Changing the Subject on Cryonics

Every Alcor member has experienced this. What appears to start as a discussion about the feasibility of cryonics quickly turns into a conversation about “overpopulation,” “selfishness,” “immortality,” “mind uploading,” “transhumanism,” etc. This predictable course of events is quite frustrating to the cryonics advocate but rather convenient for the critic because the actual technical and rational arguments in favor of cryonics no longer need to be scrutinized. I would be the first to admit, however, that this response often reflects a form of anxiety associated with cryonics that a critic does not want to deal with. But I think we should also recognize that often we have only ourselves to blame when someone tries to change the subject.

Since the beginning of cryonics the field has always been associated or even bundled with “something else.” Specifically, many public advocates of cryonics have also strongly advocated physical immortality, transhumanism, or the idea of substrate-independent minds (“mind uploading”). In particular, transhumanists are prone to present cryonics as just one component in a broader set of beliefs. While such an approach can be great for community building between like-minded people, it can present a serious obstacle to reaching out to the rest of the world. Not only does such rhetoric have limited appeal to the general public, it is not consistent with the idea of cryonics being an experimental critical care procedure.

I became painfully aware of this phenomenon when I read a “refutation” of cryonics by the economist Bryan Caplan that was essentially a critique of mind uploading. Now, some cryonics advocates do believe in substrate-independent minds, but mind uploading is not an essential part of cryonics and suggesting otherwise will just provide a convenient excuse to avoid discussing the merits of cryonics at all. I have seen many, many other such examples where a skeptical investigator simply confined himself to offering a critique of immortality or transhumanism and left it at that. Why does this happen?

I think we often do a lot ourselves to “prime” our presentation of cryonics to produce such a response. Could you imagine if someone introduces a new life-saving technology while also advocating socialism, atheism, or immortality? We would feel obliged to point out that medicine should have universal aspirations and not be tied to political or (anti-)religious notions. It should not be any different in the case of cryonics.

In fact, recognizing this neutral and universal aim of cryonics will also provide us with sensible responses to counter some of the arguments that are made against it by asking why cryonics is held to different standards than other experimental medical procedures. “Selfishness? Our desire is to make cryonics available to all and save lives.” “Immortality? All we are saying is that we should replace our existing, dated, definition of death with a more rigorous definition.” “Transhumanism? The belief systems of some cryonics advocates have little bearing on its feasibility.” There are many arguments against cryonics that make little sense, or would even be considered abhorrent, if used against more mainstream experimental treatments, and it is important to consistently reiterate this position. But it is going to be challenging if we keep presenting cryonics in a matter that induces the audience to change the subject.

One objection I have heard against this perspective is that it is rather fear-driven, if not cowardly. Instead, we should not be embarrassed about our beliefs and be honest about our ultimate objectives and convictions. I think this argument is mistaken because it assumes that cryonics advocates are a homogenous group with identical beliefs and values. As cryonics keeps growing, this will become more and more untenable. The real risk is to waste such membership growth opportunities by essentially encouraging an inward-looking outlook.

Looking at this issue from the perspective of individual survival, such public indulgence with other controversial ideas strikes me as counterproductive. If your survival depends on the exercise of some personal restraint, and resisting the desire to argue all kinds of other issues that you care about, can you not do this? Would you rather be “right” but dead?

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, September, 2014