Mathematics, rejuvenation, and immortality walk into a bar…

If a fully rejuvenated person was hit by a train at full speed, I can promise you they would stand the same pathetically low chances of ever being reassembled into a single, barely functional piece as any non-rejuvenated person of any age. Keeping that in mind, if anyone tried to sell me rejuvenation as ‘immortality’, rest assured I would demand to see the manager right away.

On a different yet unexpectedly related note, if I had a nickel for every time I heard or read something along the lines of ‘death is inevitable because probability’, I could donate so much money to LEAF the IRS would start thinking they’re a bit too well off for a charity.

Oh, and with the rest of the money, I could buy LinkedIn and pay someone to finally give it a user interface you can look at without your eyes bleeding.

That being said, no matter how hard rejuvenation advocates strive to make a clear distinction between rejuvenation and immortality, nearly everyone keeps cheerfully swapping them around, largely convinced that two absolutely incompatible statements hold true at the same time, namely

  1. rejuvenation implies immortality, and
  2. probability grants you will die at some point, rejuvenation or not.

But that’s okay, really—I mean, people hold contradictory beliefs all the time. What pisses me off is that statement ‘b’ is false.

Immortality buys the first round

You might be thinking I must be a few fries short of a happy meal, because after all, statement ‘b’ is only a special case of the more general statement ‘Given infinite time, anything that is possible, however unlikely, will eventually happen’. This is false too, by the way—if a special case is false, then the general case isn’t true either.

To be fair, among people who think both statements ‘a’ and ‘b’ are true, probably many intend immortality in a weaker sense than I do. To me, ‘immortal’ is somebody who cannot die, no matter what; to them, ‘immortal’ is just someone who doesn’t die of their own accord past a vaguely defined ‘best before’ date. I think using the word ‘immortality’ for the latter is wrong and misleading, but since surely most people will keep using it no matter how much I whine about it, I could agree to call ‘strong immortality’ the former and ‘weak immortality’ the latter. Weak immortality is thus what some people call ‘functional immortality’, ‘biological immortality’ or ‘amortality’—again, the property of a creature whose body doesn’t fall apart by default with the passing of time.

Quite frankly, I think strong immortality is not possible, because it implies that one’s chances of ever dying are exactly zero; or, if it is possible, I think it’s so far off that it’s not worth holding your breath.

Some are convinced the laws of probability say that, inevitably, the odds a living creature will die go up with the passing of time, and from this premise, they conclude rejuvenation (or weak immortality, if you really want to use the i-word) is a pointless goal: Sooner or later you will die anyway, so why bother with rejuvenation?

Well, apart from the fact that staying biologically young and healthy is a worthy goal regardless of how long you’ll live, as I was saying above it’s not true that probability makes your death inevitable: In fact, under certain circumstances death may become more and more unlikely with the passing of time. Whether or not we can produce these circumstances is a different matter, which we will also look into; my point here is debunking the myth that death is certain no matter what because probability says so. Another way of putting it is that if your goal is to never die, you don’t need strong immortality: You can be mortal and yet never die, so long as your death is a vanishingly unlikely event.

Mathematics takes over the open mic stage

Maybe you’re used to think of probabilities in terms of percentages, but in statistics you generally use numbers between 0 and 1 instead, which is perfectly equivalent. Intuitively, a probability of 0 is 0%, 1 is 100%, 0.5 is 50%, and so on. That’s how we’re going to do it here.

We want to prove that death is not necessarily certain even given infinite time; in other words, we want to show that your probability of death over an infinite time can be less than 1. To do so, we need an expression for your probability of death over an infinite time; more precisely, we are going to need an expression for your probability of death over an infinite number of years, starting from the first year of your existence, which we say is year 1.

As you probably already know, nobody dies twice; in order for you to die in year 10, for example, ten distinct events must all happen: You must live through (or, equivalently, not die in) years 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, and you must die in year 10.

On any given year, say year n, you have a certain overall probability of dying that takes into account your probability of death from all causes: accidents, murder, heart attacks, etc. All of these add up to a number between zero and one, which we call dn, as in ‘chance of death in year n’. This is your chance of dying in year n on the assumption you have not died before; in other words, dn is the answer to the question: ‘Assuming you did not die in years 1, 2, 3, …, n – 1, what is your chance of dying in year n?’. Notice that this question is not the same as ‘What is your chance of not dying in years 1 through n – 1 and dying in year n?’ The reason is that the former assumes you already made it through the first n – 1 years, and asks what are your chances of dying in year n in such case; the latter makes no assumptions and asks what are your odds of making it through the first n – 1 years and not making it through the nth year.

The answer to the second question is the probability that n events all happen, which is calculated as the product of the individual probabilities of each event.

Clearly, in a given year you either die or you don’t; these two events represent 100% of our options, so their probabilities sum up to 1. Thus, if dk is your overall chance of dying in year k, your chance of not dying in year k is 1 – dk.

Now we can calculate your chance of not dying up until year n – 1 and dying in year n; we call it Dn and it is

Dn = (1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dn – 1dn.

For example, we have D1 = d1 (because you didn’t exist before year 1 and therefore couldn’t die before then), and D4 = (1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3d4.

Each Dn is the chance of a specific combination of events happening, namely your living through years 1 to n – 1 and dying in year n. Obviously, only one of these event combinations can happen, because as said you don’t die twice. For example, you either live through years from 1 to 5 and die in year 6, or live through years 1 to 10 and die in year 11, but not both.

The question ‘What is the chance that you will ever die, given infinite time?’ can thus be restated in a more verbose, but more accurate, way: ‘What is the chance that you will die in year 1, or live through year 1 and die in year 2, or live through years 1 and 2 and die in year 3, …’ and so on, ad infinitum.

While you multiply together the probability of individual events to find out the probability that they will all happen, you add together their probabilities when you want to find out the probability that only one of them happens. (Technically, from the result you should subtract the probability that any combinations of them happen, but in our case this probability is exactly zero, because as said death can happen only once, so there’s nothing to subtract.) We call this chance D, and it is

D = D1 + D2 + D3 + … + Dk + Dk + 1 + …

all the way up to infinity. There is a more convenient way to write the sum of infinitely many terms, which is this:

So, instead of writing D as the long sum in the middle, we express it as the Σ (‘sigma’) thingy on the right. They mean the exact same thing.

Alright, so now we have an expression for your probability of dying over an infinite time, D, and we want to show it can be less than 1. This might seem absurd to you: How can an infinite sum be less than 1? Shouldn’t it always be infinity? No. A sum of infinitely many terms is called a series. If a series happens to add up to a finite value, it is said to be convergent; if it blows up to infinity, it is said to be divergent. I know it seems strange; welcome to maths.

In order to get to the desired result, let’s first notice that the series D is actually always smaller than another series. Remember that D is just the sum of infinitely many Dk’s, and each Dk is equal to the product

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk.

All the terms in these products are larger than zero and at most 1, which means that when we multiply something by any of them, this something won’t get any larger; if anything, it could get smaller. In other words, the term

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk

isn’t any larger, and is possibly smaller, than

(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk,

and if we iterate this reasoning, we see that ultimately

(1 – d1)×(1 – d2)×(1 – d3)×…×(1 – dk – 1dk

isn’t any larger, and is possibly smaller, than dk. This means that D1 is no larger than d1, D2 is no larger than d2, and so on. Therefore, the sum of all Dk’s (that is, D) is no larger than the sum of all dk’s. In symbols,

which means your probability of ever dying is always smaller than (or equal to) the sum on the right. If that sum could ever be smaller than 1, we would be done. Can it?

Note that the sum on the right is the sum of all your overall yearly probabilities of death—that is, the sum of your probability of dying in year k on the assumption you safely made it through all years until year number k – 1, for each k. Suppose that, thanks to technology, the elimination of ageing, and so on, we were able to reduce these probabilities each year in a very specific way, that is according to the formula

where p is any number larger than 2. (You’ll understand why in a moment.). What would happen then? Let’s just plug the expression for dk in the expression for D and we’ll find out.

Remembering that the term on the far right is just a seriously long sum, we can rewrite it like this:

So, ultimately we get

Now look at the sum on the far right again—only the sum, forget 6 divided by πp. That is a known convergent series, and it adds up to π2 divided by 6. This means the following:

Now you see why I required that p be larger than 2: This way, p – 2 is always larger than 0, which in turn means that πp – 2 is always larger than 1, and thus the whole fraction is smaller than 1. Therefore, D, that is your probability of dying over an infinite time, is less than 1. Furthermore, the larger p is, the smaller D will be, which means that if we were able to make your yearly overall probability of death decrease faster and faster as time passes, your chance of ever dying would become smaller and smaller, though it would never be exactly zero. This means that, over an infinite time, you might die, but it would not be very likely.

On top of that, if we assume you safely made it through 5000 years, then your probability of ever dying past that point would be only

which is clearly less than D, as it is only part of it. More generally, if you make it through the first n years, your probability of ever dying past year n is

The stuff above is called the tail of a series. In particular, this one is the tail of the series D, which we know is convergent, since whatever it adds up to, it is less than 1 divided by πp – 2. So it is the tail of a convergent series. The tail of a convergent series has an interesting property: as n grows larger, the tail tends to zero. In other words: Under these circumstances, the longer you lived, the closer to zero your chances of ever dying would get (though they would never be exactly zero).

This, mind you, is true if we can make it so that your yearly probability of dying decreases each year according to our formula—or, more generally, in any other way such that the sum of all these probabilities is a series converging to less than 1; and this, make no mistake, is no small if.

Go home maths, you’re drunk. Rejuvenation will take care of you.

Before we send maths on its way, it’s important to notice that our assumption of a decreasing overall yearly probability of death is crucial to the reasoning. If we assumed this probability was constant, for example, then no matter how small it was, you’d be royally screwed, as your probability of ever dying over infinite time would then be exactly 1. Indeed, say that each year you have a probability of dying of d, of which we require to be just any number larger than zero and at most 1. Then, your probability of living through years 1 to n – 1 and dying in year n would be

Dn = (1 – d)×(1 – d)×(1 – d)×…×(1 – dd,

where the term (1 – d) appears n – 1 times, ultimately yielding

Dn = (1 – d)n – 1×d.

At this point, D would be

where we factored d out just like we have done before in a similar case. Now, the series on the right is called a geometric series, and if (1 – d) happens (as it does) to be smaller than 1, then the whole thing will add up to 1 divided by 1 – (1 – d). That is,

As I was saying, royally screwed. You can imagine that, if your yearly overall probability of dying is not a constant but it increases instead, then you’re even more screwed—and this, by the way, is exactly what happens because of ageing. In this very moment, as things stand, your probability of dying goes up as time passes. Sorry about that.

But let’s not get all doom and gloom about it, and rather, let’s focus on another question. We established that, if we can make your overall yearly death probability decrease fast enough, then death is no longer a certainty and can even become increasingly unlikely. So, can we accomplish this? Hard to say.

The good news is, if we managed to eradicate age-related diseases, if nothing else your probability of death wouldn’t go up by default with the passing of time. I’ve done some digging on the Internet and I found a few informal calculations about how long the average lifespan would become if ‘natural’ causes of death were eliminated altogether; estimates vary, although they all talk about centuries. In particular, this article on Gizmodo discusses a statistical simulation according to which if all ‘natural’ causes of death were taken out of the equation and the only remaining causes of death were things like accidents, murders, etc, then the average lifespan (in the US) would be 8,938 years. (There’s also a fabled calculation apparently made by an insurance company, or something like that, according to which the average lifespan would be ‘only’ about 800 years; I say fabled because I’ve heard about it several times, and I was told about it by more than one person, but no one had the source and I wasn’t able to find it. If you happen to know where I can find it, please let me know, and I’ll update this post.)

Now, 8,938 (or even 800) years is a bloody long time, but it is not ‘forever’; however, you have to take into account that the fine chaps who made the simulation did not take into account how much we might be able to reduce the chances of ‘non-natural’ death over the course of almost 9000 years, and they didn’t do it for a very good reason: They don’t know if, when, and how much the chances of specific death causes are going to decrease. Taking wild guesses at it would introduce far too much uncertainty in the calculations to make them any useful. Regardless, it is perfectly safe to assume that over the course of such long lifespans, we’ll have figured out a way to make cars safer, for example, and thus reduce the chances of dying in a car accident. To be perfectly frank, that’s already happening with self-driving cars, and it is quite possible that within a couple hundred years cars will have been replaced by something else entirely.

Similarly, we can expect other possible causes of death will be either mitigated or eliminated altogether, pushing the average lifespan up and up while you still are alive—though, meanwhile, entirely new causes of death might appear. We are nothing but extremely complex pieces of biological machinery, and the more complex something is, the more numerous the things in it that can go wrong. (And yes, even if we became non-biological machines, technology through and through, as some people would like, we could still be destroyed or irreparably damaged. Could, but not necessarily would.)

On top of that, we can’t know for a fact if an unexpected world war, or a pandemic, will break out and push up everybody’s chances of death, or on a grander scale, we don’t know for a fact if the heat death of the universe will happen or not, or if we’ll have figured out ways around it by then.

In my opinion, the hard bit will not be making our death chances decrease fast enough; the hard bit will be making sure they keep decreasing fast enough forever without any significant oscillations. If the general trend of your death chances over an infinite time is a negative one (i.e., overall your chances keep going down all the time), relatively short periods of time during which your odds of death stay constant or even go up can be okay—if these odds aren’t too high to begin with. For example, if you had a 0.5% chance of death each year for just five years and then the chance went down again, most probably (but not certainly) you’d safely make it through those five years alive and you could look forward to a very long life. If this period of constant death chance was much longer than five years, your odds would be worse. However, there’s no way to know for a fact that we’ll be able to maintain a general downwards trend indefinitely, so, sorry, neither I nor anyone else can promise you with 100% certainty that you will never die, if that’s what you were hoping for. Then again, death isn’t necessarily the mathematical certainty some people would like to pass it for, which is all I wanted to show with this article, and just in case someone decides to interpret it the wrong way, let me stress again what this article doesn’t do. It

  • does not claim strong immortality is possible;
  • does not prove you (or anyone else) will never die/live forever;
  • does not prove that we will necessarily be able to constantly reduce anyone’s death chances enough to make their death over an infinite time extremely unlikely. It’s possible, but not certain;
  • is not a great discovery or anything like that. What you just read is basically a simple Calculus 101 exercise.

I also care to emphasise that I’m not flawless or always right, so if a fellow mathematician spotted a mistake in my reasoning, I’d be happy to correct it. Meanwhile, be careful out there, and try not to make your chances of death any larger than they have to be—so don’t browse LinkedIn for too long, ’cause bleeding eyes aren’t good for you.

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The meaning of death?

The point of this blog is to advocate for rejuvenation therapies. In principle, it could be written without ever typing the word ‘death’, because rejuvenation is about keeping people healthy, and the indefinite postponement of death is merely a possible consequence of constant good health. In this sense, this and many other posts and articles on Rejuvenaction could be considered off-topic. However, it is not uncommon for people to accept, rather uncritically, the stale cliché according to which life gets its meaning from death, and without the latter, it would not have meaning. If rejuvenation can stave off death and extend lives indefinitely, will these extended lives be utterly meaningless?

No. Time and time again have I said this before, but I still fear that this misconception may be one of the worst enemies of rejuvenation; consequently, I spend much time thinking about its roots and how to debunk it.

Whether life gets its meaning from death or not, people who think it does implicitly admit that life has no meaning per se. In a general sense, this is correct. Life is meaningless, and there’s nothing wrong with it. It is no reason to be depressed, and I have explained why many times: Meaning is not an intrinsic property of anything. To paraphrase a common adage, meaning lies in the head of the beholder, and that’s where you should expect to find the meaning—if any—of anything, life included. In other words, it is up to you to find meaning in your life, and you should neither expect it to have meaning by default, nor let others decide for you what the meaning of your life is. This applies to everything else too. Whenever the meaning of X is being discussed, one should always ask to whom X means what, or who meant what when they did or said X. It goes without saying that, just like life, death has no intrinsic meaning either. My view is that, up to this point in time, finding the meaning of death has been an even more pressing problem for humans than finding the meaning of life; the reasons of this urgency stem from an evolutionary paradox. However, the meaning of death is much more difficult to find than other meanings. It is for these reasons, I argue, that the meaning of death ended up being that of giving meaning to life itself.

The blow inflicted by the discovery of biological evolution to the idea of an intrinsic meaning of life was arguably the worst. Far from being carefully designed by a loving creator, life is the product of random mutations and the blind force of natural selection, indirectly weeding out genes less fit to their environment through the death of their unfortunate carriers. Evolution has no meaning, no purpose, and no goal: Creatures that we see today evolved because they could; it was not meant, it was no one’s goal. The conditions on Earth were such that some lifeforms were more suitable to the environment and managed to pass on their genes to future generations; others were not as lucky and did not survive to tell the tale.

Random mutations, one little change at a time, gave these creatures certain features. If these features made the creatures more fit for reproduction, they would thrive more than other creatures without the same features. Eventually, creatures with these ‘good’ features became the only game in town. In the case of humans, two of these features were their intelligence and their innate desire to live and avoid death. (Much many more species than just us possess the latter feature, though perhaps it is ‘just’ an instinct without conscious desire.)

It is obvious why a strong wish to live makes an individual more fit for reproduction: If I fear death and try to avoid it by all possible means, I stand better chances to live long enough to reproduce than somebody who isn’t so afraid; this somebody is likely to put less effort in avoiding death and is thus more likely to die before having children than I am. Therefore, evolution has ‘penalised’ creatures who did not have a strong survival instinct, and ‘rewarded’ those who did. This is why we hold our lives so dear.

Human intelligence made us extremely fit for survival; our curiosity and drive to answer questions that we ourselves ask are among the things that make us unique on this planet. However, there’s a flip side: Eventually, they made us wonder why we die. While today we have a rather good idea of the answer, back in the days of the first human societies this was no trivial question. Since evolution has made us so afraid of death, it was inevitable that we’d start wondering about our mortality and looking for more and more clever ways to cheat death.

However, evolution ‘cares’ for the survival of the genes, not of their carrier; the carrier only needs to live long enough to pass on the genes. What happens to them past that point is none of evolution’s concern. We have evolved brilliant self-repair machinery that blesses us which such long lives only because it gave us better chances to have children. Suppose that, back in the days of our early ancestors—and I am talking of non-human lifeforms that might well have lived in the abysses—there were two groups of creatures, group A and group B. Creatures in group A had a ‘normal’ longevity; on average, they would reach reproductive age just fine and have children; ageing would then kill them after a certain time. Members of group B were just like those in group A, except that they lived much longer past reproductive age, because a set of lucky mutations gave them better self-repair machinery. In terms of ability to pass on their genes, group A had no disadvantage compared to group B. There was no reason why group A should have been outcompeted by group B so badly that, eventually, group B would have taken over. This is why evolution hasn’t bothered eliminating ageing: Assuming the necessary conditions were ever present, there has been no evolutionary pressure to eliminate ageing creatures from the pool. Any ‘anti-ageing genes’, or genes that significantly slowed down ageing, if they ever existed, were diluted in the rest of the pool, so that today we observe creatures that age to death and whose lifespans don’t vary too wildly among members of the same species.

This is the paradox that I was talking about: Evolution has made us fear death and wish to live indefinitely, but at the same time, it has not given us the means to fulfill that wish. Strictly speaking this is not a paradox; I just mean that we’re caught between a rock and a hard place—the fear of death and its apparent inevitability.

Whether death is really inevitable will be a matter for another post; for now, we’ll assume it is and focus on what this ‘death paradox’ has led us to.

The first and most evident sign of our attempts to solve the paradox are religions. With their promises of an afterlife, religions sidestep the problem entirely: Yes, we fear death and don’t want it; Nonetheless, die we do. But we don’t really die; only the body does. We will live on as pure spirits, or through reincarnation, or something like that. In ancient times, thanks to our ignorance of how the world works and their intrinsic unfalsifiability and appeal, religions and hopes of an afterlife spread like wildfire, and are still alive and well today. However, secularisation is taking its toll on all sorts of religious or magical thinking; the result is that, in terms of the death paradox, we’re getting back to square one. As our ever-growing understanding of the world started undermining the very idea of afterlife more and more, we needed to find other ways to put death out of our minds.

Some of us have resorted to accepting it: I am not sure I fully understand the concept, but it seems to boil down to convincing yourself there’s nothing to fear in death and you’re okay with it, and in some cases, giving yourself a certain air of superiority because of it. It is no mystery that accepting the inevitability death is largely regarded as a sign of wisdom; in part, this is because there would be little point in fighting the inevitable, but there is another reason, which is possibly even more important. Some accept death because, they say, it is better than the alternative, i.e. never dying. No one has first-hand, irrefutable evidence of this, of course, but our literature is full of entirely made-up stories on the misery of immortal creatures or the terrible price you pay for eternal life on Earth. Take zombies, or vampires, for example. They’re immortal alright—or at least they don’t die as long as they are not physically destroyed with weapons or rituals—but they were either possessed by an evil spirit, or infected by a terrible plague, or they sold their soul to the devil, or something. The moral of the story is always the same: The only ways you could avoid death are not something you’d like.

I’m sure there must be exceptions to the rule, but how many of you have ever heard of a story about an immortal creature, or a creature who can live indefinitely, that is not largely about how horrible or difficult this must be? More generally, do you know any stories where the ability to live for an indefinite timespan is seen as something positive, or at least not portrayed in negative light? Or—God forbid!—a story where indefinite lifespans are simply normal, and the plot is about something else than moralising on how long life should be? (Doctor Who could be an example if it wasn’t for the recurring theme of his bearing the weight of solitude as the last member of his species, not to mention the Doctor’s manifest hypocrisy about undoing ageing in the episode The Lazarus Experiment. That episode was a collection of the worst logical fallacies and clichés about life, death, and what is or isn’t human. The Doctor, an ageless being, regenerates back to life each and every time he’s about to die—as he attempts to in the very next episode—and yet he had the effrontery to claim that ‘It’s not the time that matters, it’s the person’. I could have bought that if his first incarnation, rather than the tenth, had said it.)

It is impossible not suspect a fox-and-grapes situation and think that scary stories about creatures who have the alleged misfortune of never dying are nothing but a way to make death more acceptable: If never dying is bad, then we can be at least a little bit less upset about the fact we all die. I am in no position to claim that everyone who says they accept death lies about it; this is quite probably not true. However, I remain sceptical.

Then there are the ‘adventurists’: Death, they say, is an adventure, which they’re excited to… live through. (Though this might be true only for the ‘well-organised mind’—whatever that means—according to another fictional character.) The reason why death would be an adventure, as I understand, is that we cannot be entirely sure of what lies beyond it. Even though we have very cogent reasons to think that beyond death there is absolutely nothing—as ‘nothing’ as it gets, in fact. In an hour, I’ll go to the mall. There’s no reason at all to think that anything but absolutely regular shopping will happen then, and yet, since I can’t be completely sure of it, in an hour I’ll live an ‘adventure’, at least according to this logic. I apologise if I come off cynical, but this sounds like yet another attempt to sugarcoat death in order to better cope with it and thus escape the death paradox.

Another way around the death paradox is the ‘death is part of life’ philosophy. Whether this is true or not is arguable: At least of one’s own death, I’m inclined to think that it is not, because death occurs precisely when life ends; rather than being part of life, I’d say death comes right after it. But this is, admittedly, just pointless nitpicking. The real issue is that whether death is or not part of life is irrelevant, just as it is irrelevant whether or not something is ‘natural’ to decide if it is good for you. Getting sick or being bullied are part of life for the vast majority of people. High child mortality used to be a very real part of life until we changed that. Yet these indisputable facts do not mean that any of these things are good for you or should remain a part of life. This way of thinking is a reasonably effective way to avoid losing one’s wits because of an unchangeable, undesirable reality—such as high child mortality—at least so long as this reality is indeed unchangeable. The claim that ‘child mortality is part of life’ might have consoled parents of their children’s death 200 years ago, but today it would console no one and probably outrage everyone. As soon as undoing ageing and postponing death indefinitely will become possible, the ‘part of life’ excuse will lose its efficacy.

The final way to circumvent the death paradox is the fabled ‘meaning of life’. This is the central problem of this post. What better way can there be to rationalise death and escape our mortal (pun intended) fear of it than making it what gives life itself its meaning? Far from being something we should fear or avoid, death becomes thus essential, for without it, life would have no point. That appears to be a great argument, at least up to the point where everyone nods approvingly without getting down to the nitty-gritty of it.

We have established at the very beginning of this post that meaning is not an absolute. Meaning is something we, the observers give to things. Death is nothing more than the name we gave to the status of a creature whose body is damaged beyond its ability to function; it most definitely is not an observer, and it cannot give meaning to anything, let alone life.

What does it even mean, to give meaning to life? We are, again, investigating a meaning, and thus there is no absolute answer. I may think that the meaning of… giving meaning to life is X; you might think it is Y. Neither of us is wrong. It’s a subjective matter. Most would probably agree that filling your life with activities, people, and things you love and enjoy is a valid candidate for the meaning of life; so is helping others, or doing something for the common good; something that we feel is appreciated by others, and are thus gratified by. Giving meaning to life might mean doing some of these things, and clearly, none of these potential meanings is given to life by death. However, these are viable options but aren’t the answer, because there is no single answer. You decide what is the meaning of your life; not old legends, not old myths, not clichés, not other people; you do. Thus, the only way death could be the meaning of your life would be if you decided so, which I hope you won’t do.

Not even being mortal gives more meaning or value to life, as some seem to think. Your mortality does nothing for you: It’s just the ‘ability’ to lose your life. It’s more of a potential problem than anything else. On the other hand, knowing of your mortality does do something for you: It makes you more careful not to lose your life. Mortality isn’t precious or valuable; being aware of mortality is.

Ultimately, there’s nothing especially wise in accepting death. In my opinion, the only exception is if you know for a fact that you will die within a time so short that nothing can be done to prevent it. At that point it may be sensible to play the ‘accepting card’, if you can, and enjoy whatever time you have left as best as you can. There is no meaning that death can give life, especially not death by ageing. The length of our lifespans is the result of a meaningless, purposeless process that happened for no other reason than the fact it could. Accepting that result as it is would be accepting that very meaninglessness—which, when you think that the intent was to give life meaning, would be sadly ironic.

Not all discriminations are born equal

It’s been quite a while since I posted anything new. I’ve been quite busy lately with a lot of things, including rebooting looking4troubles, my other blog. As a result, my topic list for Rejuvenaction has been growing dangerously long, so I decided it’s about time I tackled some of the lengthiest items on my list.

People like talking about justice, equality, and discrimination a lot. I mean a lot. In my experience, though, most tend to focus mainly or entirely on the type(s) of discrimination they’re more interested in for whatever reason, sometimes minimising others or not even noticing they exist in the first place. Some other times, they even end up endorsing one type of discrimination for the sake of warding off another.

As if poor people cared

Take the good ol’ ‘only the rich‘ objection against rejuvenation. Its essence is that, to forestall the possibility of rejuvenation being available only to a few wealthy ones, rejuvenation should not be created at all—if not everyone can have it, then no one should have it.

The core misconception behind this argument is obvious. Given a certain gap between rich people and poor people, if you better rich people’s lives in any way you do widen the rich-poor gap, but you do not change the poor’s quality of life at all. In other words, if you develop any new technology and only rich people have access to it, you make rich people better off than they were before, while nothing changes, in absolute terms, for the poor people. They are worse off than before with respect to the rich, but this hardly matters. Their living conditions are exactly the same as before, for good or bad. Rich people’s quality of life is not the yardstick by which we should measure everyone else’s quality of life. If extreme poverty didn’t exist and the poorest person in the world was as wealthy as a typical middle-class person in the western world, I think we’d have little to complain about the existence of all the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs. (Except perhaps for some who seem to be unable to lead a happy life if they don’t have something to be unhappy about.)

Even without bothering with rejuvenation, poor people don’t really care if Mark Zuckerberg has one Ferrari, or two, or three, or none—they’re likely more concerned with whether they have food for one day, or two, or three, or none. It could be argued that Zuckerberg could spend more money on the poor rather than on Ferraris (which he probably does—I just needed a rich guy’s name), but while I’m okay with prioritising poor people’s needs over buying Ferraris, I’m not okay with prioritising the lives of starving people over the lives of geriatric patients. They’re both in danger and they’re both suffering. Rich or poor doesn’t matter: Any elderly person is just not as healthy as a young one, irrespectively of their wealth, and they’re possibly closer to the grave than a young starved person is. I’m not saying we should prioritise rejuvenation over combating world hunger; I’m saying they’re equally important, and they can and should be fought simultaneously.

Discriminating discriminations

Ah, but I’m neglecting an important factor at play here, am I not? If rejuvenation was only for the rich, that would be discrimination against the poor. You would have right to good health only if you were rich enough, and that would be unjust. It would indeed, and I am the first to say that we need to make sure that equal access to rejuvenation is granted to everyone as soon as possible. That is why we should discuss these topics already now, when rejuvenation is mostly on the drawing board and partly in the lab: We’ve got all the time in the world to make things work out nicely.

To some, however, this is not enough, and they’d sooner have everyone wilt and die than let only the rich benefit from rejuvenation. Sometimes I have the feeling that, in the collective imagination of people, ‘the rich’ are evil incarnate. Are all rich people so bad that they deserve to age to death? Why? And who gets to decide it? Even if not everyone was able to benefit from rejuvenation from the very beginning, as compassionate and caring human beings as we should be, what should we decide about rejuvenation’s fate? That it should be created and save at least some lives in the present, and hopefully every life in the future, or that it should never be created and save no life at all? What about those future generations that we seem to worry about so much in terms of climate change and pollution? They deserve a clean world, but not a disease-free existence?

In case it went unnoticed, the type of discrimination that rejuvenation opposers are trying to fight off with the ‘only the rich’ objection is income/wealth discrimination; the form of discrimination they’re endorsing (whether they realise it or not) is a form of ageism; whatever their reasons may be, whenever people say that rejuvenation should not be developed, they’re saying that elderly people should not have the chance of equally good health as younger people.

Some opposers are not only concerned that rejuvenation would not be available to all; they’re also concerned that being rejuvenated or not might in itself become a discriminating factor. For example, suppose that not everyone wants to undergo rejuvenation treatments and prefer to age and die ‘normally’. What if—I was asked once—an employer denied you a job on these grounds?

This question betrays a lack of understanding of several things—the fact that rejuvenation is not a single-shot therapy that you take now or never, or only once and for all, for example—but anyway the point here is not the answer to this particular concern. The point is that some people seem very concerned about the potential discrimination that rejuvenation might cause, but not very much about the concrete discrimination against elderly people, actually taking place here and now each time we question and postpone the development of comprehensive anti-ageing therapies that could fully restore chronologically old people’s health. While we ponder this and that hypothetical future problem, elderly people suffer from all sorts of ailments.

Equality in a cloak and a scythe

Going back to the ‘for all or for no one’ argument that some people like to make, I wonder if they would still make it if the matter being discussed was something other than rejuvenation. In the case of rejuvenation, they would prefer it not to be developed at all rather than risk unequal access to it. Would they think the same of human rights, for example? Unfortunately, human rights are not respected everywhere. By the ‘for all or for none’ logic, for the sake of avoiding inequality and injustice it would be better to take human rights away from everyone rather than have only some people enjoy this privilege. Even better, perhaps, human rights should never have been invented to begin with. A more fitting example is an evergreen: vaccines. Even today they’re not equally accessible everywhere, let alone when they were first invented. Maybe, if vaccines hadn’t been invented in the first place, we would have experienced less inequality; at the same time, though, a lot of people, rich and poor alike, would have died of infectious diseases before age 2 in the past decades.

Here I’m touching another point that some advocates of ageing like to make: Death is the ‘great equaliser’. If vaccines had not been invented, then not only the poor who could not afford vaccines would die of infectious diseases; everyone would, even the rich. If nothing else, like some authors suggest, the poor can take comfort in the fact that the rich will die too, just like them. If we developed rejuvenation, for example, we’d run the risk of depriving the poor of this ‘comfort’ and would make the world a much too unequal place. I am frankly quite amused at how nonchalantly some people call schadenfreude ‘equality’ or ‘justice’: Be happy, dear poor person, for even if you and your children have suffered many privations, rich people will one day die, just like you will! Wohoo. If that ain’t a reason to throw the wildest party, I don’t know what is.

I would really like to ask a simple question to all the poor people whom the advocates of death like to speak for: Would you rather take the chance that rejuvenation might be available to everyone, including you, or the certainty that both you and all the rich will age to death? I wonder how many would actually find the second option more enticing than the first.

Women, reproduction, and rejuvenation

I’m not really a children person. I know some people really are into having children and think that it’s the most wonderful thing in life, but I’m just not one of them. This is perfectly fine. Whether having children is a wonderful thing or not is a matter of opinion, and it is not true or false in an absolute sense. What’s more, it’s not necessarily set in stone forever: I don’t like the idea now, but I can’t be 100% sure I never will; conversely, people who love the idea now might not like it any more in the future.

However, having children is a bit more serious than a simple matter of personal taste. A child is not a toy or a dress that you buy and just put away if it turns out you don’t like it as much as you thought you would: It’s a living human being whom was brought into the world because of someone else’s intentions and/or actions, and it’ll need love and care for quite a while. For this very reason, I think you should have children only if you’re pretty damn sure you really want to and are prepared to do all it takes to raise them. It’s not an easy job, and if it turns out you hate it, you’ll probably end up doing it wrong, messing up the child’s life and your own in the process. This is true of women and men, though women definitely picked the shortest straw. I’ll tell you why I think so in a moment.

Even if you think you are ‘pretty damn sure’ that you want children, you could still be wrong for a number of reasons that aren’t necessarily your fault. If you do decide to have children and then realise you don’t like it, you have good 18+ years ahead of you of bearing with the consequences of your wrong decision. The decision to not have children is, in a sense, safer, because it can easily be undone: Later on, you can change your mind and have children. If you already did make a child, changing your mind about it will not undo the child. However, not having children is only marginally safer, because as things stand you can postpone parenthood only so long before it becomes impossible or impractical (again, especially if you are a woman). The bottom line is that the current state of affairs imposes you a risky choice—having or not having children—that cannot easily (or at all) be undone. Whatever you choose, you might wake up one day at age 60 and wonder how different your life could have been if you only had made a different choice—a choice that is now too late to make.

As I was saying, women got the worst end of the reproduction deal. Their fertility window spans from late teenage to late 30s, with a peak in their early 20s and a drop around age 35. Pregnancy is still possible after age 35, of course, but it gets increasingly more difficult, and eventually it becomes impossible. Late pregnancies are not recommended for health reasons, and taking care of a child when you’re no longer in your prime can be quite challenging. Men too experience similar problems: Their fertility, albeit longer, is not in top shape forever; having a child as an old man becomes hard—because something else doesn’t, among other reasons.

The fear of missing the baby train can easily push you into having a child, even if you’re not sure you really want it. Social pressure is another big factor at play here—at the cost of being redundant, especially for the ladies. As a man, I can only imagine how annoying it must be to be a woman in her 30s surrounded by people wondering why she hasn’t had any children yet. What is she waiting for? Well, perhaps she just doesn’t want any, and all she’s waiting for is the moment they’ll finally stop asking her about it. Just because all of her friends had children it doesn’t mean she should too, but I understand how social pressure might make her feel ‘abnormal’ and push her to be like all the other ‘normal’ women of the same age who already have churned out a baby or two. Hordes of mothers, fathers, sisters, aunts, and grandmothers begging to have (grand-)grandchildren and/or nephews and nieces probably only make it worse.

I have no idea how many regretted pregnancies, if any, are effectively due to these factors, partly or wholly. I do know, though, that mothers who regret motherhood are a thing, to the point that a book was written about it. (Possibly not the only one.) They’re neither bad mothers, nor ‘abnormal’ women. They’re simply women who, for a reason or another, became mothers and ended up wishing they never had. There’s nothing wrong with them. Women don’t ‘have’ to like motherhood, and motherhood isn’t necessarily a ‘natural’ call for women.

Even though this lengthy introduction might make you think otherwise, this post isn’t about whether or not you should have a child, or when, or whether it is okay to regret motherhood. This post is about how rejuvenation biotechnologies can make all these issues moot.

If you’re already familiar with the concept of rejuvenation, you can safely skip to the next paragraph. If you’re not, I’ll briefly explain what we’re talking about here. Rejuvenation biotechnologies are an emerging class of drugs aimed at repairing or obviating the ‘damage’ your body inflicts to itself with time as a side-effect of its normal operations. The effect of a fully working rejuvenation platform would be that, whether you’re 50, 70, 80, or 150, your body looks, feels, and functions as though you were in your 20s; thanks to rejuvenation, your health would not decline with age. I’m not going to discuss here the details about what ageing is or how rejuvenation could be implemented; what matters is that we’re talking about existing, on-going medical research whose first clinical trials are about to begin (for example, those by Unity Biotechnologies and Ichor Therapeutics), and with some luck, it could become fully established science within few decades. If this is news to you, it probably sounds unbelievable or even scary; therefore, I ask you to set doubts aside for now, and take my word for it. I want to show you how these technologies have the potential to solve the issues I was talking about.

Whether you’ve heard about it or not, science is looking into ways to reverse menopause, or indefinitely postpone it, to allow older women to bypass biology and have a child. Recent studies suggest it might be possible to turn skin cells into egg cells, which would be a convenient way to get around the fact that women apparently run out of egg cells entirely around the time they hit menopause. Another possibility (and this is my guess), might be freezing some of your own egg cells when you’re 20 for later use. Whatever the means, the objective is to allow women to have children later than they otherwise could. According to Aubrey de Grey, the very scientist who is fostering the whole field of rejuvenation biotechs, we might soon be able to turn menopause on and off.

You probably think that a woman having a child in her 90s is a terrible idea, and under normal circumstances I would agree. But here we’re not talking about a 90-year-old woman as we would intend her today; we’re talking about a 90-year-old woman in a world where comprehensive rejuvenation therapies exist. In other words, this 90-year-old woman’s health would be the same as that of a typical 25-year-old; she would look like a 25-year-old and her body would feel to her as though she was still chronologically young. Put next to a woman who was actually in her 20s, you wouldn’t be able to tell who’s the 90-year-old.

Now, imagine what would be the advantages of combining rejuvenation therapies with the ability to reverse menopause, or even switch it on and off. I can think of a few.

  • No more rushed decisions. If there’s no expiration date on your fertility, you needn’t fear missing your chance to have a baby, and you don’t need to rush into it if you’re unsure.
  • Reduced social pressure. I’m not going to say that rejuvenation plus extended fertility would eliminate social pressure entirely. People might still (wrongly) think that there’s something wrong with a woman who hasn’t had children already by her 30s. However, I think this combo would considerably reduce social pressure: If you can have children at any point, you can give your pestering family their long-yearned-for grandkids at any point. Your parents can’t play the trump card of their impending death by old age to pressure you, because rejuvenated people don’t die of old age. They’re healthy as ever, with an indefinitely long lifespan ahead of them—which, by the way, probably means that becoming grandparents wouldn’t be their one and only goal left in life.
  • You can always start over. Say you decided to have children and ended up regretting it. Right now, once your kids are independent and you’re free to go back to your life as it was before parenthood, there generally isn’t much life left for you to go back to. Two, maybe three decades, and your health gets worse year after year. However, in a post-rejuvenation world, you’re not sick and decrepit after you children have grown up; you’re biologically young, healthy, and with no limit on how much you’ve got left to live. You can go back to your pre-parenthood life and make of it what you wish. On the other hand, if you loved having children, you can do it again. How old you are doesn’t matter. (Afraid of overpopulation? Read here.) Notice that this point applies to both men and women, for pretty much any choice they make. In a post-rejuvenation world, it’s never too late to change careers, to go back to studying, to start travelling, or to rethink your life entirely.
  • Longer life experience. As a rule of thumb, we’re much wiser in our old age, for obvious reasons. If we could have children in our 100s or later, we would have much more to give and teach to our children, and we could be much better parents. Younger generations would be able to benefit from the wisdom of older ones for much longer.
  • No unwanted or accidental pregnancies. If we really are going to be able to turn menopause on and off (which I don’t dare taking for granted), that’d pretty much be the ultimate contraceptive. For example, you could decide to keep it ‘switched on’ all the time, making any unwanted pregnancy virtually impossible, and ‘switch it off’ only when you want to have a baby. (Of course the ‘switch’ wouldn’t prevent STIs, for which old-school prevention methods would still apply.) This ability would also make the lives of victims of sexual abuse a little easier. Being raped is bad enough as it is, and I’d imagine that having to bear your rapist’s child is even worse. Having menopause ‘switched on’ would not heal the wounds or the devastating psychological effects of abuse, but it would prevent a horrible situation from becoming worse.
  • You can have the cake and eat it. Even though it is not advisable to do so, more and more women today are postponing their first pregnancy because there are other things they’d like to accomplish first. In a post-rejuvenation world, you could postpone pregnancy for as long as you like and dedicate yourself to whatever your priorities are, without making it any harder or unadvisable to bear a child.

There’s a small problem, of course: Rejuvenation isn’t here yet, and neither is the ability to switch menopause on and off. What’s worse, we’re not 100% sure that we’ll actually pull it off. As you read these lines, researchers all over the world are endeavouring to create a world where growing old doesn’t mean being sick and unable to have children any more. Their efforts might fail, but given the payoff, I think it is definitely worth trying.

If this is all new to you, you might be interested to know more in detail what rejuvenation is, or you might have some concerns about it that need an answer. If so, have a look at what ageing and SENS are, why ageing is a problem, and the Answers to objections section.

Some concerns on US politics and rejuvenation

Sometimes, bad news are good news in disguise. Some other times, it might be the other way around. I’ve been concerned for a while about certain turns that the situation of anti-ageing research might take in the future, and perhaps is already taking right now.

So. Donald Trump is President of the US.

My personal opinion of Trump is that he’s an incompetent, self-absorbed buffoon with the mental capacity of a retarded 5-year-old and the scientific understanding of a dead ant. His lack of respect for basic human rights is appalling. He possesses no moral or intellectual integrity to be spoken of, has a despicable habit of providing ‘alternative facts‘, and his ego is far too large to fit in this universe. My understanding is that he’s also accused by some of certain crimes, but I don’t really know if it’s true, so I will suspend my judgement on that. Anyway, my opinion of Trump isn’t important. What is important is that a lot of people have a similar opinion of him. When you have such a low opinion of somebody, it’s very easy to have a similarly low opinion of anything they do or that is associated with them, regardless of the actual merits of what they do or are associated with. In other words, it’s very easy to reason like this: ‘Trump is an idiot, therefore anything he does or is associated with is idiotic,’ whence ‘If Trump did X, or is somehow associated with X, then X must be idiotic.’ Especially in the case of Trump, it’s tempting to think like this. However, this reasoning is incorrect, and I don’t think I need to explain why. Two important consequences of this reasoning might be the following:

  • The public opinion on measures, changes, or initiatives taken or implemented by Trump could become extremely negative. This could be especially true if people thought said measures were already controversial to begin with, whether taken by Trump or others.
  • Future administrations might wish to distance themselves from Trump’s administration as much as possible, particularly if he screws up really badly or if he falls before the end of his mandate. To this end, they might want to undo changes operated by Trump and do the opposite of what he did. Again, this might be especially true in case of controversial measures on which public opinion was divided or largely negative.

Okay. Maybe it is like that. Why should you care? Well, Peter Thiel is an advisor to Donald Trump. I’m not sure what the exact title of Thiel’s position is, or how official or permanent it is, but it is pretty clear that he has the ear of the President.

I don’t have an opinion on Peter Thiel. All I know is that he co-founded PayPal and that he’s pretty much in favour of all sorts of technological and scientific progress, including, but not limited to, the defeat of ageing. As a matter of fact, Thiel is notoriously a strong supporter of SENS and has donated tons of money to SENS—something like over 6 million dollars. So far, so good. One could argue that people like Thiel (and Elon Musk, who’s also on Trump’s advisory board) might be able prevent Trump from fucking everything up, and in the case of Thiel, even help give a little push to anti-ageing research. Indeed, Thiel may be able to have his associate Jim O’Neill appointed as head of the FDA. Do you know where Jim O’Neill sits? On the board of directors of SENS.

So? What’s my problem? A board member of SENS might become the head of the FDA. This is cause for celebration, right? He could speed up the development of rejuvenation biotechs like never before, right? Yes, in theory. I would be celebrating this news if it wasn’t for two lingering concerns bothering me ever since I heard about it.

My first concern should be pretty clear. As much as we wished otherwise, rejuvenation is still a controversial idea that most people welcome with extreme scepticism at best; associating it with Trump might be a bad thing in the long term. Imagine O’Neill really becomes head of the FDA and really pushes the idea forward. The political adversaries of Trump might well make use of this against him. They could accuse him of wasting taxpayers’ money on pipe dreams, of attempting to undermine the natural order of things, and could raise all the usual objections to rejuvenation we’re used to hear. As advocates of rejuvenation, we all know that even perfectly reasonable people tend to fall for these objections without even questioning them; if they’re blinded by political hatred, I fear they’ll be even more likely to buy into these arguments and become well persuaded that rejuvenation is an impossible goal that only a fool like Trump could ever try to pursue. Some of the least bright minds might even believe that he wants to achieve immortality to rule the world forever, or some other crazy nonsense like that.

A possible result is that the opposition against rejuvenation might increase. Trump’s successors might undo any pro-rejuvenation initiative he might have enacted and steer clear from the cause. Crowdfunding efforts might become more difficult, and the fear of bad publicity might drive private investors away. Remember how Aubrey de Grey always says there’s at least a 10% chance that we won’t get rejuvenation for another 100 years? This might be the most direct way to pump that percentage all the way up to 50%.

But wait—it gets worse. If you’ve read some of the articles I linked above, you might have got the same creeping feeling that authors are trying to present Thiel as more of a weirdo than an innovator. Maybe that isn’t their intention; still, a fervent opposer of Trump reading that one of his advisors is into building cities on the sea, has a ‘well-documented obsession with life-extension technologies, including extending his own lifespan with blood transfusions from young people’ (cit. from Vanity Fair above), and thinks the FDA is in the way of drug innovation, may easily conclude that these are the hallmarks of a nutcase. Jim O’Neill isn’t in a better position, really, because he’s into pretty much the same things, and more than one article present him as a dangerous radical who speaks at biotech meetings without being a physician. They’re not very upfront about it, but I do think they’re subtly implying he’s incompetent at best and crazy at worst. How much, if at all, is their opinion of Trump influencing their opinion of Thiel and O’Neill? How will this influence their opinion of rejuvenation?

Some papers may be deliberately misrepresenting Thiel and O’Neill, and I don’t necessarily share such extreme opinions on them. I don’t know enough about them to even have a clear opinion. To be honest, I have my doubts about their idea that drugs should be approved right after passing safety tests, even if efficacy isn’t proved; this is my second concern. This idea is quite controversial, yet it seems to be shared by many within SENS (including Aubrey de Grey—he’s pretty upfront about it in Ending Aging) and others within the movement (most notably FA!). I’m willing to bet this is another argument that Trump’s opposers could easily use against him—for example, they could argue that loosening drug approval criteria may end up flooding the market with placebos and potentially dangerous medicines. True or not, this argument’s appeal to fear could be very powerful, especially among Trump’s opposers, and could do an even better job at convincing them that supporters of rejuvenation are dangerously crazy. (As a side note, if something did go wrong as a consequence of a hastily approved anti-ageing drug, I fear the shockwave would be felt throughout the entire field for decades to come.) However, I haven’t made my mind up about this whole FDA thing. I need to do more research and ask for more opinions before I come to a conclusion; therefore, I’ll leave this matter for another post.

Under different circumstances, I’d be extremely happy to know that a SENS board member might be part of the US President’s entourage. Further research might make me less worried about O’Neill’s proposals for the FDA, but I’d really prefer the first President to endorse SENS to be someone else than a total moron with great chances to be remembered as the worst and most hated US President in history.

Maybe I’m blowing it out of proportions. I certainly hope so.

PS: It’s okay if you disagree with my opinions. It’s okay if you want to comment to say it. However, I’m not interested in debating if Hillary, or any other candidate, would have been better than Trump or anything like that. I don’t know, and I don’t even care.

Doing the right things for the wrong reasons

Some time ago, I bumped into a short excerpt of a video interview with Neil deGrasse Tyson and Larry King. After I watched it, I was sadly surprised by what deGrasse Tyson said. Before you read further, you should take a minute to watch the interview. If you can’t see the video or can’t be bothered to watch it, here’s a transcript.

NdGT: If you could live forever, would you?

LK: Yes!

NdGT: [laughs] OK, We’re done of the interview!

LK: [incomprehensible]

NdGT: Yes! No, OK, sure. That’s an attractive idea, but the way I look at it is, it is the knowledge that I’m going to die that creates the focus that I bring to being alive. The urgency of accomplishment; the need to express love now, not later. If we live forever, why ever even get out of bed in the morning? Because you always have tomorrow. That’s not the kind of life I want to lead.

LK: But why? Don’t you fear not being around?

NdGT: I fear living a life where I could have accomplished something I didn’t. That’s what I fear. I don’t fear death.

LK: Don’t you fear the unknown?

NdGT: I love the unknown! I loved it—You know what I want on my tombstone? My sister has this in her notes, just in case I can’t tell anyone after I die. On my tombstone, a quote from Horace Mann, great educator: “Be ashamed to die, until you have scored some victory for humanity.” That’s what I want on my tombstone.

Superficially, this might sound right, and if it does, I think it’s because it does one thing: It appeases our fear of death saying that there’s nothing to fear, and that death should instead be cherished as a motivator.
Stick with me, and I’ll show you why I think this is profoundly wrong.

Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist and a cosmologist. He’s written several books, won many awards, and indeed accomplished a lot in his life, just like he wished he would. That’s great. What motivated all these accomplishments? According to what he himself said, the ‘urgency’ of accomplishment was a consequence of the knowledge that he’s going to die. This is not the picture of a passionate man who loves what he does. Rather, it is more like the picture of a man who’s stuffing his face with whatever he can grab from the buffet before they take it away. To my shame, I haven’t read anything he’s written, or watched any other videos featuring him, and I know that I should. From what I gathered through other people’s opinions, he’s a brilliant man with a lot to teach, and I refuse to believe that the reason behind all his remarkable accomplishments is the fear of dying without having done anything with his life. Sure as hell he must love physics and science, he must be enraptured by the mysteries of the cosmos and all they can teach us. He must be deeply passionate about the science he has contributed to advance.

I sincerely do not doubt his passion. But what he’s saying in this interview is that his passion alone isn’t enough. If he could live forever, his passion about stars wouldn’t be sufficient to get him out of bed every morning and study them, because he could always postpone that to tomorrow. What kind of a passion is that, for heaven’s sake? I certainly grant everyone the right to choose how intense their passions should be, but if you ask me, a passion is something that, alone, is enough to get me out of bed every morning with the very specific intent of pursuing it, regardless of how much time I have left to dedicate to it. If anything, knowing that my time on this Earth could be limited makes me depressed, because it means I only have so much time to dedicate to the things I love; I only have so much time to express love for the important people in my life. On this subject, I assure you I need no special motivators to express love, and in particular I think the pressure imposed by one’s limited time is the worst of all potential such motivators. I don’t express love for people dear to me because one day I’ll lose them; I express love for them because they deserve it and I need it. That’s all the motivation I need. Screw death. If you don’t want to lead a life where you don’t accomplish anything or never express love for others, all you need to do is decide to love and accomplish and get to it. You don’t need any sucker in a black cloak and a scythe to push you; if you think you do, I argue you need to rethink your approach to life, and perhaps have a closer look at what you’re pursuing and the people you’re spending your life with.

Even if I was willing to accept deGrasse Tyson’s motivator in life as such (and I most definitely am not), I think he’s confusing death with mortality. They’re not at all the same thing. Not even close. Mortality is the ‘ability’—for lack of a better word—to die; death is the act of actually dying. Even if our life was not limited in time—for example, because we developed rejuvenation biotechnologies to eliminate age-related death, as we are indeed doing—this wouldn’t make us immortal. Death would still be possible, by accident or by diseases we can’t yet cure, for example. You would still be unsure if you’ll wake up tomorrow, and would thus still have this highly questionable motivator.

I suggest a better motivator, one that a man of science like deGrasse Tyson should appreciate. If we lived forever—or indefinitely, as I find more correct to say—we could accomplish much more. Instead of cramming all we can in our miserably short lives, we could learn for centuries and experience much more of what the universe has to offer. We would no longer be forced to choose between equally worthy goals because of lack of time: We could fully master one skill thanks to decades of practice, and then move on to the next, never afraid that our bodies will fail us or that the reaper will prevent us from continuing to enrich ourselves and the rest of the world. We could witness as science unravels the marvels of the universe, instead of dying thinking that there’s a lot we’re going to miss out on in the future we’ll never see.

Wouldn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson love to see what cosmology will be like in the future? Wouldn’t he want to live to see the day we become a spacefaring civilisation? Wouldn’t he love to see his great-grandchildren grow into adults, and perhaps become scientists themselves? Wouldn’t he want to be there the day we make contact with an alien civilisation? Wouldn’t he be even a little bit curious to see what’s become of humanity thanks to the very victories he himself scored for it?

I know I would.

Again on ageing as a disease: A rectification

My previous post was somewhat confusing even to myself. To be completely frank, I think it was a little bit of a fuck-up. Several people have commented about it, for example on Reddit or Facebook, pointing out among the rest that whether or not ageing is a disease isn’t just semantics and it isn’t pointless. (To the people commenting on Facebook, I’d like to say that I’m sorry I didn’t reply to your comments, but for some reason I was stuck as ‘Rejuvenaction’ on those posts, and Pages don’t seem to be allowed to comment on group posts. I tried to switch to my personal account to no avail. I figured out a workaround, but at this point it’s a bit too late.)

What I meant to say is that arguing whether or not ageing is a medical condition is far less important than treating its root causes, and as long as we focused on this task, we could postpone the debate to a later time. The finer points of establishing if ageing fits the definition of ‘disease’ to the letter would waste precious time we could spend saving lives instead; we should definitely not wait until the issue has been settled before we start developing rejuvenation biotechnologies. (And we are not waiting at all, luckily.) However, classifying ageing as a disease is very important and not at all pointless, as Reason of FA! explained in this post. In a nutshell, if the ageing processes that lead to age-related diseases were considered pathological, research on how to interfere with them would likely receive more funding, and drugs that target ageing itself could be approved by the FDA. (The FDA only approves drugs that target recognised diseases; if ageing isn’t recognised as one, no drugs targeting it would be approved.) I think there might be a chance that some bona-fide anti-ageing drugs would be approved even if ageing wasn’t recognised as a disease—for example, drugs that clear the amyloid plaques that build up in the brain would essentially be rejuvenation therapies preventing Alzheimer’s disease, and as such I suppose they would be approval material for the FDA, even if they did’t recognise ageing itself as a disease; nevertheless, it’s clear that things would be easier in terms of getting funding and approving drugs if the whole ageing process was classified as a disease.

That being said, if we want to decide if ageing is a disease, we really do need to have good definitions of both terms. It turns out that defining ‘disease’ is not a simple problem, and apparently WHO themselves don’t have an official definition. They do have a definition of health, though, which says among the rest that ‘ Health is […] not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’; the lack of an official WHO definition of disease makes their definition of health a bit problematic, in my opinion. I suppose they rely on the intuitive idea of ‘disease’ we all have, but as a mathematician, I find this decidedly insufficient. If you look up ‘disease’ on Wikipedia, you’ll find this:

A disease is a particular abnormal condition, a disorder of a structure or function, that affects part or all of an organism.

I don’t like this definition very much, because it might imply that a ‘normal’ condition isn’t a disease; however, the incidence of age-related disease grows higher and higher with age, to the point that I don’t see how they couldn’t be considered ‘normal’ past a certain age; that’s why I prefer a definition along the lines of ‘a definite pathological process having a characteristic set of signs and symptoms’.

As for the definition of ‘ageing’, I stick to Aubrey de Grey‘s definition, i.e. that ageing is the process of accumulation of damage the body inflicts itself as a side-effect of its normal operations. In the post we’re discussing, I said that even according to this definition, ageing wasn’t a disease, but only a cause of disease; I used a comparison I found very fit, i.e. that ageing is to age-related diseases what viruses are to infections. However, upon more careful reflection, this comparison is a bit misleading. It’s true that a virus is not a disease; however, a virus isn’t a process either, unlike ageing. A better comparison would be between age-related damage and viruses. The accumulation of damage could then be (rather loosely) compared to an infection, in the sense that both are processes that happen over time: They begin, they progress, and eventually give rise to symptoms and full-blown diseases.

Now, at least according to the second definition of ‘disease’ I provided, ageing seems to be one, because it is a pathological process (although an extraordinarily long one) that has a characteristic set of signs and symptoms. While symptoms and visible signs of ageing don’t show up until late in life, more subtle signs (accumulation of senescent cells, or cross-links, for example) are present inside your body basically at all times. The reason I call it a ‘pathological’ process is that the damage caused by ageing is, as said, a side-effect of your metabolism; it’s a bug, not a feature, left around by evolution because it was generally not serious enough to prevent you from reaching reproductive age. It’s a disease that stays silent until a certain threshold is reached—again, pretty much like an infection until there are enough viruses around to wreak havok.

Ultimately, ageing may or may not be a disease depending on the definition of ‘disease’ we want to adopt. With enough nitpicking, ageing may well not be a disease according to some definitions, but in principle we could change definitions around so much that Alzheimer’s disease stops being a disease and mountain climbing suddenly becomes one. (This is an intentionally ridiculous example.) I have no problem admitting that this is not what my previous post seemed to say, and I honestly have no idea how I managed to twist my own thoughts around so much that they ended up contradicting things I wrote before. I have a hunch I had grown a bit too fond of the metaphors I used in that post, which again seemed fitting but were confusing. I’m not a fan of revisionism, so my previous post is going to stay up right the way it is, just with a link to this one.

As a side note, some now-recognised age-related diseases were considered to be part of ‘normal’ ageing in the relatively recent past. Seems to me ‘normal’ is a safety-blanket word that we use to feel okay about not doing anything to change something that is not good and difficult to change. Or maybe, it’s just that we like feeling ‘normal’. If you’re 78 and your doctor says you’ve got high blood pressure, he’ll also probably reassure you and say that ‘at your age, it is normal’. So what? That only means that it’s common for a person of your age to have unhealthy blood pressure, and it’s in no way different from saying that it is normal for a smoker to have their lungs full of crap. It’s normal alright, but it is very bad nonetheless.