One of our crew here at The New Atlantis celebrated a birthday this week, and we were discussing the question of whether transhumanists — especially of the Eliezer Yudkowsky, hyper-rationalist variety — should celebrate birthdays. On the one hand, from a philosophical perspective, they are a barbaric concession to arcane rituals of pre-rational cultures. They are based, moreover, upon a system of non-universal measurement — the arbitrary length of time it just happens to take the planet on which we just happen to be located to rotate around the stellar mass around which it just happens to rotate. What’s so special about occupying the same region of the solar system you did when you crossed through the maternal threshhold? And what about beings who don’t live on planets? What would a universal sentience say?

On the other hand, birthdays suggest the primacy of the individual, who is after all at the center of the transhumanist ethos. However, this suggestion comes by way of noting our icky, evolutionarily inefficient, and arguably tyrannical biological natality — not to mention our mortality. Yikes! It’s all quite dizzying.

Birthday photo via Shutterstock


May 24, 2012


  1. "'Day' is a vestigial mode of time measurement based on solar cycles. It's not applicable… I didn't get you anything."

  2. The question is easily answered by the following general algorithm: In a world where religion, supernatural beliefs, and cognitive-dissonance/sour-grapes "silver linings" for death and other evils, had all never been invented in the first place, would people still celebrate birthdays? Yes, they would. Ergo, why wouldn't we celebrate them?

    Yours, the hyper-rationalist.

  3. Mr. Yudkowsky,

    Thanks for commenting. I get what sort of thinking you're out to do away with, of course, and your scenario is at least plausible. But how in the world are you so sure? Why does your rationality begin with the assumption that you know very much rather than very little?

    There is a fundamental paradox in your mode of inquiry: your central premise is that human thinking is extremely flawed — but you and your colleagues' thinking is so superior that you can reinvent rationality from scratch for everyone else. Yet alas (although I know you're hard at work on changing this) you are all yourselves still human. A small indication of how error-prone your own thinking remains is the fact that you refer to this post-superstition scenario of yours as an "algorithm." Any self-respecting artificial intelligence researcher — which you claim yourself to be — would never speak so sloppily. This hypothetical is not remotely an algorithm, nor is the process of evaluating it — not unless the questions it depends on are so precisely defined as to be answerable mathematically and computationally. As usual with the Less Wrong crowd, all inquiries begin with the unspoken premise: First, assume we have solved all philosophy.

    Your view, as with most transhumanists, is that human nature is deeply flawed — yet ultimately simple, knowable, and perfectible. It presumes we can remove as a module any part of human nature we find distasteful, and be certain we will know how the rest would behave — and this somehow despite the evidently severe limitations of our self-knowledge and self-understanding. I submit that you are far from the first to conjure such an idea, and that your predecessors have been proved wrong — calamitously so when they have been given much power to carry out their ideas.

    I'm glad we're on the same page about birthdays, though. I was hoping for a pony.

    The sour grape

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