Appendix: "Immortality and its Critics: Why Rationalism Should not Treat its Darling as Unpopular or Simple"
Author’s Note: this post is a response to an earlier post of mine
For some context on this post, read this Appendix.
Some time ago, I wrote a post complaining about various pieces of Rationalish media that seemed to be needlessly hostile about immortality. My basic premise was that really everyone with sense agreed that a future in which people could live as long as they wanted was desirable if it didn’t have unrelated costs that were too horrible, and that the remaining disagreement (for instance about the existence of these costs, or the personal desirability of immortality) was understandable and did not justify the tone I often saw. I was wrong. Well, alright, I overstated the point, and didn’t pay enough attention to a few crucial considerations. If not wrong, at least overexcited.
As an example, one of the pieces of pro-immortality media I mentioned was Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality. Since writing that post, I finished reading the whole thing, and reread some of the Harry Potter books afterwards for reference. The Harry Potter books actually don’t seem to be arguing for “live as long as you want and die”. In fact, they don’t have much principled to say on the issue except for vague hints that accepting death is good and wise, and fearing it too much is creepy, sinister, and cowardly. This point comes up semi-overtly twice in the seventh book for instance. Once in chapter 16, when reading the phrase engraved on his parents’ tombstone, Harry freaks out,
“‘‘The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death’…’ A horrible thought came to him, and with it a kind of panic. ‘Isn’t that a Death Eater idea?’” (Rowling, 328)
Something like this happened again when Harry met Dumbledore in the afterlifey King’s Cross station place in chapter 35, and Dumbledore regrets seeking the Deathly Hallows in his youth,
“‘Master of death, Harry, master of Death! Was I better, ultimately, than Voldemort?’ ‘Of course you were,’ said Harry. ‘Of course – how can you ask that? You never killed if you could avoid it!’ ‘True, true,’ said Dumbledore, and he was like a child seeking reassurance. ‘Yet I too sought a way to conquer death, Harry.’” (Rowling, 713)
In this case at least Harry pushed back on the equivalence, but a pattern seems clear even if no actual argument is. This is not a fluke either, around this time, I started watching more anime, and a film that reinforced this mistake of mine to me was the Demon Slayer movie “Mugen Train”. In this movie, a demon offers the demon slayer Kyojuro Rengoku the chance to become immortal by being turned into a demon. He refuses, waxing poetic about the beauty of mortality,
“Both growing old and dying are part of the beauty of being an ephemeral creature like a human, the fact that we grow old and die is what makes human life so unbearably precious and noble.”
Since demons and people with horcruxes still have ways they can die, both pieces of media seem pretty explicitly unimpressed with the idea of indefinite life. Furthermore, both pieces of media are set in canons in which there is an afterlife, and becoming immortal almost necessarily involves killing others, and yet the discomfort with making horcruxes and or becoming a demon don’t seem to invoke these obvious, specific complications much of the time. These tropes are brought up in the scene of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality I reference.
In my first post, the only overtly pro-indefinite life piece of media I reference is “The Good Place”. “The Good Place” doesn’t always capture the philosophical debate it approaches perfectly 1, but it tries, and has had real philosophers on to help. I would expect a higher standard of philosophical discussion in this show than other pieces of media discussing death. This probably affects its attitude towards life-extension, indeed it seems that a majority of philosophers are pro-immortality. I further expect that many of the respondents against immortality are fine with indefinite life, and interpreted this specifically as a question about the prudence of infinite life. I am not perfectly acquainted with the philosophical debate in this area, but I recently read Shelley Kagan’s “Death”, and many of its points were eerily similar to mine in my immortality post, from the boredom concern, to the persistence of personal identity counter, and the cost it pays. The relevant chapter comes to the pro-indefinite life conclusion despite arguing that actual immortality is undesirable.
I did say that the indefinite life view seemed obvious to those who thought about the issue carefully, but that does not necessarily describe the broad cultural undercurrents related to the subject I don’t know how to take a survey of media discussing immortality, so I really only can go off of anecdotes and impressions, but “The Good Place” really might just be the exception. Meanwhile, “Harry Potter” and “Mugen Train” are only two data points, but “Harry Potter” is the best-selling book series of all time, and “Mugen Train” is the highest-grossing anime film of all time. These are not obscure examples, and there are probably many more like them, these are just the ones that recently made me somewhat embarrassed by my earlier post.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, I think I owe some apologies, to Yudkowsky at the very least, who was directly interacting with a piece of media that sloppily hinted at many of the things he was arguing with.
Another consideration is that, although I believe many many people agree in principle that indefinite life would be good, and additionally agree in principle with the arguments in favor of researching how to start on the path to indefinite life now, relatively little funding goes towards anti-aging research compared, for example, to other medical causes with similarly strong expected QUALY cases in their favors. Some people might just think that either there are better causes to fund with their money, or that the side-effects of advancing this research now need to be better understood and dealt with before we risk irreversibly opening up that world. Both are reasonable positions, but I would wager that if you selected the subset of people who believe indefinite life is a worthy cause in principle, who aren’t overwhelmingly worried about these side-effects, and who are willing to support government and charity work on causes that are less valuable by their own standards…this still wouldn’t match up with the numbers actively supporting research and funding in this area.
Much of this might come from people viewing the issue as too weird to address out of an armchair, or just not something they spend time thinking about, even if they could endorse principled reasons for thinking the issue is indeed very important. Given this, I’m still not sure the tone I see and implications made in pieces like “The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant” are ideal, but they could be thought of as passionate calls for action as opposed to ethical arguments. Primarily inspirational pieces meant to remind those already on the cusp of agreement that, yes, this issue takes place in the real world.
A final thing I didn’t really talk about was that anti-immortalists can often be uncharitable as well – though this more often takes the tone of smug self-certainty than needless hostility in my experience. As an example, the Future Perfect podcast’s “the Way Through” series featured interviews with a series of spiritual leaders, one of which was with a Buddhist death mindfulness trainer. The interview starts with her reactions to Bay Area immortalism, which she winds up describing, rather condescendingly, as “death denial”. I don’t think Yudkowsky’s writing on “Yehuda” is perfect, but it is unreasonable, offensive even, to read Yudkowsky’s thoughts on death in Yehuda and dismiss the perspective he presents as some sort of denial.
If both immortalists and their detractors are often uncharitable and exaggerate their substantial differences, the angry tone of the immortalists is at least apt in the face of death itself. the smug self-satisfied tone of many of the critics I have seen is hard to read as even apt. This would be a little whataboutist to point out except that I can understand the tone of this immortalist media a bit better if I picture the target audience behind the tone being critics of this sort, and apply this sort of Srinivasan “affective injustice” frame to the debate.
Reflection on this post leaves me still thinking much of what I did when I wrote it. Issues like whether immortality could actually be good for someone and whether or not the side-effects of indefinite life for society will be horrible are serious questions that aren’t worth dogmatism in those cases where it turns out to be all the difference of opinions consists in. I also still think that this often is all the difference there is in actual opinions between smart immortalists and smart anti-immortalists. I also think that when immortalists mean “indefinite life”, it is much more productive to say that than to say “immortality”.
Some already seem to take this advice to heart to at least some degree. I mentioned Anders Sandberg as an example in my earlier post, I will also bring up Kurzgesagt as doing a good job of minimizing rather than emphasizing the points of disagreement here, and addressing concerns productively. The winner of the EA Forum creative writing contest also strikes a pretty good tone on this in my opinion. I now think, however, that my first post wasn’t a super productive contribution either, in that it missed important pieces of context and motivation behind immortalist media, that I could have caught if I had applied more effort and empathy to the issue.
Now that I have said what I messed up, why did I mess up? What can I learn? There are two important things that come to mind. The first is that I was looking at this from the other side of this culture war. I find arguments that death gives life meaning underwhelming for reasons I discussed in my earlier post. But from a relatively young age, I decided I was terrified by what could go wrong for an indestructible unending and unendable life. This was an important personal transition for me, because there was a time before this when I wanted to be immortal.
I reacted poorly to these pieces of immortalist media, in large part because it seemed to condescend to me. I, for instance, was not convinced of my position by any thinker or piece of anti-immortalist media. I also definitely didn’t come up with it as a coping mechanism for my fear of death – my fear death was very strong, and actually clashed horribly with my fear of immortality, making me feel that I had no good options even in theory. I did, I do, have explicit coping mechanisms for dealing with my fear of death. When I was very young it was the only way I could even sleep some nights. I am not very scared of death right now, or else I have pushed my fear down very well. Perhaps my most recent coping mechanism – reductionism concerning personal identity – is just exceptionally good. Or maybe I have just cultivated an inapt but useful apathy with age, as I suppose many people do for many things.
Given that I thought immortality was bad, and knew that I did not think this for the reasons assigned to me, and saw some others who had a similar opinion to me and didn’t clearly fit the criticisms either, the failings of immortalist media, even if they were smaller than I realized, stood out to me.
The other reason is that I was just sloppier. Even now I don’t disagree with everything I wrote in that piece, but when I wrote it, I was just starting blogging, and basically no one outside of some of my friends on Discord and close family members read what I wrote at all. That changed very quickly, the post released immediately after this one (and written immediately before) briefly topped /r/philosophy, and accumulated over a hundred comments, most neutral to negative. I am even more self-conscious now though. Over the last year or so, I wrote my two most successful blog posts, Weyl Versus the Rationalists, and The Bioethicists are (Mostly) Alright. Both were prefaced by conversations with people I had read and admired previously and didn’t know in person, and both pieces shocked me with the appeal they seemed to have. Somewhat less fortunately, both are pretty focused on esoteric in-group drama/criticisms, which is not what I had hoped would be my niche (it won’t be, in that I have no plans to switch to writing entirely about it, but it might be that it continues to describe my most successful posts).
One of the things I was most worried about when I first started blogging is that, when I look back on older writing from myself, even sometimes a year or less older, I often find it embarrassing, and now I will be stuck with it attached to my name forever. This has started happening to some degree for my blogging, but I am especially self-conscious of it with this post, which is the first one I wrote which sort of fits this niche of my most successful current posts presenting esoteric ingroup critiques. Alright, this doesn’t exactly explain what I got wrong so much as why I felt the need to comment on it now, but hopefully it at least explains why I feel I was less careful at the time than I would be now.
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