Author’s note: this one goes slowly and very carefully, as if explaining things out loud to a precocious eight-year-old. That’s on purpose, and it’s not meant as an insult to the reader. The goal is not to win an argument, it’s to clearly communicate one side of an argument, so that both sides can understand it.
People disagree about death.
Most people don’t like death. Most people agree that it is tragic, and terrible. Most people don’t want to die, and they don’t want their family and friends to die, and they even don’t want strangers who they don’t even know to die.
But many people—even ones who aren’t particularly fond of death—will still stop short of completely condemning it. They will argue that it is part of the cycle of life, or part of what gives life meaning, or a necessary piece of the puzzle that keeps the world in balance. Some of them will talk about God, and God’s plan, and an afterlife that is a good place (at least for good people).
I don’t think that’s enough. I am extremely opposed to death. I think it is one of the very worst possible things. If I were going to be tortured forever, I would probably choose death, but if some demon or genie told me that I was going to be tortured for a million years and then after that I would get a hundred years of happy and healthy life, I would take that option.
I’m not silly. I know that I would regret it, during those million years. I know that I would curse my past self, as I lay there being tortured. I know that I might even lose my mind.
(And I know that the utilitarian calculus is off, here—that I am revealing some confusion in my own internal beliefs. More on that below.)
But I believe that I would still want those hundred years after. I believe that the guarantee of those hundred years would get me through it. I believe that having those hundred years would be better than my current expectation, which is to die at eighty if I’m lucky and sooner if I’m not.
I want to explain why I feel this way. Why I am willing to stand up in front of anyone—friends, family, strangers, doctors, priests, children—and look them in the eye and say “Death is awful and we should make it go away,” even though many people find that statement rude or stupid or embarrassing or infuriating. Even though many people react as though that statement is somehow threatening. I still say it, and I want to explain why I feel so strongly.
In order to do that, I’m going to have to go all the way down to the bottom of a stack of beliefs, many of which don’t seem to have anything to do with death at all. You see, my hatred of death depends on a lot of other beliefs. It doesn’t make sense unless those other beliefs are already understood.
Another way to think of this stack of beliefs is as a branching pathway that shows any number of places where you might disagree with me. For instance, maybe you’ll think the first four of my beliefs are true, but you’ll disagree with the fifth. At each and every point on the list, I expect some people will say “here’s where you and I differ.”
1. My brain is a jump-to-conclusions machine.
This is where it all starts, for me. When I look at the world, and at the behavior of the people around me, and I think about my own past, and I think about the things I’ve learned about human psychology and human evolution and social dynamics and survival pressures…
…when I look at all that, what I end up thinking is that my brain is really bad at waiting long enough to be sure.
In other words, I think my brain is really good at jumping to conclusions. At tricking itself into thinking that it should be really sure, even when it doesn’t have very much evidence. It’s overconfident. I am overconfident.
I think this because of all of the times that I’ve gotten really really mad at someone, and been sure they were bad/wrong/dumb/crazy, only to find out later that everything they were doing made sense and I would have done pretty much the same thing in their shoes.
I think this because of all the times I’ve been really really sure that I knew the answer to a question, only to find out that I was wrong, or all the times that I was really really sure that my plans were going to succeed, only to find out that they didn’t.
I think this because the history of science is an endless string of overturned conclusions, with Newtonian physics replacing Aristotelian physics only to be replaced by relativity and quantum mechanics in turn, with everything we confidently declared to be true about nutrition proving false decade after decade (and some fraction of our species still keeps thinking it’s finally found the answer).
I think this because of all the research I’ve read, about how humans make lots and lots of mistakes—even when they know better, even when they know what to look for. I think this because of things like confirmation bias, and the typical mind fallacy, and scope insensitivity, and the representativeness heuristic, and motte-and-bailey arguments, and Goodhart’s law, and all kinds of other buzzwords that are good to look up if you don’t know what they are.
(Some of them have even turned out to be false! We were too sure that we knew exactly how we were getting things wrong even when we were investigating whether or not we were too sure.)
I think this because when I look back at the ancestral environment, it makes sense that early hominids who were inclined to see patterns and draw conclusions would survive and thrive better than early hominids who were not. Because hominids who heard rustling in the bushes and thought “Lion!” would live longer than hominids who heard rustling in the bushes and thought “eh, who knows.” Because hominids who saw their brother get struck by lightning and thought “The gods don’t want us on that hill, especially during thunderstorms” would live longer than hominids who thought “I wonder if that happens every time.”
Hominids who were constantly looking for cause-and-effect patterns were probably wrong most of the time, but if you’re superstitious and avoid repeating any behavior that preceded something bad, then you’re going to pass your genes on, and a thousand generations down the road your descendants are going to have brains that are hella good at imagining patterns that aren’t really there.
(And loath to let them go, even in the face of evidence.)
What this means is that I try not to believe things just because I believe them. Or, if I were to split the words apart, it means that I try not to endorse beliefs just because some part of me thinks that they’re true.
2. I shouldn’t believe something unless reality REQUIRES that I believe it.
Classically, this is referred to as “Occam’s Razor.” Another way to say this is “beliefs are for true things.”
Not everybody feels this way. A lot of people think it’s fine to believe something because it makes you happier, or because it gives you some kind of strength or endurance, or because it makes it easier to get along with the people around you.
I agree that sometimes believing false things can be useful. I think that believing false things often can make you happier or stronger or help you fit in. But I still don’t think you should do it, if you can help it. I think it costs more in the long term than it gets you in the short term. I think you should try to scrape away beliefs that aren’t true, and try to stop yourself from adopting new ones.
The reason I think this is because the universe is like a giant, complicated machine all covered with levers and buttons and switches, and I’m like a monkey trying to poke at that machine and make things happen even though I don’t really understand how it works. I’m trying to make delicious food appear on the table in front of me. I’m trying to make cool people find value in spending time with me. I’m trying to build stuff and change stuff and make the world look the way I want it to.
And when it comes to manipulating the vast and complex machine that is reality, those false beliefs matter. If I think that poking a particular button (like prayer) causes stuff to happen and I keep doing it for a long time (even though I’m wrong) because nothing’s proved that I shouldn’t, that’s going to change the way that I poke and prod in the meantime.
(By stopping me from investigating other levers, for instance, the way I would if I didn’t think I already had the answer.)
Even the beliefs that don’t seem to have anything at all to do with my goals or behavior—they all influence the way I investigate reality, the way I fiddle with the levers. They’re going to change the way that I weigh things up, color my actions and responses.
There’s a quote from the TV show Doctor Who, where the Doctor (as played by Matt Smith) says “Nine hundred years of time and space, and I’ve never met anyone who wasn’t important.”
On the one hand, you could dismiss that as just being something that’s meant to sound sweet. But on the other hand, you could see that it’s literally true, insofar as all of reality is connected, and all of reality lawful (more on this below). Just as every particle tugs on every other, so too does every true fact rely on and influence every other. You can’t get to the moon by stacking up falsehoods, but you can get to the moon through the process of stacking up truth after truth after truth until you know just what levers to pull, and in just what order.
(Even though I imagine there were plenty of people around Copernicus’s time who would’ve sighed and said “Look, it just doesn’t matter whether the world is round or flat, if there is an edge none of us are going to see it, and if the whole thing is round none of us are going to walk all the way around it anyway! Why can’t you just believe whatever you want?” They wouldn’t have realized, that far back, just how important the fact of the world’s shape was, if you want to get to the moon. You can’t always tell in advance which facts will matter.)
And so, as someone who wants to get better and better at pulling the right levers, and also as someone who knows that he’s likely to jump to conclusions, I’ve decided that the right strategy is to believe as little as possible, and only stuff which I have to believe because reality’s proven it.
(Which isn’t to say I’m not allowed to have theories and hypotheses. I can make all kinds of guesses as to what’s true, and those guesses can help me figure out where to look for my next clue. And similarly, I can make a plan even if I don’t know for sure that all the steps are right. There’s a lot of stuff that I’m pretty confident about. But at the same time, I’m always keeping an eye out for new information. I’m always ready to say “Nope, turns out that guess wasn’t a good guess.”)
3. Reality is lawful.
The subtitle of this one is probably “and the fact that ancient people didn’t think so isn’t a good reason to believe that it isn’t.”
By reality is lawful, what I mean is that, as far as we can tell, the whole wide universe can be explained by matter and energy following just a small number of relatively simple laws. We don’t fully understand those laws yet, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there, and it doesn’t mean they aren’t working.
I believe this because every single experience that I’ve had in my life holds together coherently. When I add two objects to two other objects, I always get four objects. When I hold something up and let it go, it always falls (even if it falls interestingly, the way a paper airplane does). When I look up into the night sky with a telescope, I see light that was emitted from stars a few years ago right next to light that was emitted thousands of years ago right next to light that was emitted millions or billions of years ago, and all of those lights are telling the same story—the stars we can see that are billions of years old are behaving as if gravity worked the same way back then that it does now.
And there’s never yet been—in my sight—anything that didn’t make sense. I’ve never seen a man turn into a werewolf, or seen a solid object pass through a wall without breaking something, or witnessed someone moving something with their mind or reading someone else’s thoughts. I’ve never seen a magic spell that wasn’t a trick. I’ve never seen something happen because of prayer that wouldn’t have happened without prayer. I’ve seen things that confused me, but every confusion that has been solved had a mundane answer, and I bet that the ones I’m still mulling over had mundane answers, too.
And I’ve never seen a credible claim of something truly supernatural from anyone else, either. Most of us know someone who’s seen a ghost, or felt the presence of god or spirits, or heard a voice, or experienced a miracle, or encountered something that they themselves could not explain.
But in the thirty-two years that I’ve been alive, and the hundred or so years of history in which the world has been densely populated enough that people were really paying attention, with economies that encouraged us to exploit every possible advantage and technology that could actually keep accurate records…
…in all that time, there’s never been a psychic or a seer who was good enough that they could reliably predict the stock market, or pull secret information out of captured terrorists. There’s never been someone who could throw real fireballs or levitate boulders well enough that they could get a job lighting stoves or working on a construction site. There’s never been a kind of prayer or moral code that reliably protects you and your loved ones from getting cancer or getting hit by buses.
I’ve heard lots of arguments about the miraculous reports of ancient people, and of well-documented historical events that defy modern explanations. But when you throw in the fact that our brains are jump to conclusions machines, you start to see that there isn’t anything in those claims that isn’t just as easily explained by those ancient humans being sort of confused about what they saw, or about how the world works.
(And in general, we wouldn’t trust their insights into physics or medicine, so why should we trust their insights into the nature of reality itself?
(There’s a kind of wisdom that the ancients have that is trustworthy—ancient people had figured out a lot about how to survive and get along with each other. About what sorts of rules and social norms make for good communities, and how people will act if they’re told X, Y, or Z, or if they believe A, B, or C. Ancient wisdom like “don’t marry your siblings” or “don’t steal from your neighbor” or “don’t eat cassava unless you’ve thoroughly cooked and peeled it” took a long time to piece together and is extremely good, and history is full of examples of what goes wrong when we ignore the accumulated experience of thousands of years and try something new from scratch. But just because the ancient people got those things right doesn’t mean that they got everything right. We’re way better equipped than they were to understand the nature of reality, and we’ve still only sort of scratched the surface.)
What all that boils down to is that my experience compels me to believe in a lawful reality, because that’s the only thing that makes sense of all of my observations. And when others try to nudge me in the supernatural direction, they haven’t been able to present evidence which compels me to believe them—not when I know about things like schizophrenia, and predictive processing, and the fact that people sometimes just lie. Not when I can see the incentives pushing them toward those supernatural beliefs—when I can see why they would want to believe them, or be pressured to believe them, or be vulnerable to being tricked (or tricking themselves) regardless of whether or not there’s actually justification to do so.
4. Pretty much everything that makes me ME is contained within my brain.
Now we’re starting to get closer to the death stuff.
We’ve established that I think I’m vulnerable to jumping to conclusions. We’ve established that I think this is bad, and that I try not to have any false beliefs. And we’ve established that I think reality makes sense according to physical law—that Zeus doesn’t come down from the heavens and mess with time, or anything like that.
With that as background, we turn to questions of personhood, and identity, and consciousness.
I don’t know what consciousness is—not well enough to write a program that has it, the way I know how to write a program that can produce a picture or make a sound or calculate a number.
But what I am compelled to believe, by my observations, is that whatever consciousness is, it has its roots in brain tissue.
Every conscious, functioning, intelligent, able-to-act-and-communicate human that I’ve ever encountered has a brain.
(I haven’t actually checked this, but there hasn’t been a car accident that opened up a head that didn’t have a brain in it, nor an autopsy that’s found anything else, and I’ve been in machines that showed me pictures of my own brain that looked like the pictures of other people’s brains, so it seems like a reasonable thing to be confident about. It seems like a conclusion I’ve walked to, rather than jumped to.)
Furthermore, everything I’ve seen that sort of had a personality also had a brain. Puppies, chickens, lizards, raccoons, dolphins, ravens—even bugs that run away when I try to squish them.
Meanwhile, every single thing I’ve encountered that doesn’t have a brain also doesn’t have consciousness to any discernible degree, and my personal experience is confirmed by the widely held beliefs of society at large.
So everything that has anything resembling what you might call a soul also has a brain.
On top of that, we know that fiddling with the brain has effects on the soul. There have been multiple cases of people whose traumatic brain injuries have significantly altered their personalities, their capabilities, their desires. We have demonstrated that substances like glucose and testosterone and lithium and SSRIs can profoundly impact our experience of the world and our behavior within it (to say nothing of things like hallucinogenics). If you get hit hard enough in just the right ways, you might never speak again.
All of which is to say that reality does not compel me to believe in ghosts. The brain is the soul—
(The body helps, too; I’m rounding off.)
—and there’s not some other non-physical thing behind it doing the driving that survives after the brain goes away. If there was—if the thing that makes you you could go on after your whole brain had rotted away, then why would an injury or seizure be able to change your whole personality?
(I had a friend once suggest that the soul’s expression through the body is always corrupted, because the body is sort of low and base and dirty, and so it’s not surprising that the soul’s expression could become more corrupted if the body became damaged. I agree that this is a logical point. But it’s still more stuff to posit, and more stuff to believe, and nothing in reality compels me to complicate my theory in this way. If I’m trying to believe as little as possible, then I have lots of evidence to tell me that everything happens inside the skull and zero evidence to tell me that anything happens outside of it. You can choose to believe in some extra, non-physical entity, but if you believe that beliefs are for true things and nothing else, then you have to hesitate, and call that (at best) an unlikely hypothesis.)
5. When my brain goes away, so do I.
This is the sad one, the scary one, the tragic one, the key insight. I want to pause for a minute and point out some reasons why people don’t believe this one.
(I’m not claiming that these are all the reasons why people don’t believe it. I’m not putting words in anyone’s mouth, and I’m not trying to accurately represent the other side of the argument. I’m just going to point out that we have motive to believe not-this, and leave it at that.)
If you believe that the destruction of your brain is the destruction of you, then you have to believe that you are almost certainly going to be destroyed, since we haven’t yet seen a single human brain (out of about 100 billion human brains that have existed so far) last for more than 150 years.
But if you look the other way, you don’t have to think about that.
If you believe that the destruction of your brain is the destruction of you, then you have to believe that every friend and family member you’ve ever seen die has been erased, obliterated, completely undone. Which is horrible, unspeakable, tragic in the extreme.
But if you believe in an afterlife, you don’t have to think about that.
If you believe that the destruction of your brain is the destruction of you, then you have to believe that everyone around you will one day vanish, that all of their will and whimsy and taste and beauty will cease to be a part of this universe, cease to be a part of what paints your life such bright colors. Which is a recipe for misery or nihilistic ennui, both of which erode your own soul.
But if you tell yourself that it’s inevitable, you give yourself license to ignore it, and focus on the present.
If you believe that the destruction of your brain is the destruction of you, then you have to believe that nearly one hundred billion people, each with their own hopes and dreams, each unique and beautiful in their own way, many as cool as the coolest people you’ve ever known, have all been cast into nothingness by a universe that doesn’t care. Which is a holocaust too huge to grasp, and one that staggers you if you even catch a glimpse of its true magnitude.
But if you ignore it, then you can keep the part of you that would compel you to do something about it from waking up.
If you believe that the destruction of your brain is the destruction of you, then you have to believe that there is nothing you can do to comfort your weeping friend at the funeral, that their loss is total and absolute, and that this is just how it is.
But if you whisper to them that their loved one’s soul is at rest, that they have been taken into God’s kingdom, then you can see them feel better, and their feeling better makes you feel better, too.
And so it’s clear why we might first have dreamed this up—why the earliest humans might have jumped to the conclusion that no, this couldn’t possibly be it, there has to be something more, that good harvest happened because our grandfather is still out there, somehow, caring for us.
And it’s clear why we would keep telling ourselves this—why we would teach it to our children as soon as they are old enough to understand, and why our elders would insist that it was true, and why we would write stories about it, and weave it into the fabric of our lives. Because it helps. It actually helps—in the short term.
And you don’t even have to feel all this stuff super strongly to be personally vulnerable. Lots of people who believe in souls or afterlives might honestly say that they’re not all that scared of death, and it’s not because their thinking is twisted by a bunch of unacknowledged fear—that if they somehow were convinced that death was their final end, they would still live basically the same lives that they’re currently living.
The sad thing is, by this point, you don’t have to be directly self-deceptive at all, to wind up with this sort of it-doesn’t-matter attitude around death. It’s all around us, reinforced by millions of people, offered up at holidays by parents and grandparents, baked into the books and movies and legends that underpin our culture. It doesn’t take any specific failure to end up with that belief set—it just takes not having ever happened to question it critically, and ask yourself why you believe what you believe, and whether the reasons are sufficient.
(I’m not saying that it is definitely true that fear and self-deception are indeed the root causes of our general cultural stance. I’m not certain that what I’ve described accurately matches what happened in history. I’m simply saying that in a world without souls, you would almost certainly still hear people saying the things that they currently say, for reasons that are entirely understandable and entirely human. That our cultures, our histories, our elders, say the things that they say for reasons unrelated to the question of whether or not they are true. That if you believe only what you are compelled to believe, and do not allow yourself comforting extras, then you must conclude that mere mundane human nature is a sufficient explanation for all the superstitions and religions the human species has come up with, and you don’t need to posit actual souls at all.)
6. I do not want to die.
There is much I wish to see, and much I wish to do, and more of each—not less—with each passing year.
7. Acceptance of death is learned, not innate
The children do not like death.
The children do not appreciate death.
If you ask a child who has lost someone (say, six or eight months ago; let us not be cruel) what they think of death, one of exactly two things will happen.
They will parrot back the words that some elder has handed them—about death being part of the circle of life, or about their loved one having gone on to a better place.
Or they will answer honestly, with some strong mixture of fear and confusion and grief and impotent rage.
Always one of those two things, in my experience.
And we have learned, as a society—we are very, very good at getting the first thing to happen.
Because for a child to be filled with fear and confusion and grief and impotent rage—it’s not a good thing. It doesn’t let them get on about the business of living their own life. It’s not how they heal. It’s not how they move on.
And we want the children to heal. We want them to move on. I do, as well—I would not want my own child, or one of my students, to be trapped forever in the depths of the deep, deep well of despair.
Yet because the ancients found one way to comfort and heal, they stopped looking for others. Just as pulling the lever of prayer—and thus feeling like I had done my part—would stop me from trying to make things better with my own power.
The current cultural story is not the only way to help that grieving child up out of the well. How else might you comfort them, rather than by telling them that this thing that they hate, this thing which has taken their loved one away from them, shhhh, secretly it’s a good thing, don’t worry…?
You might say to that child “We are working as fast as we can. We will put an end to it. We are fighting, and when you are grown, if we have not yet won, you can join the fight, too. And someday, we won’t have to say goodbye.”
You might say that, if it were true.
It might be true, if enough of us said it.
But at the moment, the fighters in that fight are few and unsupported, and we have only the old and hopeless pattern. Death is inevitable, we think, and so we must work around it, take it as a given, patch it up and plaster it over and just carry on.
But if they had not told you to accept death—if they had not filled your ears with it, your entire life—if they had not hammered it into you, made you read Tuck Everlasting in fifth grade—if they had not offered you reassurances about souls and cycles when you were at your lowest and most vulnerable and desperate for something to cling to—
If they had simply told you what it was and let you make up your own mind—
You, and I, and nearly all of us would hate it. It would be universally abhorred, with only the smallest percentage of weirdos and mystics suggesting that maybe it was actually okay, or even necessary, or even good.
The natural state of a human mind is to hate death.
(I realize that this is not a knockdown argument. The natural state of a human mind is also to be psychopathically callous toward all who are not labeled “family,” “friend,” or “tribe.” Natural does not strictly equal good, and furthermore the culture itself is also natural in that it evolved in natural people living in the natural environment. But I do think that there’s some kind of penetrating insight, some kind of innocent candor, in the beliefs of children, and I think that it is telling that this belief in particular is one we as a culture are only able to wash away with sustained and deliberate effort.)
8. Death is not inevitable.
This one requires some small leaps.
First, imagine that, once you reach the age of perhaps 35, you go into the hospital every year, and spend a long day undergoing a procedure which identifies the 5% of your neurons which are closest to wearing out, and replaces them with cloned or synthetic neurons in exactly the same configuration.
If you believe (as I do) that the person who walks out of the hospital is still you, then death is not inevitable.
(Even though, after the third year, you would have 15 billion neurons that were not there when you were 30. Even though, by the time you are 60, you will have replaced every last one. That’s because the brain is just the hardware. You are the software that runs on the brain, just as you are the software that steers your body, and not your body itself. As long as the software is not damaged in the transformation, it’s hardly any different than regrowing skin over a scraped knee, or getting a bone marrow transplant after leukemia.)
Science and technology have leapt forward, in the past ten decades. If we do not encounter some terrible disaster (such as nuclear war or unfriendly superintelligent AI), it will only accelerate further over the next few. It will not be long before we can map the entire brain, down to every last pulse of every last neuron, the ebb and flow of every last neurotransmitter. It will not be long before we can clone new neurons, or make artificial ones, or develop serums and treatments which prevent the ones we were born with from wearing out.
(The same is true for every other body part. And there are yet wilder ways to preserve the life of a person, ranging from cryonics to cloning to digital uploading. We may soon be able to snip out the individual genes that cause our cells to stop refreshing, once we have understood the root causes of cancer.)
It is possible, as it never was before, to hope. You, reading this, might actually have been born late enough to see the end of death. If not, then your children, or your children’s children. There is nothing which demands death—even if it turns out that every single body part has an absolute expiration date, we will someday be skilled enough to grow and transplant single neurons, single bone cells, single muscle cells. If we have to, we will develop the technology to keep a human alive one cell at a time.
We know that this will ultimately work, because reality is lawful. There is no fundamental barrier in the way, no tower-of-Babel disaster waiting to strike. The human body is a machine, and as we come to understand it, we are learning better and better how to care for and maintain it—and someday (barring disaster) that understanding will be complete.
Which means that someday, you may be offered a choice: would you like to die, or would you like to live?
9. In the discussions I’ve had, absolutely none of the people who are actively working on anti-death technology or promoting anti-death ideals advocate FORCING people to stay alive against their will…
Many people object because they imagine themselves tired and listless and forbidden to lay down their burdens and go to their final rest.
This fear is valid. I share it. I advocate for the right to choose one’s own ending.
I do not think that the answer to “but I don’t want to be forced to live” is “well, then, let’s not bother figuring out how to let anybody live.”
…and everyone involved acknowledges that extended life is worthless unless accompanied by extended health/youth…
But the same technological advances that lead me to believe we will soon be able to preserve or rejuvenate brains also lead me to believe we will soon be able to preserve or rejuvenate bodies.
(Where “soon” is measured in decades, not months or years.)
…but as it stands now, the vast majority of humans go to their deaths unwillingly.
…and of those who do go willingly, most do so after many years of pain and physical decline with no hope in sight, seeking to find their end with dignity and self-efficacy rather than waiting for the random failure of an organ. There are those who commit suicide out of despair or horror, and those who give their lives to a cause, and those who grow tired and have simply had enough. But well over 90% (and probably over 99%) of the people who die would have preferred not to have died that day.
10. All of the goods which are purchased by death may be purchased more cheaply elsewhere.
It does not take long to come up with objections to the idea of everyone living forever. Many of them have been prepared for us by a long line of authors who wanted to convince themselves and others that they weren’t really missing anything by not being immortal, anyway, it would probably suck.
Death causes progress — old and wrongheaded beliefs fade from society, and power passes from one set of hands to another. If we all lived forever starting in the year 1900, for instance, all of the power and wealth of the world might be in the hands of a dozen old white men, and much of the progress we’ve made (both scientific and social) would have been much harder, and perhaps impossible.
Death limits the population — it would be harder to feed 100 billion humans than it is to feed 8 billion (and with 8 billion we already have famines that sometimes kill thousands). Also, if humans continued to be born, eventually too much of the Earth’s biomass would be contained within our bodies, or we would run out of space, or pollution would wreck the planet.
Death is fair—if we come up with some kind of life extension technology, only the rich will get it at first, and maybe only ever.
Death gives life meaning—
Eh. I have the least patience for that one, and the least ability to dignify and steelman it. If anything, the literal exact opposite is true—most people suffering from nihilism report that it’s hard to motivate themselves to action, or to bother to have preferences at all, because ultimately it will all add up to nothing.
(And to the purists who say that a life which lasts a few billion years until the universe ends is just as meaningless as a life which lasts eighty years—well, maybe, but I’ll still take it.)
It’s true that there are some things which gain from ending. A song or book or movie or sporting event that never ended would lose tension and the satisfaction of resolution.
But humans are not atomic, not singular, in the way that those things are. There is nothing about my life that is improved by the fact that all of my experiences are expected to end within 50 years, and all of my plans have to include the clause “or I might just die with this unfinished.” If I grow tired of the things I am doing now, I will simply do different things instead. If I set out to read every book ever written and get bored after a thousand years, I can switch to skiing every mountain on every colonized planet.
(If death is what gives life meaning, then are the lives of children who don’t yet know about death meaningless? Okay, okay, then if death is, like, half of what gives life meaning, then can you make up for that with, say, four times as much life? I know that extending less-valuable life is not always a great answer for people who are in constant pain or crippled to the point of being unable to do any of the things that they enjoy, but it seems like it might be worth it for people who are already pretty okay with their day-to-day experience.)
The key insight for me came when a friend asked me to consider the counterfactual world, in which people were already immune to death by aging.
Let’s say that it’s the year 1650, and human population (which has been steadily increasing for thousands of years) has now passed the one billion mark. People are worried about overpopulation, and tyranny, and starvation.
“Ah,” suggests someone. “I have the solution. We will simply take everyone over the age of 80 and kill them all. In that way, the population will stay low enough that we can avoid using up all the resources, and also we’ll get rid of those pesky Visigoth kings that have been hoarding all of the gold.”
No. Thanos is a villain. No one in their right mind would consider that the best solution, just as you would not consider “kill everyone over 30” to be the answer to today’s social and environmental problems.
The solution is space colonization, sustainable energy, contraception—every population that reaches first-world prosperity lowers its birth rate anyway, and (again, barring disasters like unfriendly AI) it’s reasonable to believe that a supermajority of humanity can achieve that level of prosperity with the technology of the next fifty or one hundred years.
(Which answers the concern about the rich. Yes, the rich always get the new technology first, but even the poorest of the poor in most countries have access to health care that is one or two orders of magnitude better than what they could have gotten one hundred years ago.)
There is no problem created by long-lived, happy, healthy humans that is best solved by having them suffer a long and undignified decline before being erased from the face of the universe. Yes, it’s true that Genghis Khan caused the rejuvenation of the climate and the environment, but even now most humans agree it would be immoral to bomb our way to reversing climate change. Most humans would agree that if they could press a button and have their children live happily for two hundred years, or three hundred, or a thousand, they would press that button.
If we can solve death, we should solve death. Once we do solve death, we will simply have that many more minds on hand to fix all of the other problems—imagine all of the geniuses of the past thousand years, and what they might have achieved with an extra two or three hundred years of experience and time-to-ponder.
This feels unfinished and anti-climactic. I wish I had a more resounding conclusion. But it is late, and I am tired, and I can always write a second draft (as long as I don’t die first).
So in my conclusion I’ll be simple, and blunt.
I do not think I have fully represented or expressed the other side of the argument. I believe that people could raise coherent and compelling points in favor of death, and that there could be a conversation that would cause me to learn and grow and gain wisdom.
But I do not expect that conversation to shift me enough to cause me to switch sides. I expect it to give me sympathy for other people’s pain and suffering, or to increase my respect for the problems and hurdles involved in inventing the technology or restructuring society, but not to cause me to conclude “oh, well, never mind, let’s just all die, then.”
I have never (yet) heard an argument in favor of death that could not be sufficiently explained by people who were twisting their thinking around so as to avoid looking at something scary, or fully feeling pain or loss.
I have never (yet) heard an argument in favor of the existence of souls or afterlives that reduced my sense of urgency, or my fear of my own inevitable(ish) end.
(I note cynically, as others have noted before me, that you will often hear the same people who say that death-is-good-because-one-grows-tired-after-a-long-enough-life also argue that they have an immortal soul which will continue on forever. It is similarly curious to witness people whose outrage at deaths-in-the-plural (such as at a school shooting) is tremendous, but who in other contexts simply shrug noncommittally about Death-with-a-capital-D. The fact that they don’t seem aware of the contradiction there causes me to discount their other reasoning somewhat. This may not be fair, but I am being honest.)
In the end, it boils down to this:
I have loved perhaps one hundred people, in my short thirty-two years on this planet. Some of them were family, some of them were friends, some of them were teachers, many of them were students. All of them taught me something, all of them added beauty and color to my life, and all of them were unique and precious and infinitely valuable.
And one hundred years from now, all of them will be utterly, utterly gone.
If we can do something about that, and we don’t, I believe we will have made a mistake, and the fact that I myself won’t be here to suffer from that mistake is not sufficient consolation.
We were meant to live.