Death and Dragons
April 24, 2018 2:25 PM   Subscribe

Complex thoughts and emotions arise... when contemplating death and immortality. The reflexive 'fight' against aging and death may have unforeseen consequences.
posted by CheapB (42 comments total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
 
...based on a 2005 story by Nick Bostrum who also wrote about utopia.
posted by CheapB at 2:36 PM on April 24, 2018


No spoilers, but if you like this, read I Kill Giants. Just, you know, if you're like me, be ready for the copious weeping.
posted by The Bellman at 2:37 PM on April 24, 2018


I recently saw the I Kill Giants movie without any idea what it was about. As a fairly hyper-critical film goer I had mixed emotions about it, but enjoyed it overall. It reminded me a bit of The 9th Life of Louis Drax.
posted by CheapB at 2:42 PM on April 24, 2018


I haven't seen the movie and, having just read the graphic novel, I don't think I would. I simply can't imagine the story working in any other medium.
posted by The Bellman at 2:45 PM on April 24, 2018


Much like a lot of other rationalist arguments, I find they overestimate very small probabilities with large effects. Sure we could put a significant amount of GDP into life extension research, and get results. But the original story talks about taking money from existing health care (or killing tigers and rattlesnakes), because the most important thing is to kill the dragon. That even the most remote chance is a reason to prioritize it, given the outcome if it comes to pass.

Similarly, the other most important thing is to stop all powerful evil AI from happening, given the world will be turned to paper clips if we don't.

Now, life extension research and benevolent AI research are both things I don't know how probable success, and every time I listen to rationalists about it, they sound like they are pulling numbers from their ass. Also people researching their topic areas, AI and health, think they are nuts.

What I'd like to say is, show me that you can cut through the dragon's armor. Not this smaller mouse sized dragon, the one on the hill.
posted by zabuni at 3:02 PM on April 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


"The reflexive 'fight' against aging and death may have unforeseen consequences."

Wait what? The fables point is that the main consequence will be tremendous guilt that you didn't start sooner. With the main moral of the story that people will support great evil if it is the status quo and the fight is not actually reflexive.

Also, to answer zabuni: Researchers in both areas, AI and Health, view one group of people as "nuts" and one as "idiots" for the most part (as far as I can tell). The people who think there won't be AI or indefinite life extension sooner or later are the nuts, because their objections are anti-scientific nonsense. We know for a fact both of these are possible. The idiots are the ones who think either of these things are going to happen soon, because anyone who knows the real details knows how far away we are.
posted by Infracanophile at 3:21 PM on April 24, 2018


> Wait what? The fable's point...

I know the fable's point, does it dismiss the unforeseen consequences that may exist?

For example: The Buddhist view that everything is impermanent/inconstant and dies/transforms, along with the complexities of the 'ego/thought-mind' that fights the changing nature of reality.
posted by CheapB at 3:49 PM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


Not to mention if life extension is solved, history shows it will likely only be for the rich. Also it may be before we've reached any kind of workable solutions for long-term population control and wealth distribution.
posted by CheapB at 3:57 PM on April 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


I know the fable's point, does it dismiss the unforeseen consequences that may exist?

For example: The Buddhist view that everything is impermanent/inconstant and dies/transforms, along with the complexities of the 'ego/thought-mind' that fights the changing nature of reality.


I always thought the point of the fable was that if we wouldn't accept those kinds of arguments in favor of complacency when it comes to other causes of death (like being sacrificed to a dragon), then to be morally consistent we shouldn't accept them about aging, either.

For instance, I can't imagine that "mass shootings are an inevitable part of the cycle of death and rebirth, plus they help keep the population under control, therefore we shouldn't waste our efforts on gun control" would be well-received around here.
posted by teraflop at 4:09 PM on April 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


We know for a fact both of these are possible.

We do?
posted by steady-state strawberry at 4:23 PM on April 24, 2018 [6 favorites]


I do not believe death can be slain. Delaying its arrival from the current (avg) ~80 years to even "just" 150 years or 300 years or longer seems unlikely. Enjoy whatever time you have here. Understand the Four Noble Truths. Follow the Eightfold Path.
posted by PhineasGage at 4:42 PM on April 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


Not to mention if life extension is solved, history shows it will likely only be for the rich. Also it may be before we've reached any kind of workable solutions for long-term population control and wealth distribution.

Most health advances, historically, have tended to become more and more available to wider and wider slices of the population, social democracies with public healthcare having gone farthest at this point. I think a lot depends on what the "treatment" turns out to be - if it's some sort of "inject this anti-aging vaccine thing" every year then I could see it becoming universal fairly rapidly, if it's "go into a tank of regeneration fluid for eight months under the anxious gaze of sixteen specialists in various fields" then not so much?

I do not believe death can be slain. Delaying its arrival from the current (avg) ~80 years to even "just" 150 years or 300 years or longer seems unlikely. Enjoy whatever time you have here. Understand the Four Noble Truths. Follow the Eightfold Path.

Replace death with periodic famines, smallpox, illiteracy, monarchy, slavery, etc. and you can construct a statement that any number of past sages would nod their heads wisely at, but which are recognizably wrong for wide swaths of humanity today. Whatever its particular virtues or vices, Buddhism sinks to the lowest level that any religion can go when it simply becomes a comforting justification for letting status quo be status quo.

I don't know if serious life extension, or physical immortality, can be achieved. I think that it would be good to achieve it but that in the real world there's always something being given up in order to provide resources for something else, so there's a solid case to be made for other priorities (maybe first get the population of the developing world to the point where they live as long as people in the developed world, for one thing, or make sure that we have a liveable planet to be immortal on, for another). But I don't see any problem with people giving it a shot, if they decide that's the best use of their time.
posted by AdamCSnider at 5:33 PM on April 24, 2018 [5 favorites]


We know for a fact both of these are possible.

We do?


Ditto. Citation needed.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:06 PM on April 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm curious why people have doubts about the possibility of these two things. Not that humanity will do them, or will survive long enough to do so, or should do them, but that it can't be done. Why not?

A premise of "humans are biological machines" is enough to justify these being possible in theory, the only question is how much of the complexity will we have to understand before we can do them.

If you are religious and believe you have a soul which generates consciousness or you are a mystic regarding consciousness (like a panpsychist or similar) I get it. If you generally go along with the scientific consensus on things but don't here I'm curious why.
posted by Infracanophile at 6:12 PM on April 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


It is entirely possible that the bodies of human beings are of such complexity as to outstrip our capacity to understand their functioning in sufficient detail to postpone our deaths indefinitely.
posted by leotrotsky at 6:21 PM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm curious why people have doubts about the possibility of these two things.

I don't know if I doubt the possibility so much as question the validity of the basic notion, certainly of giving our all to the problem of death. I mean, going with the narrative of the movie and the absolute commitment it took from all the world to slay the dragon (ie: death), I just have to wonder what better things could be done with all that focus and passion and energy. Like ending poverty for a start. Maybe we don't get to immortality until we first solve the more immediate problem of making life actually livable for everyone on the voyage.
posted by philip-random at 6:24 PM on April 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


Maybe we don't get to immortality until we first solve the more immediate problem of making life actually livable for everyone on the voyage.

Word. We've already done a great job of keeping people from dying of things, while not worrying overmuch about making sure they don't suffer afterwards.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:33 PM on April 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


A premise of "humans are biological machines" is enough to justify these being possible in theory, the only question is how much of the complexity will we have to understand before we can do them.

If you are religious and believe you have a soul which generates consciousness or you are a mystic regarding consciousness (like a panpsychist or similar) I get it. If you generally go along with the scientific consensus on things but don't here I'm curious why.


I'm genuinely curious as to why you think that a 'biological machine' is somehow able to last forever.

Biology is messy, and there's a ton of stuff that can - and will - go wrong if you let it last for long enough. (DNA replication is only so accurate, for one thing.) If you manage to stave off mortality but don't inhibit the mechanism of cell death that leads to Parkinson's disease or the development of amyloid plaques, you've not done yourself much good.

Interstellar travel is not just possible in theory -- developing it is basically an exercise in engineering and finances. But I'm not holding my breath. Immortality is possibly imaginable, but I think it's almost easier to imagine if you believe in a soul than it is if you imagine you exist in a messy, flawed physical reality.
posted by steady-state strawberry at 7:45 PM on April 24, 2018 [3 favorites]


AdamCSnider you and I actually agree. I was arguing not for passive Buddhist nihilism but for pragmatism and insight: making hopeful but prudent investments in health research to improve healthspans rather than lifespans. Pouring all society's resources into a "longevity moonshot" would actually diminish the lives of most everyone alive today.
posted by PhineasGage at 8:34 PM on April 24, 2018 [2 favorites]


A premise of "humans are biological machines" is enough to justify these being possible in theory, the only question is how much of the complexity will we have to understand before we can do them.

And whether it requires more fundamental resources than are available within eventual reach. Like, if we assume humanity will eventually have universal reach, then the complexity must require fewer than 10123 or so atoms of resources. If humanity is stuck in only the Milky Way, that drops to 1067. Or maybe it turns out we're stuck in the solar system.. Or you could look at it as a time thing and decide that mastering the complexity will require long enough that heat death of the universe comes first, or simply the sun becoming a red giant.

I'm curious how somebody thinking about limits in such a far reaching way could have missed these obvious factors :)
posted by Chuckles at 10:13 PM on April 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


Oh, and don't forget you have to conquer the heat death of the universe too. That one's a real toughy!
posted by Chuckles at 10:18 PM on April 24, 2018 [1 favorite]


We know that some big whales are capable of living more than a century because at least one individual has been observed at instances more than 100 years apart.

The biggest whales have roughly 1000 times our mass, so assuming their individual cells are about the same size as ours and a few other things, an average whale cell has divided around 10 times more than an average human cell at the beginning of adulthood.

Human cells which do not express telomerase are often said to able to divide about 50 times before becoming senescent ( the Hayflick Limit), and that limit is considered to be one of the major factors in human aging.

So if whales have similar patterns of telomerase expression to humans, they have evolved a Hayflick Limit much higher than ours, or some means of evading it.

Even if they only have a higher limit, if we figured out how to import that to our genome with no more problems than they have, I bet we could double and triple our lifespans relatively easily.

But we'll probably exterminate them before that has a chance to happen.
posted by jamjam at 11:11 PM on April 24, 2018 [4 favorites]


The context in my last comment was curing aging or physical immortality, not some broader and more magical "forever" to be clear. No need to count atoms or conquer entropy, plenty of time for that once we don't age.

Plenty of animals already do the not aging thing, if we can copy that we can all live long enough to die from something else (probably cancer), plus none of the suffering from aging.

No one would say we shouldn't fund cancer research until we've solved poverty, and aging causes more suffering and more death. Besides, the more anti-aging and anti-cancer research they do the more they overlap. Medically it makes a lot of sense to view aging as a set of diseases. Since everyone has this disease we have a different cultural bias when it comes to the categories.

leotrotsky has it right that the question is if humans are capable of understanding the complexity required. Maybe we aren't. Same for AI, maybe a human brain can't hold enough understanding in it to be able to make something like it. Even working together. Maybe we can't even manage making ourselves a little smarter to slowly climb our way up. That would suck. Seems unlikely, humans are really really good at underestimating how much can change long term (and also really good at overestimating how much can change quickly, evolution is a bastard).
posted by Infracanophile at 12:04 AM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Living indefinitely without ageing would seem like a terrific advantage in terms of evolution. If you can be big and experienced and in possession of a territory, but still fit and strong permanently you have a lot of advantages over recently born competitors. Also if you just go on and on reproducing you’re going to have many more offspring (though if you live forever, do you even need them?)

And it seems as if it should be easy. Just don’t age and deteriorate. Have systems that keep restoring your original condition in your prime.

Yet no organism of any size or complexity does this. They all age and die. Doesn’t that provide reasonable grounds for thinking there must be something fundamentally wrong with the idea of indefinite lifespans, to offset such a big advantage?
posted by Segundus at 2:00 AM on April 25, 2018


Living without aging is not necessarily a immense evolutionary advantage, and evolution has blind spots the size of our blind spots. It's theoretically reasonable to think that immortality could be possible and not be likely to evolve.
posted by tychotesla at 2:45 AM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


What a steaming heap of childish nonsense. I took the night to stew on it before posting, and many of you already mostly made my point: Let's first figure out how to make people less awful before deciding they should live forever.
posted by whuppy at 3:38 AM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


The fable is right, we must do all that we can to destroy capitalism.
posted by fleacircus at 4:24 AM on April 25, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah, living forever is a mug’s game. Have none of y’all ever seen a single vampire movie? You think resource depletion is bad now? Bring on the dystopian nightmare! Go ahead!
posted by rikschell at 5:35 AM on April 25, 2018


I'm being told that this is not about capitalism but about mortality.

I dunno there's something really weird and wrong-feeling about all the anti-deathism stuff. It's not that I love death and these people are sane. These are also people who think we're living in a simulation, and probably a host of other dumb idiot Bayesian utilitarianism LessWrong shit like that it's better for one person to be tortured for 40 years than for everyone else in the world to get a speck of dust in their eye.

I feel like the more illustrative version of this fable would be if the breakthrough is not slaying the dragon for everyone, but inventing a way some people can escape.

The way, like, luxury-grade immortality plays out will not be clean or trivial, I don't really think. I don't think it's going to spread equally to all... It's more likely to fall along the lines of all the current power imbalances. The causes of "unfair" death that really get attacked are the ones that afflict rich people as well as poor people, and then we can all pat ourselves on the back and talk about how stuff's being done for all humanity. When only poor or weak people are dying from a thing, it does not really trend towards progress, though. Maybe a rich person does some virtue signalling now and then.

We already live in a society where it's seen as your damn fault if you die penniless in the middle of the road, where we think many people bring death upon themselves through poor choices even when they are raised to make those bad choices and lied to constantly in the public sphere about them. Adding effective immortality on top of this moral stratification, on top of our wretched fantasy-meritocracy, is no big paradigm shift, it's just an increase in unfairness. Want to be immortal? Get rich. Can't get rich? Well.... sorry, either you didn't work hard enough, or sorry, must have been bad luck same as the guy that got hit by a truck and his brain was unrecoverable.

All these rationalist technophiliac degenerate-idealist twerps just elide all that out. As long as SOME people are better off, they can jerk it to their scifi fantasies of friendly AIs or whatever.

Instead of the sad, last train full of victims to the dragon, imagine that after the rich and powerful had secured immortality for themselves. The dragon was pushed out of their lives. The flow of victims to the dragon had been stemmed enough. Maybe they imagine the future where eventually all the people who aren't going to make it through the immortality gap do just die out, and shit like that. Now imagine you are on the train, being asked to accept your fate as the regrettable still-dying people, all so very sad, but -- you know the King will never be on the train, nor the scientist, nor their children.

Maybe the original fable would start to seem like some weird ass deluded propaganda by very privileged people who think that they personally represent humanity completely, that they imagined so deeply it was always going to be themselves escaping the dragon that they phrased it as if the dragon would be dead for the entire world. Maybe it would start to seem like they were trying to dodge the moral issues of the day and just saying put your faith in technology, do whatever it requires, it will save us... almost like a religion..

Anyway those are my thoughts on this fable.
posted by fleacircus at 5:36 AM on April 25, 2018 [8 favorites]


METAFILTER: like some weird ass deluded propaganda by very privileged people who think that they personally represent humanity completely
posted by philip-random at 8:35 AM on April 25, 2018


It's theoretically reasonable to think that immortality could be possible and not be likely to evolve.

Well, it kind of has already evolved in a way. But evolution hasn't figured out how to make an organism both immortal and complex at the same time.
posted by Jpfed at 10:29 AM on April 25, 2018


The context in my last comment was curing aging or physical immortality, not some broader and more magical "forever" to be clear. No need to count atoms or conquer entropy, plenty of time for that once we don't age.

You haven't done a good job of understanding what entropy is if you think anything anywhere has been able to 'not age'. Rocks age. Entropy is a thing at shorter time scales too. There's a reason the Pyramids and Roman Aqueducts still stand but few things of our generation will last 100 years. Pyramids and Aqueducts are basically rocks, and they deteriorate over the time scale of rocks. What we build today has a different level of complexity, and entropy consequently has a much faster effect on it.

Plenty of animals already do the not aging thing, if we can copy that we can all live long enough to die from something else (probably cancer), plus none of the suffering from aging.

So what you are talking about is so called biological immortality then? That would have been a helpful clarification. I'm still completely unconvinced though. Just take a quick scan of the complexity of the organisms on that list.

In addition to the very general notions of complexity and entropy, I think the notion of biological immortality does a terrible job of addressing the specific details. How many degenerative diseases have to be conquered? How much do we know about degenerative diseases that may effect these so called biologically immortal organisms? What level of infirmity is enough to flip the switch from "I want to live forever" to "I'm done, it's time, can't it all be over now"? Is it only mental illness that does that?
posted by Chuckles at 10:38 AM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


Very relevant to this discussion, here is a review of Barbara Ehrenreich's new book about mortality, by a doctor who has written two humane, astute books about sickness and death herself.
posted by PhineasGage at 12:55 PM on April 25, 2018


I think the original fable is specifically about increasing human health spans, with the dragon representing ageing rather than death, though I'm not sure that comes across clearly.

Going down a wikipedia hole, apparently Greenland sharks live for hundreds of years, not even reaching sexual maturity until their second century.
posted by lucidium at 1:47 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


Even if our bodies could be re-made to live forever, I'm unconvinced that our minds, which are designed to process information for 100 or so years, tops, could be altered in such a way to make immortality - or even extremely extended lifespans - tolerable.
posted by The Card Cheat at 2:53 PM on April 25, 2018


Living without aging is not necessarily a immense evolutionary advantage

You think that in evolutionary terms, being dead is no better than being alive? Being weak is no better than being strong?

At least present some kind of case, ffs.
posted by Segundus at 2:59 PM on April 25, 2018


Well, unless you're small, slow or cannibalistic enough to have an effectively endless supply of food, an immortal species would starve fairly quickly.
posted by lucidium at 3:32 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


In evolutionary terms, being dead doesn't matter as long as your genes survive.

Keeping alive longer comes at the immense cost of having to tool your body for multiple purposes, e.g: growth & reproduction (as normal); and then a static life in which you heal and maintain an immune system balanced to keep you active while still combating the inevitable diseases and varmints that will adapt and self select to feed on your profile; and have intricate systems to control cancers as well; all while continually having additional children (otherwise there's no point, but note human eggs are limited and maintaining the reproductive organs is inevitably a huge risk factor for cancer and disease). The more needs you stick in the worse everything operates. Meanwhile the wild is constantly throwing unpredictable situations at you that arbitrarily decimate your population, further making the whole idea of tooling for age a net loss.

When what matters to evolution is whether your genes survive, aiming to live longer is not a strict benefit. Often it seems better to pass genes on quick before you have to invest in all the things you need to in order to get old.
posted by tychotesla at 4:01 PM on April 25, 2018 [1 favorite]


You also have to consider the heavy exponential discounting that mortality from accidents, predation, and acute illness imposes, and which can cause biological immortality to have a very modest expected increase in lifespans.

For example, consider a hypothetical songbird which has a 50% annual mortality rate* from accidents etc. and a maximum lifespan of precisely five years. The expected lifespan is simply 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 = 31/32 years. If, through gene editing or whatever, this species could become biologically immortal with no cap on maximum lifespan, then the expected lifespan would still not be infinite, but instead the value of the infinite sum 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + ..., which is exactly 1.

In other words, biological immortality would increase expected lifespans by only 1/32nd of a year, or a bit more than eleven days.

* for small songbirds, 50% annual mortality is, surprisingly, typical
posted by Pyry at 5:51 PM on April 25, 2018 [2 favorites]


I mean, how's the current gerontocracy working out for you? You think the answer is they're not old enough?
posted by whuppy at 5:55 AM on April 26, 2018


Assuming that the insatiable dragon in the movie is an analogy for death itself, I find the entire premise flawed. The dragon is a villainous force that cuts short the lives of millions--preys upon them, murders them, robs them of the lifespan that they would otherwise enjoy. By this analogy, we all should be living forever but for the unnatural intervention of this great evil.

To me death is simply what happens when life ends, and all things must end. It is, pretty much by definition, natural. Where do Americans get the idea that they have the right to live forever?

(If the analogy is that the dragon is an amalgam of various forces that degrade our lives and our health as we age, then the analogy falls apart anyway. The idea of one magic missile that slays the dragon seems like an absurd simplification, a fairy tale if you will.)

I am all for improving the lives, health, and well-being of people whenever and wherever possible. But I don't want to extend the length of the train tracks leading to the dragon just so that people can "live" longer packed into the cattle cars on their final journey.
posted by blankspot at 6:17 AM on April 26, 2018 [1 favorite]


Pyry: For example, consider a hypothetical songbird which has a 50% annual mortality rate* from accidents etc. and a maximum lifespan of precisely five years.

This math had me confused until I realized that 1/2 + 1/4 + 1/8 + 1/16 + 1/32 = 31/32 is the probability that the songbird will die of accidents, predation, disease, etc. before its 5-year maximum lifespan. The remaining 1/32 is the probability that the songbird will live past five years, if its maximum lifespan became infinite. Eleven days may or may not be some sort of average lifespan extension (probability is not my strong suit), but because it is probability that we're dealing with here, some songbirds will live well past five years.

For instance, if we start with a population of 1024 (210) songbirds, and there is a 1/32 chance of them surviving (1/25), then 210/25, or 32, birds will survive to five years. Of that cohort, at least one is likely to survive another five years, which means that gerontological immortality would probably mean a doubling of lifespan for at least one lucky songbird out of a thousand, even with an annual mortality rate of 50% from non-aging causes. And the global human mortality rate (crude death rate, which I think includes newborns in the population) is less than 1% right now.

So a lot of people could live a long, long time if they didn't age, even if we took deaths from accidents, war, and fatal diseases into account.
posted by skoosh at 11:28 AM on May 2, 2018


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