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Contra Elon Musk on Lifespan Extension
Life extension will not cause asphyxiation of society. Anti-rational memes will.
Note: Elon Musk is often attacked by a lot of people. So, before I begin, I want to make it clear that I respect Elon and I admire his ability to think from first principles and bring about large-scale innovations in society. In this post, I am merely criticizing his idea on life extension and not the man himself. Criticism should be of ideas and not people, and correcting errors in our thinking is how knowledge advances. As such, if you find flaws in my post after reading it, please feel free to correct me respectfully by commenting or messaging me on Twitter @aasthajs. Thanks! Let’s begin.
Musk’s Concern on Lifespan Extension
Elon Musk is concerned about lifespan extension causing asphyxiation of society. In this post, I explain why he shouldn’t be. Musk said:
“I don't think we should try to have people live for a really long time. It would cause asphyxiation of society because the truth is, most people don't change their mind. They just die. So if they don't die, we will be stuck with old ideas and society wouldn't advance.”
To state the obvious, I don’t think Musk is concerned about society being stuck with old ideas that remain true and useful in 100 years. For example, if the best explanation of the theory of relativity we have in 100 years is the same explanation we have currently, then it’s perfectly valid to still hold that idea. However, if we do have better explanations that show Einstein to be incorrect, then it would only make sense to change our mind and adopt the better explanation.
What Musk is concerned about is: if despite better explanations, society chooses to not let go off the old ideas, there will be asphyxiation in society. For example, if we continued to believe that the Earth is flat and didn’t change our minds when better explanations were available, you can see why that would create asphyxiation in society. Or if we continued to believe that children were produced by God or “ghosts” in the case of some tribes, there would be asphyxiation of society.
“The Trobriand Islanders attribute pregnancy not to any commerce of the sexes, but to the entrance of a baloma, or ghost, into the woman. Usually the ghost enters while the woman is bathing; “a fish has bitten me,” the girl reports.” (The Story of Civilization Part 1, Will Durant)
There is another more troubling concern and that is if we get so attached to an idea that we consider it to be the holy grail and do not even seek better explanations! Imagine here a society in which no one sought to come up with the idea that the Earth is not flat, in the first place.
So, Musk’s concern around old untrue ideas causing asphyxiation of society is perfectly valid.
But this concern will not be solved even if we were to not have “people live for a really long time.” As such, extending lifespan is not what will cause asphyxiation in society. The spread of anti-rational memes will.
Let me explain what I mean by deploying explanations from David Deutsch’s book The Beginning of Infinity, and more specifically from Chapter 16 The Evolution of Culture.
Static Societies and Anti-Rational Memes
Going back to imagining a society which doesn’t change its mind or doesn’t seek new, better explanations, let’s ask the questions: What sort of society could this be? What sort of ideas would cause us to be so attached to them that we refuse to even seek better explanations?
Deutsch calls these ideas “anti-rational memes” and they largely exist in “static societies.” Anti-rational memes are those that spread in society by blocking the critical faculties of the recipient. Further, anti-rational memes also cause the person to judge themselves based on how well they are adhering to the meme. As such, you don’t even think that the idea or the meme itself could be based on false predications or could be incorrect! This point is best explained using an example.
The way women are treated in countries like Saudi Arabia is an anti-rational meme. The idea is that women are only meant to work in the household, serve their husbands and raise children. In Saudi Arabia, it is taboo to even question that this idea could be incorrect. In this manner, the recipients of the idea are blocked from using their critical faculties to judge the merit of the idea. Further, women and men in those countries judge women based on how good they are at being obedient wives.
Typically, anti-rational memes have taboos or customs that prevent people from using criticism and questioning the idea in the first place. In such a society, there is no room for creativity and seeking new ideas and better explanations. Such a society is a static society. Because there is no room for creativity in these societies, this society is not coming up with new ideas, not changing its mind on existing ideas, and any change that does take place happens at such a slow pace that it is not noticed.
Quoting Will Durant again,
“Through the slow magic of time such customs, by long repetition, become a second nature in the individual; if he violates them he feels a certain fear, discomfort or shame.”
Of course, it might seem hard for most of us in the West to even envision such static societies. After all, we live in dynamic constantly changing times, where new ideas and startups are being worked on, people seem to be constantly changing their minds, and science keeps coming up with more data that advances the world.
We do not yet live in a Perfectly Dynamic Society
So, you might be wondering if Elon Musk really is worried about us creating a static society where we won’t change our minds? Well, not exactly. In reality, there are very few perfectly static societies, if there are any at all in existence now. (Most of them don’t exist anymore precisely because they were static and didn’t respond to change). However, there are no perfectly dynamic societies either.
A dynamic society is a rapidly changing society which is largely dominated by rational memes. In contrast to anti-rational memes, rational memes spread by relying on the critical faculties of the recipient. Deutsch writes:
“In fact such memes are not merely capable of surviving under rapidly changing criteria of criticism, they positively rely on such criticism for their faithful replication. Unprotected by any enforcement of the status quo or suppression of people’s critical faculties, they are criticized, but so are their rivals, and the rivals fare worse, and are not enacted. In the absence of such criticism, true ideas no longer have that advantage and can deteriorate or be superseded.”
You would think that if we live in a dynamic society, we should not have to worry about the spread of anti-rational memes which could cause asphyxiation and statism in society. But the truth is that we don’t live in perfectly dynamic societies. This implies that there are static subcultures that exist in our Western society today as well.
Perhaps the most relatable example as mentioned by Deutsch is when “girls strive to be ladylike to meet culturally defined standards of shape and appearance, and when boys do their utmost to look strong and not to cry when distressed, (because) they are struggling to replicate ancient ‘gender-stereotyping’ memes that are still part of our culture.”
This gender-stereotyping anti-rational meme exists in our Western society even today. In fact, I would argue that schools are anti-rational memes too and are failing us.
Again, the reason for this is that we don’t live in perfectly dynamic societies. We are in the transition period from static societies to a dynamic one, which has come about through “generations of static-society-type evolution.”
“And so we live in a society in which people can spend their days conscientiously using laser technology to count cells in blood samples, and their evenings sitting cross-legged and chanting to draw supernatural energy out of the Earth.” (Deutsch)
What is Elon Musk truly concerned about and is there a solution?
Okay, so with this backdrop, let’s revisit what I think Elon Musk is concerned about. Musk is concerned about creating statism in society; he is worried about the propagation or the creation of static subcultures within our dynamic society. Musk is worried that if people live for a long long time, they will not change their minds on anti-rational memes and will spread their static subcultures, which could tilt our Western society more towards static subcultures than dynamic ones (For example, smaller cities in India are more static in their thinking than dynamic, they are not perfectly static either). Again, I think this is a perfectly reasonable concern, but the answer does not lie in not extending lifespans.
Let’s ponder: Can letting people die be a solution to promoting more dynamism than statism? Perhaps to a small extent. However, in my opinion, it doesn’t help all that much because people will still pass on their anti-rational memes to their children before they die, who in turn will pass them on to their children.
So how should we prevent asphyxiation of society? How should we strive towards creating a perfectly dynamic society? How should we prevent the spread and creation of statism and anti-rational memes in society?
There is only one way and that is to use our critical faculties, to understand that we are all fallible, to correct our errors and to seek good explanations. Deutsch explains it well:
“For example, whenever we find ourselves enacting a complex or narrowly defined behavior that has been accurately repeated from one holder to the next, we should be suspicious. If we find that enacting this behavior thwarts our efforts to attain our personal objectives, or is faithfully continued when the ostensible justifications for it disappear, we should become more suspicious. If we then find ourselves explaining our own behavior with bad explanations, we should become still more suspicious. Of course, at any given point we may fail either to notice these things or to discover the true explanation of them. But failure need not be permanent in a world in which all evils are due to a lack of knowledge…Another thing that should make us suspicious is the presence of the conditions for anti-rational meme evolution, such as deference to authority, static subcultures and so on. Anything that says ‘Because I say so’ or ‘It never did me any harm,’ anything that says ‘Let us suppress criticism of our idea because it is true,’ suggests static-society thinking.”
Elon, the rise of statism in society is a valid concern. However, statism is promoted by the spread of anti-rational memes, which would continue to happen even if people did not have extended lifespans because they would still pass on those memes to their children. As such, extending lifespan should not be a worry when it comes to creating statism in society. The way to solve the problem of statism is to create more knowledge that allows people to use their critical faculties, realize that we are fallible, and that we can correct our errors.
In fact, a bonus to extending lifespan could be that people have more time to come up with new ideas that change society for the better! Elon, what if you came up with a new idea that could improve society when you were 120 years old?
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