Herodotus, in the 5th century B.C., recorded an account of a race of people in northern Africa who, according to local lore, never seemed to age. Their secret, he wrote, was a fountain of youth in which they would bathe, emerging with “their flesh all glossy and sleek.” Legend has it that two millennia later, Spanish explorers searched for a similar restorative fountain off the coast of Florida.
We are still searching for the fountain of youth today. Instead of a fountain, however, it is a medical breakthrough, and instead of youth, we seek “transhumanism,” the secret to solving the problem of death by transcending ordinary physical and mental limitations. Many people believe this is possible. Observing a doubling of the average life span over the past century or so through science, people ask why another doubling is not possible. And if it is, whether there might be some “escape velocity” that could definitively end the aging of our cells while we also cure deadly diseases.
Lest you think this concept is limited to snake-oil salesmen and science-fiction writers, the idea that aging is not inevitable is now in the mainstream of modern medical research at major institutions around the world. The journal Nature dubbed research from the University of California at Los Angeles a “hint that the body’s ‘biological age’ can be reversed.” According to reporting by Scientific American on research at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies: “Aging Is Reversible — at Least in Human Cells and Live Mice.”
The promise to end old age is exciting and mind-boggling, of course. But it raises a question: Why would we want to defeat old age and its lethal result? After all, as writer Susan Ertz wryly observed in her 1943 novel “Anger in the Sky,” “Millions long for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.”
Your boring Sundays notwithstanding, perhaps you think it’s obvious that getting old and dying are bad. “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else,” anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote in his 1973 book, “The Denial of Death.” Why else would we willingly put up with a medical system that seemingly will spend any sum to keep us alive for a few extra days or weeks?
It is strange that the most ordinary fact of life — its ending — would provoke such terror. Some chalk it up to what Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave calls the “mortality paradox” in his excellent 2012 book, “Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How It Drives Civilization.” While death is inevitable, it also seems impossible insofar as we cannot conceive of not existing. This creates an unresolvable, unbearable cognitive dissonance. Some have tried to resolve it with logic, such as the ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus’ observation that “death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist.”
Transhumanism responds, “Whatever, let’s just avoid that whole second scenario.”
Another argument for transhumanism is less philosophical and more humanitarian. We think avoidable deaths are a tragedy, don’t we? Well, if most of the 27 million annual worldwide deaths of people age 70 and over could be somehow avoided, wouldn’t that put them in the category of “tragedy”? Shouldn’t we fight like crazy to avoid them?
While the transhumanism movement is making progress, it isn’t without its skeptics. Some don’t think it will ever work the way we want it to, because it asks science to turn back a natural process of aging that has an uncountable number of manifestations. Critics of anti-aging research envision any number of dystopian futures, in which we defeat many of the causes of death before very old age, leaving only the most ghastly and intractable — but not directly lethal — maladies.
Imagine making it possible to cure or treat most communicable diseases and many conditions and cancers that were once a death sentence, but leaving the worst sort of dementias to ravage our brains and torment our loved ones. Wait, we don’t just have to imagine that, do we? As Cave puts it, we are “not so much living longer as dying slower.” Will transhumanism inadvertently bring us more of this?
No one can say conclusively where the transhumanist movement will go, or whether it will ultimately change the conception of living and dying in the coming decades. One way or another, however, I think we could productively use a parallel movement to transhumanism: one that seeks to transcend our limited understanding and acceptance of death, and the fact that without the reality of life’s absence, we cannot understand life in the first place. We might call this movement “transmortalism.”
Of course, a huge amount of work to understand death has gone on over the millennia and starts with the straightforward observation that confronting the reality of death is the best way to strip it of its terror. An example is maranasati, the Buddhist practice of meditating on the prospect of one’s own corpse in various states of decomposition. “This body, too,” the monks recite, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
Frightening? Far from it. Such exposure provokes what psychologists call “desensitization,” in which repeated contact makes something previously frightening or foreign seem quite ordinary. Think of the fear of death like a simple phobia. If you are afraid of heights, the solution might be, little by little, to look over the edge. As the 16th-century French essayist Michel de Montaigne wrote of death, “Let us disarm him of his novelty and strangeness, let us converse and be familiar with him, and have nothing so frequent in our thoughts as death.”
Perhaps while we wait for the promises of transhumanism, we should hedge our bets with a bit of transmortalism, which has the side benefit of costing us no money. Who knows? Maybe the solution to the problem of death comes not by pushing it further away but, ironically, by bringing it much closer.
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