Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, December 05, 2004

Prosthetic Prolongation Will Predominate Even If Majorities Refuse It

I recently heard the Canadian philosopher Mark Walker make the interesting argument that should medical science advance enough to indefinitely prolong life-spans -- as many serious scientists like Aubrey de Grey are compellingly arguing might come to pass surprisingly soon -- then straightforward number crunching suggests the number of conventionally mortal people would come to represent a vanishingly small minority in relatively short order.

And this is true, Walker suggests, even on the most conservative assumptions –- such as (1) that only one in ten people adopt these technologies (when surely the proportion would be much higher in fact, as is the proportion who make recourse to contemporary medicine to more modestly prolong their lives in the face of disease and misfortune today) and (2) that only those who refuse such prolongation reproduce (one can imagine governments imposing such a restriction as a condition of longevity to ameliorate overpopulation pressures, for example, though it is unlikely).

For Walker the upshot of his argument is that what he calls “universal immortality” is “inevitable.”

As it happens, I have a lot of discomfort around technophilic “inevitability” arguments for hypothesized technological capacities. This is because in my view they tend to have the self-image of being scientific claims when their lack of caveats and evidence tend to make them function much more like conventional claims of faith.

Also I think unobjectionably broad discussions of technological inevitability (of the form: "if a desirable technological capacity can exist according to the laws of physics, then, other things being equal, eventually it very likely will") typically shift very quickly and rather sloppily into completely unsubstantiated claims about the comparable inevitability of expectations about the specific form, pace, distribution of effects, and significance of particular hypothesized technologies. The latter claims will often in fact simply be straightforward expressions of personal value or desire rather than testable claims about matters of fact, but with pretensions to the contrary.

On an altogether separate note, I also happen to think it is deeply mistaken for technophiles to confuse the idea of the likely prosthetic prolongation of lifespan through medical means with the essentially theological notion of immortality in the first place. "Immortality" seems to me a notion freighted with implications, confusions, hopes, and significances that prosthetic prolongation does not in fact speak to at all. Nor should it really want to take that business on as far as I can see.

In any case, I think that once you are talking about superlative states [skip over to the archived entry on June 12 for some more on this] like "superlongevity" the interesting difference will not be between currently normatively mortal people as against superlongevous ones (if that's a word), anyhow. The differences that make a difference will surely be between biological and nonbiological and postbiological persons, recognizably continuous and singular as against noncontinuous, collective, proliferative persons, etc.

For every one of these varieties of prosthetic personhood the manner of the life so prolonged will easily be as different from one another as the difference to any of them from more conventionally (to us) mortal persons.

I think lumping together these many techno-enabled modes of life-prolongation under the single heading of "universal immortality" as Walker and other technophiles often want to do would appear quaint at best to the lucky collaborators in superlative-state technocultures to come. I doubt the persons who instantiate the extremely lengthy (to us) varieties of prosthetic personhood will see themselves as all participating in the same process or exhibiting the same trait.

Anyway, I also think there is likely to be an ongoing and stable minority of recognizably mortal persons even in what we would consider superlative-state technocultures, as an occasional matter of cultural identity or personal aesthetics. But since this would likely be much more a matter of choice for them than it is for the likes of us, it seems even any lingering mortality would be transformed in its implications radically from our own experience of it.

My own guess is that this would be a negligible minority among the others (largely for the reasons Walker’s argument spells out: even a long-lived minority would outlive a conventionally mortal majority until few of the latter would remain, assuming at least a minority in every subsequent generation would opt as well for prolongation). But even if I bracket my doubts about the usefulness of smudging together the many radically different forms prosthetic personhood will likely take under the single term "immortality," I think the persistence of a negligible minority of discretionary mortals robs the argument of any "universal" conclusion.

No comments: