Let us talk about Immortality

So apparently we are not allowed to talk about immortality. I have a fun idea!



In one sentence: I talk about immortality because it is my job; if I will not do it, then the quacks will. I have the training to talk about it so why should I not? This post is not about Eric Verdin, I hold no grudge here and his opinion is pretty mainstream anyway. Again, I am thankful to him, even though he is wrong, as anger is apparently my main motivation for 'current affairs' posts. I am angry because the field of biogerontology is eternally misunderstood (even by many biogerontologists) and we are forced to hide our real opinions.

Of course, I could just say "okay, boomer" and go about my day. Of course, I could just let it go, but then no blog post would get written. Perhaps more importantly, I could let this one slide if it was not as if I am being implicitly slandered. No "single serious person" talks about immortality? I would take a 500$ longbet to your charity of choice that I can prove you wrong within 12 months, my friend (4).

Okay, first of all, let us do a sanity check. Searching for the word "immortality" in pubmed abstracts (in order to exclude the phrase "immortalized") yields 1425 results. Clearly the word is used in some context, probably for unicellular organisms and cancer.

Perhaps this is not the type of immortality he means. Okay, then let us talk about every single type of immortality I can think of. This is the first problem here, the word is ill-defined. We will have to do a lot of explaining in this post, but before I start, another thing. Is it not strange that biologists can talk about "free will" but we aging researchers cannot talk about "immortality"? Are we not in a position to clarify these words for laypeople?

Let me present what I would consider a strong minority position in the biogerontology community.

The Scientist and the Dying Man
At the deathbed of a dying friend. The word that should not be spoken - is a surprising one. And before the clock strikes ten you will betray your principles three times. This story is dedicated to everyone.

The Scientist: How are you doing today? I came to see you before my shift starts at 10.
The Dying Man: Shit as always. The chemo is still not working, at this rate I got about 2 months left
The Scientist: Are you in pain?
The Dying Man: Quite a bit, but you know what, the drugs they give you are amazing.
The Scientist: I wish you were not dying. Why the hell is the world this way? You know this is one of the reasons I became an aging researcher. I want to help people. Avert suffering. I wish I could help you...
The Dying Man: Well crying won't help for sure! But I do appreciate that you are working on immortality. Really do.
The Scientist: You and your jokes.
The Dying Man: It is not a joke, it really is a noble endeavor to work towards immortality even if we can't...[interrupted]
The Scientist: I did not say immortality. That's not it.
The Dying Man: You did. Think about it. Every man is mortal. I am a man. I am dying and I must die. The thing which does not die lives on, it is immortal. You just wished that I would not die.
The Scientist: Not immortality, I just want people to live longer and healthier.
The Dying Man: Do you? Tell me, when do you want me to die? I will likely die when one of the liver metastases finally decides to tear open some arteries. When do you want me to bleed out internally, in 10 years, 20 years, this month?
The Scientist: You are getting cynical. I do not want you to bleed to death at all.
The Dying Man: Okay, you just used that word again without actually saying it. Did you notice?
The Scientist: Perhaps you do not understand, you're not a scientist.
The Dying Man: Maybe I am not book-smart, but I do reckon that which never dies, is immortal. Anyhow, tell me then when do YOU want to die? Now? Or when?
The Scientist: Not now, I don't know. I love my life, my children, everything you know? Maybe when I am 120 or when I get sick of life.
The Dying Man: And if you do not get sick of life, will you still kill yourself at 120 or 130?
The Scientist: No.
The Dying Man: Then you want to be immortal with the option of suicide.
The Scientist: Definitely not. I just... Maybe your cancer is not so bad if you play games with me.
The Dying Man: You basically said that you want to be immortal, and you want me to be immortal. At the same time, you are working to extend human lifespan. Towards which goal are you working if not immortality? Even if you cannot achieve it ever, doesn't every step you take, bring you closer to your stated goal of immortality?
The Scientist: It is so hard to explain. We simply cannot be immortal therefore it makes no sense to talk about it.
The Dying Man: But you talk about it all the time! Do you know what I think? You are so afraid of death, that you cannot admit, you do not want to die, because then it would become real. If you claim that you never wanted immortality, wanted to expire all along, it will hurt less when you cannot achieve it. You are also afraid of being judged a fool. You think that if you admit that you do not want to die, people will laugh at you, because they also deluded themselves into thinking death is good, in order to make the pain go away. Many of them will only call you a fool, because they are afraid to look stupid if they do not. It is a circle.
But here I am, a dying man, no one will judge me for telling the truth. I do not want to die now, or ever. I am only 3 years older than you, I had a good life, you know, going to all the posh restaurants in my neighborhood, working at that harm reduction program with the unitarian church. When you will be dying, you will not want to die, just like me.
The Scientist: I know it is no consolation, but we are all dying.
The Dying Man: Sei ein Mensch. [The End]

One does wonder. Why is it so hard to admit for people. I am a person made of flesh and bones. When I accidentally cut myself, I bleed. When I attend funerals, tears run down my cheeks. I do not want to die. Therefore I want to be immortal with the option of suicide.

That is what I would call aspirational immortality. All of [applied] science seeks to improve the human condition, it never says "good enough", "too much joy". At the end of this journey, every disease and cause of death will be eradicated or minimized. All of science strives to achieve immortality even if it cannot fully accomplish this goal. One step closer, asymptomatically.

Biological immortality
A biological being that does not age nor suffer any diseases (8), is biologically immortal. In this case, the death rate is purely defined by extrinsic mortality like homicides, forest fires or car crashes. This is not science fiction, but reality. Biomedical researchers work to cure diseases and biogerontologists to cure or stop aging. Thus our goal is to achieve biological immortality. I don't think it is shameful to admit this. It is just an inconvenient fact - if you want to downplay the monumentous importance of biomedical research to medical conservatives.

Clonal organisms are generally regarded as biologically immortal and they do indeed get very old. The oldest such organism is a tree, specifically a quaking aspen colony, in the Fishlake National Forest which may be around 10000 years old.

Could humans ever be biologically immortal? Anything that does not violate the rules of physics, is possible in the long term. Some things are just exceedingly difficult. Perhaps so difficult that they will never be pursued or it will take thousands of years of research. Perhaps a bit easier, or much harder than that. All we know for sure right now is that biological immortality is very hard to achieve for vertebrates, as there are no large species documented to live longer than 400 years. Trees are not a good example because they lack a brain, the defining characteristic of humans. So we can conclude that some approximation of biological immortality should be possible eventually, even if it is hard, and that this is the goal we are pursuing. One step at a time.

Physical and metaphysical immortality
Physical immortality could be defined as "living for as long as the universe exists" and its philosophical foundation is relatively simple: atoms are immortal, as long as the universe exists, humans are made of atoms, so humans could be immortal. The problem here is that a human is defined by the specific arrangement of these atoms, particularly in the brain, and it is not clear at all if this can be maintained indefinitely. Moreover, the concept of self becomes absurd given sufficiently long timespans (7). Another simple counter-argument is that for this to be true, the rate of accidents would have to be zero and there is no conceivable way, as far as I can tell, for this to be zero (3).

If not until the end of the universe, then one could at least live for a very long time. The earth itself has made it for a couple billion years and genetic life for hundreds of millions. So some sort of stability is possible, if an "organism" or "thing" is sufficiently redundant. This is definitely in the realm of science-inspired science fiction, although, not metaphysics. Another word for this is also quasi-immortality.

Metaphysical immortality, on the other hand, would imply that humans or beings can continue to exist after death, in some state not understood by or fully apart from physics, or that they can live longer than the universe itself. One could obviously combine science fiction and metaphysics, because at the extreme ends there is no clear border between the two.

Mixing metaphysics and science - one part metaphysics, five parts science
When you bake a cake you add some salt, along with sugar, even though this seems at odds with your stated goal. Only if you accidentally swap sugar and salt, will you spoil the cake. Maybe this is a bad metaphor and I am a horrible cook. You can be the judge.

Basically, I would explain it as follows. For the foreseeable future, many people will have a need for metaphysics in their lives. Do I want quacks and theologists to fill this void with their fantasies? Not really, but then I need to provide an alternative. Science cannot be the discipline that only says no. Science has to give hope as well. There must be a way for science, philosophy, futurism and science fiction to inspire and console.

If people want to believe in metaphysical immortality through science, rather than Jesus Christ, this will be so much better for them and society as a whole. I want people to donate to aging research rather than the catholic church. Therefore we need to allow for advocacy at the intersection between science and fiction. Why waste your time attacking those dreaming of immortality if there are still people who want to ban abortion or developmental biology wholescale? People who cannot wait for god to claim our lives? (2)

Five-dimensional chess
But Aging Researcher, don't be a fool! It is Realpolitik all the way down, he is just playing political chess. Eric Verdin is too important to be telling the truth, lest he scares the masses and the suits. Even if he agrees with you, he will never admit it in public. Or maybe he just fooled himself. To be fair, I am not entirely convinced about the best outreach strategy myself (and I always welcome studies and OPeds that would clarify). It makes sense that centrism appeals to most people, which is why, in my opinion, intellectuals like Stephen Pinker have become "fake" centrists recently - for the greater good. This is why centrist parties are successful. But why can't you be a centrist without smearing your allies as fools, dreamers or crackpots?

If most people are centrists, as correctly pointed out in the below response tweets, then perhaps most or all scientists should be as well? Or could it be that we are misjudging how a centrist position would look? (see also ref. 5 for a discussion of this)

Let me provide an alternative view. I have low confidence in this but I think it could make sense (6). Large parties in Europe are withering and, for better or worse, extremes are getting more popular with the youth. Small political parties running dedicated, relatively radical, campaigns are surprisingly successful, look at the Greens in Europe. You may not get the centrist votes, but there can be other benefits. If you have a single issue your "voters" may be more dedicated to supporting you with higher donations, free labor or loyalty.

Moreover, people are sick of slick, double-faced politician scientists who smile as they lie. They want people who tell the truth or at least appear to believe their own lies. Authenticity. Elon Musk self-styled Iron Man, or, Donald Trump a jester with a king's crown. If the centrists were correct, how could these guys be so successful?

David Sinclair and Aubrey de Grey are examples within the field of gerontology (1). They tend to be more optimistic than the average researcher / advocate. Of course, they may not appeal to the average person (although Sinclair does quite well) but if they appeal to the radicals instead, that's okay. The critics cannot just say "they don't appeal to the masses", they would have to prove that people like de Grey actively alienated relevant donors and supporters.

The question is, can we be like them, without betraying our principles and eroding long-term trust in science?

Postscriptum
One recent argument I heard was that even though 30-50% of the population wants to live forever (that is, achieve some kind of biological immortality), we should not talk about it because it gives a bad impression. The idea is so far out there that we will sound like cranks if we mention it. It is all about signaling and, again, five-dimensional chess. But you can be the judge and tell me if I sound like a charlatan here:

The goal of cancer research is to eradicate cancer and thus allow people to live their whole life without cancer and to find cures for every known cancer. We do not know how long achieving this goal will take. In the meantime, we do what is possible to improve the outcomes for many cancers, step by step.

The goal of aging research is to eliminate aging and thus allow people to live a youthful life for as long as they want; sometimes this is called "biological immortality", a lifespan that is not limited by aging anymore. We do not know how long achieving this goal will take. In the meantime, we do what is possible to slow down aging, improve healthspan and lifespan, step by step.

The goal of climate activism and research is to stop climate change and halt or reverse damage caused by climate change. We do not know if and when this goal is achievable. In the meantime, we do what is possible to slow down climate change, mitigate damage and educate the public as well as lawmakers. Step by step.

If you are so cynical to believe that people are too stupid to understand the above (I am not), then why would they be smart enough to understand Taeuber's paradox, the main reason why they should fund biogerontology, regardless of our abilities to achieve radical lifespan extension?

References & comments (in no particular order)

1. it is sad that we do not have more examples, given that Aubrey de Grey has fallen from grace. It would be also great to have more women who are outspoken in favour of radical lifspan extension, considering that men are already more likely to favour this idea (ref 5).

2. Perhaps one problem is that distinguishing allies and enemies is easier said than done. While I appreciate the goal of, for example, the life extension foundation, I am sometimes not sure if they cause more harm than good by peddling useless supplements.

3. If one wanted to go "really deep" the only option to get something along the lines of physical immortality would be mind uploading, which is a thorny philosophical question, apart from being totally infeasible.

4. The terms of the bet could be as follows. I am kind enough not to count myself as a "serious aging researcher". Let's call myself an "aspiring serious researcher". So can we find a professor or independent researcher with a track record of aging research who 1/ either publicly talked about immortality or 2/ is willing to go on the record, doing so. I am almost sorry to poor Eric Verdin, but the study in (5) by itself might be already good enough to claim the prize on my side, so he better not take that bet.

Broker: "The Long Bets site is ...an arena for competitive, accountable predictions (Long Bets)."

5. While this tweet is superficially correct, we do have to consider that these surveys are very sensitive to phrasing and societal pressure. It would be naive to assume that they represent "the true eternal will" of the people, so to say. Browsing PubMed I stumbled on another, very, very current survey.

Asked “If doctors developed a pill that enabled you to live forever at your current age, would you take it?” a surprising number of people turned out to be hardcore life extensionists: "There were no differences by age...Among young adults, 40.0% indicated they would not take the pill, 34.2% indicated they would take the pill, and 25.8% indicated they were unsure."
The older people were community dwelling (n~310) and the younger participants (n= 593) were psychology students. Surprisingly no cohort effect was seen, as I would have expected the younger participants to be more positive towards life extension. However, it does look like there is a trend and the study may have been underpowered to detect differences (only 23-32% of older adults would take the pill).

At first glance, everything makes sense to me. In this 2011 article, the numbers, on a similar but different question, were 21% for the young and 12% for the older people. We see a suggestive cohort effect (older generations being less positive about lifespan extension)vand a normalization of lifespan extension research because the numbers are much higher in the more recent survey.

Barnett, Michael D., and Jessica H. Helphrey. "Who wants to live forever? Age cohort differences in attitudes toward life extension." Journal of Aging Studies 57 (2021): 100931.

6. In the tradition established by the lesswrong forums I want to specifically quantify when I have a strong opinion backed by weak evidence / high uncertainty.

7. Once every atom, every neuron in your brain has turned over, because these things are always in flux, are you still yourself? Once you are so old that you cannot even store all the memories, where does self start and where does it end?

8. In general many organisms are regarded as biologically immortal without being totally immune to diseases, so the latter is not essential, although resilience to disease is.

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