dw2

17 September 2013

When faith gets in the way of progress

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

The rise and fall of our health and vigour is depicted in this sketch from leading biogerontology researcher Alex Zhavoronkov:

Aging Decline

This diagram is taken from the presentation Alex made at a London Futurists event on 31st August. Alex used the same slide in his presentation, several days later, to the SENS6 conference “Reimage aging” at Queens’ College, Cambridge.

conf-page-banner

My impression from the attendees at SENS6 that I met, over the four days I spent at the conference, is that the vast majority of them would give a resounding ‘No’ as the answer to the question,

Is it good that we grow old, weak, disease-prone, and eventually succumb, dead, to the ravages of aging?

What’s more, they shared a commitment that action should be taken to change this state of affairs. In various ways, they described themselves as “fighters against aging”, “healthy longevity activists”, and as “campaigners for negligible senescence”. They share an interest in the declaration made on the page on the SENS Research Foundation website describing the conference:

The purpose of the SENS conference series, like all the SENS initiatives, is to expedite the development of truly effective therapies to postpone and treat human aging by tackling it as an engineering problem: not seeking elusive and probably illusory magic bullets, but instead enumerating the accumulating molecular and cellular changes that eventually kill us and identifying ways to repair – to reverse – those changes, rather than merely to slow down their further accumulation.

This broadly defined regenerative medicine – which includes the repair of living cells and extracellular material in situ – applied to damage of aging, is what we refer to as rejuvenation biotechnologies.

This “interventionist” approach, if successful, would lead to a line, on the chart of performance against age, similar to that shown in the bright green colour: we would retain our youthful vigour indefinitely. Mechanisms supporting this outcome were explored in considerable technical details in the SENS6 presentations. The SENS6 audience collectively posed some probing questions to the individual presenters, but the overall direction was agreed. Rejuvenation biotechnologies ought to be developed, as soon as possible.

But not everyone sees things like this. SENS6 attendees agreed on that point too. Over informal discussions throughout the event, people time and again shared anecdotes about their personal acquaintances being opposed to the goals of SENS. You can easily see the same kind of negative reactions, in the online comments pages of newspapers, whenever a newspaper reports some promising news about potential techniques to overcome aging.

For example, the Daily Mail in the UK recently published a well-researched article, “Do lobsters hold the key to eternal life? Forget gastronomic indulgence, the crustacean can defy the aging process”. The article starts as follows:

They are usually associated with a life of gastronomic indulgence and heart-stopping excess. But away from the dinner table, lobsters may actually hold the secret to a long, healthy — and possibly even eternal — life.

For this crustacean is one of a handful of bizarre animals that appear to defy the normal aging process.

While the passing years bring arthritis, muscle loss, memory problems and illness to humans, lobsters seem to be immune to the ravages of time. They can be injured, of course. They can pick up diseases. They can be caught and thrown into a pot, then smothered in béchamel sauce.

But rather than getting weaker and more vulnerable over the years, they become stronger and more fertile each time they shed their shells.

The typical lobster weighs 1 to 2 lb. But in 2009, a Maine fisherman landed a colossus of 20 lb, which was estimated to be 140 years old. And that isn’t even the oldest lobster found so far. According to Guinness World Records, a 44 lb leviathan was caught in 1977, with claws powerful enough to snap a man’s arm.

The species belongs to an elite group that appears to be ‘biologically immortal’. Away from predators, injury or disease, these astonishing creatures’ cells don’t deteriorate with age…

For healthy longevity activists, there was lots of good news in the article. This information, however, was too much for some readers to contemplate. Some of the online comments make for fascinating (but depressing) reading. Here are four examples, quoted directly from the comments:

  1. How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?
  2. People have to die and they’re not dying quickly enough. Soon the earth will run out of water and food for the ever increasing masses.
  3. These “researchers” should watch Death Becomes Her
  4. The only guarantee of eternal life is to read your Bibles. Though even if you don’t, eternal life of another kind exists, though it’s not particularly appealing: “And the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever” (Rev 14:11).

To be clear, the goal of project such as those in the SENS umbrella is to extend healthy lifespans (sometimes known as “healthspans”) rather than simply extending lifespans themselves. Rejuvenation technologies are envisioned to undo tendencies towards unwelcome decrepitude, crabbiness, and so on.

As for the reference to the 1992 Hollywood film “Death Becomes Her” featuring Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in a frightful “living dead” immortality, I’ll get back to that later.

Infinite ResourceThe question of potential over-population has a bit more substance. However, the worry isn’t so much the number of people on the earth, but the rate at which everyone is consuming and polluting. With potential forthcoming improvements in harnessing solar energy, we’ll have more than enough energy available to look after a planet with 10 billion people. Arguably the planet could sustain at least 100 billion people. (That argument is made, in a well-balanced way, by Ramez Naam in his recent book “The infinite resource” – a book I thoroughly recommend. I’ve also covered this question from time to time in earlier blogposts – see e.g. “Achieving a 130-fold improvement in 40 years”.)

However, I believe that there are deeper roots to the opposition that many people have to the idea of extending healthy lifespans. They may offer intellectual rationalisations for their opposition (e.g. “How would humankind cope with tens of millions of extremely old and incredibly crabby people?”) but these rationalisations are not the drivers for the position they hold.

Instead, their opposition to extending healthy lifespans comes from what we can call faith.

This thought crystallised in my mind as I reflected on the very last presentation from SENS6. The speaker was Thomas Pyszczynski of the University of Colorado, and his topic was “Understanding the paradox of opposition to long-term extension of the human lifespan: fear of death, cultural worldviews, and the illusion of objectivity”.

The presentation title was long, but the content was clear and vivid. The speaker outlined some conclusions from decades of research he had conducted into “Terror Management Theory (TMT)”. I’ve since discovered that the subject of “Terror Management Theory” has its own article in Wikipedia:

Terror management theory (TMT), in social psychology, proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to humans. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. If life is thought meaningful, death is less terrifying. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning…

pyszczynski

Here’s the “paradox” to which Pyszczynski (pictured) referred: people oppose the idea that we could have longer healthy lives, because of the operation of a set of culture and philosophical ideas, which were themselves an adaptive response to the underlying fact that we deeply desire indefinitely long healthy lives. So the opposition is self-contradictory, but the people involved don’t see it like that.

For all of history up until the present age, the idea of having an indefinitely long healthy life was at stark variance to everything else that we saw around ourselves. Death seemed inevitable. In order to avoid collapsing into terror, we needed to develop rationalisations and techniques that prevented us from thinking seriously about our own finitude and mortality. That’s where key aspects of our culture arose. These aspects of our culture became deeply rooted.

Our culture operates, in many cases, below the level of conscious awareness. We find ourselves being driven by various underlying beliefs, without being aware of the set of causes and effects. However, we find comfort in these beliefs. This faith (belief in the absence of sufficient reason) helps to keep us mentally sane, and keeps society functional, even as it prepares us, as individuals, to grow infirm and die.

In case any new ideas challenge this faith, we find ourselves compelled to lash out against these ideas, even without taking the time to analyse them. Our motivation, here, is to preserve our core culture and faith, since that’s what provides the foundation of meaning in our lives. We fight the new ideas, even if these new ideas would be a better solution to our underlying desire to live an indefinitely long, healthy life. The new ideas leave us with a feeling of alienation, even though we don’t see the actual connections between ideas. Our faith causes us to lose our rationality.

Incidentally, similar factors apply, of course, when other things that have profound importance to us are challenged. For example, when we think we may lose a cherished romantic partner, we can all too easily become crazy. When your heart’s on fire, smoke gets in your eyes.

Ending AgingIt turns out that Aubrey de Grey, the chief science officer of SENS, has already written on this same topic. In chapter two of his 2007 book “Ending aging”, he notes the following:

There is a very simple reason why so many people defend aging so strongly – a reason that is now invalid, but until quite recently was entirely reasonable. Until recently, no one has had any coherent idea how to defeat aging, so it has been effectively inevitable. And when one is faced with a fate that is as ghastly as aging and about which one can do absolutely nothing, either for oneself or even for others, it makes perfect psychological sense to put it out of one’s mind – to make one’s peace with it, you might say – rather than to spend one’s miserably short life preoccupied by it. The fact that, in order to sustain this state of mind, one has to abandon all semblance of rationality on the subject – and, inevitably, to engage in embarrassingly unreasonable conversational tactics to shore up that irrationality – is a small price to pay….

Aubrey continues this theme at the start of chapter three:

We’ve recently reached the point where we can engage in the rational design of therapies to defeat aging: most of the rest of this book is an account of my favoured approach to that design. But in order to ensure that you can read that account with an open mind, I need to dispose beforehand of a particularly insidious aspect of the pro-aging trance: the fact that most people already know, in their heart of hearts, that there is a possibility that aging will eventually be defeated.

Why is this a problem? Indeed, at first sight you might think that it would make my job easier, since surely it means that the pro-aging trance is not particularly deep. Unfortunately, however, self-sustained delusions don’t work like that. Just as it’s rational to be irrational about the desirability of aging in order to make your peace with it, it’s also rational to be irrational about the feasibility of defeating aging while the chance of defeating it any time soon remains low. If you think there’s even a 1 percent chance of defeating aging within your lifetime (or within the lifetime of someone you love), that sliver of hope will prey on your mind and keep your pro-aging trance uncomfortably fragile, however hard you’ve worked to convince yourself that aging is actually not such a bad thing after all. If you’re completely convinced that aging is immutable, by contrast, you can sleep more soundly.

Underwood_Mair_2013_smallAnother speaker from the final session of SENS6, Mair Underwood of the University of Queensland, provided some timely advice to the SENS6 community, that dovetails well with the discussion above. Underwood’s presentation was entitled “What reassurances do the community need regarding life extension? Evidence from studies of community attitudes and an analysis of film portrayals”. The presentation pointed out the many ways in which popular films (such as “Death Becomes Her”, mentioned above) portray would-be life extensionists in a bad light. These people, the films imply, are emotionally immature, selfish, frustrated, obstructive, and generally unattractive. This is the pro-death culture at work.

To counteract these impressions, and to help free the broader community from its faith that aging and death are actually good things, Underwood gave the following advice:

  1. Assure that life extension science, and the distribution of life extension technologies, are ethical and regulated, and seen to be so
  2. Assuage community concerns about life extension as unnatural or playing god
  3. Assure that life extension would involve an extension of healthy lifespan
  4. Assure that life extension does not mean a loss of fertility
  5. Assure the community that life extension will not exacerbate social divides, and that those with extended lives will not be a burden on society
  6. Create a new cultural framework for understanding life extension.

This advice is all good, but I suspect that the new few years may see a growing “battle of faiths”, as representatives of the old culture fight harder in opposition to the emerging evidence that we we are on the point of possessing the technological means to extend human healthspans very significantly. This is a battle that may need more tools, to influence the outcome, than mere hard-honed rationality. At the very least, we’ll need to keep in mind how culture works, and the ways in which faith draws strength.

Follow ups: Several forthcoming London Futurists meetups address topics that are directly relevant to the above line of thinking:

  • Futurism, Spirituality, and Faith, in Birkbeck College on Saturday 21st September, discusses ways in which committed technoprogressives can best interact with faith-based movements, without these interactions leading to fruitless irrationality and loss of direction
  • Projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity, a Google Hangout On Air (HOA) on Sunday 29th September, features a panel discussion on the question, “What are the most important ongoing projects to accelerate radical healthy longevity?”
  • Futurists discuss The Transhumanist Wager, with Zoltan Istvan, another Google HOA, on Sunday 20th September, reviews a recently published novel about a possible near-future scenario of a growing battle between the old human culture and an emerging new culture that favours indefinitely long healthspans.
  • Finally, if you’re interested in the question of whether solar energy will be able, as I implied above, to address pending shortages in global energy supplies, even as human population continues to increase, you should make it a priority to attend the London Futurists event on Saturday 5th October, The Energy of Nations, with Jeremy Leggett. The speaker on this occasion is one of the world’s foremost authorities on solar energy, oil depletion, climate change, and dysfunctional investment. The topic of the best energy systems for the decades ahead is, alas, another one in which faith tends to subvert reason, and in which we need to be smart to prevent our thinking being hijacked by adverse factors.

For more information about the evolution of London Futurists, you can take a peek at a new website which is in the process of being implemented, at http://londonfuturists.com/.

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1 Comment »

  1. I identified religion as a key variable in the acceptance of cryonics long ago. See my draft:

    http://cosmism.blogspot.dk/2013/03/the-decline-of-cryonics-overview.html

    Comment by David Stodolsky — 16 January 2014 @ 8:40 pm


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