WHY LIFE EXTENSION?


or WHY LIVE AT ALL?

by Ben Best

Please take the short   Life Extension Values Clarification Survey


CONTENTS: LINKS TO SECTIONS BY TOPIC

  1. LIFE EXTENSION
  2. THE MEANING OF LIFE
  3. I WANT TO LIVE
  4. IS WANTING TO LIVE SELFISH?
  5. FEAR OF THE FUTURE
  6. NEAR-TERM PROSPECTS
  7. ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW

I. LIFE EXTENSION

I have been interested in life-extension from the time I was a child. My emphasis has been primarily technical: diet, exercise, CPR, nutritional supplements and cryonics. I can't remember ever having convinced anyone that life is desirable, so I write more for the purpose of explanation than persuasion.

When I discuss life extension I am not talking about extending the period during which one is a geriatrics patient — I mean extended youth and health. At worst, this means having the constitution of a 30 year-old when one is 70 — and the constitution of a 70-year old when one is 150. At best, it means rejuvenation and elimination of the aging process. Aging is a disease, and quite likely a potentially curable disease.

For technical information about what science has been learning about the mechanisms of aging, see my essay Mechanisms of Aging .

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II. THE MEANING OF LIFE

Philosophically, one can begin with the question: "What is the purpose of life?" One could even give a standard answer: "To help others." But as the philosopher Charles Schultz once pointed out, this answer begs the question. What is the purpose of the lives of others?

And philosophically, there is a problem with the question. Philosophy distinguishes between facts and values. Facts include things like, "It is raining" and "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius". Values motivate statements like "I like bananas", "I want to marry you" and "Something should be done to stop the depletion of ozone from the atmosphere". Values are concerned with aesthetics, motivation and emotion — attributes of living organisms. Questions like "What is the purpose of the Universe?" or "What is the purpose of Life?" are only answerable by intelligent beings, groups of intelligent beings or (perhaps) by supernatural beings. Only living beings have purposes. And ultimately, to ask someone else "What is the purpose of life?" in search of an answer, is to surrender self-control and ask "What purpose do you have for my life?"

Therefore, it makes no sense to ask if the survival of any one person or even the whole of humankind matters in some objective sense. A god-like Being may make judgments concerning the value of humankind, but the physical universe makes no such judgments. It is living beings who make judgments and have purposes — and rarely with unanimity.

Given that judgments and purposes are only attributes of living beings, whose purpose is most important? The government's? Your mother's? Your own? The last answer may seem selfish and self-centered, but whether you acknowledge it or not, you have ultimate responsibility for deciding what purposes are most important to you (as opposed to important to someone else — the only alternative). It isn't hard to consciously or unconsciously delegate this responsibility — and others often attempt to make delegation easy (if not obligatory) — but no one can truly take this responsibility from you.

How important to you is the on-going survival of humankind? How important to you is the on-going survival of your country? How important to you is the on-going survival of your friends and family? And how important is it to you that you remain alive — and how long would you like to remain alive?

Existentialists often say "life is meaningless" with the implication that they are describing an objective meaning outside themselves, and independent of any human being. But it is humans who care about things and have feelings. Humans are the source of value and the process of valuation. A mother filled with love for her newborn baby does not wonder whether life is meaningful. An Existentialist who says life is meaningless is describing his or her own emotional state (a statement of values), not a fact about the universe. It is humans who find (or can't find) meaning in life because of what they value (or don't value).

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III. I WANT TO LIVE

Suicide counseling is primarily for people who are undecided about the value of life. The suicide counselor can attempt to remind or inform the despairing person of the potential pleasures of life — or attempt to suggest ways to end pain and depression. But a person lacking the will to live usually has no motivation to find a reason to live. The suicide counselor is helpless to change a person who innately experiences life as being something negative — helpless to find goals & values that would be meaningful. Many (if not most) people will eagerly choose death as a means to stop physical or emotional pain if the pain is intense enough and if the prospect of the pain ending seems bleak.

To me, discussing the value of life extension with people uninterested in extending their own lives is a great deal like suicide counseling. I see no easy way of translating my positive attitudes about life into other people having a positive attitude about life. I have come to believe that if a person does not value life, or believes that the value of life has an expiry date, the matter is beyond discussion. And I mean this not in the sense of difficulty of communication, but in the sense that what is of value to me may not be of value for someone else. I like strawberry and she likes vanilla. I want to live to be a thousand years old — and he doesn't care whether he is alive in five years. Personal choices.

To me, saying I want to live thousands of years is not much different than saying that I want to live. Imagine holding a gun to someone's head and asking the victim why he or she wants to live. The answers may be different than the motivation for living thousands of years, however. When I say I want to live thousands of years, I mean in a condition of youth and good health. And I believe that the future will be wealthier and technologically-advanced, as well as kinder and gentler. This has been the trend of civilization for recorded human history. Nor do I believe that I would ever get bored. The future will become increasingly fascinating.

What would I do with a thousand-year lifespan? I'd probably spend some of it trying to find a way to live longer. But I would not otherwise lack for things to do. It would take me at least 200 years to read my way through my book collection. I would like to gain mastery of mathematics, physics and chemistry. I would like to learn and practice medicine. I want to understand jurisprudence and practice law. I would like to master carpentry, plumbing and electrical skills — and build houses. I would like to master industrial design & fabrication, computers and biotechnology so as to start & operate productive businesses. I want to build financial empires. I want to learn to play musical instruments and explore the many worlds of music. I want to join and organize communities for social experimentation. I want to write great books. I want to do experimental scientific research. I want to explore the planet Earth with a deep enough knowledge of flora & fauna & geology that I can appreciate what I am seeing, hearing, smelling and touching. I want to learn foreign languages, live & work in many different countries and gain a direct sense of the lives, histories & cultures of others. I want to travel to space colonies on the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Titan, Europa, asteroids, and orbiting Venus, Jupiter, and Saturn. And I want to explore to the fullest my own loves, hates, fears and joys. I want to fathom love, my capacities for love and the limitless mystery of love & sexuality.

But telling people what I would do with my extended life will not satisfy those who don't know what to do with themselves. Enthusiasm for living is the driving force behind the desire to live. To someone who equates extended life with extended boredom, a list of possible activities will only seem like a list of chores.

I don't expect the world to stand still. Many exciting changes are possible in a world of accelerating technological development. Benjamin Franklin wrote that he dearly wished he could be chemically preserved so that he could see the future. But I am not a person enduring a "veil of tears" in my present life only on the basis of hope for some future technological paradise. I am enthusiastic about life right now. The present world is such a rich treasure-store of marvelous opportunities that my most abiding interest in the possibilities of the future is the possibility of extending life.

I am not even certain that my desire to endure is only connected to my desire to learn and accomplish new things. The thousandth time that I smell a flower, eat a strawberry, sing a song or kiss a cheek may be every bit as wonderful as the first. People ask me if I am afraid of death. To me this question is a macho red-herring. Would I be afraid of the death of someone I dearly loved? Yes, but fear is a misleading way to represent how I feel about the possible loss of the precious life of a loved-one. So it is with my own life. Loss is loss, not just fear of loss.

I am part of an international community of life extensionists and cryonicists. They are my friends and allies in the quest for life — and I work hard so that these precious and fascinating people can achieve the goals we share. If we succeed we will not be alone.

If people ask me why I want to live forever, I ask why they want to die. This is not a trick answer — my bafflement is as genuine as theirs. I can only speculate that most people live lives that are woefully boring, depressive or painful — and they are locked in despair that things will ever change. Many people complete the goals of social programming (education, marriage, family, career and retirement) — and then feel that there is nothing left to do but die. Why so little imagination and enthusiasm? I cannot understand why people are so content to age & die when science is making strides towards the prevention of these things and there is such a limitless supply of exciting things to explore & experience. Yet people ask me why — in a few decades — I cannot find fulfillment and satisfaction that I have lived. But my life has been chocked-full of exciting variety and adventure. Why should I want a good thing to end? There is an incomprehensible gulf of different attitudes.

Too many people cannot believe in the potential for rejuvenation and perpetual youth. An elderly relative of mine who had been a dirt farmer all his life spent his final years on his porch playing a record "When you and I were young, Maggie" — bringing tears to his eyes. As a hard-working youth he and his young wife were described as the happiest of couples. Narrowing opportunities accompanying a deteriorating body & mind — with no hope for improvement — have a destructive effect on enthusiasm for life. I have seen too many ardent life-extensionists lose interest in survival in the face of aging & sickness. Life thrives on the perception of personally meaningful opportunities and the capacity to achieve them. Death has nothing to offer while life is good. I believe that the shame of the extent to which aging had ravaged my father's mind and body had much to do with his desire to be cremated. He felt he was still a child inside, and he could not understand where all the years had gone. He mourned his loss and was without hope.

The energy of youth is often spent struggling to establish oneself in the world, with too little time to smell the flowers. Youth presents us with many opportunities which we fumble due to lack of wisdom — opportunities which seem lost forever when wisdom arrives. I have regrets for things I have done, but far greater regrets for things I have not done. All my mistakes were really terrific "learning experiences" Everything would be OK were it not for aging and death. I love my life and my life history — "warts and all". Without aging and death all my mistakes would merely be the path to wisdom and fulfillment. Aging and death mean the futile loss of my life's lessons, experiences and opportunity. I will do all in my power to prevent this tragedy. With rejuvenation we need not spend years mourning the loss of youth. A lifespan of even one hundred years is far too brief an experience of life. I want to live many thousands of years, at least — as long as possible.

The technology of life extension may well advance rapidly enough that biological aging can be eliminated and reversed within 50 years. If that is true I may be able to avoid death from aging simply by watching my health & safety, and by keeping-up with the latest available life extension ideas. If my only danger of death were due to accident or homicide, my expected lifespan would be 600 years (1,000 if I am as careful as I intend to be). But just in case, I could make cryonics arrangements, ie, arrangements to be cryopreserved. Being cryopreserved after death is the second-worst thing that could happen. The worst thing is dying without being cryopreserved.

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IV. IS WANTING TO LIVE SELFISH?

Is it immoral to spend money on cryonics (which some people believe is a doubtful last grasp at life) when the same money could be used to save the lives of many malnourished Third World children? In this view, cryonics is an example of egotistical selfishness and greed. By this standard any expensive medical procedure becomes unethical. The cost of one heart-transplant could feed thousands. Some people act as if they would prefer to stop scientific medical progress because it disproportionately benefits the rich, at least initially. Class warfare is self-destructive hate. There was initially opposition to the use of hand-held calculators because the expense disproportionately benefitted those with greater wealth. Now such calulators are inexpensive enough for nearly everyone. When I visited China a tour guide told me that even the poorest begger crawling the street has a cell phone. Advancing technology cuts costs. In truth, the typical cryonicist is a person who devotes a greater portion of their resources to cryonics because of a greater passion for life. The typical cryonicist is not rich.

But is it really worse to spend money on cryonics than on houses or cars? True "unselfishness", in fact, would demand that everyone dedicate themselves to earning as much money as possible and living a monk-like existence which foregoes children, pets, new clothes, cosmetics, fine food, books, hobbies, vacations, all forms of entertainment, etc. — in order to send all available money to the starving Third World.

The kind of sacrifice demanded by the vision of an Overpopulated Earth can look pretty unpleasant if carried to its logical conclusion. A patient in a Developed Country on a kidney dialysis machine or expensive AIDS therapy is selfishly consuming resources that could save many starving Third World children. The Ailing Elderly in the Developed World consume resources that could be going to those suffering in the Underdeveloped World. It is as if every breath we take asphyxiates someone. In this view, the Earth is a lifeboat and we are all confronted with a kill-or-be-killed scenario in which the most noble thing any person can possibly do is to commit suicide to make room for others. We are left with a "humanitarian" attitude which regards life as utterly cheap, rather than precious. Is this really humanitarianism or humanism? Is it humanitarian to oppose a medical discovery which would extend human life, such as a pacemaker or a cure for cancer? Is it humanitarian to believe that aging is a process of becoming social garbage? One hundred years ago the average human lifespan in North America was nearly half what it is today. There is something questionable about a humanitarianism that regards the attempt to stay alive as being an antisocial act.

The Overpopulation Problem is a matter of human suffering — and the brunt of this suffering is currently born by Third World peoples. Sadly, Third World governments are almost invariably military dictatorships which impede the basis for economic technological growth. Moreover, it is a survival strategy for Underdeveloped World peoples to have as many children as possible because the more children survive, the better-off the parents will be. "Children are wealth", a man from Sri Lanka once told me. Women in Underdeveloped countries who lack access to education or contraceptives often find it difficult to opt for any career other than bearing a large family. Globally, an estimated one-third of children are born unwanted. In some countries, fewer than 2% of the population uses contraceptives. Food, money and medicine from the Developed World may temporarily alleviate some suffering, but this does not get to the root of the problem. Indeed, it may simply lead to more starving people.

Exponential population growth among people who are unable to provide for their children is the Overpopulation Problem that must be solved — not linear population growth due to improvements in the quality and quantity of human lifespan. Eternal youthful survival without reproduction results in zero population growth. Eternal survival with the production of one child per person (two children per couple) results in linear population growth. Even without eternal survival, however, population will grow exponentially (as powers of 2) if each couple has four surviving children. Exponential population growth is the essential population problem that must be solved, with or without life extension.

From a practical point of view, less than one-millionth of the Earth's population has shown any serious interest in being cryopreserved. If this remains true, cryonics will not have any significant impact on an overpopulation problem.

The world is grossly underpopulated with the kind of people who can solve the tough problems leading to human suffering — people who can unleash vast stores of energy that is clean & cheap, people who can create social conditions that lead to economic growth, people who can teach others how to be productive and people who can find ways to help would-be parents have only as many children as they can support. When each person has the capacity to be a creative net contributor to world wealth, rather than a net drain, population growth will be loved rather than feared, and human beings will find it easier to value and appreciate human lives. (In the early pioneer days of the United States a widow with a large number of children was a sought-after economic asset.)

People with extended lifespans will have more incentive to improve the world and the environment — the consequences of short-sightedness will affect them. Unaging brains will have the opportunity to accumulate wisdom, a precious resource that is currently lost to senility and "natural" lifespan. It is often argued that death is necessary to remove rigid old minds from positions of power so that humanity can progress. But if technology eliminates aging, minds can continue to grow without becoming rigid or inflexible. The progress of humanity is not dependent upon the death of all individuals — and I would not celebrate the death of individuals even if it were. Progress of our species is not a divine altar upon which I want to see every member of our species sacrificed — myself included!

Hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom by youthful, vital minds could prove to be the most valuable resource available to humankind. What a wonderful resource it would be to have access to every person who ever lived — to learn from them about the world we live in and how it developed. Each person, however humble, carries with them a lifetime of unique experiences.

What about pollution? Technology may well be the cause of much pollution, but technologies to eliminate pollution have a great future. Nanomachines may one day launder the earth's atmosphere. Electric cars powered by batteries charged from fusion energy is a clean technology. In fact, an elderly physicist once told me that major cities are much less polluted now than they were 80 years ago when coal was commonly used for heating.

The desire to live as long as possible need not be viewed as an inhumane desire. If uploading to a computer were possible, micronization of computer circuits might mean that billions of minds could inhabit relatively little computer space while consuming relatively little energy. If cost is the ultimate criterion by which the desire to live indefinitely long is to be judged, is there some low cost at which this desire is no longer selfish? Cryonics is expensive today because relatively few people choose it. If millions of people were cryopreserved, economies of scale could drive the cost very low (liquid nitrogen is not expensive).

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V. FEAR OF THE FUTURE

Some people doubt that future generations would have any incentive to reanimate them. Such people often imagine future restoration to life as entering a cold, alien technological world of strangers — without loved-ones or skills for coping. But a fund of money which can pay for maintenance (yet still grow faster than inflation) and a contractual agreement with a cryonics organization should be adequate incentive for reanimation. It is cryonics organizations (and friends and loved-ones) who will reanimate cryonics patients — not governments or "society". Major surgery is typically performed today in hospitals on patients to whom the surgeon is a complete stranger. The surgeon is motivated by the kind of professionalism that would exist in cryonics organizations having contractual relationships with cryonics patients.

There will be emotional incentives for reanimation as well. The last people cryopreserved will be cryopreserved with the most advanced technology, and it is they who will be reanimated first. Many of their friends and loved-ones will still be alive. Once reanimated, they will have a strong incentive to reanimate their cryopreserved friends and loved-ones. A chain of personal connections will reach backwards in time to reanimate relatives, friends and even casual acquaintances.

Will the future be so technologically advanced that we will be unable to adapt or become productive citizens? Many immigrants to America have moved from Stone Age conditions, yet have adapted impressively well. It seems hard to believe that people such as Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci, Benjamin Franklin or Madam Curie would not adapt easily and joyfully to our modern world if they could be brought back to life. In fact, many people with mental and physical handicaps who would have had difficulty adapting even one hundred years ago find that the world is becoming a more user-friendly place. Computer-aided instruction and technology to enable the handicapped cannot help but improve. Such advanced enabling technologies will doubtless make our adaptation to the future an exciting adventure. There will probably be technologies to enhance our intellectual powers, which will make us even more capable of adapting and thriving.

Nightmarish, dystopian visions of the future seem unlikely to me. Human life entails problem-solving, and the progress of life involves finding solutions to problems of every kind: technical & scientific as well as social, psychological, political & economic. What, other than paranoid fear, would justify belief in a totalitarian future composed of people who have a particular desire to torture & enslave those who have been revived from cryopreservation? The history of mankind is associated with humans becoming less brutish and more caring. (See The Better Angels of Our Nature.)

If the world of the future is not a world of very advanced technology, we will not be brought back. If the future does develop into an advanced technological society, why would it be a cold, loveless place? Freed by technology from the time-consuming drudgeries of daily life, people will have the time and resources to explore their innermost beings — and the innermost beings of others. Self-understanding, passion, intimacy and intense personal fulfillment will be possible beyond anything we can imagine. Love will be cultivated like precious flowers in the world of the future. The world will bloom with love like magnificent gardens of splendor. In a state of enduring youth, beauty and vitality we will be able to explore and fulfill our deepest dreams.

People with lives that are enriched both materially and emotionally should have greater interest in other people. Technologically-generated wealth increases humanity's capacity for benevolence. Life will be better enjoyed when less troubled by the disturbing suffering of others. Relief of suffering is a relief to the one who suffers, relief to the one who relieves, and relief to many others not directly involved. A kinder, gentler, wealthier society could welcome a reanimated, rejuvenated person like a young family welcomes a newborn baby.

Of course, we would love to bring our loved-ones to join us in this future cultivation of our inner potentials. Love of life entails encouraging loved-ones to survive. But it is wrong to believe that love is impossible without the existence of some particular person. "Love is as perennial as the grass", and the potential for love is without limit. Despite the uniqueness of the lovability of any particular person, others can always be found who have their own unique qualities of lovability. The potential for love comes from within you. Loss of a loved-one creates a void, but it also creates a space for new and different love. Life can expand to include many kinds of love with many kinds of people.

The technology of the future will make our bodies disease-free, beautiful, perpetually youthful and more vigorous than they had ever been. Our visual acuity, hearing and other sensory capabilities will be far superior to what is today "normal". We will have access to fantastic technologies for transportation, communication, construction, exploration and entertainment. We will be vastly enabled in our abilities to both work and play. Our productive capabilities will be enormous, and each individual will be able to effortlessly build what today would be called empires. We will be able to sculpt our own mansions surrounded by vegetation and fauna of our own design. We will be able to fill our lives with people, laughter and conviviality — or experience oceanic peace and solitude in vast naturalistic settings. Cheap space travel will give us access to the energies of the sun and the enormity of interplanetary space into which we may expand. Many will want to go to the stars and their planets.

There is no guarantee that the disease called "aging" will be cured or that people cryopreserved with current technology can eventually be reanimated. No human effort can ever be taken with 100% certainty of success. But if the stakes are high (survival, for example) even a modest possibility of success becomes worthwhile. Some people can think up innumerable reasons why the future might be an undesirable place to live — imagining anarchy, oppressive totalitarianism, overwhelming strangeness or unbearable loneliness. I believe in my own ability to appreciate life, to adapt and to work to improve my conditions under almost any circumstances. But as "solace", others should remember that the option of suicide will probably always be available if things don't work out.

Will humankind become extinct? Such a scenario requires a sudden catastrophe. There is now good reason to hope that weapons of mass destruction will not bring about human extinction. If a fatal virus should arise that is more contagious than the common cold, immense resources can be brought to bear on the problem. And if technology makes space travel and space living much less expensive, the extinction of humankind will be very difficult to bring about within millennia.

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VI. NEAR-TERM PROSPECTS

I feel pleased with the rate of progress of interest in life-extension that is now developing. I am more concerned about the rate of growth of interest in cryonics — since this is the "first aid" which may be necessary for some of us to reach the time when biological aging is no longer a part of normal human life. The decision to include cryonics in a program of life extension requires a great stride beyond the more usual methods of safe and health-conscious living. Cryonics may be an advanced form of medicine that can greatly extend lifespan. Cryonics is not anti-religious or a means to prevent ultimate death. I hope that those who deeply care about their lives and the lives of their loved-ones will increasingly learn to be open to the life-saving potential of cryonics and other practical strategies for survival — and not be distracted by fantasies of physical immortality. (For more on this subject, see my essay Some Problems with Immortalism.)

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VII. ANOTHER POINT OF VIEW

For an analysis of the issues of life extension by a gerontologist, see Who's Afraid of Life Extension?.

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