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Australian philosopher, literary critic, and professional writer. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Arguing about biological immortality

I owe an account of why I am slightly sceptical about an argument offered by Aubrey de Grey, who has defended the strong claim that there is a moral imperative to "cure" the process of human aging. (I'll henceforth drop the scare quotes around the word "cure", but I intend to signal that I am well aware of the controversies that surround whether the word is apt in this context.)

Last time I blogged about this, I received a couple of responses - one castigating me for buying into de Grey's argument and terminology at all, and one for expressing any scepticism about it. Well, you can't please everyone. For the record, my aim is to examine the argument as objectively as I can. Yes, I do take it seriously, but, no, I will not examine it uncritically. Too much is at stake in the debate for me to be other than strictly objective, to the extent that the human condition allows.

My paraphrase of the full argument is set out in a post dated 2 April 2006.

By the end of this post, I will still owe a proper account of what doesn't entirely convince me, but I'll have made a start. My main purpose at this stage is to take a first stab at getting the logic of the argument clear. This will help us see where, if anywhere, it might be vulnerable to attack. It may also help us see whether better formulations of the argument possible - perhaps my formulation does not do de Grey justice, or perhaps it is possible for him to do some further shoring up.

In what follows I will attempt to strip the argument to its logical bones. Stripped back, then, it seems to involve a main argument supported by several sub-arguments to ground its main premises. I think the total argument looks something like this:

Sub-argument one

P1.1. If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then biomedical science will develop technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging.

P1.2. If biomedical science develops technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging, those technologies will be widely used.

P1.3. If biomedical technologies capable of stopping, and possibly reversing, the process of aging are widely used, then at least some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

C1. If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

Sub-argument two

P2.1. (C1.) If we provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some human persons will have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

P2.2. If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then some of those human persons will not have their lives extended beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

C2. If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then we will fail to extend the lives of some human persons beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

Sub-argument three

P3.1. There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person against that person's will and failing to save the life of such a person.

P3.2. There is no morally salient distinction between saving the life of a human person and extending the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

C3. There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person and failing to extend the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Sub-argument four

P.4.1. It is morally impermissible to shorten the life of a human person against that person's will.

P4.2. (C3.) There is no morally salient distinction between shortening the life of a human person and failing to extend the life of such a person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

C4. It is morally impermissible to fail to extend the life of a human person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Main argument

P1. (C2.) If we do not provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, then we will fail to extend the lives of some human persons beyond what would otherwise have been their duration.

P2. (C4.) It is morally impermissible to fail to extend the life of a human person beyond what would otherwise have been its duration.

Conclusion. If we do not to provide substantial funding for radical anti-aging research, we act in a way that is morally impermissible.


Where, if anywhere, does this go wrong?

As far as I can see the argument is deductively valid. More accurately, if it is technically invalid at any point, I believe that the problem could be repaired by introducing a few plausible conceptual and empirical claims. For example, we could plausibly stipulate, as a conceptual claim, that we "fail" to bring about a result that would have taken place if and only if we had acted in a way that was a reasonable option for us. We could also stipulate that providing funding for radical anti-aging research is something that is a reasonable option for us. Off-hand, I can see no problems of logic that look irreparable.

Moreover, I suggest that the premises of sub-arguments one and two should all be accepted, for the sake of discussion at least. Even if there are doubts about the likelihood that radical anti-aging research will ever be successful in its ambitions, it seems to me to be worthwhile scrutinising the argument on the assumption that de Grey is justified in his optimism about this empirical issue.

I conclude that any real difficulties will have to be found in the premises introduced within sub-arguments three and four: i.e., premises 3.1. 3.2., and 4.1. However, all of those premises seem to have a great deal that could be said for them. Premise 4.1., essentially the claim that killing a human person is morally wrong, may be too broad, but the most plausible exceptions to it, such as cases of voluntary euthanasia, are not obviously salient to the discussion. Perhaps the premise can be weakened in some ways without the argument collapsing. Premises 3.1. and 3.2. may be controversial, but they may seem almost axiomatic within some moral theories. In short, it will not be straightforward to reject any of these premises.

In a later post, however, I will consider whether 3.1., 3.2., and 4.1 form a mutually consistent set. It looks as if there are some internal tensions among those premises, and that something may have to give. From the viewpoint of my own sceptical (or "experiential" as per Dershowitz) moral theory, these three premises may be open to doubt in any event.

That said, even if we reject one or more of these three key premises, we may still be left with a perfectly good argument to fund research intended to extend human longevity. That is not quite the same as an argument for radical anti-aging research designed to reverse aging or at least stop it totally. We'll track through these complexities when I come back to the argument in a later post.