COMBATTING THE “LONGER LIFE WILL SLOW PROGRESS” CRITICISM
We are all still children. As far as the Centenarian is concerned, the only people to have ever lived have been children – and we have all died before our coming of age.
What if humans only lived to age 20? Consider how much less it would be possible to know, to experience, and to do. Most people would agree that a maximum lifespan of 20 years is extremely circumcising and limiting – a travesty. However, it is only because we ourselves have lived past such an age that we feel intuitively as though a maximum lifespan of 20 years would be a worse state of affairs than a maximum lifespan of 100. And it is only because we ourselves have not lived past the age of 100 that we fail to have similar feelings regarding death at the age of 100. This doesn’t seem like such a tragedy to us – but it is a tragedy, and arguably one as extensive as death at age 20.
Another reason informing our concern with death at age 20 and our relative ease with death at 100 is the notion of living long enough to do enough. Death at age 20 for the most part seems to preclude such experiences as parenthood, to birth a child and watch him grow into personhood. Thus whereas a 100 year old will have had enough time to have children, to watch them grow, to work and to enjoy the fruits of their labor through leisure in retirement. Our ignorance regarding the real scope of possibility, of possible experience and possible modes of existence also informs our relative unconcern with death at age 100. We feel that there is a limited number of things for one to do in life, or at least things that are qualitatively unique enough to be considered as being truly distinguishable from the rest.
But we couldn’t be more wrong. It’s hard to step outside culture sometimes, and easy to naively look upon a foreign culture as embodying but a very limited number of archetypes and stereotypical caricatures of their true depth and diversity. There are more contemporary culture traditions and conditions than can be practiced and experienced than years to actually do so. Likewise, there is more history to learn about than time available. The current breadth and depth of the world and its past are far too gargantuan to be encompassed by a mere 100 years. If you really think that there are only so many things that can be done in a lifetime, you simply haven’t lived long enough or broadly enough. There is more to the wide whorl of the world than the confines and extents of our own particular cultural narrative and native milieu.
More than this, the startling diversity of the world and stark heterogeneity of history is only set to continue its upward growth into spaces unknown as we move into the plethora of futures before us. More information is being produced than can be kept up with. Culture has always been changing, but today the pace of that change is swifter than ever before. The thought that boredom would ever be an issue to longer living people is simply laughable. Not only does the world currently contain more than it is possible to know in a single century, but it is accumulating ever more depth and diversity every day, and at an accelerating pace. You couldn’t catch up with history in the first place, and you’re sure to gain more ground to cover than you can possibly encompass, faster than you can get a hold of it, as life expectancy experiences further increases.
Another condition informing our concern with death at 20 and our relative unconcern with death at 100 is the decline of function as we age. Bodily suffering and functional decay increase as one grows with age, and often we look upon the elderly as beings more defined by their encumbrance, by what they have lost, than by what they still possess. What will life be like, we wonder, when bodily motion becomes a battle, and when the simple experience of motion in an embodied world is complimented at every turn and twist by heat, friction, and pain? When living as we once did when young becomes a labor, and leisure is really just that? Or perhaps worse, when our minds begin to fall out from under us, to fail, as we are left to look on in horror from the inside-out looking-in. Lucky for us, we’re wrong; and even if we weren’t, we are still lucky that it is a transient tragedy, a temporary and ultimately remediable one.
These men and women are more than the sum of what they have lost. They are living, breathing, thinking and valuing beings. They are! It’s as simple and stunning as that: they exist! To think that they might be better off, happier, in the rest of death and quiet of last breath – to think that they are beings defined most fundamentally by suffering, and by a comparison of what they no longer are, is not only wrong but perverse. They are living, and life so long as it’s lived should never be defined by suffering, by a lack or comparison of what it isn’t, but rather by what it is and still is. There are exceptions of course; rapidly debilitating disease, unremitting pain, incomprehensible horror at the slow decay of mind. But I would argue confidently that the elderly are not in constant woe of that which they can no longer do. Like living beings, they deal with it and continue on in the business of being. To consider the elderly as “waiting for the rest and peace of death” is a dangerous and ugly notion, and one very far from the truth.
Luckily, functional decline as a correlate of age is on the way out. We will live to 100 not in a period of decline upon hitting our mid-twenties, but in a continuing period of youthfulness. There are no longevity therapies on the table that offer to truly prolong life indefinitely without actually reversing aging. Death and aging are not separate things or processes; death is when aging has won the battle. Aging is slow death, and a truly-indefinite delaying of death ipso facto necessitates a reversal of aging, and a remediating of the physiological conditions that ultimately lead to death (i.e. what we colloquially call aging). To think that we will be prolonging our lives not as youthful beings of whatever physiological age we so desire but instead as elderly, age-ravaged beings patching new holes and bracing old crutches is to some extent mistake the cause for the symptom. If we prolong life significantly, we will prolong the healthy portion of our lives first and foremost. The centenarians of next century will look as healthy as the 20-year-olds of last.
Thus, one of the impediments preventing us from seeing death at 100 as a tragedy, as dying before one’s time, will be put to rest as well. When we see a 100 year old die in future, they will have the young face of someone who we feel today has died before their time. We won’t be intuitively inclined to look back upon the gradual loss of function and physiological-robustness as leading to and foretelling this point, thereby making it seem inevitable or somehow natural. We will see a terribly sad 20 year old, wishing they had more time. We will be able to envision with vivid viscerality the bright and buoyant things they could be doing were they not bedridden and stricken with sickness unto death.
Moreover, that gradual decline into visually-apprehensible old age also highlights another impediment to seeing the elderly as continually-growing beings with a future to look forward to rather than fight against. The gradual decline of our mental faculties makes it seem that we would be accumulating experience and memory at a deficit, cumulatively losing the ability to think, judge, remember and experience. Thus old age conjures to mind more senility than wisdom for many people.
This too is less true than delusive. Again, this type of thinking is engendered by comparing what they seem to be with what they aren’t or once were. In any case, it will be even less true in the future, when longevity therapies restore our mental health to its youthful glory. Then, the prospect of ever-continuing experience and personal growth, ever-accumulating wisdom and knowledge, ever sharper consideration and discernment is not so intuitively-improbable. The claim that we can in fact continue to grow in how smart, ethical, knowledgeable and deliberative we are will not be so easily balkable when one’s physiological state ceases to be an indicator of their chronological age.
Another common criticism of indefinite longevity in regard to the downfalls of old age comes from Max Planck’s statement that science progresses one funeral at a time; that men and women of a given generation become so attached to their theories that they remain attached in the face of contrary evidence, and it takes their very death for new theories to be embraced by new generations unencumbered by the consideration that “after all this time I might actually be wrong after all”. From this sentiment follows the criticism that significantly extending the average human lifespan will slow progress in science by preventing the death those grafted unflinchingly to a given theory. I would argue that such a sentiment stems from the view of the elderly previously defined and defied, namely as beings more defined by what they have lost than by what they have, as beings fighting against the grain of growth. To view the elderly as continually growing beings forces one to see this criticism as somewhat naïve.
Along another line of argumentation, if we assume that this observation is correct and elderly academics refusing to let their own cherished theories die at the hands of the new is a real concern only aggravated by the coming of longevity therapies, then we still have reason to believe that longevity therapies can change the nature of the game by a large enough extent to negate these problematic concerns.
If someone refuses to consider in light of new evidence or perspective that their theory is wrong, refuses to allow the series of thought leading to the realization that all they have worked for is of lesser importance now, the most obvious cause of discontent would seem to be the notion of their own onrushing death. “If my theory is wrong, there isn’t time – or perhaps just youthful vigor – enough to do it all over again from scratch”. Someone worked his lifetime to achieve recognition in his field, and with his death so close around the corner, he faces the prospect of having all that work and worth be devalued by new developments. A scary thought, and the notion that people willingly or subconsciously refuse to consider facts that undermine their theory, and its perceived worth in their field, is least conceivable under such conditions. Thusly considered, Planck’s notion doesn’t as naïve as it first seemed.
But this is the very concern set to be alleviated by longevity therapies. If the concern with being wrong is most impacted by one’s impeding death, and the fact that one wouldn’t have the time or energy to create another groundbreaking paradigm upheaval in their chosen field should their namesake-theory prove to be mistaken, then the arrival of longevity therapies should not only fail to exasperate and aggravate this situation, but indeed may even ameliorate or negate it, allowing people to let their theories go under the comforting thought that they have all the time in the world to do it again.
My friend and peer Gennady Stolyarov II combats this criticism admirably, arguing that such instances occur due to the functional decline that comes with graceless old age, due to senility and a loss of mental flexibility. I think there is definitely some weight and worth to this consideration. And luckily, this too is a concern that is alleviated rather than aggravated by the introduction of longevity therapies. Longevity therapies will increase our healthy lifespans rather than stretch out the slow rot of our old age, as remarked earlier. Thus the longevity therapies that many critics argue could exasperate this progress-stalling state of affairs could, along yet another line of argumentation, constitute the very thing that jolts this state of affairs into reform. If senility and loss of mental flexibility contributes to Planck’s notion that life (or more properly the absence of timely death) forestalls scientific progress, then longevity therapies may constitute the source of senility’s demise and mental flexibility’s restoration.
In any case, even if we accept Plank’s notion as true, and conclude that indefinite longevity will aggravate rather than alleviate this state of affairs, faster progress in the sciences or the humanities is no justification for simply doing nothing to negate physically-remediable sources of death and disease.
It seems to me a truism that we get smarter, more ethical and more deliberative as we age. To think otherwise is in many cases derivative of the notion that physiology and experience alike are on the decline once we “peak” in our mid-twenties, downhill into old age – which does undoubtedly happen, and which inarguably does cause functional decline. But longevity therapies are nothing more nor less than the maintenance of normative functionality; longevity therapies would thus not only negate the functional decline that comes with old age, and with it the source of the problem arguably at the heart of the concern that longer life will slow progress even more, but might even constitutes the only foreseeable fix to the problem by definition, because indefinite longevity is defined as (or more properly, synonymous with) the maintenance of normative functionality, a.k.a. the indefinite prevention of functional decline. There is no reason to expect that, in a time where we age without functional decline, the ethicacy and experience of each human being wouldn’t increase as we age just as they arguably do as we age from two to twenty to thirty.
Increasing longevity will not bring with it prolonged old-age, a frozen decay and decrepit delay, but will instead prolong our youthful lives and make us continually growing beings, getting smarter and more ethical all the time. Indefinite longevity will not slow progress, it will accelerate it! Instead of the having thinking, being beings die after ten-score decades, they can continue to think and be. They can build upon the edifice of their existence and experience continually, reaching height unheralded in flighty fits and bounds. Moreover, increasingly more and more people may very well be a boon to the momentum of progress. It could be argued that the increasing rate of progress was aided by the increase in global population that preceded it, providing not only more people to have more thoughts, but more people to challenge existing thought and to feedback accordingly in forward fashion. Statistically speaking, more people should mean more ideas, and more ideas should mean more good ideas, all else being equal.
Thus indefinite longevity will better progress, not deter it, and will do so on the scale of both self and society. We will continue to grow, to learn and to yearn. But more than that – we will continue to be – and that in itself is cause for good pause. In all our worry about stalled progress and boredom, we forget that even if indefinite longevity didn’t bring with it a host of advantages and boons to the boom of progress and exalted strife intrinsic to life, the ability to simply continue being is incommunicably better than the alternative, which does nothing but put an end to all other alternatives.