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.

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.