Resuscitation and Reintegration of Cryonics Patients Symposium

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):
BEN BEST – EFFECTS OF TEMPERATURE ON PRESERVATION AND RESTORATION OF CRYONICS PATIENTS

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 )

CHANA DE WOLF – RECONSTRUCTIVE CONNECTOMICS

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

RANDAL KOENE – BRAIN EMULATION AND NEUROPROSTHETICS: A SYSTEM OF FUNCTIONS TO BE SUSTAINED

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.

MAX MORE – MAXIMIZING REVIVAL PROBABILITY: PRESERVATION, RECORDING, INTERPOLATION, AND RECONSTRUCTION

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.

KEEGAN MACINTOSH – REINTEGRATION OF CRYONICS PATIENTS: LEGAL AND LOGISTICAL CONSIDERATIONS

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.

ASCHWIN DE WOLF – CRYONICS WITHOUT REPAIR

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.

Protecting cryonics patients

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

Non-existence is hard to do

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.

Cryonics, trans-temporal communism and future squatters

Cryonics advocate Eugen Leitl puts forward some hard-hitting and thought-provoking observations about cryonics (reminiscent of Mike Darwin’s more recent thoughts on the subject):

Cryonics, like Natural Selection, or the theories of General and Special Relativity, is core-smashing in character, and in the case of cryonics, the idea is so antithetical to the existing order of civilization that it can it only be advanced by insurgent means. This is so because cryonics overturns the Vitalistic view of life, challenges the conventional definition of death, invalidates the core tenets of contemporary medicine, erodes the need for a mystical afterlife, radically redistributes capital (disrupts inheritance, bequests, and mortuary customs), mandates a complete change in reproductive behavior, perturbs generational succession, requires space colonization, requires (and supports) profoundly disruptive technologies such as cloning, regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and finally, ends the species and enables, if not requires Transhumanism. As a consequence, cryonics creates adverse emotional and intellectual states within the existing culture such as survivorship guilt, indefinitely extended anxiety and uncertainty accompanying life-threatening illness (the cryonics patient remains ‘critically ill’ for decades or centuries), prevents the psychological closure that accompanies “true” death with disposition of remains, creates indefinite anxiety about the well being of cryopreserved loved ones, disrupts the intimacy of family interactions during the “dying” process, may bitterly divide family members who are opposed to cryonics versus those who are in favour, and blocks or disrupts deeply held mechanisms for coping with death and bereavement that are inculcated from childhood by eliminating the customary wake, funeral, and other comforting rituals.

In particular, he opines that “the idea that cryonics was just an extension of medicine and is compatible with religion and existing social and political institutions, while superficially satisfying, is both mistaken and bound to fail.” After this observation one would expect him to advocate some radical form of transhumanism as a vehicle to promote cryonics. But he further believes that:

Distinct from initialization failures, there are inherent in cryonics several corrosive and self destructive ideas that have grown over time until they have virtually overwhelmed cryonics today. The first of these is “temporal load shifting,” or more colloquially, the problem of ‘our friends in the future…his causes cryonicists to increasingly shift the burdens, technological and financial, present and future, onto the people (supermen) who we believe will revive us from cryopreservation, a concept that may fairly be called Trans-Temporal Communism: from cryonicists now according our ability (none); and from our ‘supermen friends in the future’ according to our needs (infinite). Trans-Temporal Communism leads to the creation of ‘Future Squatters; people who believe that technological advances will happen when conditions are right for them to occur. This is a brilliant position because it is never wrong; it is the perfect piece of circular reasoning that justifies doing nothing. This creates a perverse situation wherein intelligent and talented people who enter cryonics do not, as might at first be thought, find it impossible to believe that cryonics, vast extension of the human life span, or, for that matter, many of the transformational technologies of Transhumanism are impossible, but rather they that find it not only believable, but inevitable that these developments will occur within their lifetimes (i.e., Kurzweil and deGray)….The Future Squatters who have come to dominate contemporary cryonics are not merely parasites content to sit and wait until robots show up at their doors with immortality on a silver platter, all too often they are actively contemptuous and dismissive of the (fewer and fewer) people working hard to build a practical, sustainable and robust cryonics that withstand the tests of time and deliver its patients to a future they have created; a future not only technologically capable of restoring them to life; but morally and financially impelled to do so, as well.

If one rejects both cryonics-as-medicine and the futurist / transhumanist vehicle to communicate the idea of cryonics, one wonders what the correct approach should be. The observation that “the core problem in cryonics is the absence of a philosophical and moral basis for cryonics and the accompanying ethics and dogma required to enforce it” does not seem to follow from the preceding observations.  Most importantly, what is this “philosophical and moral basis for cryonics” that is required, and why is it separate and different from the general moral conduct that social interaction and reason generate?

It is becoming clearer and clearer that demonstrating the technological feasibility of cryonics is not sufficient for the acceptance of cryonics. There seems to be a growing consensus that “fear of the future” and lack of closure are among the biggest hurdles for giving the idea a charitable hearing.  But little thought is being given to this topic, and it is quite correct that this omission can be squarely attributed to a kind of simplistic futurism that is circulating in cryonics circles. If  even most self-identified transhumanists cannot bring themselves to make cryonics arrangements, why would one expect the rest of the population to embrace the idea?

Cryonics advocates often seem to believe that if they refute the common scientific and technical objections to cryonics (which is not that hard to do because the psychological resistance to the idea prevents critics of checking even the most basic facts about the rationale and practice of cryonics) the social and psychological reservations will take care of themselves. This is not just incorrect, such reservations are often the most fundamental.

One would be surprised if an invasive, experimental medical procedure would lack detailed information about post-procedure care, responsibilities of  the hospital and family members, and reintegration. Considering that for many people cryonics constitutes a solitary leap into an unknown and far-away future, is it reasonable that providers of such care, and advocates of cryonics, think about doing a better job of responding to these concerns. This is mostly unexplored territory because even the most alienating events in human life as we know it cannot capture this aspect of cryonics.  It is doubtful that such concerns can be removed by altering the philosophical and moral basis of cryonics.

 

Edward O. Wilson's Consilience

Sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson believes that a major reason why the social sciences have made so little progress is that its practitioners have ignored the biological basis of human behavior. He is not impressed with arguments that purport that the complexities of human behavior cannot be reduced to more elemental physical principles as embodied in modern neuroscience and biochemistry. Wilson recognizes that his view on the unification of the sciences carriers forward the logical positivist ideal of the Unity of Science. In his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge he writes:

Logical positivism was the most valiant concerted effort ever mounted by modern philosophers. Its failure, or put more generously, its shortcoming, was caused by ignorance of how the brain works.

The canonical definition of objective scientific knowledge avidly sought by the logical positivists is not a philosophical problem nor can it be attained, as they hoped, by logical and semantic analysis. It is an empirical question that can be answered only by a continuing probe of the physical basis of the thought process itself.

Wilson is basically saying that logical positivism was not empiricist enough, a view that was anticipated by the logical empiricist Hans Reichenbach in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge.

On the tension between religious and scientific  perspectives of the world he writes:

The human mind evolved to believe in the gods. It did not evolve to believe in biology. Acceptance of the supernatural conveyed a great advantage throughout prehistory, when the brain was evolving. Thus it is in sharp contrast to biology, which was developed as a product of the modern age and is not underwritten by genetic algorithms. The uncomfortable truth is that the two beliefs are not factually compatible. As a result those who hunger for both intellectual and religious truth will never acquire both in full measure.

Remnants of such supernatural thinking are still with us today when we exempt humans from physical reality and attribute agency and free will to them.

Wilson is sensitive to the scenario that defective or disadvantageous genes increase and persist in modern human life but he believes that such a course of events will be relatively short-lived as humanity will master and embrace human genetic engineering. On the use of such technologies he writes:

I predict that future generations will be genetically conservative. Other than the repair of disabling defects, they will resist hereditary change. They will do so in order to save the emotions and epigenetic rules of mental development, because these elements compose the physical soul of the species. The reasoning is as follows. Alter the emotions and epigenetic rules enough, and people might in some sense be “better,” but they would no longer be human. Neutralize the elements of human nature in favor of pure rationality, and the result would be badly constructed, protein-based computers. Why should a species give up the defining core of its existence, built by millions of years of biological trial and error?

His reconciliation of human enhancement and cultural incrementalism is reminiscent of the “conservative transhumanism” of the biologist Alexis Carrel.

The low-hanging fruit of technological progress

The website Alternative Right has an interesting article on the declining pace of technological progress:

The world of 1959 is pretty much the same world we live in today technologically speaking. This is a vaguely horrifying fact which is little appreciated…Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago?…Some wise acre is likely to pipe up and sing the glories of “Nanotech,” a “subject” which was “invented” in K. Eric Drexler‘s Ph.D. thesis in 1989. In the 20 years since he penned his fanciful little story, we have yet to see a single example of the wondrous miniature perpetual motion machines Drexler has been promising us “real soon now.” I wonder what his timeline for delivery of this “technology” will be?

The author dismisses the idea that the rapid technological progress between 1959 and 1909 was possible because these generations focused on the “easy stuff” but I wonder if this explanation can be so easily dismissed. Even if we allow for the credible hypothesis that laissez-faire capitalism is more conducive to accelerating technological change than a mixed economy, it cannot be ignored that commercial incentives favor picking the low-hanging fruit first. The current generation is left with more complicated technological  and biomedical objectives such as molecular nanotechnology and rejuvenation of the human body.

A sober mind should never get too carried away with either optimism or pessimism. One major advantage of making cryonics arrangements is that it eliminates some of the anxiety that comes from recognizing that credible rejuvenation therapies may not become available in your lifetime. Patients in cryostasis have time, a point that is not always fully recognized by skeptics of accelerating technological progress.

The presumption of death

Bertrand Russell once said that “most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” One does not need to look any further than the many responses to Kerry Howley’s recent article about cryonics and hostile partners in New York Times Magazine to find support for Russell’s witty remark. One commenter suggested that “an easy solution would be to just agree with him all the way to the grave. Then bury or cremate him. He’ll never know.” Such a cruel attitude may not be completely representative of what most people think about spousal disapproval of cryonics but it cannot be denied that some hostile partners and relatives have exactly responded in this way when faced with the legal death of a family member who had made cryonics arrangements. As a matter of fact, even indifference to a partner’s cryonics arrangements is a source of problems because the decreased sense of urgency, and a general unwillingness to assist with even the most basic cryonics first-aid procedures, produces substantial ischemic damage. Interfering with an individual’s cryonics wishes raises serious ethical questions because someone’s chance of survival has been reduced from a positive probability to zero.

Peggy Jackson, Robin Hanson’s wife, wonders “what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?” This is a strange presumption to make about life and death.  Our culture generally does not have this presumption about moral worth and non-existence. As a general rule, we do not feel that someone has to justify her reason to seek medical care and try to remain alive. The argument is even less relevant in the case of cryonics because cryonics is not publicly funded. It is also a persistent misunderstanding that the objective of cryonics is immortality. It cannot be denied that some who have chosen to make cryonics arrangements have a desire for immortality but both major cryonics organizations simply present cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to treat terminally ill patients who cannot be sustained by contemporary medical technologies. As such, there is no credible rationale to depart from the presumption in favor of life that is implied in today’s medical practice.  “What is so bad about me that I should not seek an experimental medical procedure like cryonics?” should be the obvious response when the presumption of death is made.

‘Choose life at any cost,’ ” Peggy says. “But I’ve seen people in pain. It’s not worth it.” We can agree that people should not choose life at any cost, but what is often ignored in discussions about cryonics is the rather obvious point that cryonics patients will not be resuscitated in the painful and debilitated state of a terminal patient but in a rejuvenated body without the disease the patient suffered from. Without such a condition for resuscitation, cryonics would be an exercise in futility.

One can only agree with bioethicist James Hughes that “there is a lot of ancient cultural stereotyping about the motives and moral character of people who pursue life extension”. In a number of posts on Overcoming Bias Robin Hanson himself has commented on the New York Times Magazine article. Robin draws an interesting parallel between the practice of Sati (“a funeral practice among some Hindu communities in which a recently widowed woman would either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) and objection to one’s partner’s cryonics arrangements.

Interestingly, Robin Hanson also seems to believe that a major source of anxiety about cryonics is fear of the future. Cryonics has “the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” Robin further thinks that a lot of the opposition to cryonics is driven by the possibility that it might actually work. After all, “If people were sure it wouldn’t work there’d be no point in talking about selfishness, immortality, etc.  If the main issue were a waste of money we’d see an entirely different reaction.” This suggests that cryonics organizations could benefit from altering their public relations strategies. Less emphasis on discussing technical feasibility and more emphasis on dealing with anxiety issues.

The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan always gives cryonics serious consideration but sometimes has the habit of starting his discussion of the topic on a wrong note by discussing the most outlandish resuscitation scenarios instead of just focusing on the most basic form of cryonics; resuscitation of the same physical person that has been cryopreserved. Caplan seems to  be quite interested in the question of what the odds of cryonics working are. Aside from the obvious rejoinder that the odds are much lower than they could be if cryonics was permitted as a pre-mortem elective medical procedure, the point needs to be reiterated that a small dedicated group of people can substantially increase these odds through scientific research and the creation of robust cryonics organizations.  Cryonics is not just an issue of determining fixed probabilities but also about supporting the idea and participation to increase the odds of meaningful resuscitation of people who have been written off by today’s medicine.

Cryonics is decision making under certainty par excellence. If you cannot stomach any kind of uncertainty, cryonics is not the best decision for you. As the mathematician, and current Alcor patient, Thomas Donaldson has said: “There is an IRREDUCIBLE UNCERTAINTY which is basic to cryonics , not merely an adventitious consequence of our ignorance about how memory is stored.” In his article Neural Archeology Donaldson recommends that “if you’re involved in cryonics, you’ve got to make your peace with the unknown, because it will always be there. You’ve simply got to make your peace with it.”

The one silver lining of the recent discussion of partner hostilitily to cryonics is that there has been an increasing recognition of the need for financial and legal strategies to prevent catastrophic interference with one’s cryonics arrangements.  Some of these strategies will be discussed in an upcoming issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine.

Humanist death apologetics

Some contemporary atheists and secular humanists do not stop at debunking the idea of God but seem to think that making a persuasive case against religion requires them to refute all of its associated ideas as well; including the desire for immortality. Paula Kirby is not the first secular person praising our limited lifespan and glorifying death:

For atheists it is the very transience of life that helps to give it its meaning: for it prompts us to live it to the full, to try to make the most of each day, each hour, and to savour every experience along the way. It is the acceptance of the finality of death that spurs us to live our lives to the full, thereby ensuring they are as meaningful as we can possibly make them. It is also what makes it matter that for too many people life really is a vale of tears, and why it is so important to take practical steps now to alleviate their suffering wherever possible, for there is no afterlife in which all wrongs will be righted and all tears will be dried.

Kirby does not just repeat the hollow non-empirical cliché that life can only have meaning in the face of death but she also pretends to speak on behalf of all atheists. As can be expected, she cannot imagine an extremely long lifespan to be anything else than unspeakable boredom. When she writes that “Susan Ertz got it spot on with her witty remark that ‘Millions yearn for immortality who don’t know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon” one cannot help thinking that she is conveying more information about herself and Susan Ertz than about humans in general.

It is unfortunate to see an apparently reasonable person like Kirby arguing against the desire for immortality to make the case against religion. As the secular philosopher Herbert Marcuse once noted about this ideology of death, “It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…”

When Kirby states that it is “so important to take practical steps now to alleviate …suffering wherever possible, for there is no afterlife in which all wrongs will be righted and all tears will be dried” she is exactly promoting the kind of  fanatical pursuit of “justice in our lifetime” that is a major source of ideological struggle and ill-conceived public policies. One of the major advantages of a vastly expanded lifespan is that it will reduce this desire for immediate moral gratification and stimulate a culture with more consideration for  the long-term unintended consequences of our actions. One might even go further and claim that it is exactly the prospect of being around for a long time that will foster a culture of moral responsibility and rational decision making.

HT Mark Plus

The ethics of cryonics interference

Advocates of human cryopreservation argue that death is not an event but a process. Cryonics patients are stabilized at low temperatures in anticipation of a second medical opinion in the future. This raises an important ethical issue. What is the moral status of cryonics patients? It is not possible to argue that cryonics patients will be resuscitated in the future. But it is not possible to categorically rule this out either. As a matter of fact, evidence from cryobiology, neuroscience, and synthetic biology support the technical feasibility of cryonics. As a consequence, cryonics patients are somewhere on a continuum between alive and irreversible biological death.

What does this mean when someone interferes with a person’s wish to be cryopreserved? In essence, those who successfully prevent the cryopreservation of a person have altered the probability of future revival from “possible” to “impossible.” For example, let us assume that cryonics patients can be resuscitated in the future. What does this mean for those who were not cryopreserved because of hostile interference? Have they been killed? Most people would agree that such a verdict is too strong. But do we believe that a person who knowingly changes the prospect of future revival from possible to impossible (or decreases those probabilities by causing delays) should be free from moral blame and legal consequences?

A related problem is the termination of cryonics procedures. Advocates of cryonics agree that a person who has not chosen for cryonics should never be forced to be cryopreserved. But what is the right course of action when such a person is already cryopreserved? Can we just thaw him out? Let us consider the case of a person with a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order who is accidentally resuscitated because paramedics were not aware of his wishes on the matter. Few people would argue that this person should be killed before he gains awareness to honor his wishes. Now let us consider a situation where it is discovered that a person was cryopreserved against his will but at a point in the future when the prospect of resuscitation becomes increasingly likely. In such a case, the issue would be similar to a resuscitated DNR patient in deep anesthesia.

This example illustrates a number of issues. There is a meaningful distinction between ignoring someone’s wishes not to be cryopreserved and terminating the cryopreservation of an existing patient. Honoring a person’s wishes not to be cryopreserved requires non-interference. Thawing out an existing cryonics patient is an act to change someone’s existing chance at revival from possible to impossible. The example also illustrates the role that probability of resuscitation plays in such considerations. Few people would argue that it does not matter at all how credible resuscitation of cryonics patients is for making decisions about the  moral status of cryonics patients, interference with cryonics procedures, and the decision to terminate somebody already in cryostasis.

We want certainty in a universe that only offers us probabilities. The ethical and legal issues surrounding cryonics are not unique to cryonics. It is not just in cryonics where issues of moral obligation are discussed in the context of uncertainty, probability and risk. It will be rewarding to review these philosophical and legal debates and see how debates about interference with cryonics can be framed from these perspectives.

In the meantime, people who have made cryonics arrangements are not completely powerless against hostile interference. They can alter their cryonics paperwork and living will to ensure that there is little incentive for greedy relatives to interfere. As a matter of fact, one could change one’s “last” wishes to ensure that interference would trigger the worst financial outcome for greedy family members and others who would stand to benefit from a person not getting cryopreserved.

Biological enhancement and evolution

In the March 2010 issue of Reason magazine Tim Cavanaugh writes about the rift between transhumanists who favor biological enhancement versus those who favor non-biological “mechanical” enhancement:

These days transhumanists talk a lot about subcutaneous data ports, permanent immersion in virtual reality, even extending male life spans by removing the gonads. But they spend noticeably little time considering enhancement through inheritable, rather than mechanical, means. “I don’t know why biological stuff is off the plate,” says Greg Fahy, chief scientific officer at Twenty-First Century Medicine Inc. “It’s just not the flavor of the day.”

There are distinct similarities between those who believe that biology is “messy”, “chaotic” and “dumb” and those who advocate centralization and top-down solutions to solve social problems.  In both cases, evolution, competition and spontaneous order are perceived as leading to “sup-optimal” or “unfair” outcomes that can and should be improved upon  through uniform decision making by intelligent decision makers.  Skeptics of such grandiose views point out that a society with distributed knowledge and incentives requires decentralized decision making. And, as Anthony de Jasay has noted:

When a social state of affairs, instead of being collectively decided, is left to emerge from a large number of individual decisions, the effects of the latter tend to be normally distributed: a few prove disastrous, a few are superbly good, and most are middling. The likelihood of the resulting state of affairs being totally disastrous or wholly superb is negligible. When, however, one collective choice is responsible for a state of affairs, no normal distribution can be relied upon. A single wrong decision that “seemed a good idea at the time” suffices to cause disaster.

Can we predict a-priori what enhancements will be beneficial and which will be harmful to an individual? In many cases, the most  useful arbiter will be experience, or to those of a more prudent temperament, the observation of others. Tim Cavanaugh writes:

There is grandeur in the view that genetic enhancement will produce outcomes that can’t be modeled by Bayesian optimization. Better machines and longevity treatments have the attention of the human enhancement community now, but the real fun, and the real mystery, will be found in creating varieties of people, who in turn will have concerns and beliefs and bodies that differ radically from our own. Will all those differences be attractive or adaptive? The beauty of evolution is that we can’t know the end—but we can get more skillful in crafting our part of the beginning.

Even if mankind would be able to improve upon the “chaos” of existing biology, this would in no way mean the end of evolution and competition. Things evolve and evolution will still remain a useful tool to model the interaction of various ideas and systems. One application of particular interest is to use evolution to discover strategies to eliminate or slow down aging, as practiced by biological researchers such as Michael R. Rose.

Unfortunately, Cavanaugh mentions cryonics (“frozen brains”) as as a subdivision of transhumanism. There are an increasing number of  influential cryonicists who strongly object to this identification of cryonics with transhumanism. They see cryonics as an experimental medical procedure that, like any other medical procedure, should not be linked to any kind of “ism.”