Has the tide turned for rejuvenation biotechnology?
It seems that opposition against medicine that seeks to slow, halt, or reverse aging may be slowly starting to crumble. For example, Lifespan.io’s current crowdfunding campaign is going extremely well, and journalists begin to talk about senolytics in more positive terms, without any predictions of doom and gloom resulting from these upcoming drugs.
However, make no mistake—the pro-aging trance is still alive and well; for every journalist who puts time and effort into actually understanding senolytics and the health benefits that they could potentially bring to older people, there’s probably five others who show little to no knowledge of the subject and rage against unspecified “immortality” technology and related impending catastrophes. This should tell us something about the kind of understanding they have of what they criticize—or how badly they need a clickbait piece to bring in visitors.
Today, the pro-aging trance is something that only rejuvenation advocates are aware of and battle against, but maybe, fifty years from now, it will be an interesting phenomenon of the past for psychologists to figure out. Maybe, on the YouTube of 2068, there will be videos making fun of it in pretty much the same way that some people today make fun of the old belief that hysteria was caused by stray uteruses wandering around women’s bodies.
The pro-aging trance is rather interesting indeed, as people who are subject to it tend to commit fallacies that they would never commit in other contexts. A very good example of this is the objection to inequality of access: this reasoning assumes that rejuvenation would not be available to everyone who needs it, for economical, political, or whatever reasons; understandably, this is perceived as a profound injustice, which pushes a fair number of people to make a leap and conclude that the best way to avoid this injustice is to never develop rejuvenation to begin with.
What if rejuvenation technology was plumbing, would people feel the same?
It’s hard to believe that they would still reason this way if “rejuvenation” were replaced by something else. Suppose I lost my mind and said, “Plumbing is not available everywhere in the world, and that’s unjust! They should never have invented it in the first place, and we should take it away from those who already have it to put an end to this injustice!” Arguably, every sensible person would mentally eye-roll at me and then patiently explain that if plumbing had never been invented, or if we took it away from people who already have it, nobody would benefit from this; we would all be more equal in that no one would have the benefits of running, clean water in their homes, but you can’t quench thirst or shower with equality.
Obviously, the best option here is to do all it takes to bring plumbing wherever it is needed; it’s very regrettable that, to this day, there still are people who don’t have plumbing, but that only means that we need to increase our efforts to get it to them, not take it away from others.
The example becomes even more effective if we replace rejuvenation with human rights. Not all fundamental rights are respected, or even recognized, everywhere in the world, in spite of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the work of the UN, UNICEF, and so on. Even slavery, though theoretically abolished in all recognized countries, is still a thing. Who in their right mind would ever argue that human rights should be taken away from people who have them, or should never have been thought up in the first place, for the sake of equality? “Equal” is not the same as “just” or “desirable”, and being equally in trouble is a rather cold comfort.
Some arguments are more equal than others
The fact that inequality of access can appear to be a reasonable objection in the case of rejuvenation but not for other topics suggests there might be something special about our perception of aging that causes this difference. What it actually is is anyone’s guess, but one could speculate that this might be a manifestation of our deep, inborn desire to live, which flies right into the face of the common narrative about the supposed horrors and undesirability of eternal life.
We want to exist. We all popped into existence, in a sense out of nowhere, into a world full of marvels and pleasures as well as dangers and sorrow, but the former induce in us a desire to stay that, in most cases, is far stronger than the desire to leave that might be caused by the latter. Yet, at some point, all of us had to come to terms with the fact we can’t stay here forever. We will have to give up on everything and everyone we’ve come to know and love, our memories, our passions, and ourselves. Realizing that your own life is finite is terrible, especially if it happens during your childhood, when you’re likely to be very enthusiastic about everything in your life.
This seems unjust enough as it is, and it would hardly feel better if you were one of only some people who’re doomed to oblivion. We can get over, and even used to, really unjust things, but could we ever get over the fact that other people could go on living, maybe forever, but not ourselves? If, as some people fear, rejuvenation were really to become a privilege accorded only to people with a certain socioeconomic status, and you were left out, you would probably experience a crushing, absolutely understandable resentment for people who, unlike you, are entitled to keep existing; the thought of your own mortality would become more imposing and difficult to bear.
Fear of missing out underpins the pro-aging trance
It may be that some people are so afraid to end up in that situation that they’d rather have rejuvenation never come to pass—even if it means giving up on whatever chance they’d have to benefit from it themselves. Maybe, in this particular case, being equally in trouble might be preferable to finding yourself in a position where your deepest desire is achievable in principle but not in practice. After all, as long as rejuvenation doesn’t exist, it’s easy to tell yourself that you don’t want it, because the object of your temptation simply isn’t there; if it was there, it would arguably be much more difficult to cope with your inability to get it.
It’s possible that this is why the pro-aging trance pushes so many people to abandon rationality entirely and indulge in all sorts of fallacies, double standards, and mental gymnastics that, in a different context, they would find extremely embarrassing; in a way, it’s there to protect us from our own desires. It’s a refined defense mechanism that we put in place to protect us from terrifying thoughts about something that, thus far, has been absolutely inevitable. The only defense against a slow but relentless and invincible enemy is accepting the unacceptable and justifying that which is unjustifiable. The only way to do that is to relinquish rationality.
That is what the pro-aging trance is today; but, hopefully, sometime soon, it will just be an intriguing piece of defunct human psychology.