Epistemic status: there are some strong anti-death / pro-immortality sentiments in EA/rationalist circles, and it's bugged me that I haven't seen a good articulation of the anti-immortality case. This is a quick attempt to make that case. I'm confused about what to think about immortality overall; I think that it may depend a lot on circumstances/details, and be eventually desirable but not currently desirable.
The basic case for immortality goes something like:
A death is a tragedy. Individuals would, in almost all cases, prefer not to die. They have friends and family who care about them and would prefer they not die. In a large majority of the cases where they would prefer to die this is because of other factors they'd prefer to fix instead (e.g. extremely poor health). In a post-scarcity future we should expect to be able to fix these factors, so we should plan on abolishing death.
This argument mostly checks out to me when evaluating whether it's good for individuals to die. But my worry is that the whole line of thinking is too individualistic. Would it be good for society as a whole if people were immortal?
Historically I think the answer is not clear-cut, but my guess leans towards "no". If I imagine I have the option of pressing a button so that people 3,000 (or 1,000, or 300, or 100) years ago were immortal — not aging, and not dying of disease — I feel like I don't want to press that button. There would certainly be a lot of good things that would happen from it — many tragic deaths averted, many good things that persisted longer, and perhaps longer time horizons for individuals. But I am scared that:
- For most of history, populations were food-limited, so this would lead to more deaths by starvation or violence, which seem probably worse
- However in the modern world this might not be an immediate problem
- We'd also have contraception available as a tool (although it's unclear whether it's good to give existing people more life rather than their children having lives)
- It's possible that technology will move us to fundamentally different positions re. personal identity (e.g. because everyone is run as emulations, and these can be slowed down) before our inability to keep scaling food production exponentially causes hard constraints on population
- However in the modern world this might not be an immediate problem
- The world would have been much more likely to get stuck locked into some bad states
- A lot of repressive dictators die of natural causes
- If they were immortal, it seems much more likely that one would have successfully conquered the world, and established a regime which stably kept them in control for eternity
- Less extremely, there is the adage that science progresses one funeral at a time
- I'm sure this is sometimes an exaggeration, but also feel sympathetic to the thought that if new ideas threaten existing social structures, and if the people instantiating those structures were permanent fixtures, there might have been much more repression of new ideas
- It's a trope that the death of elderly relatives — even highly beloved ones — can be freeing for people
- This doesn't point to any particular failure modes, but is some support for "death may play an important role in allowing society (as it is currently arranged) to move on from things"
- A lot of repressive dictators die of natural causes
These are still concerns to me today.
At a more personal level, I have some worry that the narrative of death-as-tragedy can belittle narratives of death-as-end-to-story-arc, and that sometimes the latter seem like they are capturing something true and important. For old people who have had a happy routine and watched their grandkids grow up and have kids of their own, and feel like they can let go rather than needing to do more in the world, I dislike telling them (implicitly or explicitly) that this is a failing.
Would I eventually like to move to a post-death world? Probably, but I'm not certain. For one thing I think quite likely the concept of "death" will not carve reality at its joins so cleanly in the future.
Is there too much death in the world today? Yes. If I could push a button to increase life expectancies by 10% or 50% I surely would (although my confidence is driven more by a sense of an implicit contract with all the humans alive now than consequentialist reasoning). If I could push a button to increase lifespans 100x or 10,000x I would be much more hesitant. (If there is a technological singularity this century that goes well then I would love for as many currently-alive people as possible to stay alive to see it, but I think in expectation the bigger impact of changes in lifespans would be to affect how such events might unfold.)
Just checking, are you aware of Sandberg's counterarguments to the immortal dictators point?
I hadn't seen this discussion, thanks! I find the dictator data somewhat reassuring, but only somewhat. Because I care about not the average case dictator, but the tail of dictators having power for a long time. And if say 2% of dictators are such that they'd effectively work out how to have an ironclad grasp of their country that would persist for 1000+ years, I don't really expect our data to be rich enough to be able to pull out that structure.
When thinking about the tail of dictators don't you also have to think of the tail of good people with truly great minds you would be saving from death? (People like John von Neumann, Benjamin Franklin, etc.)
Overall, dictators are in a very tough environment with power struggles and backstabbing, lots of defecting, etc. while great minds tend to cooperate, share resources, and build upon each other.
Obviously, there are a lot more great minds doing good than 'great minds' wishing to be world dictators. And it seems to trend in the right direction. Compare how many great smart democratic leaders there are now vs 100 years ago. Extend that line another 100 years and it seems like we'll be improving.
In a world in which a long tail dictator could theoretically work out an ironclad grasp of their country for evil, wouldn't there be thousands of truly brilliant minds with lots of global coordinated resources around the world pushing against this? (see Russia vs Ukraine for a very very simple real-world example of "1 evil guy vs the world")
So this long tail dictator has to worry about intense internal struggle/pressure but also most of the world externally pressuring them as well? I don't see how the moral brilliant minds don't just outmaneuver this dictator because they have 100x+ more people, resources, and coordination (in this theoretical future).
It's a good point that by default you'd be extending all the great minds too. Abstractly I was tracking this, but I like calling it out explicitly.
& I agree with the trend that we're improving over time. But I worry that if we'd had immortality for the last thousand years maybe we wouldn't have seen the same degree of improvement over time. The concern is if someone had achieved global dictatorship maybe that would have involved repressing all the smart good people, and preventing coordination to overthrow them.
But we're not debating if immortality over the last thousand years would have been better or not, we're looking at current times and then estimating forward, right? (I agree a thousand years ago immortality would have been much much riskier than starting today)
In today's economy/society great minds can instantly coordinate and outnumber the dictators by a large margin. I believe this trend will continue and that if you allow all minds to continue the great minds will outgrow the dictator minds and dominate the equation.
Dictators are much more likely to die (not from aging) than the average great mind (more than 50x?). This means that great minds will continue to multiply in numbers and resources while dictators sometimes die off (from their risky lifestyle of power-grabbing).
Once there are 10,000 more brilliant minds with 1,000x more resources than the evil dictators how do you expect the evil dictator to successfully power grab a whole country/the whole world?
I agree that probably you'd be fine starting today, and it's a much safer bet than starting 1,000 years ago, but is it a safer bet than waiting say another 200 years?
I'd be concerned about dictators inciting violence against precisely the people they most perceive as threats. e.g. I don't know the history of the Cultural Revolution well, but my impression is that something like this happened there.
The thing that's hard to internalize (at least I think) is that by waiting 200 years to start anti-aging efforts you are condemning billions of people to an early death with a lifespan of ~80 years.
You'd have to convince me that waiting 200 years would reduce the risk of totalitarian lock-in so much that it offsets billions of lives that would be guaranteed to "prematurely end".
Totalitarian lock-in is scary to think about and billions of people's lives ending prematurely is just text on a screen. I would assume that the human brain can easily simulate the everyday horror of a total totalitarian world. But it's impossible for your brain to digest even 100,000,000 premature deaths, forget billions and billions.
I certainly feel like it's a very stakesy decision! This is somewhere where a longtermist perspective might be more hesitant to take risks that jeopardize the entire future to save billions alive today.
I also note that your argument applies to past cases too. I'm curious in what year you guess it would first have been good to grant people immortality?
(As mentioned in the opening post, I'm quite confused about what's good here.)
I agree, it feels like a stakesy decision! And I'm pretty aligned with longtermist thinking, I just think that "entire future at risk due to totalitarianism lock-in due to removing death from aging" seems really unlikely to me. But I haven't really thought about it too much so I guess I'm really uncertain here as we all seem to be.
I kind of reject the question due to 'immortality' as that isn't the decision we're currently faced with. (unless you're only interested in this specific hypothetical world). The decision we're faced with is do we speed up anti-aging efforts to reduce age-related death and suffering? You can still kill (or incapacitate) people that don't age, that's my whole point of the great minds vs. dictators.
But to consider the risks in the past vs today:
Before the internet and modern society/technology/economy it was much much harder for great minds to coordinate against evils in a global sense (thinking of the Cultural Revolution as you mentioned). So my "great-minds counter dictators" theory doesn't hold up well in the past but I think it does in modern times.
The population 200 years ago was 1/8 what is today and growing much slower so the premature deaths you would have prevented per year with anti-aging would have been much less than today so you get less benefit.
The general population's sense of morals and demand for democracy is improving so I think the tolerance for evil/totalitarianism is dropping fairly quickly.
So you'd have to come up with an equation with at least the following:
- How many premature deaths you'd save with anti-aging
- How likely and in what numbers will people, in general, oppose totalitarianism
- If there was opposition, how easily could the global good coordinate to fight totalitarianism
- If there was coordinated opposition would their numbers/resources outweigh the numbers/resources of totalitarianism
- If the coordinated opposition was to fail, how long would this totalitarian society last (could it last forever and totally consume the future or is it unstable?)
I don't buy the asymmetry of your scope argument. It feels very possible that totalitarian lock-in could have billions of lives at stake too, and cause a similar quantity of premature deaths.
Of course, it would, but if you're reducing the risk of totalitarian lock-in from 0.4% to 0.39% (obviously made up numbers) by waiting 200 years I would think that's a mistake that costs billions of lives.
I think Matt’s on the right track here. Treating “immortal dictators” as a separate scenario from “billions of lives lost to an immortal dictator” smacks of double-counting.
Really, we’re asking if immortality will tend to save or lose lives on net, or to improve or worsen QoL on net.
We can then compare the possible causes of lives lost/worsened vs gained/bettered: immortal dictators, or perhaps immortal saints; saved lives from life extension; lives less tainted by fear of death and mourning; lives more free to pursue many paths; alignment of individual self-interest with the outcome of the long-term future; the persistent challenge of hyperbolic discounting; the question of how to provide child rearing experiences in a crowded world with a death rate close to zero; the possible need to colonize the stars to make more room for an immortal civilization; the attendant strife that such a diaspora may experience.
When I just make a list of stuff in this manner, no individual item jumps out at me as particularly salient, but the collection seems to point in the direction of immortality being good when confined to Earth, and then being submerged into the larger question of whether a very large and interplanetary human presence would be good.
I think that this argument sort of favors a more near-term reach for immortality. The smaller and more geographically concentrated the human population is by the time it’s immortal, the better able it is to coordinate and plan for interplanetary growth. If humanity spreads to the stars, then coordination ability declines. If immortality is bad in conjunction with interplanetary civilization, the horse is out of the barn.
One question is whether coalitions of pro-social people are better at deferring power to good successors than dictators are at ensuring that they have equally bad/dictatorial successors. If you believe that Democracies are unlikely to “turn bad,” shouldn’t you be in favor of reducing the variance to the lifetime of dictatorships?
The discussion here is very abstract, so I’m unsure if I disagree because I picture a different pathway to giving people extreme longevity or whether I disagree with your general world model and reasoning. In any case, here are some additional related thoughts:
That said, I see some important points in favor of your more optimistic picture:
This is a good comment. I'd like to respond but it feels like a lot of typing... haha
I just mean the world is trending towards democracies and away from totalitarianism.
Yes, but 100x easier? Probably not. What if the great minds have 100x the numbers and resources? Network effects are strong
Same response as above
My point is that the vast majority of the world immediately pushed back on Putin much harder than people thought. This backs up my trend that people are less tolerant of totalitarianism than they were 100 years ago. We are globally trying (and succeeding) to set stronger norms against inflicting violence and oppression.
I'm guessing it will be somewhat easier to reverse these trends in a less scarcity-based society in the future, especially when we have a better handle on mental health from all angles. And the increases are probably not enough to matter in the wider question of great minds vs dictators.
The great minds can just outnumber the dictators in numbers and in resources, but again network effects can fight against this because each individual person doesn't have to succeed against dictators, the whole global fight for good has to collectively succeed.
The world definitely seems to be trending towards saner and more stable though.
Re. term limits on jobs, I think this is a cool idea. But I don't know that I'd expect that to be implemented, which makes want to disambiguate between the questions:
My guesses would be "yes" to A, and a very tentative "no" to B. Of course if there was a now-or-never moment of choosing whether to get immortality, one might still like to have it now, but it seems like maybe we'd ideally wait until society is mature enough that it can handle immortality well before granting it.
I don't have well-formed views on these questions myself, but yeah, I think #2 is a more important question than #1 right now.
Hi Owen! The advantages and limitations of immortality needs more thought as our society is starting to more seriously invest in anti-aging.
One of my challenges with this post is that it claims to provide an "anti-immortality case," but then proceeds to simply list some problems that might arise if people were immortal.
To make an anti-X case, you need to do more than list some problems with X. You need to make a case that the problems are insurmountably bad or risky, even after a consideration of possible solutions. Alternatively, you can make a case that the downsides inevitably outweigh the benefits, despite a presumption that people will work hard to mitigate those downsides and maximize the benefits.
Your article is specifically about immortality, or at least adding perhaps 10,000 years to average human life expectancy. That's a different topic from more realistic incremental anti-aging efforts. But that also gets into a Sorites paradox, so it seems worth bringing up incremental efforts as well.
Note: what follows isn't an attempt to bombard you with Gish-gallop-style questions. It's just food for thought.
If you don't think anybody should press the life extension button, but you also don't think that anybody should press the life-shortening button, then we need an explanation for why you believe people are living the perfect amount of time for overall human wellbeing.
I think that anti-aging research is most likely to produce "one year of life extension" buttons, every now and then. Every time such a button is pressed, society will have a chance to observe the effects and adjust in advance of the next button press. This specific anti-aging scenario is the one that I think merits the most focused attention.
Good questions! I could give answers but my error bars on what's good are enormous.
(I do think my post is mostly not responding to whether longevity research is good, but to what the appropriate attitudes/rhetoric towards death/immortality are.)
I felt quite frustrated by this post, because the preponderance of EA discourse is already quite sceptical of anti-ageing interventions (as you can tell by the fact that no major EA funder is putting significant resources into it). I would in fact claim that the amount of time and ink spent within EA in discussing reasons not to support anti-ageing interventions significantly exceeds that spent on the pro side.
So this post is repeating well-covered arguments, and strengthening the perception that "EAs don't do longevity", while claiming to be promoting an under-represented point of view.
Thanks for voicing the frustration!
I regarded the post not really as a point about cause prioritization (I agree longevity research doesn't get much attention, and I think possibly it should get more), but about rhetoric. "Defeating death" seems to be a common motif e.g. in various rationalist/EA fic, or the fable of the dragon tyrant. I just wanted some place which assembled the arguments that make me feel uneasy about that rhetoric. I agree that a lot of my arguments are not really novel intellectual contributions (just "saying the obvious things") and tried to convey that with the start of the post. (It's also quite possible there is some other post which captures what I'm trying to do here better, but that I was unaware of it.)
I do claim that it's good to have articulations of things like this even if the case is reasonably well known (I don't really know what the status of that is). I'm not sure whether you disagree with that. In any case from your response I think I didn't do enough to convey the intended type signature of the post, and I'm sorry about that.
Thanks, Owen! I do feel quite conflicted about my feelings here, appreciate your engagement. :)
Yeah, I agree with this -- ultimately it's on those of us more on the pro-immortality side to make the case more strongly, and having solid articulations of both sides is valuable. Also flagging that this...
...seems roughly right to me.
Paul Abramson, Ronald Inglehart, and others, have similarly suggested that value changes largely occur via generational replacement. See discussion here.
I think this is really difficult to truly assess because there is a huge confounder. The more you age the worse your memory gets, your creativity decreases, your ability to focus decreases, etc., etc.
If all of that was fixed with anti-aging it may not be true that science progresses one funeral at a time because the people at the top of their game can keep producing great work instead of becoming geriatric while still holding status/power in the system.
Also, it could be a subconscious thing: "why bother truly investigating my beliefs at age 70, I'm going to die soon anyway, let me just continue with the inertia until I retire soon"
Also, this seems possible to fix with better institutional structures/incentives. Academia is broken in many ways, this is just one of them.
My comment wasn't about science but about political and moral values. I doubt that the reason people don't change them more is cognitive decline, since it seems that slowness to change them sets in long before cognitive decline sets in.
The same comment also applies to:
It's not just people who are 70+ who are slow to change their moral and political views.
I don't think this is a dominant factor, but my impression is that cognitive decline sets in very early. (e.g. reaction speed peaks in mid-20s).
There was a recent paper that challenged that view. And crystallised intelligence likely peaks later than fluid intelligence. But yeah even if it turned out to be a non-trivial factor it's likely not a dominant one until quite late.
Some quick reactions to your points:
I've sometimes thought about if 'immortality' is the right framing, at least for the current moment. Like AllAmericanBreakfast points out, I think that anti-ageing research is unlikely to produce life extensions in the 100x to 1000x range all at once.
In any case, even if we manage to halt ageing entirely, ceteris paribus there will still be deaths from accidents and other causes. A while ago I tried a fermi calculation on this, I think I used this data (United States, 2017). The death rate for people between 15-34 is ~0.1%/year, this rate of death would put the median lifespan at ~700 years (Using X~Exp(0.001)).
Probably this is an underestimate of lifespan - accidental death should decrease (safety improvements, of which self-driving cars might be significant given how many people die of road accidents), curing ageing might have positive effects on younger people as well, and other healthcare improvements should occur, and people might be more careful if they're theoretically immortal(?). However, I think this framing poses a slightly different question:
Do we prefer that more people:
I don't know how I feel about these. I think in the theoretical case of going immediately from current state to immortality I'd be worried about Chesterton's-fence-y bad results - not that someone put ageing into place, but I'd expect surprising and possibly unpleasant side effects of changing something so significant**.
*I inferred from the data I linked above that heart disease and cancer are somewhat ageing-related, I'm not sure if this is true
**The existence of the immortal jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii, implies that a form of immortality was evolvable, which in turn might imply that there's some reason evolution didn't favour more immortal things/things that tended slightly more towards immortality.
Thanks for pointing out this small elephant in the room. I think that, even if we could solve problems like the "ossification of values" (idk, maybe psychodelics, or some special therapy) or the possibility of immortal tyrants, the underlying problem is that some types of power (like wealth) accumulate with time... as usual, I think SMBC summarizes it in just one panel: https://www.smbc-comics.com/comic/social-longevity
In "Three worlds collide", the rationalist character makes it clear for the captain of the ship that the latter has to make the important decisions, because it's not up to the elders, but to the young, to command. I don't think this necessarily applies to our current societies, but I can see why it makes sense in contexts with extreme longevity. Unfortunately, it looks like we think it might be easier to solve senescence than intergenerational cooperation.
I like the point that we should not only consider the individual case. I guess people's hope is that,
in a future where everything goes maximally well, bad externalities like "old people's beliefs become ossified" can be addressed by some really clever governance structure.
On the individual case:
In my post "The Life-Goals Framework: How I Reason About Morality as an Anti-Realist," I mention longevity/not wanting to die a couple of times as an example of a "life goal." ("Life goal" is a term I introduce that means something like "an objective you care about terminally, so much that you have formed [or want to form] an optimizing mindset around it.") In the post, I argue that it's a personal choice which (if any) life goals we adopt.
One point I make there is that by deciding that not wanting to die is immensely important to you, you adopt a new metric of scoring how well you're doing in life. That particular metric (not wanting to die) places a lot of demands on you. I think this point is related to your example where you dislike telling people (implicitly or explicitly) that they're failing if they've had a happy routine, watched their grandkids grow up and have kids of their own, and feel like they can let go rather than needing to do more in the world.
Here some relevant quotes from my article (one theme is that the way we form life goals isn't too dissimilar from how we chose between leisure activities and adopt lifestyles or careers):
These quotes describe how people form their objectives, the standards by which they measure their lives. Of course, someone can now say "An objective being 'demanding' isn't necessarily a good reason to give up on it. What about the possibility that some people form ill-inspired life goals because they don't know/don't fully realize what they're giving?"
I talk about this concern ("ill-inspired life goals") in this section of the post.
I have a paper from a few years ago arguing a similar point. https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/0031-8949/89/12/128005;jsessionid=7EACB368D908AD6B0EC00F6688E725DD.c2.iopscience.cld.iop.org#metrics
From the abstract:
This article argues that this research program [longevity treatement] is much more risky or less beneficial than its proponents argue. In particular, they tend to underestimate the concerns associated with the potentially drastic population growth that longevity treatment could cause. The ethical benefit often ascribed to longevity treatment is that such treatment would add more subjective life-years that are worth living. However, in light of contemporary environmental problems, such an increase of the human population might be reckless. Drastically reducing fertility to reduce risks associated with environmental stress would make the benefits of such technology much less compelling.
Send me an email for the pdf if you are interested.
Conditional on immortality being achievable, we might also care about the hands in whom it is achieved. And if there isn't much altruistic investment, it might by default fall into the hands of inordinately selfish billionaires.
The (increasing) majority of the world's population already believes that their soul is immortal and that their actions in this life will determine the quality of their afterlife/rebirth.
I'm interested to hear religious perspectives on the value of life extension and immortality as I expect this will be one of the most important factors in the adoption of technological advances in longevity.
Additional arguments to explore:
Existential risks, and AI considerations aside:
Ageing generates an important amount of suffering (old bodies in particular tends to be painful for a while) and might be one of the dominant burden on healthcare systems, I'm wondering for ex how ageing compares with standard global health and development issues at least maybe it could plausibly compare or even beat them in terms of scale (would like to see a cost benefit analysis of that).
As a software engineer, I resonate with this post. In software engineering, I regularly have to make the decision of whether to improve existing software or replace it with a new solution.
I think software engineers succumb to the temptation to "start with a green field and clean slate" a bit too often. We tend to underestimate the value that lies in tried and tested software (and overestimate the difficulty of iterative improvements). Similarly, I think that I personally might underestimate the value, wisdom, and moral weight of existing people, particularly if we could solve most health problems. Yet I do believe that after some amount of life years, the value of a new life -- a newborn who can learn everything from scratch and benefit from all the goodness that humanity has accumulated before its birth -- exceeds the value of extending the existing life.
The trade-off is even more salient in animal agriculture. Obvious caveat: humans are incomparable to cows, and human genes evolve much more slowly than cow genes.
Because cows are bred to a quite extreme degree, a cow born today has substantially "better" genes than a cow born 10 years ago. This is one of the reasons why it is economically profitable to kill a dairy cow after 4-6 years rather than let it live to its full lifespan.
Your last bullet point reminded me of this anecdata: Several people that stand to inherit a meaningful amount of money have told me that they’re being quiet about their charitable giving with their family until they’ve actually inherited funds for feat of being disinherited (they believe that their family are very happy/strongly optimising to give them a lot of money for using on themselves and their children but not onboard with altruistic spending).
Humanity and society are weird. By some cosmic fluke involving brains and thumbs we figured out how to mold the landscape to grow our food and later on figured out how to access million-year old energy deposits in the lithosphere.
We are less than two centuries out from the beginning of industrialized society and we have no clue how to balance energy and resource flows to sustain civilization beyond a few more centuries. And now some of us apes are thinking, "hey, how about we don't die?" as if the current weird state of things somehow represents some new normal of human existence.
There has been ample debate around "strong sustainability" vs. "weak sustainability", which centers on how much technological substitution can overcome increasing environmental pressures. People have been using specific, limited examples of weak sustainability being true (see debates around Limits to Growth) to argue against strong sustainability. Its one thing to argue that we can change planetary limits / carrying capacity, and another to say that those limits don't exist. Limits exist; that falls out of some basic thermodynamics.
Pursuing life extension beyond a few centuries seems reckless without figuring out how to do strong sustainability first. With limits, resources are zero-sum beyond some geologic replenishment rate; people living longer trade off against other people, non-human animal, and plant life, or it buys down the resources available to people in the future. I would expect longtermists to be especially cautious about how reckless life-extension could be given limits.
Given that the annual utility is the product between the population size and annual utility per capita, which depends on the real GDP per capita, I think it would be interesting to explore how life-extension interventions impact fertility rate and economic growth.
I make a slightly different anti-immortality case here:
Summary: At a steady state of population, extended lifespan means taking resources away from other potential people. Technology for extended life may not be ethical in this case. Because we are not in steady state, this does not argue against working on life extension technology today.
Don't most dictators pass the power to their children or someone close to them anyway? And are these people not highly likely to remain dictators as well? Is it really the case that dictatorships are likely to become democracies when the dictator dies of old age? I find these are not trivial to answer.