Re: The Meaning That Immortality Gives to Life

From: Giu1i0 Pri5c0 (
Date: Mon Oct 15 2007 - 01:53:57 MDT

Very good article Eliezer!
I would add that saying "life is good and death is bad" is not
perceived as sophisticated enough by some intellectuals who build
their careers on empty words.

On 10/15/07, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky <> wrote:
> I was once present when William Hurlbut, during a debate with Aubrey
> de Grey, spoke of "the meaning that death gives to life"; Hurlbut
> repeated the standard claims that life without death would be
> meaningless and empty. As I replied during the comments session,
> Hurlbut had not made a sincere effort to think about what meaning
> immortality would give to life, on the same order of the effort that
> has gone into thinking about "the meaning that death gives to life".
> Philosophers have put forth a mighty effort to find nice things to say
> about death. But this is scant reason to fear lifespan extension, when
> philosophers have not put forth an equally motivated effort to say
> nice things about immortality.
> Such is human nature, that if we were all hit on the head with a
> baseball bat once a week, philosophers would soon discover many
> amazing benefits of being hit on the head with a baseball bat: It
> toughens us, renders us less fearful of lesser pains, makes bat-free
> days all the sweeter. But if people are not currently being hit with
> baseball bats, they will not volunteer for it.
> Modern literature about immortality is written primarily by authors
> who expect to die, and their grapes are accordingly sour. Hurlbut, it
> seems, is afraid of living too long. Well, suppose Hurlbut's most
> dreaded fear materialized, and he was forced to live forever - worse,
> in good health - worst of all, with his IQ rising at a steady rate of
> 1 point per year. What positive aesthetics might Hurlbut find in his
> inescapable fate?
> We cannot ask Hurlbut this question today. Today he expects to die,
> and so he seeks nice things to say about death, and conversely awful
> things to say about immortality. But if Hurlbut were sentenced to
> life, he would probably stop tormenting himself by finding terrible
> things to say about his situation, and begin to wonder what nice
> things he might say instead. Such is human nature, after all.
> I once discussed death with a woman who said that, because of her
> awareness of mortality, whenever she thought of a nice thing to say to
> someone, she would say it right away; because who knows if they might
> not meet again. What a terrible world it would be if we had unlimited
> time to say nice things to each other! We should run right out and
> step in front of trucks. Perhaps if we were immortal, this woman would
> have remarked on how, whenever you meet a person or deal with them in
> any fashion, you are bound to meet again someday - thus you should
> speak kindly to them. What a terrible world it would be, if people met
> thinking they would never meet again! Then why would people tip
> appropriately in out-of-state restaurants? We should run right out and
> sign up with Alcor.
> Another common excuse for praising death is that it gives us a sense
> of urgency. Go hang-gliding today, go learn to play the flute today,
> for tomorrow may never come. These people must value initiative, if
> they use it to justify death - what would they say if they were
> immortal? Perhaps, "You've got to learn linear algebra eventually -
> why not start today?" You're not saving yourself any work by
> procrastinating. Isn't that a beautiful thought - that you've got to
> learn all these things someday, so why not begin now? Such is the
> meaning that immortality gives to life.
> What is the meaning of humanity's unfolding future, if we are to die,
> if we are to live? If we are to die, then perhaps the meaning is that
> - to reverse the words of immortal Gandalf - we are to take thought
> only for this one generation of the world. We are to bequeath the
> world in the best possible state to our children, but not otherwise
> meddle in their affairs. But if we are to live, then the future is our
> concern personally, and we shall ourselves reap the fruits of whatever
> we sow. Inescapable responsibility, inescapable consequences. Is this
> not equally a call to action?
> I have met many people who, when I try to tell them of the
> Singularity, say, "But do you really think all this will happen in our
> lifetimes?", as if the universe ceases to exist beyond the horizon of
> their personal deaths. Given what I've actually seen of people's
> psychology, if you want anything done about global warming (like
> building 1000 nuclear power plants and moving on to real problems),
> then, yes, you should urge people to sign up for Alcor.
> What meaning does death, the inevitable termination of existence, give
> to an effort to be a better person? Perhaps the notion of a virtuous
> life having a beginning, a middle, and an end; so that it is shaped,
> through a finite amount of effort, into having a satisfying
> conclusion; and then it is done, finished like a painting, put on a
> stand and exhibited. What meaning would immortality give to a virtuous
> life? An unending, unbounded effort; never finished like a painting,
> never simply exhibited; never flawless, always improving. Is this not
> equally a beautiful thought? It may even have the advantage of being
> equally scary.
> But really, both sides of all these arguments fall under the category
> of "excuses to be virtuous", which no one should ever need. As I
> remarked to the woman, after she said that her mortality leads her to
> say nice things to people right away instead of later, "That's a
> beautiful thought, and even if someday the threat of death is lifted
> from you, I hope you go on doing it." Once you know what virtuous
> behavior would help excuse death, or immortality, or whatever, just go
> ahead and do it without need for an excuse. If this essay has an
> object, it is to demonstrate the ease of finding beautiful thoughts
> just about anywhere.
> Neither death, nor immortality, are needed to give meaning to life.
> Life gives meaning to life. The object of friendship is friendship,
> the object of learning is learning. At most, the particular meanings
> that death or immortality would give to an act of life are secondary
> shades, fine points of artistry, like the landscape in the background
> of the Mona Lisa's smile.
> In truth, I suspect that if people were immortal, they would not think
> overmuch about the meaning that immortality gives to life. People in
> the Deaf subculture may ponder the implications of deafness; some Deaf
> parents even want to ensure that they have deaf children. Yet I rarely
> find myself pondering the meaning of hearing - perhaps I should! Only
> clouds must be searched for silver linings. Only things unvirtuous of
> themselves, must be excused by philosophizing them into excuses for
> virtue.
> If, someday, the threat of death is lifted from humankind, perhaps
> only those originally born as Homo sapiens, we who were once mortal,
> will give thought to the meaning of immortality.
> --
> Eliezer S. Yudkowsky
> Research Fellow, Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence

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