IEET > Interns > HealthLongevity > Anne Corwin
More on Vulnerability, Longevity, and Bias
Anne Corwin   Dec 27, 2006   Existence is Wonderful  

I have been following this discussion on Overcoming Bias with interest over the past few days—the question of “what are any person’s chances of staving off age-related decline and death”? is one that invariably produces a great diversity of responses.  My take on the matter, as explained in my last entry is that while nobody with a serious interest in their own survival can afford to think themselves invulnerable, it is quite reasonable to look at what kinds of real progress could be made and do whatever you can to help hasten that progress.

After all, overconfidence might feel good, but it could also kill you—turning anti-aging science into a religion is not the way to make the science actually happen, just as surely as blowing yourself up on a battlefield is not the way to assure a place in an eternal paradise.  And on the other end of the spectrum, convincing yourself that “nothing can be done” about aging can be seductive in a sense because it is true by default: without incremental yet ultimately radical interventions into senescence, storage diseases, cognitive decline, etc., we will all succumb to aging damage at some point.  The key to thinking realistically about longevity is, perhaps, in finding a reasonable philosophical, cognitive, and even emotional position in which you are neither too certain of success nor too resigned to failure. 

If a person does accept that they “will age and die”, then how can they justify putting energy and resources into longevity medicine for themselves and others?  There are alternatives to overconfidence other than Ultimate Resignation to Ultimate Failure No Matter What—it’s just that developing a rationally-operating mental algorithm for dealing with something that is, literally, a matter of life and death can be extremely difficult and fraught with emotional traps.  While some people may be incapable of even considering the possibility of their own long-term longevity without developing serious and destructive overconfidence, this is not true of all people.  Unsolvable problems aren’t worth working on, and anyone who is even making the effort to survive long-term and/or help others survive long-term must at least in some way be making a concession that they find the problem of age-related infirmity and death to be potentially solvable.

At any given point in time, you can only predict certain aspects of the future to any reasonable probability, and you also only know so much about the present at any particular moment you happen to find yourself in.  And for non-biologists—which probably comprise the majority population of life-extensionists and advocates of longevity science—it can be exceedingly tricky to accurately assess the state of the science that we all hope will eventually enable us to live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors could have ever imagined.  Not that a layman can’t develop a good working knowledge of biological principles and gain access to scientific journals, but there’s certainly a difference between being immersed consistently in that sort of intellectual and practical material and reading about it in the evenings and on weekends while taking a respite from your day job.

Judging from the results of my own self-study, I do think that aging is at least tractable as an engineering problem—that is, there’s nothing supernatural or cosmic or special about it that renders it invulnerable to eventual intervention.  I do think that as long as attitudes toward addressing age-related illness continue along the lines they’re going now (that is, that things like heart disease and Alzheimer’s and such are bad things that nobody should have to experience), there’s a good chance that the academic consensus will come around to the logical conclusion that aging itself needs to be treated.  I still think we’re a bit of a way off from this, though. 

But—if we all sit here and do nothing—if we all sit there passively hoping for anti-aging interventions to come sweep us up into an eternity of good health—then we’re all going to learn firsthand the truth of the statement, “Nothing fails like prayer”.  Similarly, if everyone decides that longevity medicine is Just Too Hard to even attempt, and we all convince ourselves that nothing can be done about it anyway, we’ll be able to say on our deathbeds that we were “right” about longevity medicine not being developed—because we didn’t develop it!  While I understand the need to avoid overconfidence bias, I also see a very real need to avoid pessimism bias of the sort that can lead to inaction through defeatism.  The desire to be right can be, in my observation, just as powerful a motivator for some people as the desire to survive.  As can the desire not to be laughed at, since humans are, by and large social animals very dependent upon being accepted by a group.

I am not discounting the significance of fear of death in sculpting a person’s philosophical outlook, but I do know that there are other things with similar significance, at least in terms of short-term magnitude.  I have encountered numerous people with the attitude that they are just going to live life as they please, engaging in whatever risky behavior suits them on a moment’s whim—not because they think they’re invulnerable, but because they figure that they’d rather die doing what they enjoy most than “wasting away in a nursing home”.  Most people I’ve encountered, by and large, do see their own death as inevitable, particularly their own age-related death.  I’ve even encountered smokers who claim that they feel their habit will enable them to die at a younger age, thereby skipping the “senile diaper years”.  I think that, more likely, longevity just isn’t prioritized by many people except in the abstract (in the sense that most people would undergo treatment if they found out they had cancer, and most people, even senior citizens, do choose to partake of modern medicine—entailing such things as hip replacement and bypass operations—if the need arises). 

However, there do seem to be some in the life-extensionist population specifically who have rather surprising amounts of confidence in their own future assured survival, and though there is a chance they know something I don’t which somehow justifies this confidence, I have yet to see evidence of this knowledge.  I do think there is a chance that some alive today will manage to prolong their lives indefinitely, but by no means do I think that, beyond a shadow of a doubt, aging is going to be “solved” by the time I turn fifty or anything like that.  Progress is dependent on many variables, and there are too many “ifs” to make any kind of confident estimates of one’s chances of “escaping” age-related death at this point.  Quibbling about probabilities, placing bets, and arguing over whether one will or will not get to celebrate their 1000th birthday probably isn’t worth a whole lot of time or energy.  If enough people can agree that age-related decline deserves attention, then the proper course of action is to give it that proper attention—directly, in the laboratory, in computers, in hospitals, in our homes, in doctor’s offices. 

All any of us can do is look to see which of those “ifs” we can influence, and perhaps support efforts like SENS, the MPrize and the development of AGI, or even become scientists ourselves, or come up with something we think is more likely to yield results than any existing organized effort.  We can all help to author the yet-unwritten future so that, at the very least, it is more likely to yield longer, healthier lives for all who seek them.

Anne Corwin
Anne Corwin was an IEET intern 2006-2007, and is an engineer and technoprogressive activist in California. She is a member of the Board of Directors of the Humanity Plus, and is active in the longevity movement through the Methuselah Foundation and in the neurodiversity movement addressing issues along the autism spectrum. Ms. Corwin writes the blog Existence is Wonderful and produces a related podcast.


We shouldn’t be absolutely sure we won’t die, but we should expect the odds to favor that outcome.  But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t fight as hard as one can to delay and prevent that outcome.

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