Death Gives Life Meaning, or Cognitive Dissonance?

The Singularity Institute (Oct 2007) posted a piece on how immortality can give meaning to a life, in much the same way people have argued that death gives meaning to our lives.

The author, E. Yudkowsky, gives some common arguments about the meaning death gives to life, and then goes on to provide examples of how similar reasoning could be applied even if people never died.

Death gives a sense of urgency, people say, so we are motivated to do things we would otherwise put off. “Go hang-gliding today, go learn to play the flute today, for tomorrow may never come.” But, as Yudkowsky points out, if you were immortal, you’d still have motivation for not procrastinating. “You’ve got to learn linear algebra eventually – why not start today?” Or perhaps a better argument would be that the boringness or regret of time not well-lived would still be there for immortals, pushing them toward more interesting or worthwhile pursuits (whereas those who age and die may come to their regret — or wisdom — too late to do anything about it).

Some people are nice to others in the here and now because, who knows, they may never see those people again. But presumably that gives you just as much reason to be an ass, which is why people are often more rude and confrontational when anonymous. For that matter, Yudkowsky points out, if people lived forever, they would be much more likely to run into the same people again eventually, so we have good reason to treat them well.

Perhaps the inevitability of death encourages people to be more virtuous.

“What meaning does death, the inevitable termination of existence, give to an effort to be a better person? Perhaps the notion of a virtuous life having a beginning, a middle, and an end; so that it is shaped, through a finite amount of effort, into having a satisfying conclusion; and then it is done, finished like a painting, put on a stand and exhibited. What meaning would immortality give to a virtuous life? An unending, unbounded effort; never finished like a painting, never simply exhibited; never flawless, always improving. Is this not equally a beautiful thought?”

Yudkowsky doesn’t, however, tackle the argument that immortals might stop growing and improving if there is some absolute ceiling that limits them at some point, whereas a finite life can be one of constant self-improvement from beginning to end. But obviously someone could counter that it is still better to improve one’s self beyond the limits of a finite life, if you can, than to just settle for the ceiling imposed arbitrarily by time. Why not keep going and get as close as possible to an absolute limit, if there is such a thing?

After all, there is so much knowledge and wisdom and culture accrued in human society today (not to mention future humanity, transhumanity, or other intelligences) that one could not possibly absorb it all in a human lifetime. Try reading a significant fraction of a modern large library in one human lifetime and you find that our knowledge-base as a culture has gone way beyond what any one human can master in 100 years of life. But perhaps with more time, we can at least gain some more knowledge or wisdom, if not from learning more than from experiencing more. How could it hurt?

But then, if the arguments that death provides life with meaning aren’t as solid as they seem, why do we cling to them? Presumably, we try to value death because we assume it is inevitable and don’t want to be depressed. “Such is human nature,” says the article’s author, “that if we were all hit on the head with a baseball bat once a week, philosophers would soon discover many amazing benefits of being hit on the head with a baseball bat: It toughens us, renders us less fearful of lesser pains, makes bat-free days all the sweeter.”

Trying to find the positive in death is an example of cognitive dissonance in action. Cognitive dissonance is the tension when your thoughts and beliefs conflict with your behavior, your circumstances or your other thoughts, and the resulting tendency in humans is to alter thoughts and beliefs when circumstances and behavior can’t be changed. For example, a 1959 experiment showed that after doing a boring task, well-compensated people still believe it was boring, but poorly-compensated people convince themselves it was an okay task in order to alleviate the tension between their belief (that it was boring) and their behavior (in doing the task), the latter too late to change now.

So maybe if we could indeed remove the inevitability of death, we would be more optimistic about life as immortals. Yes, it is certainly possible to live a meaningful finite life (as I’ve argued previously in The Meaning of Life Without Afterlife), but an immortal’s life need not be that of Sisyphus pushing the same rock up the same hill for eternity. It can be just as filled with meaning and growth.

However, that very issue — growth — brings me to my main point. I find a serious flaw in the sort of reasoning commonly found among optimistic transhumanists. They spend so much time arguing the value of immortality to you and I that they completely ignore the fact that for complex creatures like us time brings change, and with more time comes more change. From childhood onward, we continuously grow and alter our minds, personalities and consciousnesses — the very way we experience, interpret and interact with the world.

The ‘I’ of today is not the same naive and youthful ‘I’ that went by my name 15 years ago. It has evolved into a very different mind, a very different identity. Indeed, I think it is in some fundamental sense not the same person.

In which case, if we extend our lives indefinitely — especially if we do so by integrating technology that may change our sensory modalities, memory equipment or other ways we experience and interact with the world — we will continue to change and evolve on the individual level to the point that you and I (here and now) are not in fact the ones living forever. The being that exists many, many years from now (and its future versions, or shall I say descendants?) is not you or I.

If we follow that line of reasoning, then it seems that we should be just as happy with any continuity of life generally (say, by having children, or by our species evolving into a new one, or even by creating an entirely new species through technology, like an artificial intelligence), rather than caring so much about personal immortality. (I’ve expanded on this idea in a previous article, The Afterlife: Traditional and Unusual Views, as well as others in the science section).

That said, it’s good to get this dialog going, as we will no doubt at least face drastically increased lifespans within our own lifetimes, and that will alter how we function both at a societal level (social security can’t stay the same) and at an individual level.

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3 Responses to Death Gives Life Meaning, or Cognitive Dissonance?

  1. Partly, I’m commenting just to test-run the comments function on the new blog system. However, I want to expand a bit on the article.

    I think most peoples’ idea of personal immortality on Earth is akin to the religious idea of personal immortality in an afterlife like Heaven (that is, it is not a very well-formed idea). When I consider instead how much we change over time, even in a finite life, then the idea of stagnantly remaining the same person for an infinity of time (whatever that is) or even just indefinitely here in our universe…it doesn’t even appeal to me (mainly because I find the idea of maintaining such stagnance highly implausible).

    If immortality really just involves a different way of getting a different person from who I am now (and getting a different person from them, later on), then we already have immortality in the form of genetic material passed on to life that evolves from us [not to mention memetic material, or in the future some other material, say if we replace DNA with a system of our own design].

    In other words, it’s not that I have a problem with the idea of extending life indefinitely (if we find that it is technically feasible, and we’ve no good reason to assume a priori that it’s impossible), but doing so doesn’t solve the problem of “there comes a point where I will not be around.” That, instead, is a personal philosophical issue that it seems we still have to come to terms with even if tomorrow they announced that they’d found a cure for aging and most diseases.

  2. Dez Futak says:


    Many thanks for your thought-provoking blog entry – which is what blogs are supposed to do I guess, and this entry has certainly started my neurons meandering on new pathways. I particularly liked the idea that we *aren’t* the same person now as we were when we were kids, or perhaps even 10 years ago. For example, I can see that the current ‘I’ is different in terms of what things I value now, and what motivates me, compared to when I was a teenager (I’m approaching 40)..and who knows what ‘I’ will be like in another decade’s time? I’ve only just recently (last 48 hours really) stumbled across the ideas of Artilects/transhumans, so I currently don’t have any well-formed ideas about what I think about it the moment, I’m just at the fascination stage. Certainly Hugo de Garis’ vision of the future world of Terrans vs Cosmists has me worried, but maybe it won’t come to that. In the meantime, thanks for blogging and sparking off thoughts. My background: physics degree & now physics/astronomy teacher (for 13-18 year olds).

  3. Nice to hear from you. I too, I suppose, am at the fascination stage when it comes to transhumanism, despite being exposed quite a while back. I vacillate between considering myself one, and considering myself a sort of luddite (the latter being a sort of emotional self-preservation instinct, I guess?). In general, I guess I’ve stopped thinking of it in terms of whether or not I support transhumanist research, but rather *some* form of change beyond our current state of evolution seems to just be inevitable at this point, so I’m content to sit back and watch it unfold. Speculation is fun, but I think sometimes transhumanists do themselves injustice by coming up with such specific scenarios — very vivid pictures, indeed, but trying to predict something so complex ends up looking fake. It’s a pity when intelligent, thoughtful speculation about the future state of life is written off in popular media/thought as “science fiction”, because that term is being used derisively. But frankly, I think there is a fiction to it (the more specific we get, the more we write a fiction), but I think of that as a positive creative process exploring possibilities, rather than a prediction of what reality will look like in X years. In that sense, science fiction should not be a put-down for transhumanist speculations, but rather a reminder that in the end we are — just like historians — weaving together fictions. We should just try to weave the best fictions we can from the knowledge available.

    Speaking of fictions, if you’re into it, I highly suggest Neal Stephenson’s “Diamond Age”. It’s one vision of a future where nano-technology (and other shades of transhumanism) are ubiquitous, and explores the social and other ramifications. And it’s fun to read.

    de Garis was new to me. Now off to look up some of his evolvable hardware research.

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