They Went So Young
The series finale for Six Feet Under aired earlier this week on HBO. SFU isn't really the kind of TV show we talk about here at the Speculist. Not to say that it wasn't a good show, or that it never got into speculist subject matter. As a matter of fact, it did. Twice. The first time, they pulled it off fairly well. It was the opener for season three. Nate Fisher, on his death bed, witnesses multiple versions of his own life and death while his deceased father gives an accurate, if sketchy, explanation of quantum immortality.
(SPOILERS ahead for those planning to watch the show.)
This time out, Allan Ball and company didn't do so well. The final scenes of the show are a montage of flash-forwards to the deaths of all the principal characters. It's actually a very nice piece of TV/filmmaking, a touching and satisfying end to the story of the Fisher family.
There's just one problem.
They all die too young. Check the obits for yourself.
With the exception of Keith, who we see dying at the hands of armed robbers, and Claire, who makes it all the way to 102, the rest of the characters die of natural causes in their 70's and 80's. Okay, so maybe life extension won't have caught on by the year 2025, and there would be nothing that could be done to save Ruth Fisher from dying in her early 80's. But David, Rico, and Brenda all die over the next 25 years after that. Even so, aging and death are shown to be pretty much what they are today.
Then we come to Claire, on her deathbed in the year 2085. She is 102 years old, and looks every year of it by our standards. Over the next 80 years, we can't even expect any cosmetic victories over aging.
Or maybe those kinds of treatments are available, but no one in the Fisher or Chenowith families takes advantage of them. Maybe cosmetic aging treatments will be viewed the way Botox (or even, say, breast augmentation) is today. Some do it, most don't.
I could almost believe that about cosmetic treatments. But real anti-aging treatments? No way. When they're available, people will use them. If not for themselves, then for their loved ones. Consider Rico dropping dead from (apparently) a heart attack somewhere around the year 2050. I think such deaths will be very rare by then and there is no way that Vanessa would allow Rico not to be prepared for such an eventuality.
Likewise, even if Claire was too "granola" to go for life extension, what about her husband, Ted the Republican? He would probably have extended his own life just to be sure he was there with her when she died.
Ultimately, it's families, loved ones, and friends who will drive the acceptance of life extension technologies. Randall Parker and Glenn Reynolds do an excellent job of outlining the economic and political cases for life extension. These arguments will be persuasive and will play an important role in the eventual acceptance of life extension. But I don't think they'll be determinative.
As Glenn explains it:
I've watched people I love age and die, and it wasn't "beautiful and natural." It sucked. Aging is a disease. Cataracts and liver spots don't bring moral enlightenment or spiritual transcendence. Death may be natural -- but so are smallpox, rape, and athlete's foot. "Natural" isn't the same as "good."
Yep. Death sucks all, right.
Throughout all the generations of humanity, people have watched their loved ones age and die, and deep down wished they could do something about it. When options are available, people will use them. Of course they will.
The question isn't really one of "How long should people live?" It's more like "How long should my parents live?"
Over the weekend, my parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary. In proposing a toast, my father thanked my mother for 50 wonderful years and said that he looked forward to -- who knows? Maybe 50 more.
Who knows, indeed? What I do know is this: if I could give them the ability to celebrate their 100th anniversary, looking and feeling more like they did at the original wedding than they did over the weekend, I would. Would they take it? Based on his toast, I'm pretty sure Dad would. And if anyone could talk Mom into it, he could. Then again, she probably wouldn't need all that much convincing.
Utlimately, Ball ends his series on a death-affirming note. For a TV show about a funeral parlor, that's probably about par for the course. Plus, to be fair, life extension would have been a very strange idea for him to introduce now. Although certainly no stranger than quantum immortality.
I was watching a show about the making of SFU last week wherein Ball and some of the writers were talking about how our culture "avoids" death and "is afraid of it" and "doesn't deal with it," etc. So he wanted to do a show about that affirmed the reality of death.
But as others have pointed out, our culture is highly accepting of death in general. We may not affirm it, but we certainly accept it as reality...for everyone else, anyway. We only want to deny it or avoid it when it applies to us and to the people we care about. But far from being some defect that needs to be corrected, I would say that that resistance is what will eventually make death a mere shadow of the threat it is today, and death from aging or disease virtually unknown.