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How to Communicate the Life Extension Agenda

Posted: Fri, August 09, 2013 | By: Indefinite Life Extension

​By: Peter Wicks

As technology progresses, it is becoming increasingly clear that radical life extension is a real possibility. Not everyone is happy about this, and not everyone is even aware of it, but some of us are, and would like it to happen sooner rather than later.

Nobody knows exactly how radical life extension will be achieved, but one thing seems clear: the more people who act with the intention of making it happen, the more quickly it will happen. So an obvious question to ask is how we can get more people to act with the intention of bringing about radical life extension.

In other words, how should we go about communicating the life extension agenda?

“Anyone Who Disagrees Is a Deathist”

One approach is to ridicule opponents of radical life extension, for example by branding them as ‘deathists’. While it is easy to deplore such an approach, I do not actually believe it is without merit. Given the extent to which political discourse is in any case characterized largely by an exchange of insults, one might as well at least ensure that they are being deployed to a good cause. However, I hope it is also clear to everyone that merely insulting people (and this is what we are doing when we call people ‘deathists’) does not add up to an effective communication strategy.

“Why do we want radical life extension anyway?”

A better approach might be to ask ourselves why we want radical life extension to happen sooner rather than later. And this can be a surprisingly challenging question. For many of us, it might seem self-evident that anyone who is not basically in denial of their own yearning for immortality, or enthralled by religious or other delusions involving some kind of after-life, will want to live forever. But this case has not been proven, at least not to my satisfaction. While the self-preservation instinct is clearly one of the most powerful motivational drivers that we have, the mere existence of suicide demonstrates that it can be overcome. Furthermore, the drive to survive is not a result of logical reasoning: it is a result of natural selection, along with other, less salubrious instincts, such as our penchant for insulting each other. It is not clear to me what overriding reason in logic we have to want to survive.

And then there is the issue of identity. Psychologists know that individual identity is essentially an illusion, a story told to us by our minds, which helps us to operate effectively in the world (and which thus helped our ancestors pass on their genes), but which doesn’t correspond to reality in any convincing way. At a physical level, human beings can perhaps best be thought of as dissipative systems, essentially forms that appear—and then disappear—as by-products of the relentless march of life (which is to say biology). In reality, we have no more reason to identify with our future selves than with the tree outside our window.

A somewhat more practical consideration might be that this yearning for immortality, even if it to some extent exists in everyone, and even if many objections to radical life extension are clearly related to a psychological denial of this yearning, is likely to be stronger in some than in others, and is capable of being outweighed by other considerations. So perhaps a generic answer to the question, “Why do I want radical life extension to happen sooner rather than later?” might be, “Because I have a particularly strong survival instinct, and/or lack good (personal) reasons to want to override it.” An important point here is that by formulating this type of answer to the question, we recognize the essential subjectivity of our desire for life extension, and thus we legitimize, rather than delegitimizing, the preference of some to delay or even prevent radical life extension. And that, I believe, is likely to help our cause, rather than hinder it.

There are, of course, strong arguments in favor of radical life extension that do not depend only on our own personal, individual motivations. Two particularly strong ones, in my view, involve choice and morbidity. Put simply, the choice argument is that while people might legitimately prefer to limit their own life-spans, they have no right to impose that on everyone else by opposing the research that is required in order to achieve radical life extension. The morbidity argument is the championed by Aubrey De Grey: if we want to prevent the awfulness of age-related diseases, then we need to tackle the underlying problem, which is aging. Radical life extension, according to this latter argument, needs to happen sooner rather than later not as an end in itself, but because it is an inevitable consequence of the steps that need to be taken in order to vanquish age-related disease.

Empathy helps us to communicate, and acknowledging doubt helps us to empathize.

At this point, the reader may perhaps be wondering what any of this has to do with communication. Perhaps we have clarified our reasons for wanting radical life extension to happen sooner rather than later (and perhaps the reader will have come to very different conclusions than mine), but how is this supposed to help us to communicate effectively?

The answer to this question, in my view, is that in order to communicate effectively, we need to empathize with those we seek to convince, and to understand how they see the world. And it is always easier to empathize with those with whom we disagree if we are clear in our own minds about why we disagree. Indeed, my own suspicion is that most people who employ the ‘deathist’ slur, or otherwise express shock and outrage regarding the essential wickedness of people who don’t share our agenda, are in reality mainly attacking their own unacknowledged and unresolved doubts about the issue. Better to acknowledge our doubts and think through our reasons for supporting life extension. Then we will be able to see clearly to understand why not everyone shares our view, and develop effective strategies for convincing those who can be convinced (and avoid wasting time on those who can’t).

In summary, while ridiculing those who are opposed to radical life extension may be effective as a tactic to be deployed in the context of a discourse that has in any case become vitriolic, the risk involved in deploying such tactics is that it becomes a mask for our own doubts, and we fail to develop the understanding we need in order to actually convince people. By contrast, by accepting that the desirability of radical life extension is not a self-evident truth, but rather (at its best) a possible conclusion of a process of honest self-reflection, we will develop the self-confidence and peace of mind to understand the motivations and beliefs of those who disagree, and we will become much more effective at convincing those who can be convinced.

And that, in turn, is likely to make radical life extension happen sooner rather than later.


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