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ETpro's avatar

When medical science cures aging, how should we regulate reproduction?

Asked by ETpro (34247 points ) April 21st, 2012

As we move forward in decoding human DNA, and learn how to harvest our own adult stem cells and reprogram them into IPSCs, we have created a new branch of medical science called regenerative or reparative medicine. At some point, medicine will clearly be able to extend human longevity to levels even Methuselah would have envied. We may or may not totally overcome death, but we will almost certainly extend life tenfold or more.

If, or more realistically when this happens, we will have some hard choices to make about longevity, reproduction and overpopulation. In my lifetime that is nearing seven decades, I have seen the population of Earth explode from 2.4 billion to 7 billion today. Given my current healthy state, I’ll probably be here to see it hit 8 billion as projected in 2020. Clearly we cannot maintain anything remotely close to our current birth rates if humans once born live not the 67.2 years that is today’s world average but for 1,000 years or more. Yet the desire to pass on our genes is a profound and powerful one.

What do you think the moral high road is? Should we leave nature alone, and just accept as a fact of life that a tiny handful live healthy, active lives of 100 years or more and most die well short of that? Should we keep the living alive as long as medical science is able, and limit the birth rate to prevent overpopulation? Or should we assume that evolution would best be served if humans lived thousands of years and reproduced as rapidly as rats to then compete violently in a King-of-the-Mountain game of resource acquisition? What future world would you like to see?

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46 Answers

WestRiverrat's avatar

Historically someone starts a war and we kill each other until there is enough room for the next couple generations.

Coloma's avatar

Oh lord, I totally disagree 10,000%.
Yes, we should leave nature alone and let evolution take it’s own course.
I sure as hell don’t want to live to be 100+, unless nature decides that’s my destiny.
People are already unhealthily obsessed with defying, delaying, denying their aging process.

The future I’d like to see is John Lennons “Imagine” future, nix the altered states of science.
You may call me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one….. ;-)

Keep_on_running's avatar

I think there will come a day when there will have to be limits on how many times a woman can reproduce. Of course, there are endless problems surrounding rights and freedom, but unless we find another planet to live on I can’t see how we can sustain such a population forever. The world is finite in its resources.

There would be some serious acceleration in the growth of poverty globally, unless technologically we could transform our world and economy. That would not be easy and we’d need to do it rather quickly. I think it would be irresponsible to let more human beings be born into such a world if it did go down the gutter in the future. Unless you are one of those who can guarantee food, shelter and education.

Avangelo's avatar

Well eventually people who have lived for a long time will get tired of it. Maybe if they could stop the aging process then they can kick start it to age again. Or instead of stopping the aging process it could just be slowed down.

Pandora's avatar

If this where to happen than people have to give consent. Meaning they would have to consent to being altered. Probably 18 or 21. Either way. What will happen is science will goof up the process several times, not realizing the side effects. Sorry but this is one pill I have a hard time swallowing. As it is, we can’t seem to cure one thing without causing something else to fail. The human body is a very delicate machine and runs differently for different people.
In all likely-hood, the one thing that would probably happen is the person dies or the ability to reproduce is ruined. Just look at organ transplants. The person has to be a perfect match. And people think they can just wave a magic wand and manipulate things.
Even if it was to work by some miracle. Who wants to live forever, except the rich. Even then, would they reproduce a lot. That would be a lot of people to split the money pot with and support. If anything murder would probably become common place. It will be the wild west again and everyone will be packing.

CWOTUS's avatar

You and I have fundamentally different approaches to how public life should be lived. I believe that as people become more free – and because of that, generally wealthier (not universally, but generally) – they tend to self-regulate, and this is a prime example of that fact. That’s been pretty well demonstrated through history, and the USA is a pretty good example this. As we’ve gotten wealthier our birth rates have dropped. (Some governments in Europe actually seem alarmed by their declining birth rates.)

Regulate less, not more.

nikipedia's avatar

Is your hypothetical assuming that medical science will also end infertility (or, sorry for asking, were you only thinking of the relevance to men)? Longevity and reproduction are more or less unrelated in women, who are effectively the limiting factor in reproduction.

As @CWOTUS pointed out, birth rates decline as societies get wealthier and gain access to education, birth control, and health care. Most of western society is at replacement rate or lower; that seems like a good system to me.

laurenkem's avatar

I certainly have no answers for this one, just thought it was an interesting post after reading Albert Brooks’ “2030”, in which the “oldsters” are now well over 100, thanks to medical technology, and going strong and the young have to pay the price. Interesting book that was unexpected!

gondwanalon's avatar

Reproduction problems aside, this takes all the fun, challenge and mystery out of growing old. If all we need is a special pill or treatment to keep us young and healthy then we will no longer be good animals. We will become a strange oddity of biology and nature as we separate ourselves from our fundamental genetic heritage. Once we cross that bridge there will be no going back. Such a route is just asking for extinction. It is also unnatural and sick.

ragingloli's avatar

Such technology would only be available and affordable to a small elite in the west, so it would not contribute much to overpopulation, especially in light of the fact that birthrates decline with increasing living standard. Overpopulation in general however is a problem, as there is a hard limit to how much food can be produced, not to mention non-regenerative resources.
Then you have to think about the standard of living you want to aim for.
I have seen estimates that at the current average standard of living in the US, the world could at most support 2 billion people. We are at 7 billion now, so it is absolutely impossible for the rest of the world to increase its standard of living similar to western standards. In fact, as the population grows, the standard of living for the rest of the world will only plummet further, which, by the way, will prevent them from getting access to the fountain of eternal life.

Blondesjon's avatar

With life spans that long we will be much better suited to traveling vast distances in space. I would hope that by the time such aging is a reality there will be sufficient technology to also allow us to expand in to space.

then we wouldn’t have to get all Hunger Games and shit . . .

ucme's avatar

I’m trying real hard to get the picture of a centurion’s erection out of my mind, but i’m failing miserably & it’s putting me off my dinner.

Sunny2's avatar

O brave new world! Perhaps we will have elections to determine who will get to be the first 1000 year old man or woman. Will the early developmental year be extended to account for some of that 1000 year period? A longer adolescence? Yuck. What life period would prevail? Obviously there would need to be some control of population. Hence elections. I can see the signs now. Vote for me. I’ll be a better person than the next guy.
I don’t think I like this.

cazzie's avatar

Vascetomies, free with a 6 pack of beer.

PhiNotPi's avatar

If this technology is developed tomorrow, population will skyrocket. Population will increase even if the fertility rate (number of children/women) is at the stable rate of 2. The reason is that even if the number of people in each generation is the same, there will be more generations that overlap. The birth rate (# of people born / 1000 people) itself will actually probably not increase, the problem is only that very few people are dying.

If the lifespan was increased to 1000 years, then for about 900 years the death rate will be very low. In order for the population to stay the same, the birth rate will have drop to the same level. This may take several centuries to occur. In the meantime, population will increase by a lot.

Now, when the oldest people start to reach the age of 1000, the death rate suddenly goes back up, because people are now dying of aging again. The population may start to decrease and become stable again, but will be a much higher number than before.

ragingloli's avatar

I do wonder however if a life expectancy of 1000 years would also ultimately result in an elongated legal childhood, as the current increased life expectancy has.
When the average life expectancy was 30 years, you were considered adult at around 12. Now it is 18 to 21, depending on where you live. Would a 1000 year life span increase child hood to 50 or 100 years, or even more?

Ron_C's avatar

Frankly, this business of me turning 65 is a bust. I certainly wouldn’t want to live to be a hundred. After our two kids were born we decided to stop having them. Two were plenty and now we have 4 grandchildren which is much better than having children.

I expect if by some miracle, people routinely live for hundreds of years we will have other planets to colonize. Therefore there would be a lottery or some other means to determine who can stay on earth and who will travel to other planets. I also expect that with a longer life the birth rate will naturally drop. After all what woman wants to be pregnant for 40 years? No matter what women will determine how many children they will have and I am all for letting them make the decision.

Bill1939's avatar

The planet’s growing population is a problem without new medical advances. One issue is finding occupations for every individual that will enable them to be self-sustaining even if merely at a subsistence level. As others have pointed out, the poorest, having little else to do, are the most likely to create pregnancies. Nature, being blind to global realities, seeks to preserve a species by increasing the rate of reproduction when survival of the individual is increasingly marginalized.

China has attempted to limit their birth rate to one child per family with little, if any, success. Forced sterilization, abortion of “undesirables” and legislative limitations of reproduction has been tried repeatedly in the past. Fascism, Communism, Socialism, and other forms of political domination of people’s activities have all failed to accomplish the goal of establishing population control.

Until we have devised a means for people to live without struggling to survive, with opportunities to develop their talents, and freedom from domination by an elite minority, the advantages of medical and technological advances will be thwarted. Baring such development in social evolution, a bleak scenario awaits us.

Geological changes resulting in losses of arable land, rising seas reducing habitable land, deaths from battles over diminishing resources, and pandemic diseases fueled by wide spread malnutrition will cause depopulation. However it is also likely to cause civilization to collapse and possibly bring about the extinction of Homo sapiens. The last to go will be the few whose wealth and power will temporally forestall the inevitable.

ro_in_motion's avatar

The last thing we need to do is to cure ‘death’. The very old who, no doubt, will be very conservative will have all the money.

If we move out into space, curing death might be cool in the short term but it will require non-stop expansion to sustain.

Bill1939's avatar

I would rather die in twenty years with a relatively sound mind than live longer with markedly diminished mental ability. Quality of life is more important than longevity.

Ron_C's avatar

@Bill1939 ” would rather die in twenty years with a relatively sound mind than live longer with markedly diminished mental ability” I’ll second that!

SavoirFaire's avatar

I agree with @CWOTUS and @nikipedia, and I might add that this “cure” (put in quotes because I do not think aging is something that needs a cure) would not be cheap. It is likely only those who were wealthy and self-regulating who could even afford it in the first place. By the time society was in a place where the treatment could be affordable enough for everyone, we’d have adjusted to its presence.

I also agree with @Coloma, however, that the quest for immortality is unhealthy. I’m all for finding ways to make the years we have better, but I see very little reason to try and make the years we have longer. Quality over quantity, I say. Moreover, I think that quality and quantity may in fact be in opposition as far as this issue is concerned. Life is a blessing; immortality is a curse.

ETpro's avatar

@WestRiverrat I am all too aware of that possible “solution”. The fact that is a historical lesson tells us that it happens regardless of life expectancy and medical advances. So I don’t view that as the necessary outcome of Regenerative Medicine becoming a reality.

@Coloma As much as I identify with and love the Beatles songs you cite, I think that science and what it brings us are just one more phase of the evolutionary process. There is nothing unnatural in nature.

@Keep_on_running I don’t imagine that a most women living to 1,000 would want to have children over that entire period of time. Certainly if the track of medical science continues as it’s heading, there are going to be a host of problems we must solve relating to reproductive rights, poverty, education and overall quality of lifestyle for all humans that all remain untouched today. Maybe that’s not such a bad thing.

@Avangelo The bulk of the aging process appears to come from the breaking of ends on telomeres. This appears to be a reversible process. If it can be reversed, we may preserve cell mitosis without degradation of the ends of the chromosome strings for a very long time. We may even be able to reverse age related loss of vitality. There is probably an upper limit where cosmic radiation disturbing DNA causes irreprable damage and so eternal life is beyond our current grasp. So I don’t think we are talking (yet) about living forwver, just quite a bit longer than we live today.

@Pandora You’ve shown the reason for your screen name in your reaction to this one. I am 68 now and in excellent health. I’m stronger than I was in my 20s. My mind is still sharp. But left to nature, I would have died at 10 due to infected tonsils and again at 20 when my appendix perforated. I have to say I am deeply grateful that medical science could fix those two glitches and I’ve had a wonderful life free from any noticable side effects from those procedures aside from still being alive. I understand what you are getting at, and it always pays to proceed with caution in exploring anything that might drastically alter the human condition. But explore we will. We always have.

@CWOTUS I’m not sure Enron, Bernie Madoff, and AIG are proof that self regulation is the panacea you believe it to be. But in this question, I am not advocating any particular regulatory approach or lack thereof. I am just pointing out where medicine is heading, and asking how we should deal with it. Everything from Let it Be to Entropy.

@nikipedia I wrote “human longevity” and not male longevity/ What lead you to the conclusion I was only talking exclusively about males? By the very nature of how it works, if regenerative medicine works at all, it would extend bodily function and fitness for males and females alike at a level of robust youthfulness for hundreds of years.

@laurenkem Different dystopias, I believe. The “oldsters” Albert Brooks imagines are decripit and unable to work. They are a drain on those who can work. Regenerative Medicine isn’t about keeping you alive but looking like a ancient of ancients and trundling around with a walker. It holds the promise of a long life of vitality and mental acuity coupled with the wisdom that comes with experience. The dystopia here arises out of population growth, not from a ever growing block of unproductive elderly retirees.

@gondwanalon How quickly must you grow old to find magic in it. Time was when few lived past their thirties. My guess is they would have tradde up for our longevity in a heartbeat if offered the chance.

@ragingloli That may not be so. The methods emerging could probably be scaled up to allow extremely low cost delivery.

@Blondesjon If it is high cost, deep space travel might be its first broad-scale application. And repair of chromosome damage due to cosmic radiation would be a necessary component.

@ucme Centurion? I imagine they were quite virile. Did you me centurnarian?

@Sunny2 I believe that development would be allowed to proceed to young adulthood in a normal fashion. From what I know of the technology, I am guessing that we’d work at drastically slowing the aging process so that a 150 year old might look like they were approaching their 30s, and at 6 or 700 hundred, they would appear to be nearing their 60s.

@cazzie I’m expected to shoot blanks for 980 years for one lousy six pack of beer? :-)

@PhiNotPi Excellent observation. It’s a temporary problem with a built-in actuarial solution.

@ragingloli I do not think so. Thirteen was the age of majority back when life expectancies were so short. But there is no indication that 13 year olds then were more wise and adult than they are today. They just did what they had to do to survive.

@Ron_C Don’t think in terms of the average centurnarian of today, decrepit, in pain, and losing their mental edge, hearing, sense of taste, vision, etc. The promise here is being 100, with all the wisdom one can gather in 100 years, but having a body and brain that looks, feels and performs like that of someone in their late 20s. And such would be a huge boon to searching for other inhabitable worlds. With our best spaceship technology of today it would take about 91 million years to travel the 20.3 light years to the nearest potential habitable planet going 150,000 MPH It takes 20.3 years at the speed of light, and light travels at 186,000 Miles Per Second. Our ship going 150,000 MPH is lolling along at 41.6 MPS or 4,471.15 slower than the speed of light.

@Bill1939 Great answer. Although I think the oligarchs who are currently funding disinformation to allow them to continue to pollute as fast as possible in order to build their profits will learn that no level of security force will protect them form 7 billion armed, angry and starving people. The masses can drown the oligarchs in their blood and still survive.

@ro_in_motion Maybe curing death is somewhere in the tea leaves, but I don’t see it anywhere on the immediate horizon. Regenerative medicine offers the hope of dramatically slowed ageing, but not eternal life.

@Bill1939 & @Ron_C The beauty of regenerative medicine is it hold promise for maintinging the mental and physical edge of youth for many hundreds of years. Given that, think of how much one could learn.

@SavoirFaire & @Coloma It is looking like the technology to make the years we have better is one and the same with that which will give us hundreds of those better years.

Keep_on_running's avatar

I have to say @ETpro, I really admire the way you respond to each and every one of us whenever you ask a question. :-)

cazzie's avatar

@ETpro wrote: I’m expected to shoot blanks for 980 years for one lousy six pack of beer? :-)

Yes. Yes, you are and when women are ruling this Brave New World, feel lucky that we aren’t removing all the tools in the shed.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@ETpro Depending on how long you can regenerate folk, you get ‘practical’ immortality. I don’t know where the point is, but at some point in living longer, the odds of you dying by chance (a car accident) becomes likely.

As for the ‘high road’, we need to move off the planet. At 1g acceleration, colonising stars is practical in that the, say, 70 year trip is only a small fraction of your life. You also wouldn’t be losing ‘culturisation’ (sp?) that a multi-generation starship would face. People would land on a distant planet who had grown up on Earth – it wouldn’t be a myth.

Assuming the reparative surgery would let me look like a 20 year—old, think of the predation in relationships that would happen: Take a thousand year-old body; convert it to one that looked 20; use a new identity; and you could take advantage of anyone who is ‘originally’ young.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ETpro I’m not convinced that you can respond to @Coloma and I so simply. The quality of a life does not have to do merely with how healthy you are. That’s part of it, of course, but not the whole. The reason that I think quality and quantity might be in opposition here is that I worry about how long one can live without boredom and/or alienation setting in. You can dig yourself a nice little rut, or you can watch as everything that anchors your understanding of the world changes. In either case, the world will leave you behind. I can think of only a few solutions to this problem, and all of them involve not being concerned with how long one lives in the first place.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@SavoirFaire Let me see how I do with that observation. Since we’re in an imaginary scenario, let me add an important condition: Neither your brain or memory deteriorate. I believe this was a given but I state it to make sure.

I have had, at least, 5 very different careers in my life. I love information. As I gain information about a topic, I love putting it to use. If someone wants to sit and watch tv for a 1000 years, so be it. However, for those of us who like applying knowledge, think of how cool it would be to have the time to be qualified in any number of professions with experience?

Not only that, but television no longer be a part of culture. The internet is doing a great job of replacing television now.

If we are clever enough to extend life, we will no doubt also have the technology to increase intelligence. It would make it hard for people to just ‘veg’ out. There’s too much cool information to tickle the brain in a fun way.

We would have the chance to become Renaissance people again.

Ron_C's avatar

@ETpro “Don’t think in terms of the average centurnarian of today….” This is the point where I worry about the brain’s capacity to remember and remain sane. At some point the memory cells are full so the brain would resort to FIFO (first in first our). You loose your oldest memories and essentially some of what made you what you are, I would just as soon have a good body that shuts off gracefully than bumble around looking like a twenty year old but incapable of learning and enjoying new things because my brain is full.

CWOTUS's avatar

Based on the examples you listed, @ETpro – Enron, Bernie Madoff, and AIG (don’t forget WorldCom) – apparently ‘regulation’ isn’t much good, either.

ucme's avatar

@ETpro Summink like dat.

rooeytoo's avatar

As long as everything is in working condition, I would live on until I decide not to live anymore. Which is pretty much the way I see it now.

Bill1939's avatar

One objection to extreme longevity is that a neurological limit exists as to how much information the brain can hold and process. Increasing intelligence (IQ) through educational experiences and biological enhancements will minimize this potential constraint. However before such advances exist, we still have a tried and true method for expanding our capacity for knowledge.

It began with the development of spoken language, followed by the invention of writing, then printing, audio and video recording, and lastly the world-wide-web. At each stage in the evolution of information processing the individual’s ability to conceptualize increasingly complex notions was enhanced.

Today, merely thinking of something that might exist is all I need to perform an internet search to verify the veracity of my notion and, if not mere fantasy, obtain information that can flesh out the idea. In the future, arm chair conjectures can be portrayed in real time, three dimensionally, accompanied by sound if needed, with details drawn from a global database instantly provided by quantum computer networks—If you think it, it will likely be realized.

SavoirFaire's avatar

“We are always complaining of the shortness of life. This must be a universal law of nature.”
—Voltaire, “Micromégas”

@ro_in_motion I love information, too. Sometimes I think it would be great to be able to read the entire literature on some topic I’m publishing on. While a longer life seems enviable in many ways, however, an immortal one does not. And upon reflection, it seems to me that the undesirability of the latter undermines the desirability of the former. This is especially true given that the OP does not offer us a world without death. It offers us only a world without age-related deaths. As Voltaire notes through the character of his Sirian philosopher Micromégas, life is always experienced as having been too short when it ends no matter how long it may have lasted. This suggests to me that the proper way to live is not with an eye toward immortality, but rather with a determination of making the best of what we have—however long or short that may be.

There is also another problem, this one put forth by the incomparable Bernard Williams. His argument might be put this way: Suppose you were immortal. Either your character would remain constant, or it would not. If it remained constant, immortality would become intolerably boring (over an infinite amount of time, all actions eventually become repetitious). Even if our experiences varied endlessly, our stagnation would cause us to be alienated from a world to which we could no longer relate. In either case, there comes a point where life is no longer worth living. Alternatively, our character might evolve over time. If so, however, we would eventually cease to exist when we became too radically different to be reasonably considered the same person. The fate of such a person is as irrelevant to me as the fate of any other person in the far distant future. For the purposes of assessing my own life, then, this future replacement is irrelevant. As such, immortality is either intolerable or irrelevant.

Are there ways around this argument? Perhaps. You might think that your stipulation about memory is one of them. I am not disposed to grant your stipulation, however, nor do I see it as given by the OP. The OP is talking about what is supposedly possible through advancements in medical science, whereas several posters have noted that your stipulation goes beyond what we think is possible. I could grant that the brain will not deteriorate. I could even grant that our ability to remember might stay the same. What I could not grant, however, is that we would never lose our distant memories. This seems to go beyond the scientifically plausible. How, then, might we get past Williams’ argument? I am not sure. The only options I can even vaguely apprehend, though, involve a lack of concern for whether or not we are immortal. As such, they seem to lead right back to where I started: a life more concerned with quality than quantity.

Bill1939's avatar

I could argue with Bernard Williams’ alternate argument that in evolving over time one would become so “radically different to be reasonably considered the same person.” I have clear recollections of myself at different times in my life, beginning around age three, and again at thirteen, and twenty-three, and so forth to my present age of 72. While the later decades do not demonstrate the kinds of differences that took place in the earlier ones, who I am has been a constant evolution. Even photos of me in high school bear little resemblance of the face that is the avatar accompanying my responses. As to the loss of the earliest memories, as dementia progresses, these are the last to go.

ETpro's avatar

@Keep_on_running Thanks. It does take an investment in time, but to all nice enough to answer a question I ask, it seems the least I can do in thanks for their time.

@cazzie If we move to a matriarchy, so long as you ladies leave me lips and a tongue, we can bot be happy.

@ro_in_motion I am cure that there will be medical issues, both natural and the result of human activity, which produce irreversible death. A building collapsing on you, for instance. And my guess is that cosmic radiation disrupting gene patterns and knocking off telomeres would result in very slow ageing, so that a person over 1,000 years old might not look ancient, but wouldn’t be mistaken for a 20 something. Of course, that’s looking at what we know today. Breakthroughs in the future may well change all that.

@SavoirFaire I don’t know how old you are. I am closing in on 70, so I have a pretty good firsthand idea of how aging affects my delight in living. It’s stronger today than it ever has been in the past. I also bring a great deal more wisdom to the process, so I am not routinely shooting myself in the foot any more. But if you have specifics you wish to discuss that @Coloma and I did not get into, please spell them out and I will be delighted to discuss them with you.

@ro_in_motion Thank you for articulating what I have been trying to get across. Like you, I love information and knowledge and applying it. The problem is nobody in today’s world can become a true polymath. There is just too much to learn, and too little time in which to learn it. But if I could live 1,000 years, or 10,000 years and maintain my mental acuity all that time, think of the knowledge base I could amass. And think of the wisdom I would develop with that much life experience.

I understand all the challenges the naysayers toss up. But I just don’t understand their visceral aversion to the idea of living longer.

@Ron_C Brain cells can replicate. They do so now. Stem-cell technology could enhance that process. Run correctly, the new cell duplicates the synaptic connections of the one it replaces. So it is within hope that we cna keep the brain and its memories vital for thousands of years.

@CWOTUS Are you being deliberately obtuse or are you simply ill informed. All these abuses occurred under the deregulation mania that started with Ronald Reagan and reached its zenith with the repeal of the Glass–Steagall Act and it’s replacement with the Republican signature legislation of 1999, the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act. These were ALL failure to regulate, not regulation run amok.

@ucme Perhaps a graphical reference will help sort out which is which. Here’s a centurion and here’s a centurnarian.

@rooeytoo You and me too.

@Bill1939 I frankly doubt that’s the product of neural overload. In evaluating productivity, we find that workers in their 50s and 60s are far more productive than their younger counterparts. Research shows this is due to the depth of wisdom acquired in a long career. Even though the younger workers my type faster, and grasp visual stimuli more rapidly; they lack the context to quickly process their sensory inputs and act on them in a purely rational fashion. Think of the disparity when regenerative medicine allows those with many hundreds of years of experience and the wisdom gained thereby to take in mew stimuli and react to them just as rapidly as their youthful competitors.

@SavoirFaire I know from talking to my Grandmother before she died that Voltaire was a wrong about his pronouncements on life always being too short as he was on so many other fronts. Several months before she died, she confided in me that she was ready. She said that all her friends had already gone. She had raised her family and they were doing well. At 86, she died in he sleep and was found the next morning dead in bed with a smile on her face.

Funny how we imagine deities who ARE immortal and we are certain they are happy with that fate, yet we waffle when presented with it for ourselves. But again, this question is not about eternal life, just a very substantial slowing of the aging process. Accidents and natural disasters could still take us prematurely just as they do now; and at some point cosmic radiation would certainly break down enough of our DNA that we would age and die, stem-cells or no.

@Bill1939 I’m four years behind you and have a very sililar story to tell. Amazingly my first memory was just before I was two years old. I was an only child, and just before I turned two, my aunt went through a divorce and moved back to the family compound with her 4 year old in tow. He came over to play, and I distinctly remember the angst of deciding that he could play with my toys. I desperately wanted a playmate, but didn[‘t relish sharing the toys that had been, till that day, all mine.

I know the memory is accurate because years later I mentioned it to my mom and she didn’t think it possible I’d have a memory from before 2 years of age. She was only convinced when I rattled off all the toys that were in dispute.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@SavoirFaire Great answer! Thank you!

Not wishing to puts words into @ETPro’s mouth but I think he gave me my added condition in his large comment after yours. Regardless, assuming we can scientifically extend life to the extreme, it seems likely that we can expect all sorts of advances in intelligence and memory.

We already have: the computer and the Internet. When I went to University, I had to learn how to use a log-log slide-rule. Today, an inexpensive cell phone can provide many orders of magnitude greater accuracy than I could ever get. Likewise, I can so incredibly easily look up information that I’ve forgotten. For the younger generation, they will have a permanent ‘scrapbook’ of their lives on Facebook.

I have no idea what I had for lunch when I was 3 years old. None. It’s rather amazing but I don’t remember what I had for lunch 3 years ago either. I am not, body thickness aside, the sum total of my meals.

Whatever it is that makes me ‘me’ is changing anyway. While I love commenting to hikers with me that I just crossed the same river twice for laughs, the point is well taken. I would be alien to my 3 year old self.

If I live to be 1000, I would be so disappointed if I wasn’t alien to the ‘me’ that is writing this. I want to discover new, better philosophies, new ways of creating things, new ways of helping people.

There are still so many rivers for me to cross the first time.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@ETpro I am confused as well. I am not saying it’s the case here, but I think a lot of people define themselves through their ‘meat’ and not their minds.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@Bill1939 Williams would argue that your experience covers too short a period of time for his argument to apply. He does not think that ordinary life is tragic in this way, after all. The problem he identifies is not the evolution of character simpliciter, but rather the evolution of character into an entirely new kind of thing.

@ETpro I am roughly 40 years younger than you. But note that I did not say that being 70 affects delight in living. What I suggested was that being 700 might do so. It is not that I think age and happiness are negatively correlated. It is that I think immortality runs up against the law of diminishing returns and eventually crosses over into negative returns. These are very different positions, and we need to keep them distinct.

As for your second comment, the Voltaire quote is satire. My use of it as an epigraph was not meant as an endorsement of the view that life really is always too short in every single case, and the fact that my post was aimed at undermining the view that immortality would be a good thing should make that clear. It’s just that people in general have tended to bemoan the length of human life in every age, even if not all particular human beings have done so. It is a common sentiment, but one that I take it would be shown to be quite false were we to live extraordinarily long. As such, the story about your grandmother would seem to confirm my point.

Indeed, Bernard Williams makes exactly the point you make about your grandmother in pressing his own argument. Since the world described in the OP does not eliminate death, someone extremely long-lived is likely to experience similar tragedies of friends and loved ones dying. People tend to give up when this kind of thing happens. My own grandmother stopped taking care of herself when my grandfather died. She was always a bit sickly after her stroke, but she managed to heal every time something happened to her. That all happened when she lost her husband of 50+ years. If we agree that this happens, then it seems you should be in sympathy with the argument I was pressing against @ro_in_motion.

And as for deities, I imagine that they would not be happy merely in virtue of being immortal. If there are immortal deities, I think their nature would have to be quite different from that of human beings (to whom my arguments above are meant to be limited) if we are to imagine them as being happy about their fate.

@ro_in_motion Ah, I see how you could get that from @ETpro‘s post. Fair enough. I do have some serious doubts about whether or not technology will evolve in quite the way people expect. We were supposed to have flying cars by now, after all. I do not mean to give the impression that I am against the research, however, as I am not. In my opinion, we cannot have too much science.

As for always being changing, I agree. The problem is not that we change. The problem is that we might change so much as to lose ourselves. It’s not just that we may wind up with different qualities of mind and body than we had when we were young, it is that we may literally be different people. You and I may care about one another’s fates because we are decent human beings who do not want bad things to befall other human beings, but we cannot care about one another’s fates in quite the same way that we can care about our own fates. We are connected to our futures in a way that no one else is.

If Williams is right, however, a sufficiently long life could actually make it so that we are not connected to our futures in this way. What we call our future selves would not just be radically different versions of ourselves, they would be completely separate people. We would have the same relation to them that you and I have to each other, meaning that these future people would not even be numerically identical to our present selves. This is only if Williams is correct, of course, and I cannot guarantee that he is. I have wrestled with this argument, going back and forth on it, for almost a decade now.

ro_in_motion's avatar

@SavoirFaire Love your reply!

I am having trouble grasping a practical definition of “we might change so much as to lose ourselves”. I am relatively sure if I were magically transported to the year 1012, I would be able to identify with the people of that era. (Note: I would also be a Goddess of Math, Science, and Technology as well! ;) )

If I lived 1000 years and were transported back to today, I’d also not imagine I’d have a problem in identifying with myself. And, again, I would also be a Goddess of Math, Science, and Technology as well! ;)

Let’s go in ‘deep science fiction’ mode: In the year I have neural implants: I have access to the entirety of human information. I have an AI (which may or may not be a separate instance of me) who acts as my interface to that information. I have undergone radical genetic alteration to make me able to live on Mars. At the end of it all, I still have my brain processing information. While it might be faster and brighter (please!) than the one I have today, it still operates on the same basic principle as today. Have I lost myself?

Let’s go mumble years into the future. I live inside a ‘coke can sized’ container. I exist as AI – there’s no more flesh. I have left backups of myself in a number of different places throughout the Universe. I am seamlessly integrated into the Universe’s best databases. There is no way the current ‘me’ could recognise me until we started talking. I contend, I would still would be able to identify both ‘me’s’.

And, even if I couldn’t, is that necessarily bad? I want to survive which means adapting to whatever the current conditions might be in the future. In my far future scenarios, I might be totally post-human in so many ways but, at the core, still human. And, if I weren’t, I would be a new species grooving in the future.

Either way is fine by me.

rooeytoo's avatar

I am 67, I have changed so much since I was 20 that I have completely lost that person, thankfully so! I don’t see it as a problem, I see it as growth.

ETpro's avatar

@”:http://www.fluther.com/143395/when-medical-science-cures-aging-how-should-we-regulate-reproduction/#quip2442826o_in_motion I fully expect that advances in longevity will be matched by advances in congnitive enhancement but even if that doesn’t materialize, I’d settle for keeping what I’ve currently got and learning over time how to use far more of it. I look at life like you do. There are still so many rivers to cross, or to dive into. Perhaps there are infinitely many. And I suspect one would have to look at themselves to some extent as meat not to appreciate that.

@SavoirFaire I can only speak for myself, but if at 700, I am as able and comfortable and fit as I am now; I am certain I will be delighted to be alive. There is no need to cite “experts” to dispute this. On this one subject, I am the world’s leading authority.

As to grandma, I am not an authority. But I was close enough to observe that she suffered from arthritis, varicose veins and edema in her lower extremities as well as a loss of friends. She had given up driving after backing out of her garage and straight into a tree. Being unable to drive is a loss of freedom. In a world where all of us could look forward to a millennium of life, none of thise things would apply. She wouldn’t have lost all here friends because they too would be aging at the decreased rate. None of the debilities that she suffered would have been in play. Now, whether she delighted enough in the mysteries of the universe to find meaning in a 1,000 year life, I cannot say. Perhaps she though she was meat. That’s for each individual to decide. I would hope that any who want to die early could refuse the medical intervention to extend their lives.

@ro_in_motion Sign me up for that regimen.

@rooeytoo That certainly resonates with me.

SavoirFaire's avatar

@ro_in_motion I should start by noting that my default position is actually to disagree with Bernard Williams. For all the defense I’ve given of him so far, there is much in his argument with which I disagree. I accept the Epicurean position about death, for instance, which says that being dead cannot be a harm to the one who dies if death entails non-existence. Williams wants to argue that the tragedy of death is that both dying and not dying are bad for us: when we die, we are worse off for it; yet if we live forever, we are also worse off for it. I disagree with at least half of this argument, and I am undecided about the other half.

I do believe, however, that the quest for immortality is unhealthy. It seems a poor obsession to have, even if we could prove that it would not be bad for us were it achieved. I also believe that immortality would be a curse if we lacked the proper attitudes to handle it. Thus I am forced to take Wililams’ argument seriously as one possible explanation of why the quest might be unhealthy (and why the needed attitudes might be rare, or even impossible). I am not sure he is correct, but I find that I go back and forth. This thread has already pressed me a bit towards the “against” side—indeed, I find that I tend to waver precisely at those times when I try to defend one side or the other, always finding sympathy with whichever side I am arguing against—but I might as well try and see the argument through to the end.

Williams’ worry about losing ourselves is that we will literally no longer be the same person anymore if we live long enough. It’s not just that we would be different than we are now, it’s that we would be literally separate people (as separate as you and I are right now). Now, this can be tricky. We often say that we’re not the same person as we were when we were younger, but that’s not the kind of change Williams is talking about. Though we may have different beliefs and values now than we once did, we still have continuity of self. That’s why we say “wow, I was so different back then.” Williams is talking about getting to a point where it no longer makes sense to call the former person “I.”

You might think there is no such point. If personal identity can be captured in purely causal terms, then Williams’ argument will not work. It is not clear that personal identity can be captured that way, however, for various reasons. Here is one example: when a massive brain injury reduces someone to a mental infant with no memory of his former self, we often say that the person we once knew has literally died and been replaced by a new person in the old body. “Joe is gone, and he won’t ever come back,” we might say. There is still a person in the body, of course, but it is not Joe. It’s someone else instead. If identity could be captured in purely causal terms, Joe and the new person would be the same person. But they’re not the same person (the English language might force us to refer to them as if they were the same person, and this linguistic foible might trip us up from time to time; but on reflection, we know they are not identical). Therefore, identity cannot be captured in purely causal terms.

Living forever is not exactly like suffering a massive brain injury, of course, but it may dissociate us from ourselves in much the same way. I suppose a practical definition might go something like this: “causally related persons cease to be identical when early person stages no longer have anything to do with the development of later person stages.” This is a rough definition, to be sure, but it is a start. The idea would be that a person who changes a great deal over the course of life is still affected by the early stages of his life—indeed, they may be why he changed so much—but a radical shift into another person occurs when this sort of internal relationship is no longer possible. I hold none of the beliefs I held when I was young, and I lack a lot of specific memories from my youth, but the experiences I had still affect my present psychology. If I could become so distanced from those experiences that they ceased to even have a subconscious effect on me, it seems there could be a genuine question about whether or not they were still mine—especially if the disconnect was clean and complete (that is, not irregular and patchy; the loss of a few influences here and there won’t be enough if there’s still continuity stretching all the way back).

There are metaphysical worries here. If identity is supposed to be transitive, and if dissociation occurs gradually, then we might think that the case of Joe is too disanalogous to do any real work here. Joe’s case is clean and complete because of a single event; Williams is talking about cases where nothing quite so dramatic happens. He has several possible replies, though. First, personal identity is not the same issue as metaphysical identity; as such, it may not be subject to the same restrictions. Second, dissociation is only half of his argument. He also has the claim about boredom to rely on. If it is true that everyone will eventually desire death, Williams might take it that his case has been made. Both replies are important. We seem to have left the boredom side of the argument behind, and we need to be careful about that. Williams’ argument is for a disjunctive conclusion, after all. The bit about personal identity versus metaphysical identity is also important, though, because I think Williams would argue that you are conflating the two. This goes back to the question about capturing identity causally. We can call something a future stage of ourselves on causal grounds, but Williams is worried about a different kind of relationship.

What to say, then, about your examples? It seems to me that Williams would say, and I must confess sympathy to the view, that you are a bit overly optimistic about the likelihood of being able to relate to people from the year 1012. You imagine you can, but Williams thinks failures of imagination are precisely the problem here. We insist on thinking about immortality in terms of what we know about mortal life: we know we can survive changes in character that take place over 50 years, so we assume we can survive changes in character that take place over 1,000,000 years. This inference does not clearly follow. Moreover, we ignore relevant aspects of what we know about mortal life: those at the end of an ordinary mortal life—even those not suffering from mental deterioration—already have difficulty relating to the culture and people of the world around them. This alienation is likely to grow exponentially as lifespan increases—unless we dissociate from ourselves and become new people.

To this point, you might restate your final question: is this bad? Well, no. But Williams doesn’t say it’s bad. He says it’s irrelevant (or, more precisely, that it lacks the same sort of relevance that your personal future has to you). You say that either outcome is fine with you, and that’s great. Williams’ point is only that a certain relationship would cease to exist (the relationship one has with oneself) and be replaced by a different kind of relationship (the kind one has with others). His argument is not that this is bad (as long as you’ve managed to avoid the boredom/alienation horn of the dilemma), but rather that your hopes are no longer self-regarding when you look forward to this sort of technological development. This matters insofar as we are concerned with immortality, as opposed to simply technological advancement. It’s one thing to say “I hope technology keeps getting better and eventually manages to perpetuate ideas and information.” It’s another to say “I hope that I—the person that I am—continues to exist.”

@rooeytoo Sure, but those aren’t the issues with which Williams’ argument is concerned. He’s happy to acknowledge the existence of personal growth, and talks about it quite a bit over the course of developing his own moral philosophy. But by definition, you cannot grow into a literally separate person. If your current self grew from your former self, you are still the same person in William’s view. He is discussing the possibility of a person causally related to us who cannot be said to have grown from us.

@ETpro Unfortunately, you are not an authority about what you would be like at 700. No one is an authority on the future—even their own future. You have certitude, but you do not have certainty (the former is psychological, the latter epistemological). Williams need not deny that someone would be delighted, however; he need only question if it would really be you.

Being able, comfortable, and fit are not all there is to life, after all, and they are not all that contributes to your current level of well-being. If you lacked the other constituents of happiness, merely being able, comfortable, and fit might not be enough. Williams’ worry is that you would not be able to be the same person (in the personal identity sense of that term) while at the same time staying wanting to continue living. I have explained the reasons for this in greater detail above.

As for your grandmother, we can grant that she would not have to deal with the health problems you mention. We cannot grant the point about loss of friends, however, as you have explicitly specified that we are not talking about a world without death. Accidents will still happen, and her friends might still have died over the course of time. That is highly relevant to the question at hand.

rooeytoo's avatar

Since Williams doesn’t have any more concrete facts on the subject than I do, I’ll stick with my own personal assessment and not worry about his suppositions.

ETpro's avatar

@SavoirFaire Great discussion. Even though you don’t know which position to take, one or the other is almost certainly right. Nonetheless, I will stick with @rooeytoo‘s take. When it comes to what’s how I feel, I am the world’s leading expert. Nobody else, however storied their accomplishments, can accurately tell me what I feel.

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