Thoughts on Death

by BlackNoise 3 min read14th Feb 201427 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.