Stephen Cave had an interesting opinion piece in last Sunday’s New York Times in which he questioned the desirability of immortality. The article is more relevant than some people might think given an article in this weekend’s Wall Street Journal describing some of the latest advances in research to extend both the life span and health span of humans. The point of the latter was that there has notable progress in understanding the causes of aging and in at least slowing it in other species.
There are good reasons to question both the possibility and wisdom of seriously extending human life, but they are not the ones cited by Mr. Cave, whose forthcoming book Immortality: the Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization, I have not read. Although his argument in the book is no doubt more detailed, the article in the New York Times should stand on its own. But it does not.
Briefly, Mr. Cave builds on the Terror Management Theory, which he describes as arguing “that particular aspects of our outlook are governed by our need to manage our fear of death. In other words, our cultural, philosophical and religious systems exist to promise us immortality.” There is some confusion over whether this is good or bad. Mr. Cave cites one experiment where judges who were reminded of their immortality handed out heavier sentences to prostitutes (who no doubt needed to be reminded of their immorality) in a hypothetical case than judges who not received a reminder. According to Mr. Cave, the researchers “reasoned that if this were not the case, when faced with reminders of mortality, people would cling more fiercely to their beliefs and be more negative about those who threatened them.” There may be an extra “not” in there, but if reminding people of their immortality causes people to be less tolerant of others with different beliefs, then it is at least possible that removing the threat of death would make them more tolerant.
Elsewhere Mr. Cave goes even further, asserting that, with the death of death “we would have no need for progress or art, faith or fame. Suddenly we would have nothing to do, yet in the greatest of ironies, we would have endless eons in which to do it. Action would lose its purpose and time its value.” But why? Surely there is more to morality, art , faith or even fame than an attempt to escape death. Human desire for a better life and greater knowledge are unlikely to disappear. That should drive progress. And surely there is a greater element of choice involved in all this than Mr. Cave allows.
Humans have made significant progress in escaping death, almost tripling average life expectancies from the time when disease and violence characterized life, which was truly “nasty, brutish and short.” And yet the arts flourish, tolerance has increased, and individual rights and expression have grown. The world is more civilized now than before, even if this civilization is much more complex and thus less understandable than anything before. Should humans suddenly make dramatically greater advances toward immorality, individuals will have to choose how to live these extended lives. There is no reason to think that they will lose their humanity in the process.