Today's post, Third Alternatives for Afterlife-ism was originally published on May 8, 2007. A summary (from the LW wiki):

One source of hope against death is Afterlife-ism. Some say that this justifies it as a Noble Lie. But there are better (because more plausible) Third Alternatives, including nanotech, actuarial escape velocity, cryonics, and the Singularity. If supplying hope were the real goal of the Noble Lie, advocates would prefer these alternatives. But the real goal is to excuse a fixed belief from criticism, not to supply hope.


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I'm not so sure, from the testimonies of the deconverted. As I noted recently: this Reddit article notes that there is considerable pain in giving up theism, and says that a lot of this pain is realising there is no afterlife. So even if theists lack much of a theory on what happens to you when you die, at least some seem to think something does - it's not just a thought-stopper.

I have to say, giving up theism and the heaven belief is a painful process even if you are embracing cryonics. Here are some of the sources of discomfort:

  • Cryonics is not certain to work, even to a person who embraces the idea -- their suspension might not be good enough, or they could be thawed by accident.
  • The afterlife supposed to be granted is not eternal by nature, it is a finite extension of life -- unbounded by aging but not proof against accident.
  • Cryonics violates societal norms, practically forcing one to adapt to a rebellious (or arrogant) narrative for self-descriptive purposes.
  • Most people you know are not going to sign up for this, so you will be separated from them even if it works.
  • People who do sign up may get an inferior preservation than you or suffer premature thawing, so fellow cryonicists are not guaranteed to be there with you in the future.
  • Ideas like whether you are okay with uploading take on new significance as you may easily find yourself in a situation where copy-and-paste is the only available survival mechanism.
  • Reproduction -- and all that grand circle of life stuff -- loses some of its significance as you can no longer claim it is necessary to replace old generations with new ones.
  • People will think your decision was made in ignorance of any or all of the above, and pattern-match you as delusional or foolish.
  • Even if it's cheap, you still do have to think about money (and how much less of it remains for your heirs) in this context.

Sounds exactly like a thought-stopper to me.

I believe in retrospect that I spent a long while trying to avoid all thought of reality, with a good bit of success, in order to avoid facing my mortality. My vaguely Christian beliefs during that time seem of a piece with this.

Fair enough. Not just that thought-stopper, then. (insofar as they can be distinguished, though I might, as per your example, be completely wrong.)

there is considerable pain in giving up theism

It varies a lot from person to person. Some people find it a joyful liberation. Some people find it depressing and painful. Some people find it emotionally neutral and get on with their lives.

(I deconverted from Christianity at age ~36. It was a long and careful process -- I don't make big probably-irreversible changes in a hurry -- but not, in my case, at all painful or upsetting.)

What should we tell children who ask about death?

I've been giving honest answers to my nearly-5-year-old and nothing too awful seems to have happened so far. She's quite interested in death -- though so far she's shown no interest in the idea of an afterlife -- and nothing I've said to her on the subject has caused obvious trauma.

Here's how I think I would have liked to have it explained to me when I was little, instead of hearing about heaven and hell and souls meeting Jesus. Note that this is a non-transhumanist explanation and doesn't deal with the possibility of physical immortality, because I don't think my mother was aware of that idea; but she certainly knew basic biology and could have given this explanation, if she hadn't been motivated otherwise by religious faith:

"People are made of the same stuff as plants and bugs and slugs and mice. We live a lot longer than bugs and slugs and mice, though, and longer than a lot of plants, too. When we die, the stuff that we're made of goes back into nature and gets turned into other living things. If someone dies and gets buried, eventually all the stuff that the person is made of gets turned into dirt, and then into bugs and plants and other living things.

"After death, the person isn't there any more. It's just like the tomato plants and the sunflowers in the garden: when winter comes, they die, and we dig the dead plants up and put them in the compost pile to become good dirt for next year. By the spring, the old dead plants are all gone; the bacteria and bugs and worms in the compost pile have eaten them all up and turned them into dirt.

"You could look through the whole compost pile and not find a leaf, or the sharp yellow smell of tomato plants: it's all been turned into dirt. All the things that make a person who they are — their thoughts, their feelings, their abilities, all of it — all that disappears when they die, just like the leaves and the smell. What's left behind is just the stuff they were made of, and that becomes dirt.

"There are a few things that last after death, though, besides just the stuff that a person is made of. A person's children live on after them, like the seeds of last year's plants. A person's ideas and feelings can, too, if they record them: we can still know a lot about what Mark Twain thought, even though he died in 1910 and we can never talk to him — because he wrote it down. John Lennon died in 1980 but we can still hear his voice on records. And we can have memories of what a person has done; their accomplishments and how good of a person they were still last after they're gone."

How about we answer their questions truthfully and in a respectful manner?

It's pretty clear to me that "what should we tell the children?" is always one of those questions where the obvious answer is the correct one.

Kids as young as 5 wonder about what happens after you die. Would you tell the truth to a 5 year old if you knew it would cause him significant long-term discomfort?

Does that which can be destroyed by the truth should be apply to a child's sense of security?

(Disclaimer: I am currently angry (both in a bad mood and angered by this), so correct for that.)

I don't think anybody would want to be lied to about a world-spanning disaster that permanently anihilates everyone's soul just to protect their feelings. Significant long-term discomfort is an appropriate reaction.

My limited understanding of the matter is that it's way, way more important to a child's sense of security to feel that their parents love them and that their home is a safe place than to not know the truth about death. So, I haven't considered what I'd do in the counterfactual case that it turns out that people are actually harmed less by learning the truth when they're older.

Do you have evidence that this particular truth will cause "significant long-term discomfort" to the 5 year old? My personal experience tells me otherwise.

No since I only have one child and I didn't tell him the truth about this.

I contest that afterlife is a lie. I think one reason many people believe in an afterlife is because it actually makes sense, even though their picture of what it looks like is very unlikely to be accurate.

In my opinion it is simply a logical certainty that there is an "afterlife" (if one dies in the first place): I can't ever experience nothing in the present (even though I can say in retrospect say "I experienced nothing ", which just means I failed to experience an experience with certain properties) , so I will always experience something in the present. And experiencing is not a static thing that could 'stop' in the present - it requires change -, thus I will always experience a future. What's the alternative?

Ceasing to exist is a 3-person concept, it can't happen to a subject. But we ARE subjects (notwithstanding our useful relative identify as a 3-person accessible thing, ie our current body), so we can't cease to exist in a final 1-person sense. Or at least we can't know what ceasing to exists means for us, anymore that we can know what the world would be like if there would be nothing. So there is no reaon to be afraid of ceasing to exist or treat it like something that actually happens to us or any one else (though temporary death is most probably something we should worry about).

To frame it as questions: What could ceasing to exist mean for me? I care about my experience, but there isn't one in this case. The dead one isn't me, it is just a body that used to be my body. So why would I worry about a non-experience of something that isn't me? Why not instead solely consider experiences I could have (eg being revived after death)?

So what kind of afterlife awaits us? I think it's likely to be the case that intelligence at some point in some branch of the multiverse can run abitrarily good simulations of our past/present/near future and thus will ressurect every being with no violation of the laws of physics. Actually I can't think of an alternative that doesn't require some fundamental things about the world or us to be very much unlike science think they are (eg there is a spiritual plane where we reincarnate from, or consciousness can eternally exist in random quantum fluctuations...).

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