Addressing the Dragon in the room

      4 Comments on Addressing the Dragon in the room

Recently, a friend of mine shared this video in one of our group chats: The Fable of the Dragon Tyrant

I strongly suggest watching the video before reading this post. I will summarize some of the points, but I can’t possibly do it as well as they did. It’s well Worth the 10 minutes in my opinion.

The video is based on this short story, which is about as good, so you can simply read it instead. Or optimally, you can do both. I know I did.

The story takes place in an alternate world, where there is an enormous dragon that seems completely invincible. None of the weapons or tactics that were tried to beat it, and humans tried many of those, has had any effect whatsoever. On the other hand, the Dragon is sentient, immortal, and seemingly pretty smart. He also loves eating humans.

The dragon offered a deal to the human race. Bring me 10 000 humans every day so that I can eat them effortlessly without having to move around. In exchange, I will not attack you, and not destroy your stuff or annihilate your race.

It is important to note that in this world, people did not suffer from physical aging past their prime, but the community still decided that, for fairness, people would be more likely to be sent to the dragon if they were older. The exact selection method changes from text to video.

Then, many many years pass and mankind learns to accept the dragon as a natural fact of life. They build society taking into account its existence. As their population grows, the dragon slowly increases the tribute size too, because he can. Then, after a long time (implied to be centuries or even milleniums), scientists discover a “maybe” way to kill the dragon for good. After much debate, they end up getting the funding and support for the projet, and even then it takes several years to be completed.

In the end, the project succeeds, the dragon is killed, and people are happy and glad, but many of them regret not starting the project sooner to save more people.

It is only implied in the video, but explicitly written in the text, that the story is an analogy for death. The dragon represents death, taking away thousands of people every day, yet we still mostly accept it as a fact of life. The story’s moral is that we should start putting as much effort as we can, not next year, next month or tomorrow, but right now, to stop, and eventually reverse aging. Every day we delay the work on this topic is several thousand people who die and can’t ever be brought back.

I have very mixed feelings about this story.

First of all, I am a huge proponent of life extension and health research. I hope very well that aging can be stopped (at least) before I die, for mostly selfish reasons like not dying. If we manage to stop aging, then our deadline to figure out how to reverse it is basically infinite (except for entropy I guess), same goes for actual immortality (not dying from other reasons either). I’m a big fan of being alive.

So you could expect me to be a big fan of this story, since it seems to agree with me. Death is a problem that way too many people ignore. We already seem to put a huge value on a single human life, but contrary to a very popular belief that life would be less valuable without death, I believe that any value life (±80 years) currently has is nothing compared to the value of a much longer (±1000s of years) life. In this time, we could acumulate so much more knowledge, enjoyment, relationships, etc.

In the story, the King devotes lots of resources fighting “minor” threats, like wild animals, instead of funding the dragon project. This is treated by the author as an example of completely skewed priorities. In real life, this could be a reference to the huge effort we put into “saving” people who are wounded, sick, starving, etc, while we all know that in real life, we never save a single person. We only delay their deaths by a very short amount of time. Such resources, if they were used to instead combat the deadline that aging puts on all of us, would not only save many more people in the medium to long run, but also make their lives much more valuable.

But the aesop in both versions of the story is straight up bullshit for many reasons.

First of all, most of the people that are against the dragon-killing project are straight up strawmen. While they very accurately mimic real life bullshit ideas, like everyone deserves to get eaten by the dragon at some point, fighting it is “unnatural”, or past failures mean future attempts will be failures too, they are not even close to being exhaustive. The more valid points are barely touched upon, and quickly brushed aside. Some of those, in the context of the story, would include the very real risk that if the project fails, the dragon could take revenge and kill everyone (which aging can’t do in real life), or the fact that while being eaten by the dragon doesn’t make any life more valuable, being free to spend your years doing what you want instead of devoting all your time and money to the project definitely makes a life more enjoyable. If the project succeeds, you can be free after, but if it fails, every life has been much less enjoyable for pretty much no reason. Some other valid counter arguments, like the overpopulation issue, are raised in the story. Even though they are very easy to disprove, they are never actually addressed in the story, which makes them sounds completely valid, and makes the author look like he ignored some points because he didn’t know how to prove them wrong.

In the story, the final decision to fund the project was taken after a little kid cried that the dragon ate people he loved. While very emotional, and a good way to shut down the strawmen that were arguing that the dragon was good, it is still only an emotional argument. This sounds pretty close to the real life strawmen that want to ban things (guns, cars, kinder surprises) because of the harm they cause, without ever caring about the good those things bring, and taking the time to figure out if they do more harm or more good.

There’s a reason why 5 years old kids, no matter how nice or sweet, don’t make federal policies.

Furthermore, the aesop is entirely built upon consequentialism. The project ended up working with basically no downsides except for the effort it took. Everyone lived happily ever after. This seems to be taken as a justification. The reason why the project was good is that in the end it worked.

Consequentialism in real life is easily countered. If you go all in on a mediocre hand in poker, but end up winning by pure chance, it doesn’t mean you played well, and it doesn’t mean everyone should do the same. Playing Russian Roulette is a very bad idea, no matter how many games you won in the past. Same goes for the story. If the chance of success, which was unknown to the people, was 1%, and the consequence for failure was extinction, then it doesn’t matter if it worked out in the end. They would have made the wrong choice. (I am well aware that from a purely mathematical perspective, even those conditions made the choice correct, but using modern real life values and priorities, everyone living a happy life during several decades is better than instant extinction by a factor of more than 100. We rarely judge morality with pure mathematics).

Furthermore, this is not real life. This is a fictional story. This makes a consequentialism philosophy even less credible. Just like in gambling movies, where the character wins at the crucial moment for the sake of plot, the author here decided that the project would succeed. This makes the argument vastly weaker. If the author had made the rocket fail, and the dragon retaliate by murdering everyone, then he could have used pretty much the same story as an aesop for why it is a bad idea to make country-wide enormous decisions based on the feelings of young children. The argument would have been exactly as strong, while being totally opposite. That makes both proofs very weak. While in real life, results can be somewhat used as a justification for something, even if it’s borderline a fallacy, you can’t argue that the goal was achieved. In fiction, the goal can be achieved instantly if the writer feels like it, therefore even the shaky argument “it works so it can’t be that bad” doesn’t hold.

So after thinking about it, I think this video is pretty much just an attempt (maybe in completely good faith) to manipulate people through emotions and relatable fears (most people don’t like aging or dying), and doesn’t hold its own as a legitimate attempt to argue the fact that we should pour a significant amount of our resources (that are otherwise occupied at the moment) into anti-aging research.

You may ask yourself why I mentioned having mixed feelings then. It’s pretty straightforward, I agree with the idea but think the argument is bad, just like I can agree with equality of the sexes yet disagree with affirmative action. There’s nothing mixed in disagreeing with someone on your own side.

What’s mixed is my personal feelings on this one. On one hand, I firmly believe in honesty, not manipulating people, and using good arguments and legitimate logic to argue for things. I don’t believe emotional arguments are good arguments.

But on the other, I really believe that one of our biggest priority should be trying to end aging. I believe this is several order of magnitudes more important than pretty much everything we are currently working on, since every life saved now last exponentially longer, so is exponentially more happy and useful to society. I believe this is so important that any easily understandable video like this one, if it manages to convince only one person, is a big deal, and a huge help for mankind as a whole.

Even if it is manipulative, misleading or even straight up false, there is no doubt that this dragon story has convinced some people.

So on one hand, I have a set of important, clear and straightforward values, that drive my morals and ethical decisions. On the other, this is the greatest “greater good” I can imagine. And I can’t figure out if it’s worth it. Ironically, supporting this story is me being a consequentialist. If it works, even though it compromises my values, then isn’t it a good thing in the long run?

It’s hard to not be an hypocrite.



  • Kingfisher

    Another comment of mine didn’t stick for some reason, but I’ve had time to think about it some more.

    The fable suffers from a case of mixed metaphors. I think because the topic of senescence isn’t all that simple. The automatic self-destruct timer we all have is a monster borne of complexity. Life is a constant struggle against entropy, which can only ever be delayed, never denied.

    The thing is, the problem of dying of old age is a fairly recent one. In order to get the privilege of facing old age, you’d have to survive childhood, famine, pestilence, violence, and every other mode of death, and it was rare for a person to make it that far. Eventually everyone has to ‘pay their first and last debt to the earth itself’. So it’s no wonder the universal creditor would get impatient after extending the loan way past the average.

    Senescence is not a malevolent monster. It is an unwinding spring, with no way to wind it back up. This historically hasn’t been much of a problem because we usually broke before the spring winds out, and we had plenty of time to wind up the next generation of springs.

    The fable bounces off one thing that I’ve found to be true. It treats it as obvious that death by time is, like, the worst. But this is by no means obvious. To quote They Might Be Giants:
    “Now it’s over, I’m dead and I haven’t done anything that I want, or I’m still alive and there’s nothing I want to do”.

    To people like CGP Grey and Nick Bostrum, the problem is that there is so little time, and so much to do. But the majority of people experience the opposite problem. I don’t expect Grey and Bostrum to comprehend that, nor would I ask them to, because it’s awfully depressing.

  • Kingfisher

    I highly recommend the online comic Schlock Mercenary The overall story arc explores the potential unintended consequences of technological immortality, presenting it as a probable immediate cause of the Fermi Paradox and the Great Silence. It’s also very entertaining.

    In the story, the discovery of technology that can make everyone effectively immortal is immediately followed by a mass extinction. The eponymous character (Sergeant Schlock) is revealed to be what happens when the data storage medium immortal people use to archive their memories becomes sentient, ambulatory, and comically violent.

  • Kingfisher

    For me the fable fails for another reason (though it is a good story in itself).

    Fables work when the concept it’s exploring is simple, but abstract. A single emotion, or a single social norm, and then uses a concrete analogy to explain it. Fables are usually employed to explain morality to children, because they follow a simple pattern of behavior/consequence. The mouse disobeys his mother and gets eaten by a fox. Simple.

    Death isn’t a very simple concept, so a fable isn’t going to be very effective in explaining it. I think it’s counterproductive to even think about death as a single entity. Death not a ‘thing’, or even a phenomena. It is just what we call it when something alive ceases to be alive, but we don’t even have a very good definition of ‘alive’.

    Here’s an analogy I think is more useful. Imagine the kingdom is plagued not by a single enormous dragon, but by a host of terrible monsters. Some of these monsters stalk children, some the elderly. Many of the monsters are practically invisible, while some have terrifying visages. Some even wore human faces.

    People came up with various ways to cope with the monsters. Some declared they were divine judgement, others claimed special powers to ward them off. Elders passed on wisdom on how to avoid the worst of them. Some of this wisdom was effective, some of it not. But for most people they just accepted that sooner or later one monster or another was going to get you. And maybe they didn’t actually eat you anyway, they just carried you to a far-away land from which none but gods could return.

    But every generation fought against the monsters as best they could. And with each passing generation the weapons and tactics improved. Then one day, one of the most fearsome of the monsters fell by human hands, and then another. We came to believe that no monster was invincible, and we began to dream of a world without monsters.

    But then there was the nagging fear. What if, in slaying so many monsters, we accidentally wake something far worse. What if Grendel has a mother? What if, in our zeal to live, we are running blindly to our doom?

    Or worse, what if, in slaying monsters, we become monsters ourselves?

  • Probablynotamantisdoctor

    About the consequentialism argument :
    You could argue to do the tests with the missiles until the chances of failure are low enough before launching it. I don’t think 99% is low enough at all. Given overpopulation sorted out (although the fact that the amount of matter is finite in the universe probably means that we would need to kill people or to stop giving birth at some point), the axiom “eternal life is more valuable than non-eternal life” could stand in a perfect world where aging really did stop completely, but even then, having people die for years to maximize the chances of non-annihilation might be the best option unfortunately. Can’t save them all.

    About how you value life :
    For the sake of finding a minimally mathematical meaning behind the word “value” when it is paired with the word “life”, I’ll be thinking of humans from a neuronal system stand-point from now on. I’m going to assume that a being’s life value could be understood with the complexity, quality and usefulness to the other machines (mankind) of its cerebral cortex (for example, to humans, humans are generally much more valuable than squirrels). This is arbitrary, but considering the subject at stake is immortality, it feels acceptable to me to think of it like this.
    We are finite machines, so living eternally actually doesn’t have that much value. At some point, if our brain cells and connections do not multiply infinitely, a human will reach its maximum, at least an asymptote in its potential of accomplishing tasks, or if you prefer in the complexity of it’s cortex. I guess there could be a talk about something being or not being human if it grows indefinitely, but that is not the point here. The idea in this frame of mind is that giving birth and dying are simply destroying older machines and building new, hopefully better ones, to get the best value out of humanity. That’s how life has been proceeding for (all?) living species that are known to mankind. I’m not saying its the best way or that is should stay like this, but that naturally, it had to be the simplest way to proceed. Nothing that we know took the path of immortality and at least survived. For all we know, maybe some species did try the path but died because of the unefficiency of this method. But maybe the newfound complexity of mankind could justify not letting olther machines die.
    Now I believe this frame of mind is not the only one that exists, and that the “definition” of life value could be something else, so this is more an idea than a counter-argument.

    About being an hypocrite :
    Well, if you believe your arguments would not convince people, but that the possibly false arguments of someone else could convince people of doing the same act, the natural reaction is to stop convincing people and let them do their thing. But although external outcomes will be the same, the motivation for the acts are not, and therefore there was still something to learn in that situation for either, maybe both parties. So rather than talk to and try to convince people for their actions, the consequences, talk and convince people to learn and maybe make other learn. Get out of your comfort zone and battle for the sake of progress and not for yourself, espcially in logical talks. Right?