Brain preservation

Mind uploading advocate Kenneth Hayworth has launched an interesting website devoted to the science of brain preservation. Of particular interest is his Proposal for a Brain Preservation Technology Prize (PDF). This document includes one of the most comprehensive discussions of chemopreservation as a strategy for personal survival. For example, one of the most common objections to chemopreservation is that fixatives like formaldehyde and glutaraldehyde do a poor job of fixing lipids. In this document, Hayworth reviews a number of papers where a fixative that can stabilize lipids, osmium tetroxide, is perfused (!) through the circulatory system.   For human sized brains such a step would be necessary to avoid the ischemic damage and autolysis that would occur in the case of the time-consuming alternative of diffusion fixation.  He also speculates that such a fixed brain can be perfused with a high viscosity plastic resin for long term preservation.

One of the limitations of this approach, as the author concedes, is that the procedure needs to be started before death. In reality, the situation is even more challenging  than that because the procedure would have to be started before ischemia-induced brain perfusion abnormalities associated with terminal disease and the agonal phase will manifest themselves. This is a problem where “old fashioned” cryonics has a clear advantage. Perfusion impairment may interfere with complete distribution and equilibration of the cryoprotectant in the brain but the unperfused tissues will still be stabilized (although in a damaged form) through low temperatures. In the case of chemical fixation such a “second chance” is absent. This is not just a theoretical problem. Cryonics researchers have become painfully aware of the adverse effects of even the slightest perfusion artifacts on the quality of fixation and the resulting electron micrographs.

As a consequence, this kind of “high quality” chemopreservation can only be a credible alternative for cryonics if the medical establishment would permit the procedure for those who are diagnosed as terminally ill. If the acceptance of cryonics is any guidance, there is little chance that this will happen any time soon.

Chemopreservation has another major obstacle to deal with. As the cryobiologist Brain Wowk has stated on numerous occasions, chemical fixation is a dead end in terms of reversibility with contemporary technologies. This aspect of chemical fixation limits the demonstration of its technical feasibility to a demonstration of ultrastructural preservation.  In the case of cryonics, evidence of excellent ultrastructural preservation has produced little excitement among the scientific establishment and the general public. Linking chemopreservation exclusively to mind uploading may present another obstacle to its acceptance.

In his essay Killed by Bad Philosophy: Why brain preservation followed by mind uploading is a cure for death [PDF] Kenneth Hayworth attempts a defense of mind uploading by identifying the philosophical errors that those who reject the concept, and those who argue that “a copy is not you” in particular, engage in. The author shows little doubt about his position although one might object that the central example that is used to make the case could also be used to  argue against mind uploading. One might even object  that the whole debate involves a pseudo-problem if any kind of empirical observation can be made consistent with the case for and the case against mind uploading.

Aside from these complexities, this is an admirable effort to raises interest in high quality brain fixation. Initial funding for more experimental research should be encouraged.

Death is Gruesome…Cryonics Only Makes it Less So!

William Faloon is a Licensed Funeral Director and Embalmer (Florida license number: F042784)

Human beings are largely unaware about the gruesome nature of “death”

Humans also shy away from the mutilation that occurs during hospital surgery.

Hollywood films portray cryonics in a glamorous high-tech manner that makes it appear that one’s body can easily be placed into a capsule and frozen for future revival.

Reality is that cryopreservation involves complex surgery whereby tubes are inserted into major arteries and veins in order to deliver special anti-freeze solutions into the brain. The purpose is to reduce or eliminate freezing damage and other types of damage to brain cells. The process involves introducing stabilizing drugs and a special solution in the field and a major procedure in an operating room.

There’s nothing pretty about human cryopreservation, but as you’ll read, the alternatives are truly ghastly—and every alternative involves the head eventually separating from the body.

We deceive ourselves

When I worked as a licensed embalmer, I was quite talented at taking horrific human remains and making them look good temporarily. In order to do this, a tremendous amount of mutilation was done to each corpse.

First step is to wire or sew their mouths shut. Incisions are made in the neck, groin and other areas to access arteries to insert tubes that were used to force formaldehyde in. Veins are accessed (raised) to push blood out.

While formaldehyde delivered through blood vessels preserves tissues of the body, it does little to keep cavities (such as the stomach, bowels, lungs and cranium) from putrefying. To keep the body from decomposing before burial, we used a device that resembles a thick hollow sword to repeatedly penetrate the body cavities to vacuum out as much of the liquid contents as possible. We would then reverse the process by pouring formaldehyde directly into the thoracic and abdominal cavities and sometimes the brain. Sometimes the same sword (trocar) used to evacuate the bowels was shoved up the nose through the sinuses to suck out cerebral-spinal fluid in the cranium.

When I learned how to do this in mortuary school, I thought how undignified the entire process is. Without embalming, however, the outcome is even worse.

Decomposition

It’s frightening how quickly a living, breathing, thinking person can be transformed into a rotting, stinking corpse. A few days at room temperature and the stench can become so bad that it can never be removed from the house, car or clothing.

When picking up a decomposed body, it was not unusual for its arms to literally be ripped off when trying to move the remains into a rubber pouch. Skin slips right off the body after a few days making the removal of a “decomposed subject” a challenge.

A decomposed corpse is often severely bloated with intestinal and “tissue” gas, discolored beyond recognition, and carries the most horrific of odors. The challenge is to dump enough preservative powders and liquids into the rubber-pouch encased corpse and then place the pouched corpse into a sealed casket and hope that no foul aroma leaks out.

Those who don’t like the thought of being “embalmed” sometimes mandate in their will that no embalming is to take place. They are thus condemned to grisly decomposition in the ground or tomb.

Cremation is no escape

The process of preparing corpses to look like living individuals laying in a coffin is less common than in the 1960s, when virtually every corpse was embalmed for a “viewing”.

More people nowadays opt for direct cremation, where the body is refrigerated temporarily and then placed into a furnace. The flames ignite the body fat which can sometimes be seen exiting the corpse in little rivers. In order to incinerate the brain midway through the cremation process, a small door is opened into the furnace where a steel poker is rammed into the skull to “pop out” the brain tissues.

After all the soft tissues have been burned away, the skeletal remains are taken out and ground into smaller pieces which become the “cremains” or ashes.

During the cremation process, needless to say, the head becomes separated from the body as the flames burn through the spinal cord and other connective tissues.

Considering this was a functioning human being only a day or two before, there certainly is no dignity with this process. As with embalming and decomposing, cremation is quite “gruesome”.

Autopsy—the ultimate mutilation

The meticulous dissection of a corpse known as an “autopsy” is the most intentional and egregious form of mutilation that one can imagine.

Your odds of having this horrific process done to you are higher than you may think, as most counties autopsy anyone who dies under suspicious circumstances.

As you read this, just imagine someone taking a scalpel and carving a huge “Y” stretching from the top of both your shoulders and then meeting at the bottom of your breastbone. The incision continues to the bottom half of the “Y” down to your pubic area. A steel saw is then used to cut open your breastbone, your ribs are separated. Every one of your organs are cut out and sliced in many different pieces for “examination”.

The next step is to make an incision using a scalpel across the back of your head. Another saw is then taken to cut open your skull so that your brain can be removed, sliced and “examined”.

My first reaction to an autopsy was that is was so grotesque that it should be banned. From a practical standpoint, however, autopsies allow doctors to learn from their mistakes by seeing what actually was going on while their patient was dying, though this practice has declined dramatically over the past 40 years.

Autopsies nowadays are mostly performed by county Medical Examiners to determine the cause of death when there is no attending physician, or where a death occurs under suspicious circumstances.

Autopsies provide a lot of good data that benefits the living, but at the cost of horrendous mutilation to what was once a human being.

As an embalmer, putting together the pieces of an “autopsied case” took about four times longer than a regular case.

What happens after burial?

As I said earlier, I was darn good at taking corpses that were severely disfigured by degenerative disease and temporarily making them look good for a few days in the funeral home.

My work experience includes disinterring bodies that had been embalmed and buried years in the past. These cases arose when a family member wanted the buried body moved to a new city or cremated.

In rare cases, a corpse that had been in the ground for ten years or more was still “viewable” with a little cosmetic help. When this occurred, I would call the family and say, “if you want to see Dad again, he is in pretty good shape”.

In most cases, however, the remains here horrifically deteriorated. One case I will never forget reminded me of the original Frankenstein movies. The cemetery people opened the grave and I was supposed to meet the removal service company at 4:00 PM during the time of the year when the sun set early. The removal company was late and the cemetery people insisted that I get the body out of the ground before closing.

The top of the concrete burial vault was removed, exposing a deteriorating coffin. I went down into the grave, straddling myself by putting one foot on each side of the burial vault top for leverage. I ripped open the top of the coffin and saw one of the scariest looking corpses ever. The tissue literally had deteriorated in a way that resembled a thin layer of hot wax covering the skull. It truly looked frightening even to me.

My paid help was running late so I had to pull this deteriorated cadaver out of the ground by myself. I grabbed one arm and one leg, hoping to pull it out of the rotting coffin. The arm ripped off and the body fell back in. I tried other angles, but body parts kept separating from the torso. As body parts piled up around the grave, the removal service finally arrived and we lifted the entire body out of the buried coffin. Staring at this disfigured corpse in the eye, with body parts coming off left and right, as darkness was setting in was downright eerie.

Sometimes when doing a disinterment, there is virtually no body. One time we opened a fairly well preserved coffin to see only perfectly clean dentures, eye glasses and musty clothing. The reason for this was that flies had gotten into the corpse’s nostrils before burial and laid eggs. When the maggots hatched, they ate the entire body and possibly the bones. There were piles of dead maggots in the coffin, indicating they thrived quite well until they consumed their food supply, i.e. the corpse.

Needless to say, the head of virtually every buried remains will at some point separate from the body. Once the soft tissues disappear through deterioration, the bones simply fall apart.

So when you look at well kept cemeteries with meticulously cut fresh grass, remember the customers interred below are not doing so well.

Surgical procedures

Cable TV has science channels that show real operations occurring in the hospital setting.

Doctors narrate how challenging it is to do these surgeries without killing the patient. I view these programs with amazement from the standpoint that patients undergoing invasive surgery often look like they may be on death’s door, but then a week later they are shown playing basketball with their grandchild.

One procedure I recall was a patient being operated on to remove the parathyroid glands in the neck. A disease called primary hyperparathyroidism causes the excess secretion of parathyroid hormone that damages the body. The cure is meticulous surgery to identify and remove all of the parathyroid glands. If one is missed, the patient may have to undergo another grueling surgery. One woman had the bottom of her neck cut and the neck skin pulled over her face for what appeared to be hours of meticulous dissection of her neck tissues to remove all the parathyroid glands. To me, the women looked virtually dead, but she made a rapid recovery as seen on TV.

Cryo-preservation—Less gruesome and not abusive

One may remember movies of a perfectly sculpted Sylvester Stallone (and other actors) elegantly traveling through time in a frozen state and being revived in perfect condition.

Real world human cryo-preservation involves a complex surgical procedure followed by a long term of suspension in a stainless steel storage unit at a temperature where virtually no molecular motion exists.  Nothing alluring about it, and when viewed out of context, may appear “gruesome”.

Most people are in denial about what will happen to their bodies when they die. They over react when they hear of someone’s head being surgically and chemically treated to protect brain cell injury during cryo-preservation. Overlooked is that any other form of disposition results in far more ghastly results for the victim of death.

Words like “gruesome” and “ghastly” are being used to describe the cryo-preservation of baseball legend Ted Williams. As stated in the beginning of this essay, what happens to a human body after death is undeniably horrific. Cryonics is merely less gruesome than anything else that is done to a corpse.

I hope this essay helps put cryo-preservation in perspective with more mutilating and appalling forms of disposition that deceased humans are exposed to every day. It should serve to educate the media that ALCOR patients are not being mutilated or “abused” by the complex protocols that are used to provide them with the best scientific opportunity of future revival, whatever the probability may be.

Baby boomers confront the reaper

One question that is going to be of great interest is how aging baby boomers will confront aging and death. Where previous generations have found peace in religion and silent resignation, there are reasons to believe that this generation will not be so complacent. The baby boom generation, or at least those who have shaped contemporary culture and politics, have been more secular and less inclined to accept the constraints of nature (as evidenced by the obligatory contempt for views that allow some degree of biological determinism). In a review for the Financial Times, Stephen Cave reports on no fewer than four new books on the topic of death:

In universities around the world, professors are now arguing that the Dark Angel deserves more respect. Contrary to Epicurus, Death is justly to be feared, say today’s academicians – the common folk had it right all along; we should humbly hand him back his scythe and then run for our lives. Four new books insist that we are right to panic when the reaper comes – and that our very civilisation depends upon it.

There is a lot at stake here. Will the dominant opinion become that death gives “meaning” to life, or will death be seen as an outrage that can be pushed back by modern science? As is evident from this review, both perspectives are represented in these books. It almost seems obligatory for philosophers who write about death to present a-priori scholastic arguments against immortality.  Stephen Cave even talks about the “paradox of immortality,” “the fact of death imbues our life with passion and urgency, but it is that very passion for life that makes death tragic.” But what is a paradox  (even a “fact”) to some, is the lack of imagination of a rationalist philosopher to others. It is hard to imagine that (secular) academic pro-death views will persist when medical science has advanced enough to make these rationalizations less important, but it cannot hurt to be vigilant and turn the tools of logic against them.

Herbert Marcuse, one of the heroes of the protest generation that is currently ruling America, made an astute observation about the “ideology of death”:

In the history of Western thought, the interpretation of death has run the whole gamut from the notion of a mere natural fact, pertaining to man as organic matter, to the idea of death as the telos of life, the distinguishing feature of human existence. From these two opposite poles, two contrasting ethics may be derived; On the one hand, the attitude toward death is stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man.

The authoritarian economic and political ideas of Marxists like Marcuse have little to offer to those inclined to critical thinking, but it is time for baby boomers to face the prospect of radical life extension and engage in direct action to fight the grim reaper.

Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and the science of cryonics

This past weekend Motel X, the Lisbon (Portugal) International Horror festival, had its third anniversary. It is one of the smaller international horror festivals around, but this year they managed to have both Stuart Gordon, director of several Lovecraft adaptions, and John Landis, director of the horror classic An American Werewolf in London, as special guests to provide introductions to their movies and give guest lectures.

Stuart Gordon is perhaps best known for his adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, also subject of  an earlier Depressed Metabolism post called H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation. Although it is one of his earliest movies, the festival did show Re-animator as part of a limited retrospective on Gordon’s work.

Re-animator is about Herbert West’s search to restore life to the dead. When Gordon introduced his movie, he mentioned that the movie is based on a true story, referring to actual research that is being carried out to resuscitate the dead. To a person familiar with cryonics, or even mainstream medical procedures such as hypothermic circulatory arrest, this is not such a strange concept but, surprisingly, the audience started laughing. Even when Gordon insisted on the subject, the audience continued with laughter.

This does show that even people that watch horror and science fiction movies, and the often forward-looking concepts portrayed in them, have a hard time imagining that these ideas are legitimate areas of scientific investigation and that resuscitation of “dead” people  may become reality in the future. This response highlights the struggle cryonicists face to make cryonics more accepted in society.

Two peer-reviewed articles relevant to cryonics:

Yuri Pichugin, Gregory M. Fahy, Robert Morin:  Cryopreservation of rat hippocampal slices by vitrification (PDF)

Benjamin P. Best: Scientific Justification for Cryonics Procedures (PDF)

See also Alcor’s Frequently Asked Questions for Scientists.

Cryonics and philosophy of science

The 2008-3 issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine contains a number of articles about the pitfalls of (excessive) scientific optimism and its potential adverse effects on the organizational and practical aspects of cryonics. My own contribution contrasts cryonics as medical conservatism with the kind of scientific meliorism that is often associated with movements such as transhumanism and singularitarianism. In particular, I express reservations about the arguments that intend to show that reversible cryopreservation and resuscitation of cryonics patients is inevitable because the required technological advances do not contradict our current understanding of the laws of physics. Instead of relying on abstract “rationalist” arguments I propose to focus more strongly on generating and disseminating empirical evidence that people who are engaged in science and medicine today will find persuasive, especially as it pertains to revising our contemporary definitions of death.

The same issue also contains an important contribution by Glen Donovan about the relationship between science and cryonics. Is cryonics a science? If it is not a science, what is it? This piece discusses cryonics from the perspective of the philosophy of science. This is an approach that has received little attention to date but it seems to me that the status of cryonics and its associated research programs can benefit from  discussing cryonics utilizing the tools and concepts of analytic philosophy. In particular, one project that could constitute an  important contribution would be to give specific empirical meaning to a concept like information-theoretic death.

Aschwin de Wolf – Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics (2009)

Jehovah’s witnesses and cryonics

When I was in New Zealand in 1999, CI Member Cam Christie told me that one of his co-workers was against cryonics because she was a Jehovah’s  Witness and her church had a position against cryonics. I recently found an article about cryonics on the Jehovah’s Witnesses website:

The piece contains the statement:

“…the use of nanotechnology and cryonics is still more  science fiction than reality. Science has contributed to,  and may still contribute to, a longer and healthier life  for some, but it will never give anybody eternal life.  Why not? Simply put, it is because the root cause of aging  and death lies beyond the realm of human science.”

To my knowledge, this is the strongest statement, and possibly the only statement, from an organized religion against cryonics. As far as I know cryonics has been “off the radar screen” and has not merited comment by any other organized religion.

The so-called conflict between religion and cryonics disappears when cryonicists stop claiming that cryonics can give immortality or eternal life. In the quote above, the Jehovah’s Witnesses acknowledge that science can contribute to “a longer and healthier life.” The more that cryonicists can convincingly stress that this is  the goal of cryonics, the fewer enemies we may face who have the power of frustrating our goals. Aside from the fact that many cryonicists, including me, do not believe that cryonics can give immortality or eternal life.  Cryonics cannot prevent a nuclear holocaust, a supernova, a meteor destroying the earth, and many other events which are inevitable in the face of eternity.

5 dangerous ideas about cryonics

The cryonics organizations Alcor and the Cryonics Institute have taken great care to correct some of the persistent myths about cryonics. With so much widespread misinformation being circulated in the media it seems trivial to pay attention to some of the misconceptions that some people who are sympathetic to cryonics hold. But the price of ignoring these opinions is that progress in the science of cryobiology and practice of human cryopreservation is adversely affected. What follows is a list of 5 “dangerous” ideas (or misconceptions) about cryonics and their consequences.

1. First in, last out.

A popular expression in cryonics is that the first person who was cryopreserved will require the most extensive repair technologies and therefore will be the last person to be resuscitated. The underlying assumption in this view is quite reasonable: when advances in cryopreservation technologies are made, demands on advanced future repair technologies will be lessened. The problem with this view, however, is that it assumes that advances in cryobiology and neuroprotection are the only factor influencing the quality of care in cryonics. Unfortunately, advances in the science of cryopreservation will not automatically translate into better patient care.  Other factors, such as the delay between time of “death” and start of procedures, and the protocols, equipment and personnel of the responding cryonics organizations, matter as well. For example, if a cryonics standby team is not able to get to a patient before 24 hours after cardiac arrest, pumps him full of air during remote blood washout, and ships him back to the cryonics organization at subzero temperatures, that patient will not benefit from advances in human cryopreservation such as rapid induction of hypothermia, neuroprotection and vitrification.

A professional cryonics organization with “old” technologies may on average do better than an incompetent cryonics organization with “new” technologies. The important lesson to be drawn here is that the concept of “patient care” is a meaningful concept  in cryonics and consumers of cryonics services need to evaluate their cryonics providers on their ability to provide good care.

2. Only the future will tell us how good our cryonics procedures are.

It is true that only the future will tell us whether cryonics patients will be resuscitated or not; but that does not mean that we cannot say anything meaningful about the quality of care in individual cryonics cases. The most obvious point is that we can compare actual patient care to the published protocols and objectives of the cryonics organization. More specific observations can be made during a cryonics case using medical equipment. In a well-run cryonics case a number of physiological and chemical measurements are made to determine the response of a patient to various interventions. As a general rule, the objective of cryonics stabilization procedures is to keep the brain of the patient viable by contemporary medical criteria. The danger of thinking of cryonics as one single experimental procedure that can only be evaluated in the future is that it ignores the fact that actual cryonics procedures consist of various separate procedures that can be monitored and evaluated using existing medical tools. The least that a cryonics consumer should expect from his cryonics organization is that it discloses its cryonics procedures to the general public and produces detailed case reports.

3. Cryonics patients are no longer being frozen.

Because not all cryonics patients will be “ideal” cases, this view is vulnerable to the same objections as the “first in, last out” rule, but there are some other issues that are important to mention in this context. The most important fact to be stressed is that ice formation is not a binary all or nothing thing but a continuum ranging from straight freezing (cryopreservation without cryoprotection) to complete elimination of ice formation. Although there have been many cases where patients have been frozen without the use of a cryoprotective agent, its opposite, complete vitrification, should be considered  a theoretical ideal. The degree of ice formation is determined by the nature and concentration of the cryoprotective agent. For example, low concentrations of the cryoprotectant glycerol will result in more ice formation than higher concentrations of glycerol.

What has changed in the recent years is that both major cryonics organizations are now offering cryopreservation using vitrification agents. Although these vitrification agents are formulated to eliminate ice formation, it is generally believed that such a result is not achievable in all tissues and organs in the human body at the moment.  Another important point to be made is that not all solutions that can eliminate ice formation are equal because they can differ greatly in toxicity.  The technical challenge in cryonics is not so much to eliminate ice formation but to develop vitrification solutions with no or limited toxicity. Although it is correct that contemporary vitrification solutions  can solidify without ice formation, delays in response time, poor patient care, and high toxicity can offset most of these advances.

4. The probability that cryonics will work is X.

Both critics and supporters have made specific probability estimates about how likely cryonics is to work. In its worst form such probability assessments convey nothing more than putting a number on overall feelings of pessimism or optimism. More serious attempts have been made to calculate a specific probability that cryonics will work. Such attempts usually go as follows: A number of independent conditions (or events)  for cryonics to work are distinguished, these conditions are “assigned” a probability, and the total (or joint) probability is calculated by multiplying them. Although such calculations give the semblance of objectivity, they are  equally vulnerable to the fundamental objection that assigning one single number to the probability that cryonics will work is just a lot of hand waving.  How many independent events are there and how do we know that they are independent? What is the basis for assigning  specific probabilities to these conditions? What are the effects of minor changes in the numbers?

Probability calculations are not completely useless.  They can help us in identifying important conditions that need to be satisfied for resuscitation. They can also help identify weak links  that can be improved. But probability estimates can be dangerous as well when we take them too seriously and discourage people from making cryonics arrangements. The point here is not that we should refrain from being skeptical but that if we make quantitative estimates we should be able to back up our statements with rigorous arguments or just confine ourselves to more qualitative statements. Another objection to  making cryonics probability estimates was made by the cryonics activist and mathematician Thomas Donaldson. He makes the common sense point that many of these conditions are not independent of what we do. We can make a contribution to increasing the probability that cryonics will work.

Last but not least, what does it mean when we talk about “cryonics working?” It is conceivable that cryonics will work for one person but not for another, reflecting improved technologies and protocols. Perhaps asking the question if cryonics patients can be “revived” is the wrong question. As the cryobiologist Brian Wowk has pointed out,  the real question is how much original personality would survive the many possible damage/repair scenarios, not revival per se.  Survival in medicine is not a simple black-and-white issue, as evidenced by people who recover from stroke or cardiac arrest but with personality and memory alterations.  And it is worth  mentioning once more that how much of our personality survives is depended on what we do to improve the quality and long-term survival of our cryonics organizations.

5. I will sign up for cryonics when I need it.

It should be obvious without much reflection why this is a dangerous idea. At the time a person really needs cryonics, he may no longer be able to communicate those desires, lack funding to make arrangements, or encounter hostile relatives. A more subtle variant concerns the person who expects that aging will be solved before cryonics will be necessary. This person may or may not be right, but such optimism may not make him more immune to accidents than other people. This mindset is often observed among young “transhumanists” and practicing life extensionists. A related, but rarer, variant is to postpone making cryonics arrangements until the cryonics organization makes a number of changes including, but not limited to, hiring medical professionals, stop wasting money, becoming more transparent, giving members the right to vote, etc. Such issues are important, and need to be addressed, but a safer response would be to join the organization and influence its policies, or, if this will be necessary, combine with others to start a competing cryonics organization without such flaws.

There are not many people who think that it is sensible to make cryonics arrangements, but there are even fewer people who have actually made such arrangements.

As we have seen, some of these dangerous ideas share the same or related assumptions and produce identical effects: decreased scrutiny of cryonics organizations and a decreased chance of personal survival. An important common theme is that cryonics cannot be treated as one single monolithic technology and that the fate of our survival depends as much on the state of the art in human cryopreservation technologies as on the competence of cryonics providers. Caveat emptor!

Robert White on brain death

Robert J. White is most known, or perhaps most notorious, for his work on primate head transplants. Less known, but more relevant to the practice of human cryopreservation, is his work in cerebral ischemia, hypothermia, and brain preservation. Most of White’s innovative work was published in the 1960s and 1970s. White also published a substantial number of opinion pieces on a variety of topics. One of these topics is brain death.

In an 1972 editorial for the publication Hospital Progress, “The Scientific Limitation of Brain Death,” White notes that:

…we have to acknowledge the probability that eventually all of the major cellular complexes of the human body will be replaceable either by transplanted organs (man or animal) or by sophisticated engineering modules.

As a consequence, the clinical definition of death is shifting from cardiopulmonary criteria to the central nervous system. But unlike other organs,

…this system is not replicatable, representing as it does the repository of the highest functions of man…when this elite cellular system fails it would seem reasonable to assume that what is characteristically ‘human’ is also being lost from the body.

But just as the cardio-respiratory definition of death has evolved and changed with the clinical practice of cardiopulmonary resuscitation,  a similar fate may be in store for the definition of brain death. The clinical use of general anesthesia and hypothermic circulatory arrest, in which the brain can be put “on pause,” emphasize how important the aspect of “irreversibility” is.

As presently defined, the definition of brain death puts much emphasis on brain function upon physical examination. A major limitation of this definition is that it categorically ignores the prospect that brain function could be restored in the future by technologies more advanced than practiced today, provided the material basis of brain function is preserved.

Another challenge is that the science of cryobiology has advanced to such a state where brain slices can be preserved at subzero temperatures and recovered without loss of viability through vitrification. When recovery of organized electrical activity can be demonstrated in vitrified mammalian whole brains, the prevailing definition of brain death will need to be challenged again because it will open the practical possibility to maintain critically ill people in a state of low temperature circulatory arrest without producing one of the indicators of irreversible brain death. Such advances would be an extension of the  experiments Robert White did on isolated hypothermic brains.

As White stresses in the final paragraph of his paper:

…like all biological activity, life and death merge into one another representing a continuum and the neuro-scientist can only in the final analysis determine the point of irreversibility of this highly complex system at which the possibility of organized activity that characterizes human behaviour  has been exceeded.

Greg Jordan on Buddhism, Epicureanism, and Immortalism

“Buddhism and Epicureanism combat the fear of death by accommodating the emotions to the reasonable certainty of death. Contemporary immortalism (which includes projects such as life extension, cryonic suspension, and universal immortalism) argues that scientific and technological solutions to the problem of death can be found, thus questioning the inevitability of death. Buddhist, Epicurean, and contemporary immortalist approaches to death and the fear of death are explored, compared, and contrasted.”

Read the complete article:

Gregory Jordan  – Fearless in the Face of Death: Buddhist Detachment, Epicurean Equanimity, and Contemporary Immortalism

Facing death with Epicurus

James Warren is to be complimented for writing a thorough and persuasive book on Epicurean thinking about death. In Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics, Warren offers a detailed review of Epicurus’ view that “death is nothing to us.” His treatment of Epicurus’ critics should be considered a success for the following three reasons. The author has a genuine understanding of  the Epicurean philosophy with all its nuances. Second, unlike many philosophers, Warren devotes a lot of time to presenting the arguments of Epicurus’ critics in their most charitable form, sometimes even raising novel potential objections, before refuting them. Finally, although the author allows for the possibility that the human fear of death may be hardwired, and even an evolutionary advantage, he stands out among other philosophers in not have a strong desire to refute Epicurus, a trait that negatively affects a lot of the literature on Epicurus.

Because the Epicurean view on the fear of death is often misunderstood, the author distinguishes and reviews four interpretations of the argument in the first chapter, Fears of Death:

1. The fear of being dead.
2. The fear that one will die, that one’s life is going to end.
3. The fear of premature death.
4. The fear of the process of dying.

In the following three chapters the author thoroughly reviews three different themes in the Epicurean tradition: the argument that death cannot be a harm because if we do not exist we cannot  experience the deprivation of things that life offered, the argument that since we do not consider the period before we existed as a harm we cannot claim that the period after we exist is a harm, and the argument that death cannot be premature or prevent a person from having attained a complete life. The chapter on premature death is of particular interest to life extensionists because it discusses the issue of immortality  from an Epicurean perspective, briefly contrasting Bernard Williams‘ argument against immortality with the Epicurean tradition.

Because Warren ultimately does not find Epicurus’ critics persuasive, he devotes the final chapter to the question of what living an Epicurean life would imply. An important reason for exploring this issue is to explore the argument that even if the Epicurean view on death is correct, it would lead to consequences that few are willing to accept or are highly impractical. The author singles out two issues: would it be incoherent for an Epicurean to write a will (as Epicurus himself did) and the desirability of prolonging one’s life.

Most reasons for executing a will are rejected as inconsistent with the Epicurean tradition but a notable exception is made for a line of reasoning that finds a rational reason for writing a will in the value of strengthening one’s relationship with friends during life:

…the knowledge that a friend will leave certain items in a will to another may ensure the continued assistance of this future beneficiary during the remaining period of the testator’s life. The beneficiary reciprocates in advance, as it were, for the goods which he has been pledged and will receive when the other dies.

This argument in favor of writing a will may have broader implications. If an Epicurean has reason to be positively involved with the fate of people who may be still alive after him, a related argument could be made that he could also be concerned about future generations because of the effect of overlapping generations. If such an argument is possible, the Epicurean view that we can neither experience good nor bad things  after we cease to exist can be reconciled with dispositions such as protecting the environment or contributing to causes that do not have a chance to succeed during a person’s lifetime. By doing so we are signaling our disposition to cooperate, reap the benefits of cooperation, and respect justice as mutual advantage.

If we should not fear death, why prolong life? Here Warren is at greater pains to reconcile Epicurus-style reasoning and a wish to remain alive. But as the author admits, perhaps one obstacle for such a reconciliation is the “highly debatable” Epicurean view that pleasure cannot be increased beyond the absence of pain, a view that seems to be at odds with both  personal introspection and empirical observation. It  may not be  incoherent to believe that death cannot be a harm but prolonging a life that is an (overall) positive experience is desirable.  Some variants of this argument, however, would run into the objection that comparing the value of existence and non-existence is nonsensical because the latter cannot be experienced. As a matter of fact, the obvious point that death cannot be experienced is one of the central tenets of Epicurean thinking. Does that just leave the Epicurean with the position that he “will simply continue to live with no sufficient reason  either to kill himself or to want to survive until tomorrow?” It is clear that this issue would benefit from some smart analytic thinking. Further benefit may be obtained  by seeking an answer to the question why the “intellectualist stance on the emotions” that informs Epicureanism  seems to contradict human psychology as it has evolved.