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.

The point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation

If you’ve hung around here long enough, you probably know I have two pet peeves: ageing and money. If we assume the saying ‘Only two things are certain in life: death and taxes’ is true, then we’re forced to conclude that I advocate for the (indirect) elimination of the only two certainties in life. So, if you came here looking for certainties, I’m afraid you’re in the wrong place.

I’m (mostly) not joking. Lately I’ve been working a lot on the Answers to objections section, which together with a few discussions I’ve had on the Internet, got me thinking about the point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation. Generally, when I discuss the subject with somebody who’s not at all sold on the idea of rejuvenating people, I get the feeling they expect me to prove beyond doubt that nothing can possibly go wrong, either along the way between here and an ageless world or once that world has been reached. If my feeling is correct, opposers to rejuvenation may expect that my rebuttals are meant to prove that neither a post-ageing world, nor the journey to it, will present any problems or challenges.

This expectation is utterly unrealistic. It’s actually worse than that—it’s completely wrong. There’s no way in hell I (or anyone else) could guarantee that we won’t have a dictator ruling a nation for six centuries, or that environmental problems won’t be exacerbated, etc. The reason I can’t promise none of the above will happen is the very same reason why rejuvenation opposers can’t promise any of the above will happen: Nobody can actually predict the future.

Arguments against rejuvenation only sound reasonable because they appeal to our fears and to the blame-the-humans attitude of so many people. If you trust only your gut feelings and don’t bother examining facts and data, anti-rejuvenation arguments can easily seem obviously true. Accepting an anti-rejuvenation argument requires far less mental work than understanding why the same argument isn’t as sound as it appears, but that doesn’t make anti-rejuvenation arguments any more ‘obviously true’ than their rebuttals. It is impossible to know for a fact whether or not rejuvenation will cause any given problem before we get there.

Proving that no problems will arise as a consequence of defeating ageing is not the point of rebutting objections to rejuvenation. That’s not what any of my answers does. All they do is showing that objections to rejuvenation rely more often than not on fallacious reasoning, ignorance, fears, misconceptions, and wrong assumptions taken for established fact. In short, what we do when rebutting objections to rejuvenation is showing they aren’t valid reasons to let ageing continue crippling and killing us. At the same time, answers to objections show why all those predictions of doom and gloom aren’t as likely as they may appear. There’s no certainty to be found anywhere, but this doesn’t really matter—had we refrained from doing anything that wasn’t proved to be 100% risk-free throughout history, we’d probably still be living in caves.

Remember: Objections to rejuvenation are about hypothetical future problems that are far from being certain. Ageing and all the suffering and deaths that come with it are a very tangible fact, happening here and now. This alone should be sufficient to forget about objections altogether and focus only on putting an end to ageing. However, rebutting objections has also another purpose: It fuels discussion. Apart from raising awareness of the problem of ageing and the feasibility of its defeat, discussion prepares us to face the new challenges an ageless future might bring. The way to a world without ageing is still long, which gives us all the time we need to prevent eternal dictators, overpopulation, and all sorts of dystopian scenarios from ever materialising.

Please, stop.

Last Saturday night I went to see Doctor Strange. It requires a fair amount of suspension of disbelief—especially if spiritual poppycock is among your pet peeves, like in my case—but that’s not really a problem for me. I’ll hardly be waiting for a sequel, and I still prefer Benedict Cumberbatch as Sherlock, but all in all it was an entertaining movie.

However, there were two clichés that really ruined the experience for me: the implied, groundless cliché that ‘living forever is not as nice as you think, it’s something only bad guys would want and it comes at a high price’ creeping up throughout the entire movie, and the inevitable ‘death gives life its meaning’ cliché. This is the sort of stuff that would generally fly me into a rage and push me to write a venomous, demolishing article about the movie, but not this time.

I am really tired of hearing this false mantra being mindlessly repeated over and over. Books, movies, newspaper articles, people—everyone seems to be persuaded that without death, life would have no meaning. No one, though, bothers explaining why this depressing claim would hold true, and if they do, their arguments boil down to unconvincing, carelessly generalised hand-waving about how you couldn’t properly appreciate a good thing without its opposite. That’s like saying that in order to appreciate not having cancer, you need to have had cancer first. As I said in an admittedly much less diplomatic article, I appreciate how being mortal may make you see things differently from how an immortal being might see them, but that is not the same as death being mandatory to appreciate life. 

So, please, stop. Stop repeating this dangerous and foolish mantra. Don’t let movies, books, or anyone tell you that death gives life its meaning. Don’t let anyone decide for you what is the meaning of life, or what gives meaning to it, because in general there is no such thing. Meaning is relative, not absolute, and you get to decide for yourself what gives meaning to your life, not an age-old piece of nonsense people perpetuate merely to sugarcoat death. Death is nothing special. It is not a monster. It is not a foe, no more than the status of ‘broken’ is for an inanimate object. Death is the name we give to the status of a biological creature whose body is too damaged to keep functioning. That’s all it is. Nothing more, nothing less. When our bodies function properly, we live. When they don’t—when they’re ‘broken’—we die. Like all living creatures, we like it better when we function than when we don’t. Species wouldn’t last very long if they weren’t wired this way.

I don’t know what gives meaning to your life, but I can tell you what gives meaning to mine. People I love. Things I like doing. Music I like listening to. Playing piano. Drawing. Writing. Learning new things. Having fun with friends. Discussing science. Enjoying a beautiful landscape. Wondering about the countless mysteries of nature we haven’t solved yet—and many, many other things. Maybe none of these things gives meaning to your life, and they don’t have to. As said, you can find your own—and if it turned out to be death, well, so be it, but find out for yourself, do not let others tell you that without death life has no meaning. That is not a universal truth, and quite frankly, it is a statement that is contradicted every day by our very actions.

We have hospitals to cure sick people. We have international organisations trying to save people in poor countries from starvation, to put an end to war and help its victims. Why all these initiatives aimed at preserving our lives, if death is what gives them meaning? If death gives meaning to life, why do Doctor Strange and his superhero friends strive so hard to save the lives of the people on Earth? Why deprive all those lives of their meaning? If you are struck by a fatal illness, why turn to doctors to save your life? Perhaps the time has come for death to give it meaning.

Do you see the nonsense yet? The very idea that death gives meaning to life, when we’ve tried so very hard from time immemorial to stave off death for as long as possible, is absurd—or perhaps, a hint that we don’t care that much for our lives to have a meaning after all. Does all that you do, feel, and care for, magically become worthless if you don’t die? Are the people you love dear to you only because one day you won’t have them any more? What about the things they have done for you, or the fact they understand you like no one else does?

No, I don’t think death gives meaning to life. Things I fill my life with give it meaning, and all my death is going to accomplish is taking those things away from me. (Or rather, it’s going to take me away from those things.) Ageing is the worst example of this: It gradually makes you more and more unable to dedicate yourself to the things that give your life meaning, thus making your life more and more meaningless. Eventually, it deprives you of life entirely.

So please, stop repeating the death mantra. Stop believing in this crazy nonsense. I understand where it comes from, and I understand our need to rationalise death, but it is time to move on. It is time to look at death for what it is and keep on refining our tools to stave it off indefinitely, so that people can live in perfect health for as long as they wish.

Stop repeating the death mantra, or progress of medical science runs the risk of being hindered by cohorts of people thinking that death is necessary and thus we should not cure all diseases. Think about it for a moment: Should we not cure Alzheimer’s disease, or cardiovascular diseases, or cancer, to make sure that something will kill us and give our lives ‘meaning’? Are we really going to put the brakes on medicine for fear that too long a life might be boring? How many more excuses are we going to make up?

Please, no more excuses. Please, stop.