Fantin-Latour Immortality, National Museum Cardiff
Fantin-Latour Immortality, National Museum Cardiff
Everyone seems to agree that curing cancer would be a good thing. People also generally agree that preventing heart disease is a good idea. But ask
the same people about life extension and there is a very good chance you are in for some disagreement.

The Pros and Cons

Although preventing and curing the two largest disease based killers would by definition extend the aggregate lifespan of humanity, if one speaks directly about life extension, there is sure to be some pushback. The arguments are: we need to make room for younger people, life extension will only be for the rich, there are too many people already, there is not enough food/resources now……Or, why do these people want to live forever, who do they think they are? I have heard all these, and although there is an element of truth to them, there is also a clear disconnect between wanting to treat disease and opposing life extension. There is also a considerable difference between wanting immortality and increasing the top end of human life by 25 years.
Chart from the National Institute on Aging
Chart from the National Institute on Aging

No Easy Answers

The conversation often ends up in the absolutes of not treating any disease vs immortality, neither of which is real. These discussions seem to be based in almost religious levels of belief and suspended disbelief. Just as with religion, or for that matter any abstract human idea such as paper money is really just a shared belief system, the same seems to be true of the longevity vs mortality debate. We seem to have very set ideas that are full of contradictions, and we are fine with that. We may want to relieve human suffering, but does that mean our goal is the end of age-related disease, or just some part of the disease category? Who gets to pick which ones are worth treating if we are not treating them all? If we are successful, and increase the aggregate human lifespan, thus saving accumulated human wisdom and human capital, will that increase suffering or lessen it? How do we bring the calculation of quality of life, not just quantity of life? Medicine is obviously increasing human lifespans, but should we now have an arbitrary expiration date like the Replicants in Blade Runner?

There are no ready answers to these questions, any more than there are answers to which is the best religion. With the geometrically accelerating pace of medical science, we will be required to give some thought to these questions. In the past, these were just imagined futures in the literature of science fiction. However, there is now good reason to believe that a person born in 2030 will have an expected lifespan well over 100. How do we feel about that? Or does feeling about it even matter if it is a reality?