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Mortality as a Metaphysical Fact?

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Faye
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This question came up for me in another thread. Does it go against Objectivist principles to accept that we will all die someday? It seems to me that our mortality is a metaphysical fact. I want to stress that this doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for indefinite life spans or to cure diseases. I'm merely asking about the fact that we all can die.

-Faye

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AFAIK, the only reason it would go against Objectivist principles is that it contradicts reality. So you merely need to ask whether or not it is man's nature to be mortal in either the conditional or terminal senses. It is certain that man's life is conditional; man is not invincible; one can, for example, be fatally injured at any time. It is also certain that man's life is terminal; aging cannot be stopped. So yes, mortality is a fact and you should accept it.

Edited by Seeker
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This question came up for me in another thread. Does it go against Objectivist principles to accept that we will all die someday?
What do you mean by "accept" here?

As technology stand today, we will all die someday. So, today, if we assume that we will stay alive forever, that would be false. At the same time, one can assume that it's possible for humans to change this with the right technology, and work toward this.

Take a different example. Roll time back 500 years and ask: can man fly? Do we accept that we cannot fly? In a sense, yes: in the sense that we should not be jumping off church spires, flapping our arms. In another sense, no -- as we know, today people fly all the time. In essence, the question, "can man fly" is not a philosophical one. Similarly, the question "must men die" is not a philosophical one. It is true that the latter is such a fundamental, that it would impact an extremely broad range of human action. Still, at it's core, it's a question of medical science.

That man could not fly (in any sense of the term) was once a fact. The full statement from centuries ago should have been something like: with the current state of technology, men have not figured out how to fly. Similarly, with the current state of technology, men have not figured out how to extend their lives indefinitely.

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What do you mean by "accept" here?

As technology stand today, we will all die someday. So, today, if we assume that we will stay alive forever, that would be false. At the same time, one can assume that it's possible for humans to change this with the right technology, and work toward this.

Take a different example. Roll time back 500 years and ask: can man fly? Do we accept that we cannot fly? In a sense, yes: in the sense that we should not be jumping off church spires, flapping our arms. In another sense, no -- as we know, today people fly all the time. In essence, the question, "can man fly" is not a philosophical one. Similarly, the question "must men die" is not a philosophical one. It is true that the latter is such a fundamental, that it would impact an extremely broad range of human action. Still, at it's core, it's a question of medical science.

That man could not fly (in any sense of the term) was once a fact. The full statement from centuries ago should have been something like: with the current state of technology, men have not figured out how to fly. Similarly, with the current state of technology, men have not figured out how to extend their lives indefinitely.

I would require some definite evidence from the medical sciences before holding that indefinite lifespans are possible. The principle is that the particularity of the evidence must match the particularity of the claim it is intended to support. So, for instance, the fact that man learned to fly doesn't supply the specific evidence needed to hypothesize about lifespan extension. Unless such specific evidence is supplied, I would hold such claims to be arbitrary and unworthy of consideration. For example, I could assume that with the right technology, I could teleport to distant galaxies. Unfortunately, since there is no evidence that such technology might exist, working towards it would be irrational. I guess I'm holding out for some citation of something that would at least hint in some significant way that indefinite lifespans are, in fact, possible before I commit to a lifetime of working towards that end (you know, something about stem cells or DNA repair techniques or extending telomeres, which I know next to nothing about).

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What do you mean by "working toward it"? A scientist who tries to figure out the mechanism of aging is "working toward it". Is that irrational?

You said, "one can assume that it's possible for humans to change this with the right technology, and work toward this." I want to know the basis in reality of such an assumption, and I don't want something general like "it is the nature of man to shape his environment" - which won't get you from here to Andromeda. That we can understand aging was not the assertion. That we can change it was. This is a particular claim, and I contend that it requires equally particular evidence.

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I assume you agree that it fine for a scientist to be building on the available knowledge of processes of agin, and trying to figure out how to change those processes. Therefore, I assume that in the following...

You said, "one can assume that it's possible for humans to change this with the right technology, and work toward this."
...your primary objection is that "assume" is too strong a word, and that something else is required... say "hypothesize"?

I'm trying to understand if your objection is about the philosophical approach to this or to the fact that people are working to understand processes of aging (and change them).

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A scientist who tries to figure out the mechanism of aging is "working toward it".
That may be true in some instance, but it's not a universal truth. Some scientists have particular technological implementations of ideas as their long-range goal, but others work for the joy of solving some puzzle. When you integrate your new-found knowledge of the nature of aging with what you generally know about biochemistry, then you might conclude that extending lifespan in a particular way is possible (based on fact -- if the facts warrant the conclusion). I would say that it's not a rational for a researcher to have as his goal extending human life to 500 years. If your research on cell degeneration yields that as a side-effect, cool -- but a 500 year lifespan is not at present a rational scientific goal.
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I assume you agree that it fine for a scientist to be building on the available knowledge of processes of agin, and trying to figure out how to change those processes. Therefore, I assume that in the following... ...your primary objection is that "assume" is too strong a word, and that something else is required... say "hypothesize"?

I'm trying to understand if your objection is about the philosophical approach to this or to the fact that people are working to understand processes of aging (and change them).

I think my difficulty lies in understanding the cognitive role of assumptions. To me, it could mean either "non-arbitrary assertion, based in fact" or "wish, disconnected from reality". I certainly agree with the part about building on available knowledge, provided that it points the way to further study. That, then, is what I would expect one to have firmly established in hypothesizing further.

Edited by Seeker
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That may be true in some instance, but it's not a universal truth. Some scientists have particular technological implementations of ideas as their long-range goal, but others work for the joy of solving some puzzle.

I'm having trouble understanding this distinction. "Working towards it" would be the means to achieve the goal in either case. What would be the joy of solving a puzzle if one was not "working towards" it's solution? Likewise, how does one hope to implement their ideas without "working towards" their realization? In either case, "working towards it" would be the means to satisfy either of those two goals.

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There is one area in which life extension is a rational goal, namely ethics. If advances in biochemistry were to yield knowledge that could lead in the direction of extending man's lifespan, ethics would apply in choosing that pursuit. Once again though the key is what conclusions the evidence actually supports. If the evidence doesn't support the possibility of lifespan extension, then we must accept that fact. However, at the same time, if enough evidence supported the possibility of extending lifespans, at some point ethics would not only permit, but demand additional study; the clearer the potential for extended life, the greater the moral imperative to pursue it. At present I have no reason to think we are anywhere close to the point at which my own pursuits would be implicated. That's why I'm comfortable going about my present non-medical pursuits rather than devoting the coming decades of my life to adding centuries to it.

Edited by Seeker
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To me, it could mean either "non-arbitrary assertion, based in fact" or "wish, disconnected from reality".
The way we understand the working of the human body today, I don't see "someday humans might figure out how to stop the aging process" as being a crazily wild statement. Even though we do not fully understand the processes of aging, we have reached a stage where we can observe various things at the level of genes / molecules etc. There's a lot of way to go, but still, we are at a stage where we understand enough about certain processes to be able to emulate them -- e.g. in artificial hearing. Today, there's definitely good reason to hope that we will continue to progress toward an ever more detailed understanding of the body, even though it looks dauntingly complicated. We increasingly have more knowledge of the body, coupled with more technology that can help us learn more. We also have math/stats etc.

I know I used the word "assume" in my original post. Perhaps too loose a usage of the word. Maybe one can change it to "non-arbitrarily hypothesize". Reflecting back, I think I meant it as a psychological assumption. If I were working in the field of aging-research I would hold this as "non-arbitrary hypothesis", but psychologically, I would be motivated by the assumption that one day, even if not for a few generations, this would yield results.

I agree with David that some scientists may have a different motivation (i.e. curiosity): as in just wanting to know more about how the body functions. It's just that the original poster seemed to think there would be something irrational about the other type, so I addressed that.

[Re-reading the original post, I'm now not sure exactly what Faye was asking. Now that this thread has built up a bit, I hope she'll clarify her question.]

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What would be the joy of solving a puzzle if one was not "working towards" it's solution?
Well, the joy comes in working to achieve something actually reachable. You might be working to create a marketable product; or you could be working to understand a fundamental biological principle. I myself am more interested in the fundamental principles of existence aspect of research, and the "pure science" vs. "technology" difference reflects optional values. So I am not arguing that you shouldn't work towards a solution. In either case, there is a concrete goal that you're working towards and you have reason to think that the goal is reachable.

In contrast, there is no reason at all to think that reaching an indefinite lifespan is possible, and I would conclude that a scientist who has "finding the fountain of youth" as his goal does not have a rational goal: he can't really be "working towards" that goal. I also don't think that "figuring out the mechanism of aging" is a reasonable goal (in part because I doubt that aging is one thing, so it can't have "a mechanism"), but maybe understanding the mechanisms that cause a particular kind of DNA damage (leading to ageing) is a reachable goal. I would suggest, quite seriously, that no credible scientist would claim that he is working to "discover the mechanism of ageing" or to "prolong life indefinitely", except as a cheap PR statement.

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This question came up for me in another thread. Does it go against Objectivist principles to accept that we will all die someday? It seems to me that our mortality is a metaphysical fact. I want to stress that this doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for indefinite life spans or to cure diseases. I'm merely asking about the fact that we all can die.

-Faye

Yes, you have to accept it. It's the truth. One important additional point is that without the life/death option Objectivist ethics would cease to be. It's this option that provides the objective foundation for morality.

Having said all of that, I can definitely see modern science increasing our life spans enormously, and not just the length of life, but the quality of life. Ray Kurzweil has some interesting insight regarding that matter, the answer might lie in DNA manipulation and nanotechnology.

Edited by Thales
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In contrast, there is no reason at all to think that reaching an indefinite lifespan is possible, and I would conclude that a scientist who has "finding the fountain of youth" as his goal does not have a rational goal: he can't really be "working towards" that goal. I also don't think that "figuring out the mechanism of aging" is a reasonable goal (in part because I doubt that aging is one thing, so it can't have "a mechanism"), but maybe understanding the mechanisms that cause a particular kind of DNA damage (leading to ageing) is a reachable goal. I would suggest, quite seriously, that no credible scientist would claim that he is working to "discover the mechanism of ageing" or to "prolong life indefinitely", except as a cheap PR statement.

As far as I can tell there is quite a lot of research being done in the area of aging in higher eukaryotes. Now, I know that studying aging in some model organism is not the same as studying it in humans, but molecularly we aren't *that* dissimilar that it would be of no value. I think in light of such research with simpler organisms you could very well say that they are studying the mechanisms by which they age. From what I understood from some classes about the subject, although the particulars may vary between humans and, say, yeasts, the essential reason why both organisms age is the same.

I do not agree that it is not a reasonable goal to work to discover the mechanism(s) of aging. I suppose we could pick nits over the plural form of mechanism, but I don't really feel like doing that :) It is essentially the same idea, whether there is a single mechanism or whether there are three mechanisms responsible. Discovering any one of those would be a very large step forward, and I think it is not at all arbitrary given the state of our research in this area to work towards such a goal.

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hmm, I'm with Maarten here David. Do I gain more credibility if I'm working on working on discovering "one of the mechanisms that contributes to aging" or simply trying to "prolong life by a decade or two"? And what is the difference exactly?

You're right in the sense that it's a fallacy of composition to say that one is studying THE mechanism (singular) of aging, but that seem superfluous to how these things actually get studied, and it actually seems like a perfectly valid topic of study, in fact quite important.

Edited by KendallJ
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I do not agree that it is not a reasonable goal to work to discover the mechanism(s) of aging.

...

It is essentially the same idea, whether there is a single mechanism or whether there are three mechanisms responsible.

As I understand your claim, you're saying that you think it actually is possible to at least develop a theory of all of the mechanisms of aging, and perhaps to construct a single unified explanation, and that our understanding of these processes is so advanced that we can expect one of these two outcomes within a single lifetime. Now if that is so, and you're offering an informed, scientifically-grounded evaluation of the state of research on the topic, then I would retract my statement.

It is not the same thing to say "Here is the mechanism" and "Here are the 30 mechanisms". Unification of a much smaller set of mechanisms in physics has to date taken an awfully long time -- more than 1 (professional) lifespan. I'd be very surprised if we really that close to having an explanation for the cause of e.g. cancer, presbyopia, Alzheimer's, menopause, hair loss, osteoporosis etc. But if you think we really are that close, I'll take your word for it (but naturally, I'd like to see more details to support the claim that we really are that close).

Kendall, I'm not asking about the credibility of a scientist. The question is about professional morality, whether it is rational to set as your life's goal "discovering the cause of ageing". Since I question whether there is such a thing as the single cause of ageing, and I question whether such an incredibly broad goal can be reached within a man's lifetime, I question the morality of establishing an unreasonable and unreachable goal as your central purpose, because it means that success is well out of your reach, and you cannot be happy in life (because you will never achieve your goal).

In contrast, if you establish reachable goals -- not trivially or easily reachable by any means, but possibly reachable -- then you will be embracing reality, distinguishing the possible from the impossible, based on knowledge (not just slogans), and living according to a principle -- aiming for the greatest possible benefit. Establishing a very broad and unreachable goal, such as "develop a unified theory of ageing", is evasion, because you would be evading the reality that it is not possible for you to reach that goal, and that you are actually either working towards a more restricted but possible goal or else you are working towards a handful of disintegrated goals. Now of course the question is whether it is reasonable to be working towards a 500 year lifespan for humans, or working to develop a unified theory of ageing. Maarten seems to think that it is actually within our grasp, I guess, so we will see. I'll offer three analogous unreasonable goals regarding language. 1) generalized automatic translation between any two human languages; 2) accurate knowledge of how language evolved in homo sapiens; 3) the ability to accurately describe the operations of language in terms of actual brain actions. My opinion is that anyone who represents those as the goal of their work is either deluding themselves, or is engaged in PR-type deception for funding purposes.

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Kendall, I'm not asking about the credibility of a scientist. The question is about professional morality, whether it is rational to set as your life's goal "discovering the cause of ageing". Since I question whether there is such a thing as the single cause of ageing, and I question whether such an incredibly broad goal can be reached within a man's lifetime, I question the morality of establishing an unreasonable and unreachable goal as your central purpose, because it means that success is well out of your reach, and you cannot be happy in life (because you will never achieve your goal).

I'm having a hard time agreeing with this. Ageing is a real world phenomenon, and it is a biological phenomenon having to do with cell behavior. It's not some remote idea floating in the sky. It seems to me, given this, it would be absolutely reasonable to dedicate ones life to studying the phenomenon and hopefully finding a way to shut down the process of ageing. You may not be 100% successful in your investigation, but you could learn enough to improve the situation. It's akin to studying cancer or heart disease, in this respect. You're not trying to determine the number of angels that can stand on the head of a pin, you're addressing something real. In fact, I believe the successful top flight scientist Bruce Ames is heavily into this field.

To address your point specifically, if a scientist said to himself "I may not be fully successful in my research, but I think I can have some success in understanding what's going on", then I think he's not setting himself up for disappointment. And, to be sure, in science you never know if you're going to find an answer. It's part of the nature of the field. It's a hazard of the profession. Lots of goals appear to be reachable within a frame of time, but end up not being, and the only way to tell is by investigating and researching with full dedication. It's often hard, with any big project, to know if a goal is achievable or not within a time frame. I have lots of experience with this as a programmer, because there are lots of unforeseen obstacles that end up in you path.

In terms of the science, Newton had the best method, which is to stay as close to the evidence as you can. Be guided by the evidence, and the extent that you stray from the evidence is the extent to which you are speculating. Speculation is fine, but you have to realize you're doing it, and account for that and not do so wildly.

Edited by Thales
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It seems to me, given this, it would be absolutely reasonable to dedicate ones life to studying the phenomenon and hopefully finding a way to shut down the process of ageing.
Would you conclude that it is absolutely reasonable to dedicate your life to solving all of the mysteries of the universe and solving all of the problems faced by humans? If so, then I guess we have to agree to disagree (or else you must relent, unless by some horrible accident you persuade me to recant). However, I will be wondering, is it possible to distinguish "success" from "failure" in your life's work under that viewpoint. If you don't think that that hyper-broad goal would be reasonable, then I have to ask, why isn't it?
You may not be 100% successful in your investigation, but you could learn enough to improve the situation.
You're apparently addressing a different situation, when you say "You may not...". I'm not talking about an ambitious goal which could, may be achieved though it might not be, I'm talking about the unachievable goal. Now let me complete your sentence for you...
"I may not be fully successful in my research, but I think I can have some success in understanding what's going on"
(dontcha love it when people complete your sentences for you)..."because I will focus on this aspect which I have a reasonable expectation of being successful at.
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Would you conclude that it is absolutely reasonable to dedicate your life to solving all of the mysteries of the universe and solving all of the problems faced by humans?

If so, then I guess we have to agree to disagree (or else you must relent, unless by some horrible accident you persuade me to recant). However, I will be wondering, is it possible to distinguish "success" from "failure" in your life's work under that viewpoint.

If you don't think that that hyper-broad goal would be reasonable, then I have to ask, why isn't it?You're apparently addressing a different situation, when you say "You may not...". I'm not talking about an ambitious goal which could, may be achieved though it might not be, I'm talking about the unachievable goal.

You're giving me a general philosophical point, while I'm dealing specifically with the issue of ageing. From my peripheral readings on the subject of ageing, there has been a lot of successful research in the field. I believe they've been able to increase the life span of certain kinds of flies, for instance. It's not something that's far fetched.

Now let me complete your sentence for you...(dontcha love it when people complete your sentences for you)..."because I will focus on this aspect which I have a reasonable expectation of being successful at.

Alright then, I think there are many aspects of ageing to focus on that could well bring a researcher satisfying results. :)

On your larger philosophical point, I agree.

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Here's a question I'd like to throw into the mix, for anyone willing to answer it. What is the appropriate standard of proof needed to validate the claim that man can live indefinitely?

You mean eternally? I don't think it's possible. Even if you could shut off the ageing process that would just mean that you never age. You could still die of any number of things.

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You mean eternally? I don't think it's possible. Even if you could shut off the ageing process that would just mean that you never age. You could still die of any number of things.

By indefinitely I mean without deterioration over time, i.e ageing. You could always get hit by a bus or struck by lightening and die. So, in that context, what is the appropriate standard of proof needed to validate the claim that man can live indefinitely?

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That's pretty easy to imagine: how about when it's possible to completely replace the entire human body, either with newly-grown parts or with artificial ones, including a 'transfer' of the brain? Or, if aging is 'cracked,' when people can live 500 years with no visible change to their physical beings?

The way I look at it is: we can figure out and define everything that exists. We've done that for a lot of things already; it's only a matter of time before that extends to our existence, or life generally. At present I do not know if that knowledge will be acquired in my lifetime. And that knowledge will never happen if the government decides to regulate it too much, or if the general philosophy changes drastically for the worse.

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Faye,The husband/conquistador/astronaut is an objectivist hero up until the point where he gives up. If not for his heroic defiance, I wouldn't have been able to stand through the whole movie. His refusal to go take a walk with her is a beautiful act of love and demonstration of the need to have perspective. Her behaviour throughout the movie can best be described as fear-induced evasion. After having done more thought on why I felt like that, I think I understand the matter pretty clearly now. If the movie had the last few scenes replaced, it would be ranked among the best I have seen. Even Izzy's death could have been used properly, as a demonstration that human being as not omnipotent, a reminder of the tragedy of death and the importance of the husband's devotion to his work. How would the "indestructible" robot analogy change, if instead of the robot being inevitably tied to life, the robot was inevitably tied to death? The answer is, it wouldn't change at all. Acceptance of death as a "metaphysical fact" is a denial of core objectivist principles and invalidates the whole of objectivist ethics. Objectivist ethics is grounded in the realization that in order to live, there is a way to act. If I tied your hands and feet, placed a gun to your head and said "You have 30 seconds, enjoy your life", how would you go about enjoying your life? What would your highest value be? This post has been edited by andre_sanchez: Aug 19 2007, 11:53 PM
Of course we -can- die. We are not invincible. That is not the same as accepting death as a metaphysical fact.
I would require some definite evidence from the medical sciences before holding that indefinite lifespans are possible. The principle is that the particularity of the evidence must match the particularity of the claim it is intended to support. So, for instance, the fact that man learned to fly doesn't supply the specific evidence needed to hypothesize about lifespan extension. Unless such specific evidence is supplied, I would hold such claims to be arbitrary and unworthy of consideration. For example, I could assume that with the right technology, I could teleport to distant galaxies. Unfortunately, since there is no evidence that such technology might exist, working towards it would be irrational. I guess I'm holding out for some citation of something that would at least hint in some significant way that indefinite lifespans are, in fact, possible before I commit to a lifetime of working towards that end (you know, something about stem cells or DNA repair techniques or extending telomeres, which I know next to nothing about).
The first living organism was in effect, immortal. That is why we exist, because it never stopped living. Every living being is simply the biological extension of a previous living being, so it is clear that immortality is within the real of nature.
I'm having trouble understanding this distinction. "Working towards it" would be the means to achieve the goal in either case. What would be the joy of solving a puzzle if one was not "working towards" it's solution? Likewise, how does one hope to implement their ideas without "working towards" their realization? In either case, "working towards it" would be the means to satisfy either of those two goals.
It seems they do not understand -why- rationality is good. They have fallen prey to intrinsicalism.
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