Some months back, I read “Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind” by Yuval Noah Harari. It’s a really good book, though it did disappoint me significantly when, after discussing the past and the present of our species, the author began glancing towards possible futures. At that point, the impartiality required of a historian, which Harari had thus far managed to keep up more or less evenly throughout the book, gave way to a subtly implied pessimism pervading, among other things, his views on future rejuvenation biotechnology.
Honestly, I wasn’t expecting him to even touch upon the subject; I was pleasantly surprised, at least until I realized that his concerns, most of which were the usual ones you’d expect, seemed to make him inclined to see rejuvenation as a plague rather than a blessing.
A curious new concern
Harari presented his concerns but didn’t venture imagining any solutions to them, which I find to be a fatal flaw that pushes readers to assume that they are insolvable and inescapably destined to materialize, and neither of these things is necessarily true.
However, I was particularly intrigued by a concern that I had never heard before: extremely long lives might cause extreme risk aversion. In other words, if you knew that you could potentially live forever, as opposed to only a handful of decades, you’d be so concerned about the possibility of losing your life—and thus, “eternity”—that you’d be reluctant to even stick your nose out of your front door.
The way out is easy
It would be a cause of great anxiety, Harari suggests, to know that we and our loved ones can live forever but only if we don’t die in a terrorist attack or end up being crushed by a truck; so, in a world where rejuvenation grants us indefinite lifespans, we’d end up playing it extra safe and take no risks at all, not even the smallest.
To be honest, as things stand right now, we and our loved ones know that we can’t live forever, because barring things like terrorists and trucks, age-related diseases will eventually finish us off. The only difference with the previous scenario is that the time at our disposal is far shorter and death is certain; I find that this should be cause for much more anxiety than what Harari suggests, but perhaps he and I have different definitions of anxiety.
However, despite what I just said, I don’t live my life in constant panic that I might die, and hopefully neither does Harari. The reason he probably doesn’t, and what he’s covertly pointing at here, is quite likely that most people have made their peace with death and don’t worry about it (or at least they don’t until they think it’s still far enough away). They simply accept that it will eventually happen and get on with their lives. On the other hand, rejuvenation would remove the existing ironclad limit on our lifespans, thereby nullifying the need for unconditioned acceptance of death. We accept death without a fight because we think it’s inevitable—caused by old age if nothing else gets us first—and any fight would be a losing battle; but with rejuvenation, things would change, and our lives could continue indefinitely, assuming that no other disease or accident terminates them. Ultimately, what Harari really is saying here is that rejuvenation would give us an uncertain hope that life might not have to end; but with hope often comes fear that what we hope for might fail to materialize, and living forever with this constant fear might be worse than living for only 80 years without it.
Certainly, for some people, this might be very true, but when you analyze both scenarios, you see that they’re not very dissimilar. What is upsetting is the knowledge that you could live for as long as you like unless something prevents you, and this is true in both cases except that, currently, you know full well that something will prevent you. If accepting this supposed inevitability is all it takes to dispel the anxiety that Harari talks about, you can easily do something similar in a post-rejuvenation world; you can accept that something might take your life, despite your best efforts to avoid it, make your peace with it, and get on with your life. After all, this is what we already do today. It’s not very likely for young people to die, but we know that it might happen. We try to prevent it, of course, but not many young people live in constant fear that something might get them early. Similarly, in a post-rejuvenation world, and assuming that we get better and better at preventing other causes of death as well, we’ll grow accustomed to the fact that dying in general is not very likely, but it still might happen. (Anyone’s probability of dying cannot be exactly zero, as it would be logically impossible for that person to die.) Again, we’ll try to avoid death as much as we can, but we won’t freak out over the fact that, one day, we might fail.
In any case, this whole “making peace with one’s mortality” business honestly sounds very much like a pretext to justify laziness in taking care of oneself. Far too many self-destructive behaviors and bad habits are justified with “Oh, well. You have to die anyway,” and I suspect that making peace with mortality may be just a nicer-sounding expression for it. After all, if death is absolutely certain no matter what, then after a certain point, our actions matter very little, and we can stop feeling responsible for what happens to ourselves. Then again, if death becomes just a possibility, suddenly “you have to die anyway” and a shrug are an even weaker comeback to “smoking is bad for you” than they already were.
Accepting mortality when the circumstances make it inescapable may provide relief; however, using this fact as an excuse for refusing to take action to change those very circumstances would be like burying our heads into the sand.
Can extreme longevity make us extremely risk averse?
It surely can, but this is neither very rational nor to be expected from the population at large. Some people might react that way, but it’s hardly going to be the norm. It is important to notice that the length of your lifespan doesn’t change your odds of dying as a consequence of a certain action in any way. Not the tiniest bit. For example, your chances of dying in a car accident at this very moment are exactly the same whether your projected lifespan is 60 years, 10,000, or infinitely many. What changes in the case of indefinite lifespans is expected loss.
Say that you’re 30, and you’re about to go to the convenience store. Say that your chances of dying after being hit by a car when you cross the street on your way there are one in a million. Whether your projected lifespan at that point was 60 years or a few centuries doesn’t change those odds; it changes the length of the life that you lose if you actually die at that point. In the first case, you lose “only” 60 years; if comprehensive, fully effective rejuvenation exists, you lose indefinitely many years.
This is the core of the risk aversion objection: an indefinite lifespan means that every time you risk your life, even though that risk is ridiculously minuscule, you risk eternity, as opposed to “just” a few decades of a currently normal lifespan. The prospect of losing so much might make some of us prefer not to take the smallest risks in order to prevent the loss.
Now, assuming that you still have some sense, it’s easy to notice that barricading yourself at home and refusing to take the most insignificant of risks for the sake of preserving your indefinitely long life kind of defeats the purpose. At that point, your life would be rather miserable and not worth living very much. Anyone with a shred of rational thinking would understand that the pleasure of taking a stroll in the park on a sunny day is well worth taking the one-in-a-trillion chance of missing out on eternity. It’s a matter of benefits against losses and how likely these are. In this example, the benefits of a nice walk are much more certain than the possibility of death, and the same applies to larger risks yet still rather negligibly risky actions, such as taking a plane to go on a holiday.
Regardless of how long you think you have left to live, whether or not you should risk your life by performing a certain action should reasonably depend on three things: the possible benefits, how much you value those benefits against the life you have left, and the magnitude of the risk. For example, as said above, under normal circumstances, taking a walk in the park is generally not particularly life threatening. Even though what you’d lose in the unlikely event of your death is eternity, odds that you will actually lose anything at all are negligible, so it’s a “risk” worth taking. (Especially as never going out has a much higher chance of driving you insane than a billion walks in the park have to kill you.) However, if the country where you reside is currently at war with another country and bombings are quite likely, it would be rather wise to give up on your daily walk to prevent being blasted apart by a bomb, and this applies pretty much regardless of your life expectancy. If you expected to live for only 60, or 10, or two years more, would you risk death just for a walk in the park? Exactly. Then again, if the life of a loved one depended on you getting out and finding them before the bombs did, you might find yourself ready to risk your life, however long you expected it could still be.
These examples illustrate a simple concept: the risk aversion concern is a silly generalization that hinges on the fragile premise that everyone would be so inconceivably irrational that they would make miserable the very lives they’re trying to protect by paranoidly avoiding the most improbable risks. If that were the case, rejuvenation would hardly be at fault for it.