Forever Young

by Benjamin Studebaker

I’ve noticed something. If you ask someone “would you like to commit suicide?” the answer will typically be “no”. There are specific unusual circumstances (terminal illness, depression, advanced age, etc.) in which people are sometimes inclined toward suicide, but for most of us, most of the time, it is an obviously undesirable proposition. But if you ask the same people “would you like to live indefinitely in your twenties with the aid of nanobots”  the answer will also typically be “no”. These answers are contradictory.

It is not reasonable to be in your twenties and have no desire at all to die yet simultaneously not desire to extend those conditions forward indefinitely. If you like being young and healthy, there is no reason to assume that being neither young nor healthy and eventually dying in the future is desirable. Yet people make this leap all the time, using a variety of justifications:

  • Being forever young is not natural
  • If I were young forever, I would eventually get tired of life
  • If I were young forever, I would not have the motivation that time limits provide

The first is another example of the fallacious appeal to nature. One cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. The fact that we presently age and die is no reason in and of itself that we ought to age and die. Furthermore, human beings are natural, and if human beings can develop a means by which they would be young forever, that process would itself be a product of nature.

The second is a claim of tremendous hubris. Here we have people who have only experienced a small portion of time during their lives, who have no concept of what it would be like to live for an extended time scale, who usually have no desire for suicide and who generally find their lives worthwhile claiming that they know that sometime far into the distant future, they would lose the will to live. No one can know this, and to embrace a life that ends in age and death on the basis of this unfounded assumption is intellectually ridiculous.

The third fatally (both literally and figuratively) misunderstands the human condition. Most people are not, in their day to day lives, acutely aware that they will age and die. Acute awareness of age and death would be a tremendous distraction–we would have to justify every second of our lives, live every day as if it were our last, and so on. No one does this. People waste and squander vast portions of their lives, seemingly oblivious that they will never regain the time and youth lost. 20-year olds take summer jobs, people sit in front of the TV for hours at a time, people often patiently wait for things, doing next to nothing in the meantime, people spend most of their lives sleeping or in jobs they don’t enjoy. These behaviors are not consistent with acute awareness of death. There are people who sell entire hours of their lives for a handful of dollars.

Young people are often said to have an invincibility complex–they do risky things and act with reckless disregard for the value of their own lives. Small children are often more or less unaware that death is real and that it’s coming for them, but they seem to be able to have fun and do things nonetheless. Children are often less patient than adults, more frustrated by time wasted and opportunities missed. Mortality has very little to do with human motivation.

All of these arguments are unjustifiable. Yet most people are wed to one or more of them. Why? Because right now you can’t be forever young, and previously in human history, you’ve never been able to. Most of us don’t expect the futurists to be right, we don’t expect it to be a real option, and even if it were, we would be afraid to be among the first to experiment with it. At the same time, human beings have a profound fear of death, and we have to come to terms with it. So what do we do? We self-justify, we rationalize, we defend our own status quo.

Any argument that justifies the way things are, most human beings are inclined to accept and promote, because most people are creatures of the here and now, of the status quo. There are numerous civilizations and cultures all over the world, many of which differ from each other in a variety of ways, but no matter which one you visit, no matter what their cultural practices are, you can expect the majority of its citizens to be predisposed to justify those practices. It doesn’t matter if it’s human sacrifice, stoning people, universal health care, private health care, Christianity, Islam, secularism, fascism, communism, free market capitalism, any value, any practice, any ideology. If it is the dominant idea, there will be a plurality who will defend it.

Not only will they defend it, but they will defend it with heavy confirmation bias. They will slander better alternatives, assuming that they all lead to slippery slopes, or that they are all equivalent to boogie-man ideas that have acquired a taboo from generations of use as such. They will fear-monger, frightening people with imagined dystopias. The status quo acquires the characteristics of a default. Alternatives have to justify themselves, but the status quo is accepted because it exists, and if it exists it is just assumed that there must be something to it. Most people argue about politics and philosophy reliant almost entirely on the notion that because they are they ought to be. Everything else is, for them, window-dressing. Just ways to make themselves feel good about the ideas they mindlessly espouse.

People want desperately to believe that the world in which they live is a good world, and they will make a litany of excuses for its defects. Most of the major religions around today derive their primary appeal from convincing people that their deaths are benign events that lead to paradises. Does it not strike them as a rather convenient belief? The most horrible, most fearsome element of being human, death, is to be dismissed as not only not bad, but even benign, as something that leads to a “better place”? It sounds like something a people would tell themselves as a coping mechanism, not the world we live in. In the real world, bad things happen, and they don’t happen for any benign ulterior motive. They happen because our world is imperfect, and our world is imperfect because we prefer to justify its imperfections to ourselves and others rather than address them.