In Defense of the Blindingly Obvious

If the Methuselah Foundation handed you a cure for aging, would you take it? If Star Trek science could let you and everyone you care about live indefinitely in healthy bodies, wouldn’t you want to? When I’ve asked people that, I have heard more people say no than yes. For some reason.

A large majority of everybody seems to be under the impression that aging and death are somehow good things. That the way things are is the way things ought to be. It’s the great circle of life, the thing we sing songs about to children while accompanied by adorable cartoon animals. I claim that death is not only wrong but evil.

This post is directed to Christians. There may come a post when I make a completely different set of arguments to a broader audience, but it is not this post. Christians—and I don’t know if this is true for religious people in general or just Christians—tend to hold it as part of their religion that everyone ought to die. This is despite the fact that it’s pretty directly contradicted in Scripture.

Everyone does die, sure. Granted. “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,” to take Hebrews 9:27 wildly out of context. (In the interest of fairness I should point out that that’s clearly not meant to be an absolute saying that everyone dies. Enoch and Elijah, anyone? (For anyone not familiar, those two got judged while alive, and got taken to heaven while skipping the bit about dying.)) But look at what the Bible says about death, and it’s pretty universally negative.

“The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death.” —1 Corinthians 15:26, being extremely clear.
(“Isn’t that a Death Eater idea?” —Harry Potter, falling victim to the assumption that only evil people dislike death.)
You can say that that verse means actual immortality isn’t possible until Jesus returns and fixes everything personally. That’s fine; I agree with you. Eternity is a long time. But if you can look at that verse and tell me that death isn’t an enemy to be fought, then good for you. You should consider using your powers for good some time.

“The wages of sin is death,” and “as by a man [Adam] came death, by a man [Christ] has come the resurrection of the dead.” Death is not supposed to exist. It has no part in a perfect world, and Jesus went to quite some lengths to fix it! Christians of all people should reject death as part of any natural order.

Put it this way. “If you eat that fruit, you will surely die.” —God. Was “surely die” supposed to be a good thing, or a bad thing?

Hopefully at this point you agree that it’s an evil. But there’s an argument to be made for it being a necessary one.

A few verses later, Genesis says that fallen humans aren’t supposed to eat from the tree of life. So death has to last until sin has been eradicated. That’s why it’s the last enemy to be destroyed. But it’s one thing to say that everyone will die at some point and another to say that people should grow old and have their bodies stop functioning before they even reach 140. If you’d turn down the eternal youth thing from the first paragraph, this verse isn’t why. Picture a world where the most common cause of death (after accident, of course) is people dying voluntarily after a few centuries, like Aragorn. Whatever else you dislike about that world, it doesn’t contradict anything about the exile from the Tree of Life.
I’ve had some Christians say that fixing aging would be immoral because it’s messing with the end of life or interfering with the natural order of things (neither is my phrase). Short answer: Tell it to the ghost of smallpox.

Since everyone who has argued that can reasonably expect to live past fifty, they probably don’t object to the fact that medicine and infrastructure can allow people to live much longer than most of history. Just having easy access to clean drinking water is huge, and if that’s not unnatural enough for you then humans have eradicated smallpox. A disease. A force of nature. We’re fighting malaria and beating polio and all of this is completely unnatural.

If you’re a Christian, you’re probably thinking that’s different. We’re supposed to care for the sick, and wiping out diseases is just preemptively doing that. Aging isn’t a disease. So we’re perfectly free to let people’s bodies and even minds deteriorate because that’s the way it has always been, and it would be unChristian to do otherwise.

When the lightning rod was invented, Christians were opposed. It was meddling in God’s domain and upsetting the natural order, and it was obviously hubristic and unChristian. Most Christians didn’t think that, but many did. And now we laugh at them, because lightning rods are awesome. Arguing that something is unnatural is completely separate from arguing that it’s immoral.

A standard counterargument is that of course we shouldn’t want to live indefinitely. Even if it’s like Tolkien’s Elves, where they’ll still die eventually, the longer we live on this Earth the longer we’re staying away from heaven. After all, to live is Christ but to die is gain.

I am very glad that few people take that argument seriously. Otherwise you’d see Christians actively trying to die as quickly as possible short of violating the prohibition on suicide, and they’d all turn down any form of life-saving medical treatment. Nobody actually thinks we should minimize Christians’ life expectancy, and saving someone’s life is generally considered a good deed, but people still pull this out as an argument.
(The actual refutation, aside from the accusations of hypocrisy, is that Christians are supposed to delay their attendance at the afterlife in order to accomplish things here. Unless you somehow already know that you’ve done everything God wants you to do, in which case you have my permission to use this argument.)

An even more standard one is that anyone living for centuries would run out of things to live for and become terminally bored. Normally, this is just a really bad argument. But when Christians use it, it’s worse. Leave aside the reports of Moses living to 120 and Adam to 930 (not a typo), because interpretations are split on those. Instead, I’ll just point out that Christians expect to live forever. Not just indefinitely, like I’ve been talking about, but actually forever. You can argue against living longer than a few decades on this earth, but you REALLY don’t want to argue that long life is itself a bad thing. Not when eternal life is one of the more famous things that Jesus offers.

I’m writing this the day before Easter. It’s a holiday where Christians celebrate the fact that death is evil and has been beaten. For Christians, death is not so much an old friend to be greeted and embraced at the right time as it is an enemy whose head has been crushed under a powerful ally’s heel.

Tomorrow, Christians will sing quotes from the Bible, “Death, where is thy sting;” “death has been defeated,” and more I can’t think of off the top of my head. The following day, most of the singers will forget about it and continue thinking that death is natural and therefore good. When what the Bible says is that the whole thing is a problem that needs to be eliminated. Or, as John Donne put it,

Death, thou shalt die!

Rights for Everybody!

There was something in the news a week or two ago about an Obama appointee named Debo Adegbile getting blocked by Republicans and a handful of Democrats. Since I care more about abstracts than particulars, I wanted to make sure not to write about it while it was current, but it’s been long enough by now that nobody remembers it.

To start with, I don’t care about Debo Adegbile. The only information I have on him is that he was appointed to a civil rights commission or something, and the Senate blocked him because he had allegedly advocated for an unrepentant murderer. This then showed up in the conservative parts of the Internet as “Obama appointee too radical even for some Democrats.” So, politics as usual.

Here’s what I do care about: The “advocating” that he did was to file an appellate brief on behalf of the guy in a U.S. federal court. And because he had been a lawyer for a murderer, he was declared unfit for whatever job the President tried to give him. Apparently, the belief is that guilty people don’t deserve lawyers, and anyone who acts as their lawyer needs to be stopped. I am going to start by saying why this is wrong, then accuse its supporters of undermining a basic right, then talk about how it disgusts me, and end by beating up on it some more.

The first reason that it’s wrong is because helping the murderer with his appeal is literally what appellate lawyers are supposed to do. “You zealously advocated for the rights of your client? You monster!” But the bigger reason is that it’s ridiculously important for lawyers to do that.

Picture a world where nobody appeals after a conviction. Say a defendant gets convicted and wants to appeal because the prosecution threatened to have witnesses killed if they don’t say the person’s guilty. Or something. I don’t really care about the details; just assume it wasn’t a fair trial. What you’re supposed to do is file an appeal. But in the world that a majority of the Senate thinks we should live in, lawyers should refuse to help you with that. Otherwise they’d be guilty of “advocating for a convicted criminal.”

The Senate appears to have fallen victim to one of the classic blunders of normal human psychology. I don’t know if it has a name or not, but they’re doing that thing where they identify who they think are the good people and bad people, and decide that the right thing to do is decide in favor of the good people and against the bad people. Sounds reasonable, right? They’re thinking on the specific case level instead of the meta level. That would probably work well for omniscient people, but if you are not currently God then you probably shouldn’t be trusted to make that decision.

Instead of deciding based on who is “obviously guilty,” we have a court system. We have a set of rules that we follow specifically because we don’t trust anyone to say which defendants deserve a fair trial. We give rights to everybody for that very reason. Deserve’s got nothing to do with it. And sticking to the rules is, in theory, more important than making sure that guilty people lose every appeal. In no case do we say “Yes, your Whateverth Amendment rights were violated…but you’re such a bad person that we don’t care.”

This is where the basic right part comes in. For illustration, pretend it’s a different right. Let’s say free speech. Suppose I’m a serial dog-kicker, but not currently serving a sentence. If I insult the governor of California, it’s not OK for him to have me thrown in prison without trial.  You might not care what happens to me; after all I am a despicable person who regularly punts puppies. But that’s irrelevant. You’d still want my free speech rights protected. You don’t need to like the person who invokes the rights, but if you’re a fan of civilization you should care about protecting the rights themselves. By the Senate’s logic, there would be no problem here. They just say “the bad man punted Baxter,” and that’s the end of it. I’m a bad person so I don’t deserve rights and nobody should side with me.

(Also keep in mind that you have the same rights I do. If there’s ever any precedent about “rights only for people we like,” that could very well come back to bite you in the whatever body part is best representative of not being imprisoned.) In that hypothetical, if I contact the ACLU and they agree to sue the state to protect my free speech rights, you would consider them to be the good guys.

Now change it a bit. Instead of a dog-kicker I’m an ordinary murderer. You don’t like me very much; maybe you even hate me. But regardless, you still care about my rights. So if I claim that my Eighth Amendment rights were violated, you will begrudgingly hear me out. Not because you care about me, but because you care about the Eighth Amendment being applied fairly. And once again, if someone argues my side they are not evil. They’re protecting the rights of the people regardless of despicableness. That makes them the good guys. And yet a majority of the Senate, backed by their constituents, thinks otherwise.

One Senator defended Adegbile by saying that, well, he was only an appellate lawyer. At least he never argued that the guy wasn’t a murderer. The implication is that if Adegbile had been a trial lawyer, then he shouldn’t head the civil rights commission. THIS ISN’T BETTER. Because there’s also a right to an attorney. That Senator is once again saying that if you side with people we don’t like, it reflects badly on you. Remember how John Adams defended the British soldiers on trial for the Boston Massacre? Apparently today’s Congress would not stand for that.

Debo Adegbile was advocating for a convicted criminal. He was claiming that the convicted murderer had had his rights violated and that the violation needed to be corrected. This is not a bad thing, because if someone’s rights are being violated then somebody needs to call the government out on it.*

Here’s the thing. The Senate apparently thinks that supporting someone’s rights is the same thing as supporting that person. Which is not encouraging if you care about rights in the abstract. (I happen to not support the KKK, but I’d support their right to hold a march around my block. It’s a distinction that I would hope the great minds in Congress are capable of comprehending.) If it’s possible to be so disliked that your rights don’t matter, then your rights are dependent on public opinion. I said I’d accuse the supporters of the Senate of undermining a basic right, but I’ll go further. They’re undermining the concept of rights. They’re claiming that rights don’t apply to sufficiently bad people, when it is literally the point of rights that they apply to everyone.

There can be good enough reasons to override rights. We imprison criminals, overriding their right to freedom of movement because protecting people is important enough. We even execute people, because we think their right to life is outweighed by whatever benefit there’s supposed to be. But that’s not what’s going on here. People weren’t saying that Adegbile’s argument was wrong. It wasn’t about whether that guy’s rights had been violated. Their beef with Adegbile was that he had argued on behalf of the wrong person. The reason for blocking his appointment was, quite literally, that he had sided with a murderer. You will note that that applies equally well/badly regardless of whether and how the rights were actually violated.

Republicans like to go on at great length about how we’ve got this glorious country made of freedom. But when this case comes up, when those rights in the Constitution they say they care about are actually in question…. They didn’t say “there’s no rights violation here,” they said “how dare you argue for that person.” You know the people who claim not to trust the government with too much power? Those were the same people who blocked a nomination specifically because the nominee had challenged the government’s use of power. The difference, of course, is that he had challenged a use of power that they agreed with.

So, yeah, that’s kind of repulsive. The best-case scenario is that they didn’t actually believe what they were saying and were only doing it to score points against Obama. (Would this be a bad time to mention that I’m a registered Republican? I guess that fulfils the “ranting against people I agree with” thing I said I’d do on this blog.) But considering that several Democrats joined them, maybe they were actually telling the truth. Which in this case is even worse.

Now, just for fun, let’s imagine what it looks like if we take the Senate at their word. Suppose that it actually was unethical to advocate for a convicted criminal.

If you get 25 to life for stealing a slice of apparently really good pepperoni pizza, you probably think that’s excessive. You want to appeal. But you’ve been convicted. You’re a known Bad Person. Thanks to the Senate (those fearless protectors of our rights), every appellate lawyer knows to avoid siding with convicted criminals. Nobody helps you with the appeal, and the Supreme Court doesn’t pay any attention to your note saying “8 Amendment Plz?” in blue crayon.

25 years later, you get out on parole. You get accused of stealing another slice of pizza (this one had mushrooms). You need a lawyer, but who’s going to represent you? By now everyone knows better. If they advocate for a convicted criminal, that could be bad for their future career. They’d have to try to convince a jury that you didn’t steal the mushroom pizza, and even the pro-Adegbile faction wouldn’t stand for that. So the lawyers avoid you like the plague, and I hope you’re seeing a problem here.

The obvious solution is lawyers for everyone who’s accused of a crime. And wouldn’t you know it, that’s the solution the legal system is built around. Too bad nobody informed Congress.

*(I don’t actually know whether this particular murderer’s rights were violated. I could check how the appeal turned out, but I’m intentionally not doing that because it doesn’t matter. At the time that the appeal was filed, it hadn’t been determined yet and that’s why it needed to be argued.)

Yes, we can too know things

I like knowing things. One of my favorite things about this universe is that it happens to be the kind of universe that allows me to know true things about it. So I have very little patience for one of the stock philosophy lines.

People often ask rhetorically whether we can ever really know anything. And then everyone reacts as if that person has just said something Deeply Wise, because claiming that nobody can ever know anything is a commonly recognized Philosophy Thing. (Sarcastic capital letters aren’t one, but should be.) And they have half a point, because, as they’ll say if you challenge them, whatever you believe could always be wrong. So you can’t say you know anything. Since I am a person who rather enjoys knowing things, this is my biggest pet peeve that I can think of at the moment. Seriously, it’s even more annoying than small talk and worse than puns, portmanteaus, and punctuation errors combined. But it’s also a bad question. Here’s a better question: Who says I need to be absolutely certain of anything?

I don’t know where this idea comes from, that you can only say you know something if you are absolutely and completely sure of it. That if there’s the slightest chance you might be wrong then you don’t really know. That’s silly. But whenever it comes up, people keep not bothering to differentiate between knowledge and absolute certainty.

This is the type of debate that, if it ever came up on Less Wrong, would be dissolved immediately by people pointing out that the arguers are just using the word “know” differently and if they redefine their terms then they’ll probably end up not disagreeing about anything other than vocabulary. That kind of “tree falling in the forest” debate is a slightly unpleasant waste of time, but it’s not may-its-idiocy-be-stricken-from-the-annals-of-human-thought-forever bad. Where it gets really bad is when people start from this recognized Deeply Wise Philosophy Thing and proceed to say that because nobody can “know” (as in be absolutely and completely certain of, with probability one) anything, they must therefore not be able to “know” (as in, have a reliable degree of certainty about) anything. Or worse, they might not say that, just leave the premise unstated, and let anyone who accuses them of equivocation look like they’re just arguing about definitions.

One of the side effects of believing something to be true with probability 1 is that you can never change your opinion. You can’t see some evidence against it and bring your estimate down to 99% likely. If you’re absolutely certain of something, then you stay absolutely certain no matter what. (This follows trivially from Bayes’ Theorem, but I promised myself I wouldn’t go into the math. If anyone disputes this, the proof is easy.)

So next time you want to claim to be absolutely certain of something, or worse, if you want to say that you need to be absolutely certain before you can “know” anything, ask yourself whether any possible evidence would make you any less sure. If the answer is yes then you don’t have absolute certainty. If the answer should be yes then you shouldn’t require it. The answer should basically always be yes.

(I am willing to concede that there probably exist some exceptions. So in some cases that normative statement doesn’t apply. But those, if they exist, are in the tiny minority and in all or almost all cases it should be possible to be convinced away from your opinion by evidence. For that matter, you don’t even have to admit that it is/should be possible to convince you you’re wrong; you just have to admit that it is/should be possible to make you slightly less certain.)

For a variety of reasons, mostly summed up by Rene Descartes and Thomas Anderson, I think it’s impossible to be absolutely certain of anything. If you disagree, then at least you agree with me on the statement that we can in fact know things. You’ll never say that nobody can ever really know anything for sure, and I count that as a win for me.

If you do agree that infinite certainty is infinitely beyond us, then please don’t accuse people of being unsure as if that’s a bad thing. Never, under any reasonable circumstances, should you seriously say the sentence “we can never truly know anything.” To the extent that that’s true, it’s useless, and to the extent that it’s meaningful, it’s false. (Try it! Substitute your favorite plausible definition for “know” and see if you can get a true sentence that says something that isn’t trivial!)

But sometimes just claiming it’s impossible to know anything isn’t enough. Sometimes people have to claim that there isn’t anything to know. That there is no objective truth or reality at all, just our various subjective experiences. This claim isn’t just wrong, and it’s not just wronger than wrong. It is quite possibly the wrongest it is possible for any statement to be.

I can’t very well argue against the claim that there are no true statements, because I don’t even know what it would mean if it were right. Fortunately, nobody ever claims this outside of philosophy debates. Unfortunately, they sometimes do in them. Which is annoying, because despite the fact that it’s one of the Standard Philosophy Questions, it’s also pretty transparently silly.

I’ve asserted that it’s silly a couple of times, and I can’t really back that up except to say that it is literally logically impossible for it to be true. Like the “this statement is not true” thing, except that it’s exactly like that. Whatever your position on the Epimenides paradox, I highly doubt you would look at the sentence “this sentence is false” and say that it’s a true statement. The claim that there is no objectivity is at least that bad.

There is an objective and knowable universe out there. I know that because I’ve seen it, lived in it, and otherwise personally observed it. I can’t say with probability one that I observed it correctly, of course, but I don’t need to because I don’t believe in absolute certainty. I’ve got more than enough confidence to assume that the world is in fact reliably observable and act accordingly. I consider this to be awesome.

What’s more, you know some things about how the universe works, too. Even if you think we can’t Really Know anything, I guarantee that you act as if you do. You still flip a switch and expect a light to come on. You still eat when you’re hungry and drink coffee when you’re tired. Yes, it’s probably impossible to solve the problem of induction and be completely sure that all of this will still work tomorrow. But even if you can’t be completely sure, you are sure enough to act normally. Who knows? You might catch yourself expecting food to cure hunger and being right. So watch what you’re claiming, because you just might personally have some of this allegedly impossible knowledge. Which would be awesome.