Death is natural. Death gives life meaning. Nothing would be meaningful if you lived forever. You’ll be bored of living. Immortality comes through what we leave behind. You live on in your children. Immortality would only be available to the wealthy. You’ll cause class warfare. Earth would run out of resources. People would stop having children. You should overcome your fear of death so you can live more fully.
A discussion about potential immortality is among the most frustrating conversations a rationalist will ever have. Nowhere else is the response so uniform, uniformly hostile, and boringly predictable. While a more intelligent or more educated person generally makes for a better discussion, that doesn’t seem to make any difference here.
Meet Generic Gerry. This is an ordinary person with an ordinary upbringing, uploaded with our society’s typical views on death. Here are my tips for talking to Generic Gerry. I hope it will be useful to you, so perhaps you can skip that pointless swirl and have a more fruitful discussion.
To begin with, here are some words you shouldn’t say.
Immortal / immortality / live forever
This is number 1 for a reason! When you say “immortal”, you’re thinking of reading books and making art and enjoying the company of loved ones. You know what Gerry is thinking? Voldemort. Or perhaps the wicked stepmother in Tangled. Or perhaps the Flying Dutchman. Literature has not been kind. Let’s just skip the part where Gerry calls you selfish and accuses you of sacrificing others for yourself.
“Oh, like Ray Kurzweil!” Generic Gerry knows exactly one transhumanist, Ray Kurzweil. And (while Mr. Kurzweil is an excellent and inspiring person) Gerry thinks he’s crazy. Unfortunately, Gerry hasn’t actually met Mr. Kurzweil, only heard stories. Secondhand. They’ve become distorted along the way. “He takes 1000 vitamins and wants to bring back his father’s voice in a box!”
Another topic that’s treated unfairly in the media. At best, Gerry thinks cryonics is weird; at worst, a cowardly scam. We don’t need those negative feelings here.
Singularity / AI
Not directly relevant here, and kind of scary to Generic Gerry, who’s not super excited about computers taking over the world.
These are all buzzwords. They are like light switches in a room or buttons in a psyche. The moment you say “immortality”, you are no longer talking to an agent. You are now talking to an NPC. NPCs are all about programming. Their thinking switches off while their programming switches on, and out of their mouths comes a whole culture’s worth of social platitudes, all in one big defensive stream.
That’s why it’s always the same conversation.
Since talking about “not dying” makes Generic Gerry raise up the defensive shields, I like to talk about “not dying without consent.”
Begin with something anyone can agree with.
“Doesn’t it suck when people die of cancer at the age of 40 with two young kids? Or when they die slowly of Alzheimers?”
Link to aging.
“If we could fix these aging-related problems, people wouldn’t get cancer when they get older anymore. They would stay healthy and active.”
Introduce the vision.
“Instead of dying from cancer before they are ready, they can live out all their dreams and read all the books they want.”
Stick close to the cultural norm.
“Then, when decide they are ready, they can set up their affairs, get their finances in order, and die surrounded by family and friends.”
Of course, there will always be new books to read, and maybe you’d never decide you are ready to die, but you don’t have to say it. Leave Gerry to come to that conclusion.
It works even with the religious who want to be with their god or their eternal family someday. Most would object to never dying, but some do appreciate more control over when and how.
It’s important to remember you won’t change Gerry’s mind overnight. Gerry will have to think about it over weeks and months, maybe even years. Your goal is to crack the gates open. If Gerry rejects immortality, that gate is slammed shut. But if Gerry expresses interest in choosing the timing and circumstances of death, you’ve got your foot in the door! Gerry will not be openly hostile to discussing aging research with you. Perhaps Gerry will even be interested in the research or excited about advances. And for a first conversation, that’s the best you can hope for.
I’ve heard every one of these way too many times. In all likelihood, so have you.
I want to go to heaven.
It will always be trivially easy to die. You’ll just get to choose when you’re ready. You won’t have to die unexpectedly at the age of 60 wishing you could watch your grandchild grow up.
If you’re afraid to die, you’re not really living.
Unfortunately, you are thinking of Voldemort, a character so afraid to die he never truly lived. Voldemort is also fiction. In real life, I’m more like a person who eats healthy to avoid heart disease.
Won’t living forever get boring?
Not in the first 1000 years, no. After that, you can choose to die if it’s boring.
When people are old, they are ready to die.
Seeing as a 22% of all healthcare costs are incurred in the last year of life, no they aren’t. But even if they were. . . .
When people are old, they are also tired, achy, and frail. Would they still be ready if they were healthy, fit, and active? Perhaps the real age when they’d be ready is 200 or 1000. We don’t know.
Would it be available to everyone or just the wealthy?
Short answer: It will be available to everyone.
Long answer: Even today, vaccines aren’t readily available in Africa. But we don’t grab our pitchforks, yelling “Down with vaccines!” In the US, cancer treatments are still limited to those who can afford them. Chemotherapy started with Eva Peron before reaching the rest of Argentina. Life extension will begin with the wealthy, too. One day, it will reach everyone. Those who care can help fund life extension for the poor, or better yet, donate to research to make the life-extension techniques cheaper and better.
How will Earth support all those people?
That’s something we’ll have to figure out. Perhaps we could mine asteroids for resources or grow food on space stations. We might need to have fewer children until we can support them. What we don’t do is let the elderly die for resources, not even now.
Death is but the next great adventure.
That’s your belief, and you can choose it for yourself, but please don’t choose that path for me.
Wendy Hou is a programmer, mathematics instructor, and life-extension supporter.