Life Extension Leads to Meaningless Days? NO!

Have you ever heard anyone argue that life would be meaningless if it went on too long? Well, a thought experiment occurred to me which, I think, refutes such claims.
Begin by considering a hypothetical person, whom we shall label as ‘Person 1’. This person lives X number of years before dying of a heart attack. Now, obviously, we advocates of life extension anticipate a time in which no such deaths occur but I want us to imagine a life that is generally good, followed by a swift death as opposed to one in which there is a gradual decline toward a prolonged period in which somebody is too terminally ill to get much enjoyment out of life. Person X lives a fulfilling and meaningful life for X number of years before that life is terminated by a sudden, massive heart attack.Now, imagine another person whom we shall label (not too creatively) ‘Person 2’. Person 2’s life follows the same general path as person 1 with one exception: It is one day longer than person 1’s was. Now ask yourself: Is there any reason to suppose that this day, let us assume it is aTuesday, strikes person 2 as being meaningless despite the fact that all Tuesdays (and indeed every other day in person 2’s past) seemed worth living? Personally I cannot see any reason to suppose that this Tuesday should not be as worth living through as yesterday was. Person 2’s life was as meaningful as person 1 and the extra day person 2 lived to see did not negatively affect quality of life (it might have positively affected it but that is another matter).

OK, so now imagine yet another person who goes by the label of… yes, you guessed it, Person 3. You can probably also guess that Person 3 lives one day longer than person 2. Once again, I can think of no reason why, where we have two people who live meaningful lives but one lives one day longer, that extra day would not seem worth experiencing. Put another way: If possible would persons 2 and 1 rather not be dead on Wednesday (the last day for person 3) when Monday and all preceding days were worth experiencing? So far as I can see, the answer to that question is, ‘yes’.
There seems to be no reason why this argument should not hold for any number of hypothetical people, each one of which lives one day longer than the last. Person 1 billion lives one more day than person 999,999,999 and we have no reason to suppose that this one extra day should be devoid of meaning.
But how much longer did Person One Billion live compared to good old Person 1 with whom we began our thought experiment? Well, Person One Billion lived for one billion days or, to put it another way, Person One Billion lived for 2.7 million years. That is quite a bit longer than most speculations on life extension ask us to imagine an individual persisting for (‘what if you could live to be 150’?). A person who was one billion days old today would have been born in the Pliocene Epoch when North America was becoming linked to South America via the formation of the Isthmus of Panama and the first recognisable hominins (the species australopithecine) evolved in Africa.

If humanity could achieve biological immortality (which is not true immortality but rather liberation from death through malfunctions of the body due to accumulation of damage over time which manifests as the visible signs of ageing, which obviously leaves one vulnerable to other existential threats like being struck by a falling meteor) or if substrate-independent minds are feasible, perhaps one day, there may indeed be a ‘person one billion’- somebody who experienced 2 million years of life. We imagined a person One Billion alive today would be a human just like us, but we can see from evolutionary history that this would not be the case*. Our ancestors from 2 million years ago were not modern humans, but small apelike creatures. Similarly, a person born today who goes on to experience a further 2 million years of life would likely not remain recognisably human, but rather evolve through technological intervention and the sheer amount of life experience accrued, into another sort of being altogether. Where we are post-ape, this hypothetical person would be post-human. And Person One Billion’s life seems to have no reason to be less meaningful than yours or mine. If anything, it seems extraordinarily privileged to have experienced so much history.

*Actually, an immortal australopithecine would remain an australopithecine rather than transform into a Homo Sapiens Sapiens. This is because evolutionary change occurs over generations as genes are copied and useful mutations accumulate, rather than transform the individual. But in the case of a person born today who went on to live for one billion days, a transformation into another being altogether seems likely, as this would come about thanks to increasingly powerful bio, nano, information and cognitive technologies which today are just beginning to enable us to redesign ourselves and not just our environments. At least, this is the assumption underlining the term ‘Transhuman’.

6 Comments

  1. if the brain is not infinite in its capacity to remember then does it throw away old memories to gain new ones? if so at some point we have lost who we were and become someone else. possibly many times if we live long enough

    • People are already defined by their experiences. If you pick the right experiences to have or consider for this argument, you only need to look at one in order to say this was important. This changed his life. After this, he reevaluated all his life’s priorities.

      We already lose who we were and become someone else at least once in our lives. What’s a few more times?

  2. Hiya CFK, thanks for your comments. I am aware of Hoffsdadter. His books ‘I am A Strange Loop’ and ‘Godel, Escher Bach’ are among my very favourites and (particularly ‘Loop’) are very influential in my writing.

    As for immortality and the need to transcend to something other than human, I had this to say a couple of years ago:

    “Uploading is often seen as a form of immortality. The body may succumb to decay, but the mind- now independent of any one substrate- can copy/transfer itself to a replacement body. However, Vernor Vinge’s speculation regarding the nature of post human existence questions whether this is life-everlasting or death redefined: “A mind that stays the same cannot live forever; after a few thousand years it would look more like a repeating tape-loop than a person…To live indefinitely long, the mind must grow…and when it becomes great enough and looks back…what fellow-feeling can it have for the soul it was originally?”…

    …Eventually, to avoid the ’repeating tape-loop’ effect, the desire to experience things outside of the boundary of one’s identity would become overwhelming. The mind would seek to dissolve the boundaries that both define and confine it, gradually shedding its identity in order to encompass experiences outside the scope of its prior self.

  3. Your premise is flawed in a way that I’m not even sure you realize, because it involves a concept that’s necessarily alien to the human intellect.

    It’s the difference between finite numbers and infinity. That’s what we’re talking about when we’re discussing immortality: infinite lifespan. It’s not worth articulating when discussing day-to-day things, but in contexts where specificity is paramount, you should not make the mistake of confusing infinity with a very large number.

    I hope you’re familiar enough with Douglas Hofstadter’s work to know what I’m talking about when I say the entire human condition is predicated on being unable to understand infinity: because our minds are (based on) consistent formal systems, we are necessarily incomplete. But you don’t even need Hofstadter or number theory to explain why human existence is predicated on finity: look at any work of literature or art or music ever produced, and tell me its value is not in its engagement with precisely the things that limit us. Time, space, perception, death.

    Now, I have great faith in technology, and I can’t wait for the advent of post- or transhuman civilization, but you should understand that when you make the human organism infinite in any sense, you have turned it into something that is not human. The only reason I can imagine you’d want to argue otherwise is that you think being human is somehow more special than anything else it’s possible to be. Which is understandable, given that you’d be arguing that from a human frame of reference. It’s wrong, though.

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