A defense of Senexism (Deathism)

by Gunnar_Zarncke6 min read16th Feb 201489 comments


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EDIT: Incorporated suggestions from comments: Moved off-topic parts into comments, improved formatting, corrected links.


The LW post Value Deathism differntiates between the illusory nature of death and the 'desirability' of death called deathism proper. This post is about the latter. Where desirability is meant in a general sense and not (only) in the sense of desirable for an individual.

I propose a different more neutral term for deathism: Senexism - from the latin adjective senex - old.  I propose this because death is only the end of an aging process and by focussing on the ultimate and emotionally disturbing result one loads the topic with negative connotations. Senescence on the other hand - though unwanted - has also positive connotations of experience and humility. This also nicely splits off (or reduces applicability of) death by accident. 


My defense is twofold. First I address the (emotional) pain and loss death causes and point out adaptive affects of the coping mechanisms humans have. Second I address the actual benefits senescence and death has - not for the individual but for the group. Thus the latter is an utilitarian argument for death actually.

I will provide current research results for these points. At the end I will conclude with an opinion piece on what this means for rationalists and an outlook how this applies in light of the singularity. 

Fear of Death

How does (fear of) death affect you?

Terror Management Theory (TMT) posits that

people cope with mortality by creating beliefs and values that promise a sense of immortality.

And research supports the premise that these beliefs are

(a) defended more when people are reminded of death and

(b) protect people from mortality concerns.

Some more scientifically validated claims of TMT are (nicely presented by psychology today):

Death reminders cause people to self-enhance and protect self-esteem, such as by agreeing more with positive feedback and taking more credit for success and identify more with members of their own group, and even to rate them as more unique from other animals.

One can see this even here on LW e.g. in links from Death and also in the defenses of cryonics - which look like an afterlife meme

Applied to this post this means that you are likely to 

1) defend [your] cultural worldviews more strongly. 

(here e.g. denial of death via cryonics) thus I objectively risk karma.

This is the reason I started this post with a positive confirmation. I hacked you dammit. I used this fact: 

9) Defending any of these things (relationships, beliefs, etc) prior to being reminded of death, or taking away people's anxiety, reduces the effects that mortality thoughts have.

Western thinking of coping with death is confused with beliefs of coping with death. Probably due to the above effect itself. 

We seem to believe that (when you read this ask yourself: Do you agree with this?)

  1. Bereaved persons are expected to exhibit significant distress following a major loss, and the failure to experience such distress tends to be seen as indicative of a problem.
  2. Positive emotions are implicitly assumed to be absent during this period. If they are expressed, they tend to be viewed as an indication that people are denying or covering up their distress.
  3. Following the loss of a loved one, the bereaved must confront and “work through” their feelings about the loss. Efforts to avoid or deny feelings are maladaptive in the long run.
  4. It is important for the bereaved to break down their attachment to the deceased loved one.
  5. Within a year or two, the bereaved will be able to come to terms with what has happened, recover from the loss, and resume their earlier level of functioning.

Do you agree?





No! These are all Myths of coping with death!

It is true that

Unlike many stressful life experiences, bereavement cannot be altered by the coping efforts of survivors. Indeed, the major coping task faced by the bereaved is to reconcile themselves to a situation that cannot be changed and find a way to carry on with their own lives.

But this doesn't mean that is must always hurt and take long.

Biases and Death

Thus from our society and being human we are bound to believe that (we should believe that) death is horrible and we should suffer from encountering it.  

For an efficiently working brain (that is set on the track of avoiding death at all cost) it is not hard to spot patterns that support the view that death is only bad.

This means that among all topics you are most likely to fall prey to one bias or other with respect to death memes e.g.  

  • availability heuristics (arguments against death are mucb more available obviously)
  • confirmation bias (you already believe death to be bad) 
  • belief bias and wishful thinking (you want death to be bad)
  • attentional bias (thought of death can be salient; they are actually continuous repeated by the media)
  • and even illusion of control (the belief that you can cheat death)

There are probably lots others. Take finding them as a homework (or chance for a comment).

Coping with Death Adaptively

But death and loss may not be as devasting as you make it.

In particular according to Nordanger (2007)

Epidemiological studies indicate that the majority of trauma survivors recover from initial posttraumatic reactions without professional help and their posttraumatic adjustment may be facilitated by indigenous coping resources and socioeconomic structures such as traditional healers, traditions and rituals.

and Zautra 2010

It would be most consistent with what we observe in human communities to see resilience as a natural capacity to recover and perhaps even further one’s adaptive capacities

I also understand that indigenous tribes which are more acutely affected by harm and death do not suffer the same way from it we do. 

Can it be that anti-deathism is a foul meme we acquired when technology 'robbed' us of 'natural' experience of death?

With this I close the coping section and move on to the actual benefits. 

Evolution of Aging

The Wikipedia article on aging states that 

The evolutionary origin of senescence remains a fundamental unsolved problem in biology.

But gives some hints as to its origin: New results on the old disposable soma theory and new group selection theories of aging.

Following up on that you can find that it is likely adaptive even if there is not yet consensus about this.

For example after Joshua Mitteldorf has

summarized a diverse body of data indicating that senescence is an adaptation selected for its own sake.

he goes on to that

 the proposed benefit is that senescence protects against infectious epidemics by controlling population density and increasing diversity of the host population.

and find evidence that

Senescence benefits the rate of evolution, increases diversity, and shortens the effective generation time.

Note that this biological argument also applies to memes. 

You can have 'infectious diseases' of the mind which in a technological society may dominate the biological effects.

Applying this principle to science might mean that without death scienctific progress might go slower - something we have been already told:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

(Max Planck in his Autobiography)

Risk Aversion and Mediocrity

This section gives my personal opinion on risk aversion in our society.

Technological progress in the last century has worked hard on satisfying basic needs. What remains are complex social needs and existential fears.

Fear of death has led to what I believe overly protecting children (and adults). For fear of injury or abuse children often no longer have the chance to 

  • aquire basic motor skills (balance, climbing, even running)
  • follow their curiosity to explore (animals, chemical/physical experiments, geography)
  • aquire social skills (talk to strangers, meet with friends) 
  • train immune defenses (playing in/eat dirt, pets) 

A comparable list could also be given for adults. Please feel free to comment on this. 

All of this protection surely leads to some (minor?) reduction of health risks. But all of this also leads to a reduction of efficiency. Some of this protection even pose other (longer term) health risks which are less salient (yet?). This is a promotion of mediocrity. Sometimes I think our society could benefit from a bit more harm. Wouldn't we value life more and make more out of it?  

Even if you do not agree with me on this one, maybe you do on the following.

Risk Aversion and Death

Sometimes it is necessary to Make an Extraordinary Effort or even to Shut up and do the impossible! This implies setting aside some of your mental barriers. Barriers that protect you from danger, exhaustion and possibly death (not necessarily immediate but possibly speeding up senescence).

Some say that there are areas where this may be necessary:

if nobody [] dies for space exploration we are cheating humanity. We are just not trying hard enough to get off this planet and into space. I firmly believe that moving into space is really important to the future of my species. We are going to penetrate space and become a space-faring race or we are going to stagnate and pass on."

http://leepers.us/mtvoid/2003/VOID0207.htm (section Acceptable risk)

They used to say "if people are not dying, we're not trying hard enough". 


This may also apply for other human endeavors.

Death and Transhumanism

Now that we have reached the edge of human progress I want to drive my argument a bit beyond its applicability. The evolutionary biological benefit of senescence and death may not apply once humans can fully engineer biology. What if we "if we knew more, thought faster, were more the people we wished we were"? Does this stop the argument? Any group-benefit argument continues to apply if a population of distinct minds remains. If the minds incorporate mutual experience than the minds either converge to multiple identical minds or the minds maintain a difference in which case the group benefit argument may continue to hold.

Independent of whether you want to avoid becoming identical to all other minds - being a single mind makes it a single point of failure. Death - of a certain kind - may be necessary even for parts of a super intelligence. 


Mentioned above and some more:

For background you might consult the Baseline of my opinion on LW topics


For the TLDR crowd:

Humans have powerful mental adaptations to cope with death/loss (they often actually learn from it and get out of it stronger). 

Death/senescence/loss is adaptive for the group providing real benefits an utilitarian should see and build on.

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