Scrawled Notes from Should We Live Forever by Gilbert Meilaender

Scrawled Notes from Should We Live Forever by Gilbert Meilaender

(Note, these are meant to be very brief and spotty; they are based on reflections prior to the design of a 1 week course on end-of-life issues)

[x] “And I note… what would be lost if a substantial increase in the maximum human life span turned old age into ‘a kind of endless middle age’ and drastically altered the relation between the generations.”


[1] “The anti-aging medicine of the not-so-distant future would treat what we have usually thought of as the whole, the healthy, human life as a condition to be healed.” – The President’s Council on Bioethics, Beyond Therapy


“The highest expression of human dignity and human nature is to try to overcome the limitations imposed on us by our genes, our evolution, and our environment.” – Ronald Bailey, Liberation Biology


[2] Distinguishing aging from disease (former as something “built in”


[3] “The moral would seem to be: aim to cure or ameliorate the diseases associated with old age but accept aging itself.”  Yet, then notes that this may well not “make sense”.


[4] Need to think, from the start not merely about aging but of human aging

            [Act of man vs. human act]

            Discuss in relation to Spaemann article


[4-8] Remarks on biology and moral lessons

            [Discuss the problem of moral norms and natural law]


[10] “DNA has no aims or purposes, but we—who are not just collections of DNA—do.  Hence, this account is insufficient as a guide to human aging.  It cannot illuminate what is natural for us in the distinctively moral sense.”


[12] On the topic of compressed morbidity (the target being disease, not aging, at least directly)

            Be sure to quote Descartes as an example for students – seeds of the modern mind

            Hassing as well


            To be at the peak of our powers, and then fall off the cliff.

            Thinks it is incoherent (die of what? What would stop that from becoming a new target?)


[13] Normative thinking cannot proceed in isolation from what we are

            Cite Rhonheimer text

            Digression on related issues in sexual ethics concerning the old category of sins against nature

[14] Remarks on the place of purposive vocabulary

            Again, digress on metaphysics of this in class

            Comment on physico-mathematical sciences (and the outlook: “The equation is the cause”)


 [15] A lie with a particular shape

            This will be contrasted to a degree with “trajectory”, as will be seen at the end


[16ff] Notes that it is quite possible that the love (not mere narcissism) may be at play in the desire for more life


[19] “It must be that our freedom to step beyond nature’s limits is itself part of our nature and will not rest content with more of this life, however long extended.  Hence, knowing how endless (and legitimate) is our thirst for more life, God places cherubim with flaming brands to bar any return to paradise.”

            Discuss our philosophical and theological anthropology

            See Garrigou-Lagrange quote below


[23] “What we hope for tells us a great deal about who we are”        

[24] Posthumanity, as summarized by Katherine Hayles:

1. Information patterns more important than material instantiation [replacement of soul with “information pattern”]

2. Consciousness is an epiphenomenon [materialism and the replacement of intellect and will]

            [Yet, see 3]

3. Body is a first prosthesis

            [Real self is mere will; connect to other points]

            [See below]

4. No essential difference between bodies and computer simulations / organisms and mechanisms


[26] “Human beings are not simply isolated principles of will committed to indefinite self-transcendence.”

            Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, trans. G. D. H. Cole: “However, even if the difficulties attending all these questions should still leave room for difference in this respect between men and brutes, there is another very specific quality which distinguishes them, and which will admit of no dispute. This is the faculty of self−improvement, which, by the help of circumstances, gradually develops all the rest of our faculties, and is inherent in the species as in the individual: whereas a brute is, at the end of a few months, all he will ever be during his whole life, and his species, at the end of a thousand years, exactly what it was the first year of that thousand. Why is man alone liable to grow into a dotard? Is it not because he returns, in this, to his primitive state; and that, while the brute, which has acquired nothing and has therefore nothing to lose, still retains the force of instinct, man, who loses, by age or accident, all that his perfectibility had enabled him to gain, falls by this means lower than the brutes themselves? It would be melancholy, were we forced to admit that this distinctive and almost unlimited faculty is the source of all human misfortunes; that it is this which, in time, draws man out of his original state, in which he would have spent his days insensibly in peace and innocence; that it is this faculty, which, successively producing in different ages his discoveries and his errors, his vices and his virtues, makes him at length a tyrant both over himself and over nature. It would be shocking to be obliged to regard as a benefactor the man who first suggested to the Oroonoko Indians the use of the boards they apply to the temples of their children, which secure to them some part at least of their imbecility and original happiness. Savage man, left by nature solely to the direction of instinct, or rather indemnified for what he may lack by faculties capable at first of supplying its place, and afterwards of raising him much above it, must accordingly begin with purely animal functions: thus seeing and feeling must be his first condition, which would be common to him and all other animals. To will, and not to will, to desire and to fear, must be the first, and almost the only operations of his soul, till new circumstances occasion new developments of his faculties.” 

[27] The re-appearing problem of the soul and body

            Example given of Kant (and a rational morality) [Explain]

            [Review for them: Platonism vs. Aristotelianism]

            [Be sure to be explicit in drawing out the connection to our topic]


[28] “Not to be in control, to suffer the limits of a fate we have not chosen—that is the enemy.  The goal of indefinite life-extension is not so much in service of particular loves or projects as it is in service of one indefinitely expansive desire—to become agents who are not at the mercy of forces beyond our own control.”


[31] The price of the success of transhumanism may well be our humanity.

[32] Growing old is “not merely a matter of biology: it has social, psychic, and religious dimensions”

            Again, Human act

            “…would really be a human experience—

            Thus, the vital nucleus: Is there meaning in the free acceptance of death?

                        Note that this is answered on both the natural and supernatural levels

[33] Uses the image of the banquet that lasts just the right length of time

            But, importantly he also notes that this misses something important: the eros that longs for God.

            [It is this which gives life its shape.]


[35] Condorcet quote (good but not going to be used); notes that the hope in question is for more of the same, not God

[36] We are wayfarers on the path toward vision

[42] A basic point, already stated, but worth noting again: “We cannot know what we think of attempts to retard aging or prolong our lives indefinitely unless we know what a human being is and what it would be for human beings to flourish]

Notes at length arguments related to the idea of endless growth and accomplishment (and even loving of others


[47] Notes with Nussbaum how finitude helps to delimit human virtues.


[48] Notes also that vulnerability to enemies would remain.  (Notes also non-bodily harms.)

            Comment again: One can die for something that actually is higher than human life

            The question of a human act of death comes to the fore


[49-56]  Some reiteration; discussion of beatific vision and new heavens and new earth as explanations of eternal life


Hobbes Quote: “Nor would there be any reason why any man should desire to have children, or take care to nourish and instruct them, if they were afterwards to have no other benefit from them, than from other men.”  Hobbes, Leviathan


            [Comment on historicity of human person and man


[62] Discussion up to this point has been on generativity and the relation of generations.  He notes: “I suspect that the virtue of generativity needs something more than it can itself provide.  What generativity needs is a hope that is grounded in more than the relentless continuation of the life cycle.  It needs a transcendent ground, the confidence that our care for the next generation will have lasting significance, and that whatever is incomplete in our care will be completed by the God whose very being is truly generative”


[63] A social example: On the relation of the generations (after 300 years, children become like peers)

            [Remark on piety]

[67] And then what of birth? 

            [Note that the question of natural death is tied up with that of natural birth]

            [Thus, connect to other issues as above.]

 “A freedom that knows no limit may, however, begin to look more destructive than creative.  That is why the qualitatively different life for which the Christian believers have hoped has not been thought to be in any sense simply an extension of this life—or the product of human ingenuity.”

Insightfully on 67ff notes the connection to the question of “why have children”

[69] Grounded in a sense of gratitude.  “Before the sheer wonder of existence, we must simply bend the knee.”

[71] “There is, we should not forget, a fundamental difference between a desire to reproduce ourselves or produce an heir and a hopeful spirit willing to give birth to those who will one day replace both us and our projects.”

[72] “Only thus can we be freed from the tendency to grasp the gift of life and keep it for ourselves.  The deepest meaning of a gift, after all, is that it should not be grasped too tightly.  It should be received and enjoyed, but passed on.”

            Use the gift motif to underline the connection with the standard issues of end of life.

            Connect to suicide.


[73] “It turns out that the generative life is the only real alternative to the sort of self-enclosure that makes no room for mutual love and that in fact is death.  Why have children?...  Because the generative life, the relation between the generations, is a school of virtue in which we learn grateful faithfulness to the gift of life we have received, generous hopefulness for those to whom we hand on that gift, and the love that freely gives what it has freely received.”


[76ff] Discussion of extensive and intensive growth; the virtue of patience (its relation to means); not going to be directly taken up in class.

            [83] But note here theme of patience’s connection to the notion that “our agency is not mastery but participation in a power greater than our own.”


[95-96] Comments on the issues of the Aristotelian issues surrounding the political and the contemplative life

            [Comment: Connect to the monastic life; liturgy and life]

Garrigou-Lagrange quotes mentioned above:

“This poses another question: How does it happen that the human intellect, though naturally united to the body, senses, and sense memory, does not better adapt after sixty or seventy years (as one sees in many thinkers) to the complexity of reasoned intellectual work, which presupposes ever-renewed material information? How does it happen that this human intellect (above all in those who have the philosophical spirit or also among the ordinary who have lofty souls) after sixty or seventy years is ripe (even from the natural point of view) for an intellectual life superior to that supplied by libraries and all the means of information, as long as the soul is united to the body?”  (Reginald Garrigou-Lagrange, The Sense of Mystery, 94-95)


Even if the body would not be tired and would not be worn out, would not the human intellect (from the simple point of view of the natural order) fatigue after three centuries of this inferior intellectual travail? Would it not aspire to a more elevated contemplation?” (ibid., 95n37)


Benedict XVI, Homily for Easter Vigl, 2010

“But let us reflect for a moment: what would it really be like if we were to succeed, perhaps not in excluding death totally, but in postponing it indefinitely, in reaching an age of several hundred years? Would that be a good thing? Humanity would become extraordinarily old, there would be no more room for youth. Capacity for innovation would die, and endless life would be no paradise, if anything a condemnation. The true cure for death must be different. It cannot lead simply to an indefinite prolongation of this current life. It would have to transform our lives from within. It would need to create a new life within us, truly fit for eternity: it would need to transform us in such a way as not to come to an end with death, but only then to begin in fullness. What is new and exciting in the Christian message, in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, was and is that we are told: yes indeed, this cure for death, this true medicine of immortality, does exist. It has been found. It is within our reach. In baptism, this medicine is given to us. A new life begins in us, a life that matures in faith and is not extinguished by the death of the old life, but is only then fully revealed.”