Why I Don’t Care If YOU Want to Cure Mortality

I’m fairly ardent on this blog about my desire to prevent humans from dying involuntarily. But, while I’ve made many attempts to rebut poor arguments and explain the reasons I care about this, I haven’t ever attempted to convince anyone else that they should have the same goal I do.

This isn’t because I have any desire to avoid persuading people; I’ve written rather a lot of persuasive posts on this blog, inviting people to abolish everything from gender to public schools. Instead, it’s because I don’t think everyone should be trying to cure mortality.

I chose the particular goal I did when I was very young, but I’ve stuck with it because it seems like a reasonable first step. If I can extend my life, and the lives of others, then we’ll all have more time to do other things.

But death from senescence is not the only threat, or even the single biggest one (though it is up there). Pretty much everything on the Wikipedia page for Global Catastrophic Risks is a notable candidate for an Important Problem that somebody should be working on.

“Most people all the time, and all people most of the time, should stick to the possible.” Even those of us working on one impossible (read: very difficult or potentially unsolvable) problem cannot work on multiple at once. Therefore, it is absolutely critical that smart ambitious people work on multiple different impossible problems, work on eliminating or preventing multiple Global Catastrophic Risks at once, so that we can make the world better as efficiently and effectively as possible.

So, if you’re a smart ambitious person not currently working on curing mortality, because you’ve deemed it more important to work on Friendly AI or biotechnology or global warming or FTL travel, then that is exactly how it should be.

“But,” some of you might protest, “I’m not working on any impossible problems. Do you look down on me, or think I should be doing something different?”

Not at all. “Most people all the time, and all people most of the time, should stick to the possible.” The first phrase is just as critical as the second: most people should always do things they know they can do, work on normal goals, and have normal lives. Us weirdos working on impossible problems need the world to keep running while we do it. We need accountants and restaurant owners and librarians and politicians and auto mechanics.

There is absolutely no reason that anybody who doesn’t already have some compulsion to work on an impossible problem should do so. If you have an idea for a startup that could change the world, you have no obligation to follow through with it. If you hear about a Global Catastrophic Risk, you have no obligation to do anything about it (other than, perhaps, try to help a little bit however you can). There are those of us who are indifferent to the idea of spending our whole lives on a potentially fruitless endeavor, who are willing to do so in exchange for decreasing the risk of something about which we are genuinely terrified: the serious crippling, or permanent extinction, of the human race.

That’s our own prerogative, not yours. It doesn’t matter to me what you choose to do with your life: that’s dependent on your utility function, not mine. The only thing that matters to me is my own work. If we each focus on our own work, and sphere of influence, that’s enough.

The Incredibles 2, and How the Universe is Allowed to Just Kill You Anyway

The Incredibles 2 is a movie about superheroes, which is the sequel to another movie about superheroes. Both are centrally themed around the idea that “no man is an island” – as in, you aren’t alone, you don’t need to be alone, and in fact, you do better when you let others help you – to the point that “Nomanisan Island” is an actual location in the films.

I watched the first Incredibles movie when I was a child. It was good, but it didn’t leave any lasting impression in my young brain beyond “Elastigirl cool”. I thought this might be because I’d seen it before I was sentient, so I watched it again later. I liked it more than I had when I was young, but it still didn’t hammer its central theme into my brain nearly as effectively as its sequel.

There are three main things that made the sequel much better than the original; at least, three that are particularly poignant to me. First, the stakes are meaningful. At the end of the first movie, if the good guys didn’t win, Syndrome would have “made everybody super, so no one is”, whatever that means. At the end of the sequel, if the good guys didn’t win, a gigantic cruise ship would have crashed into a coastal city, killing hundreds or thousands of people. You can imagine which of these is more emotionally moving to me.

Second: partway through the second act, Helen meets a number of other superheroes who have been in hiding. This introduces an important element the first movie lacks: a supporting cast. It fleshes out the group “superheroes” to see more than six, and it shows us the sheer number of people whose lives have been negatively impacted by the outlawing of supers.

This, and a few other scenes, make it clear that we, the audience, are expected to care about people besides the main cast. A lot of movies just take collateral damage in stride, telling the audience not to think about the fact that the good guys let hundreds of unnamed pedestrians die when they crash a bad guy’s helicopter into a building. In Incredibles movies, this comes from a plot focus on minimization of collateral damage from superheroes, but it resonates nicely with the humanist in me.

Third: Because the Incredibles movies feature a family, there have been some critical parts of the plot featuring the children as central characters. But while in the first movie they mostly just held their own, in the sequel they were able to independently progress the plot. In fact, there is a point in the climax where all the adults have been hypnotized by the villain, and it’s up to the children – who have so far been bickering, uncoordinated, and generally unqualified to accomplish this necessary task – to save the day.

They succeed, of course, because this is a family-friendly movie. But that sequence of events produced a genuine feeling of uncertainty about the outcome that most movies struggle for. It captured, for me at least, the precise feeling I have when thinking about global catastrophic risks.

The definition of a global catastrophic risk (GCR) is “a hypothetical future event which could damage human well-being on a global scale”. A sub-type of GCR is existential risks, which include things like non-value-aligned artificial superintelligences. Existential risks are the ones which would cause human extinction.

There are tangible, obvious, salient stakes when talking about GCRs. We discuss them because we care about our fellow humans, and we want them not to suffer or die. But, at the same time, we are in a horribly unfortunate position in terms of actually preventing any of these risks, because we’re all bickering, uncoordinated, and generally unqualified to accomplish this necessary task.

At the same time that people are still working on developing ASI, still pumping massive amounts of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, still stockpiling nuclear weapons, the rest of us are all wandering about our petty lives, not realizing the actions of these few people might imminently kill us all. We can’t affect the actions of these groups, just like we can’t affect the orbit of the sun – as in, it’s strictly-speaking possible, but extraordinarily difficult.

So we’re stuck between extinction and impossibility. Either accept the greater-than-50% likelihood of a universe tiled with paperclips, or move the sun.

Unlike in The Incredibles movies, real life is not family-friendly. There is no plot armor protecting us from extinction, no reason that the squabbling children should be able to defeat the villain. If we are going to survive, we need to become much better.

What “better” looks like depends on the risk, and there are a lot of them. We all should educate ourselves on what GCRs are, what they look like, how bad each one could be, and what preventative measures could be taken to make us safer. In instances where the powers that be are likely to listen to us, we should rally, and scream loudly enough that they’re forced to listen. And, lastly, in the specific situations where we ourselves are the powers that be – if we are AI programmers or molecular nanotechnology developers or biotechnologists – we need to think long and hard about our decisions.

Do not underestimate the likelihood of a future where someone says “oops”, and seven billion bodies hit the ground.

Motivation Does Not Come from Mortality

I’ve often heard the hypothesis that motivation originates from mortality. That is, if we didn’t know that our time was limited, we would have no reason to do anything.

As a person who is in ardent pursuit of immortality, this is clearly not a worldview I hold. If I found out today that my immortality was guaranteed, I would still be publishing a book. Not because I want to create something that will outlive me, obviously. If I were immortal, anything I ever created would be guaranteed to eventually fall into obscurity, probably preceded by a lot of parody, misquoting, and bastardization.

But that has never been my motivation to create. I create because I think it will be useful to people, even if only temporarily. I often create even if the only person it will help is me. The book I’m working on is not some moonshot at a legacy, it’s an attempt to help people. If it only succeeds at that goal for a few years, decades, centuries, and then stops being useful, then I will be glad it succeeded at all.

Actually, if I knew I would never die, all the more reason to create! I currently spend much less time on creative pursuits (writing, painting, music, etc.) than I would like, because I have higher-priority tasks, mostly centered around trying not to die (ie, eating, exercising, curing mortality). But if I didn’t have to worry about cramming everything I might want to do into a mere eighty-year lifespan, I could spend so much more time on art.

“You might say that now,” says the cynic, “but just you wait; you’ll get tired of living eventually.”

I’ve heard this said a lot, so let me provide a counterpoint. For several years, I felt that I had already experienced the full spectrum of human emotion, and had nothing else left. I’d seen stunning beauty: the Great Wall of China, Niagara Falls, my girlfriend’s eyes. I’d seen despair and desolation: the aftermaths of hurricanes, the trauma of child abuse, the city of Detroit. And, I thought, no matter what other events might trigger the same feelings, it will be the same old feelings, on endless loop in various combinations for the rest of my life. The utter pointlessness of it all made me think: if I was already so tired after sixteen years, then why linger another sixty?

This is typically called being suicidal, and most people think it’s bad. So my question to the cynic is, “Why is it bad to want to die at the age of sixteen, but it’s okay at the age of six hundred?”

(If the cynic replies that it isn’t bad to die at sixteen, then I have nothing more to say at the moment: we have a difference of opinion, but there is no logical inconsistency in their position.)

Outside the context of fiction, where an immortal person can become alone and isolated after everyone they ever cared about has died, there is no inherent difference between real-life people who might be mortal versus immortal. Because, in real life where immortality is created by science, everyone who wants to can become immortal.

The only reason real-life immortality might become bad – in and of itself, leaving aside any potential negative ramifications of particular implementations – is if living itself becomes bad after some time. The question of “Is immortality worthwhile?” becomes, “Is the day-to-day experience of living worth it, or not?”

My answering “no” was what made me suicidal in the past. The concept of a bucket list had never appealed to me, because the actual day-to-day experience of my life was not a highlight reel. Your actual life is not comprised of vacations and magical evenings and jaw-dropping scenery; your actual life is comprised of whatever you do today. I couldn’t stay alive because one day, eventually, I wanted to see X or do Y. Enduring a whole ocean of boredom in order to get to a little island of potential happiness didn’t seem like a worthwhile trade.

So, if it’s worth being alive, then it’s worth it even though there’s no finite list of items to tick off a list. It has to be the everyday mundane experience of living and loving and continuing to exist that’s precious, not any one specific experience or set of experiences. It follows that, if this is the case, I would want to keep on doing that forever, because I would never run out of living to do. There will always be new books to read and conversations to have and people to meet and things to do.

In the end, this was what saved me. I realized that I could make each day worthwhile, and enjoy it just as much if it were my first day of eternity or my last day on earth.

And so, if I found out today that I would get to be immortal, my motivation would not all evaporate. As a matter of fact, not much would change. Even if I stopped pursuing immortality, I would start pursuing something else. Probably, I would even maintain the basic life-path of “obtain as much money and power as possible in order to improve the state of the world”. And further, with my increased lifespan, I would have a lot more time to create and discover.

What I Would Do With Immortality

I’ve previously discussed that I didn’t like reading fiction growing up, because I knew that if I thought about it too hard, it would break down. In real life, you can do experiments to answer your questions, instead of needing to rely on authority or source material, but in a story, this isn’t true. The real universe is modeled by quarks; stories are modeled by plots.

The fact that real life is based on universally consistent laws is a nearly endless source of intrigue, entertainment, and general fun, at least for me. Whenever I ask a question about reality, I know that it has an answer, somewhere. If I don’t know it, I can learn about it from someone who does, and if nobody knows it, I can find the answer myself. The existence of a consistent reality that I can do experiments on means that I am not limited in my ability to learn stuff by anything besides my willingness to do so.

The primary reason that I haven’t gone on a quest to rediscover every single insight ever made by the human race – which seems to approximate the Maximum Fun Plan – is because doing so would take orders of magnitude more years than I am presently expected to live, barring major advances in medical science. So, I’ve got to solve the pesky mortality problem first. But once I do… I certainly plan to spend a lot of time rediscovering things.

It might seem a bit odd, that I would want to spend decades and centuries rediscovering things that other people already know. A waste of effort, isn’t it? It would be more efficient to ask somebody who knows about the thing already.

More efficient it may be, indeed – which is why I don’t do it right now – but more fun it is not. I’m certain that Isaac Newton had way more fun inventing calculus than I had learning about it in school, and that isn’t just because our modern school system is a train-wreck. The joy of discovering something for myself is substantially greater than that of hearing the solution from somewhere else before I’ve even tried my hand at the problem. (I do prefer that the solution be printed somewhere, especially if the experiments to confirm my solution are difficult to create. It would be nice to hear somebody else’s solution to the AI-box problem, for example.)

Not only is the joy of the knowledge-acquisition inherently less, but the quality of the knowledge itself is also lower. When you discover something for yourself, you don’t have the problem of storing as “knowledge” what is actually just a referentless pointer (ie. a physicist tells you that “light is waves”, and you store the phrase “light is waves”, but you don’t have the background knowledge to really know what it means, and you couldn’t regenerate the “knowledge” if it were deleted from your brain). You also won’t have the potential pitfall of taking the solution for granted. People often don’t properly contextualize beliefs that they themselves didn’t generate: it feels to them like things which are now understood by Science, like rocks and stars and brains, have always been that way, instead of having been a mystery to the human species for the many millennia until they suddenly weren’t anymore.

There is a more abstract objection to the idea of reinventing old discoveries, coming from a less efficiency-focused mental place. The idea seems to be that, if somebody already knows, the problem is for some reason no longer interesting. It’s the position taken by everyone who is enraptured by the breaking new scientific controversies, but is not the slightest bit interested in the proved-correct equations of General Relativity.

But in my book, it doesn’t much matter what somebody knows, if I don’t. When I was young, I wanted to know how my body worked. Why did my hands move when I willed them to, but a glass of water wouldn’t slide across the table to me with a similar mental effort? Why did eating a whole bunch of candy make me feel ill, but eating a whole bunch of salad didn’t? I didn’t know, and I wanted to know; if you had told young-me that somebody knew, I would have replied “okay, can they tell me, please?”.

So far as I was, and am, concerned, if somebody else happens to know the answer to a question, that doesn’t cheapen the discovery for me. In fact, it wouldn’t make any sense for me to have a term in my utility function for being the first person in the universe to make a discovery, because for all I know, super-advanced aliens on the other side of the galaxy have already discovered everything I could possibly want to learn. If my choices are between never taking joy in a discovery, because somewhere else, someone else might already know the answer, and having fun, I’ll pick the fun.

It might be impossible for me to do anything about this until I (or somebody else) create a feasible solution to the imminent mortality problem, but once it happens, you can bet you’ll find me in a remote field, trying to find the optimal way to rub two sticks together.

Thoughts from the Pandemic

I’m not benefiting anyone – especially myself – by pretending I’m okay. The truth is, I’m not.

It isn’t for the reasons you might think. By prudent accident, I left San Francisco just before the pandemic began, and I was able to fly back to Pittsburgh with no trouble. I’m able to socially isolate, I don’t need to pay rent, I don’t need to work, and neither does my partner. We’re staying with my family, none of who are front-line workers. They are also in no financial trouble, because my mom is still employed and getting plenty of work.

None of us are at high risk of complications from the virus, either, if we did manage to get it. Nobody in my house is outside the age range of least risk, nobody is immunocompromised or has any history of lung problems. The likelihood of anyone in my family, including me, dying if they got this virus is around one percent: around the same as any of us dying in a car crash. Definitely within the realm of acceptable risks that we take every day.

So I don’t have to worry about my health or safety, and neither does anyone I know very well, for the foreseeable future. Then what’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be productive? It’s not as though I was planning to do anything with the next year besides sit at home and work on accomplishing my personal goals. Being forced to stay home shouldn’t be a hindrance. Why can’t I focus?

I’ve asked myself that question a hundred times, and come up with a hundred answers. Without a professor or boss or client to force me to do it, I’m having a trouble working on my own goals on my own time. I’m having trouble focusing on my work because I benefit from working in a different environment from the one I recreate in, and isolating at home makes it hard to separate the two. I’m used to having a schedule which is exactly the same every day, and now that nobody’s forcing me into doing that, I’m falling into a less healthy, less consistent rhythm.

But none of the solutions I tried, responding to those problems, worked. Because none of those were the real problem.

Oftentimes over the past few months, I’ve been watching a lecture in one of my online classes – that was why I came back here in the first place, so I wouldn’t have to pay SF rent while trying to learn a whole bunch of new skills – and it’s been genuinely interesting. But then, without being able to help it, I’ll think about the rest of the world. And I’ll imagine, because I know they exist – though I’ve listened to as little of the news as possible – the patients who need eight transfusions in a day, not because of any internal or external bleeding, but because the coronavirus is eating their blood faster than their bone marrow can produce it. And I’ll imagine the patients who are breathing their last labored breaths, alone, in tremendous pain, with no friends or family around, no one to hold their hand, because the nurses and doctors must enforce social distancing procedures. And I won’t be able to force myself to focus on my lecture, because how the hell could I, when that’s happening to millions of people around the world?

It doesn’t matter that I don’t know anyone in this situation. Somebody does. Somebody’s loved ones are living like this, dying like this, and there is nothing I can do about it. If I were in a position of power right now, of the sort I hope to attain at some point in the future, I would be providing masks for doctors, buying ventilators for hospitals, paying peoples’ medical bills… or at the very least, not making the horrible decisions that so many people in state and federal offices, and at the heads of major corporations, are making right now.

But I can’t do any of that. And so I sit with my head in my hands, and I sob.

Obviously, that isn’t useful. I can’t get any work done that way. And so, instead, for the past two months, I’ve been shutting down my empathy as hard as I possibly can. But there’s a problem with doing that too. I decided a long time ago I was going to do a very hard thing with my life, and I decided to do it because I care about people. But caring requires empathy, and in absence of that… there’s no longer any reason to do the hard thing. In fact, there’s no reason to do anything; it’s not like I have anything else worthwhile to do with my time. I might as well just not get out of bed.

I’ve been accustomed to having an endless well of motivation, somewhere in me, that I could call upon. If I had trouble forcing myself to do something difficult, I would simply think about how I wanted to stop people from dying, and that would fix it. That’s gone now, and I don’t know how to get it back.

It’s gone because I can’t think about death at all right now without thinking about how it’s happening. That train of thought used to be a motivator, not a paralytic, because my mental image of “death” in general, while bad, was not so horrible as to cause fits of grief-stricken sobbing. But the majority of people who die, don’t die the way people are right now.

It’s not even mostly about the way the coronavirus itself destroys people from the inside out. It’s the fact that everyone who is dying right now, regardless of how, is dying alone. My grandmother died a month ago, of Alzheimer’s, and my grandfather (who had been visiting her every single day for the years she’d been hospitalized) wasn’t even able to be there, on his wife’s final day, to say goodbye. We still haven’t had the funeral. It would be a social gathering.

I can’t think about any of this, but I can’t not think about it. It’s a catch-22, a self-perpetuating system that I haven’t found any way to get out of.

I’ve tried a lot of things, attempting to motivate myself to keep working on my goals without opening the floodgates of my empathy too wide and drowning. I’ve been re-watching the shows that inspired me, re-reading the books that crystallized my heretofore-unwavering faith in humanity, re-listening to the songs that have always brought happy tears to my eyes. But it doesn’t work. Because what I’m feeling can’t be fixed by avoiding it.

People, in general, grieve a lot of different things. Ordinarily we think of grief as coming from losing someone you love; but people can also grieve relationships, connections, places, theoretical futures, ideas. Perhaps it should have been obvious, the patterns of thought, but I didn’t realize until yesterday that I was grieving. Probably because most people don’t grieve on behalf of the entire human race.

Still, it shouldn’t have surprised me that I would. My circle of concern has always contained every sentient being in the universe. And of course I understand, as everyone in every society does, that when a member of a person’s circle of concern dies, that person will grieve, somehow. It’s just unusual, I suppose, for a person to really be so invested in the entire world to grieve over a global pandemic that none of their loved ones have been personally affected by.

As a result, I’m working on letting myself feel whatever I feel, and not bottling it up trying to be productive at the expense of my own mental health. The advice I’ve heard on how to deal with grief in general is helpful, even in a situation it’s not ordinarily applied to. I’m hoping that with the knowledge of what’s actually going on in my skull, I can gradually return to my normal life.

I’ve stopped pretending, to myself and everyone else, that I’m okay. I hope that by telling the truth, I can move past it.

Why I Want to be Immortal

I keep a regular personal journal. This was my diary entry from Valentine’s day this year – slightly modified.

People ask me why I want to be immortal, like I must have had a traumatic childhood or something.

Today was Valentines’ Day. I decided I was going to cash in a favor to take my partner to a nicer dinner than we could otherwise afford. I read and wrote and got work done for the better part of the day, then when my partner finished work, we took some chocolate to my grandmother, dropped by home so we could get changed into some nice clothes, then went out.

We talked on the way there about taking joy in the merely real, the reasons that people fail to do this, and my partner’s views about science. We talked as we waited to be seated about the ideal setup for a restaurant waiting area. We talked as we ate about the public school system, about having children, about optimizing the world, about the design for my office in our future home, once we had our own. We talked as we drove home about assigning meaning to days, but for the most part we were too contented by our meals to talk about much of anything, so we just held hands and got lost in our minds.

After we got home, we cuddled, fell asleep, and woke up again just past midnight. Neither of us were very tired anymore, so we headed up to the loft my parents had recently added to our overly-tall living room to cuddle around my new kotatsu. My love brought sodas for the both of us. When I climbed the ladder, I saw that there was already a little arrangement there, with a pink rose in a pink vase with a heart charm tied by a white ribbon around its neck, a stuffed unicorn, and a box of chocolates. We shared chocolate and sat together, hand in hand.

As I sat in the loft which was the product of my parents’ desires to make this house really ours; as I sat at the kotatsu my mother had let me spend in excess of four hundred dollars on just because we’re both Japan fanatics who wanted a little Japanese heated table; as I held my plush unicorn that my beautiful girlfriend had bought for me as a surprise present; I told this to the love of my life.

“You know, people ask me why I want to be immortal. Maybe, wanting this makes me greedy. Like eighty-odd years isn’t enough for me. But whenever my life strikes a particularly beautiful chord, whenever something happens that makes me happy, eighty years to live seems too short. I want to have more of these moments, and I want everyone else to have more of these moments, and I think it’s incredibly sad that we only get a certain number.”

And she told me, that’s not greedy. Really, it’s the opposite. It would be greed if I wanted to have that at the expense of other people. Instead, I wanted to work hard at this and make it happen, not just for me, but for everyone.

I think people like to paint me as a Gilgamesh, once faced with death and running away ever since. But I at least hope that there’s some difference between running away from death and running toward life.

Thoughts from Planet Earth

Sometimes I look at the sky and I think, how high can I jump? Like, half a foot or so? What about, how high can I get in an airplane? The delta of up to 84,000 times is the kind of delta that human ingenuity gives us. And it’s not even the limit: how high could I get in a rocket ship?

But even despite that massive increase, the stars that I’m looking at are so much further away. If Earth was a word, the distance to the nearest star is ten times every word you’ll ever say in your life. And yet, we humans went from the half a foot we can jump to the upper stratosphere, where the tallest mountains are vague outlines of purple and white.

It took a lot of work. Not with our muscles, which can only get us about five feet up if we train relentlessly for years, but with our brains. Thousands of ordinary human brains, no smarter or greater than you or I, made the airplanes and the rocket ships. In fact, human brains did a whole lot more than that. They created the entire modern world.

I wake up in the morning to an alarm app that comes installed on my smartphone, which gets its data from a clock that runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of quantum physics and syncs with all the other phones via a network that runs on humanity’s collective knowledge of binary logic. I get dressed in clothes that came directly from somebody I’ve never met who donated them to a Goodwill on the opposite side of a continent from my current residence, and that person got them from a store which got them from a country I’ve never been to. I take a train to work which moves through a huge tunnel under the ocean at upwards of ten times the speed I can run. Humans made all of this! Some of it is pretty suboptimal—the fact that I have to get up at 6am certainly comes to mind—but you can’t deny that it’s incredibly cool.

If thousands of ordinary human minds were able to make all these things, I think that with a few thousand more, we’ll be able to make it all the way to those stars and to the planets that might orbit them.

What might we find there, on those distant worlds? Maybe nothing more than we minimally expect. Some interesting places, both habitable and hostile, to which we can add the beauty that comes with perception by intelligent life. And this isn’t a loss! Improving the diversity and span of human experience across the galaxy is one of the best futures I can imagine for us.

But maybe, just maybe, we might find someone else out there. Not humans in funny suits, like in sci-fi movies, but things which are more different from us than we are from petunias—because we and petunias both evolved on Earth, though our evolutionary branches separated aeons ago. Sentient things made of complex configurations of silicon, crystal, liquid, metal, or things even stranger. Sentient things which are further from humans than anything we know, but that we can still call people, because though they may not have human thoughts, emotions, or biases, they have goals and they don’t want to die and this is all we really need.

Think how similar we are to each other, compared to the others we might find out there. All humans look the same—bipedal ape-like things made of flesh and built from DNA. We think the same—simple animals which evolved higher thought, planning, and consciousness by a constant competition with one another which produced predictable patterns and errors in reasoning. We act the same—pack animals inclined to organize into social groups and gatherings who are practically mandated by our development process to use syntactic combinatorial language along with specific nonverbal gestures and facial expressions to communicate. We feel the same—emotional creatures motivated primarily by fear and secondarily by joy, sadness, anger, and love. We’re as alike as peas from the same pod.

And maybe this is the part of my mind that grew up on Star Trek talking, but it doesn’t make any sense, if we could find and cooperate with these others—and I think we would, judging from how badly we want to not be alone in the universe—that we would still have such silly things as the various -isms and -phobias which are manifestations of inter-human hate and insecurity. How could we hate a fellow language-using, emotion-feeling, hairless ape built by DNA, when we could get along with electrically-charged systems of fractal crystals and gaseous blobs of pulsating color?

If our distant ancestors could gradually build our modern world and our distant descendants could get along with these impossibly different aliens, how could it make sense for me—operating in a flawed modern world but made of the same stuff that made up the humans before me and will make up those after—to hate another human?

These are the things I think of, looking up into the sky at night.

Places, Past and Future

We met in Baltimore
when the hot lights of the dance floor drove us out to the gardens
before the pouring of the rain drove us back in.

We got engaged in Pittsburgh
under the warm yellow glow of artificial lamplight
and I handed him the ring I’d bought with less ceremony than I’d like
though he seemed to love it anyway.

We’ll get married in San Francisco
surrounded by the warm California sun
by new and old friends
and by possibilities for our future spent together forever.

We’ll grow old among the stars
with the distant descendants of humanity at our side
accomplishing feats and forging friendships we can’t even dream of today.

And we’ll die
if in fact we must die
after impossible problems have been solved
after incomprehensible battles have been fought
after amazing spoils have been wrought:
we’ll die knowing that whatever else has come to pass
humanity has won.

Why Rationality?

I’ve identified as a rationalist for about five years now. The dictionary definitions are a bit off from what I mean, so here’s my definition.

Epistemic rationality: believing, and updating on evidence, so as to systematically improve the correspondence between your map and the territory.  The art of obtaining beliefs that correspond to reality as closely as possible.  This correspondence is commonly termed “truth” or “accuracy”, and we’re happy to call it that.

Instrumental rationality: achieving your values.  Not necessarily “your values” in the sense of being selfish values or unshared values: “your values” means anything you care about.  The art of choosing actions that steer the future toward outcomes ranked higher in your preferences.  On LW we sometimes refer to this as “winning”.

Eliezer Yudkowsky, “What Do We Mean By ‘Rationality’?”, LessWrong

Of course, these two definitions are really subsets of the same general concept, and they intertwine considerably. It’s somewhat difficult to achieve your values without believing true things, and similarly, it’s difficult (for a human, at least) to search for truth in absence of wanting to actually do anything with it. Still, it’s useful to distinguish the two subsets, since it helps to distinguish the clusters in concept-space.

So if that’s what I mean by rationality, then why am I a rationalist? Because I like believing true things and achieving my values. The better question here would be “why is everyone not a rationalist?”, and the answer is that, if it was both easy to do and widely known about, I think everyone would be.

Answering why it isn’t well-known is more complicated than answering why it isn’t easy, so, here are a handful of the reasons for the latter. (Written in the first person, because identifying as a rationalist doesn’t make me magically exempt from any of these things, it just means I know what they are and I do my best to fix them.)

  • I’m running on corrupted hardware. Looking at any list of cognitive biases will confirm this. And since I’m not a self-improving agent—I can’t reach into my brain and rearrange my neurons; I can’t rewrite my source code—I can only really make surface-level fixes to these extremely fundamental bugs. This is both difficult and frustrating, and to some extent scary, because it’s incredibly easy to break things irreparably if you go messing around without knowing what you’re doing, and you would be the thing you’re breaking.
  • I’m running on severely limited computing power. “One of the single greatest puzzles about the human brain,” Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote, “is how the damn thing works at all when most neurons fire 10-20 times per second, or 200Hz tops. […] Can you imagine having to program using 100Hz CPUs, no matter how many of them you had?  You’d also need a hundred billion processors just to get anything done in realtime. If you did need to write realtime programs for a hundred billion 100Hz processors, one trick you’d use as heavily as possible is caching. That’s when you store the results of previous operations and look them up next time, instead of recomputing them from scratch. […] It’s a good guess that the actual majority of human cognition consists of cache lookups.” Since most of my thoughts are cached, when I get new information, I need to resist my brain’s tendency to rely on those cached thoughts (which can end up in my head by accident and come from anywhere), and actually recompute my beliefs from scratch. Else, I end up with a lot of junk.
  • I can’t see the consequences of the things I believe. Now, on some level being able to do this (with infinite computing power) would be a superpower: in that circumstance all you’d need is a solid grasp of quantum physics and the rest would just follow from there. But humans don’t just lack the computing power; we can believe, or at least feel like we believe, two inherently contradictory things. This concept is, in psychology, called “cognitive dissonance”.
  • As a smart human starting from irrationality, knowing more information can easily hurt me. Smart humans naturally become very good at clever arguing—arguing for a predetermined position with propositions convoluted enough to confuse and confound any human arguer, even one who is right—and can thus use their intelligence to defeat itself with great efficiency. They argue against the truth convincingly, and can still feel like they’re winning while running away from the goal at top speed. Therefore, in any argument, I have to dissect my own position just as carefully, if not more carefully, than I dissect those of my opponents. Otherwise, I come away more secure in my potentially-faulty beliefs, and more able to argue those beliefs against the truth.

This is a short and incomplete list, of some of the problems that are easiest to explain. It’s by no means the entire list, or the list which would lend the most emotional weight to the statement “it’s incredibly difficult to believe true things”. But I do hope that it shed at least a little light on the problem.

If rationality is really so difficult, then, why bother?

In my case, I say “because my goal is important enough to be worth the hassle”. In general, I think that if you have a goal that’s worth spending thirty years on, that goal is also worth trying to be as rational as humanly possible about. However, I’d go a step further. Even if the goal is worth spending a few years or even months on, it’s still worth being rational about, because not being rational about it won’t just waste those years or months; it may waste your whole career.

Why? Because the universe rarely arrives at your doorstep to speak in grave tones, “this is an Important Decision, make it Wisely”. Instead, small decisions build to larger ones, and if those small decisions are made irrationally, you may never get the chance to make a big mistake; the small ones may have already sealed your doom. Here’s a personal example.

From a very young age, I wanted to go to Stanford. I learned that my parents had met there when I was about six, and I decided that I was going to go too. Like most decisions made by six-year-olds, this wasn’t based on any meaningful intelligence, let alone the full cost-benefit analysis that such a major life decision should have required. But I was young, and I let myself believe the very convenient thought that following the standard path would work for me. This was not, itself, the problem. The problem was that I kept on thinking this simplified six-year-old thought well into my young adulthood.

As I grew up, I piled all sorts of convincing arguments around that immature thought, rationalizing reasons I didn’t actually have to do anything difficult and change my beliefs. I would make all sorts of great connections with smart interesting people at Stanford, I thought, as if I couldn’t do the same in the workforce. I would get a prestigious degree that would open up many doors, I thought, as if working for Google isn’t just as prestigious but will pay you for the trouble. It will be worth the investment, the cached thoughts of society thought for me, and I didn’t question them.

I continued to fail at questioning them every year after, until the beginning of my senior year. At that point, I was pretty sick of school, so this wasn’t rationality, but a motivated search. But it was a search nonetheless, and I did reject the cached thoughts which I’d built up in my head for so long, and as I took the first step outside my bubble of predetermined cognition, I instantly saw a good number of arguments against attending Stanford. I realized that it had a huge opportunity cost, in both time and money. Four years and hundreds of thousands of dollars should not have been parted with that lightly.

And yet, even after I realized this, I was not done. It would have been incredibly easy to reject the conclusion I’d made because I didn’t want all that work to have been a waste. I was so close: I had a high SAT, I’d gotten good scores on 6 AP tests, including the only two computer science APs (the area I’d been intending to major in), and I’d gotten National Merit Commended Scholar status. All that would have been left was to complete my application, which I’m moderately confident I would have done well on, since I’m a good writer.

That bitterness could have cost me my life. Not in the sense that I would die for it immediately, but in the sense that everyone is dying for anything they spend significant time on, because everyone is dying. And it was here that rationality was my saving grace. I knew about the sunk cost fallacy. I knew that at this point I should scream “OOPS” and give up. I knew that at this point I should lose.

I bit my tongue, and lost.

I don’t know where I would end up if I hadn’t been able to lose here. The optimistic estimate is that I would have wasted four years, but gotten some form of financial aid or scholarship such that the financial cost was lower, and further, that in the process of attending college, I wouldn’t gain any more bad habits, I wouldn’t go stir-crazy from the practical inapplicability of the material (this was most of what had frustrated me about school before), and I would come out the other end with a degree but not too much debt and a non-zero number of gained skills and connections. That’s a very optimistic estimate, though, as you can probably tell given the way I wrote out the details. (Writing out all the details that make the optimistic scenario implausible is one of my favorite ways of combatting the planning fallacy.) There are a lot more pessimistic estimates, and it’s much more likely that one of those would happen.

Just by looking at the decision itself, you wouldn’t think of it as a particularly major one. Go to college, don’t go to college. How bad could it be, you may be tempted to ask. And my answer is, very bad. The universe is not fair. It’s not necessarily going to create a big cause for a big event: World War I was caused by some dude having a pity sandwich. Just because you feel like you’re making a minor life choice doesn’t mean you are, and just because you feel like you should be allowed to make an irrational choice just this once doesn’t mean the universe isn’t allowed to kill you anyway.

I don’t mean to make this excessively dramatic. It’s possible that being irrational here wouldn’t have messed me up. I don’t know, I didn’t live that outcome. But I highly doubt that this was the only opportunity I’ll get to be stupid. Actually, given my goals, I think it’s likely I’ll get a lot more, and that the next ones will have much higher stakes. In the near future, I can see people—possibly including me—making decisions where being stupid sounds like “oops” followed by the dull thuds of seven billion bodies hitting the floor.

This is genuinely the direction the future is headed. We are becoming more and more able to craft our destines, but we are flawed architects, and we must double and triple check our work, else the whole world collapses around us like a house on a poor foundation. If that scares you, irrationality should scare you. It sure terrifies the fuck out of me.

Book Review: The Humans

Matt Haig’s “The Humans” gains the dubious title of “most frustrating book I’ve ever read all the way through”.

Before reading this review, please read the book yourself and come up with your own ideas about it. I very much don’t want this review to spoil it for you, and I’m about to lay out and thoroughly dissect the plot. Despite the fact that some of its meta-elements frustrate me in particular, the book is immensely well-written and beautiful, and I don’t want to diminish anyone’s enjoyment of it before they’ve even gotten the chance to read the original.

That being said…

I’ve found a number of books frustrating. The overwhelming majority, I didn’t bother to finish. Some of these books were badly-written, some espoused ideologies I strongly disagree with, some were internally inconsistent. I won’t name the specific books on this so-frustrating-I-didn’t-finish-them list, because you’ll probably think I’m making a value judgement against those books, or that I want to make you feel bad if you enjoy them. I’m not, and I don’t: my frustration with these books is an attribute of me, not of the books. Likewise, my frustration with “The Humans”.

Here’s a quick plot synopsis – as a refresher for the bits I’ll be talking about; if you haven’t read the book, read it.

There is a highly advanced alien species who finds out that a particular human has found out a thing they don’t want him to find out. As such, they kill him and send one of their own to impersonate him, to delete the evidence, including that which happens to be represented within human brains. The aliens are not concerned with the fact that humans tend to call this “murder”. The one they send has a difficult time adjusting to life as a human for a number of reasons, but gets out of some tough scrapes using magi- I mean alien technology. In the process, he gets attached to the family of the man he’s impersonating, who he was sent to kill, and also somewhat to humanity in general. He has an existential crisis over it all, and ends up relinquishing his life in his hyper-advanced home civilization to spend the rest of his life as a human mortal.

Here are my two specific points of frustration with that.

#1: The author is so focused on the main character’s journey to the end state which he understands (poetic sympathy with the modern human condition) that he doesn’t adequately demonstrate the beginning state, and the whole journey is cheapened as a result. Essentially, he writes a story from the perspective of someone who comes from an entire society whose entire purpose in existence is math, and yet there isn’t much actual math in it. Not even for the purpose of making decisions. I know from experience that when you really care about the math, you sort of become the math. It isn’t just a tool you use, it takes over your thoughts. Part of the beauty of stories like HPMOR is that they’re really, honestly about science – you couldn’t remove the science without removing the story.

There is a fundamental disconnect when you try to write a book from the perspective of someone in love with math, without yourself actually being in love with math. Really being in love with math doesn’t look like having a favorite prime number. It doesn’t even look like recognizing the importance of math to the structure of the universe, though this is in fact a piece of insight more people could do to have. Really being in love with math looks like having the thoroughly amazing realization that the question “what should I believe?” has an empirically proven correct answer. It looks like finding beauty in a proof like an artist finds beauty in a flower. It looks like loving the universe more because of its mathematical roots; finding more joy, not less, in a rainbow once it has been explained.

In short, I’d like to see this book’s premise rewritten by a mathematician.

#2: The ending of this book generally makes the transhumanist in me want to scream.

I don’t think it’s terribly hard to see why death is a bad thing. A decent portion of humans have already decided on it. It would be even easier to decide that death is bad if you came from a society which didn’t have any such thing: the only reason that many humans think it’s okay is rationalization, anyway. You could make people rationalize reasons why getting hit on the head with a truncheon every week was actually a good thing, if they thought it was inevitable. (It makes your head stronger! And makes you happier on the days you’re not getting hit on the head! No, really!) But if I asked you, dear reader, who are presumably not subject to such a weekly annoyance, if you’d like to start, for all the amazing benefits, I think you’d say no.

And yet this alien, who comes from a society which has no such thing as death, and furthermore no such thing as permanent physical injury, accepts mortality in exchange for becoming one of The Humans.

I mean, I get it, humans are cool. That’s the whole “humanist” bit. I love humans too. I think we’re capable of greatness. But exchanging immortality for us? Without so much as putting up a fight?

I think I’d at least try to apply my superior intelligence to figure out exactly how the relevant bits of alien technology worked, and find out how to apply them in humans. Yet he fails to take a trip down that line of discovery. Further, the alien is small-scale altruistic without ever considering the concept of large-scale altruism. He spends a lot of time agonizing over the fact that he can’t help the humans since they’d realize he wasn’t one of them, and yet he spends a non-negligible portion of the book helping the family of the man he’s impersonating. I think if I had a magic left hand that I didn’t want anyone to know about, I would still go around using it to cure people. Just, when I got asked how it worked, I’d say “Science!” – it’s a curiosity-stopper for a lot of people. On the whole, if I was really intent on abandoning my home planet for Earth, I would at least try to steal as much useful stuff as possible before I left, and use it to the best of my ability.

So why didn’t the alien do this? Simply, because he was written by a human who had not thought of it. The writer must encompass his characters, and so no character can go beyond the knowledge of the writer. If you consider what an immortal alien would do, that doesn’t let you magically climb outside your own brain to generalize from knowledge that isn’t yours. If you accept death as the natural order, who says that an immortal alien wouldn’t accept it too?

I do. It doesn’t make any sense. I wouldn’t do that, and I grew up with death. Within the past year, two of my relatives have died, along with hundreds of thousands of strangers, and I find that completely unacceptable. I have reason to believe that an immortal alien would probably think a bit more like me than like Matt Haig – assuming the alien were capable of thinking like a human at all.

So, I suppose, this book is frustrating because it accepts what, to me, is unacceptable, without putting up a fight at all. It’s one long exercise in the Mind Projection Fallacy, and a demonstration of the fact that to write true science fiction you need to actually know science. I read it all the way through anyways because it’s beautifully written and incredibly interesting.