Issue #7: health

Learning not to die

Comments Off on Learning not to die
by Patrick Stokes on March 20, 2015

It probably says something telling about human beings that the oldest surviving piece of literature is about our longing to overcome death.

The Sumerian poetry cycle known to us as the Epic of Gilgamesh tells of the hero’s grief at the death of his friend Enkidu, and his journey to the ends of the earth to seek the secret of immortality from Utnapishtim, the survivor of a global flood (a sort of Mesopotamian proto-Noah). Along the way he meets a wise woman named Siduri, who tries to make him see the futility of his mission:

“Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find the life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping.”

Needless to say, this idea didn’t stop Gilgamesh from trying, and it hasn’t stopped us either. The good news is, we’ve become pretty good at cheating death of late. In the last few decades, life expectancy at birth in Western nations has been growing by several weeks each year. If that growth rate exceeds 52 weeks per year, we’d reach a state that’s only half-jokingly been called “Actuarial Escape Velocity”: the point at which our lives start growing faster than we can live them.

Advances in regenerative medicine and stem-cell technology, although both in their infancy, hold out the distant prospect that we, or more likely our descendants, might someday grasp the immortality that eluded Gilgamesh. A few metres from where I’m writing, Teeny the Zebrafish is happily swimming around in his aquarium. As the name implies he’s small, but zebrafish have remarkable capacities for regenerating heart, nerve, and retina tissue. If we could somehow harness such abilities for ourselves, we could effectively slow, stop, or even reverse the process of ageing and decay that Siduri tells us is our god-given lot.

We wouldn’t exactly be immortal; we’d still be vulnerable to accidents and murder, for instance. But our lives would be massively extended, and our relationship to death would be radically changed.

The bad news is, it’s not clear whether we should want this.

Despite Gilgamesh’s longings, immortality has just as often been pictured in literature as a curse. The shoemaker who was destined to walk the earth until the second coming as punishment for mocking Christ, haunts the European imagination as a figure of pity and warning, not of envy. On some level, it seems, we realise we need death, even if we do not want it.

In a heavily-discussed paper from the early 1970s, the British philosopher Bernard Williams offers a (very loose) re-telling of Leoš Janáček’s opera The Makropulos Affair. In Williams’ version of the story, 42-year-old Elena Makropulos takes an elixir which suspends her ageing and allows her to live for another three hundred years. At the end of that time, she has the option of taking the elixir again; she decides not to. She has, quite simply, become so bored of life that she would rather accept death. And that, according to Williams, is what would happen to any of us who found ourselves in her shoes.

For Williams, the idea of immortality lands us on the horns of a dilemma. On the one hand, there’s nothing we could imagine doing that would remain satisfying or enjoyable forever. Even our most seemingly basic pleasures – food, drink, sex, music – might become crushingly tedious, given long enough.

On the other hand, we could perhaps find indefinitely extended life enjoyable if the things we found pleasurable were to change. Imagine I’m a bookish, indoors type who loves nothing more than hanging out in libraries (not much of a stretch, you’ll be shocked to learn). A life of books might become dull after a couple of hundred years, but suppose that over the centuries I gradually morph from a retiring bookworm into a go-getting adrenaline junkie. Extreme sports might then keep me preoccupied for another half-millennium or so – at which point I might rediscover the joys of reading, or maybe move on to some other, different phase of my life.

The problem, according to Williams, is that for this to work we’d have to change so much that it’s not clear that we would have survived at all. Alter your personality and passions too much, the argument goes, and you don’t exist anymore. On this way of thinking, the adrenaline junkie won’t really be me, but rather something more like one of my descendants. So, either indefinite life would be agonisingly boring, or it wouldn’t be us who lives it anyway.

Many philosophers have come out against Williams on this. John Martin Fischer for instance has argued that it’s simply not obvious we would get sick of “repeatable” pleasures like food, drink and sex. In forthcoming work, Roman Altshuler argues that it matters where you’re up to: looking ahead now, living for the next thousand years might look unappealing, but a thousand years from now you might look back contentedly on the last millennium and be quite happy to hang around for another. Williams may simply be underestimating our capacity for entertaining ourselves.

But there might be other problems. There’s the obvious issue that a society in which everyone lives forever is either a society in which there are no children (to prevent population growth), or a society which quickly exhausts all its resources. Alternatively – and this may be considerably more likely – it would be a world in which some people had access to the life-extending treatment and others didn’t. Health care goods are already spent disproportionately on the wealthy, but immortality would turbo-charge this problem. Think of how many material goods are enjoyed across the lifespan of a single wealthy first-world citizen today compared to someone in the developing world – and now imagine that the wealthy person lives for many generations while the poor person does not. Instead of correcting for the effects of the lottery of birth, immortality might end up making things much worse.
Perhaps we’re being unduly pessimistic though. If we’re smart enough to defeat ageing and death, maybe we can get our heads around these problems of resourcing and of distributive and inter-generational justice too.

The question remains whether, in giving up the prospect of ageing and ‘natural’ death, we lose something essential to who we are and to what we take a good life to be. The narrator of Ecclesiastes tells us there’s a time for everything, and the Roman philosopher-poet Lucretius counsels us not to regret our inevitable death, but, when the time comes, to “retire like a guest sated with the banquet of life”. There’s more to this metaphor than just satiety. A good meal is like a story: the dishes all come at the ‘right’ time and we move from one course to the next with a sense that it’s fitting and inevitable that we do so. We don’t eat the dessert at the start, and we don’t expect soup after the coffee.

In a similar way, our biology also imposes a story upon us. The trajectory of our lives, from puberty to childbearing to retirement and decline, gives us a narrative framework within which we can improvise and create. Rather than freeing ourselves from the shackles of our bodily destiny, by taking away the organic sequence of our lives – and the finitude that goes with it – we might instead be destroying our frame of reference for structuring a meaningful life.

Jeff Malpas has likewise argued that a deathless existence would lack the narrative coherence necessary to live a truly good life. To live well, we need to be able to understand how we’ve got to where we are, and where we’re going. Arguably, we also need a sense of our lives as having an overall shape. We need, on this argument, to be able to tell a good story about ourselves. But, so Malpas claims, a story that doesn’t end isn’t a story so much as an infinite sequence of overlapping episodes. Less Hamlet, more Days of Our Lives. You don’t want to live in an interminable soap opera, do you?

Well, yeah, maybe you do. Because for all these problems, indefinite life still sounds tantalising. Everyone, according to Simone de Beauvoir, views their own death as an accident, as something alien, contingent, unnecessary. As Tolstoy has the dying Ivan Ilyich ponder, it’s perfectly fitting that everyone dies, but quite outrageous that I die. Socrates saw philosophy as training for death, but new technology might instead push philosophy to embrace the contingency of our demise, and to explore new possibilities for living on a grander scale.

Or, it might not. We’re living longer than earlier generations did, but, so far, not that far beyond the three-score-and-ten years the Book of Proverbs promises us. The enormous longevity forecasted by breathless futurists and transhumanists simply might never come to fruition. Unless and until it does, perhaps we should content ourselves with the rest of Siduri’s advice to Gilgamesh:

“As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.”

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