I’m with Woody Allen on this one. I’m not afraid of dying. I just don’t want to be there when it happens.

Good joke, but also kind of true. I’m not afraid of being dead but the actual process of going through that door seems like it could be unpleasant.

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There's some small amount of writing about limited lifespans and evolution, particularly about differences in lifespans between species. I don't know how much is reasonably based on research (probably modeling or similar) and how much is "just so" stories.

What I gather from this is that:

- if the death rate from causes other than aging is high, evolution favours "live fast, spawn copiously, and die young". There's no point evolving longevity if odds are you'll die young of predation, accident, disease, etc. etc.

- if the non-aging death rate is lower, evolution moves towards a longer lifespan, and often a later start to producing offspring. Maybe fewer offspring too, each with more parental investment. You can see this with (some) pairs of closely related species in environments with large differences in non-aging mortality.

- if an older individual has big reproductive advantages, such that spawning early nets you a small clutch, with each year's potential clutch increasing, you get the big mama fish phenomenon, and negligible aging - each year the fish survives, it's bigger, and can produce more offspring than the year before. Evolution strongly favours individuals of such a species not aging.

- as far as I know, 2 species have evolved menopause - females stop producing new offspring long before aging would be likely to kill them. I'm not satisfied that we fully understand this, except for the obvious - already-produced offspring must do better under this system, such that the menopausal female has more (great)grandchildren on average than a non-menopausal but otherwise similar female. Humans are one of these species, so this probably matters to understanding human aging.

One other point: humans have an enviably low non-aging death rate, at least in "advanced" countries. This ought to be creating evolutionary pressures towards longer breeding lifetimes. Except of course that most of us stop breeding well before out bodies can't do it, either for reasons of investment in existing children or simply because evolution hasn't made us into instinct-driven breeding robots - we have goals separate from yet more babies. (Some of us even work hard to force competitors to have babies they don't want!)

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For people who would like to interact in real time, I host an online meetup on Saturday mornings as well as a very occasional realspace meetup, originally for readers of the blog Slate Star Codex. Details:


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The whole idea of uploading consciousness to computers is pure techno-mysticism. It fundamentally misunderstands the concept at the most basic level. Consciousness is not a "thing" that can be transferred from platform to platform. It is a physiologic process dependent on the moment to moment working of your brain. “Uploading it” to a computer might result in a simulation of some sort, but it isn't "you", in the sense anyone cares about. Kind of like how a computer simulation of a hurricane doesn’t get anyone wet.

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You mention being afraid of death. Although I have cryonics arrangements and hope for aging to be conquered in my time, I do not fear death. I wonder if we have different views or if you are using "fear" differently. I don't fear death because death is a state of nothingness. I won't be bored, or scared, or frustrated. I won't be. There is literally nothing to be afraid of. (Was it Epictetus who first said that?) What I fear is two things: 1. The dying process. 2. Not being alive to enjoy learning, growing, exploring, developing, loving, and all those good things. You could say I fear those things being taken away but that seems different from fearing death itself.

P.S. Congratulations on the 50th anniversary of The Machinery of Freedom. I read it in July 1982 -- one of the first three books that stirred my brain with libertarian ideas.

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Oct 5, 2023·edited Oct 5, 2023

>What about the possibility that I am wrong, some religion right, about the nature of consciousness? The modern scientific world view, which I generally share, rejects it. But quite a lot of the people who have ever lived, including quite a lot now living, many of them educated people in modern developed societies, accept it.

This seems like a sub-optimal heuristic. Imagine applying it to to e.g. vaccines. "A lot of people now living, many of them educated people in modern developed societies accept anti-vax arguments."

Okay. Let's assume 10% of such people are anti-vaxxers. Should we assign a 10% probability to the anti-vax proposition?

Maybe if that's all the information we had, but crucially, it isn't! We can look at the evidence for vaccine efficacy ourselves. More meaningful that simply polling people on *what* they believe, we can see *why* they tend to believe things. What are the main anti-vax arguments, and how well do they fit the data? What are the main arguments in favor of vaccines, and how well do they fit the data?

Once that has been evaluated, then the raw number of people who believe the respective conclusions, or even the respective arguments, should be of relatively little value.

Similarly, if the only information we had access to was a poll on the number of percentage of "educated people in modern developed societies" who believe in a religious proposition, then perhaps using that would be our best heuristic. But again, that isn't the situation that faces us. We can hear people's arguments for the proposition and evaluate those.

There are other reasons, too, why the measure of what "quite a lot of the people who have ever lived, including quite a lot now living, many of them educated people in modern developed societies, accept" may not be the most meaningful, which I noted here: https://daviddfriedman.substack.com/p/the-puzzle-of-consciousness/comment/13929720.

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To repost a former comment of mine to the linked piece regarding consciousness and an immortal soul:

>It seems likely that the mind depends on the brain and dies when the body dies. The effect on the mind of things happening to the brain short of dying — alcohol or other drugs in the bloodstream or a blow to the skull — supports that conjecture. I know of no positive evidence against it. But as long as the nature of consciousness is a mystery to me, I cannot be certain.

More trivially, one could say that as long as anything remains unknown in the universe, that we cannot be certain of anything, since that unknown thing in the universe might affect anything. But this is trivially true about anything and therefore does not reflect any actual uncertainty with a given proposition.

Regarding the specific proposition at hand, I don't see why the existence of questions about consciousness in general should be a reason to consider the proposition that consciousness is not dependent on physical hardware and processes, given the stated evidence that it is.

This seems equivalent to saying "It seems likely that Tylenol depends on physically interacting with the body to work, so one person taking a Tylenol could not cure a different person's headache. I know of no positive evidence against it. But as long as the mechanism of action of Tylenol is a mystery to me, I cannot be certain." [Note that this is about *my* knowledge of the MOA of Tylenol - it is not dependent on someone else knowing the MOA.]

Am I missing some reason why the point about consciousness is different?

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I haven't given tis real thought, since at 76 I'm pretty unlikely to get a chance to get much of an extended life span, but among my concerns are that I am not only spending on my needs and wants, but trying to continue to accumulate resources to pass on to my descendants. I have children that I love very much, and grandchildren and great-grandchildren that I don't "know" well enough to actually love them, but whom I care about a great deal.

So, how much of my current resources should I spend in an effort to live longer is a tough question. No doubt I should continue to try to maintain my current pretty good health (for more reasons than just living longer), but what is worth spending additional resources on, as compared to being able to bequeath them to my descendants?

My father always joked about two things in his personal life. The first was that he had been living "on borrowed time" since he joined the Marine Corps in December of 1942. The second was that he wanted to "run out of breath and money at the same time." He only really meant the first. He strove mightily to leave behind enough money to assure my mother's situation for however long she lived. I don't think I'm on his kind of borrowed time, but my considerations for my wife and descendants are real.

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I bet you a nickel consciousness is just electron flow and that preserving the meaningful structures you define as "you" plus a continuity of consciousness would just require cabling your brain to a computer and synchronizing computational processes. This is a dumb action bet and doesn't represent epistemic confidence. Make it $50.

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I would certainly consider Minsky's process for "uploading" to be a means of survival. Ray Kurzweil offered the same scenario and I found it plausible, though I don't think we are going to have enough computational power to make it commonly available in my longest possible lifespan.

I wouldn't consider the more usual versions to be survival. At best I would consider them to be reproduction.

Here's what Daniel Dennett calls an "intuition pump":

Suppose that we have a technological means of scanning your entire body, and assembling a perfect duplicate. We do so, on the other side of a room, so the two can look at each other. Now we take out a shotgun and shoot you through the skull—by "you" I mean the original, the one that was scanned. Do you believe that, in that instant, you will suddenly be seeing through the eyes of the DDF on the other side of the room, watching in shock as the original DDF, now headless, collapses?

I don't see that it makes any difference if the DDF that was scanned is destroyed in the process of scanning, rather than afterward.

If DDF1 and DDF2 were telepathically linked, that might lead to a different conclusion. But I don't think there is convincing evidence of telepathy.

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I know this isn’t what you were looking for David but I think it’s pretty unlikely you are going to be the first person to avoid death. So it might be worthwhile to try to relieve your fear instead. If you can do that your remaining time may be richer. Note: I’m a little younger than you - about seven years - and I’m not thrilled about my life ending either.

I take articles from MAPS with a large grain of salt but this seems more likely to be successful than cryogenics or uploading your consciousness to a machine.


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A quibble. If you have three independent 10% chances of living, I don’t think the accumulated probability is 30%. You die if none of them come up, the probability of which is 0.9³ = 0.729. So the probability of living is 0.271 (27.1%). However, given the inaccuracy of the three initial estimates, you can laugh this off.

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There is another possibilty here (see Nick Bostrom's simulation arguements, they're persuasive) and that's the idea that we're already simulations living in a simulation.

In that world, when the body dies, the mind might already be backed up automatically, or not.

If yes, the question would be whether you get respawned or not, if yes, wow, if no, you'd never know.

George Hotz said, "the diffence between an NPC and a PC is that a PC knows it's a PC," so we might be just NPCs and death is death, done, finished, sorry, game over.

He gave an interesting talk at the Austin SBSW (I think) conference some years ago on "How to Hack" the simulation. Interesting, but no final conclusions.

I think we're in a simulation, but whether we'll find out, I suspect the odds are slim.

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“the physical reality that we more or less understand.”

This phrase is making a questionable assertion here. Why believe we “more or less” understand physical reality, given that we don’t yet know the true laws of physics?

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"it is better to go to a house of mourning than to a house of feasting... because the living will take it to heart".

It's a sign of your usual humility that you tangle with this topic.

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You didn't mention the "other" category. The obvious, most likely to occur and to succeed option is that AGI will invent a way of making us immortal. We can be agnostic to what exactly it will look like. The important thing is that AGI is built, and is aligned. In particular, if it is not aligned, any other option on your list (except for the soul argument) is meaningless.

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