25. July 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Health, Neuroscience

The recent symposium on cryonics and brain-threatening disorders was a major success. On Saturday, July 7, 2012, around 30 people attended the first ever symposium on dementia and cryonics in Portland, Oregon. The symposium started with a brief introduction by Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics President Aschwin de Wolf, who emphasized why people with cryonics arrangements have a clear interest in understanding and avoiding dementia. The first speaker, Chana de Wolf, introduced the audience to the topic of adult neurogenesis, the two areas in the brain where it occurs, and how little we still understand about it. Aubrey de Grey then talked about the SENS approach to rejuvenation and how some emerging damage repair bio-technologies might be able to also reverse neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. Cryonics Institute President Ben Best followed Aubrey’s presentation with a technical introduction about the pathophysiology of Alzheimer’s disease and the treatments that are currently being investigated. Ben is maintaining a page about the molecular mechanisms of Alzheimer’s disease on his personal website.

After the break Alcor staff member Mike Perry presented a detailed analysis of a recent paper in which cerebrospinal fluid samples could predict the onset of Alzheimer’s diseases many years before the first signs of cognitive impairment, a finding that holds great promise for life-extensionists, and those with an increased risk for Alzheimer’s disease in particular. Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics Board member Keegan Macintosh then presented a rigorous legal analysis of the Thomas Donaldson case and indicated how the case could have been argued more persuasively then and now. The last speaker of the day was Alcor President Max More who introduced the concept of the extended mind and its relevance to cryonics and neurodegenerative diseases, which prompted a useful exchange about the desirability of cryonics organizations facilitating members to store identity-critical information. The official meeting ended with a panel discussion moderated by Aschwin de Wolf in which all the speakers took questions from the audience and other speakers.

The program and panel left ample time for interaction between speakers and the audience. The topic of avoiding dementia and what to do when a cryonicist is diagnosed with a brain threatening disorder received a lot of attention. Despite the rather disturbing subject of the symposium there seemed to be a general recognition that it was extremely valuable to explore this topic in the context of cryonics. Some suggestions of how to deal with dementia were made that had not been previously discussed in cryonics publications.

It is not likely that we will organize a symposium about this topic every year but there was a strong interest in organizing meetings about other topics on a regular basis in the Pacific Northwest.

The slides of all but one of the presenters are available on the symposium page and a video recording of Aubrey de Grey’s talk was made by one person in the audience. A more detailed report of the symposium will appear in an upcoming issue of Alcor’s Cryonics magazine.

20. June 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Death, Neuroscience

It is generally not the task of scientists to consider the legal, financial, and logistical limitations when searching for biomedical breakthroughs but there are good examples where considering the real-world applications of a technology can be instructive. Research aimed at preservation of brains (or the “connectome”) is such an example. Even if chemopreservation can be demonstrated to preserve the intricate wiring of the brain, it can be safely assumed that there will not be a massive change in demand for brain preservation technologies (especially if the technology is too strongly tied to mind uploading). As a consequence, providers of chemopreservation will most likely operate in the same environment as providers of cryonics. That means that, as a general rule, there will be a delay between pronouncement of legal death and the start of procedures.

There is now more than 40 years of mainstream biomedical research demonstrating that even short interruptions of circulation (under normothermic conditions) can produce perfusion impairment in the brain. As has been demonstrated by cryonics researcher Mike Darwin and my own lab, Advanced Neural Biosciences, this “no-reflow” can produce poor distribution of cryoprotectants (including vitrification agents) and associated freezing. One serious concern that cryonics researchers have about chemopreservation-in-the-real-world is that poorly chemically fixed brains will be prone to autolysis during long-term storage. This limitation of chemopreservation applies to both “conventional” biological resuscitation scenarios as to whole brain emulation. One can only recover (or “upload”) what is preserved – or can be inferred. And as far as we understand things today, the advantage of temperature as a long-term preservation method is that it does not depend on a healthy, non-ischemic circulatory system. Cryopreservation of an ischemic brain can produce ice formation, but as soon as it is placed in liquid nitrogen, cold will “fix” whatever there is without further degradation. The same thing cannot be said about chemopreservation under poor conditions.

There is an understandable tendency to compare brain preservation protocols under ideal conditions and favor the method that produces the best preservation. But support for either technology cannot be solely based on results produces under controlled lab conditions. Personal survival technologies should be evaluated under conditions that are most likely to be encountered by organizations that will offer them. Demonstrating that chemical fixation (and plastination) can preserve the connectome is a laudable goal but the case for chemopreservation as a clinical experimental preservation method requires a persuasive response to the objection that delays in fixation can frustrate the aims of chemopreservation in the most fundamental manner.

One interesting aspect of the cryonics vs chemopreservation debate, though, is that it appears that some people simply feel more comfortable with one of the approaches. People who have shown the slightest interest in human cryopreservation can get really excited about the idea of chemical brain preservation. This indicates that if both approaches would be pursued actively, the growth of chemopreservation would not necessarily be at the expense of cryonics but there would be a growth in the total number of people making bio-preservation arrangements aimed at personal survival. But as Mike Darwin has recently pointed out, chemopreservation is not at the stage where it can be responsibly offered. The growth of this field requires a committed group of individuals who will research, develop, and implement this program. Chemopreservation does not need to be perfected before being offered (neither was cryonics) but so far most advocacy has been mostly at the conceptual level.

01. March 2012 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience

Conventional wisdom in life extension circles is that making cryonics arrangements allows one to benefit from rejuvenation technologies that are not available during one’s existing lifespan. Aside from the risk of high-impact accidents or getting lost at sea, there is one challenge that some cryonicists will face when they grow older; the debilitating consequences of brain-threatening disorders.

One of the unfortunate effects of the increase in human lifespan is a corresponding increase in late-onset identity-destroying brain disorders. We know that some patients at the existing cryonics organizations were cryopreserved after advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Some cryonics organization members who developed Alzheimer’s disease were not preserved at all, due to lapsed insurance and/or cryopreservation arrangements.

The growing awareness that brain-threatening disorders can present a formidable challenge to personal survival is the theme of the latest issue of Alcor’s Cryonics magazine.

To further draw attention to this topic and generate more knowledge how to prevent and treat brain-threatening disorders, the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics and Cryonics Northwest will organize a symposium on cryonics and brain-threatening disorders on Saturday July 7, 2012, in Portland, Oregon.

Talks include Aubrey de Grey on The SENS approach to repairing the aging brain, Chana de Wolf on neurogenesis in the adult brain and Alzheimer’s disease, Ben Best on drugs, supplements, and other treatments to mitigate and prevent Alzheimer’s disease, Mike Perry on (early) diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, and Max More about survival, identity, and the extended mind. Entrance to the symposium is free. More information about the program and registration will be provided soon.

Reportedly, when James Watson and Steven Pinker had their genome sequenced, they declined to know their risk for Alzheimer’s disease. Clearly this is not an option for life extensionists and cryonicists, who are better off knowing whether they have a copy or, worse, two copies of the ApoE4 gene.

Patri Friedman, son of the libertarian economist David Friedman (who in turn is the son of the Nobel laureate Milton Friedman), recently learned that he has two copies of the ApoE4 gene when 23andMe updated their reports. Caucasian and Japanese carriers of two E4 alleles have between 10 and 30 times the risk of developing Alzheimer’s by 75 years of age, as compared to those not carrying any E4 alleles. Patri is a life extensionist, practitioner of the paleo diet, and recently made cryonics arrangements with his whole family at Alcor – and is thus far more prone to a pro-active course of action.

When he realized that there was no good central resource for people with copies of the ApoE4 gene he started a new blog called ApoE4 – The Ancestral Allele, which aims to share practical information and research for health-conscious E4 carriers. The first posts discuss some of the benefits of having the E4 gene (better episodic memory) and what kind of diet is recommended for E4 carriers. He also encourages guest posts and other co-bloggers to help run the website.

Introduction

Ongoing legal challenges and hostile interference of relatives have increased awareness among cryonicists that addressing the likelihood that one will be cryopreserved at all should take center stage among other strategies for survival. As a consequence, a number of individuals have recently taken on the task of working out the conceptual and legal challenges to minimize hostile interference (for a contribution on the ethical aspects of cryonics interference, look here).

One aspect of cryonics optimization planning that has received little attention to date is to develop legal strategies to deal with medical and legal issues surrounding one’s death, terminal illness, and the dying phase. In this memo I will outline some of the most important medical and medico-legal issues, how cryonicists could benefit from recognizing them, and suggest some legal and practical solutions. Before I get to the substance of these issues I would like to briefly identify all the stages in which proactive cryonics planning can improve our odds of personal survival.

Opportunities for cryonics optimization

The first and most obvious decision is to make cryonics arrangements. Alcor members face complicated decision making because the organization offers both whole body cryopreservation and neuro cryopreservation. From the perspective of cryonics optimization many members choose neuropreservation because it enables the organization to exclusively focus on what matters most; the brain. There is also a logistical advantage. In case transport of the whole body across state lines is delayed the isolated head can be released in advance as a tissue sample. Additionally, a number of Alcor members have recognized that it is possible to have the best of both worlds and combine neuro-vitrification and separate cryopreservation of the trunk. This allows the member to take advantage of the superior preservation of the brain that is available for neuro patients without having to forego whole body cryopreservation. This option is not widely advertised so one is encouraged to contact Alcor about revisions in funding and paperwork.

The other obvious decision is to have secure funding in place. Many members have given extensive thought about funding mechanism and wealth preservation so there is little need to discuss this here. From the perspective of cryonics optimization it is important to emphasize the importance of over-funding your cryopreservation. This not only protects you against future price increases, but also enables you to take advantage of technical upgrades that cannot be offered at the current preservation minimums. Another aspect to consider is leaving money to cryonics research. Although it is reasonable to expect that general progress in science will include general cell repair, there may be areas that will only be pursued by those who have a scientific or personal interest in resuscitation of cryonics patients. As in many areas in life, diversification is key. One should not solely depend upon Alcor or CI for successful resuscitation research or efforts.

Another important opportunity for cryonics optimization is to recognize the importance of proximity. From a technical point of view, there is simply no comparison to de-animating near the cryonics facility of your choice. This is not just a matter of reducing ischemic time. Remote standby and stabilization is a fertile ground for all kinds of logistical and legal complications. Most cryonics members do recognize the importance of reducing transport times but it is an established fact that as soon people become terminally ill they become more resistant to the idea of relocating and often prefer to die among friends at home. It is important to anticipate this scenario and to not delay relocation plans until the last minute. Another advantage of relocating at an earlier stage is that one is better protected in case of a terminal disease with rapid decline or sudden death.

As mentioned above, one issue that is getting increasing attention is how to protect oneself against hostile relatives and third parties. The take-home message is to alter cryopreservation contracts and your paperwork in such a matter that there is an incentive *not* to interfere.

Last but not least, something should be said about community building. Cryonicists can greatly benefit from becoming active in their local cryonics group. Often these meetings are open to members of all cryonics organizations. Most cryonics groups organize standby and stabilization trainings where members can familiarize themselves with the basics of the initial cryonics procedures. Such groups may not only play a part in your own future cryopreservation but are also useful to get a basic understanding about what you can do in the case a local member or a loved one needs to be cryopreserved. Another important aspect of participation in a local cryonics group is that one remains in contact with other cryonicists. When people get older their friends and family members die and the member has little communication with those who are aware of his desire to be cryopreserved. If you live in an area where there are no local cryonics groups contact your cryonics organization and/or start your own local group.

Physician-assisted dying

If there was more widespread acceptance of cryonics the harmful delay between pronouncement of legal death and the start of cryonics procedures would not exist. After a determination of terminal illness, preparations would be made to ensure a smooth transition between the terminal phase and long term care at cryogenic temperatures.

Some states have enacted legislation that allows a terminally ill patient to request the means to terminate their life.  Assisted suicide is currently legal in the following three states: Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Physician-assisted dying does not remove the current obstacle that cryonics procedures can only be started after legal pronouncement of death but it can bring the timing of death (and thus of standby) under the patient’s control. Utilizing such laws can also greatly reduce the agonal phase of dying and its associated risk of damage to the brain.

The legal requirements for utilizing physician-assisted suicide can vary among states but, as a general rule, require that a patient has been diagnosed with a terminal illness with no more than six months to live, that the patient is of sound mind, and that the request is made in written form and witnessed. The State of Oregon has a residency requirement to discourage physician-assisted dying tourism.

Since cryonics procedures are performed after legal death, there is no reason why cryonics patients are exempt from utilizing these laws. Despite rumors to the contrary, there is no evidence that utilization of these laws require mandatory autopsy. After all, the cause of death in physician-assisted dying is clear; self- administration of the lethal drug. To avoid any possible accusations that cryonics organizations encourage the use of such laws, it is recommended that no person associated with the cryonics organization should be a witness, let alone be the physician that prescribes the lethal drugs.

Sudden death and autopsy

One of the worst things that can happen to a cryonics member is sudden death. Especially when the patient is young with no prior heart conditions, an autopsy is almost guaranteed. There is little one can do to avoid sudden death aside from choosing a lifestyle that reduces cardiovascular pathologies. The only preparation for dealing with sudden death is to become a religious objector to autopsy. Some states (including California, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Ohio) have executed laws to restrict the power of the state to demand an autopsy. Although exceptions can still be made in cases of homicide or public health there is little to lose in using such provisions. The websites of Alcor and CI have links to the relevant forms to execute. The Venturists are offering a card for their members stating that they object to autopsy. This card can be requested from Michael Perry (mike@alcor.org) at Alcor. An example of such a card is provided below.

Sudden cardiac death is not the only reason for ordering an autopsy. An autopsy is typically ordered if there are criminal suspicions (homicide) or suicide. There is also a greater risk of autopsy when a patient dies in absence of other people. Since many old cryonicists are single and spent a lot of time alone they are also at an increased risk for autopsy. This is another good argument to remain involved with local cryonics groups and in frequent contact with other cryonicists.

If autopsy cannot be avoided it is important that the cryonics organization is notified promptly. Cryonics organizations can make another attempt to persuade the authorities to abstain from an autopsy or to request a non-invasive autopsy that exempts and protects the brain. The cryonics organization can also issue instructions for how the patient should be maintained prior, during and after autopsy. It might be worthwhile to generate a template of general autopsy instructions for cryonics patients. Such a document may not be binding but it could be useful in limiting the amount of ischemia and injury.

The dying phase and Advance Directives

Most cryonics members have a basic understanding of the importance of time and temperature to protect a cryonics patient after legal pronouncement of death. Fewer people recognize the effect of the dying process itself on the outcome of a cryonics case. In best case scenarios (physician-assisted dying, withdrawal of ventilation) the dying phase is relatively rapid while in worst case scenarios extensive ischemic injury to the brain is possible. Little work has been done to outline recommendations for the terminally ill cryonics patient. One of the main objectives of this article is to recognize that cryonics members could benefit from a general template that can be used in their Advance Directives and to guide surrogate decision makers.

At this point it is useful to briefly describe how the dying phase itself can affect the outcome of cryonics procedures (for a more detailed treatment see the appendix at the end of this article). A useful distinction is that between terminal illness and the agonal period. A patient is classified as terminal when medical professionals establish that the patient cannot be treated with contemporary medical technologies. During this period the patient is usually still of sound mind and able to breathe and take fluids on his/her own. Unless the patient has suffered an insult to the brain or a brain tumor, there is no risk for ischemic injury to the brain yet. At some point, however, the body’s defense mechanisms will be overwhelmed by the patient’s disease and the patient enters the agonal phase. The agonal phase, or active dying phase, can be characterized as a form of general exhaustion. The body is still fighting but with decreasing success and efficiency. One of the biggest concerns for cryonics patients is the development of (focal) brain ischemia while the (core) body is still mounting its defense.

It would be impossible to design an Advance Directives template that is optimal for all cryonics patients, but there are a number of general guidelines that can inform such a document:

* All health care decisions should be guided by the objective of preserving the identity of the patient throughout the terminal and dying phase.

* Measures to prolong dying should only be initiated or accepted if they result in less ischemic injury to the brain.

* Life-sustaining measures should be withheld in case of traumatic or ischemic insults to the brain.

To ensure that sensible decisions are made in situations that are not covered by these Advance Directives, a Health Care Proxy can be executed that designates a person to make those decisions. It is understandable to give such power to the person closest to you but in the case of cryonics it is recommended that this responsibility should be given to a person with a strong commitment to your desires and a detailed understanding of the medical needs of cryonics patients.

Pre-medication of cryonics patients

If a critically ill cryonics member is at risk of ischemic brain injury during the dying phase it stands to reason that some palliative treatment options are better than others. One possibility for cryonics patients is to specify such options in one’s Advance Directives. Another scenario in which pre-medication is possible is where the medical surrogate is strongly supportive of such measures. It should be noted that such a decision rests solely with the member or his/her medical representative. Cryonics organizations should not be involved in the pre-mortem treatment of the patient.

There are two important questions about pre-medication of cryonics patients:

1. Is it safe?

2. Is it beneficial?

The answer to the first question has a lot to do with the status of the pharmaceutical agents in question. For example, a supplement like melatonin is less controversial than a prescription drug like heparin. The most important thing to keep in mind is that drugs that may be beneficial after legal pronouncement of death could have adverse effects in critically ill patients. Good examples are drugs that have effects on blood rheology and clotting. One would rather forego the hypothetical benefit of a drug if there is a non-trivial change of triggering major controversies about drugs taken during the dying phase. This leaves only certain supplements as relatively safe options for pre-medication of cryonics patients.

The answer to the second question is not clear. The rationale behind pre-medication is that it can protect the brain during agonal shock and its associated ischemic events. Evidence for this belief is usually found in the peer reviewed literature on neuroprotection in ischemia. However, there is a clear difference between the administration of neuroprotective agents during the dying phase and the administration of neuroprotective agents prior to artificially-induced acute ischemia. One perspective is that such agents are beneficial but only delay the ischemic phase of the dying period. In this case supplements have little neuroprotective effect. An alternative perspective is one where such supplements do not alter the agonal course as such but provide more robust protection after circulatory arrest. Obviously, this matter is not of concern to conventional medicine so there is little evidence to make rational decisions. In light of the previous discussion, the current (tentative) verdict should be that a case can be made for pre-administration of neuroprotective agents but that these agents should be confined to “safe” supplements like melatonin, Vitamin E and curcumin. Whether such a regime would be beneficial needs to be decided on a case by case basis and is, therefore, more in the domain of the Health Care Proxy than Advance Directives.

Do Not Resuscitate Orders

Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) orders present one of the most challenging issues for cryonics optimization. On the one hand, we would like to benefit from any attempt to resuscitate us in case of sudden cardiac arrest (or any other acute events that can lead to death). On the other hand, we would not like to be subject to endless rounds of futile resuscitation attempts that can damage the brain.

One would be inclined to think that resuscitation attempts should be made in case of sudden insults or during surgery but that no resuscitation attempts should be made during terminal illness. In reality things are not that simple. For example, resuscitation may be possible after 8 minutes of cardiac arrest but the patient can suffer severe brain damage as a consequence. Such a scenario can be minimized by executing a DNR at the cost of foregoing any resuscitation attempts at all. Would this outweigh the benefits of successful resuscitation attempts? It is hard to see how an objective answer to this question can be given without taking a specific person’s views on risk and treatment into account. One way to mitigate this dilemma is to make a distinction in your Advance Directives between pre-arrest emergencies (for example, resuscitation should be permitted in the case of labored breathing but presence of heart beat) and full arrest. An in-hospital situation where resuscitation of a critically ill patient would be helpful would be where it would allow a cryonics standby team to deploy at the bedside of the patient. As can be seen from these examples, good resuscitation instructions for cryonics patients require a lot of attention to context. Because confusion could arise whether Advance Directives would include pre-hospital emergency procedures it is recommended to execute an explicit document if you want these cases to be covered – such a document could be complemented by wearing a bracelet.

Creating a general template

This article has identified a number of important medico-legal issues that need to be addressed by cryonicists to optimize their cryopreservation. It has become clear that in the case of many topics we would all benefit from uniform and effective language. The next step is to translate the concerns discussed in this document in clear legal language so that templates can be offered to all members of cryonics organizations to draft their own Living Will and Advance Directives. One potential problem of such a general template is that it may not conform to state regulations and needs additional tweaking to make it valid in the state where the person lives.

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Appendix :  Neurological damage during the dying phase

Securing viability of the brain by contemporary criteria is the most important objective of cryonics standby and stabilization. Recognition of how pathological events in the central nervous system can defeat this objective is of great importance. As a general rule, the risk for increased brain damage is higher during slow dying. For example, when the ventilator is removed from the patient who is not able to breathe on his own the time between this action and circulatory arrest can be short. Conversely, when a patient is going through a prolonged terminal and agonal phase (regional) injury to the brain can occur while the body itself is still fighting for its survival.

The human brain has little storage of excess energy. As a result, hypoxia causes the brain to deplete its oxygen reserves within 30 seconds. The energy depletion that follows cerebral hypoxia during the dying phase has a number of distinct effects: 1) excitation or depression of certain processes in the brain, 2) alteration in the maintenance of structural integrity of tissues and cells, and 3) alteration of neuromediator synthesis and release. The depletion of oxygen leads to a switch from aerobic to anaerobic energy production. As a consequence, there is an increase in the metabolic end-products of glycolysis such as lactic acid which decreases pH in the brain. After 5 minutes no useful energy sources remain in the brain, which can explain why the limit for conventional resuscitation without neurological deficits is put at 5 minutes as well. Because the dying phase leads to progressively worse hypotension and hypoxia the metabolic state of the brain after the agonal phase is worse than if there would have been sudden cardiac arrest.

Light microscopic changes have been observed in brain cells after 5 minutes of ischemia. Prolonged hypotension, as can occur in the agonal patient, can lead to the appearance of “ghost cells” and disappearance of nerve cells. Such observations provide evidence that structural changes, including cell death, can occur prior to clinical death. Another manifestation of hypoxia (or hypotension) is the progressive development of cerebral edema. The resulting narrowing of vessels and decrease of intercellular space can, in turn, aggravate energy delivery to tissues. Of particular importance for cryonics stabilization procedures is the development of no-reflow which can prevent complete restoration of perfusion to parts of the brain during cardiopulmonary support. There is no consensus as to whether no-reflow can occur as a result of prolonged hypotension (as opposed to complete cessation of blood flow), but an extended dying phase can set the stage for cerebral perfusion impairment after circulatory arrest.

The central nervous system does not shut down at once. Throughout the terminal and agonal phase alternations in the brain progress from minor changes in awareness and perception to deep coma. As a general rule, more recent and complex functions of the brain disappear earlier than the most basic functions of the brain. The uneven brain response to hypoxia may reflect different energy requirements, biochemical and structural differences, and/or the activation of protective mechanisms to preserve the “core” functions of the brain. The CA1 region of the hippocampus has been demonstrated to be uniquely vulnerable to ischemia. This presents a problem for contemporary cryonics since the objective of human cryopreservation is to preserve identity-relevant information in the brain.

This article is a slightly revised version of a paper that was submitted for the 4th Asset Preservation Meeting near Gloucester, Massachusetts.

It has been said that if you want to persuade someone, you need to find common ground. But one of the defining characteristics of cryonics is that proponents and opponents cannot even seem to agree on the criteria that should be employed in discussing cryonics. The cryonics skeptic will argue that the idea of cryonics is dead on arrival because cryonics patients are dead. The response of the cryonics advocate is that death is not a state but a process and there is good reason to believe that a person who is considered dead today may not be considered dead by a future physician. In essence, the cryonics advocate is arguing that his skeptical opponent would agree with him if he would just embrace his conception of death….

Cryonicists have named their favorite conception of death “information-theoretic death.” In a nutshell, a person is said to be dead in the information-theoretic sense of the word if no future technologies are capable of inferring the original state of the brain that encodes the person’s memories and identity. There are a lot of good things to be said about substituting this more rigorous criterion of death for our current definitions of death. However, in this brief paper I will argue that our best response does not necessarily need to depend on skeptics embracing such alternative definitions of death and that we may be able to argue that opponents of cryonics should support legal protection for cryonics patients or risk contradicting conventional definitions of death.

In contemporary medicine, death can be pronounced using two distinct criteria; cardiorespiratory arrest or brain death. A lot of ink has been spilled over the co-existence of those criteria and its bioethical implications but I think that most people would agree that the practice of medicine requires this kind of flexibility. What is interesting for us is that clinical brain death (or brain stem death) is defined as “the stage at which all functions of the brain have permanently and irreversibly ceased.” There are a number of ways how such a diagnosis can be made, but in this context I want to focus on the absence of organized electrical activity in the brain.

We first should note the use of the word “irreversible.” After all, if a patient is cooled down to a low core temperature to permit complicated neurosurgical procedures most of us would not say that this person is “temporarily brain dead.” As a matter of fact, one could argue that cryonics is just an experimental extension of clinical hypothermic circulatory arrest in which there is a temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. Now, we could argue that what may be irreversible by today’s standards may not be irreversible by future standards but then, again, we are trying to persuade the other person to accept our view of future medicine. It would be much better, and I hope much easier, to argue that contemporary cryopreservation techniques can preserve organized electrical activity in the brain. The advantage of this approach is obvious. Instead of arguing in favor of our own criterion of death we can argue that, according to mainstream criteria for determination of death, cryonics patients are not dead. This is an interesting case in which a scientist (i.e., a cryobiologist) may be able to make a major contribution to the legal recognition and protection of cryonics patients.

So where are we standing right now? How good are our preservation techniques? If we aim for reversible whole brain cryopreservation a cryoprotective agent should have two properties: (1) elimination of ice formation, and (2) negligible toxicity. In the early days of cryonics, we were not able to satisfy both criteria at once. Using just a little bit of glycerol would not be toxic but it would still allow massive ice formation. Using a lot of a strong glass former such as DMSO would eliminate ice formation but at the price of severe toxicity. Mostly due to the groundbreaking work of cryobiologists Gregory Fahy and Brian Wowk, in the year 2000 the Alcor Life Extension Foundation introduced a vitrification agent called B2C that eliminated ice formation and had a more favorable toxicity profile. In the year 2005, the separation between the state of the art in experimental cryobiology and cryonics practice was further narrowed when Alcor introduced M22 as their new vitrification agent. M22 is the least toxic vitrification agent in the academic cryobiology literature that permits vitrification of complex mammalian organs at a realistic cooling rate.

M22 and other solutions derived from the same cryobiological principles have been validated in the brain as well. Former Cryonics Institute researcher Yuri Pichugin and collaborators used a related vitrification solution for the preservation of rat hippocampal brain slices without loss of viability after vitrification and rewarming. At a cryonics conference in 2007, 21st Century Medicine announced that the use of M22-based solutions permitted the maintenance of organized electrical activity in rabbit brain slices. So, at this stage we can argue that our existing vitrification solutions have a reasonable chance of maintaining organized electrical activity in brain slices. The next challenge is to demonstrate this property in whole brains.

Whole brain cryopreservation is not just the cryopreservation of a great number of individual brain slices. Brain slices can be cryopreserved by (step-wise) immersion in the vitrification solution. Vitrification of whole brains (even small brains such as rodent brains) requires the introduction of the vitrification solution through the circulatory system. This aspect of whole brain vitrification presents a number of technical challenges. Electron micrographs of vitrified tissue from whole brains, however, indicate that these challenges can be overcome. The current research objective is to perfect perfusion techniques and optimize vitrification solutions to maintain organized electrical activity in whole brains. We know that this objective is possible in principle because the famous surgeon Robert White demonstrated retention of electrical activity in whole isolated brains after cooling them to ~2-3°C. Isolated brain perfusion is a complicated surgical procedure, but the current writer and cryobiologist Brian Wowk have recognized that validation of whole brain activity is also feasible in situ.

Reversible cryopreservation of the whole brain without losing organized electrical activity is not a trivial research objective but it should be easier to achieve than reversible cryopreservation of the whole body and, perhaps, some other organs. If and when we accomplish this, we will no longer be dependent on “rationalist” arguments that appeal to logic and optimism about the future. We can argue that our patients should not be considered dead by the most rigorous criterion for determination of death in current medical practice. We can then even mount some smart legal challenges to seek better protection for cryonics patients. If we can make this step forward we should also aim at improved protection of existing cryonics patients, which will allow them, among other things, to own assets and bank accounts. This is how science can be employed in legal strategies for asset preservation.

This article is a slightly revised version of a paper that accompanied a recent presentation on neural cryobiology and the legal recognition of  cryonics at the 5th Asset Preservation Meeting in Benicia, California.

What is striking about cryonics is that those who have taken serious efforts to understand the arguments in favor of its technical feasibility generally endorse the idea. Those who have not made cryonics arrangements usually give non-technical arguments (anxiety about the future, loss of family and friends, etc), lack funding or life insurance, or are (self-identified) procrastinators. In contrast, those who reject cryonics are almost invariably uninformed. They do not understand what happens to cells when they freeze, they are not aware of vitrification (solidification without ice formation), they think that brain cells “disappear” five minutes after cardiac arrest, they demand proof of suspended animation as a condition for endorsing cryonics, etc.

This does not mean that no serious arguments could be presented. I can see two major technical arguments that could be made against cryonics:

1. Memory and identity are encoded in such a fragile and delicate manner that cerebral ischemia, ice formation or cryoprotectant toxicity irreversibly destroy it. Considering our limited understanding of the nature of consciousness, and the biochemical and molecular basis of memory, this cannot be ruled out. Cryonics advocates can respond to such a challenge by producing an argument that pairs our current understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of identity and memory to a cryobiological argument in order to argue that existing cryonics procedures are expected to preserve it. An excellent, knowledgeable, response of this kind is offered in Mike Darwin’s Does Personal Identity Survive Cryopreservation? Cryonics skeptics in turn could produce evidence that existing cryonics procedures fall short of this goal.

2. The cell repair technologies that are required for cryonics are not technically feasible. This argument should be presented with care and rigor because the general argument that cell repair technologies as such are not possible contradicts existing biology. A distinct difference from the first argument is that it is harder, if not impossible, to use existing empirical evidence to settle this issue. After all, making cryonics arrangements is a form of decision making under uncertainty and such decisions are not straightforwardly “correct” or “incorrect,” “right” or “wrong.” What can be done is to provide a detailed scientific exposition of the nature and scope of the the kind of repairs that are necessary for meaningful resuscitation and to argue that both biological and mechanical cell repair technologies are not conceivable – or are conceivable.

One thing that becomes immediately clear from this exercise is that there is no single answer to the question of whether cryonics can work because the answer to this question depends on the conditions and technologies that prevail during the cryopreservation of a patient. This introduces a set of more subtle distinctions concerning the question of what kind of cryonics should be assessed. It also produces an argument in favor of continuous improvement of cryonics technologies, and standby and stabilization services.

This short examination of technical arguments that could be made against cryonics gives advocates of the practice two talking points in discussion with skeptics or hostile critics:

(a) If a critic flat-out denies that cryonics is technically feasible, it is not unreasonable to ask him/her to be specific about what (s)he means by cryonics. This simple question often will reveal a poor understanding of existing cryonics technologies and procedures.

(b) A decision made on the basis of incomplete knowledge cannot be “right” or “wrong” and should be respected as one’s best efforts to deal with uncertainty.

We scientists are difficult, cranky, and above all, maddeningly frustrating people. Want to turn lead into gold? No problem, we can tell you how to do that, and in fact have even done it already: the only catch is that the cost of such ‘nuclear transmutation’ is many times that of even the most expensive mined gold. You say you want to travel to the moon? Done! That will be ~$80 billion (in 2005 US dollars). Want to increase average life expectancy from ~45 to ~80 years? Your wish is our command, but be mindful, you will, on average, spend the last few of those years as a fleshpot in the sunroom garden of an extended care facility.

And so it has been with an effective treatment for cerebral ischemia-reperfusion injury following cardiac arrest. Thirty years ago, laboratory scientists found a way to ameliorate most (and in many cases all) of the damage that would result from ~15 minutes of cardiac arrest, and what’s more, it was simple! All that is required is that the brain be cooled just 3oC within 15 minutes of the restoration of circulation. The catch? Well, this is surprisingly difficult thing to do because the brain is connected to the body and requires its support in order to survive. And the body, as it turns out, represents an enormous heat sink from which it is very difficult to remove the necessary amount of heat in such short time. Thus, the solution exists and has been proven in the laboratory, but it has been impossible to implement clinically.  This may be about to change as a variety of different cooling technologies, such as cold intravenous saline and external cooling of the head begin to be applied in concert with each other. Separately, they cannot achieve the required 3oC of cooling, but when added together they may allow for such cooling in a way that is both effective and practical to apply in the field.  A newly developed modality that cools the brain via the nasal cavity may provide the technological edge required to achieve the -3oC philosopher’s stone of cerebroprotection.

Read the complete article in PDF here.

15. January 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: Neuroscience, Science

There are two kinds of hypothermia: protective or preservative hypothermia, and therapeutic hypothermia. The former is easy and straightforward to understand for most, clinicians and laymen, alike.  However, therapeutic hypothermia has proved to be a far more difficult idea to communicate, probably because it is so easy to conflate it with protective hypothermia.

Anyone who has had any contact with refrigeration will at once understand the concept of protective hypothermia. Foodstuffs, and other biological materials that are cooled, experience protection against spoilage and decay roughly in proportion to the degree to which they are cooled. A little cooling slows decomposition a bit, and enough cooling will stop it altogether. Again, the temperature-induced decrease in the rate of chemical reaction is a fundamental property of chemistry which is understood intuitively by anyone who lives where it gets cold, or where refrigeration is in use.

By contrast, therapeutic hypothermia does not rely primarily upon the slowing of metabolism or the rate of chemical reactions that occurs as a result of cooling, but rather upon the effects very modest degrees of cooling have on gene activation and signal transduction in mammals. Controlled, mild therapeutic hypothermia (MTH) is generally understood to constitute a reduction in body temperature from ‘normal’ for the species being treated, to 3oC below normal. In the case of humans, this would mean a reduction in body temperature from 37oC to 34oC. Such a modest reduction in temperature results in profound down-regulation of pro-inflammatory cell-signaling pathways and causes the inactivation of genes involved in a multiplicity of deleterious cellular and systemic processes. Similarly, MTH can inhibit apoptosis of brain cells, and slow or halt the downward spiral of excessive metabolic demand by injured cells, causing yet more non-productive hyper-metabolism, and consequently even more cell death. In this article, the biomechanics of MTH are briefly explored, as well as the prospects for improved outcomes in patients who suffer anoxic-ischemic brain injury as a result of cardiac arrest as a result of the rapid application of MTH following the insult.

Read the complete paper in PDF here.

A review of  contemporary antinatalist writings

Originally published in Cryonics, 2nd Quarter, 2010 (PDF)

“Coming into existence is bad in part because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist.” David Benatar

If they could get a corpse to sit up on an operating table, they would jubilantly exclaim, “It’s alive!” And so would we. Who cares that human beings evolved from slimy materials? We can live with that, or most of us can.” Thomas Ligotti

The persistence of pessimism

When I sent out an email message soliciting contributions on the topic of philosophical pessimism and antinatalism one person declined with the reasonable response that such positions are only taken seriously by a handful of far-out philosophers. Humans have evolved to procreate and seek happiness. What is the point?

The reason why I have not been inclined to so easily dismiss the recent renaissance of philosophical pessimism is because negative and tragic views about life are woven throughout human history and culture. Most dominant religions have little positive to say about the state of humanity (after the fall) and the prospects for a life devoid of suffering on earth. Despite its relative sophistication, even Buddhism presents a picture of the universe as a source of suffering. Much can be said about pessimism but not that its influence is outside the mainstream.

Even the antinatalist position that it is better never to have been and that we have a moral obligation not to procreate is not completely obscure. Who has not had the experience of talking to the grumpy old lady who wonders why anyone would want to bring children into this world? We routinely dismiss such positions as being out of touch with reality but modern culture persists in linking intellectualism to pessimism. This perhaps should not be surprising because, as a general rule, excessive thinking comes at the expense of sensual experience. One reason why many intellectuals are biased towards pessimism is because it provides them the opportunity to rescue us with their ideas. Antinatalism offers the triumph of Reason against existence itself; the ultimate triumph of the Intellectual.

Philosophical aversion to pessimism can be found among the finest thinkers in the history of philosophy. There is David Hume, the great empiricist thinker, and an amiable and optimistic person. Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche, who, despite a life of disease and isolation, recognized that pessimism is not an objective feature of the universe but the expression of a weak and oversensitive mind. The twentieth century witnessed a strong renaissance of the empiricism of David Hume in the form of logical positivism. These philosophers rightly abstained from putting forward a “philosophy of life,” but optimism about science and humanity’s potential is clear in their foundational writings. It is also interesting to note that the most recent forceful responses to pessimism have not come from professional philosophers but from libertarian economists who do not display the slightest intellectual embarrassment in claiming that life is getting better all the time.

In my opinion, the most obvious question that can be raised about philosophical pessimism is whether its supporting claims are factual descriptions of reality or just expressions of temperament. Another interesting question is whether philosophical pessimism necessarily obliges us to the antinatalist position. In seeking answers to these questions we turn to the literature of contemporary antinatalism.

Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist is a highly readable autobiographical exposition of antinatalism. Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is more ambitious in scope and contains a wealth of historical information on pessimism, discussions of modern science, and, not surprisingly, a review of the theme of pessimism in horror literature. David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is the most rigorous exposition of antinatalism to date. This book covers a lot of ground and I will confine myself to some of its main topics only.

The harm of coming into existence

In its purest form antinatalism may not be attainable but the framework that informs this position rests on a couple of sound premises: (1) we do not impose a harm (or withhold a benefit) by not bringing someone into this world; (2) we do impose a harm by bringing someone into the world when this person’s life will be bad. Jim Crawford believes that these premises are evident and I see little reason to dispute him. The real debate about antinatalism is how to determine that a person’s life is (or will be) bad, and how much consideration the interests of parents should be given.

One of the most problematic aspects about the work of Crawford and other antinatalists is that they have little patience for the argument that life is better than they think it is. In some passages it is hard to distinguish the antinatalist from the Marxist. If people think that life is much better than Crawford makes it out to be, the standard rejoinder is that these people suffer from a form of false consciousness (pessimists frequently use words like “truly” and “really”). In some passages this attitude borders on intolerance. A prime example can be found in Crawford’s discussion of childhood. For many people growing up was a period of great happiness and discovery. Crawford’s agitated dismissal of such accounts introduces an element of illiberalism in what is otherwise a humanistic endeavor. It is in these passages that antinatalism turns into bitter ideology.

The way the term “bias” is employed is deeply problematic. It is used as if there is an objective perspective that can reached were it not for those pesky evolutionary biases coming between the person and the universe. At times the author appears to be saying that if evolution did not select in favor of those wanting to survive we would not want to survive. This is not particularly helpful. Some of these “biases” do not cover up anything but just make us happier.

Let us assume here the metaphysical premise that there is an objective, material reality that can be known through the use of reason and empirical observation. This does not mean that there is one “correct” fit between an organism and the world. A person who is manically depressed perceives the world in a different matter than a person who is not. How we are “wired” and respond to our environment is not a matter of “correct” or “incorrect.” Thinking otherwise would be hard to reconcile with an evolutionary outlook in which life is just the outcome of random interactions of organic molecules.

One argument that remains available to the pessimist would be that the probability of creating a miserable life is too high to warrant procreation. But it is at this point that the “transhumanist” can enter the debate and claim that our expected quality of life is no longer just the outcome of a “random” evolutionary process but can be brought under rational control. We should endeavor to make happy children.

In my opinion, the short response to empirical pessimism can take the following form. Pleasure and pain are both part of existence. For some sentient beings pleasure outweighs pain, for other sentient beings pain outweighs pleasure. A moral agent cannot add up, subtract, or divide these elements for life as a whole to produce an objective quality-of-existence function. The antinatalist runs into the same problems as all the utilitarians and welfare economists who have tried to define a social utility function as a guide for public policy. As Thomas Ligotti notes in his book, “…the reason for the eternal stalemate between optimists and pessimists, is that no possible formula can be established to measure proportions and types of hurt and happiness in the world. If such a formula could be established, then either pessimists or optimists would have to give in to their adversaries.” I think that the best response available to the antinatalist would be to follow David Benatar’s example and present a strictly formal argument, or simply argue that in case of doubt, we should abstain from procreation.

Escape strategies

After spending the bulk of his book persuading the reader that life is suffering, Crawford discusses what he calls “Escape Strategies.” In his treatment of Buddhism as an escape strategy he could simply have made the obvious internal critique that desire may be sufficient, but not necessary for suffering. Crawford’s treatment of Christianity is scathing, which may indicate regret because the author himself was a Christian for awhile. Why have children if there is the prospect of eternal damnation? Good question, but I think that a Christian can respond by saying that following Scripture is more important than applying human morality to God’s creation.

The last escape strategy that Crawford reviews is hope, which turns into a discussion of futurism and transhumanism. The argument that many of those pursuing life extension will not be around to benefit from it is too simplistic. Unless the brain is completely destroyed at death, the neuro-anatomical basis of identity can be preserved at cryogenic temperatures for a very long time. No delusional expectations about the future are required. People in cryostasis have time. But then the author delivers a critique that I think deserves serious treatment by transhumanists (discussions about “friendly AI” do not exhaust this topic by any means). In a nutshell, we should not expect that technological progress will necessarily produce moral progress. And even if it will, accidents happen. Technologies that can be designed to produce great joy can be used to create great suffering as well. If humanity can manufacture hell without God, the case for pessimism and antinatalism may be strengthened.

Interestingly enough, the anticipation of such dark future technologies may present a (subconscious) obstacle for many people considering cryonics. Hundreds of millions of people believe in the craziest things like astrology and psychoanalysis, but only a handful of people (around 1500) have made cryonics arrangements. This lack of interest can  hardly be attributed to ignorance, and perhaps the most persuasive answer may be hidden in Crawford’s book. Cryonics basically forces people to deal with the question whether they would like to be “born again” in a far and unknown future. As a general rule, the answer seems to be “no.” Antinatalists may find additional ammunition for their position in studying the reasons for the low sign-up rate for cryonics.

Mahayana antinatalism

Antinatalists should expect a lot of obvious questions such as “are most people not glad to be alive?” or “why not kill yourself?” I fear that Crawford’s answer to the question “why not kill yourself?” risks undermining the orthodox antinatalist project. If empathic sensibility can make an enlightened antinatalist who wants to stick around it is arguable  that antinatalists should make an effort to remain alive in an effort to reduce the amount of (future) suffering in the universe. Antinatalists then become life extensionists. To use conventional Buddhist terminology, perhaps at some point there will be a Theravada version of antinatalism (focused primarily on non-procreation) and a Mahayana version of antinatalism (concerned with the elimination of the suffering of all sentient beings).

David Benatar runs into a similar problem when he ponders the question whether bringing new people into the world could be justified to reduce the suffering of the last remaining people. It seems to me that how an antinatalist deals with such practical moral issues depends on how the ethics of antinatalism is conceived. Do we have a “right” not to come into existence or is the objective of antinatalism to juggle with small and great suffering towards the ultimate end of its complete abolition?

If antinatalism is conceived as a strictly individualistic endeavor, concerns about the suffering of all humans can be easily dismissed. But in that case antinatalism would just collapse into individualist pessimism. Who cares about suffering, as long as it is not me! This is not the kind of sentiment that is generally found in antinatalist writings. I do not think that the question whether there might be moral reasons to remain alive, and, yes, bring into being forms of life that are benevolent but ruthless towards suffering, can be easily dismissed.

At one point Crawford observes that secular and smart people are having fewer children. This does not look good for the inevitable triumph of antinatalism. Under such scenarios antinatalism produces dysgenics, and if one believes that stupidity and evil go hand in hand, increased suffering for more people.

To me it is not unlikely that, in practice, antinatalism leads to more suffering because it will only be adopted by sympathetic human beings such as Crawford. The antinatalist cannot argue that the amount of suffering in the universe cannot be increased nor decreased. The whole point of antinatalism after all is that suffering can and should be decreased. But how to go about this may be more complicated than it appears. A sober assessment of the practical implications of antinatalism may require revision of the antinatalist position itself.

Confessions of an Antinatalist is a fine and humane book, but in the end it is also a book of the converted written for the non-converted. Thomas Sowell has noted that in economics there are no solutions but only trade-offs. I would not be surprised if antinatalists will come to a similar conclusion at some point.

Suffering without meaning

Thomas Ligotti is a contemporary horror writer whose fiction work  is marked by cosmic nihilism, alienation and the fragile nature of reality. As a great admirer of the work of Ligotti I have been reluctant to comment on his non-fiction. Fortunately, unlike many other artists, Ligotti has little interest in “critical theory” or “progressive” politics. His book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is not concerned with such trivial topics but with the bleak fate of humanity in a deterministic and indifferent universe.

The book starts off with an introduction by obscurantist philosopher Ray Brassier, whose work would certainly qualify for the description that Ligotti gives to Schopenhauer’s oeuvre (“too overwrought in the proving to be anything more than another intellectual labyrinth for specialists in perplexity”).

Reading Ligotti’s account of why humans reject truly bleak views about life it would be interesting to see how antinatalists respond to the existence of orthodox Calvinism. Accepting a universe without free will that is ruled by an omnipotent God who has decreed that the majority of people will suffer in hell for His self-glorification seems a lot more terrifying to me. Nonetheless, millions of people have accepted this theological perspective. The existence of Reformed theology lays to rest the view that humans have an intrinsic desire to avoid doctrines that are too terrible too contemplate.

When Ligotti discusses the work of antinatalist Peter Wessel Zapfe once more we find the view that there is an objective predicament of mankind that is hidden by false consciousness. It is remarkable to see the similarities between those who argue that we do not want look our “oppression” straight in the face and those who argue that we avoid coming to terms with the horror of existence. What  is often lacking here is the recognition that there is also a wealth of literature about human suffering that supports the idea that we would be happier if we did look nature straight in the face. No nonsense about “moral responsibility,” “sin,” “duty,” “the greater good” etc. Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Max Stirner are representatives of this school of thought.

What is intriguing about Ligotti’s book is that it reads like a rather delicate balancing act. On one hand, we have the detached observer (my favorite) who is bemused at the show business of both the optimists and pessimists. On the other hand, it is unmistakable that Ligotti feels affinity with the philosophers of cosmic horror and pessimism. His fiction does not leave much room for any other conclusion. But The Conspiracy Against the Human Race contains more than a few (unintended) suggestions how someone who declines to take sides would present his argument.

Hard determinism and the illusion of the self

I have a hard time relating to the Ligotti’s discussion about determinism and pessimism. Hard determinism (or hard imcompatibilism) is just a part of the “scientific worldview” and it is not obvious to me why it should be a source of despair. Ligotti then discusses the existence of the “self.” I am inclined to think there is an important difference between free will and the self. Modern science can make sense of the world and human action without assuming free will. I am  not convinced that this is possible if the concept of the self is rejected. Unlike free will, the recognition of a “self” comes at a later stage in evolution. It has been argued that primitive people could not clearly distinguish the self from its surroundings and thus were not able to discover the laws of physics and manipulate it to their benefit. The philosopher Hans Reichenbach developed a pragmatic case for the existence of the external world and the self in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge. Ultimately, the Kantian question whether something “really” exists (or what something “really” looks like) does not seem particularly helpful in the study of reality, as the early logical positivists of Vienna understood well.

Why would anything that neuroscientists discover about the self and how it is constructed be a source of dread? If you believe that life is just the result of random meetings of organic molecules, it stands to reason that the physical basis of consciousness and the self reflects such a process. Why would accepting such ideas make one a “heroic pessimist?” Why the pessimism at all? Ligotti even agrees. “One would think that neuroscientists and geneticists would have as much reason to head for the cliffs because little by little they have been finding that much of our thought and behavior is attributable to neural wiring and heredity rather than to personal control over the individuals we are, or think we are. But they do not feel suicide to be mandatory just because their laboratory experiments are informing them that human nature may be nothing but puppet nature. Not the slightest tingle of uncanniness or horror runs up and down their spines, only the thrill of discovery. Most of them reproduce and do not believe there is anything questionable in doing so.”

Ligotti also discussed transhumanism, but not in much depth. As a transhumanism skeptic myself, I found little to object to but it seems that Ligotti’s real target is what is called Singularitarianism. This part in the book seems something of a missed opportunity because there is substantial overlap between Ligotti’s fiction and themes that are discussed by transhumanist writers: living in a computer simulation, parallel universes, alternate realities etc.

When Ligotti reviews near-death experiences and ego-death, the common-sense neurological explanations that were invoked in discussions of free will and the self are largely absent (a notable exception is his discussion of the possibility that a brain tumor can cause such an “enlightened” state). For critical-care physicians it is a given that many people suffer (regional) cerebral ischemia during the dying process. As such, it is surprising (but encouraging) that not more people claim enlightenment after they recover. These periods of  transient oxygen deprivation can produce long term damage and a “re-wiring” of the brain, which can explain the new perspectives these people adopt. From a physicalist perspective, death of the ego is (partial) death of the brain, something one may or may not want to celebrate.

In Ligotti’s book the reason for pessimism is multi-factorial. It includes the lack of meaning in an indifferent universe, the reality of hard determinism, and the illusion of the self. The works of Benatar and Crawford are more restricted in scope and mostly focus on more mundane suffering. Ligotti’s philosophical horror is much richer, but I wonder how much of it will resonate with people who embrace a scientific view of the universe. The Conspiracy against the Human Race may not have been designed as an argument against “unweaving the rainbow” (to use Richard Dawkin’s useful phrase) but it sometimes reads like one.

There is a lot in Ligotti’s fine book that I have not discussed such as the extensive treatment of pessimism in horror fiction, loads of interesting philosophical and scientific references, plus illuminating discussions of obscure authors such as Peter Wessel Zappfe and Philipp Mainlander. As such, it can also be considered as an indispensable reference for philosophical pessimism and cosmic horror.

Empiricism and non-existence

David Benatar is a rigorous philosopher. His work can be situated in the analytic tradition and he makes an honest attempt to anticipate objections to his own views. When he argues for positions using mainly logical arguments he is quite persuasive. A being that does not exist can neither be harmed nor benefited. I cannot see how this argument (or  tautology?) can be successfully refuted. But when Benatar attempts to argue that the quality of life of most people is much worse than they think it is, multiple challenges arise. I do not think this is the result of Benatar’s poor reasoning but because the fields that he relies on – evolution, social psychology, happiness research and the study of cognitive biases – are notorious for allowing competing views. It seems to me that ultimately Benatar cannot escape the charge that he pays excessive attention to theories that claim that we think we are happier than we really are. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the wrong subculture but it seems to me that the phenomenon of people claiming to be less happy than they really are should not be ignored either.

Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the challenges in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. Benatar is on more agreeable ground when he simply derives his antinatalism from uncertainty; “some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few.”

Benatar believes that even if his empirical argument about the poor quality of our lives fails, his formal argument from asymmetry is still left standing. He thinks that even if there is one single painful pinprick in an otherwise good life, we still harm that person by bringing him into existence. I think that Benatar is “proving” too much here. We can agree that anyone who conceives a child cannot escape the prospect that this person will experience some harm. But from this it does not follow that the person is harmed in a meaningful moral sense without considering the expected overall quality of that life. Perhaps Benatar would respond that I have not understood his argument, and I will admit that I have a difficult time understanding why the possibility that a person’s pleasures are expected to outweigh the pains do not alter his argument. I think that both bringing into existence a life that is invariably good and a life that is generally good can be morally defended on the grounds that there will not be any post-natal moral objections from the person involved. Of course, we are not morally obliged to do so, because we will not deprive the unborn of such a good life if we don’t have children. But since most parents have a positive interest in having children, in practice this tips the scales in favor of some (but not all!) procreation. One problem I can see with my argument is that it might permit the creation of a life form that would experience great suffering but with an unalterable survival instinct and no cognitive possibility of moral blame or regret. Some antinatalists might even claim that this is a rather accurate description of the human race as it exists today.

As an empiricist, I generally give the benefit of doubt to empirical observations when they appear to conflict with logical reasoning. I think that this preference itself can be justified on historic and pragmatic grounds. The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence. That seems to be a non-trivial epistemological roadblock for antinatalism.

When Benatar discusses the moral duty not to have children he runs into the obvious problem of how the interests of the parents should be weighed against the interests of the child. One does not need to be an ethical egoist to believe that the interests of the parents count for something. In this case the question returns to how bad the life of most people is and, as discussed, this is a rather vulnerable part of antinatalism. Benatar attempts to answer the obvious objection that most people who have been born do not regret this or blame their parents. But when I read his thoughts on “indoctrination” I only see further evidence of the anti-liberalism in his writings.

In fairness to Benatar (who seems to identify himself as a liberal of some sorts), he does defend the legal right to procreation because he admits that there can be reasonable disagreement about his views. I think this point is particularly important for antinatalism since reasonable objections often come from the very people whose lives Benatar characterizes as very bad. That is not to deny that society can choose to be less supportive of people who engage in reckless procreation. Such behavior can be substantially decreased by withholding benefits that encourage or reward such behavior. Benatar correctly argues that if one subscribes to a consistent interpretation of the Kantian argument that future people should not be treated as means, then all reproduction is morally dubious. But whether that highlights the virtues or defects of Kant’s ethics I leave to the reader to ponder.

Benatar highlights the importance of making a distinction between the decision to bring someone into existence and the decision to continue life. Even if we commit to the idea that it is better never to have been we can still have reasons for wanting to continue life. As a matter of fact, Benatar entertains the argument that the prospect of death itself is one of the reasons why existence is bad. Those who follow Epicurus believe that death cannot be experienced and thus cannot be a bad thing for the person. This is an extremely difficult argument to refute, but Benatar’s discussion of this topic is quite illuminating because he points out that those who hold this position may also have to commit to the view that death can never be good for a person. One only needs to imagine a person whose life is one of continuous suffering to see that this is not a plausible argument.

As an academic Benatar is less hostile to religion than Crawford and Ligotti but I do not think he can successfully escape the objection that antinatalism requires an atheist perspective. One does not have to be a scripturalist to note that Benatar is only concerned with the fate of humans and not with the interests of God. Perhaps Benatar cannot see any positive value in human suffering because his information about Creation is incomplete. Theodicies that reconcile the existence of God and the existence of Evil are not difficult to generate. As Plotinus has observed, “We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot.”

Antinatalists and life extensionists

One would think that cryonicists and life extensionists should be repulsed by antinatalism. I think such a view would be mistaken. All the antinatalist authors discussed here are motivated by empathy for the suffering of all sentient life. We should also welcome the analytical and physicalist perspectives that underpin their writings. Too much (Continental) philosophy is simply an insult to the intellect and a waste of time. If a case should be made for pessimism it needs be stated in a form that is amenable to reasoned debate and empirical investigation.

Of more specific interest to life extensionists is the plausible prospect that our abilities to decrease suffering will (necessarily?) be matched by our abilities to increase suffering too. This is a possibility that should be studied in great detail by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, strong AI, and Substrate Independent Minds.

It is no secret that cryonicists are underperforming in terms of reproduction. But as Howard V. Hendrix discusses in the article “Dual Immortality, No Kids: The Dink Link between Birthlessness and Deathlessness in Science Fiction,” this may not be a coincidence. If biological immortality becomes a credible option, having children as a substitute for personal survival will lose much of its appeal.

Most rewarding for cryonicists is the unique perspective that antinatalists can bring to the debate concerning why so few people have made cryonics arrangements. The hostility of many people towards cryonics cannot be explained if people categorically believe that  meaningful resuscitation (revival) is impossible. It is the prospect that cryonics may actually work that induces severe anxiety. If the antinatalists are correct in their assessment that coming into existence is always a harm, the unpopularity of cryonics might be indirect evidence for their position.

I want to close this review with one word of advice to those who engage in debates with antinatalists. Most antinatalists waste little time reminding their readers how controversial their ideas are. They think that they have uncovered the greatest taboo of all time. As an empirical matter, this is doubtful. Antinatalist ideas can be freely discussed in modern Western countries, something that cannot be said about a number of other controversial ideas. Antinatalists are also quick to point out that their pessimism should not be dismissed as an expression of weakness and depression. But then the antinatalists commit a similar error by too easily viewing optimism as a defense mechanism or a form of bias. But is it completely unreasonable to look for the neurophysiologic and genetic basis of pessimism and optimism? The uncompromising naturalism in the work of the antinatalists  supports such an inquiry.

Jim Crawford: Confessions of an Antinatalist (Nine Banded Books 2010)

Thomas Ligotti: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (Hippocampus Press 2010)

David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press 2006)

Thanks to Dr. Michael Perry for discussing some of the topics in this review and proofreading an earlier version of this document.