Your Last Three Minutes: What Would You Say?

The speechmaker is given no more than three minutes and is instructed to imagine that, as soon as the talk concludes, he or she dies. My friend said that the speeches were uniformly riveting, but, more notably, they were surprising. The men and women charged with the honor of giving these speeches clearly thought hard about what was most essential for them to say, and often it wasn’t at all what you might expect from a senator, a world-renowned physicist, or a CFO. – Eugene O’Kelly

That was the exercise (pdf) that opened up this past quarter’s Silicon Valley Junto discussion on death and mortality. The SV Junto is an "intellectual salon" modeled on Ben Franklin’s Junto. Chris and I started it a year and a half ago.

We had some intense and wonderfully honest / emotional conversations. One point that came up which has been rattling around in my mind is whether it’s possible to achieve the clarity and "life changing experience" that many people have during a grieving process without actually having a grieving process. It seems like the pain threshold needs to be high enough to truly jolt you out of your default system and appreciate the preciousness of each day, the importance of relationships you take for granted. Dealing with a death meets that threshold; what other things?

Like most people at the Junto, I find benefit from pondering my own mortality. At a practical level, of course, there are various loose ends that if not tied up have the potential to wreck families and relationships. Equally important are the "spiritual" and emotional issues around how you choose to live a life of finite time (if you don’t believe in an afterlife).

Much more to write about on this topic, but for now I’ll simply point you to the 3 minute drill PDF used for the Junto; the text of Tim Taylor’s speech; here is Gayle’s; here is Eliezer Yudowksy’s email to friends after his brother’s tragic death.

12 comments on “Your Last Three Minutes: What Would You Say?
  • Eliezer Yudowski’s email was even sadder than he intended because he used the occasion of his brother’s death to launch an irrational assault on reason.

    It’s absurd to anthropomorphize death, make it “the enemy”, and deem it evil. It’s insolent to assume that if God exists, ‘He’ must necessarily will evil things to happen.

    Yudowski’s paean to the goals of transhumanist atheism is more a leap of faith than is belief in a benevolent God.

    Transhumanism won’t get far if the response of every atheist to death is as selfish and self-serving as his unreasonable words.

  • Another book to look into, besides “Chasing Daylight,” is “Dying Well” by Ira Byock. The author answers some heart-wrenching questions about death.

    I read a question a day to keep death in mind. I feel different after reading it.

  • Oddly, though not at the Junto discussion -and on the other side of the country- I had a similar discussion, pondering morality and the related this weekend. Ben, if you haven’t already, you should read Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life.

  • (Ben, Vince, it’s Y-U-D-K-O-W-S-K-Y.)

    Vince, I stated explicitly that I don’t think the universe is sentient, hence evil; obviously I don’t think death is sentient either.

    The problem of evil is ancient even among religious philosophers; in times when faith was stronger, they could acknowledge the problem of evil without feeling quite so threatened. I know there are dodges for the problem of evil. I think they are obviously just that, dodges. This universe simply does not look like it would be expected to look if it contained a benevolent god; it does look exactly how it would look if it’s just the laws of physics with no sentient will one way or the other. I’d say “Nature doesn’t care” but you’d accuse me of anthropomorphizing.

    We care, we humans. Unlike the laws of physics, we do have minds, and we can care. There is no God to love us and save us, but we still have each other. That is a very valuable and treasured thing. It’s sad that so many people see this as a cause for despair.

  • Sorry for the error, Eliezer.

    I would feel despair if my outlook on life, the universe, and everything was as bleak as yours.

    I would ask where you obtain this godlike perspective that makes you privy to what the universe would look like “if it contained a benevolent God”, or even more presumptuously, what it would look without one.

    I detect no logic or reason in your argument, only emotion.

  • I would feel despair if my outlook on life, the universe, and everything was as bleak as yours.

    Odd, that’s the same way I feel about most religious outlooks.

    I would ask where you obtain this godlike perspective

    Thank you very much! All you do is refuse to be intimidated and go on working out the implications of a hypothesis, whether it’s a cosmically large hypothesis or an ordinary everyday hypothesis. Do this without fail, without flinching, and without obeying thought-stopsigns like “God”, “spiritual” and “cosmic”. Then you will obtain a perspective that others call “godlike”, meaning that you ran through one of their stopsigns.

    The way the universe would look without any God is straightforward; the study of it is called “science” and it agrees very well with observed reality. No one has ever found an electron that moves up instead of down when it is morally right to do so.

    The way the universe would look with various types of superintelligence added is theoretically if not practically straightforward; it would look modified in the direction of the superintelligence’s goalsystem.

    The way the universe would look with a benevolent God added is in some ways hard to know, but it surely would not contain the Holocaust or sexually abused children, etc.

    This seems quite straightforward to me, and I see no reason to complicate it.

  • Eliezer,

    “The way the universe would look with a benevolent God added is in some ways hard to know, but it surely would not contain the Holocaust or sexually abused children, etc.”

    I think – that’s a far too simplistic altruism resulting from an incorrect perception of the life in the universe, plus or minus God.

    To sense benevolence, one has to be conscious of malevolence. Perhaps that explains the occurrence of all misfortune. To seek pure benevolence alone from a God is a form of escapism, and a God that sustains a breed that lives by passing the buck is certainly anything but benevolent, since it renders the species ever dependent – that’s clearly unhealthy. Would you want to live at the mercy of someone else, no matter, be it a benevolent God?

    In fact, death is mistakenly classified as evil when actually what one despises is the sudden absence of a near one. Death is the only certainty to end an uncertain life, a limit, the only finite factor inside an infinite universe. When we realize all things that live shall die, it’s a form of manifest benevolence that is seen in death’s universality, perhaps of liberating the dead to another realm that only the dead know of. For those who live on, the anguish of death is also healed over time. Tell me, can any other form of justice be so unfailingly equitable? Benevolence again?

    Not everyone can be esoteric enough or even wanting to understand the complexity of scientific theories behind everything (try scientifically explaining Love, Desire, Greed, Contention, Kindness etc. to someone – the next sound you hear will be their head banging against the wall.) To many, faith is a convenient short cut that helps them leave a lot behind and move on with life doing lot simpler, easily achievable things that does not make them tired, but pleasantly weary at the end of the day.

    Call it God, call it Science. With just three letters, God is much easier to spell…!

  • From relatively early childhood, I lived with the inevitability of death. My dad was diagnosed with leukemia when I was 10. I became obsessed with his death, but since he had the chronic kind, he didn’t even become significantly ill until 12 years later when I was at college. Then he developed leukemia meningitis and nearly died. It’s strange that you can live with a chronically ill person (he frequently joked about his “fatal disease”) and still be shocked by the possibility of death. I went to the library and checked out every book I could find about grief and dying. The most profound change for me was that I learned to *always* leave people in a positive way because you never know if it is the last time you’ll see them. I’ve lived consciously that way for the last 30 years, and I find it the opposite of morbid.

    I found the 3 minute speeches you shared with us uninspiring, but I suppose that such a speech would be such a personal thing that it might not interest others. What do I care if some kid loves his parents? Obviously, they would be interested in the news, but I’m not.

  • If there are any linguists here, they can perhaps correct me but as far as I know there is no word in the English language with the puissance of the word ‘murda-parasti’ in Urdu. Roughly translated it means worshipping the deceased, but that does not even come close to what it really means as an expression in social commentary.

    Death is an inevitability, so are taxes. I set money aside for taxes but I do not spend every day thinking about them (except when the accountant sends me rebuking letters demanding the paperwork, or else). How can an event (death, tax filing date) govern a journey (life, the process of sharing one’s expertise in exchange for fees)?

  • Eliezer,

    Science has nothing to say about the existence or non-existence of God, nor should it.

    “The way the universe would look with various types of superintelligence added is theoretically if not practically straightforward; it would look modified in the direction of the superintelligence’s goalsystem.”

    This is prolix nonsense.

  • Buddhist monks break their vows;
    Taoist adepts forget their immortality pills.
    Many great teachers have lived since ancient times,
    And there they lie, under the green hill.

    — Wang Wei, circa 750 A.D.

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