G. Stolyarov II
May 13, 2012
Jeffrey Tucker is one of my favorite pro-technology libertarian thinkers of our time. In his essays and books (see, for instance, It’s a Jetsons World), Mr. Tucker eloquently draws the connection between free markets and technological progress – and how the power of human creativity within a spontaneous order can overcome the obstructions posed by stagnant political and attitudinal paradigms. Mr. Tucker embraces the innovations of the Internet age and has written on their connection with philosophical debates – such as whether the idea of intellectual property is even practically tenable anymore, now that electronic technology renders certain human creations indefinitely reproducible.
Because I see Mr. Tucker as such an insightful advocate of technological progress in a free-market context, I was particularly surprised to read his 2005 article, “A Lesson in Mortality” – where Mr. Tucker contends that death is an inescapable aspect of the human condition. His central argument is best expressed in his own words: “Death impresses upon us the limits of technology and ideology. It comes in time no matter what we do. Prosperity has lengthened life spans and science and entrepreneurship has made available amazing technologies that have forestalled and delayed it. Yet, it must come.” Mr. Tucker further argues that “Modernity has a problem intellectually processing the reality of death because we are so unwilling to defer to the implacable constraints imposed on us within the material world… To recognize the inevitability of death means confessing that there are limits to our power to manufacture a reality for ourselves.”
Seven years is a long time, and I am not aware of whether Mr. Tucker’s views on this subject have evolved since this article was published. Here, I offer a rebuttal to his main arguments and invite a response.
To set the context for his article, Mr. Tucker discusses the deaths of short-lived pets within his family – and how his children learned the lesson to grieve for and remember those whom they lost, but then to move on relatively quickly and to proceed with the business of life – “to think about death only when they must, but otherwise to live and love every breath.” While I appreciate the life-embracing sentiment here, I think it concedes too much to death and decay.
As a libertarian transhumanist, I see the defeat of “inevitable” human mortality as the logical outcome of the intertwined forces of free markets and technological progress. While we will not, at any single instant in time, be completely indestructible and invulnerable to all possible causes of death, technological progress – if not thwarted by political interference and reactionary attitudes – will sequentially eliminate causes of death that would have previously killed millions. This has already happened in many parts of the world with regard to killers like smallpox, typhus, cholera, malaria – and many others. It is not a stretch to extrapolate this progression and apply it to perils such as cancer, heart disease, stroke, Alzheimer’s disease, and ALS. Since human life expectancy has already increased roughly five-fold since the Paleolithic era, it is not inconceivable that – with continued progress – another five-fold or greater increase can be achieved.
As biogerontologist and famous life-extension advocate Dr. Aubrey de Grey points out, the seven basic types of damage involved in human senescence are already known – each for at least thirty years. With advances in computing capacity, as well as accelerating medical discoveries that have already achieved life extension in mice, rats, and other small organisms, there is hope that medical progress will arrive at similar breakthroughs for us within our lifetimes. Once life expectancy begins to increase by more than one year for every year of time that passes, we will have reached longevity escape velocity – a condition where the more we live, the more probability we will have of surviving even longer. In February 2012 I began an online compendium of Resources on Indefinite Life Extension, which tracks ongoing developments in this field and provides access to a wide array of media to show that life extension is not just science fiction, but an ongoing enterprise.
To Mr. Tucker, I pose the question of why he appears to think that despite the technological progress and economic freedom whose benefits he clearly recognizes, there would always be some upper limit on human longevity that these incredibly powerful forces would be unable to breach. What evidence exists for such a limit – and, even if such evidence exists, why does Mr. Tucker appear to assume that our currently finite lifespans are not just a result of our ignorance, which could be remedied in a more advanced and enlightened future? In the 15th century, for instance, humans were limited in their technical knowledge from achieving powered flight, even though visionaries such as Leonardo da Vinci correctly anticipated the advent of flying machines. Imagine if a Renaissance scholar made the argument to da Vinci that, while the advances of the Renaissance have surely produced improvements in art, architecture, music, and commerce, nature still imposes insurmountable limits on humans taking to the skies! “Sure,” this scholar might say, “we can now construct taller and sturdier buildings, but the realm of the birds will be forever beyond our reach.” He might say, paraphrasing Mr. Tucker, “[Early] modernity has a problem intellectually processing the reality of eternally grounded humans because we are so unwilling to defer to the implacable constraints imposed on us within the material world. To recognize the inevitability of human grounding means confessing that there are limits to our power to manufacture a reality for ourselves.” What would have happened to a society that fully accepted such arguments? Perhaps the greatest danger we can visit upon ourselves is to consider a problem so “inevitable” that nothing can be done about it. By accepting this inevitability as a foregone conclusion, we foreclose on the inherently unpredictable possibilities that human creativity and innovation can offer. In other words, we foreclose on a better future.
Mr. Tucker writes that “Whole ideologies have been concocted on the supposition that such constraints [on the material world] do not have to exist. That is the essence of socialism. It is the foundation of US imperialism too, with its cocky supposition that there is nothing force cannot accomplish, that there are no limits to the uses of power.” It is a significant misunderstanding of transhumanism to compare it to either socialism or imperialism. Both socialism and imperialism rely on government force to achieve an outcome deemed to be just or expedient. Transhumanism does not depend on force. While governments can and do fund scientific research, this is not an optimal implementation of transhuman aspirations, since government funding of research is notoriously conservative and reluctant to risk taxpayer funds on projects without short-term, visible payoffs about which politicians can boast. Furthermore, government funding of research renders it easier for the research to be thwarted by taxpayers – such as fundamentalist evangelical Christians – who disagree with the aims of such research. The most rapid technological advances can be achieved on a pure free market, where research is neither subsidized nor restricted by any government.
Moreover, force is an exceedingly blunt instrument. While it can be used to some effect to dispose of criminals and tyrants, even there it is tremendously imperfect and imposes numerous unintended negative consequences. Transhumanism is not about attempting to overcome material constraints by using coercion. It is, rather, about improving our understanding of natural laws and our ability to harness mind and matter by giving free rein to human experimentation in applying these laws.
Transhumanism fully embraces Francis Bacon’s dictum that “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” This means working within material constraints – including the laws of economics – and making the most of what is possible. But this also means using human ingenuity to push out our material limits. As genetic modification of crops has resulted in vastly greater volumes of food production, so can genetic engineering, rejuvenation therapies, and personalized medicine eventually result in vastly longer human lifespans. Transhumanism is the logical extrapolation of a free-market economy. The closer we get to an unfettered free market, the faster we could achieve the transhuman goals of indefinite life extension, universal wealth, space colonization, ubiquitous erudition and high culture, and the conquest of natural and manmade existential risks.
Mr. Tucker writes that recognizing the inevitability of death “is akin to admitting that certain fundamental facts of the world, like the ubiquity of scarcity, cannot be changed. Instead of attempting to change it, we must imagine social systems that come to terms with it. This is the core claim of economic science, and it is also the very reason so many refuse to acknowledge its legitimacy or intellectual binding power.” It is undeniable that scarcity exists, and that scarcity of some sort will always exist. However, there are degrees of scarcity. Food, for instance, is much less scarce today than in the Paleolithic era, when the earth could support barely more than a million humans. Furthermore, in some realms, such as digital media, Mr. Tucker himself has acknowledged that scarcity is no longer a significant limitation – because of the capacity to indefinitely reproduce works of art, music, and writing. With the proximate advent of technologies such as three-dimensional printing and tabletop nano-manufacturing, more and more goods will begin to assume qualities that more closely resemble digital goods. Then, as now, some physical resources will be required to produce anything – and these physical resources would continue to be subject to the constraints of scarcity. But it is not inconceivable that we would eventually end up in a Star Trek world of replicators that can manufacture most small-scale goods out of extremely cheap basic substances, which would render those goods nearly free to reproduce. Even in such a world, more traditional techniques may be required to construct larger structures, but subsequent advances may make even those endeavors faster, cheaper, and more accessible.
At no point in time would human lifespans be infinite (in the sense of complete indestructibility or invulnerability). A world of scarcity is, however, compatible with indefinite lifespans that do not have an upper bound. A person’s life expectancy at any point in time would be finite, but that finite amount might increase faster than the person’s age. Even in the era of longevity escape velocity, some people would still die of accidents, unforeseen illnesses, or human conflicts. But the motivation to conquer these perils will be greatly increased once the upper limit on human lifespans is lifted. Thus, I expect actual human mortality to asymptotically approach zero, though perhaps without ever reaching zero entirely. Still, for a given individual, death would no longer be an inevitability, particularly if that individual behaves in a risk-averse fashion and takes advantage of cutting-edge advancements. Even if death is always a danger on some level, is it not better to act to delay or prevent it – and therefore to get as much time as possible to live, create, and enjoy?
Mr. Tucker writes: “To discover the fountain of youth is a perpetual obsession, one that finds its fulfillment in the vitamin cults that promise immortality. We create government programs to pay for people to be kept alive forever on the assumption that death is always and everywhere unwarranted and ought to be stopped. There is no such thing as ‘natural death’ anymore; the very notion strikes us as a cop out.” It is true that there are and have always been many dubious remedies, promising longevity-enhancing benefits without any evidence. However, even if false remedies are considered, we have come a long way from the Middle Ages, where, in various parts of the world, powders of gold, silver, or lead – or even poisons such as arsenic – were considered to have life-extending powers. More generally, the existence of charlatans, frauds, snake-oil salesmen, and gullible consumers does not discredit genuine, methodical, scientific approaches toward life extension or any other human benefit. Skepticism and discernment are always called for, and we should always be vigilant regarding “cures” that sound too good to be true. Nobody credible has said that conquering our present predicament of mortality would be easy or quick. There is no pill one can swallow, and there is little in terms of lifestyle that one can do today – other than exercising regularly and avoiding obviously harmful behaviors – to materially lengthen one’s lifespan. However, if some of the best minds in the world are able to utilize some of the best technology we have – and to receive the philosophical support of the public and the material support of private donors for doing so – then this situation may change within our lifetimes. It is far better to live with this hope, and to work toward this outcome, than to resign oneself to the inevitability of death.
As regards government programs, I find no evidence for Mr. Tucker’s assertion that these programs are the reason that people are being kept alive longer. Implicit in that assertion is the premise that, on a fully free market (where the cost of high-quality healthcare would ultimately be cheaper), people would not voluntarily pay to extend the lives of elderly or seriously ill patients to the same extent that they expect such life extension to occur when funded by Medicare or by the national health-care systems in Canada and Europe. Indeed, Mr. Tucker’s assertion here poses a serious danger to defenders of the free market. It renders them vulnerable to the allegation that an unfettered free market would shorten life expectancies and invite the early termination of elderly or seriously ill patients – in short, the classic nightmare scenario of eliminating the weak, sickly, or otherwise “undesirable” elements. This is precisely what a free market would not result in, because the desire to live is extremely strong for most individuals, and free individuals using their own money would be much more likely to put it toward keeping themselves alive than would a government-based system which must ultimately ration care in one way or another.
Mr. Tucker writes: “Thus do we insist on always knowing the ‘cause’ of death, as if it only comes about through an exogenous intervention, like hurricanes, traffic accidents, shootings, and bombs. But even when a person dies of his own accord, we always want to know so that we have something to blame. Heart failure? Well, he or she might have done a bit more exercise. Let this be a lesson. Cancer? It’s probably due to smoking, or perhaps second-hand smoke. Or maybe it was the carcinogens introduced by food manufacturers or factories. We don’t want to admit that it was just time for a person to die.” Particularly as Austrian Economics, of which Mr. Tucker is a proponent, champions a rigorous causal analysis of phenomena, the above excerpt strikes me as incongruous with how rational thinkers ought to approach any event. Clearly, there are no uncaused events; there is nothing inexplicable in nature. Sometimes the explanations may be difficult or complex to arrive at; sometimes our minds are too limited to grasp the explanations at our present stage of knowledge and technological advancement. However, all valid questions are ultimately answerable, and all problems are ultimately solvable – even if not by us. The desire to know the cause of a death is a desire to know the answers to important questions, and to derive value from such answers by perhaps gathering information that would help oneself and others avoid a similar fate. To say that “it was just time for a person to die” explains nothing; it only attempts to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with an authoritative assertion that forecloses on further inquiry and discovery. While this may, to some, be comforting as a way of “moving on” – to me and other transhumanists it is an eminently frustrating way of burying the substance of the matter with a one-liner.
Mr. Tucker also compares death to sleep: “The denial of death’s inevitability is especially strange since life itself serves up constant reminders of our physical limits. Sleep serves as a kind of metaphor for death. We can stay awake working and having fun up to 18 hours, even 24 or 36, but eventually we must bow to our natures and collapse and sleep. We must fall unconscious so that we can be revived to continue on with our life.” While sleep is a suspension of some activities, death and sleep could not be more different. Sleep is temporary, while death is permanent. Sleep preserves significant aspects of consciousness, as well as a continuity of operations for the brain and the rest of the body. While one sleeps, one’s brain is hard at work “repackaging” the contents of one’s memory to prepare one for processing fresh experiences the next day. Death, on the other hand, is not a preparation for anything. It is the cessation of the individual, not a buildup to something greater or more active. In “How Can I Live Forever: What Does or Does Not Preserve the Self”, I describe the fundamental difference between processes, such as sleep, which preserve the basic continuity of bodily functions (and thus one’s unique vantage point or “I-ness”) and processes that breach this continuity and result in the cessation of one’s being. Continuity-preserving processes are fundamentally incomparable to continuity-breaching processes, and thus the ubiquity and necessity of sleep can tell us nothing regarding death.
Mr. Tucker validly notes that the human desire to live forever can manifest itself in the desire to leave a legacy and to create works that outlive the individual. This is an admirable sentiment, and it is one that has fueled the progress of human civilization even in eras when mortality was truly inevitable. I am glad that our ancestors had this motivation to overcome the sense of futility and despair that their individual mortality would surely have engendered otherwise. But we, standing on their shoulders and benefiting from their accomplishments, can do better. The wonders of technological progress within the near term, about which Mr. Tucker writes eloquently and at length, can be extrapolated to the medium and long term in order for us to see that the transhumanist ideal of indefinite life extension is both feasible and desirable. Free markets, entrepreneurship, and human creativity will help pave the way to the advances that could save us from the greatest peril of them all. I hope that, in time, Mr. Tucker will embrace this prospect as the incarnation, not the enemy, of libertarian philosophy and rational, free-market economics.