Saturday, March 19, 2016

Aging = Age-related disease. That's deeper than you think.

Intelligence Squared US had an excellent debate on the proposition, 'lifespans are long enough'. Worth watching in full:



The 'for' side takes a big-picture approach. They claim certain health care technologies that extend lifespan might lead to indefinitely long lives, and argue that the practical and philosophical problems associated with indefinitely long life means that we shouldn't promote longer life.

The 'against' side takes a smaller-scale approach, pointing out (correctly) that aging is equivalent to age-related disease and emphasizing the desirability of incremental improvements in health care technology. The abstract concept of 'aging' as separate and apart from specific pathologies leads to the acceptance and rationalization of mass death.

I'm already on board with aging as a terrible problem to be solved, and I basically agree with the meta-argument that any analysis of the costs of radical life extension must be balanced against the costs of the status quo (mass death). The 'for' side in this debate did raise some interesting points, however:
  • The philosophical idea that death 'organizes' life into a productive, meaningful story is appealing. But they way the 'for' side repeatedly invoked this idea was misleading. There is quite a bit of difference between infinite life and merely long life, and most of the realistic discussions about life-extension innovation revolve around extending life, not abolishing death. 

  • The concerns about social stagnation are interesting, and diverse.
    • I'm generally quite optimistic about society's ability to change and adapt, but the prospect of inequality and injustice being reinforced via life-extension technology is somewhat scary. Inequality and poverty, however, are fundamentally distinct from facts about lifespan and reflect more the current institutional setup than anything else. There's no real reason to think enhanced lifespan would threaten things like democracy, markets or the internet, and so it's likely that life-extension technology would get cheaper and become more available over time.
    • Inequality is often misunderstood in common discourse, and refers to a pattern instead of an absolute status. Poverty, for example, is basically an issue of insufficient capability, not of unjust distributional patterns of resources. Promoting life-extension as a public policy and research goal would almost surely have benefits for all income levels, regardless of the distribution of those benefits.
    • Longer life might give people with unfair disadvantages more time to overcome them. There's no a priori reason to think elites' ability to increase and/or protect their social position over time is greater-than-or-equal-to poor or disadvantaged peoples' ability to climb the ladder. Presumably statistical analysis of lifespan between groups could give us some clue.
    • The most seductive stagnation critique to me was the one about ideas. Currently, young people disproportionately produce disruptive and creative innovation in most fields (especially technical ones). Perhaps this is mostly a biologically-driven result, in which case it might be fixed as chronologically-aged people retain their cognitive dynamism. But in a world with vastly more chronologically-aged people, we might expect institutions and social memes to become relatively less receptive towards whippersnappers. This is concerning to me, but not decisive. Indeed, a counterargument might highlight the marketplace of ideas and the conception of innovation as a discovery process. The greater the population with access to education and information resources, the greater the likelihood of awesome ideas being produced and propagated.

  • Some guy from the Mormon Transhumanists asked a question, which was bizarre for me. Despite being an atheist myself, I have a weird respect for the impressive life outcomes that Mormonism produces (causality questions notwithstanding), and see these folks as a particularly amazing example.

  • One of the biggest applause lines of the debate was from the 'for' side regarding the environmental consequences of radical life-extension. This concern jibes pretty well with the concern about overpopulation generally. Politically, the environmentalist critique of radical life-extension is perhaps the most troublesome, due to the huge demographic overlap between the potential constituencies. The set of people who are amenable to viewing ageing as a terrible moral scourge are almost certainly educated and inculturated such that they are pretty solid environmentalists also. But environmentalism is quite divided between pro-technology and anti-technology orientations, and only the pro-technology folks are accepting of the likely population boom caused by radical life-extension technology. This cleavage sets up an unfortunate battle between downwing/dark green environmentalists and the upwing/bright greens.

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