You Will Age And Die

Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye.  La Rochefoucauld, 1613-1680.

Our terror of death is one of our most reliable sources of bias.  In the latest issue of Current Directions in Psychological Science, Margie Lachman notes that

Older adults are less likely than the young to believe there are things that can be done to control aging-related declines in areas such as memory.

It seems to me that the threshold of just how infirm you would have to be before you would rather die also rises with age.  The young think they would tolerate only modest reductions in health and function, while the old actually tolerate very large reductions.   

Rage if you will against the dying of the light, or take a chance with cryonics, but believe it: you will most likely age, become infirm, and die.

(Yes, I know, someday technology may change all this.  But not soon.)   

Added: On p.120 of the 12/25/06 New Yorker is a cartoon with the caption, "Donald is such a fatalist – he’s convinced he’s going to grow old and die." 

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  • So you’re not buying the idea that folks in biostasis are likely not dead by future definitions of death? (“Why Transbemans in Biostasis are Alive”)

    Shouldn’t there be a difference between “only mostly dead”, and really dead? 🙂

  • Brian, taking a chance with biostasis may well be worth the cost; I’m an Alcor customer myself. But you should realize that biostasis will probably fail. And even if it worked that just lengthens your life; mostly likely you will still die eventually.

  • Judging from past history alone, I’d say that most people could reliably bet that they personally will eventually become infirm and die. However, I’m not convinced that there’s any real value in “believing” that one is going to become infirm and die. There is value in realizing the vulnerability of biological systems, but as far as overcoming bias goes, I don’t think it’s really much less of a bias to try to make yourself “believe” something about the future, whether it be a positive or a negative.

    It’s important to remember that certainty itself is a source of bias. I think it would be intellectually dishonest of me to state that for sure I think I am going to die — I can say that for all practical purposes it is highly likely, but I don’t think that accepting it as some kind of ultimate certainty is going to help me shed bias. Maybe you’re not talking about certainty at all here — just probability — in which case all I’ve written here is redundant. But I do often encounter people who seem to be very emotionally invested in certainty-seeking, to the point where they would rather believe explicitly and unquestioningly in a particular kind of life-death script than consider the uncertain nature of the future.

  • Anne, if you find yourself thinking differently about the whole subject than about, say, how long a tomato lasts in the refrigerator before it rots, then you’ve just discovered a prime source of bias.

    (Signed up with CI.)

  • I am having some difficulty interpreting the tomato metaphor, but if it’s saying what I think it is, no, I do not think differently about the life-death subject for people than I do about tomatoes sitting in the refrigerator. Without some kind of drastic intervention, both will eventually decay (though then we get into hairy questions about whether a rotten tomato is still a tomato, and at which point the essential nature of “tomato-ness” can be said to be lost for all time). And eventually the refrigerator will decay as well. Eternity is, I imagine, going to consist of a struggle between breakdown and maintenance.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: I would really like to see a well reasoned argument supporting the above claim, taking into account most of the most relevant arguments for and against, and arguing in favor of the argument’s relevance to the psychologically salient meaning of the words “age, become infirm, and die” so that the argument doesn’t simply follow from thermodynamics.

  • Michael, I am not trying to declare some cosmic law about the inevitability of decay and failure of all possible systems. I am talking about us today, and primarily relying on the track record so far.

  • michael vassar

    Past performance is no guarantee of future returns.

  • Just because most people tend to be overconfident doesn’t logically imply your unusually high confidence is unjustified.

  • Carl Shulman

    I would like to distinguish between the probability of death and the probability of death by old age. The former is guaranteed without exotic physics discoveries: not only to deal with the laws of thermodynamics, but to enable permanent exponential growth so that the chance of death from random quantum events approaches a limit of zero rather than one.

    The latter could be precluded either by death from other sources or technical advancement: the combination of a high estimate of the probability of existential risks and youth (current mortality tables and basic precautions would let me predict 50+ years ahead of me in which life extension technologies can be developed, setting aside cryonics) leads me to assign a <0.5 probability to death by aging or age-related disease.

    Robin, what probability would you assign to the class of outcomes in which human-descended civilization does not succumb to catastrophe, yet medicine is unable to fully repair the damaging effects of aging by the year 2070?

  • Carl, 2070 is way too late for fully-repairing medicine to save most of us. 2030 might be soon enough, but I’d put the chance of that at well below 10%.

  • Carl Shulman


    I mentioned personal information about age and adjusted mortality tables before proposing that number: your post was offered as general advice to a heterogenous audience. Plus, you have to factor in intermediate advances. Thanks for putting a number on it though.

    Is that estimate conditional on a failure of IA/AI efforts? Otherwise it also places an upper bound on your estimates of radical success with those technologies over the next 24 years.

  • Carl, this isn’t the place to go into detailing future scenarios. Surely any reasonable measure of academic consensus doesn’t expect mortality reductions much beyond historical trends any time soon. Similarly, financial market prices also do not reflect such an expectation. So we should at least agree that according to these types of consensus, most of us should think it more likely than not that we will get old, infirm, and die.

  • Robin, I don’t see offhand how market prices would factor in an event which would significantly break with the previous economy – nuclear war, biocalypse, intelligence explosion. Wouldn’t all trades be implicitly conditioned on settlement taking place and past assets having future value?

  • Living large early on would seem to counter the psychologically negative effects of aging and eventual death. I took that theory a little too far in my early 20s, but I’m still here and a better man for it all.

    More to the point, in my opinion and speaking broadly, the young tend to over-value the day in as much that tomorrow is not given enough consideration, while the old have learned to value the day by so many yesterday’s and perhaps the wanting of some of that back. Can’t get yesterday back, so each additional day is worth more.

    Teaching high school, I would ask my students on occasion which they would choose if they had to: losing their mental capacity but not their physical i.e. not retarded in the sense of needing full time assistance, but not a fully functioning adult either. . . or losing their physical capacity, but not their mental.

    Most, including the adults that eventually got invovled, chose losing their mental capacity. I thought this odd, and personally chose losing the physical, but of course, would rather not lose either.

  • Carl Shulman


    You said that “2030 might be soon enough” for fully age-repairing medicine to save most of the readership. Why *might*? The life expectancy at age 55 for men, and 59 for women, is 24 years given current mortality tables. Further the readership of this list is likely disproportionately intelligent (life expectancy increases with IQ), non-smoking, etc. Factoring historical trends in increasing life expectancy gives roughly another 6 years. Not to mention caloric restriction. Aren’t you implicitly suggesting a very extreme age distribution of that readership?

  • Marc_Geddes


    Speak for yourself. I don’t intend to die. But I do strongly sense the horror of my impeding death these days.

    Nick Bostrom said somewhere that what we need is ‘good analysis’. I’m not interested in analysis. I’m interested in results. By any means possible. No more Mr Nice Guy. I intend to go to any old lengths to escape.

    Better get cracking on more Bayesian research for AGI or it’s our heads on the grim reaper’s platter soon enough. Your recent ‘Why Not Impossible Worlds?’ idea is a step in the right direction towards evading that fate. Keep it up.

  • Eliezer, market prices be discounted to reflect catastrophes that would prevent investment from giving returns, and inflated for dramatic events that would give enormous returns, but a great reduction in mortality is not obviously either case. The value of life insurance companies with long term contracts and of companies with long term defined benefit pension plans are two examples of investments sensitive to long term mortality trends.

    Marc, I do hope for mortality reduction, but on the basis of our track record and the relevant available consenses, it seems like wishful thinking to expect to succeed enough to avoid death.

  • You can hope to succeed and work to succeed without expecting to succeed. Somehow, I doubt most people seriously interested in life extension (as in, trying to find ways to support real science that could produce it) are actually taking it on faith that it’s definitely going to happen for them, though I suppose perhaps I just haven’t met those people. That’s no better than turning it into a religion. All anyone can do is work toward the goal of Remaining Not Dead. I blogged about this recently, actually — if life extension “works” it’s not going to be anything like the mythical/literary kind of immortality in which a person is somehow mystically guaranteed survival into the indefinite future. As I said before, it’s going to be a process of trying to stay ahead of breakdown with maintenance.

  • Anne, meet Carl above, who says he assigns “a <0.5 probability to death by aging or age-related disease."

  • William Newman

    “The young think they would tolerate only modest reductions in health and function, while the old actually tolerate very large reductions.”

    I’m not sure how large this effect is, but to the extent it is large, how much of this is a change in preference and how much of this is people putting their own preferences second in response to a combination of social obligations and social pressure? People with social ties may come to feel that suicide (or various partial substitutes, aggressively not taking care of oneself and letting things cave in) would be letting other people down in an unacceptable way.

    I don’t know the figures, and I don’t know to what extent the early death is just an unsurprising consequence of other kinds of ill health, and I don’t know which direction the causality might run, but I vaguely remember that people with fewer social ties also tend to die considerably earlier…

  • Robin, I’d be happy to bet $10,000 against $1,000 that the Singularity (intelligence explosion version) will not occur by 2030. But only in dollars, not in probability – I’m willing to make the bet because I have different expectations about the likely value of a dollar in the two outcomes.

    As someone (I forget who) recently pointed out, cryonics changes the game not at all from the perspective of life insurance companies. It doesn’t matter to them whether or not you come back later; it doesn’t alter the actuarial statistics. If it’s a good bet to sell $100,000 of life insurance for $15/month to a 25-year-old, then it’s a good bet to sell $100,000 of life insurance for $15/month to a 25-year-old cryonicist.

    For sufficiently weird future events it is often not obvious (to me) how market prices should reflect them.

  • Eliezer, I agree cryonics doesn’t change insurance payouts, at least under current law, and since your bet offer seems to place an upper bound on the chance of a singularity by 2030, which I place a low probability on, it doesn’t appear we disagree.

  • Robin, my point is that I’m *only* willing to bet dollars – it’s not a statement about probability at all. Maybe a simpler example: I am willing to bet ten thousand dollars against one hundred dollars that the human species will *not* be completely wiped out by biological weapons before the year 2050. This has nothing to do with my estimated probability being less than 1%. It’s just that if you win the bet, I don’t have to pay it.

  • Eliezer, I don’t understand why you are telling us about a bet offer that says little about probabilities.

  • To make exactly that point: bet offers, i.e., market prices, may say little about certain probabilities, so you can’t just look at option pricing and draw conclusions about what “the market thinks” about recursively self-improving Artificial Intelligence. Though in this case I have serious doubts that the market is smarter than I am. The fact that I can’t think of any near-term way to make money from that, says something about the problem of using current-day market transactions to provide information on that particular subject.

  • With regard to the blog posting, it’s psychologically surprising that older adults are more skeptical about the efficacy of aging interventions. I would have thought, given the fact that death is nearer, that they would be more eager to believe fanciful tales of death postponement.

    I gather that this study is focusing on interventions to improve specific facilities like memory, and perhaps oldsters’ skepticism is simply due to their observations of the failures of these treatments.

    It’s also possible that the difference reflects changes across time; that is, perhaps old people have always been skeptical about medical interventions, even when they were young, because medicine was less effective (or at least, less hyped) in those days. Young people have grown up in an era full of gee-whiz articles about the miracles of biotech; it is the hot new field, so their exposure to modern day culture may make them more optimistic about medical treatment in general.

  • Eliezer, I would not claim that current market prices are sensitive to all possible future scenarios, just that they are sensitive to many scenarios that involve substantial mortality rate changes away from historical trends.

    For each of us with beliefs that differ substantially from academic or financial consensus, it would be interesting to post on how we come to terms with that. For Eliezer, one such topic is “singularity.”

  • ChrisA

    There is no way anyone can rationally calculate the probability of death by old age being solved by a certain date, all we can say is that it is a possibility. There are too many variables, and the variables interact in ways we don’t and can’t understand, therefore a rational person would not bet any sum on the probability.

  • Robin, what market prices tell us something significant about mortality reductions around 2030?
    I expect a good deal more medical progress in the 2020s than you do, yet don’t see how I could make interesting amounts of money by investing based on this belief.

  • Peter, I said above “The value of life insurance companies with long term contracts and of companies with long term defined benefit pension plans are two examples of investments sensitive to long term mortality trends.”

  • If we’re going to use current market prices to argue against the probability of a future technological development (e.g. lifespan/healthspan extension) in 20 years, it presumes the following proposition: if the technological development were to occur, it would be reflected in the prices now. If this is so, we conclude that the absence of that evidence is evidence of absence.

    Are there any historical cases of the markets anticipating new technologies twenty years off? Did the stocks of saddlemaking companies start dropping twenty years before the auto industry began seriously cutting into their profits? Is there any evidence the markets are that prescient?

  • Eliezer, markets prices certainly do contain expectations about twenty years in the future. But almost by definition those expectations did not put much weight on things that were considered surprises. Surely prices usually reflect something of a conventional wisdom at the time about the plausible range of future scenarios.

  • In terms of the probability of death being conquered, another place to look is the Foresight Exchange game, where people bet play money on future events, aiming to get the highest score.

    This calls for the death rate to be reduced by 90% by 2050. It is running at odds of about 30%.

    This asks whether immortality (by a certain definition) can be achieved in some mammal before 2015(!), and is also running at about 30% odds.

    Other sources of information on the issue would be to look at the general public’s belief, querying the “wisdom of the crowd”. I don’t know of any actual polls on the subject, although informally I’d judge that beliefs in scientifically conferred immortality would be very rare. We could also look at the consensus in the relevant scientific community, presumably gerontologists; again my informal impression is that few would believe in it.

    So there is a bit of a contradiction here; FX players are relatively open to the possibility, but the mob apparently doesn’t believe it, and neither does academia. It could be there is a selection effect among FX players and they are preferentially drawn from technophiles who have big dreams for the future; or it could be that the mob’s apparent skepticism is an illusion and if asked to bet on it their odds would not be so different from existing FX players.

  • “Market prices certainly do contain expectations about twenty years in the future. But almost by definition those expectations did not put much weight on things that were considered surprises. Surely prices usually reflect something of a conventional wisdom at the time about the plausible range of future scenarios.”

    …so either technological developments are usually “surprises” that go against the “conventional wisdom” of markets and hence markets are not useful information about them, or we ought to see automobiles showing up 20 years earlier in saddle manufacturer stock prices.

    If markets can’t predict technological progress, that doesn’t mean *we* can do any better. But it also means you can’t point to stock prices and say, “The market hasn’t priced in lifespan extension, therefore it’s very unlikely.”

    The foregoing paragraph implies that an investor with a 20-year time horizon should be able to make a profit by pricing in possible technological developments with a higher probability than the market assigns. The problem is that there are many possible technological developments, including an engineered plague that kills off a lot of life insurance customers. Small wonder that people trade on the conventional wisdom.

  • Hal, a 90% mortality reduction is about a 30 year increase in lifespan. Great, but not immortality.

  • Eliezer, my main point in this post was that we should all face the fact that the most likely scenario is that we age and die. I mentioned the possibility that technology might change things some day. We all seem to agree that standard academic, media, and financial wisdom seems to agree with my claim. What more do you want exactly?

  • Robin, I think it depends on whether the reduction in mortality is permanent or temporary. Mortality rate is the number of deaths in some time period divided by the population. It’s roughly the reciprocal of the lifespan. If that falls to 10% of current levels permanently, I think it would mean a tenfold increase in lifespan.

    However it is true that even a modest increase in lifespan before 2050 might lead to a temporary decrease in mortality rates that would satisfy the FX claim.

  • Hal, if mortality were constant with age then a ten-fold decrease in mortality would give a ten-fold increase in lifespan. But since mortality increases exponentially with age, each factor of two in mortality gives about ten years of lifespan.

  • Robin, I’d like to subtract the adjective “financial” off your claimed support for “You will age and die.” Intelligence explosions, engineered superplagues, and possibly even run-of-the-mill molecular nanotech – which tend to move prices *in contradictory directions*, and disrupt settlement of trades – are not being priced in; and all these possibilities mitigate against dying *of old age*. I would like to see evidence that markets anticipate things that strange, before I trust the market’s verdict; even if I thought I had some way of reading the conflated information about multiple possibilities off of stock prices. I think most people, even most hedge funds, trade on the premise that Life As We Know It goes on.

    A simpler way of putting it: Cryonics is the simplest pragmatic trade in practical futurism: a large probabilistic fraction of your life for $50,000 (CI prices). If someone can’t get that simple trade right, why do you expect them to properly price in far more complex issues like AI? Most people trade on the premise that Life As They Know It goes on. Show me a way to make some quick cash off this market inefficiency – I’m sorry, but I can’t afford to tie up large amounts of assets on 50-year bets that don’t pay off if they win – and I’ll make the trade.

    Count the number of hedge fund traders signed up for cryonics, weighted by funds under management, compared to the whole market. This is the total fraction of money moving prices that even *might* be future-clueful.

    The “standard media wisdom” can be tossed, without a second glance, out a second-story window.

    Academic consensus… I weight the academic consensus on aging medicine more than I weight Aubrey, though I’m reluctant to trust either. Why? Because where AI is concerned, I know how wildly silly is the process that produces the “academic consensus” on AI development. There isn’t one – a consensus that is – and what there is in the way of modal opinion is produced by off-the-cuff cocktail party speculations; you might as well roll dice. Outside the markets, talk about futurism is all cheap.

    I’m not necessarily saying that we could do better. I’m not necessarily saying that I can offer you a narrow probability distribution on any of this. But I don’t think there exists a solid consensus for us to defer to. It’s all cheap talk on the one hand, and traders who aren’t even thinking about these issues on the other.

  • Robin, I think you are using a different concept of mortality, as a function of age. The FX claim merely talks about death rate. Present U.S. death rate is 8.26 per 1000 population, or in other words, 0.826% of Americans die every year. For the FX claim to be satisfied this death rate would have to be reduced to 0.826 per 1000. That would not be consistent with people living ~100 years.

    You are right that if you reduced age-specific mortality at each age by a factor of 10 it would not increase lifespan much. However it would also not decrease total-population mortality much, because the age distribution of the population would change to put more people in high risk age groups. So doing this would not satisfy the FX claim, except possibly transiently.

  • Hal, I stand corrected.

  • michael vassar

    Robin: You said “For each of us with beliefs that differ substantially from academic or financial consensus, it would be interesting to post on how we come to terms with that.”
    I’m curious. Why do academic and financial consensus have privileged status relative to other consensuses (such as the media consensus that you mention later)? More generally, I would be interested in putting a post about this topic, that of the determination of relevant authorities. I think that it is clearly the academic consensus within some academic disciplines that many other entire disciplines (sometimes all disciplines except for either one’s own discipline or Physics) are worthless, which seems to make the concept of a unified academic consensus problematic. The market seems to also believe that huge amounts of money should be spent in order to carry out financial transactions when one side is definitely making a bad decision, and that smaller but still huge amounts should be spent paying mutual fund active managers and who definitely average worse than do index funds, and paying massive amounts to hedge fund managers who may also average worse performance than index funds. The market also apparently believes that the discounted value (despite its high price volatility) of future dividend flows from or rents on Earth’s above ground gold (about $145,000 tons) are worth a total of 3.35 Trillion dollars, despite that value exceeding 2.5x the estimated cost of extracting an equal amount today. I am deeply underwhelmed by the prophetic power of financial markets, or even their ability to integrate all readily available information into prices (and am ready to defend my position with the De Long-Summers argument and with other arguments of my creation from Prospect Theory and from naive Game Theory).

    ChrisA: Every proposition has a subjective probability. More clearly, it is rational to bet on any proposition for which one can build a dutch book for that proposition and it’s negation. Life extension results are almost surely results of this type. In fact, I think that the construction of life extension Dutch Books is probably a large profit opportunity. I have been trying to convince Aubrey de Grey that the Methusaleh prize should build such books at Lloyds of London and invest its prize money in such a form.

  • Michael, I didn’t intend to privilege some consenses, and yes contradictions within or between consenses seem worth examining.

  • michael vassar

    But it seems to me that taking seriously the result of examination of contradictions between consenses probably requires that one not accept consenses regarding “impossible possible worlds”.

  • Robin, whatever information prices of life insurance companies and companies with the relevant pension plans show is mixed in with a lot of other information (e.g. risks of inflation), and I doubt that you have found a way to separate information about medical advances in the late 2020s. I suspect you’re relying on cheap talk from people who claim to understand markets. Without clear signs of how much money people staking on the rate of medical advances 20+ years from now, I think you have said little beyond the existence of academic opinions that largely support your position. And I think you overestimate the value of academic opinion a bit.

  • Marc_Geddes

    >Marc, I do hope for mortality reduction, but on the basis of our track record and the relevant available consenses, it seems like wishful thinking to expect to succeed enough to avoid death.

    I find this very very difficult to come to terms with Robin.

    Let me put it this way: The Grim Reaper may be trying to get me, but the Grim Reaper has never yet encountered any entity as devious, tricky, unpredictable and ruthless as Geddes 😉 And now…a demonstration. I ask blog readers to keep their eyes on news reports regarding a $US 2 million global treasure hunt currently in progress… ‘Secrets of the Alchemist Dar’. I will solve the lower puzzle level first, beating out ‘the standard conscenus’ of tens of thousands of Mensa experts who have been working the puzzle so far. This will demonstrate the limits of consensus

    As to the market that’s just a very crude measure of the aggregated short-term volitions of your average Joes and Janes. It’s ridiculous to evaluate ‘the market’ to some sort of mythical position above society which we ‘consult’ for wisdom.

  • Marc, I could not ask for a more vivid example of fear-of-death-related overconfidence and denial. Do tell us here when you do, or do not, win $2M.

  • ChrisA


    Yes, if you had a dutch book case on longevity/non-longevity it would be rational to bet, but this would not be betting on longevity itself, you would be just taking advantage of an arbitrage. People with radically different beliefs rationally make the same bet in the dutch book case. After many such bets, all that the market would show was that the arbitrage had been resolved, it would not necessarily give you any useful information about the timing or likelyhood of a cure for old age.

    Also I am not sure an objective probability really does exist for things like a cure for old age. The event is a once only event and it will either happen or not. I would rather say it is indeterminate. The process to solution can’t be modelled, even with the best possible computer, all we can have is “intuition” which is a bit too close to astrology for me. Of course it depends on what you mean when you say that an event has a probability – to me this only makes any sense if it can be rationally calculated or modelled (not necessarily using today’s technology). Take the example of the decay of a radioactive particle, we cannot predict the timing of this decay on an individual atomic level, it is indeterminate – it can’t be calculated in other words.

  • The fact that this particular article has so many replies probably means something — regardless of whether one is overconfident, overly pessimistic, or something akin to possibly realistic, the subject of one’s own mortality does seem to prompt a lot of attention.

  • Anne, I wouldn’t call that a bias, but a proper judgment of the value of information, which derives from what it is information *about*.

  • Eliezer — I agree. When I said that it “means something” that this article has so many replies, I was referring to the fact that survival is a Really Big Deal for each and every one of us.

  • Marc_Geddes

    >Marc, I could not ask for a more vivid example of fear-of-death-related overconfidence and denial. Do tell us here when you do, or do not, win $2M.

    *Marc bows and grins broadly*

    PS As to the puzzle contest I mentioned it’s on 5 levels. I’m close to cracking the lowest level now – watch the ‘Media room’ here:

    Readers can verify for themselves by checking the stats (for numbers of users) in the forum that I was competing against at least 7 000 hard-core Mensa-ites. 1 race horse can beat 7 000 mules 😉

  • Via the Instapundit blog I found this article about Longevity Insurance:

    Basically, this insures you against longevity; that is, if you live long, it pays you, but if you die early, you get nothing. The idea is that many people have high expenses late in their lives and they may not have saved enough to carry them through an unusually extended life span.

    In effect, insurance companies are betting against the prospects for enhanced longevity. The commentor on the site linked is a life extension enthusiast and predicts that this will turn out to be a poor business decision for the companies.

  • See the small item added to the post above.

  • Trends in Attitudes Toward Life, Death and Progress

    That is no country for old men. The young In one another’s arms, birds in the trees (out of a –Those

  • Steve says that none of the 100 rings have been claimed. Marc Geddes is not mentioned in the article.

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