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.

Be the Lifespan

I apologise for my long silence (both here and on l4t), but I’m having another of my crazy busy periods. As a matter of fact, I’ve got something going on behind the scenes for Rejuvenaction—major content updates that I’m planning and soon I’ll be working on, but don’t hold your breath. It’s gonna be a long thing, and I probably won’t get to it properly until my busyness is over.

In the meantime, have a look at Lifespan.io’s new campaign:


This campaign has no expiry date, and it aims at getting a decent monthly budget for LEAF/Lifespan.io to fund more and more projects and initiatives to help scientific research against age-related diseases and spread awareness. The base goal is 1000$, but with a higher budget, LEAF may be able to do a lot of cool things, like collaboration videos with big YouTube names such as SciShow and Kurzgesagt and yearly conferences. If you can spare even just a few dollars a month, you can help LEAF make a big difference.

You can also help out by spreading the word on your social media—remember to use the hashtags #aging, #crowdfundthecure, #bethelifespan.

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.

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.

Health before semantics

Update: If you read this post, I recommend you also read this one. It clarifies a few things I got wrong or expressed poorly here.

Whether or not ageing ought to be considered a disease is still matter of controversy, both among experts and laypeople. Particularly, the latter tend to turn up their noses at the thought of ageing being pathological and not ‘normal’, especially if they’re outside the life-extension/rejuvenation community. Clearly, they ignore the fact that ‘normal’ and ‘pathological’ aren’t mutually exclusive at all. It’s perfectly normal to suffer from hearing loss in old age; notwithstanding, it is out of the question that hearing loss is a pathology and we have developed several ways to make up for it. It presently can’t be cured, because like all age-related diseases, it can only get worse as long as the age-related damage that causes it keeps accumulating.

In my humble opinion of quasi-layperson (I’m nowhere near being an expert, but I do think I know about ageing more than your average Joe), whether or not ageing is a disease is merely a matter of semantics, depending largely on what we want to label as ‘ageing’—not to mention how we define ‘disease’.

If we say that ‘ageing’ is the set of age-related pathologies that affect a given person, then ageing isn’t a disease any more than a box of crayons is itself a crayon. Nonetheless, if you have a box of crayons then you have a bunch of crayons; if you have ageing as we defined it, then you have a bunch of diseases, and the grand total of your ailments doesn’t change whether you consider ageing as a disease as well or not. Quite frankly, I’d pick the box of crayons over ageing any time.

We could define ‘ageing’ differently. We could define it as the damage accumulation processes that eventually give rise to the pathologies of old age. This is a much more sensible definition, because it emphasises the fact ageing is a process that happens gradually over time, starting on day 1. You don’t ‘get’ ageing late in life; you were born with it. When ageing is in its early stages, for example in your 20s or 30s, you can’t really call its effects a ‘disease’ any more than you can call a spec of dust a ‘dust cloud’; when you’re 20, you’re no more ‘sick’ with ageing than a table with a single dust spec on its surface is ‘dusty’. However, during later stages of ageing pathologies are the norm, and the progression of the ageing process exacerbates them further. According to this definition, ageing is still not a disease, but its the cause of many diseases, in pretty much the same way a virus is not the disease it causes: Rhinoviruses are not the common cold; they merely cause it. (This is where the analogy stops. All ageing and viruses have in common is that they both cause diseases. Ageing is certainly not an infectious pathogen!) Notice that, even though HIV, for example, is not itself a disease, we can all agree that we should get rid of it because it causes a horrible disease, namely AIDS. For the same reason, even if ageing did not fit our definition of disease, it is clear that it causes horrible diseases; this should be enough to stop bickering over semantics and just focus on getting rid of ageing already.

We could also think of ageing as an ‘über disease’: A disease whose symptoms are diseases themselves; a ‘disease of diseases’. This is more along the lines of what Aubrey de Grey calls ageing, and he’s not wrong, because what we currently see happening in old age is essentially the sum of different age-related pathologies all happening at more or less the same time.

If you ask me, even without going into the details of the biology of ageing, I’d say that, strictly speaking, it’s probably not a disease (some say it’s neither a disease, nor a non-disease), but it obviously causes crippling pathologies; however, if classifying ageing as a disease may help us get sooner to a world free of age-related diseases, I’m definitely in favour of doing it. I’ll gladly discuss the semantics of the matter after the diseases of old age will no longer be a problem. (*)

(*) Please, do have a look at my first comment below for a further clarification of my stand on the matter.

Reductio ad absurdum

If you’ve ever tried to advocate for rejuvenation, you know it is hard. Usually, people deem the idea as crazy/impossible/dangerous well before you get to finish your first sentence. Living too long would be boring, it would cause overpopulation, ‘immortal’ dictators, and what you have. However, you’ve probably never heard anyone use the same arguments to say that we should not cure individual age-related diseases. This is largely because people have little to no idea about what ageing really is, and how it cannot be untangled from the so-called age-related pathologies. These are nothing more, nothing less, than the result of the life-long accumulation of several types of damage caused by the body’s normal operations. Unlike infectious diseases, the diseases of old age are not the result of a pathogen attack, but essentially of your own body falling apart. As I was saying, people are largely unaware of this fact, and therefore expect that the diseases of ageing could be cured one by one without having to interfere with the ageing process itself, as if the two weren’t related at all. The result of this false expectation would be that you could cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, etc., but somehow old people would still drop dead around the age of 80 just because they’re old. That’s like saying they died of being healthy.

Back to reality, this can’t be done. To cure the diseases of old age, you need to cure ageing itself. If, for whatever reason, you think that curing ageing as a whole would be a bad idea and it should not be done, the only option is to not cure at least some of the root causes of ageing. Consequently, some age-related pathologies would remain as untreatable as they are today.

Now, the typical objections raised against rejuvenation tend to sound reasonable at first. To some, the statement ‘We should not cure ageing because it would lead to overpopulation’ sounds self-evident. However, if we consider the implications of this statement, things start getting crazy. As said, not curing ageing implies not curing some of its root causes, which in turn implies not curing some age-related diseases. Therefore, the sentence ‘We should not cure ageing’ implies ‘We should not cure [insert age-related disease here]. What happens when we reformulate typical objections to rejuvenation in this fashion?

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because otherwise fewer people would die and this might lead to overpopulation.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure Alzheimer’s disease, because otherwise fewer people would die and this might lead to overpopulation.

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because it would be unnatural.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure atherosclerosis, because it would be unnatural. (The f*ck did I just read?!)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because it would be only for the rich and cause inequality.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure cancer, because it would be only for the rich and cause inequality. (THE F#CK DID I JUST READ?!?!)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because there are more urgent issues.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure type 2 diabetes, because there are more urgent issues. (Right. Now let me watch this new Hollywood mediocre blockbuster whose making was an absolute priority.)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because longer lifespans would be boring.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure cerebrovascular diseases, because longer lifespans would be boring. (Well, I can see how an ischemic attack would spice your life up.)

  • Generic:
    We should not cure ageing, because the future looks too grim to live.
  • Specific:
    We should not cure arteriosclerosis, because the future looks too grim to live. (We should not cure all age-related diseases—effectively making the future worse than whatever it looks like right now—because some people think the future will be so horrible that THEY won’t want to live any more and for some weird reason specifically prefer to be killed by an age-related disease, even though all of this incidentally implies that most of the rest of the world too will die of age-related diseases, including those who disagree with this crazy argument. Sounds reasonable.)

I don’t think I need to point out why the statements listed under ‘specific’ are utterly ridiculous. (Which, in case you were wondering, is the reason for the title of this post. It’s latin for ‘reduction to absurdity’ and it is a type of mathematical proof, also known as proof by contradiction. What I did here is not a proof by contradiction, but the ‘reduction to absurdity’ bit is definitely there.) I’m all for discussing potential problems brought about by the defeat of ageing, so that we can prevent them from ever happening; however, I’m not going to buy a pig in a poke and accept blatant nonsense as valid objections to rejuvenation. Also, choosing which age-related diseases should be left untreated for the sake of not curing ageing as a whole is not an interest I’m planning to pick up any time soon.