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.

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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.

Update bundle #3

Last update: 20.01.2017.

Happy New Year! Yes, I realise I’m a bit late for that one, but I’ve been quite busy in the last month. I spent good part of my Christmas holidays and of January working on some improvements to Rejuvenaction, and yet others are planned. Let me tell you about them.

The largest change is the new version of the overpopulation objection. I’d been wanting to revise it for some time already, and I added a lot more meat to it in the process. I split it into three separate sections dealing with different aspects of the problem; each of them goes much more into detail than before. Comments and suggestions are welcome, especially if you notice any mistakes that I may have overlooked.

I answered two more objections, namely Rejuvenation will be too expensive to create and Rejuvenation won’t happen within my lifetime.

I also created a page containing all answers in short, whose purpose should be self-explanatory. Each short answer on this page links to the corresponding full answer both on Rejuvenaction and LEAF (if available). More generally, each time you see this icon

leaf

it means the article you’re reading has a counterpart on LEAF which I linked to and you may want to check out.

I also retouched some other articles here and there, and shortened the titles of menu items for the sake of navigability. Should you find any broken links anywhere, please let me know. With all the changes I made, it’s bound to have happened somewhere.

Next, I’m planning to add more content to the section about ageing and SENS, but it’ll take a while before I even begin, so don’t hold your breath.

On an unpleasant note, the crowdfunding campaign for CellAge has only two days left to go and has reached only 29% of the goal. If you can help push that percentage a bit higher, please do.

UPDATE: The CellAge fundraiser has been extended until February 24th, and is currently 30% funded. We’ve got over a month’s time to make it 100%!

A sickeningly bad idea indeed

Science and progress hardly ever stop just because a few cuckoos think we’re going too far. That’s what I tell myself most of the times when I bump into depressingly ill-informed articles about ageing and the diseases of old age. I tell myself that the best thing to do is to just let such articles disappear into oblivion and not give them any extra visibility. However, if instead of a few cuckoos we’re faced with an army of cuckoos, then we’re in for troubles.

At the time of this writing, people who are in favour of or oppose rejuvenation aren’t many, and neither are those who know about it but don’t care. Quite likely, most people in the world haven’t even heard about it yet. What I fear is that, when the advent of rejuvenation biotechnologies will be close, people who oppose rejuvenation will do their best to persuade undecided ones that disease is better than health, and ultimately, provoke an us-vs-them conflict that could jeopardise the cause of rejuvenation. The best way to avoid that conflict is to convince as many people as possible to support rejuvenation biotechnologies before they even arrive, so that when they do, those who oppose them will only be a few cuckoos indeed and not an army. Exposing the intellectual misery of deathist arguments is indubitably a good way of reaching this goal; that’s why I chose to respond to this spectacularly stupid article, instead of just ignoring it.

lewis

Lewis doesn’t want to live in a world without diseases.
She prefers living in one where diseases are invented.

I’ll spare you my thoughts on the annoying arrogance oozing out every single word of the article, and I’ll just focus on the rather questionable opinions expressed in it. Recently, founder and CEO of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg and his wife Priscilla Chan have announced a philantrophic effort to ‘end all diseases’ and, to this end, pledged an investment of 3 billion dollars for the necessary research. The author of the article I was talking about, Jemima Lewis, argues that ‘we’d better hope they don’t succeed’, and that ‘developing new technologies and medicines to tackle every disease ever invented’ is a ‘sickeningly bad idea’. Rather than living forever in perfect health in the world as it would be if the Zuckerbergs succeeded in their endeavour, she adds, she’d prefer dying of an ‘old-fashioned heart-attack’. Well, you know me: I’m very liberal, and I think Lewis has the right to die in any way she sees fit (including an oddly hyphenated heart attack), but for God’s sake, she should definitely pick up and read a dictionary before she dies. She could find rather interesting trivia in it—for example, the fact diseases are not invented but discovered.

Lewis goes on making up numbers and dire predictions of wars over fresh water a month after ‘curing mortality’, of WHO forcing sterilisation on people, and of starvation. It’s not very clear what sources she’s basing her predictions on or where she got those figures. Apparently, backing up one’s claims is not a thing journalists need to care about. I doubt she actually consulted any source; if she had, she would have noticed that the average number of daily deaths doesn’t even come close offsetting the number of daily births, and that in order to avert potential apocalyptic overpopulation scenarios, we would need to make fewer babies, not kill off more people. What we would need is to decrease the population growth rate—which, incidentally, is happening on its own since the sixties. Her articles might improve a little if she bothered doing some research before talking about a subject she clearly knows nothing about.

Lewis’ masterpiece, though, is the following bit:

To avert global catastrophe, the Zuckerbergs will have to leave us something to die of. But perhaps they’ve thought of that already. Perhaps instead we will be discreetly euthanised, once our online data suggests we are starting to flag. There’ll be a knock on the door, and one of those cute Japanese nursing robots will gently see us off with a painlessly lethal injection.

Let me get this straight. Curing all diseases and preventing all deaths, she reasons (loosely speaking), would lead to catastrophic overpopulation, therefore we shouldn’t cure all diseases. Of course, we can’t not cure all diseases either, so the only option left is to cure only some diseases; after all, as she points out with brilliant witticism, euthanising people to rid ourselves of overpopulation would be unethical. In her own words,

Anything that kills people much too young, or much too painfully, can go. But we need the diseases of old age, however much we may rail against them.

I wonder, though, what’s the age beyond which people aren’t ‘much too young’ to die, what diseases aren’t ‘much too painful’ and therefore should not be cured, who is going to make these decisions, and what we are going to do if people don’t want to die at age X just because somebody else has decided for them they’re ‘much too old’ to live and not in sufficient pain to be cured. I ask in the spirit of pure enquiry: Far be it from me implying that these would be profound and unsolvable ethical problems which Lewis is nonchalantly and irresponsibly overlooking.

(As a sidenote, if I was forced to choose between 1) being perfectly healthy for as long as I’m alive and dying painlessly with an injection, and 2) spending the last 20+ years of my life in a state of increasing decrepitude, illness, and disability which will eventually kill me, I would definitely choose option 1. Both options suck, since they both imply my death, but the first is far less grim. With some luck, though, we’ll be able to pick another option—being perfectly healthy for as long as we are alive, however long that may be.)

Not everyone agrees with Lewis that letting people die is a solution to anything, but perhaps they could be persuaded by the quote by Steve Jobs concluding her article:

Steve Jobs, the original tech giant, understood this – even as he fought the cancer that eventually killed him. “No one wants to die,” he wrote, yet “death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new.”

Of course, silly me. Who cares about old people’s lives and well-being? They’re much too old, and we need to get rid of the old to make way for the new. It kind of reminds me of a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode by the title of Half a life.

If anyone ever had a sickeningly bad idea, that was Lewis when she decided to write her article.