The philosophy and psychology of death seem weirdly under-discussed - particularly by the wider silicon valley community, given how strongly anti-death many people in it are. This post is an attempt to think through some relevant considerations, primarily focused on my own intuitions and emotions. See also this old blog post - I mostly still agree with the points I made in it, but when thinking about it now I frame things pretty differently.
Fearing death, loving life
Let’s first distinguish two broad types of reasons for wanting to avoid death: fearing death, and loving life. Perhaps these seem like two sides of the same coin - but, psychologically speaking, they feel very distinct to me. The former was particularly dominant when I was in primary school, when a part of me emerged that was very afraid of death (in a way that wasn’t closely linked to fear of missing out on any particular aspects of life). That part is still with me - but when it comes to the surface, its fear feels viscerally unpleasant, so I learned to suppress it pretty strongly.
Arguments for why death is bad usually focus on positive reasons - living longer allows people to experience more happiness, and more of the other good things in life. These have resonated with me more over time, as I started to think about death on a more intellectual level. However, one difficulty with these arguments is that many parts of me pursue goals in a fairly myopic way which doesn’t easily extrapolate to centuries, millennia, or longer. For example, it’s hard to imagine what career success or social success look like on the scale of millennia - and even when I try, those visions are pretty different from the versions of those concepts that I currently find motivating on a gut level. Extrapolating hedonistic goals is easier in some ways (it’s easy to imagine being happy for a very long time) but harder in other ways (the parts of me which care most about happiness are also the most myopic).
In practice, then, most of my motivation for avoiding death in the long term stems from fear of death. Although that fear comes out only rarely, I have a strong heuristic that fear-based motivation should be transmuted to other forms of motivation wherever possible. So what would happen if I talked more to the part that’s scared of death, to try and figure out where it’s coming from? By default, I expect it’d be uncooperative - it wants to continue being scared of death, to make sure that I act appropriately (e.g. that I stay ambitious). Can I assure it that I’ll still try hard to avoid death if it becomes less scared? One source of assurance is if I’m very excited about a very long life - which I am, because the future could be amazing. Another comes from the altruistic part of me, whose primary focus is increasing the probability that the future will in fact be amazing. Since I believe that we face significant existential risk this century, working to make humanity’s future go well overlaps heavily with working to make my own future go well. I think this broad argument (along with being in communities which reward longtermist altruism) has helped make the part of me that’s scared of death more quiescent.
Indeed, probably my main concern with my current attitude towards death is actually that I’m not scared enough about existential risk - I think that, if my emotions better matched my credences, that’d help motivate me (especially to pursue particularly unusual or ambitious interventions). This doesn’t seem like a crucial priority, though, since my excitement- and interest-based motivations have been working fairly well so far (modulo some other productivity gaps which seem pretty orthogonal).
Generalising to others
So far I’ve talked primarily about my own experience. I’m curious about how well this generalises to other people. It seems like fear of death is a near-universal emotion (it’s striking that the first recorded story we have is about striving to escape death), but my guess is that most people have it much less strongly than I did.
Since most people aren’t very openly concerned with avoiding death in the long term, I feel uncertain about the extent to which they’ve suppressed versus dissolved that fear. My guess is that in western societies most people have mainly suppressed it, and that the hostility they often show to longevity research or cryonics is a psychological defense mechanism. If so, then overcoming those defense mechanisms to convince people that death is not inevitable might unlock a lot of suppressed excitement about the future. However, I’m wary of assuming that other people are too similar to me - perhaps other people’s fear of death is just more myopic than mine.
There also seem to be some people who started off with a long-term fear of death, then dissolved it, usually by significantly changing their conception of personal identity - via meditation, or drugs, or philosophical argument. The big question is whether this change is more like an empirical update, or more like a value shift (to be clear, I don’t think that there’s a bright line between the two - but something can be much more like one or the other). If the former, then perhaps fear of death is just a “mistake” that many people make. Whereas the latter suggests that death is really bad according to some people’s values, and mostly fine for others, even though they may in other ways be psychologically similar. Both of these conclusions seem a bit weird; let’s try to get a bit more clarity by digging into arguments about personal identity now.
Continuity of self
The core question is how much we should buy into the folk view of personal identity - the view that there’s a single “thread” of experience which constitutes my self, where I survive if that thread continues and “die” if it breaks. I consider thought experiments about duplicates to provide strong evidence against this position - it seems very compelling to me that, when two identical copies of myself are created, there is no fact of the matter about which one is “really me”. Insofar as many people have intuitions weighing the other way, that’s probably because we evolved in an environment where identical duplication didn’t happen. In a future where duplication exists, and we continue being subject to evolution, I can easily imagine the mental concept of survival-of-self being straightforwardly replaced by the concept of survival-of-a-copy-of-myself.
The main alternative to caring about continuity is caring about level of similarity - identifying with a successor if they are sufficiently psychologically similar to you. This might leave you identifying with many successors, or ones that are very disconnected from you in time or space. However, it’s also consistent with identifying only with successors with a level of similarity that, in practice, will only be achievable by copying or uploading you (although I expect that really buying into the similarity theory of personal identity will make most people more altruistic, like it did for Parfit).
The strongest argument in favour of the folk view arises when considering large universes, like quantum multiverses or spatially infinite universes. In a quantum multiverse there are many copies of myself, and I tend to experience being the ones with more measure. But what does that even mean? If I expect that N slightly different copies of myself will branch off soon, and all of them will have the experience of being me, how can I anticipate being more likely to “find myself” as a given one of them? There's something here which I don't understand, and which makes me hesitant to fully dismiss the idea of a thread of experiences (a confusion which Yudkowsky explores in these two posts). I think the appropriate response is to be cautious until we understand this better - for instance, I would currently strongly prefer being non-destructively rather than destructively uploaded.
Generalising to society
When we stop thinking on an individual level and start thinking on a societal level, many more pragmatic considerations arise - especially related to how widespread longevity might shift the overall balance of power in the world. I do think these are important; here, though, I want to focus on a couple of broader philosophical considerations.
I previously talked about the part of myself which wants to make the future amazing. Partly that stems from imagining all the different ways in which the world might dramatically improve, including defeating death. Partly it’s an aesthetic preference about the trajectory of humanity - I want us to flourish in an analogous way to how I want to live a flourishing life myself. But there’s also a significant utilitarian motivation - which is relevant here because utilitarianism doesn’t care about death for its own sake, as long as the dead are replaced by new people with equal welfare. Indeed, if our lives have diminishing marginal value over time (which seems hard to dispute if you’re taking our own preferences into account at all), and humanity can only support a fixed population size, utilitarianism actively prefers that older people die and are replaced.
Now, I don’t think we’ll hit a “fixed population size” constraint until well after we’re posthuman, so this is a pretty abstract consideration. By that point, hopefully we won’t need to bite any bullets - we could build a flourishing civilisation which extrapolates our more human-specific values as well as possible, and also separately build the best utilitarian civilisation (assuming we can ensure non-conflict between them). But I’m also open to the idea that the future will look sufficiently weird that many of the concepts I’ve been using break down. For example, the boundaries between different minds could blur to such an extent that talking about the deaths of individuals doesn’t make much sense any more. I find it hard to viscerally desire that for myself, and I expect that most people alive today are much less open to the possibility than I am, but I can imagine changing my mind as we come to understand much more about how minds and values work.
Upon reflection, I might also add a third distinct motivation - the celebration of immortality. I get this feeling particularly when I read fiction with very long-lived characters. But since it's much weaker than the other two, I won't discuss it further.
At least double digit percentage points, although my specific estimate is pretty unstable.
On a side note: I feel very uncertain about how much information about my brain (in the form of my blog posts, tweets, background information about my life, etc) would be sufficient for future superintelligences to recreate me in a way that I’d consider a copy of myself. I haven’t even seen any rough bounds on this - maybe worth looking into.
I find it difficult to know what you mean by “fear”. What I mean by it is a certain physical and emotional response to danger, involving elevated heart rate, heightened alertness, and readiness for strong exertion to overcome whatever the danger is. My most intense experiences of this have been in nightmares. In waking life, all that comes close is the flash of alarm when crossing a road and I realise that a car I failed to notice is bearing down on me. And watching the “Alien” films.
In this sense, fear and my own death have nothing to do with each other. Of course I would prefer not to die, but to call mere preference “fear” is like calling a dog’s tail a leg. The dog won’t start walking on it just because you pointed and said “leg”. Despite my preference, it is very likely that I will be dead in a few decades, but to me this is just a fact about the world.
What are other people pointing at when they point at their fear of death?
My mind gets caught by the immensity of the future, and the finitude of my life. I think about all my experiences ending, and an endless void not even being observed by a perspective. I think of emptiness; a permanent and inevitable oblivion. It seems unjust, to have been but be no more.
As this happens, I can feel the physiological signs of panic. I lose sensation in my fingers and toes as blood is diverted to my core. The coldness creeps up to envelop my hands, sometimes reaching to my forearms if I don't direct my mind's eye to other thoughts. A small stone tumbles in my stomach. I feel a slight tingling along my scalp and cheeks, and my periphery becomes dimmed.
Huh. Your "endless void" doesn't appear to have a referent in my model of the world?
I expect these things to happen when I die:
Put differently, this "endless void" has already happened for you: for billions of years, before you were born. Was that bad?
Or put yet differently again, if humanity manages to make itself extinct (without even Unfriendly AI), and there is no more life in the universe forever after, that is to me unimaginably sad, because the universe is so empty in comparison to what it could have been. But I don't see where in this universe there exists an "endless void"? Unless by that you are referring to how empty the universe is in comparison to how it could have been, and I was reading way too much into this phrase?
I once got into a philosophical debate over whether or not "nothing" was, itself, a thing. Some of this was unmitigated pedantry (i.e. as soon as X is "a thing" it can no longer be "not-a-thing" a.k.a. "no-thing"). Can you refer to nothing? There's nothing (heh) you can really point to in order to do so. The space in between myself and my interlocutor was filled with air. An imagined void between the stars is even filled with distance, a space that is traversed by light or any potential interstellar travelers. A lack of experience was the closest I ever got to something that is truly nothing; something that can be defined only by its lack.
Perhaps the void can only be pointed towards in contrast to an alternative. I grew up christian, and so during my youth I regularly fantasized about an afterlife of bliss. Some of those mental roadways remain, but rather than leading towards a paradise they lead towards nothing. Instead of anticipating bliss, I anticipate a lack of experience. A lack of experience is not itself unpleasant, but anticipating it scares me.
You rightly point out that I was birthed from the void. If the past void does not fill me with fear (it doesn't), how does a lack of experience differ simply for being placed in the future? Part of it is a matter of control. I well and truly cannot alter the past, but the future feels like it could be within my grasp. I mostly acknowledge that I will return to the void, but a part of me rebels and hopes that I will continue into the future indefinitely. In addition to control, much of the meaning I ascribe to life exists in the future as well. Part of this stems from the way that I look at mathematics; that limiting behavior is the foundation of my mathematical thinking. Therefore I intuitively expect that taking the limit of human life as time progresses (both my own and that of humanity as a whole) will reveal to me the meaning of life. The statement "everything is finite, therefore nothing matters" is intuitively appealing to me, but extremely unhelpful for making the most of my time alive.
I'm not sure how helpful this was for you, after writing it I still feel like I have missed more than I've covered in terms of why oblivion is so terrifying to me. It feels like I've quibbled about the details around the edge of something instead of getting to the heart of it, but I don't know where the heart of it lies.
It sounds like our utility functions match on this pretty well. For example, I agree that the past and future are not symmetric for the same reason. So I don't think we disagree about much concrete. The difference is:
This is very foreign to me. I can't simulate the mental state of "think[ing] about [...] an endless void not even being observed by a perspective", not even a little bit. All I've got is "picture the world with me in it; picture the world without me; contrast". The place my mind goes when I ask it to picture unobserved endless void is to picture an observed endless void, like being trapped without sensory input, which is horrifying but very different. (Is this endless void yours, or do "not you" share it with the lack of other people who have died?)
I feel an aversion to thinking about topics related in any way to my dying. No elevated heart rate, unless my person or my livelihood is threatened.
The word I use for what you describe is shock, or perhaps if you're allowing something longer term, dread. I use fear to mean the emotional state I usually (but not always) experience when anticipating negative outcomes. It is characterized by a contracting feeling in the chest, racing thoughts, and what I'll call for lack of a better phrase "negative emotional valence". I experience this when anticipating death, which is an outcome that is quite negative indeed. I also experience this, due to my social anxiety, before talking to almost anyone, despite not actually anticipating a negative outcome, and before important tests, which I don't expect to cause me danger but could cause something bad to happen.
Do you experience this emotion in this way? If so, what do you call it?
The names we assign emotions are, of course, somewhat arbitrary, but I find it interesting that what you call fear seems to be centered around a possible danger. What do you consider danger to be, if not a risk of death? If an assassin were hunting you with a completely painless weapon, would you experience what you call fear?
The word I use for what you have described is anxiety. I do not experience it when contemplating the diminishing amount of thread left on the reel.
Yes, danger is a risk of negative things, and death is one of those things. The painlessness of the hypothetical assassin's weapon would be a trifling matter compared to the fact that he would be trying to kill me. But I dare say that no-one knows how they will react under fire, until the first time. I am fortunate enough to have never lived in a bad neighbourhood or a war zone, nor given anyone reason to send assassins after me.
Huh, people really do have a lot of variation between them. I'd personally call anxiety a subtype of fear, but I suspect I have coarser grained emotional labels than some or even most.
Regardless, it's fascinating you don't experience anxiety when thinking about death. I guess unless we ever find something to actually prevent it for it you're certainly luckier than I.
Big understatement, and insanely easy to forget. https://www.lesswrong.com/tag/typical-mind-fallacy has been common knowledge for a long time, but it keeps surprising me just how many dimensions it applies to. That said, it doesn't surprise me at all that anxiety experience is one of the highly-variable dimensions.
Note that it varies across time as well as between individuals. I used to be much more fearful of death (and physical pain, and failure at work, and many other things) than I am now. Part of it is intentional meditation, introspection, and therapy, but a lot of it seems to be just age. I'm simply more accepting of things than I was a few decades ago.
I don't experience very much fear of death in my daily life, possibly because there isn't much that would trigger it. I would feel it if I was trapped in a burning building. I also feel something like a fear of death when I imagine being very old, or AGI being developed, though I think that I'm more afraid of poor health or pain or facing the deaths of the people I care about. I expect to feel a fear of death more acutely when AGI seems close, or once I am old.
I remember that there was a time when I felt afraid of death more regularly. As a teenager, I felt agitated by the thought that continuity of self might not survive sleep. Or for that matter a full waking day, because by evening, events that happened early in the day would already feel like they almost happened to someone else. Later on, I read thought experiments about personal identity and did meditation, and became less concerned about continuity of self being a real thing in the first place. Then I also stopped worrying about losing it to things like sleep.
I think I also have a preference for life whose reason isn't mentioned in your post. It's something like an aesthetic preference for the person who I am. I think it's cool that a person like me exists. I'd like him to continue existing, the way I'd like to see the continued existence of all the other people who I like. I approve of his aesthetic choices - in fact, I would make exactly the same choices myself.
Sometimes for my end of the course advice for my students at Smith College, I suggest that my students sign up for cryonics. Students are not hostile, they are amused. They frequently think I'm joking despite my efforts to be as serious as possible and despite the fact that they have had a full course with me.
Out of curiosity, is cryonics in particular or life extension in general germane to the course? Or is this general advice unconstrained by the subject matter?
The advice isn't related to the course.
For myself, there's an element of acceptance and reducing the power of "negative emotions", which I've practiced and gotten better at with age. It's not that I no longer fear death, it's just that I'm OK with fearing death, and the fear doesn't cause me ongoing pain nor interfere with the joy of life. I try to do this with hunger, body aches, and the like as well - put some attention to whether there's anything I'm going to do about it, then move on.
I strongly disagree with this. I think the idea of human fungibility is flawed from a hedonistic quality of life perspective. In my view, much of human angst is due to the specter of involuntary death. There has been a lot of academic literature on this. One famous book is Ernest Becker's: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death/
Involuntary death is one of the great harms of life. Decreasing the probability and inevitability of involuntary death seems to have the potential to dramatically improve the quality of human lives.
It is also not clear that future civilizations will want to create as many people as they can. It is quite plausible that future civilizations will be reticent to do this. For one, those people have not consented to be born and the quality of their lives may still be unpredictable. There is a good philosophical case for anti-natalism as a result of this lack of consent. I consider anti-natalism totally impractical - and even problematic - in today's world because we need the next generation to continue the project of humanity. But in the future that may not be an issue anymore. Whereas people who have opted for cryonics/biostasis are consenting to live longer lives.
(As a side note, I'm a strong proponent of brain preservation/cryonics and I'm consistently surprised others are not more interested in it.)
(updated from a previous comment I made on this topic here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/vqaeCxRS9tc9PoWMq/why-are-some-eas-into-cryonics)
To steelman it, maybe he's thinking of how it's commonly seen as a tragedy for a chicken to be alive for only one week, but killing it after some X years is not as much of a tragedy.
Initially, this implied to me that the curve of "value of remaining alive' is higher in the beginning of a lifespan. But thinking about it, that's not the same curve as the curve of "value of being alive", which is lowest in the beginning.
(If that's confusing, it helps to think of the one curve as the mirror image of the other, i.e. if value of being alive is high later, it means the value of remaining alive "in order to see the later parts of life" is higher early on.)
It's also possible to view the value of being alive as a flat line, a positive constant, which could lead to his idea of human fungibility. But to use a different example, if you make me choose between five individuals living one year and one individual living five years, I prefer the latter... Same with two people dying at 25 vs. one dying at 50. Fewer people living longer is better. I can only see this working out if it's not a flat line: value of life increases with each year already lived.
Very interesting topic. When I was a child I was terrified of death: it seemed like the worst possible outcome to me, and I imagined that I would rather live being tortured for eternity rather than die (although it's unlikely I would have maintained this preference in practice).
At one point I got very into Stoicism and for a summer I imagined at the start of every day that I, and all my loved ones, might die today, and used this as motivation to be grateful for each day and make the most of each interaction. About a year later I almost drowned - for about 20 seconds I thought I was going to die, but I didn't feel any fear. It's possible that this is how I survived, as I was able to stay calm and think my way out of the situation. Of course I still feel fear related to many dangers, and I haven't done any exercises like these in a while, so the effects aren't as strong.
But I certainly believe now that there are many things worse than death, and I probably take a bit more of a epicurean view of the badness of death than most EAs (I would measure the badness of death purely in foregone positive experiences and the negative impact it has on loved ones).
This is an interesting amalgam of different views from utilitarianism and common-sense morality. It seems to require:
I think (2) makes sense insofar as you define welfare as a function of person-moments. But under assumption (1), it wouldn't be crazy to treat a death-event as an intrinsically bad thing, that made your total welfare somewhat worse, in which case you might want to keep people alive in order to avoid too many death-events.
I'm also not sure about (3). Sure, people today care more about living 10 more years than they care about the difference between living for 100 and 110 years. But once they've lived for 100 years, their preference for living another 10 years might still be just as strong. In that case, I don't see why we should defer to the earlier person's view.
It could also be the case that
(If you allow death events, it seems pretty easy to construct functions like this. I think it's possible without death events, too, if the first few years of your life has relatively low welfare.)
My intuition here is that even if you treat death as intrinsically bad, as lives get longer the fixed harm of death eventually gets outweighed by even a small decrease in marginal utility over a long time.
Interesting point. But what I mean by "taking preferences into account at all" is that your preferences about the future have some moral weight. If at 20 years old you thinks that the decade from 100 to 110 is less valuable than the decade from 20 to 30, but your 100-year self disagrees, I don't know how much to weight your 20-year-old views but they need to have some weight in order for us to really be taking your preferences about your own life seriously - which then drags down the value we place on that decade.
Could this still asymptote to above the value of creating a new life? Probably with some settings of the variables, but seems unrealistic if we're assuming logarithmic preferences, which seem like the most psychologically realistic (especially over very long time horizons - who would trade 10^7 guaranteed years for a 10% chance at 10^8 years?)
My intuition is that there is no such thing as a fixed harm of death, as if it were a bad experience like a bout of the flu, added to the scales of utility. The harm of death is precisely the loss of one's future. The amount that one wants that future is the amount that one wants to not die.
Why am I not allowed to intrinsically disvalue dying, in a way that's separate from the value I place on my future as a whole?
You can value or disvalue whatever you like. But the only negative thing I see about my death is that I don't get to live any more. That is what death is. I don't understand the distinction you are intending between them.
Separate from that is the actual process by which it comes about, which is at best instant, but usually unpleasant, and sometimes dreadful.
I think this is an important point. What measures the subjective value of an event or state of affairs? If we assume that it is something like happiness, or time of being alive, we run into counterexamples and paradoxes like the repugnant conclusion.
A more plausible measure of subjective value seems to be based on what we want: Death is bad for someone precisely to the degree of how strongly they don't want to die. Furthermore, death is bad for them because they don't want to die. Death is not bad because death would make them live shorter, or because it would deprive them of future happiness. (Those may be influencing factors, but only and exactly to the degree they want to avoid to living shorter or being deprived of future happiness.)
Hm, maybe this follows if we're just allowing each individual to have a fixed amount of preferences, and so as your life gets longer, each new person-moment's preferences matter less because they're somehow averaged out. But if your 100-year old self has changed a lot, and in fact have quite different preferences, then this seems kind of unfair to them. Maybe we should weigh their preferences just as much as we would weigh a 20-year old's preferences, and accept that this means that longer-lived people get to have more preferences?
Here's one possible take on how this could work:
(Depending on your philosophy of identity, maybe this is actually a world where my young self has died, gradually, via changing into someone else.)
Should that have read, "The former ..."?
I strongly feel that dying is contextual. I do not fear death in any sense which is meaningful, in terms of the part about personally being dead. I am afraid of certain consequences of my death; biggest by far is that my family would go without my support or protection.
In the matter of dying, there's preferences: I'd rather die fighting than fleeing for example, unless fighting would be really stupid; it's not fear exactly, but no one wants to be tortured to death. The fearful options are things like Alzheimer's and assorted madnesses, wherein I lose the things that make me, me.
These last couple of examples introduce a 'death is preferable' category. There's lots of conditions like this, which are mostly a matter of choosing between dying or suffering pointlessly and expensively and then dying anyway.
Speaking to your suppressed vs. resolved fear question: my prior is very strongly on suppressed. This shows up vividly at end-of-life events: I have observed families where someone was dying of cancer, was deeply ambivalent about getting medical treatment because of the discomfort, and then so averse to thinking about death that no arrangements were made for their passing. This left the whole family to only really begin the process once the sick person died, which was further obstructed by the aversion at least one other family member had to death. This resulted in what was already an emotionally fraught decision process being disorganized and traumatic well into the zone of grim comedy. From the other end of the same kind of event, consider the case of people demanding their loved ones receive treatment to the point of medical torture. These seem to me like cases where people are suppressing the fear so hard they would cause object-level harms to other people rather than confront it.
Regarding blended/borderless minds losing identity, I don't think this will necessarily eliminate the fear of death, or mean that death isn't still happening: I've partaken in an egregore that feared its own dissolution more than I typically feared my own (albiet, that is not very much). The fracturing of groups can be quite a sad thing. I do think that a time will come (though, yes, probably a fair bit after we become post-human, quite a while, in subjective time) when death becomes more of a... re-arranging of parts, but it will still be the end of something. The admission that continuing this project could no longer be justified, yielding to the cries of the unborn.
(By the way, dear Richard, we're planning a session of our podcast called The Steelman, about Death. It might be nice to have you along? I don't know. The cryopets guy is on board for it, but hasn't given a date. Must be busy.)
I think in the third sentence you meant "former", not "latter"? I might be reading it wrong though, if you meant that the latter was dominant before that part emerged.