Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Intelligence Squared - Longevity

Intelligence Squared US held a debate on whether human lifespans are long enough. The side in favor put out some philosophical points that looked promising.
  1. Human identity is tied to a narrative: a beginning, middle, and end. This cycle is what it means to be human; to eliminate death is to eliminate what it means to be human. Further refined, humans are essentially hard wired to go through a biological life cycle of birth, growth, reproduction, and death and life/health extension radically alters that natural cycle.
  2. Intention is an important aspect in this discussion. A moral person should operate with only good intentions and wanting to live longer for the sake of living longer is not a good intention. It's narcissism.

But they also brought out some pretty bad arguments. One of them was along the lines of "we have bigger problems to worry about like poverty and ebola". This is a very bad argument because it is human ingenuity that has largely eliminated poverty and epidemics. People with more experience are better able to implement ideas across a broader range of situations than people with less. Is the world really a richer place with the loss of Norman Borlaug, Jonas Salk, Albert Einstein, and thousands of other innovators?

What insights would Goethe or Aquinas have for us today having experienced centuries of the human condition? An older, healthier population is generally going to be a wiser population.

Another bad argument was that only rich people will have access to longevity treatments. This will be true, but only for the first few years of availability. The demand for life extension once it is feasible is going to be unprecedented. Just as only the very wealthy had access to refrigerators, cars, air travel, and computers, competition will eventually bring life extension to those with less money. Ironically, one of the proponents of the motion cited Moore's Law in support of his wealth-inequality argument. If anything, Moore's Law, which is a microcosm for the exponential productivity gains exhibited by market competition, has been the key driver in bringing computing power to the masses. It's why access to smartphones is common even in impoverished countries.

Similar zero-sum thinking supplied the thinking behind the finite resources argument. "Won't people living indefinitely long mean we'll run out of resources?" And despite the repeated predictive failures among Malthusians, this question can never really die because resources are indeed finite. But available technologies can easily push the carrying capacity of the Earth well past the ten billion figure held in common wisdom.* 

One fact that both sides used had to do with opportunity costs. The side in favor suggested that our limited choice is part of what makes us human and that life extension eliminates those opportunity costs. But that is categorically false. Even if you were immortal, you cannot be in all places, acting in every possible way, at the same time. The side against provided a more compelling argument that our refusal to fight aging today will eventually mean that some cohort of human society will never even have the chance to make the choice of whether they should live longer or not.

Genesis 6:3

One audience member brought up an interesting point that Genesis 6:3 has God setting a limit of 120 years for human lifespan. Its a remarkably accurate figure. But it is not a metaphysical constant. And for many Christians, at least, the precepts of the Old Testament are not necessarily binding. Given the fact that the Edenic state as well as the lifespans until Genesis 6:3 had humans living for hundreds of years (nearly a thousand for Methuselah), a life span over 120 years is not per se proscribed.

* Breeder reactors, vertical farms, continuous production through LED lighting, desalination, increased urbanization and higher density development make the 10 billion figure a joke. These sorts of innovations are never factored into the carrying capacity models which is why those models invariably fail. And all of these developments actually reduce the environmental footprint of humans which means that more areas can be left as pristine wilderness. The key is in developing cheaper, cleaner, and more plentiful sources of energy.

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