to truly be masters of our environment. History teaches us that several of our attempts to beat nature at it’s own game have yielded unexpected consequences: pesticides kill insects but poison the entire environment; widespread use of antibiotics has created multi-resistant strains of bacteria; we are now in the midst of world-wide climate change because we could not foresee that burning billions of tons of fossil fuels would fundamentally change the Earth’s atmosphere. Because of consequences like these, that I have more faith in nature than I do in human beings when it comes to controlling complex bionomics. I know DNA technology and nanotechnology are both still in their infancy and that both of these could revolutionize our ability to control the very process of life, but I am hesitant to believe we will best the natural process entirely.
Having a respect for nature effects my attitudes towards the end of death in another way: I consider myself a part of nature. I identify as a natural, organic being that obeys the laws of nature. I do not wish to become an artificial being or remove myself from nature as this would seems to be changing myself entirely. If I cease to be what I am and change into something entirely different to escape death, haven’t I, in effect, killed myself? It is, I believe, for this reason I do not wish to alter the fundamental natural forces that govern my life process.
I realize that the moment I say I do not wish to alter the fundamental processes of my biology, I have to acknowledge that I have been tinkering with my biology my whole life: I have been treated for infections and diseases; I take birth-control pills to control my hormones and fertility. And if my heart were ever restarted with a defibrillator, a procedure I would have no philosophical problem with, I would, indeed have defied death. But living indefinitely, defying death not just for the immediate future or for the next few decades but the for possibly thousands of years, seems to break the most prime law of life. Again, it seems to fundamentally alter who and what I am.
Real vs Unreal
Another issue comes to mind when thinking about extreme life extension. Let’s suppose that, as some futurists including Ray Kurzweil have theorized, that in order to truly conquer death we will eventually have to “upload” our minds into computer/robot/silicon bodies. Casting aside my earlier arguments about identifying as organic, let’s assume I one day do this to save my life. If all the information of my surroundings is being interfaced with consciousness by a computer, what is the difference between my life and an elaborate computer simulation? How can I be certain I am living in reality? The same question arises when we think about a thin layer of nanobots surrounding us that could simulate experiences as has been proposed by on this site. The minute we have mastered these simulations, how can we be sure anything we experience is not actually a nanobot simulation.
Though I can imagine that many people would volunteer to transmit their consciousness into an artificial body to avoid death, I am not sure if any would voluntarily enter a perpetual simulation. Yet, how would we really tell the difference?
Of course, questions of what is real and what isn’t are not new. People have been asking this question since the beginning of history. Right now our consciousness already enters the natural simulation of dreaming and it is often impossible to tell the difference between a dream reality and a waking one. However, I believe the question of reality takes on a new dimension as soon as we can artificially create real to life simulations.
Serendipity vs Control
There is one last conflict I find myself stuck on when I think about the end of death. If we do indeed master enough biology, physics, computing etc. to fully conquer death, to truly make ourselves as immortal as we say we want to be will we have reached a supreme, unprecedented level of control. The question that then springs to mind is this: in such a controlled environment, would anything at all happen by chance? Would a world where nanobots protect our silicon bodies from accidental damage, where we have so mastered biology and physics that we can turn anything into anything else – would such a future be so controlled it would lose it’s dynamism? Perhaps I am taking my conclusion too far, but I think it is idea of a hyper controlled environment that makes us consider if Utopia would be hell. In a dynamic environment one is never bored, but in a controlled environment, one very often is. Dynamism requires flux, change and chance, but flux change and chance are by definition a little bit dangerous. As human beings we crave control, but ultimate control turns life into an equation and an equation is hardly a desirable life.
I do not intend to argue against the pursuit of technologies that could greatly extend human life. I mean simply to shed some light on the philosophical questions, problems and concerns that I have encountered while thinking about the subject that I have seen addressed by the futures community, namely questions of identity, reality, control and the problem of framing and discussing the question given our current paradigm. I think these and many other questions will be asked more frequently as the idea of extreme life-extension gains more exposure. Comments welcome. Indeed they are the entire point.