Aug 032012

A common pro-death argument is that without the older generations dying off, humanity was stagnate and social progress will end. This is often supported with Planck’s quote that “An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out, and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning.”

My first response is that killing off an entire generation is the worst possible way to solve these problems. I then point out that their claims are false, scientists often change their minds when presented with compelling evidence, and people can train themselves to update their beliefs.

Robin Hanson recently pointed out a more realistic pitfall of an unbounded lifespan – it is far less practical to re-engineer a system that’s been specialized for one environment to fit into a different environment than to just take a simple non-specialized system and specialize it to the new environment.

In general, the more different is the new environment from the old, the better it is to start over. Old  systems tend to be rigid, which makes them fragile, in that they break if you bend them too far.

This suggests that designed systems tend to get irreversibly fragile as they adapt to specific environments. When context changes greatly, it is usually easier to build new systems from “scratch,” than to un-adapt systems designed for other contexts.

[…] our minds seem designed to adapt to the environment in which we grow up, via youthful plasticity transitioning to elderly rigidity. For example, we are great at learning languages when young, and terrible when old. We are similarly receptive when young to new ways to categorize and conceive of things, but once we have often used particular ways, we find it harder to understand and use alternatives.

I don’t think this is an insurmountable problem. In the biological state it is likely we will develop a drug akin to those described in Bruce Sterling’s “Schismatrix” that reverts the mind to a more adolescent state and makes the brain more malleable. In an emulated state it can’t be too difficult to modify our programming to enable similar effects.

What I’m more concerned about is the problem of self-identity. I feel many of my rationalist brethern are too concerned with value-drift. I fear they may refuse to change in a belief that such change, accumulating slowly over many decades, will lead to the eventual extinction and replacement of their current self with someone new. This may be a valid fear, but life itself is a process of change. To create a perfectly static image of oneself which cannot be altered is as good as death, one might as well simply make a statue of himself and call that immortality (as explored in Egan’s “Diaspora”).

On the other hand, too rapid a change is also terrifying. What good is continuing “your” life when the you of a few weeks ago cannot recognize or empathize with the you that currently exists? Would the current you sacrifice her life for the future you to come into existence?

I plan to explore this in a series of blog posts over the next few weeks. Until then, here’s a fictional example of a far too rapid personality change, the kind we want to avoid.


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