It’s been quite some time since I wrote anything non-fiction. Unless someone counts the small comments I carelessly make in my weekly reports about the international prices of Butadiene, or e-mails beginning with ‘PFA’.
Nevertheless, I have been reading, and not just the pricing and economic reports about chemicals with exotic sounding names. No, sir. I am reading the good stuff.
‘Wait But Why’ is a blog which apart from being a punch in the face of virally titled numbered lists, is also one of the most insightful blogs I have ever seen written. It ranges from deep psychological topics like the root causes of procrastination to deep spiritual topics like ‘a religion for atheists’ with a little bit of the Fermi Paradox and Iraqi history thrown in here and there.
So when, Tim Urban recently decided to start an internal discussion forum on WBW after alleging that most WBW regulars are ‘smart people’ , I was immediately impressed with myself and decided to participate. I couldn’t really muster smart thoughts for the first topic, but the second one immediately struck me as both profound and worth wasting time over. And as is usual, I ended up ‘pondering’ a little too much without backing it up with any known scientific fact. And therefore, I was naturally embarrassed and unwilling to put up a behemoth comment that could be torn apart by bathroom physicists/economists on such a high-traffic site. And so here we are. It just has to get out.
You could have totally skipped everything I wrote till this point.
The discussion topic was sort of a rerun of those ‘difficult choices’ type of GDs that we all used to hate in B-schools, but with a few interesting twists. Here it goes (approximately):
You are in a room with nothing but a table, chair, and a calculator. You have to sit down on the chair, bust your brains for around ten minutes, and then enter a number into the calculator. That number shall be your life-span. And here are the rules:
- The calculator can take any number of digits. It is not one of those pathetic Casio models which won’t let you enter the value of π beyond 3.14159265
- The calculator has a badass-looking button with the ∞ symbol. That means infinity.
- The calculator is better at its job than an average engineering student’s sense of humor. So if you enter a number lower than your current age, it will immediately transmogrify into the semi-naked image of the girl who friend-zoned you last night.
- You can choose to leave the calculator blank, in which case you’ll just live your pre-destined life span, and eventually die.
- Don’t worry about old bones. Entering a number into the calculator gives you infinite freedom about resetting your ‘body-age’ right until you die. So you are now 70? No problem! Just reset your body back to 25 for the rest of your million-year-lifespan. No cell degeneration, cancer, or auto-immune diseases either.
- Twist 1. If you enter a number into the calculator, you live to that age without dying a natural death and then die painlessly. So if you enter infinity or a number greater than a few trillion, there are no guarantees about living past the death of the universe. In fact, there are no guarantees at all. You might die accidentally if you or someone around you is a douchebag, or you might not. There is a chance that you go out for some McConnaughey-style space travelin’, get thrown out of your spaceship and end up in the vast emptiness of space for the rest of your hundred thousand years, alive with no company. That won’t be cool.
- Twist 2 (Twist Harder). Just as you are going to sit and make this (quite literally) life altering decision, so is EVERYBODY ELSE. That’s right. Everyone else in the world is sitting in front of a calculator and choosing their life-span. That includes your family, all those you love, all those you hate, all celebrities (even Justin Beiber, even her), all hobos, all politicians, all those people you don’t know or don’t care about, and Rahul Gandhi.
- Since some little kids haven’t really figured out life, or even numbers for that matter, their decisions will be made by their parents. So if you are a parent, and any of your kids are less than 12 years old, you have to choose their life-span as well. Ages 12 and above decide themselves.
- Twist 3 (With a Vengeance). If you choose to enter a number (any number) into that calculator, you lose the ability to reproduce. Existing pregnancies and kids will be just fine (and you’ll choose their life-spans, remember?), but none of that baby nonsense in the future for you. If you leave it blank, you can reproduce just fine, but your kids will be the same old humans, with no altered life-span.
I would like you to think this through on your own, before you read my answer, just as it has been suggested in the blog. It isn’t an easy decision. I am not more vindictive than Tim, but I want more people to read my blog, so don’t take too long.
Before I begin, I would just like to point out that these are just my opinions. I am not a scientist, just a normal guy, and I am not too important either. It would be unwise to have my opinions take a shit in your morning cereal, but I do invite a healthy debate.
So here’s what I thought, then:
Points of View:
There are two points of view from which you can approach the answer.
- The Self-centered one
- The Altruistic one
Since this is a super–critical decision which will affect your life in the most critical way possible, and since you are making it in crunch time, AND since it involves numbers (which scare a fair lot of us), it is highly unlikely that you will look at the altruistic sense first. Let us all throw up our hands and admit to that much selfishness. On finer examination though (probably much beyond the ten minute mark), you will realize that Twist 2 and 3 will probably necessitate an altruistic approach. Let us, however, take it a little slow and start with the simple things.
The Self-centered approach
The most useful way of approaching this completely hypothetical problem which has no bearing on your real life would be to draw a simple diagram of choices and list their individual pros and cons based on what motivates you to live longer. So here is our simple, unfettered flowchart of choices:
This is a fairly decent idea of what your available choices can be. And it’s neat.
Okay, so of course we are not going to be starting with the choices where you are not writing a number. It seems quite illogical at first sight to leave the calculator blank from a self-centered point of view. Why wouldn’t you want to have control over your own life-span? What personal motivation can prevent you from doing that? Is your life miserable? In which case I would like to draw your attention to painless suicide options available to you. In fact, let’s start from there:
Less than average lifespan
This is a not-so-pleasant option. It could mean only one of two possible things:
- You are seriously unhappy with life and the concept of ‘staying alive’ – This would make choosing the above option glorified suicide. We don’t really need to discuss the viability of suicide. Most of us agree that it is quite a cowardly move – taken when you cannot man up to the challenges of life. Most of us in fact, are not suicidal. We have a lot of things to live for – our dreams and aspirations, our loved ones, the Fatty Melt burger, and the next season of True Detective. In which case, this isn’t a fun option at all.
- You believe in the philosophy that humans are better off living shorter, livelier life spans – This would be super-glorified suicide. Just like Ayn Rand wrote a super-eloquent speech which ran for hundreds of pages in a really small font size to justify selfishness. I wouldn’t think that there are a lot of us who ascribe to that. You wouldn’t really be planning your career and imagining marriage with your crush, then. You would just go all out until you literally deplete into a sorry mess by 30 and then switch off.
So in short (?), this option isn’t really worth considering. I might be being cheeky in assuming that only a small minority of humans will be interested in this, but it would be really unfortunate if this is the majority’s decision. That would mean that in less than the average lifespan of the youngest human, the human race will be effectively wiped out (no more reproduction, remember?). And that is not something we really want.
Greater than average lifespan
This option gives you the three aforementioned sub-options, but before we go into them, we really need to evaluate our motivations for the same. Why would you want to extend your lifetime? Off the top of your head, you will realize that there are four major possible reasons why:
- Life is brilliant and you would rather live a little while longer and continue enjoying.
- You have always been curious about ‘what next?’ You believe that mankind will eventually figure out the real answer to the question of ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’. No, it is not 42. And you want to hang around for the after-party of that discovery.
- Unlike Stephen King, you believe that a Utopian future is very much possible, and you want to hang around when that is finally achieved.
- You fear death (which is okay because death is scary)
Right, but here’s the thing. We also have Twist 2. Which essentially means that you have a fifth quite important reason to keep your butt alive for as long as possible.
Because what if you knew a fancy management consultant who quickly ran a machine-learning based complex Excel model to tell you in just eight minutes that the optimum number of years to have in your life is 10,000? And then, you come out and see that everyone else was planning to live at least 11,000. Including your wife. And your 13 year-old-son. Words can’t describe that ‘bummer’ feeling.
So what now?
A moderately huge number or a really huge number
Let’s consider first, the achievability of the first three reasons for living a longer life-span. What does it mean that life is good? Are things in general, aligned in the direction that you want them to take? Are these reasons selfish or are they good for the world in general? Quickly, you are going to realize that there are two perspectives of things being just balmy:
- The selfish perspective
- The overall perspective
Outside extreme cases such as Uday Hussein, it’s most likely, that your own perspective is a healthy blend of the both, with the marker mostly tilted towards the first. And therein lies your first big problem.
You see, given the general scarcity of resources and the fact that we are, after all, humans, there is always some zero-sum game at play which will come in the way of your selfish perspective of happiness. You want to win a lottery, and so do a thousand other people, you want a 100 percentile on the CAT and so do half a million other applicants. It is impossible to maintain the selfish perspective of happiness in a society with scarce resources and competition. Eventually the law of averages will come into play and make you lose. Large corporations will fall, idols will become forgotten or will get replaced. Change is the only constant, they say. Which is a bummer because you see, your failures will now live with you for ten thousand more years. Or a million if you choose to live longer. There is only one way in which you can maintain your present happiness over the long term and justify your long life span according to Reason 1. And that is tied in to the reasons 2 and 3.
Because you see, long term happiness is totally possible in a theoretical utopian state where all that could be achieved has been achieved and mankind has essentially become self-sufficient, quasi-immortal and independent of the limitations of physics. There are no improvements required, because they are either completely latent and unwanted, or because you cannot improve upon perfection. Can mankind achieve this utopian state? I would say that we were looking right up that alley, until somebody gave you the above situation and asked you to choose a lifetime in return for your ability to reproduce. After you and the rest of the world’s population chooses this, we are looking at a total disaster, and here’s why:
One of your most primary motivations will go away
Think back to the most important discoveries and inventions of the world – fire, the wheel, wireless communication, computing. If you were to search for a single thread – a common cause that connects all these discoveries, you would realise why Utopia seems impossible in a world where lifetimes are fixed.
Scientific discoveries and inventions were not charged only with improving the quality of human life. They were also motivated by the desire to make humans achieve more in less time, and stay here on this world longer. To prolong human life. Over time, we have discovered the cure for Smallpox and the Plague and discovered minimally invasive cardiac surgeries, and reduced death rates. We thought of knee replacement surgeries when we had too many bad knees and today with the help of the respirator, we have the option of keeping humans in a vegetative state alive for however long our budget and emotions allow us to. You can travel thousands of kilometres in mere hours, and communicate across thousands more in seconds. All this, primarily motivated by the burning aspiration for more, constrained by an uncertain and limited amount of time.
But imagine a world in which your lifespan, and the death rates are fixed, and you have got too much time to live anyhow. So now, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t discover a fancy new hyperspace-way of travel which saves you time. You have too much time, anyhow.
Let’s put things in perspective. The greatest restriction of manned interstellar travel is the concept of limited time. Even Christopher Nolan was a little ‘meh’ about the hibernation in ‘Interstellar’. So let’s say you want to send yourself to one of the moons of Jupiter. The New Horizons Spacecraft which was launched in 2006, made it in thirteen months. In today’s world, if you are from a country whose economy can support a space program, then it would be safe to assume a life-expectancy of 70 years, which would make this round trip to Jupiter about three percent of your lifetime. After you set your age to a million years, it would be 0.0001%. We never really worry about so many zeroes. So no one is going to want (fund?) a faster, fancier, inter-dimensional travel form. Individual years in your lifespan have now lost significance – ten thousand years are just one percent of your lifespan.
So don’t get me wrong, there are ample motivations to keep the progress of scientific discovery on despite this hindrance, but I wouldn’t be too surprised if one of the primary results of this advanced lifespan system on a large chunk of humanity is general complacency.
Scientific progress requires human variation
Many of you already know where I am going with this. But for those who don’t, imagine the life of Isaac Newton. Newton was born and lived in times when people all believed that the universe was static, and when his own theories of gravitation, and forces suggested that a finite sized universe would immediately collapse upon its centre, Newton decided that the universe must therefore be infinite. So that there is force balancing every force that collapses. It took years before the more believable theory of a finite but expanding universe was established and accepted. Before Newton’s laws of motion, Aristotle had assumed that bodies continue to remain in a state of rest unless acted upon by a force. Where I am getting with all of this, is that the same set of people – the same generation of thinkers – might find it very hard to think along a different line, especially one, which requires them to completely abandon or radically re-examine their own life’s work. Imagine spending an entire lifetime perfecting the real number system, only to have some douchebag prove it all wrong, because (-1) doesn’t have a square root. Even if that person were not a dickhead, it is quite unlikely that you will ever script the algebra of complex numbers. It requires a completely new thought-process, and after three decades of working with real numbers, you are unlikely to think in the complex sense at all.
But you know who can? The next generation.
That’s where the new ideas would ideally flow from – the next-generation of human beings who are born in a different environment, who look at and question things with a new perspective, whose backgrounds and socio-economic and cultural upbringing allow them to look past the loopholes of the past. Effectively, each new generation originates a new super-cycle of knowledge, in a way that would make Charles Darwin grin smugly.
And here we are, with a lot of time, but no new generations.
So let’s reiterate. By selecting a longer that average life-span, we cannot maintain our happiness, we cannot really satisfy our curiosity about what next, and all of that because we cannot really reach a Utopian state. And of course, a finite lifetime was never going to make your regret or your fear of death go away, because you haven’t really prevented death, just postponed it. So outside of some short-term gratification, we have not really achieved anything. In fact we might have spoiled a lot of things, if we look at it from the altruistic point of view. Especially, in the case of people who because of this understanding of the long-term difficulties, will put in a moderately huge number as a compromise. If too many people do that, the human race will not even have a chance, because we can’t reproduce. I think we have a considerably huge number of years stored up as a species, and it’s only fair that we at least get what was anyhow due to us (as a species, not as you and me).
So unless you vehemently disagree with me, and want to leave right now so you can type in a six-digit number in your make-believe calculator, we have only one more life prolonging option left to explore.
By now you must have realised where I am headed, because even intuitively infinity is a stupid lifetime to have. There are three very simple and straightforward reasons why, and here they are listed down, for your info:
1. Every problem that applies to a longer than average life-span applies here
Essentially, all you have done, is take away the concept of death. Nothing else. No guarantee of permanent happiness, no guarantee of utopia, no guarantee of having your questions answered.
2. Because of what happens when you play Half Life in God Mode
(It is worthwhile to know that Half Life is a very difficult game and sometimes, in a moment of weakness I played it with God Mode on. No judgement.)
In non-gamer terms, God Mode is a cheat which allows your character to become invincible and have infinite health. Essentially, you never die. And it is when you play Half Life in God Mode, that you realise a serious problem. In some levels, there is a trap, which if you don’t execute properly you are supposed to die – a pit in which you fall to your death, when you don’t jump right, for example. And that’s how the game ends, and you re-spawn. Not in God Mode though. In God Mode, if you fall down that pit, you are stuck there forever. Alive. In a pit.
And therein lies your most primary problem with infinite life. You could say you’d take extreme care to avoid such a pitfall, but remember that your life is infinite, and nothing else is. The Sun, for example has only about another around 1.2 billion years, and the Earth will go much, much before that. The Universe itself, will die what the scientist call a ‘heat death’ in a few trillion years. And guess how much more of your lifetime would still be left after the heat death? What’s (∞ – 1013)? Well…
3. You don’t have the faintest idea what infinity is
Never forget that the devil you know, is a lot better than the one you don’t. Infinity is not a concept meant for the human brain. In the above point, most of you didn’t really know, what (∞ – 1013) was. In fact, for any x, we know what (∞ – x) is ∞. It is not really clear how, though. Whenever we try to think of it we just end up with embarrassing paradoxes, like the hotel with infinite rooms. We are simply not very good with infinity.
In fact, we are not even very good with large numbers, especially when they have something to do with time. Your concept of time is extremely personalized and limited. If you make an effort, you might be able to go back to your twelfth grade, where you were focusing more on your talent of masturbation than on Organic Chemistry. And if you really put some creative effort into it, you’d be able to imagine your life five years from now, so as to frame an answer for that dreaded interview question. Beyond this, and outside the rote memorization of your history books, your sense of time is all muddled. In fact, you might want to watch this video which will blow your mind by telling you that the Tyrannosaurus Rex was in fact closer to Miley Cyrus, than to the first Stegosaurus.
So there we have it. Way too many problems with the selfish perspective of thinking. Over the long-term we need to have the altruistic perspective in mind while making the decision, because in the long-term it is not our behaviour alone that shapes our destiny. It is the collective behaviour of us all. That is the fundamental problem with this calculator-in-a-room system. It forces the selfish perspective onto us, for a problem that has to be solved keeping the bulk of humanity in mind. I didn’t take too long to scroll down the answers-list on WBW, but what little I did see, scared me for this very reason. These were all intelligent people, and yet, I missed that comment where anyone even suggested an approach to this which wasn’t individual-centric. Left to ourselves, I don’t think this situation should be on anyone’s list of the most fortuitous.
And therefore, my answer is to leave that calculator blank. Let us all stick to what John Maynard Keynes said: ‘In the long run, we are all dead.’