When I discuss life extension I am not talking about extending the period during which one is a geriatrics patient -- I mean extended youth. At worst, this means having the constitution of a 30 year-old when one is 70 -- and the constitution of a 70-year old when one is 150. At best, it means eliminating the aging process. Aging is a disease, and quite likely a potentially curable disease. The cover story of the December 1992 issue of SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN and the 5-July-1996 issue of SCIENCE describes some of what science is learning about the mechanisms of aging.
And philosophically, there is a problem with the question. Philosophy distinguishes between facts and values. Facts include things like, "It is raining" and "Water boils at 100 degrees Celsius". Values motivate statements like "I like bananas", "I want to marry you" and "Something should be done to stop the depletion of ozone from the atmosphere". Values are concerned with aesthetics, motivation and emotion -- attributes of living organisms. Questions like "What is the purpose of the Universe?" or "What is the purpose of Life?" are only answerable by intelligent beings, groups of intelligent beings or (perhaps) by supernatural beings. Only living beings have purposes. And ultimately, to ask someone "What is the purpose of life?" in search of an answer, is to surrender self-control and ask "What purpose do you have for my life?"
Therefore, it makes no sense to ask if the survival of any one person or even the whole of humankind matters in some objective sense. A god-like Being may make judgements concerning the value of humankind, but the physical universe makes no such judgements. It is living beings who make judgements and have purposes -- and rarely with unanimity.
Given that judgements and purposes are only attributes of living beings, whose purpose is most important? The government's? Your mother's? Your own? The last answer may seem selfish and self-centered, but whether you acknowledge it or not, you have ultimate responsibility for deciding what purposes are most important to you (as opposed to important to someone else -- the only alternative). It isn't hard to consciously or unconsciously delegate this responsibility -- and others often attempt to make delegation easy (if not obligatory) -- but no one can truly take this responsibility from you.
How important to you is the on-going survival of humankind? How important to you is the on-going survival of your country? How important to you is the on-going survival of your friends and family? And how important is it to you that you remain alive -- and how long would you like to remain alive?
Suicide counseling is primarily for people who are undecided about the value of life. The suicide counselor can attempt to remind the despairing person of the potential pleasures of life -- or attempt to suggest ways to end pain and depression. The suicide councilor is helpless to change a person who innately experiences being alive as being something negative. Many (if not most) people will eagerly choose death as a means to stop physical or emotional pain if the pain is intense enough and if the prospect of the pain ending seems bleak.
What would I do with a thousand-year lifespan? I'd probably spend some of it trying to find a way to live longer. But I would not otherwise lack for things to do. It would take me at least 200 years to read my way through my book collection. I would like to gain mastery of mathematics, physics and chemistry. I would like to learn and practice medicine. I want to understand jurisprudence and practice law. I would like to master carpentry, plumbing and electrical skills -- and build houses. I would like to master industrial design & fabrication, computers and biotechnology so as to start & operate productive businesses. I want to build financial empires. I want to learn to play musical instruments and explore the many worlds of music. I want to join and organize communities for social experimentation. I want to write great books. I want to do experimental scientific research. I want to explore the planet Earth with a deep-enough knowledge of flora & fauna & geology that I can appreciate what I am seeing, hearing, smelling and touching. I want to learn human languages, live & work in many different countries and gain a direct sense of the lives, histories & cultures of others. And I want to explore to the fullest my own loves, hates, fears and joys. I want to fathom love, my capacities for love and the limitless mystery of love & sexuality.
But telling people what I would do with my extended life will not satisfy those who don't know what to do with themselves. Enthusiasm for living is the driving force behind the desire to live. To someone who equates extended life with extended boredom, a list of possible activities will only seem like a list of chores.
I don't expect the world to stand still. Many exciting changes are possible in a world of accelerating technological development. Benjamin Franklin wrote that he dearly wished he could be chemically preserved so that he could see the future. But I am not a person enduring a "veil of tears" in my present life only on the basis of hope for some future technological paradise. I am enthusiastic about life. The present world is such a rich treasure-store of marvelous opportunities that my most abiding interest in the possibilities of the future is the possibility of extending life.
I am not even certain that my desire to endure is only connected to my desire to learn and accomplish new things. The thousandth time that I smell a flower, eat a strawberry, sing a song or kiss a cheek may be every bit as wonderful as the first. People ask me if I am afraid of death. To me this question is a macho red-herring. Would I be afraid of the death of someone I dearly loved? Yes, but fear is a misleading way to represent how I feel about the precious life of another. So it is with my own life.
I am part of an international community of life extensionists and cryonicists. They are my friends and allies in the quest for life -- and I work hard so that these precious and fascinating people can achieve the goals we share.
If people ask me why I want to live forever, I ask why they want to die. This is not a trick answer -- my bafflement is as genuine as theirs. I can only speculate that most people live lives that are woefully boring, depressive or painful -- and they are locked in despair that things will ever change. Many people complete the goals of social programming (education, marriage, family, career and retirement) -- and then feel that there is nothing left to do but die. Ultimately, I cannot understand why people are so content to age and die when science is making strides towards the prevention of these things. There is an incomprehensible gulf of different attitudes.
The technology of life extension may well advance rapidly enough that biological aging can be eliminated and reversed within 50 years. If that is true I may be able to avoid death from aging simply by watching my health & safety, and by keeping-up with the latest available life extension ideas. If my only danger of death were due to accident or homicide, my expected lifespan would be 600 years (1,000 if I am as careful as I intend to be). But just in case, I could make cryonics arrangements, ie, arrangements to be frozen. Being frozen after death is the second-worst thing that could happen. The worst thing is dying without being frozen.
But is it really worse to spend money on cryonics than on houses or cars? True consistency, in fact, would demand that everyone dedicate themselves to earning as much money as possible and living a monk-like existence which foregoes children, pets, new clothes, cosmetics, fine food, smoking, alcohol, vacations, all forms of entertainment, etc. -- in order to send all available money to the starving Third World.
The kind of sacrifice demanded by the vision of an Overpopulated Earth can look pretty unpleasant, if carried to its logical conclusion. A patient in a Developed Country on a kidney dialysis machine or expensive AIDS therapy is selfishly consuming resources that could save many starving Third World children. The Ailing Elderly in the Developed World consume resources that could be going to those suffering in the Underdeveloped World. It is as if every breath we take asphyxiates someone. In this view, the Earth is a lifeboat and we are all confronted with a kill-or-be-killed scenario in which the most noble thing any person can possibly do is to commit suicide to make room for others. We are left with a "humanitarian" attitude which regards life as utterly cheap, rather than precious. Is this really humanitarianism? Is it humanitarian to oppose a medical discovery which would extend human life, such as a pacemaker or a cure for cancer? One hundred years ago the average human lifespan in North America was nearly half what it is today. There is something questionable about a humanitarianism that regards the attempt to stay alive as being an antisocial act.
The Overpopulation Problem is a matter of human suffering -- and the brunt of this suffering is currently born by Third World peoples. Sadly, Third World governments are almost invariably military dictatorships which impede the basis for economic and technological growth. Moreover, it is a survival strategy for Underdeveloped World peoples to have as many children as possible because the more children survive, the better-off the parents will be. "Children are wealth", a man from Sri Lanka once told me. Women in Underdeveloped countries who lack access to education or contraceptives often find it difficult to opt for any career other than bearing a large family. Globally, an estimated one-third of children are born unwanted. In some countries, fewer than 2% of the population uses contraceptives. Food, money and medicine from the Developed World may temporarily alleviate some suffering, but it does not get to the root of the problem. Indeed, it may simply lead to more starving people.
Exponential population growth among people who are unable to provide for their children is the Overpopulation Problem that must be solved -- not linear population growth due to improvements in the quality and quantity of human lifespan. Eternal youth without reproduction results in zero population growth. Eternal youth with the production of one child per person (two children per couple) results in linear population growth. Even WITHOUT eternal youth, however, population will grow exponentially (as powers of 2) if each couple has four children. Exponential population growth is the essential population problem that must be solved, with or without life extension.
From a practical point of view, less than one-millionth of one percent of the Earth's population has shown any serious interest in being frozen. If this remains true, cryonics will not have any significant impact on an overpopulation problem.
The world is grossly underpopulated with the kind of people who can solve the tough problems leading to human suffering -- people who can unleash vast stores of energy that is clean & cheap, people who can create social conditions that lead to economic growth, people who can teach others how to be productive and people who can find ways to help would-be parents to have only as many children as they can support. When each person has the capacity to be a creative net contributor to world wealth, rather than a net drain, population growth will be loved rather than feared, and human beings will find it easier to value and appreciate human lives.
People with extended lifespans will have more incentive to improve the world and the environment -- the consequences of short-sightedness will affect them. Unaging brains will have the opportunity to accumulate wisdom, a precious resource that is currently lost to senility and "natural" lifespan. It is often argued that death is necessary to remove rigid old minds from positions of power so that humanity can progress. But if technology eliminates aging, minds can continue to grow without becoming rigid or inflexible. Hundreds of years of accumulated wisdom by youthful, vital minds could prove to be the most valuable resource available to humankind.
What about pollution? Technology may well be the cause of much pollution, but technologies to eliminate pollution have a great future. Nanomachines may one day launder the earth's atmosphere. Electric cars powered by batteries charged from fusion energy is a clean technology. In fact, an elderly person once told me that major cities are much less polluted now than they were 60 years ago when coal was commonly used for fuel.
The desire to live as long as possible need not be viewed as an inhumane desire. If uploading to a computer were possible, micronization of computer circuits might mean that billions of minds could inhabit relatively little computer space while consuming relatively little energy. If cost is the ultimate criterion by which the desire to live indefinitely long is to be judged, is there some low cost at which this desire is no longer selfish? Cryonics is expensive today because relatively few people choose it. If millions of people were cryonically frozen, economies of scale could drive the cost very low (liquid nitrogen is not expensive).
There will be emotional incentives for reanimation also. The last people frozen will be frozen with the most advanced technology, and it is they who will be reanimated first. And they will have a strong incentive to reanimate their friends and loved-ones. A chain of personal connections will reach backwards in time to reanimate relatives, friends and even casual acquaintances.
Will the future be so technologically advanced that we will be unable to adapt or become productive citizens? Many immigrants to America have moved from Stone Age conditions, yet have adapted impressively well. It seems hard to believe that people such as Aristotle, Leonardo da Vinci or Madam Curie would not adapt easily and joyfully to our modern world, if they could be brought back to life. In fact, many people with mental and physical handicaps who would have had difficulty adapting even one hundred years ago find that the world is becoming a more user-friendly place. Computer-aided instruction and technology to enable the handicapped cannot help but improve. Such advanced enabling technologies will doubtless make our adaptation to the future an exciting adventure. There will probably be technologies to enhance our intellectual powers, which will make us even more capable of adapting and thriving.
If the world of the future is not a world of very advanced technology, we will not be brought back. And if the future does develop into an advanced technological society, why would it be a cold, loveless place? Freed by technology from the time-consuming drudgeries of daily life, people will have the time and resources to explore their innermost beings -- and the innermost beings of others. Self-understanding, passion, intimacy and intense personal fulfillment will be possible beyond anything we can imagine. Love will be cultivated like precious flowers in the world of the future, and the world will bloom with love like magnificent gardens of splendor. In a state of enduring youth, beauty and vitality, we will be able to explore and fulfill our deepest dreams.
Of course, we would love to bring our loved-ones to join us in this future cultivation of our inner potentials. We should make every effort to do this. But it is wrong to believe that love is impossible without the existence of some particular person. "Love is as perennial as the grass", and the potential for love is without limit. While I don't deny the uniqueness of the loveability of any particular person, others will always be found who have their own unique qualities of loveability. The potential for love comes from within you. Loss of a loved-one may create a void, but it also creates a space for new and different love.
The technology of the future will make our bodies disease-free, beautiful, perpetually youthful and more vigorous than they had ever been. Our visual acuity, hearing and other sensory capabilities will be far superior to what is today "normal". We will have access to fantastic technologies for transportation, communication, construction, exploration and entertainment. We will be vastly enabled in our abilities to both work and play. Our productive capabilities will be enormous, and each individual will be able to effortlessly build what today would be called empires. We will be able to sculpt our own mansions surrounded by vegetation and fauna of our own design. We will be able to fill our worlds with people, laughter and conviviality -- or experience oceanic peace and solitude in vast naturalistic settings. Cheap space travel will give us access to the energies of the sun and the enormity of interplanetary space into which we may expand. Many will want to go to the stars.
There is no absolute guarantee that the aging disease will be cured or that people frozen with current technology can eventually be reanimated. No human effort can ever be taken with 100% certainty of success. But if the stakes are high (survival, for example) even a modest possibility of success becomes worthwhile. Some people can think up innumerable reasons why the future might be an undesirable place to live -- imagining anarchy, oppressive totalitarianism, overwhelming strangeness or unbearable loneliness. I believe in my own ability to appreciate life, to adapt and to work to improve my conditions under almost any circumstances. But as "solace", others should remember that the option of suicide will probably always be available if things don't work out.
Will humankind become extinct? Such a scenario requires a sudden catastrophe. There is now good reason to hope that weapons of mass destruction will not bring about human extinction. If a strain of AIDS should arise that is as contagious as the common cold, immense resources can be brought to bear on the problem. And if technology makes space travel and space living much less expensive, the extinction of humankind will be very difficult to bring about within millenia.