Objections to Immortality: Answering Leon Kass

Michael Anissimov
Lifeboat Foundation
February 2003

How far can we push life extension? A panoply of technologies currently under development could, in principle, extend the human lifespan indefinitely. Deaths in accidents may continue to be possible, but there’s no physical law that would necessarily prevent a human’s body from being immortal by design. A triple wave of future advances - sophisticated biotechnology, medical nanotechnology, and artificial intelligence - all offer powerful theoretical and practical arguments for the achievability of immortality.

Biotechnology, such as in gene therapy, telomere-extension, or the cheap manufacture of replacement organs, is a continuously growing area of research, but is also one of the most ethically troublesome areas of research, and therefore is heavily regulated by conservative policymakers. The Life Extension Foundation is a good example of an organization focusing primarily on the biological approach to immortality. Medical nanotechnology entails the control of large groups of molecular-scale machines, which could enter the body noninvasively and regularly repair biological damage on a fine-grained level, before it can accrete. The Foresight Institute, most notably the researcher Robert Freitas Jr., is widely known for studying the technical and political aspects of medical nanotechnology, among other types of nanotechnology. Creating benevolent self-improving artificial intelligence is the pursuit of the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a research project aiming to create genuine transhumanity by exploiting the unique cognitive advantages a general AI would have relative to humans. These cognitive resources could rapidly be applied in humanitarian areas, such as life extension research, with rapidly effective results (from the human perspective.) The Immortality Institute and the Extropy Institute are additional organizations representing proponents of scientific immortality from a variety of different approaches and perspectives.

But the pursuit of radical life extension, of course, is not without opponents, and there exist a number of prominent individuals in politics and science who see longer lifespans as undesirable and threatening to the spirit of man. Perhaps the most active of these individuals is Leon Kass, the head of Bush’s Presidential Bioethics Council, who has given numerous talks about the perils and foreignness of human life extension and lobbies for intense regulation in this area. As a director of the Immortality Institute and the author of this document, I present a series of rebuttals to six of Kass’s most central objections to immortality, in an argument-counterargument format.

Firstly, Kass argues that if everyone overcame aging it could lead to negative social consequences, a "Tragedy of the Commons" that could include such things as overpopulation and skewed demographics.

Widespread extreme life extension will most definitely reshape the fabric of society in profound ways, but these are challenges that will need to be faced head on, not avoided. A society with the technological capacity to overcome aging is also extremely likely to possess other useful technologies that will soften or eliminate the negative social impact of widespread life extension usage. Profound social and technological events (such as the rise of capitalism or the invention of cheap aircraft) have had unique impacts in the past, challenging societies to reform and adapt to these inevitable milestones along the path of man’s moral and technological development. Many of the issues presented by life extension are issues already in need of an urgent solution, such as the overpopulation problem or diminishing fossil fuels, and where advances are already starting to be made. Extreme life extension isn’t liable to introduce any new fundamental problems that we wouldn’t have had to deal with to begin with, and will in fact correct the problems of aging and death, which limit human choice in our own lives. A growing technological civilization must ultimately address these issues whether or not extreme life extension becomes available in the near future. Near-term progress in genetic engineering, nanotechnology, cognitive science, and artificial intelligence will increase mankind’s problem-solving capacity and enable us to better confront current or forthcoming problems along the imminent route of technological acceleration ahead of us.

For example, the researcher Eric K. Drexler has already developed extensive theoretical arguments for the feasibility of nanotechnology¹, a bottom-up manufacturing technology which will allow the synthesis of cheap food and housing from raw materials for extremely low costs. This technology could also be applied towards the construction of cheap spacecraft or space elevators², giving millions or billions of individuals the opportunity to colonize the solar system should the Earth become uncomfortably overpopulated. Marshall T. Savage has estimated in his book "The Millennial Project"³ that the Solar System could sustain upwards of a billion humans, each with mansions upon mansions of living space, for several billion years. This book also neglects the more recently-conceived benefits that advanced nanotechnology and virtual reality would confer once they mature.

For better or for worse, widespread demand for extreme life extension will surface once people are convinced of its possibility, and there would be no greater social injustice than to withhold that privilege from them. Unless vast sectors of scientific and technological research are completely shut down or dictatorially regulated, progress will continue and we will have to confront these changes. Longer and longer lifespans will incrementally emerge due to better nutrition, medicine, and a more widespread, sophisticated, scientific awareness of what factors add or subtract from living a long, healthy, happy life. To place some arbitrary cap on lifespan due to an anticipation of future society’s ineptness at handling the challenge is not only morbidly pessimistic, but robs everyday people of their right to live and pursue happiness indefinitely.

Secondly, Kass worries that life extension technologies will widen the gap between the rich and the poor, leading to greater social inequities and an overall regression in society’s well-being.

Even if life extension would initially be more accessible to the wealthy, the advantage that the rich would derive from such access would be transient and fleeting - historically, novel technological innovations quickly filter down to the masses, and excepting the case of coordinated global action, extreme life extension will be no exception. This becomes especially true in the case of life extension implemented by nanotechnology or artificial intelligence, where the tools one would use to repair the deterioration of their own body are indistinguishable from the tools they would use to simply cure a disease, mend a broken limb, or conduct a variety of other medical tasks. A postulated scenario in which the rich are able to obtain longer lives and the masses are not for a sufficiently long duration as to contribute appreciably to social inequality assumes that extreme life extension is obtained and all other progress miraculously screeches to a halt, or life extension is globally outlawed and rich people only use it in secret, or other such equally unlikely scenarios. By observing technological patterns in society today, we can see that the cost of various medical procedures and life-enhancing tools is falling at faster and faster rates; in fact, the emotional and personal importance of such technologies place an even stronger pressure on companies to make them available as opposed to technologies which are merely conveniences.

The dynamic flow of progress and capitalism will continue to make technologies available to individuals who are willing to work for them, and create the attendant legal and social frameworks necessary to accommodate these changes. In the instance of immortality implemented through self-replicating nanotechnology, economic divide could actually prove a non-issue due to an influx of abundance; and while I certainly respect due skepticism with regard to more radical technologies such as nanotechnology, the economic divide that many are proposing wouldn’t just require huge classes of projected technologies being somehow stifled or regulated out of existence, but the reverse of millennia of accrued advances in politics, economics, and other social structures.

Thirdly, Kass argues that we'd lose interest and engagement in life if it went on forever, a sort of “immortalists’ enuui” that postulates that life is only worth living if it is short.

This sentiment seems to entail a very morbid view on life. If a member of an elderly couple is on the verge of death when a new life extension technology becomes available, and this couple decides they want to continue to be together, is it right to deny the continuance of their love on such arbitrary grounds? We didn’t lose interest and engagement in life when average lifespan increased from 30 to 70, in fact, thanks to the explosion of culture and technology; there are more exciting things to do than ever before. Cheaper and more effective medical technologies are extending health span as well as lifespan, ensuring that becoming older doesn’t mean becoming more senile.

Our current lifespan has its characteristic length due to one reason, and one reason only; it was the optimal engineering solution on nature’s evolutionary payoff curve for maximizing the adaptiveness of our species - for evolution to build humans capable of living longer, there needs to be an immediate fitness advantage, i.e., a reproductive benefit. These selection pressures did not present themselves during our evolution, hence the average ancestral lifespan of about 25 years. “Investing more resources” in human longevity would be useless unless long-living humans could outcompete their rivals in the ancestral environment, and diverting the preexisting resources from longevity would have resulted in humans whose lifespans were too short to outcompete others. But now these evolutionary/adaptive reasons are obsolete - humans don’t live in environments like we did when we evolved, and we have no reason to accept nature’s limit on our lifespan or healthspan unless we decide that for ourselves. Our particular lifespan is just the consequence of a set of overlapping constraints which produced the human body, constraints without any cosmic purpose. Humans have already resisted and overcome our default biological limitations through medicine, science, social engineering, government, the postal system, the Internet, and so on. The technologies which will soon enable us to indefinitely lengthen our lives are just natural extensions of the preexisting human drive for progress and happiness. And with the opportunity to enhance our minds as well as our bodies, we will create societies so complex and interesting that our attention or engagement will never run dry.

Social systems would, in time, adapt to the changes that life extension will bring. We live our lives for the future of our children and our children’s children, why not also live our lives for our future selves, if we had the chance? Longer lives will encourage people living in the present to address the problems of the future, and will also contribute to a heightened sense of moral responsibility, because many will choose to be continuously moral rather than escape our transgressions through death.

Fourthly, Kass argues that life wouldn't be serious or meaningful without death, which overlaps with point three, but is more specifically concerned with the existential or cultural meaning surrounding death.

As addressed above, life only becomes unserious, devoid of meaning, etc, if we want it to be. Projections of emergent negative social effects fail to consider interim steps taken to stifle these effects, or channel their energy into more positive areas. Approaching an immortal society with the assumptions and reservations of a limited-lifespan society is not the way to accurately project the attitudes and emotions of the former type of society; we need to factor in advances in worldview which would inevitably take place to accommodate the inevitability of life extension technology. If long lives reduce our seriousness, and we continue to see seriousness as important, then individuals will pick goals and philosophies which support serious thinking and adhere to those. Same thing with meaning. If a bunch of beings that happened to evolve with sub-century lifespans can see meaning in their short lives, then there’s nothing to suggest that individuals who deliberately choose longer lives will lose meaning as a side effect of their choices. Incidentally, the futurist Eliezer Yudkowsky has published a paper on Fun theory, which argues that, through mental enhancement, there is potentially an infinite amount of fun available in the universe.

Fifthly, Kass argues that life wouldn't be beautiful without death (just as a pretty flower is beautiful because we know it will eventually wilt, and a sunset is beautiful because it is short-lived), which again overlaps with the above two points.

The human perception of beauty and aesthetics may currently rest upon the characteristic lifespan we evolved, but as our consideration of beauty and aesthetics mature, we will be given the opportunity to become more wise and grow into the profound technologies which will be developed. Our perception of beauty may have deep evolutionary roots, but these roots will one day be open to revision, on a lesser scale through introspective self-modification, or a greater scale through advanced mental reengineering. More intelligent minds will allow us to more deeply appreciate the structures of the universe, including those structures currently invisible to human beings.

Lastly, Kass argues that mortality is necessary for virtue and morality (we couldn't sacrifice our lives for something if we were immortal).

While it is true that some aspects of our present-day consensus morality do probably rest upon limited lifespan, the injustice of nonconsensual death far overwhelms the small portions of our morality which will be thrown off balance with the introduction of extreme life extension. In a society with longer lifespans and greater overall safety, mortality is playing a smaller and smaller part in the overall picture of morality, and the consensus view on morality has been incrementally changing to reflect this. The consensus view of morality will continue to change to accommodate these humanitarian advances. In almost every case, it's easier to do more good if one is able to live longer, than through sacrifice.

My conclusion is clear; the world needs more life, not less, in order to prosper. To best pursue happiness, individually and as a group, we need unbounded vitality and excitement, not a grim wait for a meaningless and thoroughly preventable end. On the plus side, criticism from people like Kass shows that the prospect of immortality is being taken seriously. A few decades ago, the very notion of indefinite lifespan for humans, no matter what the enabling technology, was considered relatively crazy. So the situation is improving. Now that the mainstream of society is starting to consider the consequences of extended lifespan, immortalists should take the opportunity to speak out and affirm their rights to life, because these rights may be in immediate danger. The time of leverage is now: in the coming decade, many foundational decisions will be made which will lay the groundwork for the future context of the debate. The best way for one to extend their lifespan in today's world is not necessarily through diet, exercise, or supplements, but through advocating the right ideas and actively navigating to the best of all possible futures.

¹ Drexler, Eric. Nanosystems. John Wiley & Sons 1998.
² http://members.aol.com/Nathan2go/SPELEV.HTM
³ Savage, Marshall T. The Millennial Project. Empyrean Publications, 1992.