By Daniel Tarade
I like thought experiments. Previously, I debated whether knowing of your imminent death was preferable to dying instantaneously and without forewarning. Today’s thought experiment may be more abstract and less participatory. At least to me. Because I feel that this thought experiment can be solved mathematically.
Let’s imagine that you are visited by a genie of a chaotic neutral disposition. You have to roll a twenty-sided die. If it lands on particular number, say seventeen, you are granted immortality. Of course, the concept of immortality terrifies me, particularly if no other guarantees are made. Not being able to die while all your loved ones perish and society crumbles is the stuff of nightmares. But the genie is neutral. The genie doesn’t want to cause suffering. The genie wants to test people. So, you can roll the die, where there is a 5% chance that you will suffer the tortures of infinity or you can bypass the gamble and opt for instantaneous death. Cost benefit analysis is useless when one option is infinity.
0.05 x ∞ = ∞ //QED
Forget my study of Pascal’s wager with respect to panic disorder, where one possibility is death seems to overshadow all other possibilities. Death is not exemplar of infinite pain. But within immortality, infinite pain is also contained. To me, the math seems to be straight forward. A 5% chance is obviously too much of a risk. In reality, any non-zero probability is too high in the face of infinity. If the genie provided a trillion-sided die, with the same provision, that if you roll a seventeen you become immortal, it still would be prudent to avoid the chance and take the sure thing.
Now is there a way around this? Let’s say that you really didn’t want to die, not just yet. You haven’t got around to watching Arrested Development and are curious to see what it’s about. Let’s change the rules. It is no longer true immortality on the line but rather the inability to die until the heat death of the universe. Well, not the classical idea of heat death, which entails an equilibrium of matter at constant temperature and entropy. The observation that matter in idealized systems (i.e. closed box, gravity-less) approach maximal entropy or disorder was applied to the universe with frequency in the 19th century. However, certain realities of our universe, including its increasing rate of expansion, makes that comparison inappropriate. The final faith of the universe is debated, although some argue that by harnessing the entropy and energy associated with the fusion of black holes, life could maintain its ‘empire’ and prevent a state of maximal entropy.[i] So, does that mean true immortality is possible? Aside from the technological hurdles required to manipulate black holes and engineering on a universal scale, as entropy continues to increase, it is predicted that quantum tunneling would result in the disorganization of matter. The energy required to maintain matter exceeds the energy available at this time scale. Long story short, but at some point, between 10^65 and 10^10^26 years from now, life based on the solid form becomes impossible. Await with bated breath. For our purposes, this can serve as an appropriate end-point. For reference, the number of atoms in the observable universe, is estimated to be 10^80. The age of universe is roughly 10^10 years old. The oldest a human can expect to live is 10^2.
The moment has arrived. The genie threatens a lifespan that only ceases when solid life becomes an impossibility. However, such a misfortune will only befall you if one pre-determined atom in the observable universe is selected at random. To facilitate the cosmic game of chance, the genie gathers all atoms in a large drum that can be rotated with a hand crank. Imagine a raffle at a fundraiser. As the genie spins the drum, the clatter of hydrogen, and helium, and iron fills your ears. You don’t want to die. Not yet. But the torture of a life that far exceeds the age of the universe is daunting. The other choice is instant death. What do you do?
One of my largest fears is immortality. I recognize that the thought experiment is lost on some people, for whom immortality may instead be seen as a positive outcome. The relativistic aspect of fear aside, I do want to quickly discuss the nature of fear and how, as a rather anxious individual, I have come cope. It took me several years but I eventually stumbled upon the realisation that many of my fears were mutually exclusive. I use that to my advantage. If I ever found myself fearing that I had cancer, I would be thankful that, if true, I would get to avoid growing up, developing schizophrenia, unwittingly becoming a father, etc. If I feared that I was dying from a heart attack, then I would be thankful that I would not have to do a particularly dreadful experiment. And when I was worried that I was immortal, it meant I would not have to worry about dying. Vice versa. I found that these thought processes helped me regain control over my fears. By being able to find positive outcomes from even my greatest fears, I no longer held such a catastrophic outlook on life. This thought experiment, in which I consciously accept death when presented with immortality, is another example of this coping strategy. It is comforting to be reminded that life itself is not the goal.
[i] Frautschi, S. (1982). Entropy in an expanding universe. Science, 217(4560), 593-599.