I’ve had the poor fortune of being surrounded by a fair bit of death recently.
The first was that of my great-grandmother, a truly and thoroughly decent human being who had suffered the ravages of Alzheimers for nearly the past decade. As seems to often be true in these cases, she was a completely different person by the time the end came. I was very sad to hear of her passing, but we had all known the day was coming, and given the advanced state of her condition, I took some small relief knowing that her pain was over.
Another was that of Alexander Boutilier, or ‘Lex’ as he was usually known. Lex’s death came like a bolt out of the blue, and affected me deeply for reasons I couldn’t say. He was just so….alive, right up until I found out that he wasn’t. We weren’t particularly close, but he was a ferociously intelligent, exceptionally generous man who somehow seemed to have read every book ever written. Being a nerd was something he was proud of, and he had a penchant for spirited and far-ranging discussions.
Needless to say, we immediately liked each other.
In the wake of these tragedies, I did something I’ve been meaning to do for some time: I donated a non-trivial amount of money to a number of charities whose purpose is to put a stop to this ridiculous, needless suffering. The charities, in order of increasing abstractness, were the Alzheimer’s Disease Research Foundation, the Brain Preservation Foundation, the SENS Research Foundation, and the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
Now, I’m not disclosing all of this for sympathy or to brag, and I know plenty of people would dispute my choice of donations. But what I want to encourage everyone to do is to bloody well take action when you see a part of the world you don’t like. I’m not in a position to stop Alzheimers or to expand the healthy human lifespan; but there are smart people out there who might be able to, and I’ll happily pay them to do it.
Additionally, I am publicly coming out as an anti-deathist. The fact that sentient beings are extinguished, forever and against their will, is a hideous blight on the world. Some day, I think, advanced civilizations will look back with inexpressible sadness that it took us so long to turn the gears and levers of our minds towards the problem of Death. So many little lights, gone, for no other reason then that we didn’t work quickly enough.
How inexcusably wasteful.
There are a few standard responses to this line of thinking:
1) Death is a natural part of life, and has been from the beginning.
Yes, well, being hunted by large carnivores and having your children die during birth were pretty commonplace for most of history, but at least in this part of the world that rarely happens anymore. A few generations ago everyone lived in fear of getting polio, and to be perfectly honest, I’m not even sure what polio is.
There’s no use pretending that there isn’t a lengthy precedent for doing away with sickness and discomfort, and I see no reason why it should be any different for Death.
2) Death gives meaning to life.
No, life gives meaning to life. Passion, novelty, sadness, the gritty texture of day-to-day living, the inevitable ebb and flow of a thousands shards of experience, these are the things of which meaning is made.
3) You’d get bored with immortality.
Maybe, but ending my life is a decision I should be able to make while I’m watching the sun burn down, or watching the Andromeda Galaxy collide with our own, when I’m as old as a planet, preferably with my family and a billion friends with me.
4) Death is far too inexplicable to ever be solved.
Everything was a mystery right up until the point that someone figured it out. Stars, the beating of the human heart, the origins of the continents… long is the list of things people once thought would never be understood which are now routinely taught to high school students.
Death is an engineering problem, and it should be approached as such.
Every material advance ever made, starting with fire and going right up to smart phones, has contributed to rising population levels. Unless you’re prepared to roll up your sleeves and start dismantling civilization, then I don’t see how your argument holds water.
I’ll miss my great-grandmother’s indefatigable spirits and simple, earthy charm; I’ll miss Lex’s sharp wit and boundless enthusiasm. The pain is made all the more acute by the knowledge that it didn’t have to end this way.
To paraphrase the oft-quoted and immortal Dylan Thomas poem, I do not intend to go gently into that good night.
May there some day be things besides words that live forever.