David Brooks has a very thoughtful column on the fact that a lot of soaring health care costs have to do using all means available to keep very sick people alive just a little bit longer.
Following Daniel Callahan, Brooks notices that the progress toward indefinite longevity encouraged particularly by our transhumanists and some of our libertarians has stalled. There’s no cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s on the horizon, although Brooks may minimize a bit the progress that has been made and is on the horizon when it comes to heart disease.
Modern technology, our great Lockean/Cartesian project, is a war against nature and for personal significance and so, among other things, a war against the personal extinction that we often believe comes with death. We see the war against death, as I’ve said before, in our increasingly meticulous attention to risk factors that threaten our very being and in our increasing reluctance to generate replacements (kids—that we don’t really need, after all, if we’re all staying around indefinitely).
It could surely be better for each of us if we could become more accepting when it comes death, and so not deploy every high-tech weapon available in every case.
The ancient “learning how to die” (in the absence of personal salvation by a personal Creator) is about coming to terms with the inevitable. But the successes of modern science have cast into doubt that conclusion that death is inevitable any particular time. We still don’t know how long we can extend each of our lives eventually, although we do know not forever.
And to the extent that we’re Lockeans (or, as Walker Percy says, pop Cartesians), we tend to identify the end of one’s own self-consciousness with the extinction of being itself. So the war against MY death has extreme cosmic significance. I’M the one who endows meaning and purpose on existence.
Gil Meilaender, a wise man cited by Brooks, actually adds that our fight against death isn’t just narcissistic. If I love and am lovable, it’s good that I stay around, and so I have a sort of duty to do what I can not to die. I even have duty, Gil once wrote, to be a burden on my child (or children), so that she has the opportunity to do what she can for me out of love.
Brooks’ thought has become, of course, more neo-Darwinian and neuroscientific. And so he’s concluding that obsessing over one’s own being is both unnatural and contrary to the happiness we social beings are given by nature. The problem is, of course, that we free persons just aren’t satisfied with beings insignificant parts of evolutionary nature. And we also have the same high personal opinion, of course, of the signficance of those we love.
There does seem to be something really unnatural about our techno-desire to personalize all of nature or being. That’s one reason why it seems deeply futile. Our mistake must be in believing that our personal existence is dependent on what we can do for ourselves.