Why We Must Not End Aging
What if your death lay as far away chronologically as it does in your imagination? Picture your 300th birthday. You’ve been hiking since you were twenty-six, so you decide to take an eight mile hike with your great-great-great-great-grandchildren. Nobody is surprised at your age – nobody in your Silicon Valley community, at least. You reach the top of the mountain, no sweat, and look across the tops of grown trees that weren’t there in your hundreds.
In April, The New Yorker published an article entitled, “Silicon Valley’s Quest to Live Forever.” This was the first I had heard about the pursuit to “cure death.” Silicon Valley scientists have tried numerous approaches to end aging: replacing body parts as they fail, isolating genes that control aging in dog breeds, and transfusing the blood of young mice into older mice. The common mentality amongst anti-aging scientists is that our DNA is merely a code to be hacked, and aging, a glitch in the system.
It is only natural that death feels scary and unjust, because what do we know but life? We can understand death abstractly – the death of a public figure, for example – but the notion of our own death is inconceivable. The problem occurs when we revolt against what we cannot understand and attempt to make ourselves immune to the uncertainty death entails. Let us return to your 300th birthday: you stand at the mountain peak ready to turn around when out of nowhere a boulder drops on your head and kills you. The notion of human invulnerability is falsified by a whole strata of senseless fatalities – incurable uncertainties.
Buddhist thought suggests that the root of unhappiness is our rejection of uncertainty. Growing secularity fosters urgency for some form of certainty to supplant a deity, and to fill the void formerly occupied by the idea of an afterlife. Silicon Valley scientists fear viewing death as a metaphysical problem because of the intangibility that metaphysics entails. They consequently define mortality as a technical issue. Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of Silicon Valley’s Research Foundation, uses the analogy of a car when speaking of the body, as if aging just required a change in auto parts to fix. De Grey fails to account for the incurable precariousness of our lives: anybody can be killed in a plane crash or choke on their food. He dismisses our mortal fragility.
While aging is the inevitable cause of death, it is not the only source of our mortality. When we believe that omniscience is attainable through scientific discovery, we subscribe to an illusion of security – one that will only leave us more devastated when the boulder from nowhere reminds us of our fragility.
Say, however, that we cure aging anyways. Random affluent neighborhoods quarantined from death will spring up everywhere. The mortal faces of those less privileged will become abstract; the news will seem more like fiction each year. Already, life expectancy varies based on economic background, meaning that compassion risks being destroyed completely. And perhaps not all of us equally value compassion; still, the ethics speak in its favor: it is more ethical to allocate the “billions of dollars” going to anti-aging research to childhood cancer. Before we focus on ending aging, we should ensure that everyone at least has the chance to grow old.
The ethical argument expands indefinitely, to cancer, homicide, brain aneurysms, tornadoes, choking on a forty dollar protein bar, et cetera. After zooming out just a bit, curing death seems frivolous compared to curing autism or leukemia.
The issue of resources also comes into question: overpopulation is already a problem that immortality will exacerbate. The C.E.O. of of Google Ventures – a company committed to making death optional – stated in defense of his company, “This is not about Silicon Valley billionaires living forever off the blood of young people…It’s about a ‘Star Trek’ future where no one dies of preventable diseases [i.e., aging], where life is fair.” If fairness is what we’re after, then why not focus on a universal justice that won’t contribute to overpopulation but benefit people everywhere? The self-serving promise of eternity corrupts the so-called virtue of curing death in the name of justice.
Also, when has life ever been fair? The misconception of universal fairness is the origin of our dissatisfaction with life. Dissatisfaction isn’t all bad: it created our sense of justice – and justice, in turn, formed among us care for one another. We, however, abuse justice when we take wanting life to be fair to mean that life should be fair, because life has never been fair; anything short of this truism is oblivion – which by no means implies that justice is useless. Justice is necessary to the maintenance of worldly well-being – philanthropy and environmentalism both originate in justice, for instance.
Let us now focus on the feeling of injustice – which is really only the vulnerability of longing for justice. In spite of all the ways in which humanity is fractured, this vulnerability is indispensably human. Maybe living forever promises enough satisfaction to impoverish my argument; that is your choice. Remember, though, that our mortality allows us to experience belonging to a network of vulnerable humans, who want to reach some satisfaction, before it’s time to go.