Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.
Beautiful, with a high emotional impact. A more poetical verison of EY's baseball bat metaphor.
Link corrected, I apparently just copy-pasted and didn't notice I was linking to the main page.
tl;dr: My grandpa died, and I gave a eulogy with a mildly anti-deathist message, in a Catholic funeral service that was mostly pretty disagreeable.
I'm a little uncomfortable writing this post, because it's very personal, and I'm not exactly a regular with friends here. But I need to get it out, and I don't know any other place to put it.
My grandfather (one of two) died last week, and there was a funeral mass (Catholic) today. Although a ‘pro-life’ organisation, the Roman Catholic Church has a very deathist funeral liturgy. It wasn't just ‘Stanley has gone on to a better place’, and all that; the priest had the gall to say that Grandpa had probably done everything that he wanted to do in life, so it was OK for him to die now. I know from discussions with my mother and my aunt that Grandpa did not want to die now; although his life and health were not what they used to be, he was happy to live. Yes, he had gone to his great-granddaughter's second birthday party, but he wanted to go to her third, and that will never happen.
There are four of us grandchildren, two (not including me) with spouses. At first, it was suggested that each of us six say one of the Prayers of the Faithful (which are flexible). Mom thought that I might find one that I was willing to recite, so I looked them up online. It wasn't so bad that they end with ‘We pray to the Lord.’ recited by the congregation; I would normally remain silent during that, but I decided that I could say it, and even lead others in saying it, pro forma. And I could endorse the content of some (at least #6 from that list) with some moderate edits. But overall, the whole thing was very disturbing to me. (I had to read HPMoR 45 afterwards to get rid of the bad taste.) I told Mom ‘This is a part of the Mass where I would normally remain in respectful silence.’, and she apologised for ‘put[ting] [me] in an uncomfortable position’ (to quote from our text messages). In the end, the two grandchildren-in-law were assigned to say these prayers.
But we grandchildren still had a place in the programme; we would give eulogies. So I had to think about what to say. I was never close to Grandpa; I loved him well enough, but we didn't have much in common. I tried to think about what I remembered about him and what I would want to tell people about him. It was a little overwhelming; in the end, I read my sibling's notes and decided to discuss only what she did not plan to discuss, and that narrowed it down enough. So then I knew what I wanted to say about Grandpa.
But I wanted to say something more. I wanted to say something to counter the idea that Grandpa's death was OK. I didn't yet know how appalling the priest's sermon would be, but I knew that there would be a lot of excuses made for death. I wanted to preach ‘Grandpa should not have died.’ and go on from there, but I knew that this would be disturbing to people who wanted comfort from their grief, and a lecture on death would not really be a eulogy. Still, I wanted to say something.
(I also didn't want to say anything that could be interpreted as critical of the decision to remove life support. I wasn't consulted on that decision, but under the circumstances, I agree with it. As far as I'm concerned, he was killed on Monday, even though he didn't finally die until Wednesday. In the same conversation in which Mom and I talked about how Grandpa wanted to live, we talked about how he didn't want to live under the circumstances under which he was living on Tuesday, conditions which his doctors expected would never improve. Pulling the plug was the best option available in a bad situation.)
Enough background; here is my eulogy. Some of this is paraphrase, since my written notes were only an outline.
When I was young, we would visit my grandparents every year, for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Grandma and Grandpa would greet us at the door with hugs and kisses. The first thing that I remember about their place was the candy. Although I didn't realise it at the time, they didn't eat it; it was there as a gift for us kids.
Later I noticed the books that they had, on all topics: religion, history, humour, science fiction, technical material. Most of it was older than I was used to reading, and I found it fascinating. All of this was open to me, and sometimes I would ask Grandpa about some of it; but mostly I just read his books, and to a large extent, this was his influence on me.
Grandpa was a chemical engineer, although he was retired by the time I was able to appreciate that, and this explains the technical material, and to some extent the science fiction. Even that science fiction mostly took death for granted; but Grandpa was with us as long as he was because of the chemists and other people who studied medicine and the arts of healing. They helped him to stay healthy and happy until the heart attack that ended his life.
So, I thank them for what they did for Grandpa, and I wish them success in their future work, to help other people live longer and better, until we never have to go through this again.
I was working on this until the ceremony began, and I even edited it a little in the pew. I wasn't sure until I got up to the podium how strong to make the ending. Ultimately, I said something that could be interpreted as a reference to the Second Coming, but Catholics are not big on that, and my family knows that I don't believe in it. So I don't know how the church officials and Grandpa's personal friends interpreted it, but it could only mean transhumanism to my family.
Nobody said anything, positive or negative, afterwards. Well, a couple of people said that my eulogy was well done; but without specifics, it sounded like they were just trying to make me feel good, to comfort my grief. After my speech, the other three grandchildren went, and then the priest said more pleasant falsehoods, and then it was over.
Goodbye, Grandpa. I wish that you were alive and happy in Heaven, but at least you were alive and happy here on Earth for a while. I'll miss you.
[Edit: Fix my cousin's age.]
And I don't mean that they must concern themselves with death in the sense of ending death, or removing its sting through mental backups, or delaying it to the later ages of the universe; or in the sense of working to decrease the probability of extinction risks and other forms of megadeath; or even in the sense of saving as many lives as possible, as efficiently as possible. All of that is legitimate and interesting. But I mean something far more down to earth.
First, let me specify more precisely who I am talking about. I mean people who are trying to maximize the general welfare; who are trying to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number; who are trying to do the best thing possible with their lives. When someone like that makes decisions, they are implicitly choosing among possible futures in a very radical way. They may be making judgments about whether a future with millions or billions of extra lives is better than some alternative. Whether anyone is ever in a position to make that much of a difference is another matter; but we can think of it like voting. You are at least making a statement about which sort of future you think you prefer, and then you do what you can, and that either makes a difference or it doesn't.
It seems to me that the discussions about the value of life among utilitarians are rather superficial. The typical notion is that we should maximize net pleasure and minimize net pain. Already that poses the question of whether a life of dull persistent happiness is better or worse than a life of extreme highs and lows. A more sophisticated notion is that we should just aspire to maximize "utility", where perhaps we don't even know what utility is yet. Certainly the CEV philosophy is that we don't yet know what utility really is for human beings. It would be interesting to see people who took that agnosticism to heart, people whose life-strategy amounted to (1) discovering true utility as soon as possible (2) living according to interim heuristics whose uncertainty is recognized, but which are adopted out of the necessity of having some sort of personal decision procedure.
So what I'm going to say pertains to (2). You may, if you wish, hold to the idea that the nature of true utility, like true friendliness, won't be known until the true workings of the human mind are known. What follows is something you should think on in order to refine your interim heuristics.
The first thing is that to create a life is to create a death. A life ends. And while the end of a life may not be its most important moment, it reminds us that a life is a whole. Any accurate estimation of the utility of a life is going to be a judgment of that whole.
So a utilitarian ought to contemplate the deaths of the world, and the lives that reach their ends in those deaths. Because the possible futures, that you wish to choose between, are distinguished by the number and nature of the whole lives that they contain. And all these dozens of people, all around the world of the present, ceasing to exist in every minute that passes, are examples of completed lives. Those lives weren't necessarily complete, in the sense of all personal desires and projects having come to their conclusion; but they came to their physical completion.
To choose one future over another is to prefer one set of completed lives to another set. It would be a godlike decision to truly be solely responsible for such a choice. In the real world, people hardly choose their own futures, let alone the future of the world; choice is a lifelong engagement with an evolving and partially known situation, not a once-off choice between several completely known scenarios; and even when a single person does end up being massively influential, they generally don't know what sort of future they're bringing about. The actual limitations on the knowledge and power of any individual may make the whole quest of the "ambitious utilitarian" seem quixotic. But a new principle, a new heuristic, can propagate far beyond one individual, so thinking big can have big consequences.
The main principle that I derive, from contemplating the completed lives of the world, is cautionary antinatalism. The badness of what can happen in a life, and the disappointing character of what usually happens, are what do it for me. I am all for the transhumanist quest and the struggle for a friendly singularity, and I support the desire of people who are already alive to make the most of that life. But I would recommend against the creation of life, at least until the current historical drama has played itself out - until the singularity, if I must use that word. We are in the process of gaining new powers and learning new things, there are obvious unknowns in front of us that we are on the way to figuring out, so at least hold off until they have been figured out and we have a better idea of what reality is about, and what we can really hope for, from existence.
However, the object of this post is not to argue for my special flavor of antinatalism. It is to encourage realistic consideration of what lives and futures are like. In particular, I would encourage more "story thinking", which has been criticized in favor of "systems thinking". Every actual life is a "story", in the sense of being a sequence of events that happens to someone. If you were judging the merit of a whole possible world on the basis of the whole lives that it contained, then you would be making a decision about whether those stories ought to actually occur. The biographical life-story is the building block of such possible worlds.
So an ambitious utilitarian, who aspires to have a set of criteria for deciding among whole possible worlds, really needs to understand possible lives. They need to know what sort of lives are likely under various circumstances; they need to know the nature of the different possible lives - what it's like to be that person; they need to know what sort of bad is going to accompany the sort of good that they decide to champion. They need to have some estimation of the value of a whole life, up to and including its death.
As usual, we are talking about a depth of knowledge that may in practice be impossible to attain. But before we go calling something impossible, and settling for a lesser ambition, let's at least try to grasp what the greater ambition truly entails. To truly choose a whole world would be to make the decision of a god, about the lives and deaths that will occur in that world. The future of our world, for some time to come, will repeat the sorts of lives and deaths that have already occurred in it. So if, in your world-planning, you don't just count on completely abolishing the present world and/or replacing it with a new one that works in a completely different way, you owe it to your cause to form a judgement about the totality of what has already happened here on Earth, and you need to figure out what you approve of, what you disapprove of, whether you can have the good without the bad, and how much badness is too much.
My Little Pony (generation 4) has 2 immortal characters, who get a lot of sympathy from the bronies. "How sad! Poor Celestia and Luna must see everyone they know grow old and die. How much better to die yourself!"
I tried to write a fanfic saying that death was bad. But I had to make it a story, and it ended up having other themes. I don't know whether I like it or not, but it was very popular (now approaching 7000 views in 3 days on fimfiction).
I was pretty sure the message "death is bad" was still in there, because Celestia says things like "Death is bad" and "I'm afraid of dying." So imagine my surprise when comment after comment said, "Yes, immortality is such a curse!"
The sad news broke tonight : Neil Armstrong, the first human to ever walk another world, died today. We lost him forever. He died before we could defeat death.
Once again the horror of death strikes. This time, in addition from wiping from us forever a hero of humanity, he wiped from us forever a memory that will never exist again. Never again will a human being be able to experience being the first to walk another world. That beautiful experience is lost forever too, along with all the memories, dreams, desires and wishes that made Neil Armstrong.
But thanks to him, humanity made a giant leap. We'll fill the stars and conquer death. The spark of intelligence and sentience will not extinguish. That's the best we can do to honour him.
My roommate recently sent me a review article that LW might find interesting:
Personal observation says that LWers tend not to drink very much or often. Perhaps that should change, to the degree suggested by the article?
Full article here.
Robin Hanson has done a great job of describing the future world and economy, under the assumption that easily copied "uploads" (whole brain emulations), and the standard laws of economics continue to apply. To oversimplify the conclusion:
- There will be great and rapidly increasing wealth. On the other hand, the uploads will be in Darwinian-like competition with each other and with copies, which will drive their wages down to subsistence levels: whatever is required to run their hardware and keep them working, and nothing more.
The competition will not so much be driven by variation, but by selection: uploads with the required characteristics can be copied again and again, undercutting and literally crowding out any uploads wanting higher wages.
Some have focused on the possibly troubling aspects voluntary or semi-voluntary death: some uploads would be willing to make copies of themselves for specific tasks, which would then be deleted or killed at the end of the process. This can pose problems, especially if the copy changes its mind about deletion. But much more troubling is the mass death among uploads that always wanted to live.
What the selection process will favour is agents that want to live (if they didn't, they'd die out) and willing to work for an expectation of subsistence level wages. But now add a little risk to the process: not all jobs pay exactly the expected amount, sometimes they pay slightly higher, sometimes they pay slightly lower. That means that half of all jobs will result in a life-loving upload dying (charging extra to pay for insurance will squeeze that upload out of the market). Iterating the process means that the vast majority of the uploads will end up being killed - if not initially, then at some point later. The picture changes somewhat if you consider "super-organisms" of uploads and their copies, but then the issue simply shifts to wage competition between the super-organisms.
The only way this can be considered acceptable is if the killing of a (potentially unique) agent that doesn't want to die, is exactly compensated by the copying of another already existent agent. I don't find myself in the camp arguing that that would be a morally neutral or positive action.
Pain and unhappiness
Summary: Shelly Kagan, Yale philosophy professor, discusses the argument that death isn't bad for you, because when we are dead we won't care. He hunts around for justification, doesn't find anything satisfactory, or even paint a clear picture of what "satisfactory" would look like, and ends up conveying mostly mysteriousness to the audience.
There are a variety of right ways to approach this argument. One good goal is to understand what's going on in someone's head when they say that death is bad for you.
Reading the article, a bell rang for me about all this discussion of "possible worlds" - for example, the idea of feeling pity for people who don't exist. We usually don't interact with people who don't exist, so what process has led us to compare these different worlds against each other?
The answer is a decision-making process. "Possible worlds" doesn't mean spawning any physical universes - it's a convenient shorthand for imagined possible worlds, which we (in our capacity as intelligent apes) compare against each other, usually as part of a consequentialist decision process.
Once you start looking, you see the fingerprints of decision-making all over the article. It's the machinery that generates these possible worlds to think about, and the context that colors them. So I think noticing that "possible worlds <- us imagining possible worlds as part of our decision-making" is a good relationship for understanding topics like this.
Edit for clarity: The basic idea is that death being bad is, at its root, a function of the decision-making bits of our brains. This can be seen not just from a priori claims about "low utility = bad," but from the structure of what Shelly Kagan hunts around for, which mainly involves choices between possible worlds.
This may not be the right place for this, but I need quotes about death coming from the orthodox (normative, non-LW) position on death. I'm working on a project that will eventually be at least tangentially LW relevant, and I want to have some good 'pro-death' quotes that I can adapt for usage in the final project. I don't think I really need any quotes from the LW perspective; I plan to paraphrase Yudkowsky and the Sequences as well as Dylan Thomas's poem "Do not go gentle into that good night" for the opposing viewpoint.
I don't want to go into too much detail as to what it is exactly I am working on (if I fail or lose motivation fewer people will be disappointed), but I think that the project will take a maximum of 2 months to complete. This means that it will in all likelihood be complete in 3. More details as progress is made. Thank you in advance.
"Now Mr. Jobs always was a free thinker, a strong believer in spirituality, a vegetarian and a known skeptic of conventional medicine. He chose to reject conventional medicine altogether. He's not alone in that. We come across many people like this and we all know someone in our midst that uses homeopathy or has this known fear of anything "chemical" (to those I always say that everything is chemical, if you think dihydrogen oxide sounds scary you should stop drinking water). Individual freedom of thought and choice is a cornerstone of our modern society and the medical world makes no exception."
I recently saw this movie about the UN Scandal involving sex trafficking and was surprised by the conclusion. Instead of a neat little bow on the issue it left me with a ton of questions about what was being done to change things in the other parts of the world and how I could best contribute to that. I wanted to make this discussion post to ask for any of your opinions on the movie and perhaps some guidance for my upcoming top level post on the subject
I thought more about my feelings on this subject and re-summarized them here.