Dr. Massimo Pigliucci critiqued my arguments against aging on his blog, Rationally Speaking. Pigliucci is a trained philosopher, so I’m going to go into hyper-academic mode for a while on this post. If you’re into long-winded, nuanced logical deconstructions of arguments and overly dry chest-beating, please read on. If not, check out these awesome warning signs of the future from Anders Sandberg. Make your choice now.
Dr. Pigliucci’s opening salvo:
Munkittrick begins his own response to critics of transhumanism by stating that if anyone has a problem with technology addressing the issues of disease, aging and death then “by this logic no medical intervention or care should be allowed after the age of 30.” [A] This, of course, is a classic logical fallacy known as a false dichotomy. Munkittrick would like his readers to take one of two stands: either no technological improvement of our lives at all, or accept whatever technology can do for you. But this is rather silly, as there are plenty of other, more reasonable, intermediate positions. [C] It is perfectly legitimate to pick and choose which technologies we want (I vote against the atomic bomb, for instance, but in favor of nuclear energy, if it can be pursued in an environmentally sound way). Moreover, it is perfectly acceptable — indeed necessary — for individuals and society to have a thorough discussion about what limits are or are not acceptable when it comes to the ethical issues raised by the use of technologies ([D] for instance, I do not wish to be kept artificially alive at all costs in case of irreparable damage to my brain, even if it is technologically feasible; moreover, I think it immoral that people are too often forced to spend huge amounts of money for “health care” during the last few weeks or months of their lives).
In response to [A]: Pigliucci makes a few errors in reading my argument, which is usually the case when one draws a quotation from half a sentence, so let me first clarify. My argument was that each form of argument used in defence of aging highlights the primary benefit of aging is not aging itself but that it results in death. The implication of arguments like “old people don’t change, so we need youth” and “we can’t have a nursing home society” is that once the zenith of youth is reached (let’s say at age 30, just to pick a number) the old people who drain our society are only alleviated morally by their eventual death. It isn’t that the government comes in and kills them, but that human society as a whole benefits from a natural expiration date. My point was not that we have to choose between being superhuman technobeings and no technology at all, but that if one accepts the logic that death is necessary because aging is bad and causes untold problems, then it makes little sense to try and prolong life in anyway once the aging process has begun in earnest. What I’ve done is not create a false dichotomy, but to simply extrapolate the logic of pro-aging/death arguments, all of which imply that aging and death are of greater benefit existing than being eliminated – my question becomes why fight them at all once youth is gone?
The function of the argument is to draw out the absurdities in defending aging and death as if the cures for the processes that cause aging (genetic damage, sedimentation, etc.) will somehow not maintain people in a more youthful state, but instead create a legion of heart-beating mummies. If the aging process (not the maturation process) is slowed over the entire duration of a person’s life (which is what de Grey and transhumanists are working towards), it would result in an extended period of youthful adulthood (what is generally the late teens and 20’s now) an extended middle age (mid-30’s thru early 60’s) and a less debilitating and significantly delayed elderly stage.
In response to Pigliucci’s construction of my argument as a false dichotomy is itself an effort to make my argument appear absurd and thus easier to rebut. As a self-described philosopher, Pigliucci’s lame attempt at hamstringing my argument before engaging it is what is “silly,” not my point or conclusions.
In response to [C] Pigliucci’s example of technologies we pick and choose is not analogous to my support of anti-aging technology. He is using what is known as a “clang” technique, butting his argument up with mine to make it appear as if the two are related. Nuclear technology, which can be used for weapons or energy, is analogous to medical technology, which can be used for restoring health or to reify social norms. What isn’t analogous is that I refute the option to pick and choose how and what medical technology we use, that is, I do not make the use of medical technology an all-or-nothing proposition. My rhetorical question – why medically treat those who have begun to age – is predicated on the fact that those who haven’t begun to age (again, under 30 as example) would receive the best and most medical care. In the same way Pigiucci differentiates the use of nuclear tech between weapons and energy, I ask why we don’t differentiate medical tech between the maturing and aging.
[D] This parenthetical is just tangentially topical, but it must be rebutted nonetheless. No transhumanist advocates keeping a person alive against their will and most advocate for euthanasia that a person chooses for themselves. Read John Barth’s “Toga Party” for a good example. Furthermore, as a libertarian transhumanist, I sit outside the mainstream of transhumanists, most of whom are democratic transhumanists and believe health care is a fundamental right. Piguicci’s statements within this parenthetical are exactly in line with a large portion of transhumanist thought.
Munkittrick continues: “Transhumanists are trying to escape aging — and its inevitable symptom, death — because we actually acknowledge it for what it is: a horror.” Well, I personally agree with the general sentiment. As Woody Allen famously put it, I don’t want to be immortal through my work, I want to be immortal through not dying. But to construe death as a “symptom” to the disease of aging is far fetched, and biologically absurd. Aging and death are natural end results of the lives of multicellular organisms, and in a deep sense they are the inevitable outcome of the principles of thermodynamics (which means that we can tinker and delay them, but not avoid them).
Here, Pigliucci uses my least-favorite response to any and all transhumanist arguments: “x is natural.” Human beings exist in large part because we have never been natural. The entire function of evolution is to overcome the natural limitations imposed on a species by its environment. Life itself is an unnatural condition in a universe that is, by vast degrees, non-living. Furthermore, Pigluicci uses the creationist rebuttal to evolution in his defense of aging and death by misusing the 2nd law of thermodynamics. The chaotic explosions of our sun, the incomprehensibly large output of particles and energy, more than counter the extropic, organizing and increasing levels of complexity we witness in both natural and social live.
As a quick point: death is a result of aging. Aging is the result of about seven different processes that occur in the human body over time. Death, however, can obviously also result from other causes than aging. We work to reduce traffic accidents (a natural result of people careening around in tons of metal at high speed) and violent deaths (the natural result of human animosity, difference in opinion, and scarcity of resources), why is aging different?
Finally, Pigliucci gives no warrant as to why we can “tinker and delay, but not avoid” death. Ok, why can’t I tinker and delay death for 100,000 years? Where is the bright-line between living for 100 years and 150? The concepts of aging and death are so entrenched in our social mindset that Pigliucci sees no reason to explain why they are immutable beyond a certain degree. A high infant mortality rate is “natural” but I doubt Pigliucci would oppose the enormous strides developed countries have made in overcoming it.
There are several problems with the pursuit of immortality, one of which is particularly obvious. [A] If we all live (much, much) longer, we all consume more resources and have more children, leading to even more overpopulation and environmental degradation. Of course, techno-optimists the world over have a ready answer for this: more technology. To quote Munkittrick again: “Malthus didn’t understand that technology improves at an exponential rate, so even though unaided food production is arithmetic, the second Agricultural Revolution allowed us to feed more people by an order of magnitude.” [C] Yes, and how do we explain that more people than ever are starving across the world? [D] Technology does not indefinitely improve exponentially, and it must at some point or another crash against the limits imposed by a finite world. [E] We simply don’t have space, water and other prime materials to feed a forever exponentially increasing population. Arguably, it is precisely technology that created the problem of overpopulation, as the original agricultural revolution (the one that happened a few thousand years ago) lead to cycles of boom and bust and to the rapid spread of disease in crowded cities. [F] This may be an acceptable tradeoff (I certainly don’t wish to go back to a hunter-gatherer society), but it does show that technology is not an unqualified good.
The mental gymnastics in this paragraph are worthy of an Olympic medal in all-around contention. I must say I’m impressed.
Regarding [A] Pigliucci dismisses out of hand my statement that developed nations have either stable or negative growth rates. Furthermore, we are currently facing a crisis of resources and space in developed nations, let alone booming countries like India and China. Malthusian arguments of overpopulation and over-extension of resources do not require an immortal society to occur. A long-lived society would perhaps even trigger more careful resource management because problems wouldn’t merely be foisted onto the next generation because people would be around to see the long-term results of their own actions and still be able-bodied enough to effect change.
Not just technology. Social change is equally important.
[C] Two points here: 1) “Starving” is an interesting term coming from the first world. By most uses, everyone living on subsistence farming or hunting is “starving.” If anything, the enormous gap in living conditions is a testament to something I reiterate constantly on this blog: technology can only change as much as society lets it, social norms are more powerful than technological progress. 2) Pigliucci has no hard data, he just asserts this as true and moves on. Gimme numbers and I’ll go from there.
[D] Why? There is, again, no warrant for Pigliucci’s statement. Technology cannot indefinitely improve … because? He gives us no reason. For argument’s sake, let’s say I grant him that technology cannot indefinitely improve, what is to say it won’t at least improve enough to solve the overpopulation and resource management problems that would result from anti-aging technology? Or, as before, what technology might be unable to solve, healthful longevity may result in social changes (say, very low birth rates and altered understanding of relation to surroundings) that solve most of the problems. These are possibilities, of course, but they are logically probable.
[E] This argument is just an awkward rephrasing of [A] from the same paragraph. The population isn’t forever exponentially expanding, we can use resources more efficiently and less of them through both tech and social change, and yes there are problems associated with every technological advancement, especially one that alters human society in a fundamental way, but that isn’t a reason to halt technological advancement.
[F] Agreed, but neither I nor other transhumanists of intellectual merit argue for unimpeded technological advancement at breakneck pace with zero consideration for ethics or society at large. My goodness, I thought that would have been obvious from the name of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies.
As for post-industrial societies having negative population growth, this is true of only a very few countries, and certainly not of one of the most massively polluting of them all, the United States. It is true that birth rates are dramatically lower in post-industrial countries in general, but this is the result of education not technology per se. It happens when women realize that they can spend their lives doing something other than being perennial baby factories. Despite this, the world population is still going up, and environmental quality is still dropping dramatically. Technology can surely help us, but it is also (perhaps mostly) a matter of ethical choices: the problem will be seriously addressed only when people abandon the naive and rather dangerous idea that technology can solve all our problems, so that we can continue to indulge in whatever excesses we like.
I never, ever, said technology could answer all our problems and am actually at odds with Hughes and Dvorsky in a chicken-and-egg debate as to whether social reform or technological change has more influence on the other. I tend to believe social reform has to occur first. I agree with Pigliucci’s argument here, but am a bit nonplussed as to why he doesn’t understand that. In addition, when Pigliucci says, “Despite [negative population growth in some countries], the world population is still going up, and environmental quality is still dropping dramatically” undermines his usage of those problems as an impact to anti-aging medicine. If these threats exist in the status quo to the point of existential risk and we accept Pigliucci’s argument that technology has less influence than social change, it would seem anti-aging medicine is far less of a concern than his tone makes it out to be.
One last point: Munkittrick depicts what he thinks is an idyllic scenario of people living to 150 ([A] this may not be possible without significant alterations of the human genome, which of course raises additional questions of both feasibility and ethics). He says that “any technology that would extend life beyond the current average of 70-100 would do so by retarding aging as a whole, that is, the degradation that begins to occur after about age 27. Maturation would occur at the same rate, peaking between 22 and 26 depending on the person, but after that preventative medicine and repair techniques would slow aging, resulting in a much longer “prime” age, say extending youthful adulthood (what we think of now as 20’s and 30’s) well into the 50’s and perhaps 60’s. Because these techniques will be far from perfect, aging will still occur to some degree. Like youthful adulthood, middle-age would presumably begin much later and last much longer. So lets say a person reaches genuine old age at 100, with all the problems that reduce one from ‘thriving’ to surviving, leaving them 50 years of old age instead of 20 or 10.” Hmm, I like the first part (extending my prime through my ‘60s), but the latter one seems ghastly. Both from a personal and a societal perspective, fifty years of old age are a hefty price to pay, and one that would be psychologically devastating and further bankrupt our resources. Now if we could consider euthanasia for the really old, non-functional and suffering people… but that’s another discussion.
Regarding there are three answers to the “ghastly” cost of living fifty years as an elderly person.
The first is that the number was a complete guess, as was the entire hypothetical, and it may be the case that once conditions normally associated with being truly elderly – impeded movement, significant loss of cognitive function, anything that would make fifty years torment instead of merely less exciting than the decades preceding – result in rapid death regardless of the life up to that point. It may be that one could live to be 130 with the health of late-middle age and then be elderly for a year. I just don’t know, it was a guess.
The second is that we willingly “pay” that price now, in that we have no idea how long each of our healthy and active lives will be in relation to how long our elderly and decrepit lives will be. We also don’t know what will be affected. My grandparents on one side both suffered dementia and Alzheimer’s resulting in a heart-wrenching final decade of each of their lives. On the other, my grandfather suffers from what seems like constant physical pain, but remains mentally as sharp as a tack while my grandmother seems to merely have acquired more wrinkles, age-spots, and increasingly thick-coats of make up as she’s aged. How we each age will be different and is largely unpredictable.
The third response is directly related to euthanasia, which Pigliucci would defer to another discussion. My contention, in short, is that in a long-living society the “right to die” would be cast in a new light and society as a whole would have to redefine what it views as a life-worth living. The critical element of this debate is personal choice. Living wills and other documents addressing end-of-life situations would become a more prominent and important aspect of how we think about death. The right to die on one’s own terms is as important an ethical aspect of anti-aging medicine as any other.
Pigliucci’s final points:
Besides, true immortality (the ultimate goal if you think of death as a “symptom”) must be unbearable for any sentient being: imagine having so much time on your hands that eventually there will be nothing new for you to do. You would be forced to play the same games, or watch the same movies, or take the same vacation, over and over and over and over. Or you might kill time by reading articles like the one by Munkittrick literally an infinite number of times. Hell may be other people, as Sartre said, but at least at the moment we don’t have to live in Hell forever.
I am not sure how Pigliucci lives his life, but I highly doubt that any healthy centenarian one would speak to would complain of how boring his or her life has been and how he or she wished God would come and rescue him or her from the redundancy. Think of how dramatically the world has changed in a mere century and then try to convince yourself living to see it all would be boring and unlivable. Perhaps if Pigluicci had actually engaged with the arguments reiterated, apparently ad nausea, by transhumanist thinkers instead of dismissing them off hand, he wouldn’t have such a moribund outlook on life.
Many transhumanists do agree with Pigluicci’s sentiment, “life’s a bitch and then you die;” the only difference is, we transhumanists think that’s a problem worth fixing, on both counts.
Kyle Munkittrick, IEET Program Director: Envisioning the Future, is a recent graduate of New York University, where he received his Master's in bioethics and critical theory.
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