Monday, July 27, 2015

Epilogue: Some Hazards of Immortality

The last three posts have featured various means of altering the experience of time, either by travelling through it to some unknown destination, using obscure methods to delay its physical symptoms—which symptoms inevitably culminate in good old death, decay and oblivion—or else succumbing to the temporal manipulations of others, a species of psychic possession and insanity. 

Americans, among others, tend to prefer the second approach, which is basically a diligent application of practical know-how.  This approach—in the 1970s I believe it was called “the science of life extension”—allows at least a temporary sense of control over our dwindling fate.  

Proper diet, regular exercise, positive attitude…and when these fail, taking the right vitamins, the right medications, seeing the doctor more often, (the general practitioner first and then on up to various medical specialties), enduring various surgeries, hair transplants, and examinations of all orifices, avoiding smoke, gluten, black mold, electromagnetic radiation, animal products, negative people, lightening, floods, tornadoes, earthquakes, asteroids, the Apocalypse—these things might help a bit.  Probably wouldn’t hurt…

H.P. Lovecraft addressed the matter of life extension very effectively in his 1928 story Cool Air.  The method he proposed involved refrigeration combined with sheer willpower, though it severely limited the freedom of movement enjoyed by Dr. Muñoz.  Lovecraft’s story contains an echo of Edgar Allan Poe’s disturbing The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar (1845).  Poe’s character was confined to a bed as he prolonged a kind of life after death.  To be fair to “life extension science”, these two fictional characters did not postpone death as much as adapt to it for a time.  Yet a point is eventually crossed where it seems that efforts to extend life become methods of prolonging death.

The stories by Lovecraft and Poe, as well as an interesting film adaptation of Cool Air were discussed in two earlier posts; see also The Importance of Reliable Air Conditioning and  In Articulo Mortis—Some Options           .                               

Earlier this year I participated in an online discussion of the pros and cons of extending the human life span.  The group that hosted the discussion was composed mostly of older science fiction enthusiasts—“boomers”—who conceivably found the topic interesting, timely and personally relevant.  Here, in no particular order, were some of my responses to group members’ contributions.       

“On Extending the Human Lifespan”

Several have suggested various methods for prolonging life past the century mark, and who knows what future techniques may bring. But why would someone desire to live more than a century, other than to avoid the unpleasantness of dying and death?

Unless youthful health and vigor could be maintained, wouldn't this simply prolong the burden of old age?

My hunch is that greater longevity would bring increased tedium and dissatisfaction to the golden years. Imagine if our favorite rock bands could never die, so that we would be treated to an eternity of "Golden Oldies". We would deserve this for our idolatry of youth and perfect health.

It would also be disastrous for young people, who would be kept out of the economy and the creative arts for a much longer period than they are now because those spaces would be occupied indefinitely by codgerdom.

If adulthood spanned centuries, what happens to adolescence? Would any of us want to be teenagers for a dozen decades? How will society cope with a juvenile delinquency rate that peaks around age 75? And so on—too horrible to contemplate.

I am not talking about physical adolescence so much as the difficulties young people will have--for example, taking on adult roles in the work force, or acquiring control of ever dwindling capital and property—in an economy where older folks never go away. I would predict an extended adolescence in that regard. (Or perhaps, "delayed adulthood".) We're already seeing this happening now.

As for souls, reincarnation and the like: I think that increasing the human lifespan, and thus avoiding death, raises moral and ecological issues that are fundamentally religious in nature, whether you favor the "hard science" end of the continuum or the religious one.

And to wax biblical for a moment, would the insights of an Ecclesiastes, (or really any other wizened sage), be significantly improved with another 100 years or two of life?

So far we are assuming that sometime in the future everyone will have access to the means to prolonging their lives.  What if longevity was only available to the wealthy, and disproportionately assigned like any other social resource?  SyFy's Helix addressed the interesting question of what kind of society could emerge if a minority of people live seemingly forever while the majority only enjoy the normal human lifespan. The show's creators suggested that such a society would be some kind of tyranny, given human nature. It seems unlikely that extended longevity would be shared with "the rabble".

Which brings me to a final thought. If you are going to be evil, you had better do your worst before your 70s and 80s. Our natural—dare I say God-given?—lifespans are an ecological check on the amount of evil our species can individually and collectively can do in a lifetime. What will become possible if human lifespans are extended into centuries? My fear is that the effect of increasing human longevity will merely extend and magnify the evil humans are capable of.

[One of the participants challenged the gloominess of this view.]

I'm wondering now if extending human longevity will not be so much about endless adulthood—which could be a drag—but an alternate path for the human organism, a further development and refinement of the youth culture that emerged in the middle of the last century.

(Recall that only a century or two ago children and youth were seen as "mini-adults", not as a separate option for humans to experience the world—which was one of the justifications for child labor during the Industrial Revolution.)

Given the impact on Earth's overpopulation, could extending the human life span be a spur to space exploration and settlement—which is where all the young folks will need to go to find room?

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