If you are unfamiliar with NPR’s Intelligence Squared debates, you are missing out. They gather four excellently qualified people to debate, two against two, propositions on currently hot and debated topics.
The most recent, entitled Lifespans are Long Enough, brings up many interesting philosophical, moral, and theological questions, many of which apply not only to aging research, but to our view of heaven itself, where we intend to live eternally.
1. Are we morally obligated to maintain a lifespan shorter than 120 years because God set that limit?
This question stems the following biblical passage:
Then the LORD said, “My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, because he also is flesh; nevertheless his days shall be one hundred and twenty years.” (Gen. 6:3 )
Was this merely an observation, or a command? If we try to violate this limit, are we sinning by resisting God, perhaps overreaching like those at the Tower of Babel?
Remember that the patriarchs lived nearly a thousand years. Perhaps the goal of a tenfold lifespan is not only reachable, but has positive precedent in history.
Personally, I don’t think we are commanded to stay under that 120 year life span lI it. Second I think it’s fascinating that modern science thinks that they could extend our years back to the age of the biblical patriarchs. To me that lends credence to the stories we read in the Bible.
2. Does age extension put Earth’s limited resources at risk?
Does extending life endanger the limited resources of the earth? Perhaps so, but many good points in defense of extending our lifespans were offered to this objection.
a. Malthusian predictions of doom have proved to be false.
Thomas Robert Malthus, an English cleric and scholar in the early 1800’s, wrote essays on the dangers of the growing human population, and predicted great catastrophes if population was not curbed in his lifetime. However, such catastrophes never came. This began a historical littany of Chicken Little’s predicting the same thing, including Paul Erlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb.
b. Technology that aids humans is also accompanied by improvements in all other systems.
Malthusian catastrohpists (say that three times fast!) ignore the fact that other technologies, including innovations in food production as well as efficiencies in reuse and recycling and sustainable resources continue. We have often underestimated the contribution of technology to the sustainability of greater populations. Despite the fact that food production has outpaced human population growth, which based on current numbers will actually peak and then start decreasing, Malthusians are still worried. 1 2 3 4
c. Extending the working years of experienced people increases innovation and knowledge retention
Today, when an experienced person ages out of work, they are often sought (or ought to be) for mentorship, to share their wisdom. Longer working lifespans would increase the compounding of experience within and between people.
d. Extending lifespan will not significantly add to the population
This is argued because death is linear that is there is only one person extended at a time. It is multiple births per couple that increase the population geometrically that may be the problem.
However, if in addition to extending life and health we are extending childbearing years, this could greatly multiply the population because people can easily have a dozen children as they did in the Old Testament.
3. Only the rich would have access to anti-aging technology
This is true of all new cutting edge technology, but eventually, such expensive treatments are optimized and become available to more people. This is not a reason to abandon technological advance.
By the way, since the wealthy in our world usually have less children (less than replacement numbers of 2.3 children per couple), until this technology becomes common, the impact on population will be minimal.
4. An extended life span would change the narrative arc of our lives and change how we understand them perhaps for the worst.
I think this is a very weak argument. In fact, 100 years ago the average lifespan was about 46 years, and that certainly gave you a different narrative arc. You had children earlier, you had less time for education, and you less life to live and plan for. 5
While giving us another hundred or six hundred years would certainly change our narrative arc, is almost certain that it will be changed for the better. However, there are concerns, such as “can people stay married to the same person for six hundred years? Should they?”
5. The problem of extended adolescence
I first thought this objection was silly, but it may have some grounding to it. If we have so much more time to live, could our elongated adolescence now stretch on for decades?
We already have a “problem” with men failing to grow up, which may have a greater negative affect on women. It also means a delay in being financially independent, which puts a strain on aging parents. 6 7
In fact, we have no way of really knowing what an extended period of pre-family independence and decades in which to better one’s self or be engaged in addictive pleasures may wreak on us. 8
However, looking at it from the positive side, if we are needing more and more years of training for work in the information age, perhaps it would be better to have more child-bearing years, and more time to complete a two decade long education before starting a family. This need for more time is already a problem today which could be solved by a longer lifespan. 9 10
6. Anti-aging research is really just narcissistic and selfish
Another objection is that the search for extended life is really just a narcissistic search for eternal life. However, I think the accusation of narcissism is merely an ad hominem attack, and perhaps a genetic fallacy. This same nonsense argument could be used against all medical advances. It is not narcissistic to want to live longer and with more health.
7. Life has less meaning the longer it gets
A last objection is more philosophical. It is said that life has no meaning without the narrative arc defined by death. That is, if there is no death then life is cheap and and almost nothing is worth doing.
The problem with this objection is that first, no one really thinks we are going to crelate immortals with science, but rather, merely life extension. Sure, the hope of immortality may be motivating some, but it’s hardly a claim being made.
Is a longer life less meaningful? Is there a point of diminishing returns where life becomes less enjoyable because you’ve just had enough experiences? I don’t think anyone really knows, but much anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that longer lives are desirable to most.
However, I wonder how we would respond to the claim that an eternal life without the bracket of death would make life meaningless, like having so much money you could not spend it. Is heaven boring and meaningless because it has no end? That is a serious question to which we can not merely retort that “we will be enjoying God.”
There are certainly ethical considerations with any medical technology, but the general rule is extending life and health is good. Are we breaching some moral or evolutionary barrier by pushing past 120 years? Possibly, but it’s impossible to know. Perhaps the principle that life is good and should be preserved is the best principle we have to go on.
There are certainly social and lifecycle changes, and some like extended adolescence are already underfoot without age-extending technology, driven by other technological factors like the information economy. But we’ve seen a doubling of life expectancy over the last couple of centuries, and that has generally been seen as a good. Another doubling may merely be more of the same good unless we can identify other thresholds that will be breached to our detriment (such as natural resources, emotional fatigue, fidelity fatigue, extended adolescence, etc.).
Regarding eternal life in heaven (on a restored Earth, mind you), I personally think of heaven as an eternity in which to develop our potential, and to enjoy God and creation. I’m not sure how have an eternity to spend will affect the narrative arc of our life but I am looking forward to it.
- POPULATION GROWTH, INCREASES IN AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTION AND TRENDS IN FOOD PRICES (ejsd.co) ↩
- Feeding a world of 9 billion (peopleandplanet.com) ↩
- Human Appropriation of the World’s Food Supply (umich.edu) ↩
- Rising demand for food around the world can be met without expansion of agricultural cropland (phys.org) ↩
- Super’s Career Development Theory (iresearchnet.com) ↩
- How Extended Adolescence Is Changing the United States (And Takes a Much Higher Toll on Women) (joshuakennon.com) ↩
- Extended Adolescence—and What it Means (td.org) ↩
- ‘Pre-Adulthood’ Separates The Men From The Boys (npr.org) ↩
- Why Millennials Aren’t Growing Up (usnews.com) ↩
- The Upside of Extended Adolescence: Why fast-forwarding through life isn’t necessarily the best way to grow up. (relevantmagazine.org) ↩