06. May 2015 · Comments Off on Cryonics as a measure of rationality? · Categories: Cryonics, Society

Most cryonics advocates are often frustrated by the amount irrationality, ignorance, and hostility when other people encounter the idea of human cryopreservation. It should not be surprising then that some of us have simply concluded that most people “just don’t get it.” Which raises an important question. Is making cryonics arrangements a strong measure of rationality? After all, a close examination of Alcor members indicates that most of them are highly educated, a disproportionate number of them have PhDs, and their backgrounds are often in fields where strong analytic skills are required; computer science, neuroscience, biochemistry, etc. Another indicator is that cryonics is relatively popular in communities with a high proportion of “nerds.” In fact, a number of “leaders” in the “rationality” community (Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky) have cryonics arrangements and have made public arguments in favor of cryonics. In short, someone who has made cryonics arrangements is not prone to short term gratification and minimizes cognitive biases, one could argue.

The problem with this characterization of cryonics as a measure of rationality is that it does not explain why the overwhelming number of people who can be considered highly analytical or rational have not made cryonics arrangements. Many cryonicists are smart but most smart people are not cryonicists. To explain this we will have to look elsewhere.

The 18th century skeptic and analytical philosopher David Hume once wrote that “reason is a slave to the passions.” In the case of cryonics, no matter how smart a person is, if the person does not have a passion for life (and an aversion to death and aging) that person will not be primed for an enthusiastic personal endorsement of cryonics. Closely related to having a desire to live and to pursue life extension is a an optimistic temperament. A cryonicist is not necessarily “wildly” optimistic, but (s)he should at least think that life is worth living and not be prone to thinking about the future in dystopian terms. I am also inclined to think that such a person is prone to think “like an economist” (to use Bryan Caplan’s phrase). With this I mean that a person can think in a probabilistic manner, does not see the world as a “zero-sum game,” and sees developments like automation, computerisation and biotechnologies in a positive light.

Do these combined traits produce a favorable attitude towards cryonics? This still cannot be the complete story because the traits discussed so far are shared by many millions of people in the world and support for cryonics is extremely small. I want to single out two additional traits that are usually required to prime someone for cryonics. The person also needs to be a non-conformist of some kind. When cryonics is as small as it is, strongly endorsing cryonics makes someone stand out (to put it mildly). And this “standing out” is not comparable to just having a bizarre hobby or a strange sense of style. It can sometimes produce confusion or hostility in other people, which can turn even our most life-affirming friends and family into apologetic pro-mortalists.

The most important trait, in my opinion, and the one that really distinguishes the cryonicist from the non-cryonicist, is the ability to deal with vulnerability, uncertainty and the unknown — in some cases, to even welcome it. People who have been around in cryonics for awhile know that ultimately (that is, when you dig a little deeper) skeptics are really afraid to be resuscitated in a distant and unknown future. This should not be easily dismissed. Personal identity is not identical to the brain or the body (as a simplistic version of cryonics would have it) but extends to all the things and people that have become part of a person’s life. To many people, the cryonics proposal means  survival at the cost of losing everything that gives meaning to their lives.

If we look at the limited acceptance of cryonics from this perspective, does this inspire optimism in persuading more people? An immediate response would be negative because fundamental character traits are hard to change. Another approach, however, is to change the conceptualization and delivery of cryonics so that these fears are not triggered. In particular, it might serve a cryonics organization well to transition from an organization that just “stores” a human body or brain without specific resuscitation and reintegration scenarios to an organization that offers more comprehensive means of identity preservation. Such an organization puts a strong emphasis on the cryopreservation of families and friends. It will offer means of asset preservation and personal belongings. It develops specific resuscitation protocols which are updated and calibrated as our knowledge and technologies improve. And it makes serious efforts to provide a reintegration program which seeks to minimize adjustment to the time in which an individual is resuscitated.

Is endorsement of cryonics a measure of rationality? Yes, but without a desire to live, a reasonably optimistic attitude, an independent mindset, and, most of all, confidence in a cryonics organization to preserve all that is important to a person, being smart by itself is not going to do it.

This is a web-exclusive edition of the Quod incepimus conficiemus column that is published in Cryonics magazine but was omitted from the April 2015 issue.

13. February 2015 · Comments Off on Though She Isn’t Really Ill, There’s a Little Yellow Pill… · Categories: Health, Neuroscience, Society

Humans have been ingesting mindand mood-altering substances for millennia, but it has only rather recently become possible to begin to elucidate drug mechanisms of action and to use this information, along with our burgeoning knowledge of neuroscience, to design drugs intended to have a specific effect. And though most people think of pharmaceuticals as “medicine,” it has become increasingly popular to discuss the possibilities for the use of drugs in enhancement, or improvement of “human form or functioning beyond what is necessary to sustain or restore good health” (E.T. Juengst; in Parens, 1998, p 29).

Some (transhumansits) believe that enhancement may not only be possible, but that it may even be a moral duty. Others (bioconservatives) fear that enhancement may cause us to lose sight of what it means to be human altogether. It is not the intention of this article to advocate enhancement or to denounce it. Instead, let’s review some of the drugs (and/or classes of drugs) that have been identified as the most promisingly cognitive- or mood-enhancing. Many of the drugs we will cover can be read about in further depth in Botox for the brain: enhancement of cognition, mood and pro-social behavior and blunting of unwanted memories (Jongh, R., et al., Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 32 (2008): 760-776).

Of most importance in considering potentially cognitive enhancer drugs is to keep in mind that, to date, no “magic bullets” appear to exist. That is, there are no drugs exhibiting such specificity as to have only the primary, desired effect. Indeed, a general principle of trade-offs (particularly in the form of side effects) appears to exist when it comes to drug administration for any purpose, whether treatment or enhancement. Such facts may constitute barriers to the practical use of pharmacological enhancers and should be taken into consideration when discussing the ethics of enhancement.

Some currently available cognitive enhancers include donepezil, modafinil, dopamine agonists, guanfacine, and methylphenidate. There are also efforts underway to develop memory-enhancing drugs, and we will discuss a few of the mechanisms by which they are proposed to act. Besides cognitive enhancement, the enhancement of mood and prosocial behavior in normal individuals are other types of enhancement that may be affected pharmacologically, most usually by antidepressants or oxytocin. Let’s briefly cover the evidence for the efficacy of each of these in enhancing cognition and/or mood before embarking on a more general discussion of the general principles of enhancement and ethical concerns.

One of the most widely cited cognitive enhancement drugs is donepezil (Aricept®), an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. In 2002, Yesavage et al. reported the improved retention of training in healthy pilots tested in a flight simulator. In this study, after training in a flight simulator, half of the 18 subjects took 5 mg of donepezil for 30 days and the other half were given a placebo. The subjects returned to the lab to perform two test flights on day 30. The donepezil group was found to perform similarly to the initial test flight, while placebo group performance declined. These results were interpreted as an improvement in the ability to retain a practiced skill. Instead it seems possible that the better performance of the donepezil group could have been due to improved attention or working memory during the test flights on day 30.

Another experiment by Gron et al. (2005) looked at the effects of donepezil (5 mg/day for 30 days) on performance of healthy male subjects on a variety of neuropsychological tests probing attention, executive function, visual and verbal short-term and working memory, semantic memory, and verbal and visual episodic memory. They reported a selective enhancement of episodic memory performance, and suggested that the improved performance in Yesavage et al.’s study is not due to enhanced visual attention, but to increased episodic memory performance.

Ultimately, there is scarce evidence that donepezil improves retention of training. Better designed experiments need to be conducted before we can come to any firm conclusions regarding its efficacy as a cognitive-enhancing.

The wake-promoting agent modafinil (Provigil®) is another currently available drug that is purported to have cognitive enhancing effects. Provigil® is indicated for the treatment of excessive daytime sleepiness and is often prescribed to those with narcolepsy, obstructive sleep apnea, and shift work sleep disorder. Its mechanisms of action are unclear, but it is supposed that modafinil increases hypothalamic histamine release, thereby promoting wakefulness by indirect activation of the histaminergic system. However, some suggest that modafinil works by inhibiting GABA release in the cerebral cortex.

In normal, healthy subjects, modafinil (100-200 mg) appears to be an effective countermeasure for sleep loss. In several studies, it sustained alertness and performance of sleep-deprived subjects(up to 54.5 hours) and has also been found to improve subjective attention and alertness, spatial planning, stop signal reaction time, digit-span and visual pattern recognition memory. However, at least one study (Randall et al., 2003) reported “increased psychological anxiety and aggressive mood” and failed to find an effect on more complex forms of memory, suggesting that modafinil enhances performance only in very specific, simple tasks.

The dopamine agonists d-amphetamine, bromocriptine, and pergolide have all been shown to improve cognition in healthy volunteers, specifically working memory and executive function. Historically, amphetamines have been used by the military during World War II and the Korean War, and more recently as a treatment for ADHD (Adderall®). But usage statistics suggest that it is commonly used for enhancement by normal, healthy people—particularly college students.

Interestingly, the effect of dopaminergic augmentation appears to have an inverted U-relationship between endogenous dopamine levels and working memory performance. Several studies have provided evidence for this by demonstrating that individuals with a low workingmemory capacity benefit from greater improvements after taking a dopamine receptor agonist, while high-span subjects either do not benefit at all or show a decline in performance.

Guanfacine (Intuniv®) is an α2 adrenoceptor agonist, also indicated for treatment of ADHD symptoms in children, but by increasing norepinephrine levels in the brain. In healthy subjects, guanfacine has been shown to improve visuospatial memory (Jakala et al., 1999a, Jakala et al., 1999b), but the beneficial effects were accompanied by sedative and hypotensive effects (i.e., side effects). Other studies have failed to replicate these cognitive enhancing effects, perhaps due to differences in dosages and/or subject selection.

Methylphenidate (Ritalin®) is a well-known stimulant that works by blocking the reuptake of dopamine and norepinephrine. In healthy subjects, it has been found to enhance spatial workingmemory performance. Interestingly, as with dopamine agonists, an inverted U-relationship was seen, with subjects with lower baseline working memory capacity showing the greatest improvement after methylphenidate administration.

Future targets for enhancing cognition are generally focused on enhancing plasticity by targeting glutamate receptors (responsible for the induction of long-term potentiation) or by increasing CREB (known to strengthen synapses). Drugs targeting AMPA receptors, NMDA receptors, or the expression of CREB have all shown some promise in cognitive enhancement in animal studies, but little to no experiments have been carried out to determine effectiveness in normal, healthy humans.

Beyond cognitive enhancement, there is also the potentialfor enhancement of mood and pro-social behavior. Antidepressants are the first drugs that come to mind when discussing the pharmacological manipulation of mood, including selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). Used for the treatment of mood disorders such as depression, SSRIs are not indicated for normal people of stable mood. However, some studies have shown that administration of SSRIs to healthy volunteers resulted in a general decrease of negative affect (such as sadness and anxiety) and an increase in social affiliation in a cooperative task. Such decreases in negative affect also appeared to induce a positive bias in information processing, resulting in decreased perception of fear and anger from facial expression cues.

Another potential use for pharmacological agents in otherwise healthy humans would be to blunt unwanted memories by preventing their consolidation.Thismay be accomplished by post-training disruption of noradrenergic transmission (as with β-adrenergic receptor antagonist propranolol). Propranolol has been shown to impair the long-term memory of emotionally arousing stories (but not emotionally neutral stories) by blocking the enhancing effect of arousal on memory (Cahill et al., 1994). In a particularly interesting study making use of patients admitted to the emergency department, post-trauma administration of propranolol reduced physiologic responses during mental imagery of the event 3 months later (Pitman et al., 2002). Further investigations have supported the memory blunting effects of propranolol, possibly by blocking the reconsolidation of traumatic memories.


Reviewing these drugs and their effects leads us to some general principles of cognitive and mood enhancement. The first is that many drugs have an inverted U-shaped dose-response curve, where low doses improve and high doses impair performance.This is potentially problematic for the practical use of cognition enhancers in healthy individuals, especially when doses that are most effective in facilitating one behavior simultaneously exert null or detrimental effects on other behaviors.

Second, a drug’s effect can be “baseline dependent,” where low-performing individuals experience greater benefit from the drug while higher-performing individuals do not see such benefits (which might simply reflect a ceiling effect), or may, in fact, see a deterioration in performance (which points to an inverted U-model). In the case of an inverted U-model, low performing individuals are found on the up slope of the inverted U and thus benefit from the drug, while high-performing individuals are located near the peak of the inverted U already and, in effect, experience an “overdose” of neurotransmitter that leads to a decline in performance.

Trade-offs exist in the realm of cognitive enhancing drugs as well. As mentioned, unwanted “side effects” are often experienced with drug administration, ranging from mild physiological symptoms such as sweating to more concerning issues like increased agitation, anxiety, and/or depression.

More specific trade-offs may come in the form of impairment of one cognitive ability at the expense of improving another. Some examples of this include the enhancement of long-term memory but deterioration of working memory with the use of drugs that activate the cAMP/protein kinase A (PKA) signaling pathway. Another tradeoff could occur between the stability versus the flexibility of long-term memory, as in the case of certain cannabinoid receptor antagonists which appear to lead to more robust long-term memories, but which also disrupt the ability of new information to modify those memories. Similarly, a trade-off may exist between stability and flexibility of working memory. Obviously, pharmacological manipulations that increase cognitive stability at the cost of a decreased capacity to flexibly alter behavior are potentially problematic in that one generally does not wish to have difficulty in responding appropriately to change.

Lastly, there is a trade-off involving the relationship between cognition and mood. Many mood-enhancing drugs, such as alcohol and even antidepressants, impair cognitive functioning to varying degrees. Cognition-enhancing drugs may also impair emotional functions. Because cognition and emotion are intricately regulated through interconnected brain pathways, inducing change in one area may have effects in the other. Much more research remains to be performed to elucidate these interactions before we can come to any firm conclusions.


Again, though it is not the place of this article to advocate or denounce the use of drugs for human enhancement, obviously there are considerable ethical concerns when discussing the administration of drugs to otherwise healthy human beings. First and foremost, safety is of paramount importance. The risks and side-effects, including physical and psychological dependence, as well as long-term effects of drug use should be considered and weighed heavily against any potential benefits.

Societal pressure to take cognitive enhancing drugs is another ethical concern, especially in light of the fact that many may not actually produce benefits to the degree desired or expected. In the same vein, the use of enhancers may give some a competitive advantage, thus leading to concerns regarding fairness and equality (as we already see in the case of physical performance-enhancing drugs such as steroids). Additionally, it may be necessary, but very difficult, to make a distinction between enhancement and therapy in order to define the proper goals of medicine, to determine health-care cost reimbursement, and to “discriminate between morally right and morally problematic or suspicious interventions” (Parens, 1998). Of particular importance will be determining how to deal with drugs that are already used off-label for enhancement. Should they be provided by physicians under certain conditions? Or should they be regulated in the private commercial domain?

There is an interesting argument that using enhancers might change one’s authentic identity—that enhancing mood or behavior will lead to a personality that is not really one’s own (i.e., inauthenticity), or even dehumanization—while others argue that such drugs can help users to “become who the really are,” thereby strengthening their identity and authenticity. Lastly, according to the President’s Council on Bioethics, enhancement may “threaten our sense of human dignity and what is naturally human” (The President’s Council, 2003). According to the Council, “the use of memory blunters is morally problematic because it might cause a loss of empathy if we would habitually ‘erase’ our negative experiences, and because it would violate a duty to remember and to bear witness of crimes and atrocities.” On the other hand, many people believe that we are morally bound to transcend humans’ basic biological limits and to control the human condition. But even they must ask: what is the meaning of trust and relationships if we are able to manipulate them?

These are all questions without easy answers. It may be some time yet before the ethical considerations of human cognitive and mood enhancement really come to a head, given the apparently limited benefits of currently available drugs. But we should not avoid dealing with these issues in the meantime; for there will come a day when significant enhancement, whether via drugs or technological means, will be possible and available. And though various factions may disagree about the morality of enhancement, one thing is for sure: we have a moral obligation to be prepared to handle the consequences of enhancement, both positive and negative.

Originally published as an article (in the Cooler Minds Prevail series) in Cryonics magazine, December, 2013

20. January 2015 · Comments Off on Alcor vs Disintegration · Categories: Cryonics, Society

This article was previously published in Cryonics Magazine, May, 2013

In this short article I will discuss two distinct developments in contemporary cryonics that are setting the stage of how cryonics is going to be practiced in the foreseeable future.

First, there is the recognition that the most formidable obstacle for people to make cryonics arrangements is not scientific or technological, but psychological. We know this because people tell us so. It is a form of anxiety about the future and social alienation that is even a concern for people who have made cryonics arrangements. Ignoring this and/or telling people to “toughen up” is simply not an effective response.

Second, there is an increasing interest in long-term wealth preservation among people who have made cryonics arrangements and this interest is no longer confined to wealthy Alcor members. In addition, there is also a growing interest in preserving biographical information, ranging from personal memories to tangible objects. This development can reflect a desire to prevent “disintegration” (see Keegan Macintosh’s excellent article in this magazine) during cryostasis or may be motivated by the use of such information for damage repair or validation of resuscitation attempts.

It seems clear to me that these two developments are closely associated and that Alcor can address the desire of their members to preserve biographical information, remain “connected” and make cryonics a less anxiety-inducing choice at the same time.

In the April 2013 issue of Cryonics magazine Mike Anzis contributed a useful review of very long-term storage alternatives for personal information and materials and all these options have their pro’s and con’s. I suspect that many people not only have reservations about the long-term survival of many of the organizations and companies reviewed, but also have concerns about privacy and the alignment of the goals of these entities and the objective of personal survival.

While it is unrealistic to expect that Alcor can be involved in all matters concerning personal data storage and reintegration (there is an argument for diversification and redundancy, too) it seems rather obvious that Alcor has a more substantial role to play than it does today. It needs to play a substantial role if we want Alcor to be perceived as an organization that does not just see reversible cryopreservation and rejuvenation as a technical problem to be solved, but one that will also do its best to give its patients a face, maintain the social integration of its patients, and facilitate means to protect personal assets and personal information.

I cannot do justice to the practical aspects of this objective in this short article but let me conclude with a number of specific suggestions.

We do not know whether email in its current format will still exist in the future but we do know that Alcor owns a domain name and can issue email addresses to their cryopreservation members and provide secure storage of email messages.

We do not need to speculate as much about the nature and compatibility of very long-term data storage technologies if Alcor starts offering such services and will ensure to upgrade them as times change. In addition, Alcor can allow its members to securely edit their personal information and medical records to allow for a better response in time of need.

Alcor can hardly compete with social networking platforms such as Facebook and Google+ but we can make an effort to offer individual members the opportunity to create a private or public online profile that will be retained after cryopreservation of the member, and that can perhaps even be updated by Alcor, family, and friends.

The benefits of such changes are greater than just offering Alcor members more opportunities to retain personal information, prevent disintegration, and more strongly identify with their cryonics organization. By giving our members a visible place and the tools to remain relevant we will also communicate to the rest of the world that we are serious and that we will not let our members slide into oblivion – even during cryostasis.

20. January 2015 · Comments Off on Cryonics and Natural Selection · Categories: Cryonics, Death, Society

“…it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself” so reads a quote that, in modified form, often has been mistakenly attributed to Charles Darwin but was in fact a description of Darwin’s views penned down by a Professor of Management and Marketing named Leon C. Megginson in 1963. But, surely, one reason for the popularity of this quote is that it captures the modern view of evolution quite well. In this column I would like to briefly reflect on what cryonics means in the context of evolution and natural selection.

Any cryonicist that has not kept his support of cryonics completely to himself must have found himself in a situation where even the most reasonable arguments seemed to leave someone else completely indifferent, or even hostile. Even in the case of family members or friends there comes a point where one cannot help thinking, “well, if you would rather die than think, fine, I am not going to stop you.” It appears, then, that people who make cryonics arrangements are part of an extremely small group of people that will escape the common fate of all humans (i.e. death), as a consequence of being extremely open-minded and adaptable.  But is this the “survival” that the theory of natural selection speaks of?

The modern theory of natural selection is essentially about reproduction. It is not necessarily the longest-lived species (the survivors) whose (genetic) traits will become more common in a population but the ones whose fitness leads to greater reproductive success. It can hardly be denied that cryonicists are extraordinarily capable of adapting to change (or ready to adapt to future change) but it has also been quite firmly observed that cryonicists (or life extentionists in general) are lagging the general population in terms of reproduction, either because of the higher number of single persons or because of the lower interest in having children. It is sometimes observed that whereas most people seek “immortality” by ensuring their genes will survive in future generations, cryonicists see immortality by seeking to survive themselves. In addition, even allowing for a growing interest in cryonics, the number of people making cryonics arrangements is simply too small to have a meaningful effect on the genetic and mental traits of future generations. At best, cryonicists may find themselves being perceived as independent, courageous, individuals that were simply more capable of anticipating the future of science and medicine.

It is tempting, indeed, to think of cryonicists as a homogeneous group of people who are extraordinarily analytic and adaptable but a closer inspection of the motives of people who make cryonics arrangements suggests something different. Indeed, if we look at the early days of cryonics, we see a disproportionate number of cryonicists who where extraordinary visionaries, sometimes independently arriving at the same conclusions (think of Robert Ettinger and Ev Cooper). As cryonics received more mainstream exposure, however, we see different reasons why people endorse cryonics. A partner has cryonics arrangements and the other person is persuaded to do so, too. Subcultures in which making cryonics arrangements is strongly endorsed (like transhumanism). A strong fear of death that prompts a person to do anything to not die, regardless of a dispassionate assessment of cryonics. In more recent times, even career considerations can be a factor as more “market-based” salaries are available in the field of cryonics. Still, despite the possibility that the personality type that chooses cryonics is increasingly getting more diverse, it still makes sense to talk about the demographics of cryonics for as long as the cryonics population is substantially different from the general population.

Where does all this leave us concerning cryonics and natural selection? Since natural selection is basically about reproductive success despite death it would not be correct to characterize the small group of cryonicists that will survive (where others do not) as an example of Darwinian evolution in action, I think. It may be tempting to use Darwinian terminology to characterize our situation but upon closer scrutiny there are problems with this. What might be said, though, is that (successful) cryonicists will be in the extraordinary situation to live for such a long time that they can see human evolution further unfold and even be in a position to consciously direct it through human enhancement.

This is a web-exclusive edition of the Quod incepimus conficiemus column that is published in Cryonics magazine but was omitted from the December 2014 issue.  

08. September 2014 · Comments Off on Social Benefits of Rejuvenation Bioechnologies · Categories: Health, Society

When advocates of radical life extension discuss the social benefits of humans having much longer lifespans, it is often just a footnote to a personal desire to prolong life. As a consequence, cynicism from critics is often encountered. It hard to counter such skepticism effectively because people may believe you are just trying to make an essentially selfish desire look socially desirable.

There is an alternative. We can approach the topic from the other direction if we ask what kind of lifespans would be desirable if we want to increase social welfare and reduce human suffering. Let’s look at a number of issues.

There is a large literature about coping with the death of loved ones, relatives, and friends. While many people find support from such self-help books, most people would agree that no amount of anticipation or coping can eliminate the suffering and devastation that follows the death of a loved one. Is there an upside? I am not aware of any serious writer pontificating about the positive aspects about a person dear to you dying or suffering from aging-related disabilities. A society in which humans have control over the aging process would be desirable because it would eliminate the dominant cause of death (age-associated diseases) and the suffering it brings to survivors.

It is not uncommon to hear people being accused of not caring about the effects of their actions on future generations. This complaint is particularly prominent in discussions about the environment and the use of natural resources. If humans were not born to die on a predictable schedule this whole dynamic would change because the distinction between current and future generations would cease to exist. If consideration of the long-term consequences of our actions requires a prominent place in human life, we should not want humans to replace each other but generations to coexist in time and space.

Age discrimination involves discrimination of individuals on the basis of their age. In most instances, however, this discrimination concerns biological age and its effects on appearance, physical health, and mental skills. Biological age is not hard to observe and can usually be inferred from chronological age. If we prefer that people are not treated differently because of their date of birth we should want to live in a society where rejuvenation biotechnologies sever the link between chronological age and biological age.

What about economic welfare? Ageless people would be able to remain productive and generous, medical costs associated with the debilitating health and mental effects of biological aging would be substantially reduced, and highly talented people would not cease to exist.

Reasoning backwards from what morality and welfare would “dictate” about human lifespans is not just a talking point in discussions about the bioethics of life extension. One can imagine the rise of a social movement that seeks to educate the general public about the social benefits of biological control over the aging process. Such a social movement would not be in the business of making excuses for eccentric individual desires but would recommend that the reduction of suffering, sustainable growth, and more virtuous conduct would require that humans do not have a fixed expiration date.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, December, 2013

26. November 2013 · Comments Off on Interview with Cryonics Magazine Editor Aschwin de Wolf · Categories: Cryonics, Neuroscience, Science, Society

[This interview was originally published in Cryonics magazine September 2013]

By Stephen Cave

This magazine generously reviewed my book Immortality: The Quest to Live Forever and How it Drives Civilization in the November/December 2012 edition. But the reviewer argued that I didn’t properly understand cryonics — so I decided to speak to a leading expert. This interview, with Cryonics Magazine’s editor Aschwin de Wolf, is the result. Parts of the interview appeared originally in Aeon Magazine (http://www.aeonmagazine.com)

What is cryonics?

(Stephen Cave) Cryonics is sometimes described as “medical time travel” – is that how you see it?

(Aschwin de Wolf) Yes, that is a good characterization. What sets cryonics apart from other medical procedures is not uncertainty (which is an element of many experimental medical treatments) but the temporal separation of stabilization and treatment. Cryonics reflects the recognition that a disease considered terminal today might be treatable in the future.

Does/will cryonics work?

What is the largest (or most complex) organism (or tissue) that has been successfully cryopreserved and revived (or reversibly vitrified)?

A rabbit kidney has been vitrified and successfully transplanted with long-term survival. Another major achievement that supports the practice of cryonics is the successful vitrification and functional recovery of rat hippocampal brain slices.

In terms of whole organisms, tardigrades and certain insect larvae have been successfully recovered after cryopreservation at low sub-zero temperatures.

What breakthroughs in cryopreservation are still required? When do you think they might come?

Recovery of organized electrical activity in the whole brain (EEG) after vitrification and rewarming would provide further support for the practice of cryonics. This may be achieved in about 5 to 10 years. Long term, the aim should be true suspended animation of a mammal.

It is important to recognize, however, that the damage associated with today’s cryonics procedures only excludes meaningful future resuscitation if the original state of the brain cannot be inferred. Damage-free cryopreservation would be sufficient but it is not necessary to justify practicing cryonics today.

Cryonics depends upon faith in technological progress and social stability (such that well-disposed scientists and physicians in the future will be both able and inclined to revive cryonics patients). Why do you believe the future will be so utopian?

In my opinion, it is more reasonable to ask why anyone would make decisions on the premise that medical progress would come to a screeching halt. Cryonics patients have time, and successful resuscitation does not necessarily require fast or accelerated progress. Cryonics does not rest on an utopian, but on a very conservative, premise.

Resuscitation of cryonics patients is the foremost responsibility of a cryonics organization. That is why organizations like Alcor set aside substantial amounts of money in a separate trust to allow for the maintenance and eventual resuscitation of the patient.

Social acceptance

Why do you think cryonics is not more popular?

It would be tempting to say that cryonics is not more popular because most people do not think it will work. The problem with this explanation is that hundreds of millions of people believe in all kinds of things for which there is no strong empirical evidence at all, such as astrology. In addition, when faced with a terminal prognosis people have a really low threshold for believing in the most implausible treatments.  If the popularity of cryonics would be a function of its scientific and technical feasibility, we should have seen major increases in support when new technologies, such as vitrification, were introduced.

The most likely explanation, in my opinion, is that people fear social alienation and solitary resuscitation in an unknown future. In fact, writers such as Arthur C. Clark, who strongly believed that cryonics will work, personally admitted as much. This is a real challenge for cryonics organizations but there is a growing interest in topics such as reintegration of cryonics patients.

Do you think there might be a tipping point in its popularity? What might bring such a tipping point about?

Scientific and technological breakthroughs in cryobiology (suspended animation) and cell repair will certainly help, but if fear of the future holds most people back there may not be such a tipping point. It is possible, however, that in certain demographical groups making cryonics arrangements will be recognized as the normal, rational, thing to do. Something like is already happening in subcultures that are interested in human enhancement or reducing bias in decision making.

Do you think there will be a day when cryonics is the normal procedure for treating those with diseases incurable by contemporary medicine?

Yes, or at least some kind of long term stabilization procedure will be used for people that cannot be treated by contemporary medicine. I find it hard to imagine that people will persist in burying or burning a person just because there is no treatment today. That is just irrational and reckless.

Philosophy and legal status of cryonics

Are those who are currently cryopreserved, in your view, actually dead?

No. But I do not think we can just claim that they are alive in the conventional sense of the word either, although that may change if we can demonstrate that cryopreservation can preserve viability of the brain.

If not, what state do you consider them to be in?

If the original state of the brain, what some scientists call the “connectome,” can be inferred and restored, cryonics patients are not dead in a more rigorous sense of the word. Their identities are still with us in an information-theoretical sense.

What legal status do you think those who are cryopreserved should have?

They should have much stronger legal status than the deceased have today. While a meaningful philosophical/technical distinction could be made between conventional patients and cryonics patients I think we need to err on the side of caution and give them the same kind of protection as other patients with terminal diseases.

At the very least, obstacles to conducting good human cryopreservation in hospitals should be eliminated because a lot of reservations people have about cryonics are not intrinsic features of the procedure but the results of cryonics organizations being forced to practice cryonics as a form of emergency medicine.

When should it be legal for someone to have themselves cryopreserved (eg, any time? when diagnosed with a terminal illness? or only when brain-dead according to current definitions? etc)

If a patient has been diagnosed as “terminal,” that is basically an admission of the physician that (s)he has exhausted contemporary medical treatment options. At that point it is prudent to identify other means of saving the patient’s life, including stabilizing them at lower temperatures for future treatment. This is particularly important if the patient is in a condition where continued metabolism will progressively destroy the brain. Such a procedure would be the opposite of assisted suicide because its aim would be to preserve life, not to end it.

Ethical considerations

The overpopulation problem: if a few generations of people do all have themselves cryopreserved, then when technology permits them to be revived and healed, will there not be an enormous population boom? How will this be managed?

There are several responses to this question. The most obvious one is to draw attention to the fact that today’s socio-economic debates in the West are about the consequences of a decline in population in the future as a consequence of people having fewer children.

It is also important to recognize that cryonics does not operate in a sociological, psychological, and technological vacuum. If support for the procedure changes so will our views on reproduction and sustainability.

Of course, it should not even be assumed that future generations will be confined to one planet (Earth). 

What do you say to the idea that death gives meaning or shape to life?

Cryonics is not a permanent cure for death. There may always be catastrophic events that could irreversibly kill a person or whole populations. In fact, it may never be possible to know that we will not die for the simple fact that this would require absolute knowledge about the infinite future.

Having said this, no, I do not think that death gives meaning to life. That is just an admission that the things that matter do not have intrinsic value but are experienced with mortality as a framework. Neither introspection nor observation of ordinary life suggests this.

In fact, I suspect that short human life-spans have an adverse effect on morality because it fosters instant gratification and indifference about long-term reputation and/or consequences.

On the other hand, do you think we are morally obliged to practice cryonics (as we might be to try to prolong life in other ways)?

My qualified answer is “yes.” If we believe that the aim of medicine is to preserve life and reduce suffering, cryonics is a logical extension of this thinking. Cryonics is not only a rational response to the recognition that science and technologies can evolve, but it also can be important to stabilize devastating cases of acute brain trauma.


When did you first become interested in life-extension technology?

In my case, my interest in life extension was a consequence of making cryonics arrangements.

When did you first hear about cryonics? When did you sign up for it?

I first read about cryonics on the internet in the mid-1990s. The idea seemed quite reasonable to me but I did not consider it as something that had direct personal relevance to me at the time. This changed in 2002 when a rather trivial medical condition prompted me to think more seriously about my remaining life and mortality. I read a lot of cryonics literature in a short period of time, attended the Alcor conference that autumn, and finalized making cryonics arrangements in January 2003.

Do you proselytize among friends and acquaintances? Have you had much luck in persuading others to sign up for cryonics?

Unless I know that a person has a strong interest in making cryonics arrangements, I generally do not explicitly try to persuade them. This is partly because I do not want people to get defensive in response to the idea. In cases where I know that the person is very open to cryonics, I put more effort into it. I think I have been successful in persuading around 4 people to make cryonics arrangements. There may be more that I am unaware of because of all the writing that I do.

Are you pursuing life-extension practices in the hope that you won’t need to be cryopreserved?

Yes. As most people with cryonics arrangements, I have a strong interest in life extension and rejuvenation research. I am not very optimistic about short-term breakthroughs so I try to eat healthy, exercise, and avoid dangerous activities and excessive stress.

What is your educational background?

I graduated in political science at the University of Amsterdam and have a strong interest in economics and philosophy as well. Over time my academic interests have mostly shifted to biology and neuroscience – also because of the experimental research that I am involved in.

What is your involvement with Alcor or other cryonics institutes/firms?

I have been an Alcor member for 10 years and have been employed in cryonics either as an employee or on a contract basis since 2004. My main activities right now are to conduct neural cryobiology research in my lab at Advanced Neural Biosciences and to edit Alcor’s monthly magazine, Cryonics.

I have always had a good relationship with the other major cryonics organization, the Cryonics Institute, too. In fact, without its support, and its individual members’ support, our research would not have been possible.

What would be your best guess for the year when you will be revived by the scientists of the future? What might the world look like then?

I do not think that there is a uniform year for all cryonics patients. Much will depend on the condition of the patient and prevailing technologies and capabilities at the time. For a typical patient, I doubt we are going to see meaningful resuscitation attempts before 2075.

If the past is any guidance, the (far) future will be a combination of things that have always been with us and things we cannot even imagine right now. I suspect that the most characteristic change in the future will be a seamless integration of human technology and biology and greater control over the aging process. 

05. October 2013 · Comments Off on Born too early? · Categories: Science, Society

A friend of mine in the life extension movement who is approaching age 65 once lamented that he might be part of the last generation that will not be able to take advantage of the rejuvenation biotechnologies that become available to the next generation. I wish I could believe him because it means that I may still be in time! Unfortunately, interest in anti-aging research and cryonics is rather low (to put it mildly), even among baby boomers who one might expect to be painfully aware of the aging process. It is rather disturbing to me that the aging process itself is not being identified as a source of misery, disease, separation, and oblivion. Then again, perhaps I am just too impatient and unable to see the larger picture.

The practical production of liquid nitrogen from liquefied air was first achieved by Carl von Linde in 1905, although liquid nitrogen only became widely available commercially after World War II. The idea of cryonics was introduced to the general public in the mid-1960s. Since liquid nitrogen (or liquid helium) is an essential requirement for human cryopreservation it is interesting to recognize that there was only a difference of roughly 20 years between cryonics being technically possible and the first efforts to practice cryonics. Is this an outrageously long delay? I doubt anyone would argue this.

Similarly, while the idea of rejuvenation has always appealed to humans (think about Countess Elizabeth Bathory), I doubt anyone can credibly claim that there has been a long delay between our recognition of biological senescence and the desire to see aging as a biotechnological challenge to overcome. While there is no massive global movement to fight aging yet, the desire to conquer aging is as old as the exposition of (secular) modern evolutionary biology
itself. Are we too impatient?

What is disappointing, however, is the widespread passive acceptance of aging and death by the majority of people. Thinking about this issue, it struck me that until recently our (educational) institutions and research programs were shaped by generations that were perhaps eminently amenable to accepting the inevitability of aging. Expecting these institutions and research programs to change their objectives overnight may not be completely realistic. It is undeniable, however, that the idea that aging is not something that is to be passively accepted but something that can be stopped and reversed is gradually winning more converts.

I suspect this observation will not provide much solace for my aging friend. But one of the nice features of cryonics is that it is possible to benefit from future rejuvenation technologies regardless of whether one happens to live to the time when such technologies become available. In fact, for some people that might be one of the most appealing reasons to make cryonics arrangements. Case in point, in my own situation I am not so much scared of death as I am fascinated by the idea of seeing the aging process reversed, not just for myself but for others, too. I cannot think of a greater human achievement than the introduction of effective, evidence-based, rejuvenation.

I am comfortable with the idea that I may not live to see rejuvenation biotechnologies becoming available before I am cryopreserved, provided I am able to take advantage of them later. Of course, I’d prefer to be there (without interruption!) when it happens. People may have different reasons to desire cryonics—we need to recognize this diversity of motives instead of just trying to “sell” the one reason that is important to us. Then perhaps, maybe, we can accelerate the identification of aging as a condition to be stopped.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine August 2013

29. April 2013 · Comments Off on Resuscitation and Reintegration of Cryonics Patients Symposium · Categories: Cryonics, Science, Society

On Sunday May 12, 2013, the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics will organize a symposium about the resuscitation and reintegration of cryonics patients in Portland, Oregon. To our knowledge, this is the first public meeting exclusively concerned with the repair, resuscitation, and reintegration of cryonics patients.

The symposium is being held at The Cleaners at Ace Hotel (The Cleaners at Ace Hotel 403 SW 10TH AVE, 97205) in downtown Portland, Oregon from 10:00 am to 07:00 pm.

Admission is free. Registration for the event is possible at the event Facebook page.

On Saturday evening, the day prior to the symposium, Aubrey de Grey and Max More will be speaking about rejuvenation biotechnologies and cryonics at the Paragon Restaurant & Bar in Portland, Oregon.

Admission for this event is free and registration for this event is possible on the event Facebook page, too.

The current line-up of speakers is as follows (the exact schedule will be announced soon):

Macromolecular temperature is a quantification of atomic-level molecular motion. The ability to maintain and reconstruct cryonics patients could be critically dependent on low temperature atomic/molecular motion and on the ability to operate nanomachines at cryogenic temperatures. Possible problems and solutions will be discussed.

Bio: Ben Best was President of the Cryonics Society of Canada for about a decade, after which he was President of the Cryonics Institute for nearly a decade. He is currently Director of Research Oversight for the Life Extension Foundation. The cryonics section of his website is one of the best sources of information about the science behind cryonics available on the internet ( www.benbest.com/cryonics/cryonics.html )


Complete preservation of the “connectome” should be sufficient for meaningful resuscitation attempts of cryonics patients but it may not be necessary. As long as the original connectome can be inferred from what is preserved, damage associated with cerebral ischemia or suboptimal cryonics technologies do not necessarily exclude future resuscitation. In this presentation I will present a general framework for reconstructive connectomics and explore theoretical and experimental research directions for reconstructing damaged and altered connectomes.

Bio: Chana de Wolf lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a business manager and biomedical researcher. She holds a B.S. in Experimental Psychology (2001), an M.S. in Cognition and Neuroscience (2003), and has extensive management and laboratory experience. She has several years of experience working as a research assistant in a variety of laboratory environments, and has taught college-level courses in neuroscience lab methods and biology. She is a Director and researcher for Advanced Neural Biosciences. Chana joined as a member of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in 2007 where she also worked as a Research Associate at Alcor to help build a sustainable, multi-faceted cryonics research program


Being, now or following revival from cryopreservation, ultimately depends on one’s ability to experience and to do so in the manner that is characteristic of one’s individual mind. Recently, it has become possible to address this problem in a concrete and systematic manner, largely due to rapid advances in computational neuroscience and data acquisition, both structurally (the popular field of “connectomics”) and functionally (brain activity mapping). The process of personal experience – like any process – involves some mechanisms operating at a given time under the influence of an environment state, a state that can include sensory input and functional “memory” established as a result of prior conditions. An emulation or prosthesis is then the attempt to replace a system of processing with an equivalent set of mechanisms that carry out the same processing within established success criteria. The engineering approach to understanding a system sufficiently that it can be emulated or replaced by prostheses is known as system identification. I will describe how system identification may be feasibly carried out for an individual human brain, and how constraints and requirements can be learned through projects with iterative improvements. I will present the projects that are underway to develop neuroscience tools with which successful system identification may be accomplished.

Bio: Dr. Randal A. Koene is CEO and Founder of the not-for-profit science foundation Carboncopies.org as well as the neural interfaces company NeuraLink Co. Dr. Koene is Science Director of the 2045 Initiative and a scientific board member in several neurotechnology companies and organizations.


The proper ultimate goal of cryonics is reversible suspended animation. While we should continually strive for that goal, we do not know if or when it will be fully achieved. Until then, we must grapple with the probability that cryopreservation will in itself not fully preserve personal identity critical information. A revived individual may be missing pieces of his or her life, or some of the existing pieces may be fuzzier than they were before clinical death. It may be feasible to fill in the gaps and to sharpen the focus by feeding into the repair and revival process biographical information with a high degree of resolution. That information may also serve to validate the accuracy of a reconstructed connectome. Up to the present, cryonics organizations have offered minimal storage of personal-identity relevant information. In this talk, I will consider ways in which members of cryonics organizations could use the emerging tools and technologies associated with the “Quantified Self” concept to capture and record detailed biographical information, and how cryonics organizations could assist with this and convey the resulting data to a future capable of repairing and resuscitating cryonics patients.

Bio: Max More is the President & Chief Executive Officer of the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. More has a degree in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics from St. Anne’s College, Oxford University (1984-87). He was awarded a Dean’s Fellowship in Philosophy in 1987 by the University of Southern California. He studied and taught philosophy at USC with an emphasis on philosophy of mind, ethics, and personal identity, completing his Ph.D. in 1995, with a dissertation that examined issues including the nature of death, and what it is about each individual that continues despite great change over time.


Given the host of complicated problems to be solved before resuscitation of cryonics patients is possible, it is easy to leave planning for their reintegration for another day. However, this assumes that there is nothing particularly important that can be done about reintegration prior to patient cryopreservation, which might be impossible, or at least far more difficult afterward. It also underestimates the impact that fear of dis-integration has on individuals’ decisions on whether to sign up for cryonics, which might be alleviated if we had more concrete plans for reintegration, with presently actionable components. In this talk, Keegan Macintosh will survey several aspects of cryonics patient reintegration, both legal and logistical, that can be tangibly worked on today.

Bio: Keegan Macintosh received his J.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2012, and is Executive Director of the Lifespan Society of British Columbia, a non-profit organization established to educate the public on life extension strategies and protect access to potentially life-saving technologies. Keegan is a board member of the Institute for Evidence Based Cryonics, as well as the Cryonics Society of Canada.


Cryonics aims to stabilize critically ill patients at low temperatures in anticipation of future medical treatment. While the concept of cell repair is often associated with the practice of cryonics, it is not an intrinsic element of the procedure. Advanced cryonics technologies will permit reversible cryopreservation of the patient. If human suspended animation would be achieved cryonics would solely involve future treatment of the patient’s disease and its underlying pathologies. In this talk I will discuss why reversible cryopreservation is important and which technical obstacles need to be overcome to make it a reality.

Bio: Aschwin is a Director and researcher for Advanced Neural Biosciences, the editor of Cryonics magazine, serves as a consultant for a number of cryonics organizations, and has published technical articles on various cryonics topics.

25. April 2013 · Comments Off on Protecting cryonics patients · Categories: Arts & Living, Cryonics, Society

Anyone who has ever reflected on the fragility of human life and the seemingly inevitable rise and fall of complex societies cannot fail to be concerned about the fate of patients in cryopreservation. Cryonics organizations have learned from the early days and abandoned the practice of accepting patients without complete prepayment – a practice that almost invariably guarantees a tragic loss of life when family members or the cryonics organization can no longer afford to care for them. Alcor has given a lot of thought to the financial and legal requirements of keeping patients in cryopreservation but it is understandable that people question the prospect of cryonics patients making it to the time where a suitable treatment of their disease will be available.

This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that cryonics patients do not have the legal standing that ordinary human beings (or patients) enjoy. If the media revealed blatant incompetence in a local hospital, it would be inconceivable that the existing patients would be abandoned and left to die. In cryonics there is a far greater risk of abandoning both the organization and the patients, despite the safeguards that some cryonics organizations have made to separate the organization from the maintenance of patients. In fact, the most rabid opponents of cryonics have little patience for the idea that abandoning cryonics patients could one day be considered one of the most tragic events in the history of medicine.

The first step to protect cryonics patients is to strengthen your cryonics organization and the legal and logistical structures that have been erected to keep them in cryopreservation. But almost just as important is to give people who have not made cryonics arrangements themselves reasons to protect them. In the case of surviving family members that is usually not a challenge but time may eventually pass the direct descendants of those people by as well. One important practice that can be strengthened is to give these people a face. Cryopreserved persons are not just a homogenous group of anonymous people (unless they chose to be so!) but are our friends, family members, and patients who would like their story to be told.

Fortunately, in the age of the internet this has become a lot easier. Social networking websites like Facebook retain the profiles of deceased and cryopreserved persons unless the family requests removal. Cryonics organizations themselves can offer opportunities for members, friends, and family members to maintain their presence online. Last but not least, there are a lot more people who support cryonics and protection of cryonics patients than people who have made actual cryonics arrangements and these people can be involved and organized as well. As evidenced on a daily basis, you do not have to benefit yourself to support a cause. Cryonics is not just an individual seeking an experimental procedure but part of a broader social movement that hopes to update the way we think about death. In fact, Alcor now offers Associate Membership for those who want to support our mission but do not desire to make arrangement themselves, or not yet.

It is easier to dispose of people who are nameless, who have been removed from the social fabric of life, and who are only perceived as anonymous vehicles of an “erroneous” idea. We cannot decide that resuscitation will work but we can decide to keep their memories alive and personalities present to help them reach that opportunity.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, April, 2013

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.