Death is a Problem to Be Solved

by Luke Muehlhauser on December 17, 2010 in General Atheism

Atheists don’t believe in an afterlife.1 But people are afraid of the finality of death. So, they’re afraid atheism might be true. Even if the evidence supports atheism, they’d prefer to believe something that gives them some hope about death.

So atheists have a marketing problem, and they address it by trying to make death look not quite so bad.

And they’re right to do so. Some fears about death are untrue, like the idea that it will be an “eternal blackness.”

But some comforting responses to the problem of death are evasive. Consider the claim that eternal life would be thunderously boring, so we should embrace death. Really? I’m not sure I would mind eternal life. Gimme at least a thousand years, then. I’m pretty sure I could entertain myself for a thousand years, if not a trillion trillion trillion.

Or, consider Richard Dawkins’ point that “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones,” because the vast majority of possible people were never born. But this is beside the point. Everyone who is born will get sick, have moments of joy, have moments of loss, and die. The fact that we’re born doesn’t change the fact that moments of joy are nice, and we’d rather not get sick, have moments of loss, and die. Death remains something we’d very much like to avoid, like cancer.

Nobody says, “We could get cancer, and that makes us the lucky ones, because lots of possible people were never born to experience joy or sorrow.”

Fuck that. Cancer is terrible. Let’s cure cancer if we can.

The difference is that we can dream of curing cancer, but most people can’t dream of curing death. Cancer might be like smallpox (eradicated in 1977), but more difficult to eradicate. Maybe we can cure cancer. It’s definitely worth a try. But death is just part of the human condition. So we either invent the fantasy that death is not the end, or we rationalize it with statements like “the reality of death makes each day more meaningful” or “we are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.”

Let’s imagine that every human who had ever lived awoke in the morning with a terrible migraine just behind the eyes for one hour. Nobody could do any work during this time. We just had to endure for one hour, and when it dissipated, go about our business, and dread the next day’s migraine. There was no cure for the morning migraine, and none in sight. It was, unfortunately, fixed into the very nature of being human.

I have no doubt we would soon begin to rationalize these morning migraines. We would tell ourselves that they make the rest of each day more wonderful by contrast, and that we would not properly appreciate the rest of each day were it not for the migraines. Someone might even venture to say that it’s the morning migraines which makes the rest of life meaningful.

But now imagine that thousands of years pass, and very advanced scientists discover that morning migraines can be cured – with methods inconceivable to previous generations.

Post-migraine generations look back on past generations and wonder: “How could they tolerate those awful morning migraines? What a horrible way to live, every day! Thank goodness we found a cure!”

I want to say the same about death. We rationalize death because we don’t think it can be avoided. But death is horrible, like cancer. Death thwarts an awful lot of desires. I don’t think much about death, and I don’t worry much about it, but I’m sure that when I lie on my deathbed I will have lots more I wanted to do with my life, and not being able to do those things will suck.

But here’s the good news. Death can be solved.

The causes of death are pretty well understood, and every year we develop new technologies that can address the problem. Aubrey de Grey and others are working on tissue repair. Medical researchers around the world are solving problems of disease and aging, while cognitive scientists are working to understand how the brain works so that we can augment its capacities with add-on hardware (or maybe “wetware”), or perhaps even transfer consciousness to a less vulnerable substrate, such as silicon. Many successful brain-computer interfaces have already been developed, and have, for example, restored sight to the blind.

Remember, too, that if it wasn’t for a thousand years of Christian Dark Ages, we might have been a thousand years more scientifically advanced right now than we actually are. If we had decided to take science seriously all along, we might have had death solved already.

I’ve admitted that death is terrible. That’s rather gloomy. But here’s the good news about death. For the first time in human history, we understand there is a real hope that death can be solved.

What can you do about it? Promote science, not comforting superstitions about an afterlife. Superstition only retards our progress, and therefore commits billions more people to deaths they would give anything to avoid.

(inspired by)

  1. Afterlife-disbelief is not part of the definition of atheism, but as a factual matter, few atheists believe in an afterlife. []

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{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Brice Gilbert December 17, 2010 at 4:16 am

As a practical matter we should all accept that death will come. It’s unlikely that we will discover the ability to live forever (or at least thousands) in most of our lifetimes. I however think it’s an extremely important goal to get there.

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humbly December 17, 2010 at 4:23 am

i wonder what the environmental lobby will make of the prospect of yet more overpopulation. do you think we should find some viable alternative energy sources before solving the death problem?

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Tony Hoffman December 17, 2010 at 4:54 am

Woody Allen: “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my works; I want to achieve immortality by not dying.”

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Joseph December 17, 2010 at 5:17 am

It’s a noble goal to stretch our life expectancy. And we should do everything we can in that area, especially by promoting science. However, not to rain on anyone’s parade. but obtaining immortality might not be in the drawing card. Just like there is no switch to turn on and off the law of gravity, it might be such in the case for death. Now, it might be that I am completely wrong on that. In the meantime, in the words of the immortal Spock: live a prosperous life.

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Leomar December 17, 2010 at 5:25 am

Is inmortality a good thing ? I’ll say no, no life would be worth doing forever, at the end whatever life has to offer will end and we’ll prefer non existence, because receiving more of what we are tired is bad, as time progresses receiving more of what we are sick is more bad, even if we once liked it when we were not tired or sicked of it. Again, what we once liked (thinks life offers), if we stop liking it, receiving more of it obviously has some badness, if we receive it forever it’s really bad. So then death at some time is good, but at what time ? When we feel everything we have lived enought, at that point.

But the reality of death as we deal with it now has two implications, one is the way we die which is another thing and is almost always bad (a lot of pain, example cancer), so sometimes people are afraid of the way of dying not death per se. And the other posibility to repudiate death is that however at some time in eternity we will wish death, that would not happen as we deal with death now, because at death time, most of the people haven’t ended or experienced all the things they wished for life so not being able to consume or experience all those things is bad, that’s the sad thing, the timing of death, not death per se. Maybe 300,10000, years is enought, but that’s not the same to forever, don’t equivocate.

But, another thing .. what regrett can the non-existent mind manifest ? What sadness or sorrow it can feel ? When someone asked you at CSA anniversary post “when do you sleep”, you answered “I’ll have enought time to sleep when I’m dead”. I think you agree with this point.

Also, remmember that for some people death implicates good things, why do you think people suicide. Take for example a patient who only hope is to end his life or otherwise feel very long extreme suffering, better to end it, Then death would be a good thing in that case too, because it will put end to suffering.

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Bill Williams December 17, 2010 at 5:52 am

I find the thought of death comforting because I know that there will be no possibility of ever suffering again – the loss of a loved one, divorce, violent trauma, debilitating disease, etc. I enjoy my life and I’m a happy person, but we live in privileged times in a privileged place.

Given the stupidity of our species and the events unfolding in our world today, things will almost certainly change (for the worse). This article is nothing but wishful thinking – but, dare to dream.

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Darren December 17, 2010 at 5:59 am

When I’m around religious people that start talking about death and they wonder what atheists think, how bleak this or that, blah, blah, blah. . . . I often just say, “It’ll be like before you were born.”

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Ryan Anderson December 17, 2010 at 6:03 am

I have to wonder if there is a limit to our brains can store and process. Can a mind function with thousands of years of memories?

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Leomar December 17, 2010 at 6:13 am

Ryan,

That’s an interesting point, and probably and argument in that way can make inmortality not a bad thing… I think, if we have a window for availiable memory then we’ll not remmember anything out of it, if we’ll not remmember anything out of it will be able to have an apereance that life always has things to offers to us.. that could work.

Bill Williams,

I undestand, I feel that way some times.

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Leomar December 17, 2010 at 6:34 am

humbly ,
“overpopulation” That’s a real problem humbly, we need to control that groth, especially if we expect to give every individual a longer life , and I think without that, it already is a huge problem! We have limited resources, they can end. Maybe they will end :S .. we need to responsibly face that issue.

Brice Gilbert,
“we should all accept that death will come.” Yes. How realistic is to suffer for the reason that we can not fly, that we haven’t developed DNA modifications that would allow us to grow wings so that a human is able to fly if that’s possible… We can accept reality and for sanity sake we should.

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Martin December 17, 2010 at 6:36 am
Cyril December 17, 2010 at 8:07 am

As for overpopulation, I doubt that we’ll be curing death to any appreciable degree before we get some of space colonised. So if people are tired of overpopulation on Earth, then I’m sure that they (or at least some of the richer ones) can afford to move elsewhere.

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Eneasz December 17, 2010 at 8:08 am

Leomar, if you ever get tired of life you can end it voluntarily. It’s the involuntary dying that needs to be stopped.

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Jugglable December 17, 2010 at 8:10 am

We might be a thousand years ahead in science if not for Christianity? Please substantiate this.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 17, 2010 at 8:18 am

Jugglable,

Here ya go.

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josef johann December 17, 2010 at 8:20 am

This comment is showing up all crazy in the comment preview. Hope it posts right!

Luke, has your position evolved on this subject? If my memory serves
you were definitely among the atheists saying death is ok (link):

Death is the end. That’ the way it is, and it’s okay. It can even be beautiful

And what’s funny, is I was saying something in the comments section on that post which is almost identical to what you argue now. Here’s me:

The fact that people die when it would be better to live makes death a moral problem (one that it would be best to solve, if we can).

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josef johann December 17, 2010 at 8:30 am

Luke, has your position evolved on this subject? You were definitely among the atheists saying death is ok. (link)

Death is the end. That’ the way it is, and it’s okay. It can even be beautiful [...]

And what’s funny, is I was saying something in the comments section on that post which is almost identical to what you argue now. Here’s me:

The fact that people die when it would be better to live makes death a moral problem (one that it would be best to solve, if we can).

Whether you’ve changed or not, I share your objection to rationalizations of death.

(I tried sending a comment like this one before, but ti may have been caught by spam filters. Trying again…)

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Ryan Anderson December 17, 2010 at 9:19 am

Leomar; or the mind could crash, like an overloaded computer.

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josefjohann December 17, 2010 at 9:40 am

Argh! two of my comments have not shown up! Is it because of a spam filter?

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Patrick December 17, 2010 at 9:42 am

I’m with you in general…

the classical Christian conception of heaven (eternal happiness because we’re in the presence of God and for no other reason) seems an awful lot like a philosophy hypothetical, though. Would you want to be connected to a machine that made you happy by stimulating the happiness center of your brain if you knew that you would never do anything or accomplish anything or even care about anything ever… but you would be happy?

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Jeff Sherry December 17, 2010 at 10:12 am

Interesting points Luke, but I don’t buy into the transhumanism argument at all. It strikes me that transhumanism is an approach to naively sanctify ones own life as a religion. Long life may be approachable through science in the future, but it will be a commodity for the highest bidder and would you be able to pay?

Death for me is the end of my life, nothing more.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 17, 2010 at 11:08 am

Jeff,

Why don’t you buy the transhumanist prediction? Because many people might not be able to afford to avoid death? But it’s not part of the transhumanist’s prediction that everyone will be able to afford it…

I expect to die within 100 years, too, but you never know, and I certainly support anti-death research.

Also, what do you mean by “transhumanism is an approach to naively sanctify one’s own life as a religion”? I can’t imagine what that means…

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josef johann December 17, 2010 at 11:11 am

I’ll try one more time.

Luke, in a post you made a year ago, you seem to be one of those atheists rationalizing death and saying death is ok. Apparently I’m not allowed to link to it, but the post number is 2938.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 17, 2010 at 11:20 am

josef,

My position on death probably has evolved. I used to do a lot more rationalizing, for sure.

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Charles December 17, 2010 at 11:47 am

Luke,

Have you signed up for cryonics yet?

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Reginald Selkirk December 17, 2010 at 12:35 pm

As for overpopulation, I doubt that we’ll be curing death to any appreciable degree before we get some of space colonised.

To someone with a realistic view on the logistics and expense of space travel, that is very discouraging.

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Godless Randall December 17, 2010 at 12:58 pm

^But here’s the good news. Death can be solved.^

you might want to think that through because there goes the criminal justice system. gang bangin for life would take on a whole new meaning once the wrong people got the technology. death is part of nature and there are already way too many people on the planet and we ruined it for lots of other species. imo we deserve another asteroid not life extensions

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rvkevin December 17, 2010 at 1:18 pm

“you might want to think that through because there goes the criminal justice system. gang bangin for life would take on a whole new meaning once the wrong people got the technology.”

Not exactly. It depends what we’re talking about. If we are talking about raising people from the dead, then you might have a point, but when I think of curing death, I think of biological immortality as being a much more likely outcome from said research. Biological immortality does not suggest that you can’t die. You can still die from natural disasters, disease, etc. Its not likely the cure of death will save you from a 20 ton boulder falling on top of you or make you bulletproof as you imply.

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MarkD December 17, 2010 at 1:22 pm
Chris K December 17, 2010 at 1:45 pm

Heidegger would not approve…

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Silas December 17, 2010 at 3:21 pm

Death cannot be terrible. Life is terrible. Cancer is a part of life. I don’t get what’s so scary about being dead.

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Leon December 17, 2010 at 4:48 pm

@Patrick –

the classical Christian conception of heaven (eternal happiness because we’re in the presence of God and for no other reason) seems an awful lot like a philosophy hypothetical, though.

I think that’s because it is a philosophy hypothetical. The classical Christian conception is of a new heavens and a new earth: not of disembodied spirits, but of (re)new(ed) spirits and bodies. It’s enjoying God’s presence with others. See 2 Corinthians 5, the resurrection of Jesus, the first few chapters of Genesis, or the Old Testament prophets.

@Luke -

Remember, too, that if it wasn’t for a thousand years of Christian Dark Ages, we might have been a thousand years more scientifically advanced right now than we actually are. If we had decided to take science seriously all along, we might have had death solved already.

And if we didn’t haz Enlightenment atheism we would not have hazd Stalin and Hitler! Also, if government had never been invented, we would have solved the problem of world social organization — with anarcho-capitalism — years ago!

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PorNotP December 17, 2010 at 5:41 pm

I might be tempted towards some sort of increased life duration with the physics of my second decade. But now that I’m a (reasonably healthy) old man, I can tell you, it all does get quite old; the whole lot of it.

Paying it all forward is the job of your kids, so remember to have some of those while you can.

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Seth December 17, 2010 at 6:53 pm

Death may strike before I reach a nice ripe age of 150+, and if so, oh well, hopefully I will have made the best of the time available to me, but the current state of longevity research has me hopeful. Maybe the 80ish years that are currently expected will start creeping upward at an accelerating rate, and we’ll each get to decide if we want to enjoy another day, year, century, or end it if life has become too boring. I’m thinking it’s gonna take a lot of years before I’ve exhausted everything I might be interested in doing or learning.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 17, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Charles,

I haven’t researched it enough. Also, I suspect it’s too expensive for me.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 17, 2010 at 7:52 pm

Silas,

Death cannot be terrible for what is part of it. Death is terrible because of what is NOT part of it. If I die, I do not get to do all kinds of things that I want to do. If I die, all my desires are thwarted. (Presuming I didn’t commit suicide.)

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pwl December 17, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Actually I disagree with the notion the article puts forward and as such death can’t be “solved”. No matter how much or how long you prolong “life” people will still die either by accident, or by murder, or war, or Natural disaster, or by disease, or even if you managed to life a million years… you’ll still die eventually… no time is ever enough… even the universe will die… yes it’s horrifying… get over it…. or not… but don’t be under any illusion that you’ll be able to stave off death… he’ll come knocking for you eventually… but don’t worry once you’re dead you won’t know about it anymore… for you won’t exist as you’ll be obliterated… you won’t exist. That good news for it means no eternal torture sucking up to jesus or god or burning in hell fire for that matter.

Cheers. The obliterating death is a compelling reason to make the most of your life.

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Htay Aung Khin December 18, 2010 at 1:43 am

There is one non-negligible issue concerning whether immortality is desirable. That is “Can the problem of Suffering be solved?” With suffering, life is an unmitigated tragedy, an absurd abomination, a bizarre curse, parent of all horrors, nightmare of nightmares. If all sentient life forms are to spend their existences (sentences) in such crude, tragically vulnerable forms, which characterizes all sentient life as of the present, then oblivion remains a blessing. Life means experiencing cancer, heartbreak, continual loss, physical agony, ontological anxiety, etc…
(Recommended reading: Better to Have Never Been, Confessions of an Anti-Natalist, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race, various Buddhist literature)

So…Can the problem of Suffering be solved? YES (www.hedweb.org)

Like aging, suffering needn’t be an immutable aspect of the human (or any sentient being’s) condition (nor should it be). After all, suffering is based on specific physical substrates such as certain neurotransmitters, patterns of brain activity, and neural architecture. Once the fields of neuroengineering and nanotechnology become sufficiently advanced then, it will be possible to create or modify existing brains such that they are constitutionally incapable of processing negative experiences. Experiences of depression, existential angst, physical pain, and even boredom will be as beyond the physical capabilities of such uplifted brains as the ability to process color vision lies beyond a flatworm’s. Such states will be physiological impossibilities.

Two understandable but unjustified objections and their counterarguments:
1. Pain is necessary to avoid danger
2. creating perpetually blissful, analgesic brains will lead to stasis.

Objection 1. Pain is necessary to avoid danger.
Counterargument: The pleasure-pain axis can be replaced by a regulated motivation system predicated on gradients of bliss complete with functional analogues of pain, which deter against pursuing or coming into contact with harmful phenomena while lacking the intrinsically nasty raw feel of pain. This may seem counter-intuitive but there are numerous artificial intelligences designed with threat avoidance systems. If metallic robots can avoid harm so can carbon-based ones (assuming sentient life does not transplant itself into non-organic substrates when the technology becomes available or, more speculatively, into an energy based matrix a la 2001: A Space Odyssey).

Objection 2: A perpetually blissful (hyperhedonic) state would lead to stagnation. There would be no motivation to do anything. Technological progress, while once upwardly mobile, would freeze as civilization slowly devolves into a monolithic, new class of junkie, the wirehead, perpetually and compulsively attaining happiness at the push of a button, stimulating electrical signals in the relevant regions of the brain via neural prostheses whilst pushing the now superfluous goal oriented behavior to the wayside.
Counterargument: Wireheading or any similarly stasis inducing form of bliss won’t be the only forms of technologically mediated uplift brought to the table nor (unsuprisingly) the most attractive. Adaptive forms of hedonic uplift will be possible by a more nuanced, sophisticated treatment of the brain and its reward centers. By devising a functionally analogous panoply of motivation based affective responses to the one provided by natural selection, uplifted organisms can pursue goals and avoid all varieties of dangers, including an unproductive use of time. Deep orgasmic states can be appropriated to fuel the quest for mathematical discovery or extreme altruism; if anything, the extremely potent and precisely manipulable nature of these scientifically engineered hedonic tones ensures a level of motivation that is quite literally unprecedented. Nirvana without the expense of intellectual development or personal growth, seems the (cruelty-free vegan) cake can be had, and eaten too.

A Final Word: Regardless of whether one agrees with the ideas presented in the essay, hedonic engineering remains a serious topic, one which cannot be discussed soon enough. The specter of bliss induced stagnation is too potentially dangerous to leave out of the current dialogue on important and timely matters.

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Seth December 18, 2010 at 6:42 am

Actually I disagree with the notion the article puts forward and as such death can’t be “solved”.

pwl,

I think this is a good point that you make. Eventually (based on our current understanding of physics) the organization of matter that allows for each of our consciousnesses to exist will no longer be able to maintain its pattern, and we will cease to exist as conscious beings. So the focus should be, as Aubrey de Grey tends to point out frequently, solving the problem of aging, which will have the side benefit of massive gains in longevity. This isn’t solving the problem of death, but is giving us a lot more control of it. Who knows where, or how long we can go from there, but I’m hoping to find out.

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ManaCostly December 18, 2010 at 9:03 am

Its smallPox, not smallBox.

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Luke Muehlhauser December 18, 2010 at 9:27 am

Lol. SmallBox.

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Jake December 18, 2010 at 11:18 am

Luke,
I like the phrase “Christian Dark Ages” (46K google hits)
vs. simply the “Dark Ages” (2,610K hits).
Gives credit where it was due. The description “Dark Ages” has an interesting history of its own.
Jake

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Charles December 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm

Luke,

You might be surprised how cheap it is. CI is only $10/month for membership (plus $75 up front). Then you just need life insurance.

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Charles December 18, 2010 at 3:31 pm

Got some insurance estimates. Permanent life insurance is expensive. I think the best way to go is buy term and invest the difference. In my case (young, healthy), I can get $175,000 of term-30 for $25/month. I will need to invest $95/month in a good index fund to cover cryopreservation when the policy runs out.

Total cost for cryopreservation with CI: $10 (dues) + $25 (insurance) + $95 (investment) = $130/month (with a one-time up front fee of $75).

Can you afford that?

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Luke Muehlhauser December 18, 2010 at 3:56 pm

Charles,

Might be worth it for a chance to live after the year 2100. :)

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Yair December 19, 2010 at 12:13 am

As a practical matter we should all accept that death will come. It’s unlikely that we will discover the ability to live forever (or at least thousands) in most of our lifetimes. I however think it’s an extremely important goal to get there.  

Quoted for truth.

Actually I disagree with the notion the article puts forward and as such death can’t be “solved”. No matter how much or how long you prolong “life” people will still die either by accident, or by murder, or war, or Natural disaster, or by disease, or even if you managed to life a million years… you’ll still die eventually… no time is ever enough… even the universe will die… yes it’s horrifying… get over it…. or not… but don’t be under any illusion that you’ll be able to stave off death…

And that’s another truth.
Unless Tipler is right, or close to it. Which seems unlikely.

I think staving off the fear of death with Messianic visions of conquering it is rather unfounded, and strikes me almost as faith-based as religion. The future is not yet known to us. What we know is that currently we die, often before 90 years old. This is likely to be the case in the foreseeable future. For now, death and aging are necessary and we have no choice but to carry on living our short lives as well as we can.

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Seth December 19, 2010 at 6:33 am

I think staving off the fear of death with Messianic visions of conquering it is rather unfounded, and strikes me almost as faith-based as religion. The future is not yet known to us. What we know is that currently we die, often before 90 years old. This is likely to be the case in the foreseeable future. For now, death and aging are necessary and we have no choice but to carry on living our short lives as well as we can.

Maybe “living our short lives as well as we can” includes working toward and/or supporting research for radical changes in the current life expectancy. Hoping for positive changes is not faith based. Were the people who hoped for and worked on manned, heavier than air flight having faith-based “Messianic visions” of conquering gravity?

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Yair December 19, 2010 at 9:06 am

Maybe “living our short lives as well as we can” includes working toward and/or supporting research for radical changes in the current life expectancy. Hoping for positive changes is not faith based.

It certainly does include that. But there is a difference between working towards realistic goals or even hoping that they will come true, and relying on the “fact” that unrealistic expectations will surely be fulfilled. For the time being, death is still with us, and still must be dealt with as before. Hoping for a more positive future is not faith based; relying on the fulfillment of this hope for emotional peace-of-mind is.

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Cecilia December 19, 2010 at 10:32 am

“Being dead don’t hurt, no, only dying.”
The English Beat

If I knew that I would die peacefully, painlessly, and blissfully unaware of my demise perhaps the prospect of death would not be so daunting. It is only because we can imagine (for ourselves or those we love) that moment when we understand that we are leaving everyone and everything we know and love in life – forever – that the prospect of death is so painful for us.

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Seth December 19, 2010 at 4:52 pm

Hoping for a more positive future is not faith based; relying on the fulfillment of this hope for emotional peace-of-mind is.  

I agree. I realize (and hope that the others with high hopes for our fight against aging do too) that my likelihood of dying near the current life expectancy is high. If it doesn’t look good on the ending aging front by the time I start approaching that age, I guess cryonics may be the only backup plan available to try and increase my chance of avoiding the undoing of my consciousness. Though it’s something I feel is worth trying to avoid, when death gets me, I guess I’ll have no choice but to roll with the punches.

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skierpage December 20, 2010 at 8:31 pm

“But people are afraid of the finality of death.”
Speak for yourself. When you die you’re not around to feel badly about all the things you won’t do. It’s only the grieving survivors who can be sad. If you’re afraid of death, act accordingly right now (write your will, tell family you love them, live life to the fullest, blah blah) because you might drop dead in the next hour.

“we’d rather not get sick, have moments of loss, and die”
One of those things is not like the others, it’s the end of them and everything else.

Some people may (selfishly though understandably) want death to be solved, but I think it’s more important to ensure the betterment of mankind. Keeping old geezers around longer is not the most pressing problem on earth.

Anyway, thanks for reminding me to stock up on painkillers and the ingredients of the death cocktail so that if faced with terminal painful decline I can control the nature and time of my death.

‘our little life
Is rounded with a sleep’
(The Tempest)

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Larkus December 20, 2010 at 11:57 pm

@skierpage

The plan as I understand it is not dying by not getting old in the first place.

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cecilia December 21, 2010 at 5:02 am

In the spirit of the Grinch, I must ask why someone (Aubrey de Grey) who is devoting himself to the study of preventing aging and is, according to his Wikipedia entry, only 47 years old, looks, judging by the photo accompanying the entry, about 65??? Seriously, the guy is 6 years younger than I am and a year younger than my husband and looks much, much older. What gives? Okay, I get that what de Grey looks like is not particularly relevant to evaluating the worth of his endeavor but it is ironic.

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JS Allen December 22, 2010 at 11:21 am

Remember, too, that if it wasn’t for a thousand years of Christian Dark Ages, we might have been a thousand years more scientifically advanced right now than we actually are. If we had decided to take science seriously all along, we might have had death solved already.

I’m pretty sure this is wrong. The Renaissance, Age of Reason, and Age of Enlightenment were all launched from Christian societies. And most of the past century’s great scientific discoveries came from the country with the highest Christian population. The causes are complex and probably don’t involve religion, but we know that Christian society tends to be correlated with scientific progress throughout history.

Likewise, the causes and consequences of the “dark ages” are complex. I can only assume you were being tongue-in-cheek with the insinuation that “We’d all be flying jetpacks by now, dude, if those Christians hadn’t caused the dark ages!”

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Yochana December 28, 2010 at 4:26 pm

I find the thought of death comforting because I know that there will be no possibility of ever suffering again – the loss of a loved one, divorce, violent trauma, debilitating disease, etc. I enjoy my life and I’m a happy person, but we live in privileged times in a privileged place. Given the stupidity of our species and the events unfolding in our world today, things will almost certainly change (for the worse). This article is nothing but wishful thinking – but, dare to dream.  (Quote)

Given the stupidity of this species? And who do you think you are? I don’t know about you, but I’m very proud to be a part of one of the most INTELLIGENT species we know of with our complex communication systems and vast achievements. Bring up all the suffering and killing that goes on in this world if you want, but cynicism is a waste of life. Of course we’re imperfect as a species; if not, we’ll be deities. Despite the negatives of life and the current state of the world, you have to be a pretty pessimistic person to look at death as a relief and our species as unintelligent. The fact of the matter is, we’re ALL intelligent life. Also, being an atheist doesn’t mean you can’t believe in an afterlife. Actually, quite a few atheists believe in our energy transcending this dimension. There still remains a lot of paranormal experiences that cannot be debunked to infrasound, drugs, sleep deprivation, or mental illnesses. I’m an atheist, but I still examine all possibilities.

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Cecilia December 29, 2010 at 7:02 am

@Yochana

Also, being an atheist doesn’t mean you can’t believe in an afterlife. Actually, quite a few atheists believe in our energy transcending this dimension. There still remains a lot of paranormal experiences that cannot be debunked to infrasound, drugs, sleep deprivation, or mental illnesses. I’m an atheist, but I still examine all possibilities.  (Quote)

No doubt….just because one is an atheist doesn’t mean one is not just as prone to “woo-woo” as anyone else.

Look, I am all about science but this whole man can do anything, man can overcome the very laws of physics is nonsensicial and somewhat childish, yes, wishful thinking.

See, e.g. Ayn Rand: in Atlas Shrugged one of her characters says something to the effect that he thought that before our sun grew cold MAN would have come up with a replacement (think it was Hank Rearden at a cocktail party or something) and, of course, Galt’s “perpetual motion machine.”

See, e.g., also, “Victory Over the Sun” a Russian futurist opera first produced in 1913 which was remade in 1923 by El Lissitzky, a Russian artist, polemicist and Soviet propagandist. The theme of “Victory Over the Sun” is “the celebration of man’s technological capabilities: ‘the sun as the expression of old world energy is torn down from the heavens by modern man, who by virtue of his technological superiority creates his own energy source.’ ” And this theme was seen as the very embodiment of Communit ideals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/El_Lissitzky and http://www.ce-review.org/99/3/ondisplay3_hunter.html

I first learned of “Victory Over the Sun” when I visited an exhibitcalled “Stage Pictures: Drawing for Performance at MoMA (http://www.moma.org/visit/calendar/exhibitions/864). I had always been struck by the parallels between Ayn Rand’s work and Soviet propaganda and polemics. After seeing the exhibit, I made more sense to me.

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JS Allen December 29, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Awesome link between Rand and “Victory Over the Sun”.

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Thomas December 30, 2010 at 8:43 am

Good post Luke but I have a couple of questions:

1. How were the Dark Ages Christian? Christianity certainly didn’t cause the Dark Ages and the church was one of the only centers of learning during this time.

2. How would we have been 1000 years more scientifically advanced if not for the Dark Ages? Only the western Roman empire went through a “Dark Ages.” The eastern Roman empire (otherwise known as the Byzantine Empire) was still fine during this time. Learning coninued in other parts of the world as well including the Middle East and China. The technological advances made by those countries were easily transferred to Western Europe after the Crusades and the Monghol Empire.

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Cecilia December 30, 2010 at 3:11 pm

Sort of a follow up to my comment about Ayn Rand and “Victory Over the Sun” — was Nikola Tesla the model for John Galt? (Caution: graphic portrayal of puking involved)

http://www.funnyordie.com/videos/ef668caf14/drunk-history-vol-6-w-john-c-reilly-crispin-glover?playlist=94888

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Luke Muehlhauser December 30, 2010 at 7:12 pm

Thomas,

On both questions, see the interview with Richard Carrier on this site.

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Cecilia December 31, 2010 at 10:42 am

Death needs to be distinguished here from aging and disease. Disease is certainly a problem to be solved. And my hope is that scientists will continue to seek cures for disease. However, I am agnostic about aging – certainly I hope for cures (or prevention) to diseases related to aging such as Alzheimer’s and for much better spare parts for our joints than we have now. But I don’t see a reason to prevent aging altogether. I am 53 and have started to experience some age related problems and I know it will get worse but you know what? Meh…. Because I am trying to learn that it is how I relate to what is happening to my body – the painful joints, the wrinkles, the loss of “hotness” – that causes suffering. And as I am learning that I find I am much happier and much better at doing what I need to do to take care of myself so that I can live my life fully.

Okay, as for death as a problem to be solved. Not possible I think. Even if we cured all disease we still can’t solve death. Because we can’t cure the problem of accidental death or homicide or such. Our bodies are vulnerable to injury – we are subject to the laws of physics. We accidentally fall off a very high cliff we will die and if the cliff is high enough we will be smashed to bits. So, unless you are talking about really out there sci-fi scenarios where we can regenerate and reanimate even the most smushed human bodies I don’t think so. The prospect of death will always be out there for us.

And so what? As an atheist I think I am much less scared of death than many theists. While I live and when I think about it, sure, I don’t cherish the idea of death of no longer existing but that is only a problem for me while I live. It also makes me sad to think of how sad my loved ones will be when I am dead. But once I am dead I am dead and there will be no “me” to know or care that I am dead. It is kind of comforting.

I recently read “Society Without God” by Phil Zuckerman. It is about his observations of secular Denmark and Sweden. One of the things I found most interesting were his interviews with hospice workers who said that the religious people in their care were often much more scared of death than the non-religious who approached death with much more equanimity. He speculates that this is because the religious people were worried that they hadn’t quite hit all the marks and so might not be heading to heaven.

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