Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Why Catholics Should Support the Transhumanist Goal of Extended Life

Why Catholics Should Support the Transhumanist Goal of Extended Life

(A talk being translated to Italian and delivered to a Catholic conference on "The idea of earthly immortality: a new challenge for theology", September 2009).

Intellectual honesty is extremely important to me. Therefore, I must say at the beginning that I am not religious. As the founder of modern transhumanism, I am a rationalist and do not see good reason to believe in the existence of a being who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. At the same time, I have studied and understand religion in general and the Catholic faith in particular. I have studied and taught philosophy of religion for many years—including Mount St. Mary’s in Brentwood, California, and have engaged in discussions with many Catholic philosophy students. In addition, I have enormous respect for St. Thomas Aquinas—undoubtedly the greatest of all Catholic theologians.

For Aquinas, faith and reason are compatible and should lead to the same answers, so long as we use our God-given reason carefully. This is a core part of Scholastic philosophy and its blending of revealed wisdom with Aristotle’s philosophy. Aristotle appeals to me for several reasons, the main one for our current purpose being his virtue ethics. It is from a perspective of a virtue ethics of human flourishing that I will argue that Catholics should adopt a generally favorable attitude toward transhumanism and, especially, the pursuit of greatly extended maximum life spans.

Catholic theologians and other thinkers have long been strong defenders of the sacredness of life. They have opposed terminating the life of fetuses and have resisted the resort to suicide. The core transhumanist goal of extended life in the physical realm is thoroughly consistent with this pro-life stance. I prefer the term “extended life” (or “indefinite life span” or “agelessness”) to the term “physical immortality”. I am far from sure that genuine immortality—living literally forever—is possible. Even if we live until the far-future decay or implosion of the universe, that falls infinitely short of forever. A trillion years is but an infinitesimal fraction of eternity.

Even if we succeed in fully understanding and conquering the aging process—as I believe we probably will in the coming decades—our life spans will continue to be limited by factors such as accident, murder, and wars. In a world without aging, we are likely to focus on continuing to reduce the death rate. But, for any period of time—whether a year, a century, or a millennium—we will face a certain probability of death. By “death”, I mean a permanent physical death; loss of personal continuity beyond the point where it can be restored by the medical science and practice of the day.

Literal physical immortality, then, is probably not an option. Agelessness or indefinite life may well be. A substantial and growing number of gerontologists see this as a realistic goal. In part, it’s for this reason that I say that immortality is not truly the goal for most of us as transhumanists. The goal is indefinite life spans. We aim to continually improve ourselves and enhance our capabilities. That makes degenerative aging and involuntary death our mortal enemies. We want to live for now and for the indefinite future. But we cannot know whether we will want to continue living far in the future. Perhaps, after centuries or millennia, we will choose to restore the aging process and allow our physical lives to reach an end. (I believe Catholic moral philosophy may not see this as suicide, but as choosing to move on to the afterlife.)

Transhumanists seek radically extended lives as part of a philosophy that affirms continuous improvement of ourselves, not only intellectually and emotionally but also morally and what might be called spiritually. This goal seems consistent with Catholic views about virtue and the duties of human beings to serve and glorify God. This would not be true if it were possible to point to passages in the Bible—especially in the literal text of the New Testament—that declared longer lives to be contrary to God’s will or to His plans for us. In fact, there is nothing in the Bible that rejects extended physical lives. The Bible appears to be neutral on the topic.

We might even interpret it to have a favorable attitude if we focus on the stated life spans of many early people in the Bible. A major effort to combat physical aging is run by the Methuselah Foundation—named after a man reputed to have lived for 969 years, narrowing exceeding the life spans of several others, including Jared (who lived to 962) and Noah (who lived to 950). The longest-lived person for whom we have reliable records in modern history was Jeanne Calment, who died at the age of 122 years, 164 days. The Bible mentions no fewer than 33 people who lived beyond the age of 123. Whether we take those ages literally or metaphorically, the Bible seems to suggest that our current life spans are not as long as those of people clearly favored by God. And why should a life span of 78 be any more privileged and accepted than historical life spans of 40 or even 30?

In other words, the current average longevity of human beings has varied greatly over time. There is no reason to accept the current state of affairs as uniquely right or divinely commanded. The Catholic Church has no objection to the historical progression of science and technology that has gradually reduced the death rate and extended our lives. In fact, Catholics naturally stand behind efforts to alleviate the suffering of disease and aging and the maintenance and restoration of the healthy, flourishing physical being gifted to us by God.

The Catholic Church should no problem supporting the extension not only of the average life span, but also the maximum life span. At least since Pius XII’s 1950 encyclical Humani Generis, it has become clear that there is no conflict between evolution and the doctrine of the faith regarding man and his vocation. As Pope John Paul II put it: “Today, more than a half-century after the appearance of that encyclical, some new findings lead us toward the recognition of evolution as more than a hypothesis.”

This is especially important in the current context, because the maximum human life span is a product of morally arbitrary evolution, not the result of any divine edict that has ever been communicated to us. Aging and biological senescence and death are the products of evolution. As such, they have no special moral status, whether naturalistic or divine. Aging is essentially a disease process. It results from the failure of our evolved biological mechanisms for cellular repair. We have been endowed with rational capacities unique in all the world. I can see no reason why we should not direct those rational faculties toward improving on what nature has so wonderfully but imperfectly developed. The goal, of course, is not an extended period of decrepitude but an extended period of healthy and vigorous life.

It would be enough for the Catholic Church to support anti-aging efforts simply by acknowledging that this involves relieving suffering and infirmity, and that senescence is not a divinely-commanded condition. But there are positive arguments for actively combating the ravages of aging and the inevitability of biological death. One of these might come from taking the lead of Jesus, who repeatedly urged us to “do as I have done”. Jesus did not look at physical weaknesses and sickness and say “My Father has commanded it. Accept your suffering and impending death.” On the contrary, Jesus made it a core part of his mission to heal the sick and even raise the dead.

This implies that, while suffering may have value, the kind of involuntary, guiltless suffering imposed by age-related illness and senescence is not inherently noble. We can grant that suffering might improve us and can have a valuable place in our lives, without accepting every kind of suffering. Suffering comes in many forms, so reducing or even eliminating suffering due to aging and death still allows plenty of room for a salutary or redemptive role for suffering.

Catholics faced with disease and suffering do not hesitate to support medical research even as they minister to the spiritual needs of victims. I believe that, as it becomes ever more feasible to prevent and reverse the diseases of aging, our moral responsibility to help in doing so becomes greater. Extending the maximum human life span has not seemed feasible until recent years. As more evidence accumulates showing that we can successfully combat aging and the inevitability of biological death, I would expect to see the Church actively supporting or conducting research.

A final observation: From a specifically Christian perspective, extending the maximum healthy life span of humans beyond the current limit of around 123 years would have another major benefit: It would give us more time to develop virtue, to do good works, to serve God, and to save souls. This alone should be reason enough to vigorously support the quest for ageless bodies and indefinite life spans. Few of even the most optimistic transhumanists expect the world to ever be perfect. To the extent that the world remains imperfect—and far inferior to Heaven—a longer existence in the physical world might perhaps be regarded as a milder form of purgatory. It can be seen as a divine blessing: an extended opportunity to improve ourselves, do good works to redeem ourselves, to glorify God, and to more fully earn a place in Heaven.