PhiloMadrid - Pub Philosophy Meetings in Madrid

Saturday, May 12, 2007

from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Getting Old (essay)

Dear friends,

I finally managed to finish the draft which I am sending now in a more
or less raw form. But I think my ideas and some of the supporting
evidence I use are quite clear. A look at the references should give you
a good idea what this essay is all about. Apologies if they do not.

Apologies also for sending this essay so late.

See you soon


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Getting Old

Conventional wisdom has it that the human life span is around 125years.
There isn't a documented case which shows that a human being has lived
longer than this. In other words, if someone never suffered from a
disease, accidents or violence, they would still die from ''old age'' at
a maximum limit of 125 years. Until, that is, we come across Aubrey de
Grey who, for all intents and purposes, believes that this is all
prejudice and that it is feasible for human life to be extended to one
thousand years. More about de Grey later on.

Of course, strictly speaking, getting old has nothing to do with how old
we are, but about the process of reaching old age and being old. Based
on the type of prejudice a person happens to practice and who we are
asking, we can safely assume that for most adults, old age starts at 65
years. And although life expectancy, in the western world, hovers around
65 for men and 70 for women (BBC), this would certainly be regarded as
very old. We forget that someone reaching the age of 80years is more
entitled to be called super human, than old, considering that the vast
majority of this person's peers have long passed away. The idea of
getting old is more a function of those around us and a subjective
belief of the person. In other words, someone is old because we think
they are old, as well as what each of us think about ourselves.

Apart from meaning a biological process, getting old is also a cue for
society to change their mind set towards certain people of a certain
age. And of course this mind set brings with it certain behaviour and
certain attitudes. I would say that the expression ''getting old'' is a
kind of ground preparation for the title of ''old age'' and the ultimate
prize of death. Getting old is a sort of psychological preconditioning
which is both encouraged and self imposed.

This mindset inevitably involves prejudice, discrimination and bias
towards people who have lived longer than others. One of these
behaviours is that people have to retire around the age of 60/65. Of
course, some countries are trying to make this more flexible. But the
stigma of retirement still remains intact even if we pretend not to
notice. The message that comes with official retirement is that your
contribution to society is no longer required and certainly no longer

The age of sixty five (to use an artificial cut off point) is also
supposed to be a time when one shall also be economically independent
and self-supporting. But from the whole community very few people reach
a level of prosperity that they can maintain a similar or better
standard of living comparable to the same lifestyle as when one was
working. In other words, 65 is the age when society would start to
economically discriminate against some of its members, as well.

We mustn't also forget that those who advance in age and become frail
might have to live the rest of their limited life maybe in pain and most
certainly in undignified condition. The lucky ones might get to be cared
for in a professional and caring manner, many others have to put up with
a bureaucratically run caring system. Generally speaking, pain and
frailty are the mainstay of the old age during the last few years of
life. It seems that prejudice against old people is not only the
province of society but also nature.

Getting old is also a cue for society to marginalize a section of
society. It is not that certain organisations do not appreciate the
purchasing power and influence of some of the elderly members of
society, but that this group is not really regarded as mainstream
members of the economy any more. One hardly every reads about what old
people think about any given issue, but we do hear a lot about health
plans for the elderly, or retirement home, or off peak cruises. I mean,
how many times have you seen a scanty clad seventy year old advertising
a sports car. Irrespective of the fact that the seventy year old is
probably the only person who can afford to buy the car, in the first place.

So "getting old" is a very powerful idea that has some serious moral
implications. For example, one of the implications is whether society
has some duty to care for this group of people. We can understand this
to mean rewarding these people for the prosperity they helped create in
their society. This is an accepted idea in many countries and some even
try to do something about it. On the other hand, sometimes countries
don't prosper and might even dissent into chaos. What happens then? The
other sense of duty to care is compensation. Basically pay compensation
to this group of people because of the sacrifice and difficult life they
experienced in building their society. It is one thing to compensate
coal miners for the subsequent diseases they suffer from in later years
and compensating people as a matter of metaphysical principle. Some
would argue that this is already done any way. Others might point out
that prosperity might not have necessarily come from hard work of the
many, but the efforts of a few. For example, developing a prosperous
industry based on natural resources. Licensing mining right to a mining
company (for example an oil company drilling for petroleum) is hardly
the efforts of the masses who make it into old age. However, we
recognise that elderly people ought not to be disadvantaged.

This moral idea that elderly people ought not to be disadvantaged stems
from a moral sense we have developed over the centuries and millennia.
But how did we come to have this kind of behaviour in the first place?
How did we get to discriminate against old people in the first place? I
would suggest the following as a discussion scenario.

I would argue that we have to go back to our ancestors when they were
still hunter gatherers. In a mobile community being old (by their
standards) meant holding or slowing down the group, not to mention that
they might not have been able to contribute to the group as much as the
group required. It is easy to imagine that the older one got in a mobile
group the more chances there are of being injured or suffering from
disease which would make that person less productive. For example, it is
also easy to imagine that members of the group would have preferred that
these people became "separated" from the group. And we can interpret
"separated" how we wish, from dead to living in a separate group. It is
also easy to imagine that the individuals themselves might have
altruistically wanted to be separated from the group; if only to give
their offspring and relatives a better chance to survive. After all,
giving one's offspring and relatives a chance to survive is a valid
genetic strategy.

By the time the Neolithic community settled down and became an
agricultural society, the die had already been cast. Although the
settled community might have made better provisions for those who got
older, the instinct, intentional or not, to discriminate against older
people had not been shaken off. As an aside, we can even speculate that
maybe the reason why Neolithic^ groups began to settle down is because
the Upper Palaeolithic (or whoever) were living longer with a life
expectancy of 54 years at age 15. (Wikipedia: life expectancy) It's
natural to expect someone reaching that age would want to settle down.

But settling down as an agricultural society meant that life expectancy
was also reduced substantially due to the rise of diseases and other
factors that are associated with living in a fixed society. The Upper
Palaeolithic group had a life expectancy of 33 at birth and 54 years at
age 15. The life expectancy of Neolithic people was reduced to 20 years.
It is not until Medieval Britain that we see 33 years as a life
expectancy again. Today one of the countries with the highest life
expectancy is Andorra at 83.52years and the lowest Swaziland with 32.23
(CIA Fact Book). Some things have changed, but others have not
progressed much.

Earlier I suggested that being old in a mobile community was a hindrance
to the group and one's self. But there is no reason to suppose that
being old in an agricultural society would not be a hindrance. In an
agricultural community we can expect to see more division of labour or
at least division of tasks. Hence, unable to participate in these
activities would be just a disadvantage as unable to forage in a forest.
Hence, the instinctive implications of "getting old" have not changed.

Incidentally, the reduction of life expectancy could easily have given
rise to institutional religion who advocated mass reproduction. After
all, in the absence of a population living a long life with a certain
degree of quality of life, more lives available to do a task might just
be good enough. The other implication of settling down in to a community
is the introduction of property rights which might easily be a cause of
resentment towards this group simply because they had more time and
experience to accumulate such rights.

This is where Aubrey de Grey (and his fellow professional colleagues)
comes in. De Grey is Chairman and Chief Scientific Officer of the
Methuselah Foundation and also a member of the Cambridge
Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Ageing. For more details please
have a look at the Wikipedia entry and beyond. However, what de Grey has
to say about aging is controversial and the man himself does not come
across as just another anonymous scientist tucked away in a laboratory.
What is important for us, however, is that de Grey believes that we now
have enough medical and scientific knowledge to extend human life beyond
what we now accept what as a maximum life span; and there is nothing to
stop us from reaching a thousand years. This group of scientists (see
references below) believe that human life can be seriously extended
using medical technology, we can live an extended life normally and that
there is nothing more important than saving lives.

What this group of scientist mean by saving lives is helping some of
100,000 people who die every day from old age to live longer. Their
argument is that we know enough today to start making a difference to
this group of people. And from the new knowledge we gain we can extend
change the effects of the disease we call aging. By aging, de Grey
means, "the set of accumulated side effects from metabolism that
eventually kills us," (Wikipedia: Engineered negligible senescence).

The science behind de Grey's definition can be summed up in this
paragraph from the SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible
Senescence) web site, "Instead, the engineering (SENS) strategy is not
to interfere with metabolism per se, but to repair or obviate the
accumulating damage and thereby indefinitely postpone the age at which
it reaches pathogenic levels. This is practical because it avoids both
of the problems with the other approaches: it sidesteps our ignorance of
metabolism (because it does not attempt to interfere with metabolic
processes and their production of side-effects) but also it pre-empts
the chaos of pathology (because it repairs the precursors of pathology,
rather than addressing the pathology head-on)."

The analogy used by de Grey to describe this idea is that of a vintage
car that we see participating in vintage care rallies. The car itself
was never built to last over a hundred years, but with careful
maintenance, repair and use the car it functions normally for well over
a hundred years. As long as the car is kept in good running condition
and repairs are carried out immediately, there is no reason why the car
should not keep on working indefinitely.

This immediately brings to mind that group of paradoxes closely linked
with identity. The most popular of these paradoxes is the Ship of
Theseus (Theseus Paradox). You will remember that the ship Theseus and
the youth of Athens were travelling from Crete, on a ship that sometimes
had a rotted plank. This was replaced with new wood until all the
original material of the ship was changed. The classical philosophical
question is whether it the same ship or not? Aristotle argued that there
are four cause of a thing. As far as the design (formal cause) and the
matter something is made of (material cause) the ship is the same. It is
still a ship and still made of wood. In the extended human life case, I
think we can easily agree that it passes these two criteria. Or at
least, we are not yet bothered when metals and other materials are used
for artificial prosthesis to fix or replace bones and other parts of the
human body. Of course, some might want to argue either from religious
ground or some vested interest that humans have an in built design
function to die. Religions see death as a means to join their deity in
heaven, so the idea of living for ever might be contrary to this belief.
But this argument, I would submit, has nothing to do with the identity
paradox, but rather with what we agree to believe in. In nay case,
living longer does not mean not dying.

But what about the purpose (final cause) and how and by whom (Efficient
Cause) was the thing done? These two conditions might not be straight
forward. No doubt, the scientists who believe in extended human life
would say that the purpose of life is to be alive. So extending the life
of someone is well within-purpose. Genes from bodies already do it, so
why not bodies with genes?

On the other hand, would there be a change of identity or being in
people who lived that much longer? This question might be based on a
misunderstanding of what the extended life project is all about. Living
longer does not mean being immortal and, therefore, one can do what one
wants because one is not going to die. Living longer means being a
normal human being who happens to have been around for more years and
certainly more clever. Some have suggested that this would give rise to
some really evil dictators who will live for a long time if not for
ever? The answer is of course no; there is no reason ton suppose that
things would be different from what they are now. In any case, as far as
I can tell this project does not make dictators immune to squadrons of
B-52s bombers.

As for "how and by whom might" these might seem to be more problematic.
Today we already accept that human life can be started in a "glass test
tube" so I don't think that this is an issue anyway. Nor "by whom" since
we already allow scientist and medical professionals to manage our
bodies. We mustn't forget that the project does not propose to make new
human beings, but simply to extend the lives of those already alive. So
bed sheets and/or test tubes will still be needed to create living
beings. And we equally don't have to worry more than what we already do
about those working in the medical profession.

On a more practical argument in favour of extended human life is the
cost of ageing. In an article in The Scientist (2006; paid for article)
Olshansky et al. argue that, "Alzheimer's disease in the US alone will
increase from $80-100 billion today to more than $1 trillion in 2050."
The Mprize fund and the SENS Fund which are the main sources of finance
for research for this extended life project have to manage with the sum
total of about eight and a half million dollars. De Grey believes that
when extending life becomes a vote catching cry, governments will start
putting tax payers' money in this project. In the meantime, everyone has
to deal with and face the prejudices and vest interests. The Mprize is
given for the longest lived mouse. It is supposed to show that extending
life by a wide margin is possible. Of course, there is the little
problem that the mouse is not the ideal model if you want to apply what
one learns to human beings. The fruit fly is much better for this
purpose, but fewer people would relate to a fruit fly and donate money
for this project. (Wikipedia: Mprize).

I personally have no serious opinions about whether we can live a
thousand years, although I must admit that a thousand years might come
handy if one was a serious internet surfer. However, there are two
serious implications of living longer.

The first is that living longer means that we have to take quality of
life more seriously. Living longer means having better quality life
otherwise there won't be any point in living longer. This implies that
we will have to find reasonable and rational solutions to problems we
might experience in life; knee jerk reactions and emotional outburst
might not help. Moreover, we might have to actively pursue win/win
strategies in life. It also means that the present primitive and
inhumane practice of mass reproduction will have to give way to caring
and sharing a quality life with those already alive.

I suggest that once we think quality and not quantity we would be less
inclined to engage in aggressive behaviour such as wars, crime and
bullying. One of the sources of this aggressive behaviour, I would
suggest, is that we show little respect towards each other.

The second implication of living longer is that we might finally shake
off the prejudice and bias we have towards people getting old.
Especially the language implication of this expression; getting old
should not translate into becoming useless or insignificant.

However, what ever the future holds, work and research must immediately
start with fixing individual and collective memory. I mean, when we
voted for today's topic we did not realise that it was only twenty three
months ago that we discussed "getting old" under the heading "Aging." On
our thousand year old epic journey we'll have to do better than that.

Take care


BBC: Thursday, 9 May, 2002; Life expectancy to soar

Olshansky et al. 2006 argue, for example, that the total economic cost
of Alzheimer's disease in the US alone will increase from $80-100
billion today to more than $1 trillion in 2050. /The Scientist (paid for

CIA: The World Factbook; Rank Order - Life expectancy at birth

Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence (SENS): A practical way
to cure human aging - Website of Dr. Aubrey de Grey

The Mprize-What is the Methuselah Mouse Prize?

Exploring Life Extension

Immortality Institute

1 hr 45 min 32 sec - Jan 21, 2006 <> <>

Video Link:


from Lawrence, Pub Philosophy Group, Sunday meeting: Getting Old (essay)

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