Intelligence Squared Debate: Are Lifespans Long Enough?

Host and Moderator of Intelligence Squared John DonVan 

Host and Moderator of Intelligence Squared John DonVan 

I attended the intelligence squared debate for aging. The motion was “Are Lifespans Long Enough?” Honestly, it almost seems like a rigged question.

However, its framing does challenge a common philosophy language trap. “Are Lifespans Long Enough?” What is “enough?” Is it what we have? Is it the minimum to expect? Is it always more?

It was fitting to see Ian Ground, a Wittgenstein scholar, in the debate. Wittgenstein is a philosopher known for his views on language and how it constructs our reality. Many have interpreted his teachings as there is no objective truth, there is no meaning, and we are insignificant. A lot of cosmic pessimism and postmodern thought can be traced to Wittgenstein.

The question leads, if lifespans are not long enough, then we should strive to make them longer. Otherwise we should not fight death and instead should consign ourselves to contently die without impeding its approach. This is deathist.

Ian Ground and Paul Root Wolpe

Ian Ground and Paul Root Wolpe

So why argue we shouldn’t strive to make lifespans longer? Afterall, it’s an insidious suggestion. Well, the opponents of longer lifespans didn’t quite take that position. Instead they respectfully attempted to reframe the discussion, arguing it is narcissistic to want to live longer. That striving to make lifespans longer in order to defeat aging is a misguided effort. They claimed it would require us to examine our human values and sense of identity, and that it might force us to reconsider our understanding of what it means to be human. They brought up disruption to society, have-and-have-nots, and overpopulation.

The philosophers’ arguments weighed empty when scaled against the weight of their opponents’ arguments for why lifespans should be longer. The two who argued in favor of longer lifespans were two scientists, and not strangers to philosophy: Brian Kennedy and Aubrey de Grey. They articulately sliced through language entanglement, and clearly focused the debate.

Aubrey De Grey and Brian Kennedy

Aubrey De Grey and Brian Kennedy

Scientists today are striving to extend lifespans along with health-spans. In the pursuit of engineering longer life, these two things come hand-in-hand. De Grey and Kennedy pointed out their attempts are not merely to make milestones in geriatrics, prolonging decrepit and sometimes painful life. Their goal is to keep people healthy for longer periods by slowing down and maintenancing the aging process using modern technology; a noble pursuit considering 100,000 people die a day to age related disease.

Technologies need to be developed before they become economical. When cellphones were first invented– few could afford them. Now they contain more computing power than 1960s NASA and billions of people have them. That is how economy of scale works.

At the end of the debate, a friend of mine in the audience was called on to ask a piercing question. Here’s what transpired:

Keith Comito: But I kind of want to bring this to a little bit of the philosophy because it's sort of been glossed over I think in certain aspects. So if I understand it right, one of the cruxes against life extension is that in a true Wittgenstein kind of way, life or the form of it needs to be defined by its negative space, by death, like it needs to be there like some Hobbesian leviathans who give our choices meaning. And I want to say, "Is it fair” -- my question is: Is it fair to say, to assume, that this state of existence is necessarily more ideal than one in which we have learned to take the reins of our own development unforced by external conditions that can rob you of the goods of life?

John Donvan: Okay. Okay. Let's take a -- I thought you were going to be going down the -- that was good -- you landed that well. Ian Ground.

Ian Ground: That’s a good question and thank you for it. It's not so much what's defined by the negative spaces, as you put it, by death, but that we -- even from within life make choices that presuppose that time is finite. Okay. That's how it works. We have to put down -- say we put down roots, okay. You can't be a being that puts down roots if you're going to jump up in 50 years' time and go somewhere else, okay. It's a different way of conceiving of the human, okay. I'm saying well, fine, maybe you really don't like the human, okay, and you'd rather have something else. I've got no argument against that. I know what I prefer. That's all.

John Donvan: Aubrey De Grey, would you like to respond? And if you can come in --

[laughter]

Aubrey de Grey: I'm a practical first things first kind of guy. I don't want to get sick. I don't want you to get sick, and I really don't think very much about philosophy. And I think I'm okay not doing that.

[laughter]

Are lifespans long enough? No, I don’t think so.

// Images courtesy of intelligencesquared.org // Click here for a full transcript of the debate //