The one that takes us all in the end, and one which we remain strangely hesitant to actually cure. There are so many other diseases that we all agree should be cured and prevented, such as AIDS, cancer, diabetes, and various afflictions of the circulatory, digestive, nervous systems and more. The entire point of trying to cure these diseases is so that we can all live better and longer lives.
Why do we stop short of advocating a cure for death by old age? The argument I often hear is that it’s not natural to do so, that we have evolved (or been granted by a higher power) the ability to live for a particular length of time on this Earth. But by curing someone’s cancer, we enable them to live longer than they would have in the absence of treatment. Why are those extra years valid, but extra years gained beyond the ceiling of about 90 are not?
I would have died at age 23 without chemotherapy drugs developed in the past half century. Why are the years that I live from 24 to 90-ish (I hope!) acceptable, and why are the years that I could potentially live past that, using life extending technologies, not acceptable? If I was born not in 1982 but in 1882, the cancer would have quickly killed me. But now that treatments have been developed, we use them and we accept that as normal. For all of human history and pre-history, up until the mid-20th century, aggressive cancer at 23 would mean death. That’s a span of hundreds of thousands of years, and I am lucky enough to live in the 50 years (and counting) where I could be cured. If we go by how things used to be in human societies or how they still happen among other species, then there is nothing natural about the entire field of modern medicine. Everything from vaccines to antibiotics to laser eye correction goes out the window.
Whether it’s natural or not is a moot point. We have developed certain capabilities that measurably improve and extend the lives of billions, and may continue to do so if we choose.
At this point, counterarguments go two possible ways.
First, it is immature to want to live forever. I hope I’m not creating an easy strawman here, but I have actually come across this argument. And it misses something important.
Immortality is only a utopian concept, something to aspire to that is probably not achievable. Someone may be made capable of living forever, but they may only be able to do so inside a completely isolated environment, say, on a minor planetary body orbiting a red dwarf star outside of any major galaxies or superclusters. Very isolated, you might stand a chance to see the heat death of the universe. But accidents happen. Intentional destruction happens. Apathy and ennui happen. The immortal will die. Most people will probably just want to at some point, for a variety of reasons.
Immortality gives people the option to choose how long they live, or at minimum gives them the option to live more than their allotted cap of 120 years. Immortality means opening up this range and giving us the choice to live longer.
It may indeed be immature to want to live forever, but it seems quite mature to decide how long you will live, and, barring accident or malicious acts, to choose the place and time of your death. If someone thinks they want to live for one million years, I want them to have that option.
The second argument is that society could not survive the transition to immortality, that the cure would be worse than the disease. I take this very seriously. Any discussion about people living longer must touch on the topics of suicide, reproduction, and social order.
Life extension, especially to allow for immortality, requires a cultural shift. Suicide is currently stigmatized as unnatural, it is restricted and illegal, even sinful. On the other hand, having children is expected, natural, promoted, and given a relatively laissez faire treatment. It’s up to parents to decide how many children they will have, and even giving them the option to choose to restrict this number is mired in controversy over birth control, abortion, and family planning.
A society containing immortals will have to moderate and in some ways gently reverse these positions. If living forever is an option, then choosing not to do so must be one as well. Suicide must be allowed as a valid choice that anyone may make, though with due accounting for the mental health and circumstances of the individual so choosing. Depending on the circumstances, choosing to age until death could be considered a form of suicide.
Reproduction must become something which is rarer and much more controlled, with control exercised either via communal norms or more direct authoritative intervention. The history of state intervention in reproductive choice is terrible, but this is territory we must revisit and correct if we’re to pursue life extension. On a planet heading for nine billion people, we’d be insane not too. The problem lies not with the very idea of regulating our numbers, but with the mechanisms for doing so and any abuses perpetrated through them.
This latter concern brings the conversation up to a higher institutional level. If there are immortals, and if people do want to keep reproducing, we must provide room for the newer generations to live and experiment. Death is the means by which time clears out the preceding generations and gives the young a chance to live and adapt, albeit constrained by the society that their forbearers created. Eliminate death and you risk removing the freedom of the young and replacing it with the accumulation and possible stagnation of the immortals. (An aside: One perspective on human civilization is that it is the means by which the slow grind of Darwinian evolution is replaced by a much quicker technological Lamarckian process. In this view, the idea of non-reproducing immortals does not halt evolution and change since that evolution now takes place via fundamentally different mechanisms than in the past. Instead, the problem becomes one of cognitive stagnation and ideological lock-in. People’s minds are flexible, but how flexible will they be after one million years of life?)
The general form of the solution is to trade time for space. You can live forever but you can’t stay here. Make room for the young, make room for the new, go out into space and live there. Retain a small number of immortals to oversee the proper functioning of this system among the young. Treat Earth and certain other locations as renewable resources of human lives and minds, as fresh injections into the larger immortal societal superstructure. We may even be able to do this just on Earth if we choose to stay, with the immortal living in enclaves, arcologies, etc., though lack of physical distance is likely to increase the chances of breakdown.
Develop a system where the old and immortal only intervene in the affairs of the young and/or mortal to keep the whole arrangement viable. Otherwise, let the young and mortal voluntarily choose to join the immortal and, once they join their ranks, be subject to restrictions on their actions. Call it the “Heaven Model” of immortality.
I can see a few different paths this would take, and the system would need additional controls or else risk spiraling out of control as the ranks of the immortal swell over the eons. But the point is that societies and cultures adapt and change and we can adapt to living much longer lives. It will require planning, foresight, and compassion, all of which are in very short supply among those who lead our global civilization right now.
That will have to change too.