Apr 12, 2013
Posted by Franco Cortese in categories: ethics, life extension, philosophy
Le Petit Trépas
One common argument against Radical Life Extension is that a definitive limit to one’s life – that is, death – provides some essential baseline reference, and that it is only in contrast to this limiting factor that life has any meaning at all. In this article I refute the argument’s underlying premises, and then argue that even if such premises were taken as true, its conclusion – that eradicating death would negate the “limiting factor” that legitimizes life — is also invalid.
Death gives meaning to life? No! Death makes life meaningless!
One version of the argument, which I’ve come across in a variety of places, is given in Brian Cooney’s Posthuman, an introductory philosophical text that uses various futurist scenarios and concepts to illustrate the broad currents of Western Philosophy. Towards the end he makes his argument against immortality, claiming that if we had all the time in the universe to do what we wanted, then we wouldn’t do anything at all. Essentially, his argument boils down to ‘if there is no possibility of not being able to do something in the future, then why would we ever do it?”.
This assumes that we make actions on the basis of not being able to do them again. But people don’t make decisions this way. We didn’t go out to dinner because the restaurant was closing down… we went out for dinner because we wanted to go out for dinner… I think that Cooney’s version of the argument is naïve. We don’t make the majority of our decisions by contrasting an action to the possibility of not being able to do it in future.
His argument seems to be that if there were infinite time then we would have no way of prioritizing our actions. If we had a list of all possible actions set before us, and time were limitless, we might (according to his logic) accomplish all the small, negligible things first, because they’re easier and all the hard things can wait. If we had all the time in the world, we would have no reference point with which to judge how important a given action or objective is, which ones it is most important to get done, and which ones should get done in the place of other possibilities. If we really can do every single thing on that listless list, then why bother, if each is as important as every other? In his line-of-reasoning, importance requires scarcity. If we can do everything it were possible to do, then there is nothing that determines one thing as being more important than another. A useful analogy might be that current economic definitions of value require scarcity. If everything were as abundant as everything else, if nothing were scarce, then we would have no way of ascribing economic value to a given thing, such that one thing has more economic value than another. What we sometimes forget is that ecologies aren’t always like economies.