23 September 2014

Stay alive... the alternative doesn't have a lot going for it.

There tend to be two kinds of transhumanists: those who resent their life as it is, and those who cherish it.  This has become obvious as transhumanism becomes more and more mainstream.  Transhumanists believe that it is inevitable and desirable for mankind to exceed the limitations on life and ability imposed by the human body, living longer and doing more than biology would normally allow.  Of this group, some seek to surpass a prison of flesh - “to leave all of this meat behind,” as one anonymous Redditor put it.  A greater number simply resent that they have such limited choices.  They want the option to live forever, to see ultraviolet, and to touch magnetic fields.  As science fiction writer David Zindell said, “To be what you want to be: isn't this the essence of being human?”

Transhumanism is breaking out all over.  People like Ray Kurzweil and Peter Thiel, ultra-wealthy technophiles, have been pouring money into research designed to extend the human lifespan and human capability; the current cover story of New York is a profile of Martine Rothblatt, another prominent transhumanist; and one of the most widely-read works of fanfiction ever written is a huge novel-length work called Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky which leans heavily on impassioned denunciations of the concept of death (“[S]omeday when the descendants of humanity have spread from star to star, they won't tell the children about the history of Ancient Earth until they're old enough to bear it; and when they learn they'll weep to hear that such a thing as Death had ever once existed!”)

I’m a bit of a transhumanist myself, at least in the sense that I would happily live forever if it became an option.  But not everyone is won over by the increasing prominence of this perspective.

Indeed, in response to the rise of breathless and near-Messianic denunciations of human limitation there has arisen a group firmly in opposition.  This view is exemplified by Ezekiel J. Emmanuel’s recent article in The Atlantic, “Why I Hope to Die at 75."
I am sure of my position. Doubtless, death is a loss. It deprives us of experiences and milestones, of time spent with our spouse and children. In short, it deprives us of all the things we value.
But here is a simple truth that many of us seem to resist: living too long is also a loss. It renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining, a state that may not be worse than death but is nonetheless deprived. It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us. We are no longer remembered as vibrant and engaged but as feeble, ineffectual, even pathetic.
By the time I reach 75, I will have lived a complete life. I will have loved and been loved. My children will be grown and in the midst of their own rich lives. I will have seen my grandchildren born and beginning their lives. I will have pursued my life’s projects and made whatever contributions, important or not, I am going to make. And hopefully, I will not have too many mental and physical limitations. Dying at 75 will not be a tragedy. Indeed, I plan to have my memorial service before I die. And I don’t want any crying or wailing, but a warm gathering filled with fun reminiscences, stories of my awkwardness, and celebrations of a good life. After I die, my survivors can have their own memorial service if they want—that is not my business.
Americans seem to be obsessed with exercising, doing mental puzzles, consuming various juice and protein concoctions, sticking to strict diets, and popping vitamins and supplements, all in a valiant effort to cheat death and prolong life as long as possible. This has become so pervasive that it now defines a cultural type: what I call the American immortal.
I reject this aspiration. I think this manic desperation to endlessly extend life is misguided and potentially destructive. For many reasons, 75 is a pretty good age to aim to stop.
The article is brave and bold, and Emmanuel makes a variety of persuasive points in favor of a 75-year lifespan.  Some transhumanists sneer at opposition, referring to those who favor a natural limit on life as “deathists,” who only pledge loyalty to a limited life out of some sort of irrational Stockholm syndrome. This is seldom true, however, and Emmanuel takes care to present evidence and argument to support his perspective.  On several matters, however, I think he is badly mistaken.

Emmanuel argues that 75 is a good time to die.  He has several reasons:
  • Even though people can and do live much longer, an increasing number of older people are subject to greater and greater restrictions on their quality of life.  Death is preferable to a long physical decline.
  • Those people who remain healthy will still generally find that they are less able to contribute to society, as “creativity, productivity, and originality are pretty much gone” after the age of 75 for the “vast, vast majority of us.”
  • Your continued presence after age 75 will be oppressive for your children, who will be unable to be truly independent and find their own way, who will probably be burdened with caring for you, and who will have to watch you decay away from the vital person of your prime.
  • More money should be going to research Alzheimer’s and other late-stage ills, rather than prolonging crippled lives.
  • An expected end date for one’s life grants clarity and purpose to one’s life.
Emmanuel’s plan is that he will begin refusing most medical care as he nears the age of 75, avoiding any treatment that is curative and embracing only palliative care to make himself more comfortable.  He hopes for a pneumonia or infection to carry him away, quickly and quietly.  He is not trying to convince anyone else to die at 75, and doesn't even consider it the ideal for most people.  But he is quietly and seemingly genuinely happy to have the end to his life fixed on the calendar for 2032.

There is a poignant beauty to many of the arguments here.  Refusing to continue to consume resources and become a burden can be seen as a courageous act, and I very much support the decision to set the bounds and terms of your life.  However, there are serious problems here.

Many of the arguments, for example, are based entirely on a decline in physical and mental ability.  Emmanuel correctly points out that researchers’ efforts at ameliorating late-life illnesses have been less successful than their work at avoiding swiftly fatal diseases - while the lives of the elderly are better, on average, than those of a generation before, we simply have a greater number of people who are living long enough to get sick.

To put it another way, imagine we’re talking about a new robot they can install in cars.  These robots make cars run better, even when those cars are very old.  But they’re really good at avoiding accidents.  There are fewer and fewer accidents every year, as our robot cars get smarter and smarter.  This means that more and more cars survive to get very old… and even though we've advanced our ability to maintain a car after 200,000 or 300,000 miles, we’re still not that great at it.  And so an increasing number of cars chug along, belching black smoke or grinding their worn gears.  We've saved them from sudden accidents, but only so that they will decay on the road before our eyes.

This is a reasonable concern, but it’s a very separate issue.  Emmanuel has conflated two very different issues.  On the one hand, he speaks about a timely death at what he considers a reasonable age, but he’s also talking about choosing to die with dignity rather than slowly decline.  And these are two very different things.

We might be reminded of the Sibyl from Greek mythology, blessed with immortality but not youth.  T.S. Eliot quoted from The Satyricon about her at the beginning of The Wasteland:  "I saw with my own eyes the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a jar, and when the boys said to her, Sibyl, what do you want? she replied I want to die."  And assuredly, I don’t think anyone considers this to be their goal.  At a certain point, physical and mental misery might prompt anyone to choose death, instead.  As disease ravages your mind or your body, and if there is no reasonable hope of cure, but only the prospect of suffering, we might justly decide that nothingness is preferable.

However, this is true for people of any age.  I am not urging suicide lightly - in the overwhelming majority of cases it is a permanent solution to temporary problem, and if you feel drawn to it please speak to someone (you can just pick up the phone and talk to a kind, helpful stranger at 1-800-273-8255).  But if you advocate for euthanasia and a death with dignity, it doesn't matter whether or not you’re 75 or 105.  What matters is that your suffering is too great to be borne.

Emmanuel plans to die in 2032, eighteen years from now, regardless of whether or not he is still at his peak physical or mental health.  His choice is unconnected and cannot be motivated by a concern over his quality of life, which is quite a separate issue.  His reasoning works to argue for an option for euthanasia, not death at 75 irrespective of health.

The author himself appears aware of the large flaw in his logic, but unwilling to confront it.  He writes that while many people are disabled by age, “[t]hat still leaves many, many elderly people who have escaped physical and mental disability. If we are among the lucky ones, then why stop at 75? Why not live as long as possible?”

His answer?  Confusedly, he argues that even when we don’t experience mental disability with age, we still experience a natural mental decline in most cases, as “our mental functioning deteriorates as we grow older.”  This is, naturally, simply the same argument.  Yes, there might be a point at which our mental functioning is too low to have a good quality of life, without significant hope of improvement from later therapies or technology.  But this may occur at any age.  Being unable to think of new ideas or being creative or being productive for society is not a sine qua non of a fulfilling life, or a life that gives back more than it receives.

When he admits this flaw in his argument, as well, he simply turns yet again to a new argument, suggesting that too long a life can harm our children.  Before addressing this, we should pause to note that bringing up a new argument does not suffice to fix serious flaws in your previous line of thought.  He asks himself why he might want to die early, and says that he doesn't want to experience a painful physical decline.  And if he’s healthy?  Well, he doesn't want to experience a mental decline.  And if he’s sharp?  Well, he doesn't want to stop being productive.  And if we think being productive/creative is not necessary to a happy and full life, or if he’s still productive?  Well… the children might be unhappy!

Anyway, note that medical and technological solutions could address literally every one of his concerns so far.  If we develop a way to selectively dissolve plaques accumulating in the brain, and eliminate Alzheimer’s, for example, then it would be unwise to having already committed via self-neglect, as Emmanuel planned, based on the assumption that Alzheimer’s would make your life not worth living.

Those solutions might not arrive in our lifetime - or maybe even never at all, although that strains my credulity.  But just presuming that these issues of senescence won’t be solved, or that you will probably develop one of them, is a pretty flimsy reason to die one minute before you must.

Emmanuel does present a few arguments that truly do present valid reasons why one might wish to die at 75, regardless of health or well-being.

He states that “[w]hen parents live to 75, children have had the joys of a rich relationship with their parents, but also have enough time for their own lives, out of their parents’ shadows.”  And I have to admit, I can see some merit to that argument, though naturally I do not want either of my parents to die.  But if I had children, I can see myself growing old and wanting them to come into their own.

The thing is, I’m not sure that’s (a) always the case or (b) sufficient reason for anyone to die.  I know that my father has been proud as I grew to be a man, and I can imagine the same thing.  I can imagine a future world, in fact, where it was considered odd that anyone ever thought in terms of primacy, of a “head of the household” or the like.  Our society and families have developed around this natural progression from one generation to a next, but if the nature of our lives changed, I think our self-images and society would have little trouble in adapting.

But let us say that this was an insoluble problem, and many people went almost all their lives feeling overshadowed by their parents.  I just can’t think of how that then leads to the conclusion that the parents should kill themselves with neglect, to get themselves out of the way.  That actually seems kind of twisted to me, a self-imposed martyrdom that would leave an even bigger burden of guilt.

How about this: move to Florida, instead.  Go to The Villages and start a new life of delighted retirement, and vacate the area so that your children can live without shadow.  If it’s really so important that your children escape “pressure to conform to parental expectations and demands,” then go play shuffleboard, far away.  This also has the advantage of probably delaying diseases of senescence, too, since an active life among like-minded people has repeatedly been shown to keep you alert and high-functioning.

This solution would also address another of Emmanuel’s reasons, since he argues that he wants to preserve the memory of himself as a vital and strapping fellow, not a decayed old thing.  “We wish our children to remember us in our prime. Active, vigorous, engaged, animated, astute, enthusiastic, funny, warm, loving. Not stooped and sluggish, forgetful and repetitive, constantly asking ‘What did she say?’ We want to be remembered as independent, not experienced as burdens.”

If this is really a serious worry, then go to Florida.  Heck, if you really want to make sure you’re remembered well, cut off all contact with your family after 75.  But I think that hypothetical illustrates that this is really vanity.  We may not want to be remembered for our last stages, but we remain ourselves even as we grow to a great age, and produce a richer overall picture.  Siddhartha Gautama’s parents secluded him as a child so he would not have to witness old age or illness, but those things are also a part of life, as he would later note when he became the Buddha and spoke of the transcendent value of such a passage in the Patala Sutta:
Whoever can't endure them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who trembles at their touch,
who cries & wails,
a weakling with no resilience:
he hasn't risen up
out of the bottomless chasm
or even gained
a foothold.
Whoever endures them
once they've arisen —
painful bodily feelings
that could kill living beings —
who doesn't tremble at their touch:
he's risen up
out of the bottomless chasm,
his foothold is gained.
Lastly, Emmanuel argues for one further benefit of a planned finale:
Its specificity forces us to think about the end of our lives and engage with the deepest existential questions and ponder what we want to leave our children and grandchildren, our community, our fellow Americans, the world. The deadline also forces each of us to ask whether our consumption is worth our contribution.  ... For me, 18 more years with which to wade through these questions is preferable to years of trying to hang on to every additional day and forget the psychic pain they bring up, while enduring the physical pain of an elongated dying process.
While this mindfulness is valuable, death seems like a heavy price to pay for it.  Why not, instead, strive for it all your life… including well past 75, if you can manage it?  There are entire traditions devoted to cultivating mindfulness during one's life, practicing the art of active living and full experiences.  Pick up one of the large stack of Thich Nhat Hanh's books available at every bookstore, and see if that works better for you than a death sentence.

Given the remarkable progress of technology, and its increasingly rapid growth, it seems like a fairly good bet that most of what ails you will be cured or mitigated, as long as you survive long enough to see it happen.  There are no certainties, and indeed, even my generation probably doesn't have great odds of routinely living past a century.  Nor should this stop us from taking Horace's advice, for "dum loquimur, fugerit invida aetas: carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero" ("while we're talking, jealous time has fled: seize the day, trusting little in tomorrow").  But there's no good reason not to keep fighting for happiness every second that you can, hoping for a bright future.  The best justifications Emmanuel offers don't hold up to scrutiny.

The words of research Ralph Merkle occur to me in this regard.  He was discussing cryonics, the practice of freezing a recently-dead person in the hopes of later reviving them, but they work perfectly well when thinking about squeezing every wonderful moment of happiness and life from our time on the planet:  "Cryonics is an experiment. So far the control group isn't doing very well."

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