How Should Rationalists Approach Death?

“How Should Rationalists Approach Death?” That’s the title of the panel I’m moderating this weekend at Skepticon, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a big topic – we won’t figure it all out in an hour, but I know we’ll get people to think. Do common beliefs about death make sense? How can we find comfort about our mortality? Should we try to find comfort about death? What should society be doing about death?

I managed to get 4 fantastic panelists, all of whom I respect and admire:

  • Greta Christina is author, blogger, speaker extraordinaire. Her writing has appeared in multiple magazines and newspapers, including Ms., Penthouse, Chicago Sun-Times, On Our Backs, and Skeptical Inquirer. I’ve been thrilled to see her becoming a well-known and respected voice in the secular community. She delivered the keynote address at the Secular Student Alliance’s 2010 Conference, and has been on speaking tours around the country.
  • James Croft is a candidate for an Ed.D at Harvard and works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. I had the pleasure of meeting James two years ago at American Humanist Association conference, where we talked and argued for hours. Eloquent, gracious, and sharp, he’s a great model of intellectual engagement. He’s able to disagree agreeably, but also change his mind when the occasion calls for it.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky co-founded the nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), where he works as a full-time Research Fellow. He’s written must-read essays on Bayes’ Theorem and human rationality as well as great works of fiction. Have you heard me rave about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality? That’s him. His writings, especially on the community blog LessWrong, have influenced my thinking quite a bit.
  • And some lady named Julia Galef, who apparently writes a pretty cool blog with her brother, Jesse.

To give you a taste of what to expect, I chose two passages about finding hope in death – one from Greta, the other from Eliezer.


But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.

And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.


I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to accept so terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even less defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away, refuse to confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient beings annihilated every day. One point eight lives per second, fifty-five million lives per year. Convert the units, time to life, life to time. The World Trade Center killed half an hour. As of today, all cryonics organizations together have suspended one minute. This essay took twenty thousand lives to write. I wonder if there was ever an atheist who accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?

If you’re coming to Skepticon – and you should, it’s free! – you need to be there for this panel.

16 Responses to How Should Rationalists Approach Death?

  1. AS far as the horror of death and so many lives being annihilated with no consolation: Well yes, but there’s nothing at all you can do about that. Hence, I try to avoid dwelling on it.

    Death is a subject I find no comfort in thinking at length about. One could call it running from the truth, but I just try to push it out of my mind.

    My plan is to make an effort to avoid death as long as reasonably possible. I can’t avoid it forever, regrettably. Even if cryonics somehow works, there’s still the thermal death of the universe. But once death comes I won’t be around to worry about it anymore.

  2. Is it terribly uncharitable of me to interpret Eliezer as saying he’s a transhumanist because it’s comforting?

    “What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?” That’s basically how I look at the world. The world was shitty, still is shitty, and will likely always be shitty.

    Sure, life is better now for most people than for most people 100 years ago, but that could easily change. Even if transhumanists are right, and some day we will be immortal and download our brains to new bodies whenever we feel like it, how will that help those who are already dead? How does transhumanism offer any balm to suffering?

    I guess I could summarize all my questions with one: how is transhumanism an approach to death?

  3. Diogenes, it gives hope for something more. It’s the difference between being the last person on earth and being confined to solitary for life with the chance of parole.

  4. comeoffthisjuvenilebullshit says:

    they should approach it by dying

  5. CharlesR says:

    Should be an interesting discussion. I hope they tape it.

  6. Ryan Owens says:

    Will the non-attending have the opportunity to watch this on film later possibly? It would be much enjoyed. 🙂

  7. As someone that hears about death every day, I would like to share that most people, no matter how religious, still do not accept it as easily as you might think. Preachers and priests have the canned things they have to say, but it does not help as much as you’d think. In a lot of cases it actually makes people leave the church. People think their church and its leader will be there for them when confronted with death and it’s just not the case. No one wants to be lied to when they’re grieving and that is essentially what the church leader is doing. You’d be surprised how rational irrational people can get when hit with the reality of death.

    Denial is the first stage of grief, and thinking that the deceased is not “really” dead but waiting for them in heaven goes along quite nicely for most churchfolk, but it is extremely detrimental to the grief process.

    If any group of people has the right idea about death it’s rationalists, but like most people rationalists don’t try to think about it too much. My wife runs a funeral home, so I think about it every day. I’m probably too comfortable with death, but this whole idea makes me think that it’s definitely something we should be talking about at every conference. Nonbelievers could really bring out some good ideas for helping societies accept death in a healthier way, because the things (lies) that we assume are working are not.

  8. James Croft says:

    I’m extremely excited to be sitting on this panel. What a great honor! =D

  9. Jeffrey Soreff says:

    Comfort – compared to what? Ceasing to exist isn’t a pleasant prospect, but it isn’t as
    unpleasant a prospect as, say, the Calvinist nightmare of an eternal sadist.

  10. Pingback: How Should Rationalists Approach Death? « Knowledge Team

  11. Please tell me there is video/transcription of the panel discussion!

    • Grognor says:

      Here is a video:

      I don’t think there is a transcript.

      • Jeffrey Soreff says:

        Grognor: Many Thanks for that URL. It was a very interesting panel.

        Julia: To enlarge slightly on the point that you made about not
        engaging in large altruistic projects because the deadline set by
        mortality precludes them (around 26:30 in the panel video):
        Agreed, and also the same applies to large personal projects.
        To pick an example from my own life: I’m 53, and I have an
        interest in atomically precise nanotechnology. If I were 20,
        I’d get a Ph.D. In that field. At 53, this simply would not make sense.
        I probably have enough time left to get that degree – but not enough
        time left after that to actually apply it.

        I agree with Greta on the diversity of individual reactions and
        note a contrast with her in the effect of deadlines. For me they
        aren’t energizing – they either force me to do an unpleasant
        quick and dirty job on something, or (as in the case above) they
        make the attempt pointless.

        A comment on Eliezer’s 50% probability of cryonics succeeding
        (around 34:00 in the panel video)
        (if humanity survives and if we are not surprised). That is quite
        reasonable for the odds of there being no scientific surprises that
        wind up ruling it out in principle. It is not reasonable as an estimate
        of the odds of reviving any given patient, or even as the odds that
        any cryonics patient ever gets revived. I’ve commented about this in×1
        In a nutshell: Given that it is possible in principle, no one may pay
        to do the actual work necessary to revive the patients. Many things
        that are possible in principle wind up not getting done.

        There is a somewhat tricky question of where advice on individual
        responses ends and where advice on societal responses begins. I’m
        writing my reaction to cryonics in terms of what do the odds look like
        to an individual considering signing up today, with technology as it
        stands now and technology trends as they stand now. I agree with
        Eliezer’s “Death is bad. Life is good.” remark, but that is more useful
        in saying that, as a society, we should better fund Aubrey de Grey’s
        SENS work, and cryonics, and enabling technologies for both.

        Julia: Re your comment (around 29:)) in the panel video) about the
        brain injury gedankenexperiment and its contradiction with the
        Twain quote about not being inconvenienced by nonexistence
        before conception and expecting to similarly not be inconvenienced
        after death: One could at least use the evidence from a century of
        neuroscience to flesh out Epicurus’s:
        “Why should I fear death? If I am, death is not. If death is, I am not.
        Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?”
        to say that the state of being dead can’t possibly hurt. We know(roughly)
        what neurons need to fire to perceive pain, and they certainly don’t fire
        post_mortem. There is certainly loss, but at least we can rule out pain,
        and that is an evidence-based conclusion.

  12. Marion Burkhardt. says:

    I think a rationalist should argue thus about death:
    There is no life apart from environment so environment is necessarily part of what a life is, just as individuality and a body and events are part of what makes one life.
    So when the body goes, that other aspect of the life– the environment –continues and continues.
    Thus, there is ultimate death only if one denies that environment is intergral to any life.
    But since it is the case that a life necessarily includes both individual and environment then there is, in effect, no death of the the one life, but only the one life’s continuation–since the environmental aspect continues.
    In other words, what life is (and what one life is) extends beyond individuality.
    The refore, the great fear of death is due to a misunderstanding of what life is and this fear may be mitigated by a correct understanding.
    Alternately and more simply, one may presume that the universe conducts its business with us integral to it. What have we to fear when we are already at home?
    And even more simply: accept the end of the body and the mind —and you are free.

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