Thursday, February 05, 2009

The Parallels Between Apologism and Theism

This term, like last term, I am teaching my favourite class "Genetics and Justice" here at Queen's. And today's topic is one that always stimulates much debate-- aging research. Last term I offered a number of substantive points on the imperative to get people to discard their "aging blinders". Here I want to elaborate a bit more on a point I made in that earlier post.

Let me start by re-stating something I posted last term:

Consider what I will call “Key Value Premise”: Suffering disease and death is bad. If you agree with Key Value Premise, then you must also come to grips with the reality of aging. Let’s call this “Key Empirical Premise”: aging increases our risk of morbidity and mortality; not just by a small amount- these risks increase *exponentially* with age (until around age 95, when late-life mortality plateaus).

So if suffering disease and death is bad, and aging dramatically increases these risks, then we ought to be seriously considering ways of tackling aging. When things are clearly laid out like this, it is hard to see how anyone could object to making longevity science more of a priority (who can deny the value and/or empirical premises noted above?)

Today I was struck by the parallel between how I justify my belief that aging (more specifically the biological aging of adults) is a significant problem that we should strive to mitigate and my atheism. These two beliefs I have, which I admit are in the minority among my contemporaries, are ones I think no rational person ought to deny. Here I will draw a parallel between those that deny both. The former we can call (following Overall) "apologists" and the latter are "theists".

Let us start with what I will call "Conventional Belief #1": this is the belief that death and disease are significant harms and things we should aspire to prevent and avoid if possible (providing certain conditions hold- like the mitigation is cost-effective, etc.).

So most rational people hold Conventional Belief #1. If you ask them if they think we should strive to reduce the deaths caused by poverty, malaria, HIV, cancer, car accidents, smoking, war, etc.... etc... they would say "YES!". Things that cause disease and end our lives are bad. We should try to prevent them from happening. OK, so far nothing very controversial.

So now I ask: is there any cause of disease or death you would object to trying to minimize?...... long silence..... anyone out there opposed to trying to reduce our risk of morbidity and mortality?..... anyone.... last call for objections.....

OK, I assume there are not many objectors to Conventional Belief #1. But, and this is were one opens the floodgates of "Gerontologiphobia", how many people think it is desirable to try to prevent disease and death by retarding human aging? Well, that changes everything!! Now the apologists come out in full force. People who agreed with me so far will all of a sudden do an about face and raise objections to the goal of keeping people healthy and alive. "That is unnatural!" they might say. Or they worry "This will cause overpopulation!" or "There will be massive unemployment!" etc., etc....

There is almost no end to the reasons people will give to justify why the current rate of aging, and its ever growing disease burden, is actually a good (rather than bad) thing! This is particularly frustrating giving that aging causes most disease in the world today. If people tried to rationalize why death by being decapitated by an elevator was desirable and should be tolerated at least that would not make a big difference to the health prospects of most people. But to tolerate the main cause of disease and death in the world today is the last thing we should be tolerating given our commitment to Conventional Belief #1. Those who believe, as I do, that there is a moral duty to retard human aging, just take Belief #1 one extra step.... we believe it is important to try to prevent the most common causes of disease and death-- the chronic diseases associated with aging. It is irrational to not extend Belief #1 to aging itself given the role aging plays in our susceptibility to disease.

So how does this link up with the issues of theism and atheism? Here is another conventional belief that many rational adults will accept- "Conventional Belief #2": there is no such thing as magic. In other words, we don't believe in things that have 0% empirical evidence to support them. We don't seriously entertain the belief in the existence of the tooth fairy, pixies, dragons or unicorns. These things are not real. And yet, many people want to make at least one exemption to Belief #2, just as apologists do with Belief #1. That is, they are willing to believe in a god.

Dawkins has a great line that we are all atheists about most of the gods humans have believed in (thor, zeus, etc.)... some of us just go one god further. Likewise, we are all "pro-longevity" for most things that kill humans (war, cancer, poverty), champions of aging research just go one step further by acknowledging that aging itself is a big problem we should strive to mitigate.

So when I reflect on my own belief system I appreciate the influence that respect for logic and a philosophical apptitude have had on my own personal beliefs. I cannot permit myself to just grant exemptions to core rational beliefs like Belief #1 and Belief #2.

Having said that, I can also appreciate why it is hard for so many people to abandon their "pro-aging" or "pro-magic" belief system. Indeed, I myself used to hold those beliefs and it has been a long and sometimes difficult journey to go from the beliefs I once held as a young adult to those I have today. Giving up these beliefs requires a major re-orientation of one's perception of the world, something few people are keen to undertake. Indeed, I would describe my own transformation as one that involved a good deal of cognitive dissonance, as I sought to reconcile my desire for some logical consistency between Belief #1 and #2 with my attitudes towards aging and magic. So I can understand why people are not keen to being reminded that aging increases their risk of disease and death (it's not a pleasant thought!). Nor do theists enjoy hearing that this life "here and now" is all there is to their existence (indeed, they often wonder why atheists even bother going on with life if they don't believe in some higher purpose).

The tendency to grant exemptions to Belief #1 and Belief #2, like apologists and theists do, are perhaps adaptations or a byproduct of our evolution. They are a form of cognitive bias, and as such they lead people to hold beliefs that are irrational and contradict the way they tend to live their lives on a daily basis (i.e. trying to avoid disease and death and not believing in magic).

The two issues of longevity science and religion are related in other ways. I actually believe the latter impedes the advancement of the former. It is much harder to make the case for modifying the rate of aging natural selection has given us when people think that death actually brings eternal bliss (rather than an end to life) and that evolution is "just a theory" or wrong. To meet the challenges of the 21st century we must have the courage to strive for a 21st century intellect. To do this we must emphasis the importance of science education.

So let me finish with the sage comments from a recent editorial by Bruce Alberts in the journal Science :

Rather than only conveying what science has discovered about the natural world, as is done now in most countries, a top priority should be to empower all students with the knowledge and practice of how to think like a scientist.

Scientists share a common way of reaching conclusions that is based not only on evidence and logic, but also requires honesty, creativity, and openness to new ideas. The scientific community can thus often work together across cultures, bridging political divides. Such collaborations have mostly focused on the discovery of new knowledge about the natural world. But scientists can also collaborate effectively on developing and promulgating a form of science education for all students that builds scientific habits of mind.