Peter Thiel and Life Extension: O death, where is thy sting?

The above debate between Peter Thiel and William Hurlbut on technology and death has knocked around in my head since I first watched it some months ago. You should watch it in full yourself, and I won’t give a blow-by-blow account, but below are reflections on Thiel’s side of the discussion.

There are two main threads to Thiel’s argument that ‘technology should treat death as an enemy’, the topic of the debate. The first is a cultural-bureaucratic one about how science is funded and conducted, and the second a philosophical-theological one about how we should think about death. The former has been extensively discussed by bloggers and writers like José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente, Jason Crawford, Alex Tabarrok, and Alexey Guzey, and you should read about it – it’s a big problem that deserves way more attention. I’m going to focus on the latter, the Christian theology and philosophy of death instead.

If you’d asked me before watching this debate, I’d have said that anti-ageing technology was somewhat un-Christian, or against the grain of the Bible. The New Testament strongly emphasises the fate of your soul after death, and encourages people to invest in that ( ‘Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth […] but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves do not break in and steal.’ Matthew 6:19-20). If you believe the Bible is true and you follow Jesus, you don’t have to fear death. Instead, you already enjoy eternal life. Christianity is not fatalistic – there’s plenty about the good of living your life as a Christian and how to do that, not to mention Christ’s resurrection itself – but it’s not a biotech manifesto.

Thiel’s arguments pushed me quite far in the other direction. Jesus, he reminds listeners, is the one who vanquished death and healed those around him, breaking all sorts of Pharisaical taboos in the process. Christians have been involved in fighting disease throughout history, and it’s no coincidence that the vast increases in life expectancy since 1840, around 2-2.5 years per decade, occurred in the West rather than in the pagan world.

He proposes two reframings: First, instead of abstract questions about whether it would be good to live for 200+ years, we should think about whether it’s good to fight specific diseases like arthritis and dementia. The answer will almost always be yes – to answer otherwise would be cruel and un-Christian. At the margin, preserving and extending life is the right thing to do.

Second, technology should destroy death, or learn why it can’t. He argues that we don’t know much about the boundaries of biology, and improving the afore-mentioned culture of science would vastly improve our understanding. He doesn’t want evil (Frankenstein-esque) science, or fake (stagnating) science, but genuine, good science that makes people’s lives better.

An audience member asks Thiel if living longer and people going to heaven are in tension: should we focus on the latter? The two shouldn’t be seen in opposition to each other, Thiel responds. Instead it is atheism that is the enemy of both of these, and in turn, the enemy of progress. The atheist will conclude that nothing can be done about either, leading to a kind of Epicurean complacency: eat drink and be merry, for tomorrow you will die.

The dichotomy between helping people now vs. helping people in the future by saving their souls might be somewhat fake, but individual people still have to make decisions at the margin. This is a question I have personally grappled with, but rather than getting caught up in grand narratives and questions, perhaps it’s better to reframe the question in a local context: Christian churches have typically done both, by ministering to people’s spiritual needs and their material ones. It’s only in more recent years that material deprivation has disappeared from some communities entirely (i.e. wealthy towns and cities in the West) and some no longer have to confront that question practically.

Thiel doesn’t mention the parts of the Bible that are in tension with his arguments, however. Jesus says you must lose your life to save it, i.e. you must be willing to give it all up to follow him. Christ comes well before longevity; this New Testament theme is surely behind Christians’ concerns that life extension could be self-centred. Of course, life extension can easily be selfless – who wouldn’t want to save a family member, if we could? Or even someone we don’t know?

How about the apostle Paul? He writes in the letter to the Philippians that he wants to die and be with Jesus in heaven (‘far better’ than remaining in his suffering state), but also that it’s necessary to remain and help his fellow Christians. Life on this earth, then, is a poor substitute for the life that is to come. Thiel often cites Christ, but has he ever quoted the parts of the New Testament between the gospels and Revelation?

And what precisely does Thiel think of the relationship between technological progress and Christian societies? Intellectual history is complicated, he acknowledges, but he still chooses to point out that it was the Christian West, not the pagans, who made the strides in life expectancy over the past 180-odd years. If faith and science are not just reconcilable, but mutually dependent, then do we need to re-evangelise our populations as well as reform science? Thiel doesn’t give us an answer. 

Hurlbut agrees with much of what Thiel says, but he’s concerned about our use of biotech to extend life in the absence of a larger ethical framework: what does it mean to be human? What is the purpose of life? He’s not explicit on why this matters, but it’s easy to imagine ways that we might erode our humanity in pursuit of longevity (this is the ‘evil science’ that Thiel and I likewise fear). Hurlbut doesn’t think we’ll entirely beat death using technology in any case, and for what it’s worth, I don’t think we will either. Christ is the one who defeated death, not Adam.

But there’s a lot we could do in science that we simply aren’t. The establishment is sclerotic and slow. We should fund those who want to push at the boundaries of what’s possible, in biology and elsewhere. Not fake science or evil science, but science that we all know is good – cures for dementia, arthritis, and cancer: all signs of the One ‘who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel’ (2 Timothy 1:10).

Thanks to Jeff Huber for reading drafts of this.

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