15 March, 2021

ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος

Twitter user @jimkwik asked the other day for the happiest 4 word story people could come up with. Before deleting his response in favor of AI alignment message marketing, Eliezer Yudkowsky answered: “Death isn’t the end.”

He's right. Death is the scourge of value at the individual level. We must do what we can to stop it.

I won't spend time here defending the idea that reducing deaths are important. The trite arguments about overpopulation and death being part of life are easily dispatched even through listening to a bit of light fiction, such as CGP Grey’s retelling of Nick Bostrom’s Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant. (I prefer the sheer power of Bostrom's original essay, but Grey's adapted and animated version also hits the main ideas well enough.)

Dylan Thomas is right: We should not go gentle into that good night; we must rage against the dying of the light. Certainly this is true if you believe in the A-theory of time, but I think it remains nearly as true even if you subscribe to the B-theory of time. If having a bar of chocolate is good, having a longer bar of chocolate may be better. So, too, is this true if we extend the length of time that we exist.

(I want to take a moment here to address the idea that the B-theory of time should make us more accepting of death. The question is: more accepting than what in comparison? If you start out believing naively that the A-theory of time is the only possible situation that can hold true, then you may think that death is a kind of erasure. If you believe this, then learning of the B-theory of time will give comfort in realizing that, even after death, one still exists, just earlier in time. And this is no less of an existence than saying that one still exists even if they are far to the left of where your reference point lies. So it is true that, in this situation, understanding that {the B-theory of time might be a better way of looking at things} will result in one feeling more comfortable with death than they were previously. But that doesn't mean we should be accepting of it! Just because a store of value still exists unerased does not mean that we should not lament not having even more of that store of value if that death had not occurred.)

Eneasz Brodski's HPMOR podcast
is particularly well done.
Fiction is rife with this idea. The title of this journal entry, ἔσχατος ἐχθρὸς καταργεῖται ὁ θάνατος, comes from 1 Corinthians, where the hero, the literal second coming of Jesus, will, after defeating all tyrants and evil-doers, take on the final enemy: death itself. This idea, that death is the ultimate enemy, is one which inspires me greatly. The central theme of Yudkowsky's Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality may be (obviously) the methods of rational thinking, but the end goal — the only end goal if you find yourself in sudden possession of magical ability — is to figure out how to end death. (Well, I guess not the only end goal. But you know what I mean.) This theme continues beautifully in Alexander Davis' sequel Significant Digits, and even further in Nanashi Saito's further sequel Orders of Magnitude. While these stories are merely rational fiction, they should and do inspire those of us who want to do what we can to further the lifespan of all of us.

(Incidentally, while I fully endorse reading at least HPMOR if you have any interest in rational fiction and the Harry Potter fictional setting, its anti-death message is only the 2nd most inspiring concept I've encountered in fiction. Hal Clement's much shorter Mission of Gravity has a surprisingly heartfelt message that I find even more inspiring. It's not rational fiction, but it's perhaps one of my favorite hard science fiction stories written prior to the past couple of decades.)

My beloved companion, Jasper Hess.
Yesterday, Jasper died. The grief I felt from his sudden absence remains greater than any prior grief I've ever felt. Jasper was a daily part of my life for the past eight years. He was a beloved part of my close personal family. I feel utterly distraught by his sudden death.

Seeking comfort, my mind went to possible situations that would allow him to still exist. For others, this might have consisted of visions of heaven. Of his soul continuing on in some other place, or in another time. Perhaps of reincarnation, or as the oneness of all things. But I don't particularly take stock in non-physicalist theories (as does 56% of professional philosophers (the 2020 philpapers survey will update this soon!)), so this is not where my mind went.

Fleetingly, I reminded myself of the B-theory of time. That Jasper exists still, but…his existence now is still. I received little comfort.

Then I thought of the possible infinite extent of the universe. Even in the least exotic Tegmark level 1 infinite universe, there are only so many combinations of rearranged Planck-length particles that can occur in a given observable universe. (If you have a set of 100 lego bricks, and you are instructed to build something out of them in a given standard amount of space, and then you repeat this ad infinitum, then you can only make so many things before you start to repeat yourself. If the universe is level 1 infinite in extent, then there are infinite observable-universe-size volumes, in which only a finite number of lego bricks (5.4x10^61 planck lengths) can exist. Therefore, unless there is some reason to suspect a form of order in that infinitude that precludes there being other copies of you, there almost certainly exist other copies of you.) I imagined Jasper living still, but then I thought also of him as a Boltzmann brain, and the comfort was ruined. S-risks threatened to take over in my imagination, so I relented and briefly stopped thinking about infinities.

I am still so attached to the continuity of consciousness. It's hard to envision the set of all versions of me as the proper reference class, rather than just this one instance. I keep thinking that I am separate from other identical versions of me, and this results in the horror that death remains the end, even when identical copies exist elsewhere. Yet I know that many people that I highly respect maintain that instead we should consider ourselves to be the group of all identical people, and that when time causes that identicality to break because of different circumstances, our awareness will follow probabilistically to the various outcomes. This gives us the idea of quantum immortality, but it is more than this: it provides immortality even amongst other situations where copies exist elsewhere, e.g., in other Tegmarkian levels.

From here we get to Greg Egan's Dust Theory, which he introduces in the scifi novel Permutation City. (If these concepts are new to you, I highly suggest reading the novel before looking at the dust theory faq, as the novel properly dramatizes the unveiling of the theory in a way that is spoiled if you understand the theory first.)

Further afield (or perhaps less afield?) are the strange loops from Douglas Hofstadter, which holds that we exist in others' minds. (His I am a Strange Loop is well worth reading, regardless of how seriously you end up taking the thesis.)

But even if Jasper's existence remains through any of these ideas, I no longer have access to him. He isn't here. I cannot hold him. These otherwise comforting ideas just don't emotionally help me in the here and now. Jasper is dead, and the me that exists writing this cannot be with him.

There are worse things than death. Existential risk, for example, seems worse because it is a kind of mega-death. But also Roko's Basilisk-esque S-risk scenarios are technically worse outcomes, and maybe Nell Watson's W-risk scenarios are equally frightening. But the death of an individual nevertheless still unnerves me. Maybe death is not technically the ultimate enemy. But these other end bosses seem like exceptionally powerful optional bosses, not the main villain of the story.

So is it strange that I have not yet signed up for cryonics?

Don't get me wrong: the likelihood of cryonics being able to extend my lifespan is very, very low. You might be tempted to call it negligible. But the upside, if it works, is so great that even an exceptionally tiny chance cannot be immediately dismissed as negligible. If the cost is not so high for insurance that would pay for cryonics, then why not take the chance? The expected value is surely positive here, even if the absolute chance of it paying out is incredibly low.

Yet I still have not signed up. I feel wary of this being an example of Pascal's mugging. But, if one day I do sign up, how bad will it have been to know that I did not also sign up Jasper? I feel torn.

Death may not be the ultimate enemy, but it is surely close enough that we should all band together to defeat it. The effective altruism arguments for organizations like the SENS Research Foundation seem interestingly compelling, especially while I grieve for Jasper, but then I remember that we are not the only ones that matter. As Pablo Stafforini so astutely points out:

"Longevity research occupies an unstable position in the space of possible EA cause areas: it is very 'hardcore' and 'weird' on some dimensions, but not at all on others. The EAs in principle most receptive to the case for longevity research tend also to be those most willing to question the 'common-sense' views that only humans, and present humans, matter morally. But, as you note, one needs to exclude animals and take a person-affecting view to derive the 'obvious corollary that curing aging is our number one priority'. As a consequence, such potential supporters of longevity research end up deprioritizing this cause area relative to less human-centric or more long-termist alternatives."

It is perhaps selfishness that makes me feel as I currently do. At the end, I just want Jasper back. I want the events of the past few days to be undone, All Night Laundry-style.

And so I cry.

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