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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Living longer

For someone like me who tends to find life rather like sex - it takes too fucking long - the idea of extending life seems intuitively unappealing.

Now, if I didn't have to worry about work and money and instead could guarantee many years reading about philosophy or great literature, writing and exploring, attending conferences and meeting like-minded people, going to the theatre and being in the natural world... Oh, and maybe having good friends and social interactions... Plus great food and wine and maintaining my physical health... Mustn't forget extended lives for my animals... Given all that, well, I guess another sixty, eighty years might be OK. But, that's not how it is, is it?

I just don't get how philosophers - and indeed scientists and developers like Aubrey de Grey and Elon Musk - can expend so much time and effort on this when we have a crowded planet, climate change and devastating inequality. Not to mention a goddam pandemic and likely more in the pipeline.

You sort of what to say: guys (for mainly it is guys) can't you deal with making now and the next fifty years a bit better - no, a lot better - before considering immortality? How about solving global poverty, fixing democracy, establishing a worldwide UBI, turning around climate change and, hey, why not start with a vaccine for coronavirus epidemics?

But no, they invest their considerable grey matter on whether extending life is a good thing and basically claiming that it is for individuals but may not be entirely good for the collective. I've considered this individual/social split in well-being before. And just thinking about it makes me so angry at the self-interested individualistic focus of the whole thing. Listen, I don't care that someone might want something if it meant that they were better off and either others were positionally worse (as in rich individuals having long healthy lives and the rest of us dying after ten years of ill health somewhere between 40 and 80 - because in sub-Saharan Africa life expectency is a long way off what it is in the West) or the whole suffered (because there's no space and not enough food or because no children ever can be born). The person can want it as much as they want (!) but that does not make it good. It's like wanting to own the whole of Scotland. Just because someone wants it and can afford it doesn't mean they should be allowed to have it.

To me it's like this: in the Louvre they might be a one-way system around the room in which the Mona Lisa is. Each person comes in at five minute intervals and can spend five minutes looking at the masterpiece and then moves on. But some rich folk pay extra and stay in front of the painting for hours appreciating its beauty. Either the gallery must stop people coming in when no-one standing there can see anything or... well...they crush each other and chaos ensues.

This utter selfishness makes the whole thing offensive to me. I suppose that, in a kind of virtue ethicist mode, I see it as a manifestation of greed.

Bernard Williams has two arguments against the rationale for individuals wanting to extend their lives. He assumes that a person is a construct of interests, projects and desires - this is what constitutes personal identity. If the identity stays the same, at some point life would be incredibly tedious. How long could anyone stare at the Mona Lisa for? If the projects and desires change, then the identity changes and the person is no longer the same person and this the person NOW can have no interest in extending life that would be enjoyed by person FUTURE.

The counter-argument for the first case is that people don't just want to see the Mona Lisa - they might, in a normal lifetime, only have the chance to express some of their interests, projects and ideas. An extended life would allow them to maximise all their capacities. Though infinity might still lead to some tedium.

As for the second, philosophers point out that we all change over time - that person at A and person at Z might be very different, but that person at A is similar enough to person at B and maybe at C and D to be interested in them, while person at D can be interested in person at E and so on. Williams, who says the only view that matters is the view from NOW - that this is the point at which we make decisions and have interests, projects and desires - seems to be unable to grant that.

It seems that his view rests on something like one of Zeno's paradoxes. In the arrow paradox, Zeno states that for motion to occur, an object must change the position which it occupies. He gives an example of an arrow in flight. He states that in any one (duration-less) instant of time, the arrow is neither moving to where it is, nor to where it is not. It cannot move to where it is not, because no time elapses for it to move there; it cannot move to where it is, because it is already there. In other words, at every instant of time there is no motion occurring. If everything is motionless at every instant, and time is entirely composed of instants, then motion is impossible.

So, for Williams, the transition of identity with age makes no sense as at any given moment, identity is static.

It's also worth recalling L. A. Paul's idea of transformative experiences. A person before and after becoming a parent might have very different values, but that doesn't mean that the person before becoming a parent has no interest in wishing to continue living after becoming a parent. Again, Williams' objection cannot answer this.

So we are left with philosophers genuinely contending that although many practical issues (about justice and overcrowding and climate change) would have to be resolved, that there is a strong interest for individuals to wish to extend their lives.

Even if there were enough space in front of the Mona Lisa, as it were, I think there's a problem with the assumption that a society full of long-lived people would be a good thing.

Liberal and libertarian philosophers condemn conservatives among their ranks for claims such as that there is a value in ageing, and in caring for older people or that life is a gift and the life-span's 'natural' limits exert any normative force. But what they fail to recognise is that - in the current circumstances at least - people tend to become more conservative and traditionalist as they get older. People also clime that increased years mean they have 'more knowledge' and 'life experience' than the young and therefore, having greater wisdom, 'should' hold on to power and be the decision-makers.

I tend to think that this is not generally the case: it's an empirical fact that most people are fixed, for example, in the musical preferences they had during their late adolescent and early adult years. I think it's likely - though this is an empirical claim - that a majority of people will have a preference for the social circumstances and trends, the political frameworks and views of that formative part of their life. This is not to say that people will be fixed or unchanging, but I think that society and ideas could become more 'sticky' and that originality would be a less valuable commodity as only the few 'young' people would be readily accepting of novelty.

It seems unlikely to me that - absent cognitive enhancements which really would change identities in a way that could give some force to Williams' objections - our psychologies would not change through any adaptive evolutionary process by virtue of extended life. Indeed, if people were able to procreate for longer, albeit maybe allowed to have few if any children, there would be nothing for evolution to work on.

Another objection I have is that I think philosophers consider 'people like them' - highly intelligent and motivated. They imagine people learning Sanskrit in their 400th year so they could read the Buddhist texts or such like. No. Most of us would just be waiting for the next Netflix drama. Given that most people (in the West) live moderately good lives without really having grand aims or projects, but that they get pleasure where they can and on the whole value existence, the value of existence, then, really comes down to a sum total of hedonism or desire-fulfilment.

Then you have to ask: is is better to have say the eight million people on the planet now experiencing an infinite number of years of OKness, or better that countless more billions experience between 40 and 80 years of OKness?

The conservatives, those ridiculed minority, claim that finitude is what makes existence meaningful. I have argued for this. The fact that there are a limited number of days of mental acuity and social engagement does seem to exert on me a sense that it would be better not to waste them. And I get more out of life the more I put in. Had I had an infinite number of years to read the reading list, would I have bothered to start? I could have been reading novels. I could have opted for pleasure rather than development. This may be a quirk of my personal psychology, but I feel that 'I gain more' from meaningful than from purely pleasurable activities. That does not mean I want life to be without purely pleasurable activities, but nor do I wish to forego the meaningful ones. However, the meaningful ones do demand more effort and effort seems to me - and I don't think I am alone here - to be easier to manifest when there is some urgency. This could be countered by imposing on people time frames: in this decade and this decade alone, you can learn a language - one, two, three, GO! Self-imposed directives only work for those already highly motivated; imposed directives seem objectionable. A life-time acts as an unobjectionable directive.

When talking to Richard he suggested another objection: say that age and disease could not kill a person, but murder or accidents could. Whereas now, we might take part in risky behaviour - like horse-riding or motor-cycle riding - and, when considering the risks, think, well, I'm going to die sometime! We are willing to move out of our comfort zone and experience fun and excitement because we accept our mortality. But what if we could miss out on immortality? We might become incredibly risk-averse. Would we rish driving? Crossing a road? Going out in case there's a murderer about? Would we perhaps want to cocoon ourselves in an eternity of lockdown? Now we say, when people die they regret what they haven't done more that what they have - and thus encourage ourselves to try things out while we have the chance. As immortals, that logic would not apply. How much would those long lives lack?

The other assumption the philosophers make is that people really do want to extend their lives. I think, if you asked people, most would say yes - granted mental and physical health. Yet I do find it hard to believe that they 'really' would like it. No because of getting bored, but because of the assumption that it's better to exist than not to exist. But consider this thought experiment. You are shipwrecked on an island - but you know with certainty - that a boat will come in two to three months. Until then, you have to forage for food and live with a group of other islanders who assert their rights to keep their food and offer you very little help or encouragement. You have a few friends, but they are focused on their own survival. Though you are not unduly threatened and you have a safe place to sleep, though the island is pretty and you have Netflix on your iPhone as well as the Complete Works of Shakespeare. If you want, you can work on your fitness or do a DuoLingo course in Sanskrit. As it makes sense to focus on the present moment rather than long for the months to pass, you take the rational option and focus on the present moment and try to keep yourself active. This is existence. And I argue that it is bearable because it is going to end.

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