Should death be our final stop?

The current debate around euthanasia and assisted suicide brings in the spotlight what technological possibilities of the future may end up achieving for humanity

r-swaminathan

R Swaminathan | August 2, 2014


Aubrey de Grey, the author of The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging and Ending Aging, holds the view that advanced medical technology will enable human beings to live much longer than ever.

Should I have a right over my own life? Not in a metaphorical or imagined sense. Not even in the modern and democratic nature of fundamental rights that several of us take for granted. Should I be able to decide when to end my life in a real and physical sense?

That’s the core question around the debate on euthanasia. The debate, no doubt, is contoured by human notions of incurable illness and disease. It’s also shaped by our mindsets towards medicine, cure and pain. If one were to dig deeper, the foundation of my question rests on the existentiality of the human race, our constant efforts to preserve the essence of humanity through social, cultural and physical means. The moral and ethical dimensions of the debate are extremely complex. There are no easy answers, and I doubt if there will ever be. In fact, there are no singular answers too. While some countries have allowed for assisted euthanasia, others are ambivalent. A majority, though, are extremely uncomfortable with the idea itself. Human notions of life and death are deeply cultural and social, and that in itself lends to differing perspectives towards social sanctity of an individual’s life.

But what if one could have the potential and possibility to live forever?  Such a possibility would, without any doubt, cut through the moral and ethical questions revolving around euthanasia and assisted death quite decisively. The ability to live forever is still in the realm of science fiction, but it isn’t as far from reality as, say, breaking the speed of light. Bits and pieces of the puzzle are already being put into its slots, like the complex manner in which humans and machines are integrating with each other. Futurologist Raymond Kurzweil calls it Singularity, while philosopher and futurist Nick Bostrom defines it differently as Superintelligence. Both concepts deal with a world where individual human intelligence is increasingly overlaid by a mesh of networked intelligence, of humans and machines together, where the sum of the whole is always greater than the parts. In short, the collective networked intelligence of humans and machines together will always be greater than the collective intellect of either humans or the meshed artificial intelligence of just the machines. Just in case anyone needs a reminder how close this science fiction is to reality refer to the driverless cars, with its organically evolving intellect (much like a human being), or the manner in which the human brain has been mapped minutely to allow a paralysed woman to move her prosthetic limb through sheer thought (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ogBX18maUiM).

There are three radical possibilities in this emerging future, a horizon that suddenly does not seem so distant anymore. All the three possibilities will have transformative implications on how human beings over the generations, and throughout the history of philosophy, have dealt with existential questions of life, death, object-subject dichotomy, and of reality itself. The first possibility is about life extension in the complete physical sense. The leading light of this emerging field is Aubrey de Grey, the author of two immensely readable books The Mitochondrial Free Radical Theory of Aging and Ending Aging. He holds the view that advanced medical technology, some of which we are already seeing in the way nanomaterials and nanochemicals are being used to specifically target cancer cells, will enable human beings to live much longer than ever. He has gone on record to say that the average lifespan of a human being can easily be increased to 150 years. He describes his work, and that of his team, as a ‘goal-directed rather than curiosity-driven’ approach towards the science of aging. de Grey has identified seven specific types of molecular and cellular damage within the human body, caused by metabolic processes, as the reasons for human aging. He has even recommended a specific set of therapies to stop, and reverse, the process. Interestingly, he is a subject for these therapies. So, if you want to find out if de Grey is successful you just have to watch him. But by then you would be too old to try it yourself.

The second is the rapid advances in technologies related to brain mapping and human genome sequencing and mapping. Barack Obama’s pet, the $100 million BRAIN project and the human genome project are the most visible symbols of these inter-related scientific advances. Brain scientist Allan Jones (https://www.ted.com/talks/allan_jones_a_map_of_the_brain) works in the intersecting spaces of brain mapping and genome sequencing. Jones and his institute – Allen Institute of Brain Science – has already created a substantially detailed and interactive brain mapping, identifying areas of the brain that trigger specific genes and control them throughout the lifespan of a human being. The possibilities of this breakthrough are endless. The brain of a person with a genetic trigger and predisposition for a particular form of cancer, for instance, can be modified to such an extent that the part of the brain that triggers the recalcitrant gene can be suppressed. In short, one can identify the diseases that you are likely to end up with well in advance and stop
it permanently.

The third is slightly esoteric and more in the realm of science fiction than the first two. Yet, the possibility of it happening in the near future cannot be ruled out. Popular physicist and an advocate of string theory Michio Kaku (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0GS2rxROcPo and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tT1vxEpE1aI) says that all along we, as a collective humanity, may have been looking at space travel the wrong end up. Two enduring concerns of long duration space travel have been, speed of the transport vehicle and the preservation of the human body. Several concepts and possible solutions have been bandied about for some time: from quantum travel, space ports and long and deep sleep, followed by rejuvenation. Kaku, the author of The Future of the Mind, says the advances in brain mapping, genetic sequencing and the field of optics give humanity a rare breakthrough of capturing consciousness. Encoded in bits and bytes, human consciousness becomes a digital entity having the ability to travel across space and time at the speed of light, and even faster. Space travel, in this future world, becomes a trip not of physical parts but of the mind. The startling similarities between Indian philosophical positions on consciousness and this future jump out rather drastically. But that’s the topic of another column. In short, humanity is at the threshold of digital immortality, a sort of an afterlife that’s also an ever life.

So what could it mean for the debate on euthanasia? Would our questions about life and death have the same existential angst that it has today? The simple but powerful philosophy of ‘I breathe so I am’ acquires a completely different meaning. Sartre, Marcuse, Heiddeger, Kant, Nietzsche, every single one of modern world’s philosophical icons would be cast in a new light. The possibility of capturing one’s consciousness, complete personalities with idiosyncrasies, flaws and brilliance, and putting it in an external and tactile body capable of humanness – of touching, seeing, feeling, smelling and sensing – transforms the whole debate around death, life and euthanasia into one of endless possibilities and an afterlife of infinite continuity.

(The story appeared in the August 1 to 15 issue of the magazine)

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