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Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple but heart-breaking story of a dying man. In this passage, Ivan finds it very hard to translate his far outside view about his death to a near inside view:
Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
Such was his feeling.
“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”
He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him. (more)
We could each gain great insight into ourselves if only we could consistently take the features we believe apply to many folks around us, and honestly ask ourselves if they apply to us as well. Folks around us are often boring, failures, irritating, misguided, vain, and, yes, dying. Are we?
In Tolstoy’s story the people around Ivan overwhelming cared about how Ivan’s death would affect them. They were eager to appear like the proper sort of caring person, but in fact didn’t care much. To comfort themselves, they preferred to blame Ivan for his problems, and refused to directly acknowledge that he was in fact dying.
Reading reviews of the story, I find that some (e.g.) also prefer to blame Ivan for his sad death. Tolstoy presents Ivan as a flawed person living a flawed life, and reviewers seem to think that Tolstoy was saying this is why his death was sad. Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.
Over at philosophical disquisitions, John Danaher is discussing Aaron Smuts’ response to Bernard Williams’ argument that immortality would be tedious. Smuts’ thesis, in Danaher’s words, is a familiar one:
Immortality would lead to a general motivational collapse because it would sap all our decisions of significance.
This is interestingly at odds with my observations, which suggests that people are much more motivated to do things that seem unimportant, and have to constantly press themselves to do important things once in a while. Most people have arbitrary energy for reading unimportant online articles, playing computer games, and talking aimlessly. Important articles, serious decisions, and momentous conversations get put off.
Unsurprisingly then, people also seem to take more joy from apparently long-run insignificant events. Actually I thought this was the whole point of such events. For instance people seem to quite like cuddling and lazing in the sun and eating and bathing and watching movies. If one had any capacity to get bored of these things, I predict it would happen within the first century. While significant events also bring joy, they seem to involve a lot more drudgery in preceding build up.
So it seems to me that living forever could only take the pressure off and make people more motivated and happy. Except inasmuch as the argument is faulty in other ways, e.g. impending death is not the only time constraint on activities.
Have I missed something?
Consider three design problems:
In all these cases, one makes a system to function in a given environment, and can either modify a complex system adapted to a different environment, or ”start over” via modifying a simpler system less adapted to any specific environment. In general, the more different is the new environment from the old, the better it is to start over. Old systems tend to be rigid, which makes them fragile, in that they break if you bend them too far.
This suggests that designed systems tend to get irreversibly fragile as they adapt to specific environments. When context changes greatly, it is usually easier to build new systems from “scratch,” than to un-adapt systems designed for other contexts. Software tends to “rot“, for example.
An empirical prediction here is that species occupying highly variable environments tend to have more descendant species in other environments, compared to species occupying less variable environments. I don’t know if this has been tested. It fits with the Innovator’s Dilemma though, where firms who serve the low end of a product line with simpler techs tend to creep up and displace those serving the high end; high end products tend to be more complex.
Today I’m focused on this being bad news for the feasibility of immortality, at least for human-like creatures. You see, our minds seem designed to adapt to the environment in which we grow up, via youthful plasticity transitioning to elderly rigidity. For example, we are great at learning languages when young, and terrible when old. We are similarly receptive when young to new ways to categorize and conceive of things, but once we have often used particular ways, we find it harder to understand and use alternatives.
The brains of most animals peak in functionality during their key reproductive years, and do worse both before and after. Short lived animals peak sooner than long lived animals. Some of the early rise is due to learning, and some of later decline is due to the decline of individual cells and connections. Some of this pattern may even be due to an explicit plan to turn up some dials on plasticity early on, and then turn down those dials later. But I think another important part of this rise and fall is due to a general robust tendency for adapted systems to slide from plasticity to rigidity.
Thus even if we succeed in creating emulations of whole human brains, “ems” which can use backups, body swaps, etc. to avoid bodily death and decay, we should expect such ems to decay by getting mentally rigid with subjective age. Even if we do not emulate any decline in individual cell and connection performance, nor any age-specific general plasticity dial settings, the mind itself may well decay with subjective experience, because such decay is just intrinsic to mind design.
Now in software design one can often slow a slide to rigidity by refactoring code, such as by looking for better abstractions to achieve modularity. But the brain probably already has some analogues to refractoring, such as in its ways to reorganize concepts. And even with large refactoring efforts, most designed software eventually gets rigid, so that when environments change enough such software is replaced wholesale by new systems built from scratch.
Similarly, em workers who start out subjectively young, and then learn how to work in a stable environment, may become increasingly productive in that environment, even after thousands of years of subjective experience. But when a new quite different work environment appears, one can probably gain more work productivity by training subjectively young ems for it, rather than trying to change ems who had spend thousands of subjective years adapting to a very different environment.
Today most houses and cars are in principle immortal, in the sense that enough maintenance can keep them functioning indefinitely. Yet most houses and cars are not immortal in practice, because those maintenance costs keep rising to the point where it is cheaper to build new houses and cars. Similarly it might be possible to keep very old ems around, even when they have become much less productive because relevant environments have changed. Someone, however, would have to pay that cost, relative to the option of using more productive younger ems. And as with houses and cars today, maybe few will pay.
If you personally hope to become an em with an especially long productive subjective life, it is probably important to stay general and flexible for as long as you can. Prefer to acquire habits and insights that are widely applicable, and whose value is likely to long continue. Prefer to write, deal with people, and manage complexity, rather than learning the detailed layout of a city or how best to write in a particular new programming language.
Eventually we may find mind designs with a much weaker tendency toward rigidity with age. And we may find ways to transfer some important elements of once-human minds, such as their memory and personality, into this alternative framework. But even then there should be some aging. And it gets even less clear if you’d want to think of such a changed creature as you.
Even more eventually, the universe should get a lot more stable, and with it the environments where minds function. Then there will be a lot more scope for very long lived human-like minds. If there are any human-like minds left at that point.
Added: Stem cells fit this; bodies usually make cells designed for specific places from general simpler stem cells, not by changing other specific cells.
The biggest single charity donation I’ve made so far is ~$100. But now I’m donating $5000 to an exceptionally worthy cause. And I suggest you donate too. Here’s my cause:
People who “die” today could live again in the future, perhaps forever, as brain emulations (= uploads, ems), if enough info were saved today about their brains. (And of course if civilization doesn’t die, if someone in the future cares enough to bother, if you are your brain activity, etc.)
This is probably enough brain info: the spatial shape and location of each brain cell, including the long skinny parts that stick out to touch other cells, and two dozen chemical densities (at the skinny part scale) to help identify cell and connection types. Actually, it is probably enough to just get 95% of the connections right, and a half dozen chemical densities.
Today, the main way folks try to save such brain info is to pay a cryonics org to freeze their brain in liquid nitrogen, and keep it so frozen for a long time. Alas, this approach fails if this org ever even briefly fails at this task, letting brains thaw, an event I expect is more likely than not over a century timescale.
In addition, we don’t actually know that frozen brains preserve enough brain info. Until recently, ice formation in the freezing process ripped out huge brain chunks everywhere and shoved them to distant locations. Recent use of a special anti-freeze has reduced that, but we don’t actually know if the anti-freeze gets to enough places. Or even if enough info is saved where it does go.
The people who developed the anti-freeze published some 2D pictures that look good, but we don’t know how selectively these were chosen, or how much worse is the typical cryonics freezing process. Some good brain researchers are skeptical. (Yes, future folk might undo even very complex brain scrabbling, but don’t count on it.) And given my usual medical skepticism, I gotta be skeptical here too.
Though cryonics has been practiced for forty years, its techniques have improved only slowly; its few customers can only induce a tiny research effort. The much larger brain research community, in contrast, has been rapidly improving their ways to do fast cheap detailed 3D brain scans, and to prepare samples for such scans. You see, brain researchers need ways to stop brain samples from changing, and to be strong against scanning disruptions, just so they can study brain samples at their leisure.
These brain research techniques have now reached two key milestones:
An anonymous donor has actually funded a $100K Brain Preservation Prize, paid to the first team(s) to pass this test on a human brain, with a quarter of the prize going to those that first pass the test on a mouse brain. Cryonics and plastination teams have already submitted whole mouse brains to be tested. The only hitch is that the prize organization needs money (~25-50K$) to actually do the tests!
This is the exceptionally worthy cause to which I am donating $5K, and to which I encourage others to donate. (More info here; donate here.) We seem close to having a feasible plastination technique, where for a few 10K$ or less one could fill a brain with plastic, saving its key brain info for future revival in an easily stored form. We may only lack donations of a similar amount to actually test that it does save this key brain info. (And if the first approach fails, perhaps to test a few revisions.)
I don’t understand why the cryonics community isn’t already all over this. To express my opinions to them more forcefully, I offer to bet up to $5K that plastination is more likely to win this full prize than cryonics. That is, if plastination wins but cryonics fails, I win the bet, and if cryonics wins but plastination fails, I lose. If they both win or both fail, the bet is called off. Any takers?
Shelly Kagan considers: why is death bad?:
Maybe … death is bad for me in the comparative sense, because when I’m dead I lack life—more particularly, the good things in life. … Yet if death is bad for me, when is it bad for me? Not now. I’m not dead now. What about when I’m dead? But then, I won’t exist. … Isn’t it true that something can be bad for you only if you exist? Call this idea the existence requirement. …
Rejecting the existence requirement has some implications that are hard to swallow. For if nonexistence can be bad for somebody even though that person doesn’t exist, then nonexistence could be bad for somebody who never exists. … Let’s call him Larry. Now, how many of us feel sorry for Larry? Probably nobody. But if we give up on the existence requirement, we no longer have any grounds for withholding our sympathy from Larry. I’ve got it bad. I’m going to die. But Larry’s got it worse: He never gets any life at all.
Moreover, there are a lot of merely possible people. How many? … You end up with more possible people than there are particles in the known universe, and almost none of those people get to be born. If we are not prepared to say that that’s a moral tragedy of unspeakable proportions, we could avoid this conclusion by going back to the existence requirement. …
If I accept the existence requirement, death isn’t bad for me, which is really rather hard to believe. Alternatively, I can keep the claim that death is bad for me by giving up the existence requirement. But then I’ve got to say that it is a tragedy that Larry and the other untold billion billion billions are never born. And that seems just as unacceptable. (more)
Imagine a couple had been looking forward to raising a child with their combined genetic features, but then discovered that one of them was infertile. In this case they might mourn the loss of a hoped-for child who would in fact never exist. Not just the loss to themselves, but the loss to the child itself. And their friends might mourn with them.
But since this is a pretty unusual situation, we humans have not evolved much in the way of emotional habits and capacities to deal specifically with it. Our emotional habits are focused on the kinds of losses which people around us more commonly suffer and complain. So naturally we aren’t in the habit of taking time out to mourn the loss of a specific Larry. But there are lots of people far from us whose losses we don’t mourn. That hardly means such losses don’t exist.
It seems to me Kagan’s attitude above amounts to insisting that is impossible to imagine a vastly better state (of the universe) than our own. After all, if a vastly better state that ours is “possible”, then the fact that our actual state is not that possible state is a terrible “tragedy”, which he will just not allow.
But if possible states can vary greatly in the amount of good they would embody, then it is almost certain that the good of our actual state holds far less than the maximum good state. This only seems to me a “tragedy”, however, if we could have done something specific to achieve that much better state.
If we can’t see what we could do to allow substantially more creatures to exist, then it isn’t a tragedy that they don’t exist. It is a loss relative to an ideal world where they could exist, but it isn’t a tragedy not to know to create implausibly ideal worlds.
Eighty-five per cent of them said it would be morally wrong to push one person off [a bridge] to save five [from a trolley], whether these people are brothers or strangers, confirming the idea that there is a rule against killing. However, despite thinking it wrong, 28 per cent said they would still push a stranger off to save five, while 47 per cent said they would push a brother off to save five brothers. (more)
One of the study’s authors offers an explanation:
Social cohesion demands we have rules, regardless of what they are, to help resolve disputes quickly and peacefully. DeScioli says our rule-making system is arbitrary, producing the belief that masturbation is “bad”, for instance.
But why resort to randomness when other good explanations remain? We naturally want simple clear social norms against murder. While simple rules create unfortunate incentives in specific cases, they are overall easier to monitor and enforce. This trolley problem seems to be one of those specific cases where many of us think that our simple rule against murder goes wrong – while we agree that killing in this case violates our murder norms, even so many of us are willing to violate such norms in order to help associates, especially if we care a lot about them.
While morality may be in general pro-social, it is not in every specific case. So there are times when you must choose between being moral, and being helpful.
Immortality would be a great help for my distant future selves – they’d get to exist. But it wouldn’t do so much for me now. As my future mind evolved away from who I am now, who I am now will get more and more forgotten and irrelevant. Me now would basically be dead.
Is there a better option? Imagine a copy of my current mental state is saved, and then revived for brief periods on special occasions, like major ceremonies, consultations, and votes. These revivals might decline in frequency with time, but spread over hundreds or even billions of years. When the accumulated effects of these revivals threatened to cause too much divergence from the original me-now, that original could be revived instead, to start another cycle.
That seems to about as much life as is feasible for me-now to have. And this sort of me-now immortality seems cheaper that the usual sort. That is, the (likely future) cost to give this sort of immortality to a me-now seems substantially less that the cost to ensure that a mind continues to evolve at something like its current rate and capacity for trillions of years. Of course this cost is still high, too high to offer to all me-nows. But neither is it ridiculous.
Yes, there is an ambiguity in how big a mental difference would count to create a different me-now. But the ordinary concept of immortality is also ambiguous when minds can be copied and run in parallel — how many of parallel copies need to last forever (or a very long time) for “me” to be “immortal”?
I expect a few future ems to be “immortal” in the sense of a single copy that continues on for a very long time. But I expect far more me-now-immortality, archived minds brought back with declining frequencies for rare ceremonies and consultations. This approach is cheaper, better serves the needs of others, and may even offer more of a reward to ems who identify more with me-now than their distant changed descendants.
Famed Historian Angus Deaton:
It is sometimes supposed … that rich people have always lived healthier and longer lives than poor people. That this supposition is generally false is vividly shown by Harris who compares the life expectancies at birth of the general population in England with that of [rich] ducal families. From the middle of the 16th to the middle of the 19th century, there was little obvious trend in general life expectancy. For the ducal families up to 1750, life expectancy was no higher than, and sometimes lower than, the life expectancy of the general population. However, during the century after 1750, the life prospects of the aristocrats pulled away from those of the general population, and by 1850–74, they had an advantage of about 20 years. After 1850, the modern increase in life expectancy became established in the general population. Johansson tells a similar story for the British royals compared to the general population, though the royals began with an even lower life expectancy at birth. …
Men die at higher rates than women at all ages after conception. Although women around the world report higher morbidity [= sickness] than men, their mortality [= death] rates are usually around half of those of men. … Women get sick and men get dead. … Biology cannot be the whole explanation. The female advantage in life expectancy in the US is now smaller than for many years, 5.3 years in 2008 compared with 7.8 years in 1979, and it has been argued that there was little or no differential in the preindustrial world. The contemporary decline in female advantage is largely driven by cigarette smoking; women were slower to start smoking than men, and have been slower to quit. (more)
This is a provocative hypothesis, but I don’t believe it. That is, I don’t believe that in general status and gender were unrelated to mortality until the industrial revolution. Chimp females live longer than chimp males, and I’ll bet that holds for foragers too. I’ll also bet that in both chimps and foragers high status tends to correlate with lower mortality.
Consider two plausible assumptions:
Today, as in the past, wealth levels tend to diverge over individual lifetimes, and then converge over many generations. People born with similar initial wealth often have quite different wealth at life’s end. They also tend to give different amounts to their children. Yet over many generations, distant descendants tend to have similar wealth. (At least if they live in the same nation; see Greg Clark.) Children often lack their parents’ drive or abilities, and prefer to spend their inherited wealth. “Rags to rags in three generations,” the saying goes.
But given the above assumptions, in the future able driven folks can continue to accumulate wealth indefinitely, allowing the usual within-lifetime wealth divergence to last far longer. Maybe eventually these old dogs couldn’t learn new tricks, but we should still expect to see far more wealth divergence in this future. Quick: does this sound like a good or a bad thing?
Now consider: in this future, wealth should depend less on parental luck, and more on personal merit, such as drive and ability. (Other kinds of luck matter too of course, but not obviously more than before.) Isn’t it good if personal wealth depends more on personal merit?
If you still find this scenario horrifying, that suggests your dislike of wealth inequality isn’t based so much on it being undeserved, but is more against the very idea of inequality. Perhaps you are horrified by such huge inequality because it shows raw luck imposing unnecessary harmful risk, which you want to cure via redistribution. But if so, it should be enough to offer folks wealth insurance. If you are horrified by a future where enough able driven folks knowingly reject wealth insurance, allowing some to become fantastically rich, then again your objection seems to be to inequality itself.
Btw, Tyler says:
When will the world have its first trillionaire? In real terms I say never, marginal tax rates will rise to capture the rents, one way or another.
This seems remarkably pessimistic about future world wealth or world-wide tax rates. Today’s richest man has $74B, which is probably ~$50B after correcting for “marginal tax rates.” So proportional growth of the world and the richest by a factor of twenty, roughly what we achieved in the twentieth century, would create a trillionaire.