Choosing between a quantitative and a qualitative life
Survival instinct is a side effect of existence, and whether we like it or not, we are bound to it on both a conscious and subconscious level. This can be tested via simple self-experiments: first, hold your hand close to a heated radiator with the intention to hold it there indefinitely. Wait for some time, and then see if you can override your reflexes as they pull you away from it with haste, or your nerves as they deliver a sense of pain that intensifies by the second. You will most likely, if not definitely fail. Second, fill a bath, and submerge your head under the water with the intention to stay there. Wait for some time, and then see if you can avoid those same reflexes compelling you to emerge and respire as normal, on top of the overwhelming panic and fear that set in as you realise that your life is in immediate jeopardy. You will most likely, if not definitely fail. Of course, these experiments don’t need to be conducted in practice – every day life is full of dangerous and challenging experiences, and the fact that you are reading this today indicates that you have been obeying your survival instinct for quite some time now.
Now, whilst the will to live is undeniable, the reason for this will is open to dispute. One may take an evolutionary perspective, and argue that the will to live is no more than a biological trick, existing purely to maintain the presence of the human species on the planet. One may take a teleological perspective, and argue that we are here to realize some divine or ultimate consequence, and that we must therefore survive in order to do so. One may take a purely hedonistic view, believing death to be an unpleasant or empty state of things, and argue that the will to live contributes to the maximising of pleasure, as it increases the likelihood of positive life experiences. For each of these reasons there is little evidence, so feel free to believe in more than one, or to change your mind every so often. You may even come up with your own list of reasons. All that is known is that we /want/ to live -in the sense that it is near-impossible to override the instinct to do so-, and that we still don’t know why.
Interesting, then, is the preoccupation with life-extension that plagues our food industry, cosmetics industry, pharmaceutical industry, fashion industry, insurance industry, social media industry, and much more. Each of these promote and perpetuate the idea that living for an extended period of time is not only beneficial but ideal, and ought to be the objective of one’s decisions, actions and purchases. Turn on the television and you will be exposed to the latest ‘miracle’ in anti-aging skin creams that claims to delay the onset of wrinkles, the latest ‘bargain’ deal in life insurance that nevertheless costs a bomb, the latest health-tracking app that works by influencing your behaviour in virtue of shaky and useless statistics, the latest fad ‘youth’ supplement, the latest terrible pension scheme, and so on. All of these products are designed to achieve or encourage the prioritising of a mere addition of years to those already granted, as if, with careful purchases, we will be cleverly saving for some sacred domain in later life when they come into fruition. -Note that the number granted is undetermined at present, as the science is nowhere near as advanced as it needs to be to give even a rough indication. This makes it even easier to sell life-extension products, as there is no available criterion for guarantee purposes.- The takeaway is that adding years to years is a good, and given our free-market capitalism, the revenue generated from these industries listed indicates that everyone agrees.
So, what is the benefit of adding years to years?
Yes, I left that question isolated so as to encourage you to think about it for a while. If you haven’t done so, give it a go now.
Having thought about it myself for some time, I have a few ideas. First, the question takes on a whole new meaning for those with children – as soon as parents bring a new human being into the world they feel compelled to stick around so as to ensure its safety and development. But I think there is an asymmetry here. A parent dying prematurely can be a terrible thing, and there is a great deal of evidence that such an event does serious damage to the wellbeing of the child, especially if the child is old enough to understand permanent loss, and at the same time young enough to feel dependent upon that parent. A parent dying late can be a great thing, for there is higher chance of grand or even great-grand children featuring in their life, and inevitably more responsibility and influence in the development of those offspring. But is the negative of a parent’s premature death equitable with the positive of a parent’s late death? And can the positives be guaranteed if the latter parent’s life is extended from, say, 83 years to 99? Unlikely. So with this asymmetry in mind, it seems that avoiding premature death ought to be prioritised over the mere adding of years to years.
My second idea is simply that by adding years to years one gets to –potentially- see a greater number of developments in the world – technological feats, medical breakthroughs, the discovery of new energy resources, the discovery of new matter, increases in global communication, increases in access to information, increases in quality of education, the end of wars, and so on. Yet this leads to an infinite progression – imagine you are the parent in my previous example, whose life extends from 83 years to 99. You will get to see 16 further years of developments in the world. Will you be satisfied at the end of those 16 years? Consider Moore’s Law that processing power doubles every two years – if he’s right, the quality of technological developments will be exponential. So if seeing 16 more years of those developments is beneficial, seeing 32 will be /much more/ beneficial. And what about seeing 100 more years of them? Or 1000? Suddenly your 16 extra years seem quite measly. Add to that the fact that the benefit seems to be limited to the satisfaction of curiosity over anything else, and you end up with a situation that is not much different from a bad gambler in a casino, who wins some money, and then gambles it indefinitely, as there is no amount of money that will register in his or her mind as the limit at which no further benefit can be achieved. The gambler can play forever, and perhaps something unpredicted will happen to his or her benefit, but the likelihood is that calling quits and doing something else will bring more immediate and profound benefits.
My third idea is that by adding years to years one can /contribute/ to the number and quality of developments in the world, which seems beneficial, but is unfortunately not something to be considered today. The fact that life expectancy in the West is longer than it ever has been does not correlate with the ability of a person to be innovative and productive – in fact, what we have is a record number of people with chronic diseases who are being kept alive by the medical industry, therefore increasing the average number of lived years, but decreasing the average number of productive years. We also have a record number of unemployed people, one of the reasons being that with technological development comes human obsoletion. For this reason I’m not even sure whether future generations would have increased or decreased opportunity to bring about benefits of life-extension in terms of industrial contribution, but the takeaway is that it certainly doesn’t apply now.
Given the failure of my ideas to account for why adding years to years is in itself beneficial, I am sceptical of prioritising an extended life. Furthermore, ask anyone who has been diagnosed with a terminal illness what is most distressing, and rather than stating the mere number of years they expect to lose, they will most likely reply with a list of exciting and enjoyable experiences that they haven’t experienced or do not now have time to experience. Ask them why they haven’t had those experiences, and the most likely reply will be that they weren’t prioritised, and that, rather, monotonous work was, or the saving of money was, or even life-extension itself was!
Again, dying prematurely can be a terrible thing, and I intend to avoid it as much as possible. However, dying with a list of unachieved ideals which /could/ have been achieved is also a terrible thing if not /more/ terrible, and I intend to avoid it even more. What this all leads to is a choice between the prioritising of a life with a greater quantity of years, or with a greater quality of content. Of course, if you can bring about both then congratulations, but do not anticipate equality of result from equality of prioritization. Perhaps the life-extension industries will prove me wrong, but for the time being, with a finite amount of money, I am investing in the immediate and the tangible, because the likelihood is that I will reap the benefits of these, just as I want to.
Article by Emma Langley