Moving The Goalposts

Being a cryonicist can sometimes be exasperating. We like to think that making (technological) progress in our field will persuade more people to make cryonics arrangements. Are you concerned about the long-term stability of cryonics organizations? We set up a patient care trust fund designed to maintain patients in perpetuity. Are you concerned about ice formation? We introduce a new technology that eliminates freezing and turns tissue into a “glass.” Are you concerned about fracturing? We can store a patient at intermediate temperatures. Are you concerned about the use of volunteers? We contract with a company that uses professional surgeons and perfusionists. Are you concerned about long transport times? We develop protocols that allow us to do cryoprotective perfusion in the field. Are you concerned about a cryonics organization’s operations being dependent on bequests and donations from wealthy donors? We insist that the operating expenses of the organization should be covered by membership dues.

One would think that each time Alcor introduces new technologies and policies skeptics will re-calibrate and a larger number of them start making cryonics arrangements. For example, ice formation is generally perceived to produce a lot of damage to tissues. As a consequence, the transition from conventional cryopreservation with glycerol to vitrification should have produced a sharp increase in membership. It did not. Strangely enough, the publication of Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation produced a larger increase in membership than the introduction of ice free cryopreservation. How can this be reconciled with the emphasis many of our critics place on empirical evidence? After all, Drexler’s book was a popular but theoretical argument about the feasibility and desirability of molecular nanotechnology and the introduction of vitrification was an actual, real-world, upgrade of cryonics procedures.

This failure of technological progress to translate into an increased acceptance of cryonics is often observed within the same person. First it is ice formation that is posited to be the obstacle to making cryonics arrangements. Then, when vitrification is introduced, the objection changes from ice formation to fracturing. When it is shown that storing at intermediate temperatures can mitigate fracturing the person suddenly is concerned about cryoprotective toxicity. And the list goes on and on. A clearer example of someone moving the goalposts cannot be found. The question is “why.” I think a close examination of these scientific and technological issues will not answer the question.

If something has become increasingly clear in informal conversations about cryonics it is that these kinds of objections are often superficial and follow-up conversations usually reveal more personal, psychological reservations. If we look for the common denominator of these objections we find that to many people cryonics does not offer the prospect of the continuation of life but a disruption and threat to personal identity. Cryonics may present the prospect of survival but the fear is that outside of our brain and bodies not much else will survive (family members, friends, careers, assets, money etc.).

Is the weak correlation between technological progress and the growth of cryonics a reason for pessimism? Not necessarily. If we really want cryonics to take off and grow we should re-frame our presentation of cryonics and present it as an attractive means to continue one’s life, expand one’s social connections and relationships, grow one’s assets, and improve one’s body and well-being. If we succeed in delivering a friendlier presentation of cryonics, more people will make cryonics arrangements, which will lower the threshold for other people to make cryonics arrangements, which will further arouse interest in cryonics, et cetera. And then, ironically, more money and resources will be available for research to bring us closer to real human suspended animation.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, June, 2015