How to be Deader than Dead

by gwern3 min read24th Aug 201110 comments


Personal Blog

For your consideration, a psychology study as summarized by The Economist in "How dead is dead? Sometimes, those who have died seem more alive than those who have not":

"They first asked 201 people stopped in public in New York and New England to answer questions after reading one of three short stories. In all three, a man called David was involved in a car accident and suffered serious injuries. In one, he recovered fully. In another, he died. In the third, his entire brain was destroyed except for one part that kept him breathing. Although he was technically alive, he would never again wake up.

...each participant was asked to rate David’s mental capacities, including whether he could influence the outcome of events, know right from wrong, remember incidents from his life, be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions. Participants used a seven-point scale to make these ratings, where 3 indicated that they strongly agreed that he could do such things...and -3 indicated that they strongly disagreed.

...the fully recovered David rated an average of +1.77 and the dead David -0.29. That score for the dead David was surprising enough, suggesting as it did a considerable amount of mental acuity in the dead. What was extraordinary, though, was the result for the vegetative David: -1.73. In the view of the average New Yorker or New Englander, the vegetative David was more dead [-1.73] than the version who was dead [-0.29].

...they ran a follow-up experiment which had two different descriptions of the dead David. One said he had simply passed away. The other directed the participant’s attention to the corpse. It read, “After being embalmed at the morgue, he was buried in the local cemetery. David now lies in a coffin underground.”...In this follow-up study participants were also asked to rate how religious they were.

Once again, the vegetative David was seen to have less mind than the David who had “passed away”. This was equally true, regardless of how religious a participant said he was. However, ratings of the dead David’s mind in the story in which his corpse was embalmed and buried varied with the participant’s religiosity. Irreligious participants gave the buried corpse about the same mental ratings as the vegetative patient (-1.51 and -1.64 respectively). Religious participants, however, continued to ascribe less mind to the irretrievably unconscious David than they did to his buried corpse (-1.57 and 0.59).

That those who believe in an afterlife ascribe mental acuity to the dead is hardly surprising. That those who do not are inclined to do so unless heavily prompted not to is curious indeed."

The study is "More dead than dead: Perceptions of persons in the persistent vegetative state":

Patients in persistent vegetative state (PVS) may be biologically alive, but these experiments indicate that people see PVS as a state curiously more dead than dead. Experiment 1 found that PVS patients were perceived to have less mental capacity than the dead. Experiment 2 explained this effect as an outgrowth of afterlife beliefs, and the tendency to focus on the bodies of PVS patients at the expense of their minds. Experiment 3 found that PVS is also perceived as “worse” than death: people deem early death better than being in PVS. These studies suggest that people perceive the minds of PVS patients as less valuable than those of the dead – ironically, this effect is especially robust for those high in religiosity.

Ed Yong points to another interesting study, the 2004 "The natural emergence of reasoning about the afterlife as a developmental regularity":

Participants were interviewed about the biological and psychological functioning of a dead agent. In Experiment 1, even 4- to 6-year-olds stated that biological processes ceased at death, although this trend was more apparent among 6- to 8-year-olds. In Experiment 2, 4- to 12-year-olds were asked about psychological functioning. The youngest children were equally likely to state that both cognitive and psychobiological states continued at death, whereas the oldest children were more likely to state that cognitive states continued. In Experiment 3, children and adults were asked about an array of psychological states. With the exception of preschoolers, who did not differentiate most of the psychological states, older children and adults were likely to attribute epistemic, emotional, and desire states to dead agents. These findings suggest that developmental mechanisms underlie intuitive accounts of dead agents' minds

Jach on Hacker News makes the obvious connection with cryonics; see also lukeprog's "Remind Physicalists They're Physicalists".


10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:19 PM
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How to be Deader than Dead

In progressive order of 'deadness':

  • Mutilate the corpse such that it is beyond the reach of even hypothetical advanced medical technology.
  • Destroy the brain.
  • Kill their children and grandchildren.
  • Kill the rest of their relatives.
  • Kill everyone who knew they existed.
  • Remove all references to them in physical records.
  • Destroy their legacy - any buildings the built, organisations they founded, etc.
  • Construct a causal graph of every influence that passed through the deceased. Systematically and surgically undo every influence they had on the local reality. Do so with as few side effects as possible - including side effects involving the agent doing the overkill execution. This will include destroying their own memories, minimising energy and negentropy use and dumping outputs irreversibly.
  • Find a means of time travel to see to it that they never existed.
  • (Kill anyone who grew up near a crack in time while you are at it!)
  • Take control of the entirety of space and time to ensure that nobody else can ever harness time travel, undoing what you have done.
  • Find a way out of the matrix. Destroy the matrix. And the backups.
  • Repeat above as necessary.

What about copies of them still existing in entirely different parts of the Tegmark multiverse?

Those are... um... tricky. :)

Yea. Depending on how you define "person", and how their mind is constructed (specifically it's mathematical dependencies), you could theoretically make everything that'd qualify as that person inconsistent. Maybe.

I rank "destroy their legacy" above "kill everyone who knew they existed" and above some relatives as well.

Religious participants, however, continued to ascribe less mind to the irretrievably unconscious David than they did to his buried corpse (-1.57 and 0.59).

That would suggest they should be supporting of euthanizing an irretrievably unconscious person so as to restore their mental capacities.

That would unquestionably activate their belief that this person is still alive and they would consider such an action to be murder. You could play their two beliefs "this person is alive -> don't murder them" and "at least as a soul instead of a vegetative patient this person would have some autonomy" off against each other but they would most likely back out of the conversation before any serious mind-changing happens.

It looks to me more like they rate the vegetable as more asleep. They think he's not conscious for now, but will be once he actually dies. I'd suggesting adding a part for asking people about someone who is asleep.

This seems like a very poorly designed study. Their metrics don't do a great job of measuring what they purport to measure. Even a dead person can "influence the outcome of events", albeit not actively. And besides, anyone who believes in an afterlife (or even really a soul) is likely to suggest that David can still "be aware of his environment, possess a personality and have emotions."

The second and third quotes are identical. I don't think this is meant to be.