An Unconvincing Desire for Mortality

As progress towards actual, real, working rejuvenation therapies becomes ever harder to ignore, even for those without any great familiarity with the sciences, the positions espoused by those opposed to longevity is shifting. It is apparently easy to be opposed to, outraged with, up in arms about the prospect of longer human lives when longer human lives are not an option for the near future. Just as soon as rejuvenation becomes something that isn’t just for the distant future elite, the tone changes. There are still all of the old inconsistencies and virtue signals, but the firm opposition becomes a good deal less firm.

Take a look at this short opinion piece, for example – the way in which it opens, tired lines about the terrible burden of living well for a long time that we’ve all seen before, and then the way it is steered to a new and more thoughtful close. That close is a claim to desire mortality, but not yet. “Not yet” is the first step on the road to agelessness. If “not yet” today, and tomorrow one is just as healthy and entertained, then will it be “not yet” tomorrow? If “not yet” then why not undergo the treatments that will make tomorrow just as healthy as today? And when will it ever stop? Based on the fact that most people choose not to suicide on any given day, it is my belief that the near future, in which rejuvenation therapies are highly effective, cheap, and widespread, will be populated by well-adjusted, exceptionally long-lived individuals of many varieties.

Many of those future ageless individuals will emerge from a past in which they thought themselves mortalists when mortality was the only option on the table. They aimed themselves at diminishment and death in the same way as their grandparents did. Then technology advanced, and they followed the crowd, followed the advice of their doctors, and turned out to live indefinitely in good health despite having nothing of the sort in mind at the outset. Our community works to promote progress towards rejuvenation therapies for these people just as much as those who presently desire a longer life. A death is just as tragic in either case, and there are no half measures here. Either we all win together, or we all lose together.

Memo to those seeking to live for ever: eternal life would be deathly dull

How long would you like to live? One hundred no longer seems too greedy. In 1983, the Queen sent 3,000 congratulatory telegrams to centenarians. By 2016 she was sending 14,500 cards. One in three children born that year are expected to make it to three figures. For many, that’s not good enough. Maverick scientists such as Aubrey de Grey are trying to find a “cure” for senescence, while transhumanists are looking to avoid the problem of your body packing up by packing you up and sending it to something more durable, like a virtual reality.

It’s long been fashionable to dismiss these longings as naive and foolish. Human beings are mortal animals. The wise embrace that, and with it the inevitability of their demise. For these sage souls, extreme longevity is a curse disguised as a gift. These realists understand that the nature of human experience is essentially one of transience and impermanence. Being aware of this does not diminish the experience but intensifies it. When we desire indefinite life we seem to be in denial of the essentially transient, impermanent nature of everything, especially of ourselves. To even imagine eternal life we have to assume that we are the kinds of creatures who could persist indefinitely. But contemporary philosophers, neuroscientists, psychologists, and the early Buddhists all agree that the self is in constant flux, lacking a permanent, unchanging essence. Put simply, there is no thing that could survive indefinitely.

Sensible and correct as the arguments against immortality are, I do wonder whether some of us are too keen to be reassured by these seemingly wise thoughts. Just as belief in an afterlife can help to remove the sting of death, so can convincing ourselves that it is not such a sting after all. On this, Aristotle was characteristically sensible, rejecting the arguments of both Plato and the Stoics that death was nothing to be regretted. The more we live life well, the more we “will be distressed at the thought of death”. When you appreciate that “life is supremely worth living” you know what a grievous loss it is when that life comes to an end. Living for ever may be a terrible fate but living a lot longer in good health sounds like a wonderful one.

It is one thing to accept our mortality as a necessary part of being embodied beings who live in time. But it is quite another to romanticise death or consider it to be no bad thing at all. Immortality might be a foolish goal but a longer mortality certainly isn’t. My attitude to death is therefore similar to Augustine’s attitude towards chastity. Yes, I want to be mortal, but please – not yet.

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