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Third Alternatives for Afterlife-ism

27 Post author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 May 2007 07:41AM

One of the most commonly proposed Noble Lies is belief in an afterlife.  Surely, goes the argument, the crushing certainty of absolute annihilation in a few decades is too much for any human being to bear.  People need hope - if they don't believe in an afterlife, they won't be able to live. 

Surely this must be the strongest of all arguments for Noble Lies.  You can find Third Alternatives to many dilemmas, but can you find one to Death?

Well, did you close your eyes and think creatively about the problem for five minutes?  No excuses, please; just answer "Yes" or "No".  Did you, or did you not, brainstorm the problem for five minutes by the clock before giving up?

The assumed task is to find a source of hope against looming death.  So at the very least I would cite medical nanotechnology, the argument from actuarial escape velocity, cryonics, or meddling with the forbidden ultimate technology.  But do you think that anyone who actually argued for afterlife as a Noble Lie would be glad to hear about these Third Alternatives?  No, because the point was not really to find the best strategy for supplying hope, but rather to excuse a fixed previous belief from criticism.

You can argue against the feasibility of one of the above Third Alternatives, or even argue against the feasibility of all of them, but that's not the point.  Any one of those Third Alternatives stretches credulity less than a soul - that is (a) an imperishable dualistic stuff floating alongside the brain which (b) malfunctions exactly as the brain is neurologically damaged and yet (c) survives the brain's entire death. Even if we suppose the above Third Alternatives to be false-in-fact, they are packaged with far fewer associated absurdities, and put far less of a strain on the Standard Model.

Thus on the presentation of any one of these Third Alternatives, afterlife-ism stands immediately convicted because it cannot be the best strategy even as a Noble Lie.  The old Noble Lie is dominated in the payoff table. If you decided to lie (to others or yourself) to soften the horror of personal extinction, then you'd nudge the balance of evidence a little on actuarial escape velocity - not spin up a soul from whole cloth.

(A truly fanatic rationalist - like me - would refuse to judge between these two lies, regarding them both as equal transgressions of the deontological commandments Thou Shalt Not Nudge Thy Probability Assignments and Thou Shalt Not Pursue Hope As An Emotion, Only Actual Positive Outcomes.  Which is still no argument in favor of afterlife-ism; when a negative utility drops off my radar screen and becomes incomparable, I generally don't choose that policy.)

Comments (19)

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Comment author: joe4 08 May 2007 09:26:28AM 2 points [-]

I do not believe in an afterlife, but I hope that I will be able to make a positive contribution to the world... large enough that I will not immediately fade away from the memories of those who knew me or of me.... to instead live on in the memories of those whose lives I affected, or to be recognized by future generations for my positive contributions. Such a goal gives me hope in this sometimes cold, seemingly meaningless existence.

I want to make a difference. I am just not sure yet how I am going to make my mark on society.

I do not hope to avoid death or even live forever in an afterlife. Rather, I hope to live forever in people's minds and memories and never be forgotten.

Comment author: Robin_Hanson2 08 May 2007 10:36:46AM 6 points [-]

The afterlife provides many kinds of hopes mixed together. It is not clear that the alternatives you suggest provide all those hopes. or example, people hope to keep living in a paradise without the pressures and troubles of our lives, where a good powerful wise ruler keeps all well, and where all their ancestors will also be found.

Comment author: Kyle 08 May 2007 12:52:59PM 2 points [-]

You may be attacking a straw man there: I'm a firm believer in an afterlife, but I've never heard it argued from the basis of "people need hope." Generally, people who make that kind of argument have taken a web of beliefs, say from a particular religion, scratched out most of them, and attempted to prop up the rest on some other basis. Since the old conclusion is there before the arguments, they're almost guaranteed to be vacuous.

Christians, at least, couch their belief in an afterlife with phrases like "if there is no resurrection, then Christ was not raised..." I assume other religions have similar kinds of reasonings. The "biased" ones seem to be more those who have no particular religious belief, and yet still want to retain an expectation of an afterlife.

Comment author: conchis 08 May 2007 12:56:44PM 2 points [-]

If we didn't have silly hopes of an eternal life built up from a young age I doubt this would even be an issue. The "crushing certainty" wouldn't be crushing unless we'd been deluded into thinking we could avoid it to begin with. Certainly for me, "death is part of life; accept it and get on with living" has never seemed particularly problematic.

Comment author: zenkat 08 May 2007 02:21:12PM 1 point [-]

I believe "afterlife-ism" is more a side effect of the way our psyches are wired than a Noble Lie providing False Hope.

Our experience of the world (and therefore, from our mind's perspective, the world itself) has always been permeated with our sense of self. On a perceptual level, no self implies no world. And since self is always present in our perceptions, we naturally assume it will always be present. Thus the pervasive belief in the afterlife.

Even atheists have a hard time truly grokking non-existence.

My legacy - What will it be? Flowers in spring, The cuckoo in summer, And the crimson maples Of autumn ... - Ryokan (1758-1831)

Comment author: Stuart_Armstrong 08 May 2007 02:48:11PM 2 points [-]

As you point out, the afterlife noble lie is dominated by other noble lies. And I think a lot of the attraction of it is precicely that it's so unlikely. I've seen people who claim to believe in an afterlife, and who get very nervous when confronted with cryogenic ideas and such - because when they look at cryogenics, they can see all the ways it can fail.

But their afterlife noble lie is so unlikely, so removed from the everyday, that people somehow feel it can't fail. That it's beyond issues of probability and likelyhood.

Why does an omnipotent, omniscient god remain in people's minds, while the bearded superman on mount olympos with an eye for the ladies is just a footnote of history? It seems that past a certain point, the bigger the Lie, the more likely it is to be believed.

Comment author: joe4 08 May 2007 03:32:49PM 1 point [-]

Stuart, You're thinking about it all wrong... you're not supposed to think about it rationally. Whatever the church says, we're supposed to believe because god speaks us to through the church. And Jesus said there was an afterlife... how could Jesus have been wrong? And isn't everything in the bible the word of god... you know, even though it was written by humans and some pope decided which books should remain in the bible and which shouldn't... but it wasn't really a man making the decision since the pope received divine inspiration from god about which books to keep around.

Sadly, religion is not about thinking rationally. It seems more like a method of social control; telling people that if they sin, they may enjoy this life, but they will spend all of the afterlife suffering eternally in hell, unless they confess which magically makes everything better... you used to also have to give money to the church to be forgiven. Really, I think that it's brilliant. I don't believe there has ever been a better way to get a group of people to follow your orders and adopt your beliefs.

Comment author: joe4 08 May 2007 03:41:44PM 0 points [-]

Robin,

I wasn't necessarily trying to provide a third alternative that would be better than an afterlife. I don't think that it's possible to propose an alternative that is more attractive than the absolutely ridiculous fantasy world we have concocted for an afterlife. How can any idea possibly compete with eternal happiness, no pain or sorrow, the propspect of being reunited with everyone you loved in this life.

Nonetheless, for those who don't believe in an afterlife, I believe I proposed an alternative that for some could fulfill the hope of living forever, though perhaps not in the same way we have traditionally thought of an afterlife.

Comment author: Joseph_Hertzlinger 08 May 2007 09:20:53PM 1 point [-]

Why would cryonics etc. be incompatible with a traditional view of an afterlife? Physical immortality is supposed to be limited to Aleph_0 years and there are much larger cardinalities.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 08 May 2007 11:03:25PM 2 points [-]

Joe, you lack imagination and you still half-believe in your old religion. You've rejected it, but not seen it with the eye of one who never had believed. I can think of a lot of places I'd rather be than the Christian Heaven. In fact, I'd rather be here than in the Christian Heaven.

"Heaven is a city 15,000 miles square or 6,000 miles around. One side is 245 miles longer than the length of the Great Wall of China. Walls surrounding Heaven are 396,000 times higher than the Great Wall of China and eight times as thick. Heaven has twelve gates, three on each side, and has room for 100,000,000,000 souls. There are no slums. The entire city is built of diamond material, and the streets are paved with gold. All inhabitants are honest and there are no locks, no courts, and no policemen." -- Rev. Dr. George Hawes of Harrisburg, in a sermon

"So this is Utopia, is it? Well I beg your pardon, I thought it was Hell." -- Sir Max Beerholm, in a verse entitled In a Copy of More's (or Shaw's or Wells's or Plato's or Anybody's) Utopia

Comment author: joe4 08 May 2007 11:28:52PM 0 points [-]

Eliezer,

I am not sure I ever believed. However, that is not to say that there are not aspects which I find appealing.

I see religion mainly as a form of social control. In some cases, I see it as an attempt to add meaning to life, and to explain that which we either do not know, do not understand, or are incapable of ever knowing.

What is your perspective of the view from the eye of someone who had never believed?

Comment author: joe4 09 May 2007 01:54:11AM 0 points [-]

Eliezer,

I am aware of many of the pitfalls of a utopian society as has been well discussed throughout the ages. Nonetheless, I find myself drawn by the desire to make things better.

If you could change one thing about this world, what would it be?

What do you think is the biggest problem our society faces (besides the impending singularity) and would you fix it if you could?

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 09 May 2007 01:54:30AM 1 point [-]

First, strike my "you lack imagination" comment, that was both ad hominem and poorly phrased. I do think you are not using your imagination, that is, you are failing to search for Third Alternatives.

You don't believe in the Christian Heaven but you treat it as a real and powerful concept, the best world you could live in. From my perspective, Christianity is just one among thousands of religions; its afterlife is just one among thousands of afterlives. It is literature, and not particularly good literature, written by fourth-century Roman Empire revolutionaries who didn't even realize they were writing fiction. For these ancient writers to successfully describe the most beautiful imaginable world to live in would be as surprising as the priests of Thor doing the same.

What the Christians came up with instead is a utopia that would be as dull, boring, and meaningless as that of Plato or any other politically-driven writer. What the devil do I care for golden streets? Am I supposed to be impressed by some big damn wall? If an AI imposed such conditions upon the Earth, would humanity's work be done, and perfection at last achieved? You are not questioning the obvious insipidity because you have not realized that you are looking at fourth-century Roman literature; it is still a sacred thing to you, even as you deny its truth.

Therefore yea do I say unto you: Exercise some imagination! Brainstorm! Dare to question! Look for a Third Alternative!

Comment author: Matthew_C 09 May 2007 02:23:43AM 0 points [-]
Comment author: michael_vassar3 09 May 2007 02:48:46AM 5 points [-]

Eliezer: Almost no-one believes in the specific description of heaven you provided. Dante's heaven is much closer to what a thoughtful person might believe in, but most people's beliefs in Heaven are simply vague promises of abstract perfection.

Comment author: michael_vassar3 09 May 2007 03:05:03AM 1 point [-]

Matthew C: I'm very dubious but I'll bite. What could possibly constitute "evidence showing a non-material aspect to consciousness", at least so long as the word "material" is construed in the broadest possible fashion, e.g. as similar in meaning to "neutral monist".

Comment author: _Gi 09 May 2007 04:08:27PM 0 points [-]

These third alternatives you talk about are too new. None of them were more probable than the immortal soul 50 years ago. Most people have not yet adjusted to derive hope from these alternatives, even if they do seem to be marginally more practical now. The other problem is that success or failure of these technologies is apparently in the hands of fallible human operators, but the soul is outside human control altogether. Perhaps, people are afraid to trust other people with their "eternal" life.

Comment author: Matthew_C 10 May 2007 02:43:33AM 0 points [-]

Michael,

I think the problematic belief system is not just "materialism" but rather "reductionistic materialism". A good example of that would be someone who is certain that all phenomena in the universe are simply an outcome of the Schrodinger Equation. The kinds of evidence that I feel are incompatible with reductionistic materialism include spontaneous precognition, spontaneous telepathy, controlled laboratory studies showing these effects, triple-blind mediumship studies, etc.

The truth-seeking approach is to allow observations and data to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of our models. Much more commonplace is that we use our models to filter the observations and data we are willing to accept. And that is especially prevalent among adherents to the dominant paradigms of any particular age.

Comment author: Richard_Hollerith 10 May 2007 10:35:28AM -1 points [-]

Yes, your third alternatives demolish afterlife-ism, but that is no argument they should have any claim on our loyalty.

I am in essential agreement with The Meaning of Life FAQ (no longer on the net) and with your 1998 statement, "But if it comes down to Us or Them, I'm with Them," and am very sad that since 2002 human beings and their preferences have so thoroughly dominated your moral universe.

In your dialog with Joe, it is you, not Joe, IMO, who needs to dare to imagine -- dare to imagine the existence of aspects of reality that trump the wishes of human beings -- dare to imagine that humans are significant not as ends but rather as means to nonhuman ends.

(An implication of my view is that resources applied to life extension and cryonics are better spent educating and inspiring new human beings.)