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.

One of the most remarkable aspects about the ongoing debates concerning the technical feasibility of mind uploading is the excessive confidence that some people have that these issues can be resolved without further experimental validation. The (implicit) assumption seems to be that our current understanding of the neuroscience of consciousness is sufficient to demonstrate the technical feasibility of mind uploading by logical deduction from these findings alone. This is a mysterious claim for at least two reasons. The most fundamental reason is that the scientific study of consciousness has not nearly evolved to a stage that allows for making bold claims about the subject, let alone its far-reaching consequences. The other reason is that, in the absence of empirical examples of substrate-independent life in general, it cannot be argued that such logical arguments are just innocent or inescapable conclusions from what we already do know.

It should not be surprising that such arguments fail to convince some of the participants in the debate. After all, many “mind uploaders” also believe that the case for cryonics is just a straightforward exercise of Pascal’s Wager and the technical feasibility of molecular nanotechnology can be settled by arguing that the idea does not “contradict the laws of physics.” As I have argued in a more detailed article about this tendency, the common denominator in all of  this is the excessive role that is assigned to logical arguments (or rationalism). But there is an important difference between, let’s say, predicting the unmeasured viscosity of a specific aqueous solution from a formula that has been derived from numerous measurements on the one hand and drawing far-reaching conclusions from general scientific observations or even philosophical premises (materialism, reductionism) on the other hand.  This does not mean that one should completely refrain from speculation about future technologies, but it should induce a habit of having less confidence in your conclusions as the chain of assumptions and logical arguments lengthens, let alone if your conclusions are highly controversial.

One could object that since advocates of mind uploading are generally strong advocates of cryonics, that even treating their arguments with skepticism risks alienating prospective supporters of cryonics. The fact of the matter is, however, that presenting cryonics as just one element in a larger futurist framework strongly weakens the point that cryonics is an experimental medical procedure, not an ideology or life-style. It is not possible to present cryonics in a fashion that does not alienate anyone at all. But presenting cryonics as an experimental medical procedure without additional ideological, philosophical, or sociological add-ons  has the important merit of reducing this amount of alienation to the greatest possible degree. It also has the distinct advantage that it facilitates the recruitment of people who can move the field forward; experimental scientists and medical professionals.

On the cryonics discussion list Cryonet cryobiologist Brian Wowk weighed in on the topic of mind uploading in a post that merits quoting in its entirety:

I read with interest Bob Ettinger’s recent remarks about Mark Gubrud’s piece in The New Atlantis.

http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/2010/06/why-transhumanism-wont-work.html

Although I have not been around as long Bob, I have nevertheless observed arguments about uploading, identity duplication, and related subjects for decades.  In all that time there are two things I’ve never seen: (a) A truly new argument, and (b) Someone change their mind.  What is seen are people who passionately believe they are correct, and who believe that they have just the argument to finally convince the other side that they are right.  They never do.

I have come to believe that the question of whether a computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind (assuming equivalence in this context is even definable) constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable.  It’s almost a matter of taste, like alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics that assume different underlying realities that give exactly the same measurable results.

Eventually the distant day will come when the computational processes of a human brain are duplicated in an electronic computer, or even in another identical organic substrate.  When that day comes, we can be certain of this: If the person who was “duplicated” believed before duplication that duplication constitutes survival of the self, then, by definition, the duplicated entity will insist vociferously that indeed they did survive.  This has ethical implications.  Conversely,
an entity derived from a person who did not believe in this form of survival might be quite unhappy to be told that they were the product of a destructive scan of somebody.  This too has ethical implications.

Philosophical truth aside, evolution selects against humans who spend time worrying about whether sleep, anesthesia, or biostasis endangers personal identity.  Similarly, it is easy to predict which side of the uploading and duplication debates will win in the long term.  There is no entity more invulnerable or fecund than one that believes it consists of information.

Recent discussions of the topic of mind uploading on the Cryonics Institute members mailing-list contradict Wowk’s claim about people changing their mind about mind uploading. Robert Ettinger posted an itemized list with objections against the idea of mind uploading as a strategy for personal survival and I weighed in on the (current) lack of experimental evidence to settle the matter. The effect was that some people changed their mind or became more agnostic about mind uploading.

Wowk may be correct that the question whether a “computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind…constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable.” The discussion about mind uploading and persistence of the original person has distinct similarities with discussions about solipsism, consciousness, and the existence of the external world. It is not inconceivable that in a world where mind uploading has become routine the debates will still continue because the hard problem of persistence of the person is not falsifiable in a meaningful manner.

There are mind uploaders and there are Mind Uploaders. The Mind Uploaders are a small but vocal minority who display little patience for the argument that the technical feasibility of mind uploading requires empirical verification and cannot be completely settled by logical deduction or thought experiments. As cryonics activist and ex-Alcor Board member David Pizer says, “Having existed with Uploading Lovers for many years now, I believe they are as firmly entrenched in their beliefs as  traditional religious persons believe that their souls are going to Heaven after death here on Earth.”

Cryonics is often associated with ideas like mind uploading and transhumanism. One negative consequence of this (un)intentional association is that some people who are considering cryonics feel that they have to embrace a much larger set of controversial ideas than what they are actually being asked to consider. As a result, there is a real risk that people reject cryonics for reasons that have little to do with the proposal of cryonics itself. Advocates of cryonics do not do themselves a favor by promoting the idea of human cryopreservation as part of a larger set of futurist ideas instead of just promoting cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to extend life. There is too much at stake to alienate people by piling more controversial ideas on top of what is already considered to be a radical idea. Such a low-key attitude will also produce a more consistent message because it extends the element of uncertainty that is inherent in cryonics to other areas of life as well.


If I would make an argument in favor of mind uploading (or substrate independent minds) it would not be a logical deduction from what we know about neuroscience but from what we don’t know.  As one of the leading philosophers of mind David J. Chalmers has argued in this insightful paper about the Singularity and mind uploading:

Can an upload be conscious? The issue here is complicated by the fact that our understanding of consciousness is so poor. No-one knows just why or how brain processes give rise to consciousness. Neuroscience is gradually discovering various neural correlates of consciousness, but this research program largely takes the existence of consciousness for granted. There is nothing even approaching an orthodox theory of why there is consciousness in the first place. Correspondingly, there is nothing even approaching an orthodox theory of what sorts of systems can be conscious and what systems cannot be….

It is true that we have no idea how a nonbiological system, such as a silicon computational system, could be conscious. But the fact is that we also have no idea how a biological system, such as a neural system, could be conscious. The gap is just as wide in both cases. And we do not know of any principled di differences between biological and nonbiological systems that suggest that the former can be conscious and the latter cannot. In the absence of such principled di differences, I think the default attitude should be that both biological and nonbiological systems can be conscious

One can argue with this derivation of what the “default position” should be, but his more skeptical approach has a degree of modesty in its favor that is often lacking in transhumanist circles.

David J. Chalmers also discusses cryonics in a favorable context:

Cryonic technology off ers the possibility of preserving our brains in a low-temperature state shortly after death, until such time as the technology is available to reactivate the brain or perhaps to upload the information in it. Of course much information may be lost in death, and at the moment, we do not know whether cryonics preserves information sufficient to reactivate or reconstruct anything akin to a functional isomorph of the original. But one can at least hope that after an intelligence explosion, extraordinary technology might be possible here

On his blog he also writes that “for the last couple of weeks I have been in Oxford giving the John Locke Lectures on Constructing the World.  The title is an homage to Rudolf Carnap’s 1928 book Der Logische Aufbau Der Welt. The lectures are based on a book I have been writing for the last couple of years, trying to execute a project that is reminiscent of Carnap’s in certain respects.”

A person who discusses mind uploading in a meaningful context, gives cryonics a fair hearing, and has a work in progress that is inspired by Rudolf Carnap’s The Logical Structure of the World should not be ignored, let alone be ridiculed.

Excerpt from “Ben Best – A Case for Free Will AND Determinism”

Determinism implies materialism — implies that consciousness is material. Cryonics is based on the premise that the preservation of the fine structure of the brain at low temperature will preserve the self — ie, that the self is entirely determined-by and contained-in the physical brain. Determinism would imply that preservation of the material basis of mind/self is theoretically possible. (For an exploration of how the self is encoded in the brain, see my series The Anatomical Basis of Mind. Development of the anatomical argument to explain the functioning of mind is best summarized in Chapter 8, Neurophysiology and Mental Function.)

Defenders of “free will” who say that the self has a spiritual basis independent of the brain often reject cryonics as being unnecessary. There are a few “spiritually” oriented people (like the Fyodorovians) who think that “resurrection of the body” is essential due to an intimate connection between the body and the “soul”, but these are in the minority. The majority of cryonicists do not accept spiritual beliefs, but there are notable exceptions, namely people who regard cryonics as a form of medicine. If cryonics can extend life, it is no more an affront to spiritual belief than other life-extending practices such as exercise and the avoidance of tobacco.

What about anti-determinist materialists who believe in “free will”? Those, like Roger Penrose, who claim that the mind is ultimately rooted in quantum uncertainty might not accept the possibility of biostasis, but Penrose has made no explicit statement about this subject. Penrose writes of the non-computability of mind, but acknowledges that non-predictability does not equate with “free will”.

Predictability is really at the heart of what is required for cryonics. If the mechanical operation of billions of neurons and trillions of synapses result in the phenomena known as the mind, the Self and the Will, then preservation & restoration of this machinery by cryonicists & nanotechnologists is possible in principle. But this also means that human beings are machines whose future actions are, in principle, entirely predictable. The positive side of this is that understanding the machinery in sufficient detail could provide the basis for reconstructing those aspects of the mind (parts of the brain) that were destroyed beyond recognition or repair. The negative side is that many people find it “dehumanizing” to believe that we are nothing but machines.

The proposition that the self/mind has a complete material basis in the mind has practical implications for cryonics, but also raised baffling questions. If it is possible to use a cryopreserved brain as a template for atom-by-atom reconstruction of a new brain, the identity of the person whose brain was cryopreserved would presumably be restored. But if such reconstruction could be done once, there is no reason why it could not be done hundreds of times. Would each reconstruction have the same personal identity (the same self) as the original? (For more detail on this question, see my essay The Duplicates Paradox).

In the 2009-4 issue of Alcor’s Cryonics magazine I review the technical and practical feasibility of chemical preservation. One of the most interesting aspects of chemopreservation is that it could play a useful role in the cryopreservation of ischemic patients.

There is accumulating evidence that vitrification agents cannot prevent ice formation in ischemic patients. This raises the question whether some cryonics patients could benefit from chemical fixation prior to transport and cryoprotective perfusion.

Such protocols raise a number of obvious concerns but the question is not so much whether these procedures are inferior to vitrification of non-ischemic patients, but whether fixatives can improve the situation of some ischemic patients compared to the prospect of substantial ice formation, or even straight freezing (cooling without cryoprotection). This is an empirical question which needs to be settled by experimental research.

Chemopreservation: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly

Over the last couple of years, cryonics pioneer Robert Ettinger has been a vocal critic of simplistic defenses of the idea of mind uploading as a survival strategy. He has worked out his reservations in detail in his latest book Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics. In a recent CryoNet message he reiterates some of his basic arguments:

“Identity of indiscernibles” is a  common tenet. Often attributed to Leibniz, one  version is that if two physical objects or systems cannot be distinguished from  each other by any criterion, then they  must be considered the “same” or  identical. First, this assertion actually asserts nothing except a  certain preference in use  of language. It has no consequences. It is also useless because if the question arises, are A and B distinguishable, the answer  is always yes.

It is hard to see how anyone can claim complete certainty  on the topic of mind uploading. Nevertheless, to some of its more dogmatic advocates the case for mind uploading is simply an exercise in deductive reasoning. There are major objections to such an attitude. The most obvious point is general; why should mind uploading be an exception to the rule that we can have no certain knowledge? One might object that absolute certainty is possible in logic. But in that case one would need to defend the thesis that the feasibility of mind uploading (and its associated views about identity) is a purely logical matter and exempt from empirical testing. This is not a credible position.

This does not mean that questions about identity will be easily answered when such technologies are available. For all we know, mind uploading will be technically feasible and the debates about identity continue.  There is a lot of merit to discussions about mind uploading and identity, especially for those interested in cryonics and life extension. But there is also a lot to say for being modest in making bold claims before such technologies have materialized.