Yehuda Yudkowsky, 1985-2004

From: Eliezer Yudkowsky (
Date: Thu Nov 18 2004 - 19:36:42 MST

My little brother, Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky, is dead.

He died November 1st. His body was found without identification. The
family found out on November 4th. I spent a week and a half with my family
in Chicago, and am now back in Atlanta. I've been putting off telling my
friends, because it's such a hard thing to say.

I used to say: "I have four living grandparents and I intend to have four
living grandparents when the last star in the Milky Way burns out." I
still have four living grandparents, but I don't think I'll be saying that
any more. Even if we make it to and through the Singularity, it will be
too late. One of the people I love won't be there. The universe has a
surprising ability to stab you through the heart from somewhere you weren't
looking. Of all the people I had to protect, I never thought that Yehuda
might be one of them. Yehuda was born July 11, 1985. He lived 7053 days.
  He was nineteen years old when he died.

The Jewish religion prescribes a number of rituals and condolences for the
occasion of a death. The rituals are pointless and tiring; the condolences
are religious idiocies. Yehuda has passed to a better place, God's ways
are mysterious but benign, etc. Does such talk really comfort people? I
watched my parents, and I don't think it did. The blessing that is spoken
at Jewish funerals is "Blessed is God, the true judge." Do they really
believe that? Why do they cry at funerals, if they believe that? Does it
help someone, to tell them that their religion requires them to believe
that? I think I coped better than my parents and my little sister Channah.
  I was just dealing with pain, not confusion. When I heard on the phone
that Yehuda had died, there was never a moment of disbelief. I knew what
kind of universe I lived in, and I knew what I planned to do about that.
How is my religious family to comprehend it, working, as they must, from
the assumption that Yehuda was deliberately murdered by a benevolent God?
The same loving God, I presume, who arranges for millions of children to
grow up illiterate and starving; the same kindly tribal father-figure who
arranged the Holocaust and the Inquisition's torture of witches. I would
not hesitate to call it evil, if any sentient mind had committed such an
act, permitted such a thing. But I have weighed the evidence as best I
can, and I do not believe the universe to be evil, a reply which in these
days is called atheism.

Maybe it helps to believe in an immortal soul. I know that I would feel a
lot better if Yehuda had gone away on a trip somewhere, even if he was
never coming back. But Yehuda did not "pass on". Yehuda is not "resting
in peace". Yehuda is not coming back. Yehuda doesn't exist any more.
Yehuda was absolutely annihilated at the age of nineteen. Yes, that makes
me angry. I can't put into words how angry. It would be rage to rend the
gates of Heaven and burn down God on Its throne, if any God existed. But
there is no God, so my anger burns to tear apart the way-things-are, remake
the pattern of a world that permits this.

I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to accept so
terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most
atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even
less defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away,
refuse to confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient
beings annihilated every day. One point eight lives per second, fifty-five
million lives per year. Convert the units, time to life, life to time.
The World Trade Center killed half an hour. As of today, all cryonics
organizations together have suspended one minute. This essay took twenty
thousand lives to write. I wonder if there was ever an atheist who
accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who
did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in
this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never
change, never get any better?

Yehuda's death is the first time I ever lost someone close enough for it to
hurt. So now I've seen the face of the enemy. Now I understand, a little
better, the price of half a second. I don't understand it well, because
the human brain has a pattern built into it. We do not grieve forever, but
move on. We mourn for a few days and then continue with our lives. Such
underreaction poorly equips us to comprehend Yehuda's death. Nineteen
years of life and memory annihilated. A thousand years, or a million
millennia, or a forever, of future life lost. The sun should have dimmed
when Yehuda died, and a chill wind blown in every place that sentient
beings gather, to tell us that our number was diminished by one. But the
sun did not dim, because we do not live in that sensible a universe. Even
if the sun did dim whenever someone died, it wouldn't be noticeable except
as a continuous flickering. Soon everyone would get used to it, and they
would no longer notice the flickering of the sun.

My little brother collected corks from wine bottles. Someone brought home,
to the family, a pair of corks they had collected for Yehuda, and never had
a chance to give him. And my grandmother said, "Give them to Channah, and
someday she'll tell her children about how her brother Yehuda collected
corks." My grandmother's words shocked me, stretched across more time than
it had ever occurred to me to imagine, to when my fourteen-year-old sister
had grown up and had married and was telling her children about the brother
she'd lost. How could my grandmother skip across all those years so easily
when I was struggling to get through the day? I heard my grandmother's
words and thought: she has been through this before. This isn't the first
loved one my grandmother has lost, the way Yehuda was the first loved one
I'd lost. My grandmother is old enough to have a pattern for dealing with
the death of loved ones; she knows how to handle this because she's done it
before. And I thought: how can she accept this? If she knows, why isn't
she fighting with everything she has to change it?

What would it be like to be a rational atheist in the fifteenth century,
and know beyond all hope of rescue that everyone you loved would be
annihilated, one after another, unless you yourself died first? That is
still the fate of humans today; the ongoing horror has not changed, for all
that we have hope. Death is not a distant dream, not a terrible tragedy
that happens to someone else like the stories you read in newspapers. One
day you'll get a phone call, like I got a phone call, and the possibility
that seemed distant will become reality. You will mourn, and finish
mourning, and go on with your life, and then one day you'll get another
phone call. That is the fate this world has in store for you, unless you
make a convulsive effort to change it.

Since Yehuda's body was not identified for three days after he died, there
was no possible way he could have been cryonically suspended. Others may
be luckier. If you've been putting off that talk with your loved ones, do
it. Maybe they won't understand, but at least you won't spend forever
wondering why you didn't even try.

There is one Jewish custom associated with death that makes sense to me,
which is contributing to charity on behalf of the departed. I am donating
eighteen hundred dollars to the general fund of the Singularity Institute,
because this has gone on long enough. If you object to the Singularity
Institute then consider Dr. Aubrey de Grey's Methuselah Foundation, which
hopes to defeat aging through biomedical engineering. I think that a
sensible coping strategy for transhumanist atheists, to donate to an
anti-death charity after a loved one dies. Death hurt us, so we will
unmake Death. Let that be the outlet for our anger, which is terrible and
just. I watched Yehuda's coffin lowered into the ground and cried, and
then I sat through the eulogy and heard rabbis tell comforting lies. If I
had spoken Yehuda's eulogy I would not have comforted the mourners in their
loss. I would have told the mourners that Yehuda had been absolutely
annihilated, that there was nothing left of him. I would have told them
they were right to be angry, that they had been robbed, that something
precious and irreplaceable was taken from them, for no reason at all, taken
from them and shattered, and they are never getting it back.

If there should be a monument someday, somewhere on it will be "$1800, in
memoriam Yehuda Nattan Yudkowsky, 1985-2004." It will not restore him to
life. No sentient being deserves such a thing. Let that be my brother's
true eulogy, free of comforting lies.

When Michael Wilson heard the news, he said: "We shall have to work
faster." Any similar condolences are welcome. Other condolences are not.

Goodbye, Yehuda. There isn't much point in saying it, since there's no one
to hear. Goodbye, Yehuda, you don't exist any more. Nothing left of you
after your death, like there was nothing before your birth. You died, and
your family, Mom and Dad and Channah and I, sat down at the Sabbath table
just like our family had always been composed of only four people, like
there had never been a Yehuda. Goodbye, Yehuda Yudkowsky, never to return,
never to be forgotten.


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