The meaning of death

Aging is necessary for existence

Many argue that aging is the ultimate disease and that we should extend human life for as long as possible through medicine and bio-enhancements. This is a fundamental mistake, writes Santiago Zabala. Aging is necessary to make our lives meaningful and so for our very existence .


In this age of disruptive innovation—where only the new, profitable, and productive is valued—aging can become a remedy to a culture excessively preoccupied with the future. Indifference, irresponsibility, and ingenuousness usually result from a failure of memory, which is symptomatic of such supposedly disruptive innovators as Mark Zuckerberg and Vinod Khosla. Even though they believe “young people are just smarter” because those “over 45 basically die in terms of new ideas,” a recent “rigorous study that looked at 2.7 million company founders, economists at MIT, the US Census Bureau, and Northwestern University concluded the best entrepreneurs are middle-aged.” Plato and Kant already contemplated how the order of kinds of knowledge was supposed to follow that of ages. Plato believed that the leadership of the republic had to be reserved to the elders who could contemplate the Good and guide citizens toward a higher degree of humanity, and Kant thought that at least sixty years were necessary to form a philosopher able to write anything original. Leaving aside exceptions— Michel Foucault died at fifty-seven—the issue today is that aging is still treated as a problem, which Simone de Beauvoir noticed half a century ago.

According to the French philosopher, “old age is not, in itself or necessarily a problem, though part of the problem of old age is that we treat it as if it is.” This was true not only in 1970 when La vieillesse (Old Age), was published, but also today as is illustrated by a recent special issue of the MIT Technology Review titled “Old Age Is Over! If You Want It.” The editor explains that the issue “is about big advances in longevity medicine that may be coming soon.” Predictably, the predominant tone of the articles (“What If Aging Were a Disease?” “Old Age Is a Waste,” “The Anti-Aging Drug That’s Just Around the Corner”) cites aging as a problem that we can solve through technological interventions. In recent years several Silicon Valley billionaires have begun funding companies (AgeX Therapeutics, Human Longevity, and many others) that specialize in developing methods for slowing or preventing aging, something that they in particular (but some of us also) desire.

The wish to extend the human lifespan has a long tradition in many cultures and religions. Science has turned this wish into reality

 The wish to extend the human lifespan has a long tradition in many cultures and religions. Science has turned this wish into reality as the simple difference between life expectancy between African and European countries demonstrates. In a number of countries south of the Sahara life expectancy is less than forty years, but in central Europe it’s seventy to eighty years. The causes of this inequality exceed the strictly medical realm; structural and sociological features play an important part. But difference in life expectancy also occurs within developed countries, where the opportunity to live is determined by race and class. “In Chicago, the city with the largest disparity, life expectancy varied by up to 30.1 years, and in both Washington, D.C. and New York City it varied by more than 27 years.” A recent study examining Australians’ life expectancy found people living in outer regional and or remote areas had premature death rates about 40 percent higher than those in major cities.

Although being alive is considered intrinsically valuable, there is a fundamental difference between the desirability of being alive within the limits of average life expectancy and beyond these limits. The former implies a continuation that we have the right to maintain, but the latter an improvement that is unavailable to most people. But as the molecular biologist Manuel Serrano explains, anti-aging medicine emerges both form research focused on combating diseases that seem to be intrinsically connected with biological aging and from research focused specifically on slowing or even arresting the aging processes.


This difference between these two sources is often overlooked when aging is treated as a problem by scientists but also by philosophers interested in these issues. Bernard Williams argued that immortality would become intolerably boring, and utilitarian philosophers such as Peter Singer are concerned that extending human life would cause severe overpopulation, pollution, and resource shortages. Against both of these philosophers John K. Davis recently argued that we should expeditiously develop and make available technologies that will radically extend human lifespans because they will enrich the welfare of human descendants and trigger new social arrangements. The problem with these views is that aging and lifespan are treated as only an ethical matter; the existential dimension is ignored.

 Against this medical and philosophical tendency to treat aging as a problem or disease, it is necessary to recall the difference between merely remaining alive and existing. While we are alive at all ages, we exist only through those meaningful experiences, relations, and activities that absorb us, that belong to our Being. This is why old age involves—as de Beauvoir pointed out—a changed relation with the world and with an individual’s own history. Isn’t this what David Attenborough meant when he presented his recent Netflix documentary A Life on Our Planet by saying “I’m ninety-three years old. I had the most extraordinary life, but it is only now that I appreciate how extraordinary”? If we only know these experiences after having lived through them, then aging is necessary for existence and should not be treated as a problem. Pascal Bruckner is right to observe that one “can remain alive very late, but does one still exist, in the sense in which Martin Heidegger distinguished the being that consists in itself from the existent that projects itself forward?”

Old age is existentially, not just biologically, a radically transformed state of being that we must appreciate.

 In order to illustrate this difference, Bruckner distinguishes between the future as a grammatical category and as an existential category. The latter implies a continued existence that is no longer contingent but wanted and desired. The former is undergone; it involves passivity and resignation. Only those who age can project themselves forward and strive for those meaningful experiences that constitute their Being and so appreciate the time left. This is why old age is existentially, not just biologically, a radically transformed state of being that we must appreciate. Many of our religious traditions, as Martien A M Pijnenburg and Carlo Leget explain, also call upon this appreciation. For Thomas Aquinas, for example, eternal life does not designate a continuation of earthly life grounded on the conception of an immortal soul but the fullness of a human life as it serves God through others. In Buddhism, this fullness is the ability to let go of the ego. As we can see, these traditions converge on the fact that human beings miss the essence of life when they focus on their biological self-preservation.

 If death is no longer considered the normal end of life but a therapeutic failure to be corrected, it is because the goal of medicine—“that armed form of our finitude” as Foucault called it—now is to bring to a halt the triggering of cellular suicide and thus prolong life beyond the accepted limits. In this way medical research rests on the presupposition that “old age is a problem on which all the failures of a society converge,” as de Beauvoir said and also insists that the quantity of life comes before its quality.

 Against this valuation of progress without quality—which is at the heart of the indifference of the innovative disruptors—aging can be valued as a transformed state of being that demands all our attention. This is why Brucker believes that it’s only “after fifty that we really have our lives in front of us, when we can finally enjoy the youth we missed out on at twenty because we had to earn diplomas, look for a job, prove ourselves, excuse ourselves for being greenhorns, emerge from childhood, get through the tormented first love affairs, and carry all alone the burden of a brand new freedom.” The existential reconsideration old age entails can become the key to fighting the indifference, irresponsibility, and ingenuousness common to disruptive innovators. Aging, rather than a problem we must overcome, is a necessary condition for existing responsibly among others. This is why we should “stop worrying about Biden’s age, as Jennifer Senior recently said, we need his wisdom right now.”

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