Documenting the Coming Singularity

Monday, May 14, 2007

Opposition to Radical Life-Extension

You might think that the goal of extending our lifespans is a noble one. Not everyone agrees. BetterHumans points to a fascinating article on the Crisis web site called Superhuman: The Uncharted Territory of Transhumanism. Here's a sample:
The search for eternal youth is an ancient human impulse, going back to the world’s earliest recorded epic, Gilgamesh. But with modern medical technology, we now seem closer to achieving that end than ever before.

But does this go too far? Theological critics of anti-aging technology have pointed out that aging has long been considered a consequence of the Fall, and that we are undoing God’s command when we radically extend life through medical means. Leon Kass, former chairman of the President’s Council on Bioethics, sees other, more philosophical problems with anti-aging research: “The desire to prolong youthfulness is not only a childish desire to eat one’s life and keep it. . . . It seeks an endless present, isolated from anything truly eternal, and severed from any true continuity with past and future. It is in principle hostile to children, because children, those who come after, are those who will take one’s place; they are life’s answer to mortality” (First Things, May 2001). Meanwhile, in apparent agreement with Kass, a 2002 document edited by then–Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Communion and Stewardship: Human Persons Created in the Image of God, states, “Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of life.”
Now, why would these theologians find fault with the idea of extending human life? The message we're used to hearing from them is that life is sacred. I guess it is sacred only so long as you don't have too much of it.

Here's my take on it. And I know some of you will vehemently disagree, but I'll go ahead anyway. It's about control. People are controllable by religious leaders essentially due to their instinctive fear of death. Take death away and the religious leaders lose their grip on their followers. Worrying about one's eternal destination, be it heaven or hell, will be cast aside, or so these theologians fear.

Of course many believers are religious for other reasons. They find comfort, solace and even transcendence in their beliefs. That motivation won't vanish if we can live longer, will it? I think not.

It's not hard to see, with only a cursory glance at history, a trend away from human religious authority. Not religious feeling or observance, mind you, but the slavish obeisance paid to religious leaders and institutions. There was a time when the Roman Catholic church was the only game in town. The regular Joe couldn't read, couldn't read Latin, and had no access to a Bible anyway. Knowing the will of God was the exclusive province of the Popes, Cardinals, Bishops and Priests.

If anyone tried to guide people to a different path, they were aggressively hunted, tortured and burned at the stake through an institution called the Inquisition. But then came Martin Luther. The Roman Catholic church now had Protestant competition for the fealty of the common man.

You see, the religious leaders of old wanted to maintain control. Perhaps some of them truly believed that maintaining control over people's beliefs and lives was the only way to save their souls. But control they did desire. The same is true in our day, I fear, leading some religious potentates to decry the possibility of radical life-extension. Perhaps what then-Cardinal Ratzinger, now Pope Benedict XVI, should have said is that "Disposing of death is in reality the most radical way of disposing of our control of the church."

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4 comments :

Nia here! said...

I for another oppose "radical life extension" just as I oppose "radical life abbreviation". It would be weird if both came to pass and were on going in the same time frame.

Spaceman Spiff said...

So theologians control people? I don't find that claim intelligible. Are theologians merely lapdogs of religious leaders? Certainly not in the case of Kass or in the case of most theological thinkers I know. Most of the time academics are far more "progressive" than most practicing ministers are comfortable with, and certainly more so than church organizations are comfortable with.

We say things like, the church should stop holding onto power and go live with the really marginalized people. The church shouldn't hold people in debt or take each other to court. We should share ridiculously. Not the kind of thing people say when they want to maintain control...

This is evident even in the Catholic church, where the Jesuits have historically been "on the edge" a bit as it were, not exactly known for enforcing the opinions of the pope. Read about liberation theology sometime if you're interested.

I don't think I want to control people, and I certainly don't think I want religious leaders to control people. How does your interpretation make sense of this?

This is the thing I don't like; you seem to make these broad sweeping claims assigning motives to people, often enough including me and a lot of other people close to you.

Maybe I'm just sensitive, but I try not to say or believe things like "I think all the atheists interested in radical life extension are more afraid of death than anyone else so they're trying to defeat it with science" even though I could, since I'm pretty good at searching for hidden motives and deconstructing what people say. Instead, I try to assume the best and take people at their word as much as I can.

Anyway, as I said before, I don't see radical life-extension as something I'd object to legally, I'm just not all that hopeful. And once again, I think I'd rather spend my energy trying to figure out how to live my life well as it stands, and work out with people how we can do that.

Its kind of like when people say "if I won the lottery I'd give away half to charity." No you wouldn't! You'd spend it in proportions that are roughly what you're doing with the money you have now. That's the way we are.

If we had extra long lives, would people be more enlightened, love more, be wiser? Maybe some people, but most of us get "set in our ways" by the time we're 50.

I think what might well happen is anyone reflective and introspective would eventually get tired and opt out and the people left would be those who can't break themselves out of a routine and those who are incredibly greedy. I just don't think the human psyche as it stands is really built for that. I think the human spirit is, but I think our psyches as they are just seem to wear out.

Barry Mahfood said...

Please don't take what I said personally Spaceman. I said "these theologians," not theologians in general. I think that many religious leaders have their egos wrapped up in the numbers of people who follow them, and some of them feel threatened by anything that might take that away. I know I did. That doesn't mean that there aren't many who are not interested in control. I think you are one of those, and you probably know many more like yourself.

Spaceman Spiff said...

Ok, I appreciate that. Forgive for pushing this one step further, but if it's the case that you know people who don't buy into radical life extension but aren't interested in control, then I think those (we) are the people with whom you'd be better of conversing.

We can all agree some people are against it because they're nuts, and some people are for it because they're nuts. But talking about nutzo people only makes them stronger. Better to discuss those whose objections are not so malicious.