Suppose that, at a point, you get completely, irreparably tired of life and want to die. In these circumstances, how willing would you be to bear with around twenty more years of the same life that you can’t stand any more, particularly in a state of declining health? It would seem more reasonable that if you are tired of life right now and you are absolutely certain that you will not change your mind, you would rather end your life at once than wait for two more, increasingly miserable, decades. Yet, there is a certain narrative suggesting that the decay of old age, which inevitably leads to death, is an acceptable option for people who are sure that they are through with life.
In a moment, I will be revealing the ending of a recent podcast titled “The 200-year-old“—an interesting and, all-in-all, rejuvenation-friendly series. It is only four episodes long, and if you haven’t listened to it yet, I would say that it is worth your time. If you wish to do so, stop reading right now to avoid spoilers. (Do come back to finish the article once you’re done with the podcast, though.)
The premise of the show is that, in the year 2218, aging has long since been cured, and of course the world is rather different—though not only because of the defeat of aging. Lesedi Ndaba, a woman born in 2018, is about to turn 200 years old, and a journalist, who apparently already knew the woman from his childhood, interviews her a number of times, inquiring about what the world was like before rejuvenation, what the transition years were like, and so on. One nice touch of the show is that it contains recordings of real, contemporary experts in different disciplines, including biogerontology and economics, and they are presented pretty much as historical records from a remote past.
Throughout the entire show, the woman comes across as rather enigmatic; she refuses to meet the journalist in real life and only talks to him in virtual environments that faithfully reproduce her past memories. Figuring out why she doesn’t want to meet the man in person is a central element of the entire series of podcasts, and it will be revealed only at the very end, even though you can see it coming a mile away.
There comes a point, the woman explains to the journalist in the final episode, when the mind cannot take any more change. For her, that point has arrived, so she wants to die, and indeed she will, shortly before turning 200. This revelation takes place in the real world, not in a virtual space, and, as the journalist finds out, the reason why she refused to meet him in person was that she had previously stopped taking rejuvenation treatments, had aged normally, and was now about to die of “advanced aging”; she did not want him to see her that way before her death—indeed, the journalist had to figure out for himself where Lesedi was located in the real world, unbeknownst to her.
Analysis of a terrible decision
Whether or not the point that Lesedi talks about really exists and comes for everyone, her choice to quit life by dying of old age lacks logic.
Rejuvenation treatments do not work perfectly well in the world depicted in the podcast, as a rejuvenated person could appear to be in her 60s, but if she was dying of “advanced aging” by the end of the fourth episode, she must have stopped them roughly a decade prior to the moment of death; this is a ballpark estimate, but we are talking about rejuvenation technology that has been around and presumably refined for well over a century and is able to keep people alive at least until they are 200, so you would expect it to be able to keep the most important age-related causes of death at bay. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that when Lesedi decided to quit rejuvenation, she would have to wait at least ten more years before her death would occur.
As said, the reason that she wanted to die was that she was tired of life and things changing around her. When she made her decision to quit rejuvenation, she either already was tired of living, or she was not. If she wasn’t, why would she decide to quit rejuvenation? Was she confident that in a decade, she would still want to die? Alternatively, did she trust that death by old age would happen at roughly the same time at which she would finally be tired of life? That seems unlikely. (Not to mention unreasonable.)
On the other hand, if she already was tired of life when she decided to suspend her life extension treatments, why didn’t she opt for euthanasia instead? Death by old age is not instantaneous; it’s a long, drawn-out process that, as a matter of fact, starts pretty much the moment you are conceived. Surely, a well-read woman who has accrued 200 years of experience would know that she would have to wait for years before aging would kill her and that her health would decline in the process, making the life that she already no longer enjoyed even worse. (Indeed, at the end of the show, she’s dying in a hospital bed, and predictably, she is not doing well.)
Today, euthanasia is legal in a number of states; there are machines that allow you to self-administer your own lethal injection so that no one else has to live with the moral implications of it; and it is quick and painless. We don’t know the views on euthanasia in the fictional world of Lesedi, but given how liberal it comes across and how technologically advanced it is, it is hard to believe that euthanasia would be either prohibited or too painful or slow.
It seems apparent that, for some strange reason, Lesedi thought that the best way of terminating a life she didn’t want any more was bearing with it for at least a decade longer and adding physical ailments on top of her spiritual distress. Maybe it’s just me, but I fail to see how this could make things any better than they were.
A common narrative
This podcast is not an isolated case; this bizarre line of reasoning, which presents aging as a viable way out of a life that has become unbearable, is not very rare. Indeed, some life extension skeptics are not really opposed to the health benefits that life extension would bring; rather, they oppose the resulting lifespan gains, as they are convinced, just like Lesedi, that a time will come when they surely will not want to live any more—be it because of boredom or something else. If this ever actually occurs, you should deal with it then; it makes no sense to plan your death a few decades ahead of time because you think that you will be tired of it at about that point; it also doesn’t make sense to wait for decades after you already got tired of it. This is why aging is not a way out of this problem; not only can you not expect it to necessarily accommodate your wishes in terms of lifespan, it will inevitably end up diminishing your quality of life.
Whether you will want to live forever or only for eighty years, rejuvenation biotechnology may grant you much better chances of having your wish fulfilled and prevent you from going through several years of unnecessary ill health. The only thing that aging can grant you is that, eventually, it will make you sufficiently sick to kill you, whether you want it or not.
The choice seems obvious.