Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Perpetual Life

The idea of living many centuries is not new. It has been explored in fiction often, mostly fantasy and sci-fi. Tolkien’s ents, elves, and wizards live on for thousands of years, dwarves for several hundred, and those who posess the One Ring extend their years indefinitely. Merlin lives for centuries, in some accounts backward in time, Paul Atreides gains a near-immortality as God-Emperor, and various cyborgs and augmented persons travel here and there about the universes of speculative fiction.

Aubrey de Gray has brought it all front-and-center, suggesting that life extension is no longer out of reach. In our usual chronocentric arrogance, we believe this is all new territory. There are innumerable technical discussions and observations, but the philosophical discussions seem to be brief, and not very interesting.
A: I don’t know as I’d want to live to be 150.
B: Yeah, but you might if you had your health.

Or the quasi-theological discussion
A: I’m not sure that it’s right
B: Yeah, you religious guys say that about everything. It’s fine. Get out of our way.

(Aside: I know all you tech freaks out there believe you have thought it out more, and have much better arguments than this, but you don’t, really. You speculate on how it might affect society, or economics, or medical insurance. Related items, all quite interesting. Not on point. See my earlier post Your New Masters Will Have Asperger's.)

It is wise to remember that others may have wisdom. We won’t know how the individual will respond to life extension until we run the experiment, but as a thought-experiment, we don’t have any significant advantage in our era over those who pondered this a hundred or more years ago.

Earlier thinkers give perpetual life a mixed review. Old wizards may have their moments of cheer, but they’re a burdened lot with furrowed brow. Tolkien seems to have thought hardest about the possibilities, and illustrates a variety of responses. Bombadil and the elves are described as cheerful, celebrating creatures – but not vey convincingly. Gollum is tormented and miserable, perhaps because he was not designed for long life.

Emotional distance from the rest of mankind seems common to all these long-livers. Whether you are solitary in your long life or part of group, it is likely that those who will die soon and those who will die late will see themselves as separate. This is already how our hearts and minds work. Unless they are related by blood, the young and the old don’t have much to do with each other. A single generation is about all we can stretch for close friendship. Teachers see new faces come and go each year. They are fond of those they see for a time, but this seldom lasts.

Which leads to neglected speculation #1: If the 70 year-olds and 20 year-olds
don't have much interest in each other now, would they have much in common when they are 170 and 120? Many people elect to live a little longer. At any point you could drop in on even quite elderly people and ask "Die now, or wait a year or two?" For people still active and without major discomfort, a large number would clearly go on at each point of choice. Perhaps they would even go on farther than they ever thought they would want to.

But each year there are fewer and fewer people near them in age - and not necessarily the ones they would have preferred.

It looks like it should work better for those following, as they will be gradually prepared over their lives to live longer. But that second cohort has peculiar problems as well. I'll let you work your way back to that on the basis of the larger issue.

We were not designed to live indefinitely. Whether you believe we were created, evolved, or some synthesis of the two, the whole history of man has had mortality as one of its defining points. I am not sure I would want to cut myself off that fully from the entire history of humankind. What do literature and song mean when they no longer apply to you?


Anonymous said...

I have no ideal how old you are but I find your posts interesting.
However in person we may never become friends.
As I age, I can imagine keeping connected to humanity through thoughts and finding it quite satisfying.
I don't agree with your assesment of increasing age leading to increasing isolation.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yes, we may adjust to online communities, and those who grow up with same may find the adjustment even easier. Some will find that easier by temperment as well, and there may be a greater percentage of those in the population as we age.

But being cut off from the whole sweep of human tradition -- of songs of noble death, of the reflections on the meaning of life, of anticipation and grief -- worries me.

AlanG said...

Interesting subject. I've been reading about life extension since the early '80's when I used to subscribe to Omni magazine. That was a real popular subject with them. Ol' Timothy Leary was a big proponent of this - as are a bunch of New Agers. My thoughts are:

1. If a "pill" could be taken that would stop the aging process - would you give it to people incarcerated for long prison terms? Gives a different meaning to 150 year sentences (I remember a short story about a hit man that went around executing murders who were given the "pill" and were released after meeting their sentence requirements).

2. As a ...ahem...Bible beliving Christian (and quite rational - thank you very much) - I've been intriged with the passage in Revelation (ahh - here it is, Rev 9:6) where people wished to die - but death flees from them...hmmmm.

3. Finaly - if there was such a "pill" and the effects were irreversable - would you take it?

Thanks again for a great post. I just found this site via a link to your Faux Logic Posts. I'll be back!

OBloodyHell said...

Although Larry Niven doesn't focus on it, he has touched on these issues in some of his writing, all of his Known Space future history series which does presume the existence of something called "Boosterspice" which arrests aging.

If I recall correctly, I think he touches hardest on it in "Grendel" (in Neutron Star, I believe). Another character, Louis Wu, begins the Ringworld novel with a great degree of ennui on his 200th-odd birthday. In neither case is it the central theme.

I generally disagree with you because long life offers two things:
1) time to gain sufficient wealth to get the free time and resources to do anything you want.
2) The time to do anything you want, no matter how much time it takes.

As it stands, our lives are doors opening until we are about 25 yo -- and from that point on, the doors close -- can't join the army, can't become a doctor, can't bed a young girl, can't have kids, can't start a major new career... One by one, until we can't drive ourselves anywhere, can't bathe without help, can't feed ourselves, and slip into an old age little different from a babe in swaddling clothes.

That narrow time -- from 22 to 25, is about all we get for having all the doors open, and usually, we don't have the financial resources to take full advantage of it.

So yeah, you betcha -- gimme a life as long as I want it to be, to do with whatever I want to.

It's a bigassed friggin' universe, AVI, and I am one damned curious monkey.

OBloodyHell said...

Oh, and, lest I forget, this is one of the obvious themes of Robert Heinlein's character, Lazarus Long. Starting out in the Novella Methuselah's Children, he's already the oldest man alive. He stays that, surviving for more than 4000 years, tales from which make up one of RAH's greatest novels, "Time Enough For Love". Some of the sexuality aspects of the latter's storyline will likely offend prudish types, but it's a remarkably entertaining and thoughtful piece of work.

Joe said...

So your arguments against saving the lives of 100,000 people a day (the number that die of old age and related problems) is stupid because Gollum was miserable.

The truth is that science is coming very close to a day when we can stop aging. If we put the resources into it we could concur the first problems in a few years. We don't need to invent the tech now to make us live 1000 years. We just need to gain at last 1 year a year to stay alive. Stem cells can be that first step, enabling repair of organs and rejuvenation of the whole body.

If it is even in the realm of possibility to save 100,000 lives a day I don't see how we can justify not trying. Just because people think it is weird or have other nonsensical arguments against does not mean people should die.

Also the argument about generations is just silly. I am 24 and have friends in their 40-60s. Online I talk to people every day in diffrent age ranges and contries. Just because people are diffrent does not mean they can not live together and get along.

The following link leads to a parable of why aging research is so important. I encourage everyone to read it.


PS Sorry if this double posts blogger is giving me errors.

PPS Nick B are you Nick Bostrom?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

"saving the lives of..." is an interesting reframe. It is technically true, of course, but it is not usually how we frame increasing the number of 90 year olds who turn 91.

Online communities may indeed change how we view aging and generations. With the exception of my sons and a few of their friends, I certainly find 20 year olds more interesting online than live.

Joe said...

Village idiot :)

Please read the fable I posted. The end and notes at the end are the most important to read. It is the single best/understandable argument I have come across for pro-longevity research.