By Manas Madan


In September last year, when a smiling Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, his paediatrician wife, announced their audacious goal, the world took notice. The goal of Chan Zuckerberg Science (CZS), as the initiative is called is to cure, manage or eradicate all disease by the end of this century.  The question emblazoned across the backdrop in front of which the couple stood, “Can we cure all diseases in our children’s lifetime?” has communities debating energetically again about a theme that has intrigued humankind since time immemorial - ageing, dying and immortality.


Research shows that Eastern and Western thought view the topic somewhat differently. Hindus believe that immortality is the highest aim of human life. The Vedic conception shows a dominantly optimistic spirit where a man not only lives a fully accomplished life, but also conquers mortality through the cycle of reincarnation. Hindu mythology has constant references to sages who lived for hundreds of years. Age was venerated then; even today, it is customary to fall at the feet of the older members of the family as a mark of respect. So, any actions towards extending people’s lives seems welcome in Oriental philosophy.


Let’s consider what the greatest three Western philosophers would have believed. Socrates speaks these dramatic lines at the end of Plato’s Apology, “The hour of departure has arrived, and we go our own ways – I to die, and you to live. Which is better, God only knows.” In Phaedo, he says to his friends that a true philosopher should look forward to death. The purpose of the philosophical life is to free the soul from the needs of the body. Death is the final separation of soul and body and hence the realization of his purpose. The body is not immortal, but the soul is.


So, if Socrates were asked the question of whether we should aim to extend people’s lives indefinitely, he would reject it both because it would mean that the philosopher would not achieve his true purpose, but also due to the fact that it would delay his soul becoming immortal.  


Plato would reject it with even more vigour, but Aristotle would have been more favourable. Being the son of a physician, he had more knowledge of the physical aspects of the human body and the material world. He also did not entirely agree about the immortality of the soul, neither that death is the final end of the soul entirely. The latter classical philosophers concerned themselves with practical issues of living, especially the quest for happiness and peace of mind. Therefore, they would have been favourable towards extending people’s lives.


Since Zuckerberg and Chan made the announcement, there has been a polarization of viewpoints across the world. Marios Kyriazis, Biomedical Gerontologist and Nobel Prize nominee for Medicine 2017 blogs that in the polls he’s conducted, many people would prefer to extend their lives in a healthy way to live significantly longer than the so-called maximum life span of around 120 years, if such an option was ‘freely available’ to them.  This initiative will give the choice to older people to enhance their life-span in a healthy way. Also, society can continue to benefit from their wisdom and experience, which would otherwise be lost.          


Those who argue against cite a variety of reasons. The popular one seems to be that this could lead to overpopulation of an already crowded planet. There’s scepticism on whether it would really work. Then, there are religious reasons – man is playing God and interfering with a natural process. Many believe that since this process would be very expensive, it would only benefit the few rich. Some think that if they live dramatically longer, they would have to witness the deaths of their family and friends.


It does look like the world is quite divided in their view on this question. What is yours?