Friday, December 6, 2013

Can the mind stay young forever? (Part Two)

(Part One)

This is the second (and final) post in my short series on Michael Hauskeller’s article “Forever Young? Life Extension and the Ageing Mind”. In the article, Hauskeller casts a critical eye over the life extensionist project. According to many leading proponents of life extension, the goal is not just to prolong life indefinitely, but to prolong youth. Hauskeller argues that this goal is unobtainable because youth is dependent on both mind and body. And although it may be possible to halt the aging of the body, it will never be possible to halt the aging of the mind.

We looked at Hauskeller’s defence of this claim in the previous post. We ended with a question: why does it matter? Even if it is true that we cannot halt the aging of the mind, maybe that’s okay? Maybe we just need to revise the extensionist goal? After all, there are many prima facie advantages to mental maturity: greater competence, wisdom, insight, a richer personal narrative and so forth.

In this post, we will look at some arguments against this take on mental maturity. Although Hauskeller discusses these issues at considerable length in his article, I shall try to be much briefer here. This is because Hauskeller’s critique revisits many of the standard arguments in this debate (e.g. Williams’s tedium of immortality argument), which I have discussed ad nauseum on the blog before.

Instead, I’m going to focus on what I take to be the most original parts of his critique.
They are the “weight of loss argument”, and the “unlived lives argument”, along with some other shorter arguments too.

1. The Weight of Loss Argument
Those who are enamoured with the notion of perpetual (mental) youth, ignore the fact that mental maturity comes with significant advantages too. That’s what the prima facie argument I just sketched suggests. But maybe those of us who are enamoured with the advantages of mental maturity are ignoring the downsides too? Hauskeller certainly thinks so, noting the positive aspects of aging he says:

But that does not change the fact that growing up has its own regrets, that we lose as well as gain by it. My point is not that it would be better for us to stay childlike throughout our lives, but that mentally growing up always incurs a loss and that the said loss is in fact inevitable in the sense that we can only avoid incurring it by not growing up, which would be an even greater loss. 
(Hauskeller, 2011, pp. 390)

In this passage, Hauskeller clearly endorses the notion that aging is inevitably associated with loss. But he does not seem entirely negative about this. After all, he also says that “not growing up…would be an even greater loss.” However, this hints at an all together darker view of human life; a view that holds that life is essentially tragic. If we stay young, we are naive and immature; if we grow old, we lose more and more to the past:

The longer we live the more things pass by, pass away. Our memories are full of things we will never experience again, because the experience cannot be separated from the moment it was experienced, and that moment is gone forever. This is actually what being ‘past’ means: being irretrievably lost. And sometimes, and more often as we grow older, we look back and long to be there again, and knowing that this can never be, it saddens us. As another poet, A.E. Housman (1896), puts it: “That is the land of lost content,/ I see it shining plain,/ The happy highways where I went/ And cannot come again.” 
(Hauskeller 2011, p. 390-91)

I’m not sure whether Hauskeller really wants to embrace this tragic view of life — arguments he makes elsewhere suggest to me that he doesn’t — but it certainly seems like it from these passages. That’s not too important here however. What is important is that later in the article he adds this observation about the inevitability of loss to an altogether more speculative claim about an alleged “threshold of loss” beyond which life becomes unbearable (p. 396). His point being that if life is extended to the stage that we all cross this threshold, the extensionist goal will no longer be desirable.

What are we to make of this? I’m not sure I buy it. What Hauskeller is really talking about here is nostalgia: people become nostalgic for their past experiences, longing to revisit them but knowing it is impossible. I don’t see why this kind of nostalgia is inevitable (and by proxy unbearable) if the extensionist project is successful. It is true, of course, that we cannot revisit or repeat specific numerically unique experiences. But we can repeat or revisit qualitatively similar experiences.

Furthermore, one of the reasons why nostalgia is such a powerful emotion is because it is linked to the diminishment of capacity that is associated with the aging process. As discussed in the previous post, people feel old because they feel “disconnected” from themselves, no longer capable of being who they think of themselves as being. I suspect a similar feeling of “disconnect” is what causes the wistful and nostalgic longing for the past alluded to be Hauskeller in the above passages. There is no reason to think that such disconnect will persist if the life extensionist project is successful. Indeed, one could argue that the extensionist project will only be successful if it avoid the loss of capacity that gives rise to nostalgia.

Admittedly, this ignores the fact that certain experiences can only be had once. For example, you can never repeat the experience of falling in love for the first time. Still, I don’t see why this is so terrible. It is still possible to fall in love with different people for the first time, and if one really gets weighed down by repeating one set of experiences, it is still possible to have other new and exciting experiences. Of course, Hauskeller responds to this with the typical claim about the tedium of immortality: there are only so many new experiences we can have, eventually they will be exhausted. There are standard responses to this argument (poverty of imagination etc.), and I’ll talk about them in more detail below.

The other obvious point is that proponents of life extensionism are not claiming that people should be forced to live forever against their will. If they really do become weighed down by the inevitable loss of aging, they can choose to die. But they should at least be given the option, shouldn’t they? Hauskeller equivocates on this (see p. 397). He says that the decision to end our own lives is one that many people, including himself, would prefer not to have. Still, he recognises this is something that everyone needs to determine for themselves.

For what it is worth, I think the problem he raises can be addressed. Those who want to live normal lives do not have to undergo any life extension therapy; those who would like to live indefinitely can do so and choose their own time of death; and those who would like to live somewhat extended lives, but would prefer not to choose their own time of death, could have a machine fitted that randomly chooses a date of death for them. (Daniel Dennett had a paper exploring this idea some time ago). Everyone wins that way, don’t they?

2. Living One’s Unlived Lives
All of which leads us into the tedium argument. I said I didn’t want to talk about this argument earlier on because I have discussed it before, but unfortunately I have to say something about it at this stage as it is an essential precursor to a more interesting part of Hauskeller’s critique.

You are probably familiar with this argument, first given its modern form by Bernard Williams in his famous paper “The Makropulos Case”. The nub of the argument is that living forever would eventually become boring. This is because we define our lives and ourselves by reference to certain categorical goals and projects. Once we fufill these goals and projects we have to move on to something else. But we can only reinvent ourselves so many times before we get sick of it, or lose all sense of self. In other words, immortality leads either to tedium or the destruction of the self.

A classic response to this is to claim that there are a potentially infinite number of new experiences or projects one could have. This is sometimes expressed in terms of “living one’s unlived lives”. The idea being that an ordinary life involves many compromises and opportunity costs. Every time you make a choice you are forced to forgo another. For example, you may choose to become a doctor rather than to train as an athlete and take a chance at reaching the Olympics. Sometimes you regret the choice you make; and sometimes you get a second chance. In a short and finite life, this can only happen so many times. One of the great advantages of an indefinite lifespan would be the opportunity to chase down as many of these unlived paths as you possibly can. You need never regret the decisions you make again: you’ll always be able to retrace your steps and follow the road less travelled by.

Hauskeller argues that this whole notion — of living one’s unlived lives — is incoherent and impossible to put into practice. The choices we make define who we are. They get woven into our personal narratives, and when they do we cannot go back and disentangle the tapestry. Furthermore, and more importantly, if a chosen project is important to you it cannot simply be forgotten or passed over. As Hauskeller puts it:

I need to be committed to what I do, need to be serious about it. Perhaps I can now resolve to learn to play the piano and become a professional musician after I have done philosophy for, say, a century. But if what I am doing now is important to me, why should I suddenly stop doing it after a fixed time? And if making music is important to me, how can I possibly wait for a century before I devote myself to it? 
(Hauskeller 2011, p. 399-400)

I see several problems with this, but let me focus on one major one. Consider the dialectical context in which this argument is presented: we started with the tedium of immortality problem; we then proceeded to a rebuttal of the tedium of immortality problem; and now we end with Hauskeller’s rebuttal to that rebuttal. The original problem was that we wouldn’t have a sufficient number of meaningful projects to pursue; the rebuttal was that we have numerous unlived lives we could pursue; and the rebuttal to that rebuttal was that if our projects are important to us we cannot simply delay or abandon them.

Notice anything odd about this progression? We’ve ended up with the suggestion that if something is important to us we won’t abandon it. But it seems to me that this forces us into a dilemma. The only kinds of projects we would never be justified in abandoning would be those that are endlessly rewarding. If they are not endlessly rewarding then I don’t see why we “need to be committed” to them. Surely some projects have a limited lifespan and once that lifespan is finished we happily move onto the next thing? After all, there doesn’t seem to be anything incoherent about having a personal narrative that is essentially picaresque in nature. On the other hand, if there are some endlessly rewarding projects (as I suspect there are), then the initial impetus for the tedium argument is suppressed: we need not grow tired and bored with ourselves if we live a certain type of life.

The other problem with Hauskeller’s claim — that we need to be committed to our projects — is that it would seem to condemn certain individuals to terrible lives. It is a great tragedies if a person realises too late in life that they made the wrong choice — e.g. that they chose a project that they were ill-suited to, or stayed too long in a destructive relationship. With a finite and limited lifespan, such a person is unfortunately forced to forgo a better set of outcomes. But if life were indefinitely extended, they would get the opportunity to pursue those outcomes. Would it be wrong to give them that opportunity? I think not.

Of course, it could be that Hauskeller’s argument really has to do with the dissolution of personal identity that would be entailed by constantly switching from project to project. This is Williams’s original point, and I have discussed it before.

3. Conclusion
To sum up, I think Hauskeller makes an interesting argument in his paper — viz. mental aging is inevitable. Furthermore, I think he is basically correct about this. Whether he is right in thinking that mental aging is a bad thing is a separate question. The arguments considered in this post would seem to need more work if they are to succeed. The weight of loss argument, which seems to be about nostalgia, ignores certain necessary side effects of the extensionist goal that might lessen the weight of nostalgia. And the unlived lives argument suffers from the problem that it seems self-defeating in the particular dialectic context in which it is raised, and assigns too much value to “commitment” to one’s life projects.

Ironically, there are two other arguments raised by Hauskeller that strike me as having much more potential. The problem is that they are mentioned only very briefly. The first, originating in the work of Aristotle, suggests that the goodness of a person’s life can only be assessed by taking the “whole life view”, i.e. by looking at the totality of their lives. This, of course, can only be done if the life ends at some point. The second, which is only tantalising hinted at in the paper, is based on the idea that there are certain intrinsic goods associated with life (Hauskeller specifically mentions the intrinsic value of experiencing wonders for the first time) that it would be best to share with as many (potential) people as possible. This is an argument that fellow-blogger Thrasymachus develops at much greater length in one of his talks. With luck, I’ll be able to consider it in more detail in a later post.

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