Human beings have always died. Death has been invariable and guaranteed. For all aeons death was more or less the default outcome of life for any human being, with some variations in life expectancy, state of relative affluence and destitution, exposure to disease and infirmity. In other words – humans lived a few decades and then got sick and old and died. The term most commonly associated with this was captured in the book Leviathan describing the human state; “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.
I might argue there is a certain comfort in the realization that you are going to inescapably get old and die, and probably get miserable and sick along the way. Predestination creates certainty, even if it entails an apathetic form of certainty. Many people just resign in the realization they will die as such people will live and let it happen, much as the average people resigns in a placid state of “whatever” when are in the middle of experiencing a plane crash.
Putting it in the most extreme manner – most people who were ferried in to the gas chambers in the Nazi concentration camps went willingly and without uttering a protest. They knew they were almost certainly done for, and their misery would be over quickly. They didn’t resist much, typically, and aside from some crying they didn’t put up a fight as they were marched in to the extermination showers.
Sadly, whatever we do, this strange transition called Death is inescapably probable in the long run. We have at most a century of existence, most of which has always been preordained to be spent infirm and dependent. So why make existence miserable for the last few years or days or minutes you do in fact have left? Fear and misery tends to be a lot more unpleasant than stoic resignation. This phenomenon is well described by Aubrey de Grey as he refers to the “death trance” where most people when described they might experience the benefits of “robust” life extension rather not want to think about the whole idea, let alone accept it.
The idea of immortality is a threatening concept for most people. At best they wouldn’t mind living “a bit longer”, but most people are quick to offer extensive lists of other people who rather not live forever. Receiving the mere message that “you might live a few centuries” is that this potentiality (no matter how remote) shakes people from the resignation that death is inescapable. The message itself hurts. The mere potential for intellectual affirmation that “very soon” medical science might extend life by years, decades, centuries or “indefinite” is not met with joy. The message that in fact “you might not have to die” because of age or age-related diseases, is for many people an unwelcome message. The message in itself leads to insistent denunciation, not because of the relative merits of the message being implausible (or fanciful, ridiculous) of the message itself. In fact, the more we insist the more a large subset of people “won’t have this”. They won’t want it for themselves, their loved ones or want life extension outlawed for most everyone else as well.
The mere possibility of life extension causes anxiety in people who hear of it, and the more plausible the revelation, the more people will want to “punish” the messenger.
In death there is peace. Death is experienced as a liberation. In the developed world Death signifies the ultimate state of tranquility. In death lies the ultimate palliative state of nonexistence. Beyond death we are liberated from all forms of force represented in life. In death we don’t have to take responsibility any more. In the state of death we either relinquish (consign to) our state of constant demands to the externalized dictates of a deity (or alternatively to some karmic state of externality), respectively we don’t have to care at all as we simply stop experiencing and existing.
For many people life is acutely unsatisfying. For them there is a certain relief in death. Life comes with heart-ache, poverty, frustration, disease, pain and loneliness. Life comes with taxes and rules.
So aside from seeing “a very large glass with some water in the bottom” (death), the relative promise of life extension is experienced as “a very large glass with vinegar”. People will, because of the inherent pessimist bestowed to them in the prospect of “a longer life”, make a mental arrhythmic and reject a life “lasting many centuries”. Many centuries signifies the potential for more of the misery “they are already familiar with”.
In the 21st century aging will be conquered. If we are as a species unlucky the treatments will be expensive for decades and many humans will have to take mortgages and work very hard (make large personal sacrifices) to obtain various forms of life extension treatments. Many will not want to to have these treatments, even if they could in theory afford them. We can label people that would reject actual (proven) life extension technologies as “defectors”.
Alternatively to defection (from the option of accepting and working towards life extension) they will also be people who will denounce life extension. For instance, current Catholic pope Benedict the 16th has spoken in disparaging terms on various forms of “intervention in the natural state of human existence”, and he seems to include the ambition to implement robust life extension in this list.
There is a task resigned for pioneers. As as my firm conviction, Life Extension will become a technological possibility somewhere in the 21st century, as a result of gradual maturation of medical and other technologies. I do not personally anticipate being in time to personally experience (let alone be able to afford) these treatments, but if I would in fact have the option I would most certainly welcome these treatments. I regard myself as one of a relatively small fraction of human beings who would, and in that regard I label myself a pioneer.
In the long run the majority of human beings will get over their dread and will come to regard “life extension” as absolutely normal. Any reflection on this possibility should make all people currently alive (and of the age they may potentially be beneficiaries of such treatments) come to terms with their own fears of life. But even if my insistence would be “none of my business” (These people might regard me as rude to make such suggestions) I also remind these people who reject the very idea of life extension, that their loved ones and children will suffer considerable heartache and miss them.
So, a small choice in this area may bring some decades of elevated existential fear (will I make it or won’t I make it!?) but if you end up making the wrong choice (and simply give up) those left behind will potentially experience centuries of existence bereft of your love and companionship.