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Some thoughts on death

So a couple of days ago, joreth, David, and I went to see the movie "Hancock."

This isn't actually a post about the movie; it's a post about transhumanism, human dignity, and the inevitability of death. Hang on for a bit; I'll get to that, I promise.

The movie is surprisingly good. I expected a kind of "Airplane!"-esque send-up of superhero movies, but that's not what it is at all. It's a thoughtful, and in some places surprisingly sweet, story. And it does something I've never seen a superhero movie do before; it makes characters with superhuman abilities (flying, immunity to bullets, super strength, all the usual ones) human.

One interesting twist is that the main character, Hancock, never ages.

And that's pretty cool. In fact, I'd take a write-off on all the other superhero powers for that one. Which is good, because it's the only superhero power that doesn't violate those pesky laws of physics, and the only superhero power we're actually getting close to in the real world.

To me, the value in this seems like a no-brainer. And yet, the majority--by large margin--of folks I talk to don't want it. And I find hat kind of interesting.

When i talk about living forever, most of the people I talk to, at least outside the transhumanist community, react with varying degrees of shock and horror. "But why would you want to do that?" is the most common response, by a mile.

Now, it seems to me the answer to this question is intuitively obvious to the most casual observer. Before I go into that, though, I think it's probably a good idea to clear up what "live forever" means. That phrase can sound a bit scary, and seems to carry connotations of a kind of involuntary immortality to many folks.

When I talk about "immortality," perhaps it would be better to say that I think death should be optional. I'm not talking about forcing people to live who don't want to; I'm talking about changing the inevitability of death. Death should be an option to folks who want it, but it should not be compulsory.

I think that I may stop talking about "immortality" and instead start talking about "making death optional." It might address some of the mental images that "immortality" conjures up with respect to a burdensome and unwanted life.

It's also important to make clear that I'm talking about healthy life, as well. Any reasonable approach to solving the problem of death begins with solving the problem of aging. Life extension as an ever-increasing period of enfeeblement is a non-starter. For the purposes of radical longevity, what I'm talking about is a cessation of aging such that human beings have an indefinite lifespan with no upper limit, and that we will spend that time in healthy, strong bodies.

This kind of immortality, a life where people simply don't age, is not the same thing as superhero, immune-to-bullets-and-everything immortality. If we solve aging, which is a biological process that operates like all other biological processes and is therefore subject to change, that's what we will have.

As it stands now, we stop self-repairing and start falling apart in our mid 20s, and it's all downhill from there. Conquering aging means keeping the physical strength and health of a 20something indefinitely. Which, honestly, doesn't seem like a bad deal to me.

A person immune to the ravages of old age would still not be immune to death; accident, violence, and other misadventure is perfectly capable of ending even a 25-year-old's life. It simply means that person no longer has a cap on the maximum time he can live, if he so chooses.

And that's really what it's all about. Choice.

Right now, we have no choice. The maximum possible human lifespan is somewhere around 120 years, if we make it that far, and that's it.

This has been the reality of human existence for a very long time, and we've built entire philosophies around that reality. "Death gives life meaning," we're told. (What a load of rubbish! If I burn down your house, is that destruction the only thing that gives your house value?) "Death provides dignity," we're told. (Nonsense; decrepitude and death are among the least dignified parts of our existence. It is our choices, our freedom to make ourselves what we choose, that informs our dignity and our value. Anything which reduces our freedom to choose for ourselves what we want to be, including the inevitability of death, reduces human dignity.)

If you go into the doctor's office, and he tells you that you have a bacterial infection, which will slowly grow progressively worse until it kills you painfully, then offers you an antibiotic pill that will completely eradicate the infection, I bet you'll take it. Even if you don't fancy the thought of living forever.

There's an important point in that. Even folks who don't much want to live forever still probably don't want to die today. Or tomorrow. Someday, perhaps, if that "someday" is held in the abstract; some future time when things no longer seem interesting. But not today.

And that's the point. A solution for aging puts the power to choose in your hands. Old age forces your hand; you don't get the choice to see your grandkids graduate from school, or to celebrate your fiftieth anniversary...the choice is made for you. And I don't see how that benefits anyone.

Now, some people have asked me why I would even want an extended lifespan in the first place. "Wouldn't you get bored?" I've been asked. "Wouldn't you eventually become too depressed at seeing everyone close to you die?"

The second question is easy. Presumably, if medical tech existed that could stop me from aging, it could stop the people around me from aging too.

The first question is a bit more baffling. Bored? With all the things going on in the world, all the time, who would ever be bored?

I think there's an idea lurking in the subtext of that objection; namely, the sense that the future is just like the present, only longer.

Which is silly. One only needs to look at how much American society has changed in the last century to see that isn't true. Within the lifetime of folks still alive today, we've gone from a largely agrarian society to a post-industrial society, with detours through powered flight, manned space exploration, and widespread electrification. A person born in 1900, in a one-room house with a dirt floor, has seen the advent of industrialization, the popularization of the automobile, manned moon landings, the taming of Niagra Falls, and the iPhone.

Who has time to be bored?

And that aint nothin'. Technology today, as interesting as it is, isn't qualitatively different from the technology of the Victorians. We still make stuff by starting with a bloody great lump of stuff and whacking bits off, pounding, molding, stamping, cutting, and otherwise hacking away at the stuff until all that's left is the bits we want.

Which is a wasteful, inefficient way to go about doing it. Smacks of stone knives and bearskins, really.

But what we're closing in on is the ability to make stuff from the ground up, one atom at a time. And when that happens...jackpot.

Windows made of diamond (because carbon is cheap and easy to work with). Skyscrapers grown from a single metal crystal. Efficiency which allows the entire world, including those parts of it currently mired on poverty, to live at the same standard of living as us decadent Westerners, without imposing additional burdens on the earth's resources or energy supply. Molecular assembly changes the name of the game completely.

Who has time to be bored?

And with that comes changes to all the assumptions we make about the Way Things Work. Many of the objections to improved longevity rest on assumptions that aren't necessarily going to be valid in thefuture; you can't anticipate the future by projecting current truths on it.

"But what about overpopulation?" I'm asked. Well, what about it? There's a close connection between population growth and technological sophistication; post-agrarian societies have lower population growth than agrarian societies, because children are no longer needed to work the farms and care for enfeebled elders.

"But don't we have to die to make room for the next generation?" I'm asked. No, we don't, and thank you very much for implying that my life, and your life, and the lives of all the people who are here today are worth less than the theoretical lives of people who don't even exist yet.

"But won't longer life put more strain on the earth's resources?" I'm asked. This assumes a continuation of the exponential population growth, when even now in the United States we actually have negative population growth, with immigration being what keeps the sum total population increasing. As lifespan increases, birth rate decreases; and, as I said before, nanotech manufacturing offers high standard of living with dramatically smaller environmental costs.

And if you find all that implausible, imagine what a person born in 1900 would say about owning a device that fits in your pocket, lets you talk to anyone in the world, and uses a network of satellites placed in earth orbit by rockets to help you find the easiest way to drive from your house to your friend's house on the other side of the country.

Why do I want to live forever? Because things now are better than they were in 1900, and things in 1900 were better than they were in 1462. Because the future is an interesting place, and I want to see it. Because death should be optional, not mandatory. Because the encroachment of old age and death is the ultimate insult to human dignity. Because we are the part of the universe capable of understanding itself, and that means that every single one of us has incalculable value. Because every death is a tragedy, and we have lost sight of that. And in the end, because I see us not for what we are now, but for what we have the potential to become, and we have potential that is beautiful beyond all imagination.


( 61 comments — Leave a comment )
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Jul. 18th, 2008 07:34 pm (UTC)
I like the idea of pushing choice as the key benefit.

And I agree that speaking in terms of continuing health and longevity might seem a little more friendly to people who bristle about "immortality" (which also has religious connotations).

Jul. 18th, 2008 07:41 pm (UTC)
The mention of religious connotations has me pondering whether there's actually some sort of genetic/cultural fear of immortality related to the reason we invent religions to handle the fear of death.

If you (tacit or anyone) haven't read Implied Spaces by Walter Jon Williams (author of Aristoi, which I believe I lent you) yet, you'll probably find it interesting. It's intentionally a Singularity/Transhumanist work.
(no subject) - redsash - Jul. 18th, 2008 07:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 07:42 pm (UTC)
Perhaps instead of saying 'making death optional' you should use the phrase 'radical longevity'?
Jul. 23rd, 2008 04:21 pm (UTC)
I've used "radical longevity" in the past, and got blank stares as a result. And the fact is, a lot of people have connotations of "bad" from the word "radical;" we will often refer to militants as "radicals," for example.
(no subject) - domestickitty - Jul. 24th, 2008 08:34 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 07:49 pm (UTC)
When I read in your post about people who actually argue with you on this point, after my initial shock ("What?! But.. but... I thought this was obvious!") I realized what their angle might be: they aren't that passionate about living forever, because they believe they already do.
Might that be the reason? You know better, you talked to them. Maybe they all just believe in the afterlife. This is an argument I heard a few times: if we live long enough, we'll just get too curious about what's waiting for us in the "next world". I know what you think about it; but again, for some people, it's a powerful argument. They think they live forever as it is, and they don't want to be stuck on some "first plane of existence", or something.

- Ola
Jul. 18th, 2008 08:36 pm (UTC)
Re: afterlife?
I am one of those that doesn't see death as a problem and doesn't want it solved. I do believe in an afterlife, but that is not the belief that makes me see death as a good thing. I also believe in evolution and little to no birth with really long lives gives our species a very low adaptive potential.
Re: afterlife? - (Anonymous) - Jul. 19th, 2008 06:10 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: afterlife? - (Anonymous) - Jul. 20th, 2008 01:58 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: afterlife? - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:59 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: afterlife? - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:57 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: afterlife? - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 04:34 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC)
thank you very much for implying that my life, and your life, and the lives of all the people who are here today are worth less than the theoretical lives of people who don't even exist yet.

Also, they're not worth any more, either.
Aug. 4th, 2008 07:13 pm (UTC)
I beg to differ. A life that exists is worth more than a hypothetical life that does not exist. Existence is always more valuable than non-existence. By definition, a non-existence holds no value.
(no subject) - dwer - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:19 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tacit - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:37 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:50 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - dwer - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:52 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 07:54 pm (UTC)
Well put. I think most of the objections I've ever heard come from Hollywood portrayals of immortality that people blindly assume make sense.

Zardoz posits a decadent society of people bored of the endless routine of life but unable to die, busy subsisting off the contributions of barbarians fooled into believing they are appeasing their god. The Fountain (which I love) shows the vision of a man tortured for thousands of years by his failure to save his wife from an untimely death. The Highlander creates a world where immortality is attained by killing off all other candidate immortals and the endless life of fear it entails. Even "first ones" of Babylon 5 can't seem to keep to themselves and ultimately feel the need to leave our galaxy to make room for humans and their contemporaries.

In movies where there are immortal characters, the consistent message is almost always that it is death that gives meaning to life. Nonsense. I want to live forever.
Sep. 29th, 2009 11:11 am (UTC)
I completely agree that Hollywood's portrayal of immortality and radical life extension is shallow, unrealistic, and just plain broken (even if Highlander is a bad ass movie!).

The worst of the lot, IMHO, is Bicentennial Man, a movie which I find so morally objectionable that it completely soured me on Robin Williams. It's kind of a bait-and-switch; The first half of the movie is a lighthearted sci-fi comedy about an anthropomorphic household robot (Williams), his interactions with his owners, and his eventual decision to become legally human.

The movie then switches gears and becomes a nauseating treatise on how death is what gives meaning to life. It's not subtle, either. They come straight out and say it, and clobber the viewer over the head with it. It sickened me, and if I hadn't been watching it for free (caught it at a sci-fi convention) I would've asked for my money back.
Jul. 18th, 2008 08:00 pm (UTC)
Of course, outside the mostly secular sci fi world, the other obvious objection is on religious grounds. Most monotheists (Christians, Muslims, Jews) believe there is an afterlife that is eternal. Most of them also believe the hardships they suffer now are a sort of payment for a one-way ticket into the better of two afterlife options (i.e., Heaven or Hell). Why would you want to live on this crappy world forever when a paradise awaits you after you're dead? Or so the thinking goes.
Jul. 18th, 2008 08:15 pm (UTC)
"Wouldn't you eventually become too depressed at seeing everyone close to you die?"

The second question is easy. Presumably, if medical tech existed that could stop me from aging, it could stop the people around me from aging too.

"Do you want to see all your friends die?"

"They're already dieing. And I'm quite capable of making new friends. Aren't you?"
Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:11 pm (UTC)
I like that answer a lot.
(no subject) - joreth - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:15 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tedeisenstein - Aug. 4th, 2008 08:08 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Aug. 4th, 2008 08:54 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - tedeisenstein - Aug. 5th, 2008 12:25 am (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 09:11 pm (UTC)
Very cogent, if tangential! I'm almost inclined to base a short sequential story on such a premise, with credit of course.
Jul. 18th, 2008 09:22 pm (UTC)
It may not be boredom
I know that as I reach a factor of 20 in my own life, I look back on the last 20 years and recognize that I've got about 2 or possibly 3 more periods of active living about the same duration.

That 20 year span is filled with a lot of memories - the number of jobs, lovers, family members, children grown, interests, etc are quite literally staggering. I feel like I've already reached the point where I've forgotten more things than I remember.

Right now - and mind you, it's only right now, and occasionally it's lifted - the thought of the amount of stuff left to do just makes me tired. And so I could see someone opting for death not because they're too bored, but because they're too tired.

I also think that you may be being a bit optimistic of how things are going to get better, consistently. Yes, our quality of life has improved, yes the iPhone is miraculous. But what percentage of people actually have that miracle? What percentage actually will? And what is the quality of life for the people who produce it for people like you (and, yes, eventually me, I want to be one of the popular people too).

I'm at the Baltimore Erotic Art Festival right now, and there's a card that I saw here that makes me think of this. It shows an XKCD style figure on a globe as a fireball approaches. It says "On the day before the world ended..."

(inside) "...some people were still optimists."

Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:35 pm (UTC)
Re: It may not be boredom
Yes, our quality of life has improved, yes the iPhone is miraculous. But what percentage of people actually have that miracle? What percentage actually will? And what is the quality of life for the people who produce it for people like you (and, yes, eventually me, I want to be one of the popular people too).

That's one of those "projecting current conditions onto the future" things.

One way or another, the gap between First and Third World countries won't remain. Th best possible outcome is the advent of cheap nanotech, which would make bringing the rest of the world up to industrialized standards of living trivial.

But in any rate, no matter how it shakes out, arguments against longevity based on the current gap between the industrialized world and the Third World are about like a citizen of the Persian empire arguing about longevity by saying "but what about the impoverished, undeveloped European countries?" The one thing we learn from history is that current conditions never map onto future conditions. :)
Jul. 18th, 2008 09:57 pm (UTC)
If I burn down your house, is that destruction the only thing that gives your house value?

Occasionally, especially in today's Housing market, this is true.

So it is with people...

A loser, a nobody, a failure can die fighting for his country, and he's a hero forever.
Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:37 pm (UTC)
I suspect that the desire on the part of folks who can't succeed in any other way to find posthumous success by dying gallantly will be self-correcting.

And given enough time, I think that anyone, even a loser by whatever standards one cares to apply, can succeed...
Jul. 18th, 2008 10:30 pm (UTC)
Optional Death?
huh, only for the rich and undeserving.
I would much rather someone like Mandela live for 200 years than Bush.. but would that be likely? No.
Power, greed, and a severe lack of ethics seem to go together. Thus, I see fewer human deserving of centuries of existance.

Why would I turn down the pill of extended existance? Because I have glimpsed Bushido, only a glimps, and it is enough to spend the rest of my life attempting to perfect it. But I would never want to attain that perfection. I would rather not be faced with 'What now?"
Rather, I would chose to appreciate the cherry blossom that is life. Brief, unique and all the more valuable for it's brevity. Too many people already care so little for human life, or any life for that matter to give them more. Damn few are those who have earned it. fewer still are those who deserve it, and none should have it.

This is of course completely skipping over the whole cost to the world of undefined extention of life.
Jul. 19th, 2008 06:34 am (UTC)
Re: Optional Death?
"Thus, I see fewer human deserving of centuries of existance."

Then I am gratified by the knowledge that you are not in a position to make that determination and impose your judgment upon the rest of us.

"Too many people already care so little for human life"..."fewer still are those who deserve it, and none should have it."

I'm stuck trying to decide if I should be overcome with laughter at your brilliant stroke of irony or horrified by the possibility that you weren't trying to be funny.

"This is of course completely skipping over the whole cost to the world of undefined extention of life."

Franklin actually did touch upon this in his post.
Re: Optional Death? - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:41 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Optional Death? - nevynn - Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:53 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Optional Death? - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 08:02 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Optional Death? - joreth - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:24 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Optional Death? - (Anonymous) - Aug. 1st, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC) - Expand
Re: Optional Death? - nevynn - Aug. 1st, 2008 03:16 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 18th, 2008 11:34 pm (UTC)
You pose an interesting argument, one many like and agree with. However, I think there is value in growing older, and in eventual death. I think there is importance in recognizing the cycle of life, and appreciating it in its forms and phases. The challenge is not to see new things, but to see with new eyes. I'll take the deal I got and aspire to rise to the occasion of NOW.
Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:44 pm (UTC)
What is that value? I mean, exactly, in concrete terms--what is that value?

Our hunter-gatherer ancestors had an average life expectancy of approximately 22 years or so. In 1940 in the United States, the average life expectancy was 40. Today,, the average life expectancy is 72. Does that mean our lives have a little less than one-third the value of our forefathers' lives, and about half the value of the lives of those born in 1900? If we extend the average life expectancy to 120, will the value of life drop even farther?

I believe the value and worth of human life is not measured by its brevity, but by the choices people make while they're alive.
Jul. 18th, 2008 11:38 pm (UTC)
You've obviously overlooked the fact that "There can be only one!"
Jul. 19th, 2008 05:29 am (UTC)
You said here that the idea of death "giving life meaning" is rubbish, but how about the related idea that having only a small amount of time to leave can make people appreciate life more? Or do something more meaningful with their time? I would think that optional immortality might make a whole lot of people far more lazy. Just a thought.
Jul. 19th, 2008 05:30 am (UTC)
*live, not leave. :)
(no subject) - tacit - Jul. 23rd, 2008 06:48 pm (UTC) - Expand
(no subject) - joreth - Aug. 4th, 2008 07:30 pm (UTC) - Expand
Jul. 19th, 2008 06:50 am (UTC)
It seems almost silly for me to comment on this post, since you and I have spent many, many hours discussing this very topic and I think it's clear that it would be neigh impossible for us to be in greater agreement. Even so, thanks for the enjoyable read and for sparking interesting discussion.

Just a thought on the evolutionary implications: assuming that fecundity correlates more strongly with socioeconomic status than it does with attitudes towards radical life extension, it seems to me that a desire for a finite life span (or even a weak aversion to death) is not a trait which will be selected for. Assuming it's heritable (which I doubt), eventually the "death positive" segment will remove itself from the population. Even in the more likely scenario that it's a psychological/cultural phenomenon, I think it's fair to say that eventually "death positivism" will be a rare and alarming aberration rather than the expected norm.

Oh, and Hancock was surprisingly good. They should expand the story with a comic or graphic novel series.
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