Thoughts on Death

post by BlackNoise · 2014-02-14T20:27:27.578Z · score: 7 (14 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 27 comments

Death sucks.

Today (14/2/2014) my mothers’ father died after struggling with cancer for about a year.
What pains me is the loss, but more so how it affects my mother, especially my imagination being ‘useful’ in imagining how losing her would be like.

The tragedy as I see it has a slightly different flavor than that of my other family members: For them it’s probably seen as an ultimately inevitable end, and few perhaps hold some hope/notion of an afterlife or maybe just never thought too hard about what death entails.

For me, as one who identifies with Transhuman ideas, and believes in at least the feasibility (if not high likelihood) of preservation and future restoration, this feels like an ultimately preventable tragedy. Where my mother will grieve, I will have uncertain regret and doubt.

With that as background, I’ve felt the need to write out some of my thoughts regarding identity, anthropics and existence and death.

 

First off, what is a person?

The way I see it, everything a person is, is the algorithm and information structure contained in some fashion within the brain (most likely in its structure), which means a person isn’t limited to biology as a substrate. If the functional relations and information structure is preserved, there is nothing preventing one from recreating them on a different substrate or even in a simulated environment as an upload.

Moreover, a person isn’t a single continuous entity; the ‘me’ of today is not quite the ‘me’ of yesterday, which in turn isn’t the ‘me’ of a year ago, Rather, a person is a series of ‘Person-instances’, connected causally between themselves and the world.

In this context/worldview, certain philosophical problems get obvious solutions:
Destructive teleport for example, preserves identity by virtue of maintaining the causal connection, even if the teleport is done by destructively scanning a person then recreating them years later; from inside it’d seem like one was teleported into the future.
For non-destructive teleportation or mind-cloning, the answer to “which is ‘you’” is ‘both’ (or ‘yes’), since both satisfy the condition of preserving the identity-information-structure while being causally related to the person-instance of before. However, from that point onward, both ‘you’ instances now have a nearly identical and slowly diverging clone/sibling that over time grows more distinct.
Looking at how the subjective experience would look like supports this, since both would feel like being the same person from before.

In general, identifying with separate person-instances of yourself should be a question of degree rather than a binary yes/no. Especially considering that person-instances can be separated by more than just time, if any multiverse-type ideas are true.

 

This brings me to the second point: Metaphysics.

Not too long ago, I’ve encountered the ideas of Max Tegmark about the nature of existence. The really short version is (if I understand correctly) that existence is, at its highest/lowest level, how intelligent-life-supporting mathematical structures look like from inside.
The idea struck me as a beautiful way to close the explanation chain, providing at least qualitatively a consistent model of existence and reality that contains a path explaining the existence of one to ask and understand it.

Combine that, and various simulation-type arguments with anthropic thinking, and you get an identity spread across the multiverse in a forest of causal trees, with the occasional Boltzmann brain containing the causal ‘back/forward’ links arising purely by chance, and you get a very peculiar view of how being a person looks like from inside, specifically at points close to branch-ends:
Like with quantum suicide, even if the measure of realities in which you die far outweighs those in which you don’t and assuming some smoothness in that there’s no lower probability/measure limit to what still feels like an existence, then ‘you’ still get a continuation of experience, even if at a much lower measure.

This requires a rethinking/reworking on the specifics of why death sucks and the fact is there are still branch-ends. Even if there is a last moment minor probability split and continuation corresponding to things like reality as given being an ancestral simulation or something, the loss of measure feels like a really bad thing in and of itself, beyond which there are the many realities in which you are now dead, which hurts any others that care about you in all those worlds, not to mention the circumstances surrounding branch-ends aren’t likely to be pleasant.

Overall though, it seems that there’s a subjective kind of immortality, combined with a gradual thinning out over realities, where death still sucks and should be avoided at all cost, and will probably happen to everyone besides you.
Note that horrific injury and survival are still very much a possibility, and the question of what you ought to expect is to me at least somewhat confusing, especially regarding things like cryonics in that you’ll only expect a continuation of identity in the events it works, but you’d only prefer it in the events it worked and the future doesn’t suck, and if you find yourself in the branch with the ‘future sucks’, getting to one where it doesn’t seems kind of... difficult.

Definitely recommend acting as if death = cessation of existence, which is objectively true within any single reality (unless that reality is extra weird), and think about the subjective continuation-of-identity thinking for special cases like when deciding for/against signing up for cryonics, and in general the whole measure thing is kind of confusing, though thinking about it in context of what to expect seems like a useful direction.

 

So, A bit of a mess of only somewhat coherent ideas, I’d appreciate any corrections regarding the metaphysics and any other oversights, but otherwise just thought I’d let this out. Hope at least someone besides myself derives some  use from it.

 

 

27 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by buybuydandavis · 2014-02-15T18:44:42.515Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Death sucks.

In the Learning thread, someone linked to an article about Feynman, which noted that he died Feb 15th. It's not like I expected him to be alive, but the anniversary gave me a big "Death Sucks" hit that I doubt I would have felt on other days.

Boo, Death.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-02-14T20:57:45.310Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

You have my condolences and sympathy. It makes it somewhat difficult to write a critique of your post esp. as my position on death is controversial here and the only relatives I lost until now were grandparents so I feel I'm not qualified to strongly defend my (tentative) view here.

So instead I make this into a question: Is anybody qualified to defend deathism who hasn't at least lost a child, partner or parent?

comment by Mestroyer · 2014-02-15T00:22:40.740Z · score: 14 (14 votes) · LW · GW

The idea that you have to meet some criterion, or have to experience something personally before you are allowed to argue for a position really irks me. Especially when that criteria is asymmetrical like this, it sounds like you're trying to get an excuse for ignoring the other side.

Anyway this criterion would probably backfire. (Edit: oh wait, you probably wouldn't see this as a backfire) Older people have lost many more child/partner/parents, and are probably more likely to be deathist. If deathism is a sour grapes/get hit over the head every day with a baseball bat and come to say good things about it response, those who have been hit over the head the most should say the most good things about it.

comment by shminux · 2014-02-15T01:22:54.836Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So instead I make this into a question: Is anybody qualified to defend deathism who hasn't at least lost a child, partner or parent?

Having lost all my parents and grandparents in the last few years to various causes, from Alzheimer's to cancer to accident, I suppose I am partially qualified.

First, I dislike the locally popular term "deathism", as it has built-in negative connotations, like "slut" and so thwarts your rationality before you even start thinking.

Second, there is a big difference between growing old, weak and sickly before checking out for good, or having one's life interrupted by a freak accident, and staying healthy and capable for a predictable fixed number of years and then discontinuing in an orderly fashion. Most would agree that the former is strictly worse than the latter. It is debatable, however, whether fixed-duration youthful and healthy life is necessarily worse than eternal life, as far as the continuing prosperity of the human race is concerned. I commented about it before, and got downvoted severely, presumably by the anti-deathist crowd.

comment by Mestroyer · 2014-02-15T02:14:38.753Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

First, I dislike the locally popular term "deathism", as it has built-in negative connotations, like "slut" and so thwarts your rationality before you even start thinking.

Negative connotations of "deathism" seem to me to flow entirely from the negative connotations of "death" (or, almost-entirely. Adding "ism" onto anything makes it sound a little evil, but most philosophies are named with an "ism" and that doesn't thwart our rationality). Mostly, the negative connotations flow from our actual utility functions. The idea of replacing it with a word designed not to arouse these emotions brings to mind this paragraph from Orwell's Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Negative connotations of "Slut" on the other hand seem to flow from the utility functions of people who aren't me, and from the expectation that their utility functions are common in society, and from the self-reinforcing classification of the word as an insult as a result.

comment by hyporational · 2014-02-15T05:21:06.354Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It is debatable, however, whether fixed-duration youthful and healthy life is necessarily worse than eternal life, as far as the continuing prosperity of the human race is concerned

I think this depends a lot on how cheaply you can train the new productive individual. If I died but you could create me again without cost at will, what's the loss?

comment by Squark · 2014-02-15T18:47:25.393Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What exactly is "deathism"? Is it:

  • The statement that "death is good, ceteris paribus". Seems like virtually everyone would agree it is false.

  • The statement that "death is sometimes preferable to life". Seems like virtually everyone would agree it is true. I don't think many people think killing a person is a bad choice under all circumstances (e.g. probably everyone would agree killing a lunatic about to blow up the Earth is good if it's the only way to stop her).

  • The statement that "suicide is sometimes preferable to staying alive". More debatable, but I think that most LWers at least would agree suicide is preferable to an eternity of torture?

  • ???

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2014-02-15T18:57:18.900Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

"Deathism" is something like the position that the current way in which people typically die is preferable to a hypothetical where people usually don't die. This is associated with arguments like "death gives meaning to life" (motivates during life to do more), the hypothetical overpopulation/resource shortage problems, and the idea that without new people, there will be a shortage of new ideas or social change.

comment by Squark · 2014-02-16T10:56:43.935Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK, now I understand. Indeed it doesn't seem either obviously false or obviously true.

However, won't the free market solve it automatically? If societies that embrace immortality technology will be less successful than societies that won't embrace it, the latter will eventually own most of the resources.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2014-02-16T11:14:19.694Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

If societies that embrace immortality technology will be less successful than societies that won't embrace it, the latter will eventually own most of the resources.

"Success" is not specific enough (has misleading connotations). When measles virus kills a person, the virus is "more successful", but that doesn't indicate that the outcome is a good thing.

comment by Squark · 2014-02-16T18:47:49.108Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

My point is that even if you accept the deathist thesis that a civilization of immortals will become stagnant (which I think is a valid concern), it doesn't mean immortality is black swan technology. Let's give people the choice of how long to live.

Also, even if the optimal life span is not infinite, there's no reason to assume it's close to the natural life span. It might be e.g. 30000 years.

comment by ete · 2014-12-03T02:01:38.467Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What succeeds at being stable and producing more of itself most efficiently is not necessarily what we consider to be most good or contain the most moral value. The market is a very powerful optimizer, but not an inherently friendly one.

For example, contrast two countries, one an idyllic paradise with happy citizens who pay very low taxes and a country with very high taxes, unhappy workers, but a much more powerful military. If there's a conflict between them, the country with unhappy workers+high taxes has a large advantage, and will win, despite this being not in the interests of the average worker. A possible real life example is the Comache Indians, and more development of this idea (multipolar traps) can be found on SlateStarCodex's Mediations on Molch.

comment by Squark · 2014-02-16T10:55:30.365Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

OK, now I understand. Indeed it doesn't seem either obviously false or obviously true.

However, won't the free market solve it automatically? If communities that embrace immortality technology will be less successful than communities that won't embrace it, the latter will eventually take control of most resources.

comment by hyporational · 2014-02-15T05:08:55.416Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Is anybody qualified to defend deathism who hasn't at least lost a child, partner or parent?

Can you elaborate? Seems like this could introduce more bias, depending on how the people died and how young. We're all mortal so far, I think that's qualification enough. I've probably already seen more death professionally than anyone here will ever see personally, but I see that just as another source of bias if I want to examine the issue dispassionately.

Query death in my brain and it will return images of how people have died or rather how they have lived just before their deaths. It will return images of how their loved ones have continued living. This doesn't have much to do with the rather abstract concept of death and how we should value it ceteris paribus.

I'd certainly be interested in your view, especially if it's controversial.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-02-16T00:07:56.133Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

OK. I bite. I will write a post about deathism explaining my controversial view. I already collected the necessary references but didn't get around to make it into a comment yet. I answer this comment to commit to actually writing the post this weekend. Please call me on it if I shouldn't.

The key points are: Humans can cope with death/loss (actually learn from it). And death/loss is adaptive (for the group).

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-02-16T20:30:32.886Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

There: http://lesswrong.com/lw/jop/a_defense_of_senexism_deathism/ you got it. Didn't go well as expected.

comment by hyporational · 2014-02-17T06:26:55.561Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks. While I appreciate your effort I suspect it would have gone better if you had prepared better. What's with the rush?

It still stimulated active discussion. Consider that a victory.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2014-02-17T15:47:35.384Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

What's with the rush?

Postponing likely would have meant: Never. At least: At a later time to the same conditions (punctuated constant postponing). That's because due to the ongoing discussion (and later research) I had sufficiently many facts swapped in. But for finishing a sufficiently high quality post I just don't have the time.

It still stimulated active discussion. Consider that a victory.

I do. I'm used to posting with 85% positive rate. I wonder whether being controversial fades with time.

comment by lucidian · 2014-02-15T21:41:58.028Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

What would it mean to examine this issue dispassionately? From a utilitarian perspective, it seems like choosing between deathism and anti-deathism is a matter of computing the utility of each, and then choosing the one with the higher utility. I assume that a substantial portion of the negative utility surrounding death comes from the pain it causes to close family members and friends. Without having experienced such a thing oneself, it seems difficult to estimate exactly how much negative utility death brings.

(That said, I also strongly suspect that cultural views on death play a big role in determining how much negative utility there will be.)

comment by trist · 2014-02-15T01:11:34.443Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

In lieu of losing someone, you could put yourself through a realistic simulation (of the first stages).

Really though, we're all qualified to defend either deathism or immortalism. I'd love to hear what a deathist thinks is the strongest arguments for deathism.

comment by Mestroyer · 2014-02-15T02:15:49.368Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

In lieu of losing someone, you could put yourself through a realistic simulation (of the first stages).

How would you do that?

comment by trist · 2014-02-15T02:56:09.498Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Ask a creative friend to arrange one.

If someone asked me to arrange one... Firstly I'd schedule a random date a year or more hence, and not look at it. I'd determine how much cooperation I could expect from simulated and family and friends. More cooperation makes it easier. On that random day, I'd get an email, and I'd let people know, and start things moving. Anything from one parent calling about the other's death to "police" calling to their partner summoning them home... The better people are at acting and the further away the simulated death occures the more realistic and longer experience they get. Given a specific situation there are probably better ideas.

Then there are less normal possibilities, perhaps hypnosis?

comment by Mestroyer · 2014-02-15T03:28:02.058Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Hypnosis could work if you're susceptible to it. I don't think I would fool myself with the "wait a year or more" thing. Unless said person was really competent, and said "What the hell kind of request is that? You need professional help." (or something to the same effect, but more plausible and less exaggerated) when you asked, and then did it anyway a few years later.

I don't know anyone with the skills to do either plan who I think would be willing to entertain weird requests like that. Also I wouldn't like to make my reaction known to other people without knowing it myself first, because I might not be sad enough for their expectations. Especially the expectations of the person I'm supposed to think has died.

comment by Nisan · 2014-02-15T00:36:56.870Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I'm sorry your grandfather died. That sucks.

comment by hyporational · 2014-02-15T05:40:21.728Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Sorry for your loss, I think I understand the flavor.

My grandfather-father-figure died a week ago. He was the most interesting person I've ever personally known, like a 1000 year old vampire. Alzheimer's disease ate away all that interestingness in a few years. The death was gradual as I see it, hardly preventable. Definitely motivates me to try to prevent such losses in the future. Cue a traditional funeral with promises of a different kind of eternal life. The daft ideas are a mockery of who he was at his peak.

comment by V_V · 2014-02-15T12:16:08.471Z · score: 0 (6 votes) · LW · GW

The tragedy as I see it has a slightly different flavor than that of my other family members: For them it’s probably seen as an ultimately inevitable end, and few perhaps hold some hope/notion of an afterlife or maybe just never thought too hard about what death entails.

Sorry for your loss, but I can't help but note that this seems to be a quite condescending and arrogant position. Philosophical and literary reflection about mortality has been present in all cultures, and I'm pretty sure that humans have been thinking about death well before they could write.

Thinking that the dead could be living on in different Everett branches, or in whatever variety of Tegmark's neo-Platonic world of ideals, isn't really much different that thinking they could be living on in a supernatural otherworld. And death still sucks for somebody who believes in Everett branches as much as it sucks for anybody who believes in a supernatural otherworld or metempsychosis, for exactly the same reason.

Burying the dead, burning them to ashes, or putting then into dewars filled with liquid nitrogen, after performing culturally-appropriate rituals which all involve some sort of symbolic "preservation", fulfils the same social and psychological functions.

Just because other people don't buy into your specific flavor of afterlife it doesn't mean that they haven't thought about death and haven't reached conclusions similar to your own.

comment by BlackNoise · 2014-02-15T18:55:35.958Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Meant more in the context of 'Nothing could have been done' vs 'Something could have but wasn't'. Though yes, it may read as more condescending than intended.

While humans in general have indeed been thinking about death for ages, I doubt many of the less religious ones hold strong beliefs about what exactly it entails. Not to mention those who genuinely believe in an afterlife ought not to be as sad/hurt as those who don't.

All this ultimately doesn't diminish the pain of loss people feel, hence the whole 'death is bad' thing. Also, don't confuse superficially similar things as being similar on a deeper level.