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Living Forever: Yes We Should November 19, 2010

Posted by Metabiological in Longevity, Transhumanism.
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Well here we go again.  If you’ve at all followed the transhumanist community over the past decade or so you know that the subject of life extension is one that gets brought up often.  And why not?  Of all the dreams that mankind has reached and strived for over our relatively short history is not immortality the grand prize.  Since the Epic of Gilgamesh we have dreamed of living forever and with the technology and knowledge to finally accomplish thi goal seemingly within our grasp why shouldn’t we snatch that prize?

Well, lots of reasons depending on who you listen to.  One of those people is Seth Shostak who’s new article up in the Washington Post outlines all the various reasons you shouldn’t want to be an immortal.

In summary it’s a fairly standard argument that any one who follows the debate will have heard a hundred times by now.  We’d get bored.  We’d become so risk averse we wouldn’t do anything.  We’d have to stop having kids.  He does manage to acknowledge that curing aging by necessity means curing age related diseases so at least we don’t have to read yet another rant on living as a senior citizen for a thousand years

The first problem with his thinking is that many of the problems he lists are one’s the industrialized world is already dealing with.  The average lifespan has gone up by one-third to one-half what it was at the turn of the 20th century.  How’s society coping?  Pretty well actually.  Disregarding the problem of increasing health care costs (since I’m comparing the present to the future when, as Shostak notes, age-related diseases will presumably be cured) individuals and society seem to be taking the change in stride.  Attitudes on the elderly do seem to be shifting with senior employees being more likely to be recognized as wells of knowledge and experience rather burnt out husks ready for retirement.

As for the seniors themselves I have yet to run across a person entering there golden years who wishes they hadn’t been burdened by having to live so long.  With the average life span sitting close to 80 for both genders people are finding themselves in the extraordinary situation of being able to raise a family and still have time to live there lives once the kids have left home.  My parents are currently in this situation and both of them are (dare I say) happier and more active than they have been in the past 20 years.  Again, attitudes are shifting and people are quickly realizing that there’s plenty of life to live after the hair starts turning grey.  60 is the new 30.

His second problem is one he shares with more than a few science fiction authors: he imagines one difference (in this case longevity) and assumes the rest of the world will stay exactly as it is today.  He imagines a world in which no one wants to drive a car or take a bath for fear of dying.  He speaks of the need to automate our entire industrial complex (as if we shouldn’t be trying to do that anyway) since no one with a chance to be immortal would want to risk working in a coal mine.

But his biggest problem is that he’s too damn sure of himself.  If there’s one thing we do know about the future it’s that humans, from Nostradamus to Kurzweil, are horrible at predicting the future.  To look ten years ahead with any degree of accuracy is beyond us.   How can we know what will happen in 50? 100?

Now after reading the last several paragraphs you may be under the impression that I was disappointed with Mr. Shostak’s article.  I assure you nothing could be further from the truth.  Well, sort of.  While I certainly wasn’t impressed with its substance the mere fact that it exists is a sign of progress.  This article was written by a legitimate scientist for a reputable (okay I’m using that word loosely) news organization.  It will be read by thousands of people, most of whom may not have even considered the subject until they happened to stumble across it here.  For an idea like this, to enter the mainstream of public discourse can only be a good thing.

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