The dialectics of Lifespan: Closed, Immortal, Open

A more descriptive, but alas longer, title would be: The dialectics of Lifespan: Mortal Closed, Infinite Immortal, Mortal Open.

Introduction 

In what follows I present an intentionally dialectical thought process of mine. Although it’s my first such explicit attempt, it’s been in the making for a while, so first does not mean immature or naive [1].

My philosophical education and willingness prepared me to express myself using the techniques and manners of analytical philosophy. But it also gave me plenty exposure to other traditions of philosophy. Dialectics has a pretty ancient, and as such, dignified, ancestry within Western-style philosophy, starting explicitly with Plato’s version of back-and-forth dialogue between usually Socrates and his partners in dialogue. In this post the main concern is a dialectic process extracted from Hegel by more contemporary philosophers of the analytical school.

By introducing a dialectical process concerning how our human lifespan can be considered in 3 different ways what I aim to gain are the following 3 features evoking reactions from the readers: 

  • Heuristic as an epistemological a-ha experience: by showing Open Lifespan through the lens of other, contradicting or opposing concepts
  • Existential Reality Check on what’s possible and feasible.
  • Political Message to instigate turning the Existential Reality check into a political expression by providing some of the heuristic.

What is not aimed here is to use the dialectical process as a distinctive method, as opposed to default analytical tools, and as having its own explanatory import. I believe that all dialectical processes present in philosophy, can be expressed in simple analytical means, devoid of this extra clothing, even if it means a reinterpretation of the ingredient concepts. On the other hand, I don’t claim, and stay neutral, whether all analytically presented concepts or arguments can be turned into dialectical processes.

What is a dialectical thought process?

A dialectical thought process is triggered by characterising different contradictions or seeming paradoxes related to one particular concept or question. Then it involves establishing an ordering between them, laying out them in a sequence where the contradictions and oppositions appear in stages, like part of an evolution. For 3 stages one needs at least 2 sets of binary contradictions or oppositions. 

In The Dialectic of Labour in Marx GA Cohen introduces the dialectic method and does so in a manner that is entirely suitable for analytic philosophers [2]. The focus is on the Hegelian variant, because that was the one influencing Marx deeply, triggering mimicking on his part.

A dialectical process consists of, or progresses through, a triad of consecutive steps and oftentimes involves a triad of concepts. It’s usually framed from an epistemological-cognitive point of view and as such that involves a subject thinking on an object subject is related to, up to a state of complete identification with it.

2 Hegelian examples provided by Cohen are:

i., Hegel’s theory of knowledge and the epistemological ascent in threes stages. 

Stage 1: Sensous consciousness does not separate itself from the world, no distinction between boundaries of the experienced and the experiencer. Merging without distinction. Blending in.

Stage 2: Understanding analyses the world and makes an absolute distinction between the understanding subject and its object.

Stage 3: Reason maintains distinctions of the previous stage but recognises deeper relations and unities of subject and object.

ii., A more down-to-earth and obviously temporally progressing example is of marriage

Stage 1: Married couple feel their interests and purposes are identical. Acting in unity.

Stage 2: Distinction sweeps in, primary fusion is discontinued, individuality is recognised.

Stage 3: New unity is established with individualities and differences maintained.

Cohen extracts and labels the 3 stages of a dialectical process as following to give it a scheme, made out of 2 linked variables, differentiating and uniting acting on different levels of the process.

Stage 1: Undifferentiated unity

Stage 2: Differentiated disunity

Stage 3: Differentiated unity

The dialectics of Lifespan

Now we attempt to show the dialectics of 3 different human lifespan scenarios and how they form a thought process.

The starting point of the exercise is to consider our subject, the individuals representing individual human lives and considering the expected and possible (maximum) length of those lives, the actual individual lifespans as their objects.

The three stages are:

  1. Closed Lifespan
  2. Infinite Immortality
  3. Indefinite, Open Lifespan 

Let’s elaborate on these 3 stages by providing summaries on them mixing different aspects. This description is not yet organised as to show why are these 3 different stages, but prepares the dialectical account.

Closed Lifespan

It is a possible world that is our actual world today, our current, mortal and naturally capped Closed Lifespan. A daily, non-zero mortality rate, that increases with age and provides us with statistical understanding of our individual life expectancies. It is the world where biological aging runs wild, and leading to us living the last decades of our lives fighting with numerous age-associated diseases and compromising our life plans. It’s everything there is.

Infinite Immortality

This is an ancient, imaginative scenario, in which we don’t die at all but stick around, infinitely. This scenario is a biomedically impossible one as it operates with a zero mortality rate and defies and denies the possibility of death. This latter point of view, called ‘sub specie aeternitatis’ has strong backings within the classical philosophical tradition. It’s everything there isn’t.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

Here we consider Open Life as a possible world, where Open Healthspan Technologies are developed and accessible enough that all people can choose to go through continuous interventions to counteract the biological aging process and have a fixed, small but nonzero mortality rate due to external causes of death.

Open Lifespan is open-ended, indefinite healthy lifespan, ‘Open Life’ is a life lived with Open LifespanOpen Lifespan is based on Open Healthspan a technological possibility to counteract ongoing biological aging processes in the human body, to keep age-associated functional decline and increasing mortality continuously at bay. It’s everything that’s possible. 

Now I proceed to order these 3 into stages along the line of 5 different aspects: 

  • Scientific/Technological
  • Modal/Ontological/Metaphysical
  • Cognitive/Epistemological/Psychological
  • Historical
  • Political

I. Scientific-Technological aspect -> different technological scenarios

Closed Lifespan

Scientific (and everyday’s common) understanding’s starting point is actual reality. In case of human lifespan it’s Closed Lifespan. Technological advances to counteract biological aging and yield health- and lifespan benefits are taking current scientific understanding on existing biological features as their default currency.

Infinite Immortality

Evaluating scientific possibility and technological feasibility of an intended medical intervention is a notoriously hard problem. The route to realisation is usually full with failures. Think about the current COVID-19 vaccine making efforts. Will it work, when, how long will it last…? 

Assessing the range of opportunities that might be available to us, finding the boundary between what’s scientifically possible and technologically feasible includes thinking of scenarios on both sides of the boundary. This means that one scenario will be the upper limiting possible and feasible scenario and the other one, the other side of the boundary, will be the lower limit impossible and infeasible scenario. Beyond that domain lies an infinite amount of increasingly impossible scenarios.

Achieving immortality for biological humans is such an infeasible and impossible scenario. Am not going to come up here with a thorough modal argumentation on proving impossibility (but am open for the challenge), but instead hint at one explanatory point. 

Unfortunately biologists themselves provided fuel for common imagination by using the term ‘biological immortality’, applying to lower level animals like hydra, jellyfish showing fixed or decreasing mortality rates with aging. But applying the term ‘biological immortality to biological cases of negligible aging is misleading and conceptually confusing. For it ignores ‘external’ mortality events and thermodynamics. It does a thought experiment in which the biological organism, and in our case the human body is either a thermodynamically closed system, that can exchange energy but not matter with its surroundings, or worse, an isolated system, that can exchange neither energy, nor matter with its surroundings. And that is wrong on so many levels. With this counterfactual and counter-physics possible world it makes case for ‘biological immortality’. But once this concept is sold as consistent it might give rise to technological scenarios aiming to achieve a similar feat in case of humans. Realising that this won’t do, some biologists switched to just using the term ‘bio-indefinite mortality’ and this exactly what the Open Lifespan scenario refers to.

One more thing before we switch to stage 3. I think that the transhumanist mind uploading immortality scenarios do belong to the same impossible and infeasible stage 2, falling to the outer side of the feasibility boundary. But I don’t need to argue for that here.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

How far can we extend healthy life expectancy? Can we possibly break the maximum human lifespan barrier? If yes, when are we going to hit the next roadblock, if ever? Please note that these questions usually take the form of modal questions, asking about the practical possibility, the feasibility of some science intensive technological scenario.

What are the components of this particular challenge in terms of science?

On one hand, we have now an almost comprehensive list of the major hallmarks of the aging process (or perhaps use the plural: ‘agings’) thanks to breakthrough research accumulated in the last decades[3]. These insights are mostly based on studies in model organisms, where every such hallmark process was manifested during normal aging, its experimental aggravation accelerated, while its experimental amelioration delayed some agings phenotype measure and increased healthy lifespan. For C.elegans, the nematode worm, there’s 10-fold increase in lifespan. For Drosophila, it’s 2-fold. For a mouse it’s only 20-30% increase in median lifespan, not in terms of maximum longevity [4]. As for humans, the evaluation of this technological possibility is largely informed by growing demographic data on the malleability of the default aging process happening inside us in the wild. This so-called shifting mortality scenario informs us that ‘old-age survival follows an advancing front, like a travelling wave’[5]. (Resonating personally, old people always seemed as pioneers to me, operating at the expanding wavefront of the living.)

The current pace of biogerontological and related relevant research, be it regenerative medicine, genetic studies or senotherapetuic trials aiming to minimise cellular senescence, is breathtaking, every other week we have a major paper published, and a sensationalist title propagated into mainstream media and given its due hype. (This section is still applicable, despite the pandemic).

On the other hand, the scientific details of these processes are just being hashed out and it is not even clear that the list is exhaustive or there’s a chance for a so far unknown hallmark process to emerge later. Another important point is the lack of a quantitative model or simulation able to predict the aggregated human lifespan effect of different sequences of consecutive and hypothetical interventions counteracting and even reset the ongoing hallmark processes of biological aging. No wonder: computationally handling ~40 trillion human cells, comprising the average human body (plus our holobiontic permanent guests, the human microbiome) and their continuous mitotic trajectories; well that scientific paradigm is just not here yet [although I’ve recently tried to make a scientific case concerning those mitotic trajectories, please see. Hoping for a single miracle drug is naive and indeed unlikely, but now data has started to pour in from polypill approaches and different versions of synergy, the beneficent ways of combination treatments on lifespan are being uncovered [6].

Now that we have regained Stage 1’s mortality in a new light we can say, that while an open-ended, indefinite life is mortal, it is not essentially bounded, nor infinite. It is what it is: indefinite. It is uncertain, as we just don’t know how far biomedical science and technology can push human lifespan. Just because we don’t know the bounds, it does not mean it is boundless and we can still die in any minute due to external circumstances, giving us a non-zero probability of dying any day, just like in our current, all-too-familiar Closed Lifespan.

II. Modal-Ontological-Metaphysical aspect

Closed Lifespan

This is the actual possible world, the centre of all the possible worlds multiverse for the indexically inclined.

Infinite Immortality

This is the farthest away from the actual world, a borderline impossible world. Better to think of it as an isolated world, with no accessibility relations to the graph of possible worlds.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

This is the Upper Limit possible world for humanity based on Homo Sapiens as a biological species in terms of lifespan, the highlighted anthropological, moral, political centre of Open Lifespan Philosophy. Please see elaboration in these 3 posts.

III. Cognitive-Epistemological aspect -> individual Psychological trajectory

This is the aspect where I’d like to put GA Cohen’s characterisation at work explicitly. I’m going to use first person perspective to highlight subject’s thinking. And am going to add general, third person comments to them, except Open Lifespan, where I maintain first person, indicating my own position and experience.

Closed Lifespan

Undifferentiated unity: I am the same as my current biologically and culturally expected life trajectory. I die, no matter what, and my lifespan is obviously, ‘naturally’ capped. I am captured, engulfed by this thought, and I see no way out.

This stage represents the total, uncritical acceptance of the biologically and culturally given, and as such does not require extra cognitive effort.

Infinite Immortality

Differentiated disunity: I completely detach from my current biological life and given, maximised lifespan and life expectancy and I differentiate myself from it. I don’t think of myself as mortal, but quite the opposite. I am able to do this due to different considerations, that I thought up myself naively or finding the thought transferred to me by different cultural traditions. For instance I figured out that I have an immortal soul and also this view us supported by a long religious tradition and a sizeable chunk of the currently living people.My soul is my lifebuoy (my agency signpost) in the cold ocean of nothing. Or I follow a much less frequented but more elitistic and intellectually privileged thinking and I am positive that computer science, AI research will be able to create a digital version of me that can continue my identity no problem once my physical body has given into all the thing I’ve completely detached myself from.

This stage involves the complete, binary rejection of the biologically given, by removing its relevance from the point of view of the person and their survival. Instead of tackling the problem head on, it transforms (or just simply morphs) it into a completely different, non-biological domain. The rejection is uncritical, non-reflective and as such does not require extra cognitive effort beyond the effort needed to reject Stage 1.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

Differentiated unity. I accept being absolutely mortal, but also am well aware that scientifically/technologically we can achieve practically indefinite lifespans with an uncertain range on the indefinite. In order to do this I need to put most of my agency to help us be on this continuous life expectancy gain trajectory. I have no problem self-imagining myself in the distant future, although it requires a lot of getting used to and accepting the ambiguity and uncertainty to reach this stage. To show the balancing act it requires to keep Open Lifespan alternative cognitively and psychologically together, I’m using 2 terms now to grab the 2 opposing faces of indefinite Open Lifespan at a price of being mathematically a bit sloppy with these concepts. ‘Indefiniteness’ is used to denote the feature of Open Lifespan that is shared with Stage 1, ‘finiteness’ understood commonly as obviously mortal, in the context of fragile biomedical human lives.

Indefinity’ is used to denote the feature of Open Lifespan that is shared with ‘infinity’, with Stage 2, it’s open-endedness, a bound unknown. 

 I call ‘Indefinity-ness’ when these 2 features of Open Lifespan are  highlighted at the same time to capture the ambiguity of this human condition. Not a paradox, not a dilemma but a simple in-betweenness, a non-binary. A third stage. Open Lifespan is a radical way of departing from our current experience and yet, it’s going to provide ample opportunity to preserve our current experience.

IV. Historical aspect

Closed Lifespan

The complete given actuality, the world of closed, capped, and short lifespan was the starter for humanity as a biological species and then as a society and stayed that one ever since despite all the advances in life expectancy. 

Infinite Immortality

The different impossible and infeasible reactions trying to go well beyond Stage 1, based on an opposing gut reaction to it, has been in the repertoire of different religions for quite a while. Immortal souls. Also alchemists looking for the elixir of life, conquistador types desperately searching for the fountain of youth. 20th century transhumanists. Yuval Noah Harari misframing the whole problem here by calling it immortality. Everybody walking into the Immortality Trap.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

This is the actual scenario aging/longevity researchers, scientists and the longevity industry are working on right now. Even if they don’t know it, don’t say it, or do not acknowledge it, that’s what they do. In the long term. 🙂 All the building blocks they erect now goes into the building of Open Lifespan.

To frame it less ambitiously, and more humbly, we push the lifespan scenario as far as we can.

This is the path that has been actually opened up due to the results accumulated in the last 3 decades of biological research. The only difference is that finally we have now a more fine-tuned philosophical conceptualisation of it in the form of Open Lifespan. And that makes the case for a strong, clear and honest political formulation, devoid of misunderstanding, misleading and the inherited loads of the past.

V. Political aspect

Closed Lifespan

Almost all current ruling politics and ideology is built upon and is shortsighted by either Stage 1 Closed Lifespan or Stage 2 Immortality. This includes all parts of the politics spectrum. Most people are still unexposed to the malleability of the biological aging process and the new knowledge around the chances for comprehensive longevity interventions is very unevenly distributed. 

Infinite Immortality

Any kind of ideology supporting any kind of immortality is in this camp. Any kind of ideology opposing lifespan extension efforts belong here as well. So people opposing lifespan extension efforts on religious grounds and proposing immortal souls. Transhumanists supporting lifespan extension efforts aiming to achieve ‘immortality’, framing their political doctrine on the false binary opposition of mortality vs immortality.

Indefinite, Open Lifespan

Every politics before/besides Open Lifespan inspired Longevity Politics is  pre-politics. Longevity Politics is the single-issue politics that puts individual human health into the immovable centre of politics and makes it the necessary condition for most other political issues and sufficient condition for some political issues. If we are not on the longevity trajectory, we should make every effort to go back, if we are on the trajectory we need to cover the miles faster. This is the path. No other way. 🙂

Exit, that is an Intro

There’s no exit from Open Lifespan philosophy, there’s only an intro to it. It’s going to be with humanity as long as there’s prospects in increasing healthy life expectancy. It’s going to be raising new and new questions, problems and it’s going to provide countless angles to re-interpret existing philosophical traditions. 

But to sum up:

  • By showing the Closed, Immortal, Open Lifespan dialectical sequence from 5 different aspects and lights am offering a heuristic as an epistemological a-ha experience to show the Open Life possible world through the lens of earlier conflicting concepts.
  • The dialectical format serves as an Existential Reality Check on what’s possible and feasible.
  • It can be also used as a Political Message to instigate turning the Existential Reality Check into a political expression by providing some of the heuristic.

Notes

[1] There’s been some ingredients already prepared throughout the Open Lifespan investigations so far, am thinking about the concepts of indefinity and indefiniteness that I used to represent 2 opposing features of Open Lifespan apropos of reading Timothy Morton’s Hyperobjects.

[2] History, Labour and Freedom: Themes from Marx (Clarendon Paperbacks) Paperback – 1 April 1989 Chapter 12, p183-208.

[3] López-Otín C, Blasco MA, Partridge L, Serrano M, Kroemer G. The hallmarks of aging. Cell. 2013 Jun 6;153(6):1194-217. PMID: 23746838

[4] This interview below with Judith Campisi was the initial trigger behind writing this piece and am using her quick recap on lifespan fold difference results

[5] Zuo W, Jiang S, Guo Z, Feldman MW, Tuljapurkar S. Advancing front of old-age human survival. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2018 Oct 30;115(44):11209-11214. PMID: 30327342

[6] Admasu TD, Chaithanya Batchu K, Barardo D, Ng LF, Lam VYM, Xiao L, Cazenave-Gassiot A, Wenk MR, Tolwinski NS, Gruber J. Drug Synergy Slows Aging and Improves Healthspan through IGF and SREBP Lipid Signaling. Dev Cell. 2018 Oct 8;47(1):67-79.e5. PMID: 30269951.