What I Would Do with Immortality

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 lover 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 my lover 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.

The Advice I Needed to Hear

Moving to and living in San Francisco is probably the second most difficult, if not the most difficult, thing I have ever done. Not particularly because either of those things are inherently difficult, but because I came with a purpose which I knew from the beginning would be difficult to fulfill.

I was busy every minute of every day. I was either commuting to/from work or at the office between the hours of 6am and 6pm. While not at work, I was working on getting better at my job. While not doing that, I was working out finances in order to find a place to stay that would be within my budget as a sparsely-paid intern. And while not doing that, I was socializing within carefully chosen networks to maximize my connection potential.

None of this is a complaint. I was also living in the single most beautiful city I’ve ever been to, walking to work every day in the refreshing morning air, working at a job with some of the most friendly, relaxed people I’ve ever worked with (although it was true that for the first while I had a rough relationship with my boss), and hanging out with the smartest, most interesting people I’ve ever met. But I am definitely saying that it was hard, because it was.

The biggest problem I had was that it was very difficult to find time to think. Up until I moved here, I kept a daily journal in which I noted interesting happenstances, cracked jokes with myself, and kept a general record of my life. Since I wrote my day’s entry on the plane ride here, I haven’t been able to write nearly anything. One undated entry reads, simply, “I don’t have time to do anything.”

As a result, a lot of problems and thoughts just kinda… sat there in my head. They were too personal to bring up in any conversation, so I didn’t talk about them. Typically, I would work these out on my own, or sit down with someone in my family to discuss them, but my family was three hours away in the most inconvenient direction, and I had no time to spend with myself either.

Recently, I’ve had more time to think, and I’ve realized what advice I needed to hear. I wish I could go back to tell this to my past self, but I’ve told it to my current self, which is the second best thing.

Because some of these things might be generalizable to other people who react similarly to stress (probably other people who are trying to change the world in some major way), I’m noting the list here.

  • You’ve become a better person than you give yourself credit for.
  • Being inexperienced does not make you weak, immature, or unworthy.
  • You’re always moving to bigger and bigger ponds, so you’re always the littlest fish. That doesn’t mean you’re not growing.
  • Don’t discount your talents just because they’re your talents. Your life would not be automatically better if you had someone else’s.
  • Having some of the same flaws you had in the past does not mean you haven’t improved. Being the same person is not a failure.
  • Falling short of your ideal does not mean you’ve failed. Not trying to achieve the ideal at all does.
  • The desire to be seen as attractive and to feel loved is universal and not shameful.
  • You cannot possibly be qualified for every job. You cannot possibly please every person. This is not a reasonable definition of success.
  • People other than you genuinely believe in you.

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.

I Want To Cure Mortality.

Do you want to live forever?

No? Okay, let me phrase it another way. Do you want to live tomorrow?

Most people answer yes to this second question, even if they said no to the first. (If you didn’t say yes to the second, that’s typically called suicidal ideation, and there are hotlines for that.)

This doesn’t quite make sense to me. If I came to you tomorrow, and I asked the same question, “Do you want to live tomorrow?”, you’d probably still say yes; likewise with the day after that, and the day after that, and the day after that. Under normal circumstances, you’ll probably keep saying yes to that question forever. So why don’t you want to live forever?

Maybe, you think that the question “do you want to live forever” implies “do you want to be completely incapable of dying, and also, do you want to be the only immortal person around”. Not being able to die, ever, could be kind of sucky, especially if you continued to age. (There was a Greek myth about that.) Further, being the only person among those you care about who can’t die would also suck, since you’d witness the inevitable end of every meaningful relationship you had.

But these sorts of arbitrary constraints are the realm of fiction. First, if a scientist invented immortality, there would be no justifiable reason that it wouldn’t be as available to those you care about as it would be to you. Second, it’s a heck of a lot easier to just stop people from aging than it is to altogether make a human completely impervious to anything which might be lethal. When I say “yes” to “do you want to live forever”, it’s induction on the positive integers, not a specific vision whose desire spans infinity.

Even after I’ve made sure we’re on the same page as to what exactly real immortality might look like, some people still aren’t convinced it would be a good idea. A decent amount of the arguments are some variant on “death gives meaning to life”.

To this, I’ll borrow Eliezer Yudkowsky’s allegory: if everybody got hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, soon enough people would start coming up with all sorts of benefits associated with it, like, it makes your head stronger, or it makes you appreciate the days you’re not getting hit with a truncheon. But if I took a given person who was not being hit on the head with a truncheon every week, and asked them if they’d like to start, for all these amazing benefits, I think they’d say no. Wouldn’t you?

People make a virtue of necessity. They’d accept getting hit on the head with a truncheon once a week, just as they now accept the gradual process of becoming more and more unable to do things they enjoy, being in pain more often than not, and eventually ceasing to exist entirely. That doesn’t make it a good thing, it just demonstrates peoples’ capacity for cognitive dissonance.

These are the reasons I’ve made it my goal to cure mortality. The motivation is extremely similar to anyone’s motivation to cure any deadly disease. Senescence is a terminal illness, which I would like to cure.

It disrupts the natural order, but so does curing any other disease. Cholera was the natural order for thousands of years, but we’ve since decided it’s bad, and nowadays nobody is considering the idea of mixing sewage with drinking water to bring it back. There were tons of diseases that were part of the natural order right up until we eradicated them. We don’t seem to have any trouble, as a society, deciding that cancer is bad. But death itself—the very thing we’re trying to prevent by curing all these diseases—is somehow not okay to attack directly.

Here’s the bottom line. I know for a fact I’m not the only one with this goal. Some of the people at MIRI come to mind, as well as João Pedro de Magalhães. I’d personally love to contribute to any of these causes. If you know someone, or are someone, who’s working towards this goal, I’d love to join you.