Are life extensionists mainly driven by a desire to actually live a long time?
Posted by attilacsordas on November 18, 2008
How do you interpret the following situation: we have a life extension technologist whose all endeavors is about pushing this issue to its very limits and making things possible but on the other hand this very life extensionist himself is not driven by actually living as long as he can.
It seems that SENS theorist Aubrey de Grey, who is chronologically 45, (BioBarCamp photo by Ricardo) is taking roughly the above position in a recent interview. Aubrey is a good and witty interviewee and of course the interpretation of what he is saying is strongly context dependent so here is the full question and answer:
Question: One hundred years of life can wear you down physically, but it can also wear you down emotionally… perhaps even existentially. For you, is a desire to live long accompanied by a desire to live long in a much-improved human civilization, or is this one satisfactory?
Aubrey de Grey: I’m actually not mainly driven by a desire to live a long time. I accept that when I’m even a hundred years old, let alone older, I may have less enthusiasm for life than I have today. Therefore, what drives me is to put myself (with luck) and others (lots and lots of others) in a position to make that choice, rather than having the choice progressively ripped away from me or them by declining health. Whether the choice to live longer is actually made is not the point for me.
Let’s see 2 possible and extreme interpretations of this answer (neither of them is my own interpretation) and I hope my readers can find fine-tuned arguments in between while thinking a bit about this still rather philosophical topic:
1., Saying that we want the process (a robust healthy lifespan technology) but not necessarily the product (a robust healthy lifespan) of our own business is a disaster from a marketing point of view and has a withdrawal feeling that comes in handy for any kind of anti-life extension position. It’s Steve Jobs using a Windows PC instead of a Mac and an Android G1 instead of an iPhone. Or simply it is Aubrey saying no to a would-be personal MitoSENS somatic gene therapy putting backup copies of Aubrey’s own vulnerable mitochondrial genes into the nuclei later on in order to live a longer life.
2., It’s the only realistic position current day middle aged life extensionists can take: working to empower future generations to make that choice while it is utterly unrealistic that any substantial technological benefit will return to the current generation. From this angle the life extensionist activity can be interpreted as a noble altruist endeavor raising intergenerational justice by reducing the asymmetry in the relations of past and future generations.
Update: Aubrey was kind enough to answer my interpretative question in a detailed comment included here:
Neither of these interpretations is correct, not even close! My answer in that interview (which I have given in many other places too) is a true reflection of what I feel. Concerning (2), no, I think I do have a respectable chance of benefiting from rejuvenation technologies, especially since I’m signed up to be cryopreserved. Concerning (1), the product is not only the lifespan but the avoidance of frailty and disease, and that’s the main thing that drives me (which is convenient, because it is indeed easier to market).
But even if we presume complete success against frailty and disease, and we just look at lifespan per se, then I don’t see any problem with my position – either a logical problem or a marketing problem. I think there are valid reasons for wanting to live literally forever, particularly the philosophical view that one’s life is meaningless if one ever dies – but I don’t hold that view, or at least I don’t base my life around any concept of the meaning of life. Wanting to live as long as one can is something that can be motivated by, for example, having things one wants to do that may take an extremely long time, such as visiting extrasolar planets – but I don’t have any such desire. One might want to avoid dying for social reasons, such as preventing the suffering of one’s loved ones who will be bereaved, but that’s not much of a reason in my view. Then there is the innate enjoyability of life, the fact that certain activities provide immediate pleasure – but death removes the
motivation to plan for future gratification, so “living for the moment” doesn’t seem to motivate living longer than the specific moments that one is already anticipating. So, what does that leave? – only a desire to live long enough to fulfil one’s current goals, plus an expectation that one will continue to acquire new goals. But an expectation of future desires is not the same as a present desire, because the expectation may not be borne out: it’s only an argument for forward planning. And that’s all I was saying.
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