Saturday, November 27, 2010

Death is problematic

Do you want to live forever?

What? what d'you mean, no? Surely you can't want to die, right?

And I'm sure at this point you're thinking of all the typical objections like seeing loved ones die and bogged down memory and boredom and whatnot. But what If I said this immortality extended to your family and friends, hell, the entire human species and any other sentient beings we might find in the process. And we'll improve everyone's bodies and brains, so memory won't be a problem, either.

And what about overpopulation? Well, that would take billions of years or longer, but I suppose eventually the universe might fill up. And what about the heat death of the universe? No physical system would be able to work, and you probably know I'm a naturalist, so any immortality would have to be physical. But let's say we find a way around those with new discoveries allowing us to create new universes or whatnot.

But maybe there are other problems left. Or maybe just that doesn't work. So now what?

Well, it's a simple principle that I've been thinking about lately. Certainly there are many problems that we avoid due to our limited lifespans. You've heard people say, often enough, that they don't care about global climate change since they'll be dead, that the sun becoming a red giant in a few billion years doesn't concern us because we won't live long enough, hell, people saying they'd rather die young than get old and sick. This simple principle says: When you avoid a problem because you won't live long enough to face it, you don't have a solution, you have another problem.

I know not everyone is as passionate as me about living as long as possible. I was recently surprised at how many people told me they wouldn't want to be brought back to life were such a thing possible (the science of internet polls). But this idea goes beyond that. I admit eternal life has issues, but those are the issues of life itself, we just don't have enough time to face them now. Like a baby hoping she'll die at age five and never have to face school.

When someone wants to kill themselves, we usually think something must be wrong, and we would want to fix that if possible. Those of us who believe in the right to euthanasia still think it'd be a better outcome if we could cure the disease that's causing the suffering. So why don't we extend that thinking pattern indefinitely? Why do people talk about some "natural extent" of human life, after which it'd be silly to still want to live? Why not focus on the problem of life not being worth living at a certain point?

My argument is: If you don't exist, you can't achieve goals, you can't be happy, you can't experience pleasure, you can't rack up utility points. Of every way humans use to evaluate outcomes that I know of, in none does death ever become the most desirable outcome conceivable. I accept the existence of fates worse than death, but not their theoretical inevitability. That is, there's always a conceivable something better than death. If life is looking worse than death, then either your perceptions are wrong or life is not living to its theoretical potential. In both cases, we have a problem.

The problem might not be solvable. Maybe immortality does bore you eventually, regardless of what you do. But it's still there. It's still preferable that it wasn't there than to die. Therefore, you have a problem to solve, if you want to achieve the best possible outcome, whatever that is for you  If you're going to die, you have two problems to solve, one is your death, the other whatever sucks in life. If there's something else down the line, then you have three problems. Or four, or five, or six. And every new possible way to die adds another problem. In a way, you have infinite problems, sorry to break it to you. But I'm telling you because I think it's better if you know.

If you truly, really, honestly think that the best possible thing that could happen to you is for you to day after a certain point, then there's nothing I can say. But I don't believe any human has an utility function that prefers death to all possible states of not-death. Or however it is you think preferred outcomes are determined if you don't like utilitarianism. So, next time you think of the future, think if you want to be there. If not, find out why. Knowing what the problems are is a good way to start solving them.

As an aside:  I don't believe eternal life is possible. Like I said above, I' think naturalism is correct, life cannot exist other than as a physical system. And even if the heat death of the universe can be bypassed, somehow, you'd have an eternity of time for that life to end. If there's any possible way for death to happen, it will happen, probability 1, given an infinite amount of time. I might be wrong. I want to be wrong about this, provided we can solve the other problems. But it doesn't seem likely. That doesn't negate any of the points I raised before, a problem you cannot solve is still a problem.

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