The case for cryonics

The biology-of-aging blog Ouroboros has posted a skeptical post about cryonics that is highly representative of how most biological scientists respond to questions about cryonics. The discussion of cryonics is largely reduced to a discussion of the technical feasibility of suspended animation and resuscitation requirements. But suspended animation is not cryonics. Cryonics should be discussed in the broader context of decision making under uncertainty. People who have made cryonics arrangements are more than aware that contemporary science is not able to vitrify and resuscitate a complex organism. To them the central question is whether we can reasonably expect that future technologies will be able to repair the injury that is produced by contemporary cryopreservation technologies and rejuvenate the patient. That is the “probabilistic” side of the issue. On the utility side of the equation is nothing less than personal survival.

This does not mean that cryonics should be approached as a form of Pascal’s Wager in a vacuum. Experimental evidence from fields such as cryobiology, biogerontology and nanotechnology plays an important role in shaping our expectations about the technical feasibility of the resuscitation of cryonics patients. Many biologists, however, feel confident that they can make a case against cryonics without even bothering to examine the current state of the field. For example, how many biologists know that the latest generation of vitrification agents have low enough toxicity to permit vitrification of animal brain slices with retention of electrical activity?

The author writes:

The field could take a lesson from the dawn of modern biogerontology back in the early 1990s: Acknowledge the mind-bending complexity of the challenge. Create model systems for cryonics, using the best tools from the vast edifice of modern biological knowledge.

But that is exactly what the cryonics field has done. Millions of dollars have been devoted to identify low-toxicity vitrification agents and protocols to preserve viability after pronouncement of legal death.  Progress in the cryopreservation of complex organs (including the brain) has been so successful that the vitrification agent that is currently used by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation, 21st Century Medicine’s M22, is the least toxic vitrification agent in the peer reviewed cryobiology literature to date.

The author is correct that the project of cryonics is of “mind-bending complexity.” One major reason for this is that the resuscitation of most cryonics patients will require successful rejuvenation. As a result, cryonics advocates are quite interested in anti-aging research. But whereas modern biogerontology, not unlike macroeconomics, is still plagued by ongoing (technical) debates about even the most basic definitions employed in the field, or engaged in discussions about what constitutes the most effective approach to pursue rejuvenation, the cryonics field has moved from the practice of the crude freezing of patients to the pursuit of long term care at cryogenic temperatures without ice formation and minimal ischemic injury.

Perhaps there is good reason for this difference in success rate. As mathematician and cryonics advocate Thomas Donaldson pointed out, anti-aging research faces conceptual and methodological challenges that cryobiology research does not. Perhaps the time scale to develop and validate effective anti-aging strategies is similar to that of developing a mature technology that can manipulate matter at the molecular level. If this is the case, rejuvenation research could benefit from being pursued as a broader evolutionary bio-nanotechnology research program.

The discussion of cryonics is most fruitful where logic and empirical science meet.  We need to employ the tools of logic to guide coherent decision making and we need the results of experimental science to provide empirical weight to guide those decisions. In a world where knowledge is recognized as probabilistic, and where death is recognized as a biological process that can be halted through the use of low temperatures, the decision to make cryonics arrangements can be rational and life-affirming.

Peter Thiel: Utopian Pessimist

Peter Thiel, one of the few original minds in the life extension and accelerating-technological-change community, is featured in a short interview at Wired. Thiel seems to be aware of the limitations of extrapolation of trends:

We’ve been living in a unique period of accelerating technological progress. We’ve gone from horses to cars to planes to rockets to computers to the Internet in a very short time. It’s not automatic that that continues.

In a 2008 essay for the Hoover Institute, Thiel writes:

Thought experiments are notoriously misleading. Unlike more rigorous forms of scientific investigation, there are no empirical means to falsify these mental exercises. The optimistic thought experiment exists largely in the mind. The vistas of the mind are not always the same as reality. One could do worse than to ignore Milton ’s seductive promise: “The mind is its own place, and in itself, can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.

As has been argued on this website before, the life extension movement suffers from an abundance of individuals who engage in thought experiments and organize conferences to talk to other people who engage in thought experiments.  But the fight against aging  cannot be won through speculation and wishful thinking alone but is in serious need of an “empirical turn”  that will unleash an avalanche of experimental research (for example, such as envisioned by the newly formed non-profit company Livly).

Further reading: 2008 Reason Interview with Peter Thiel

The singularity is not near

Singularity skeptic Mark Plus drew my attention to the following blog post. The author writes that:

Chalmers’ (and other advocates of the possibility of a Singularity) argument starts off with the simple observation that machines have gained computing power at an extraordinary rate over the past several years, a trend that one can extrapolate to a near future explosion of intelligence. Too bad that, as any student of statistics 101 ought to know, extrapolation is a really bad way of making predictions, unless one can be reasonably assured of understanding the underlying causal phenomena (which we don’t, in the case of intelligence).

He ends his post by the following observation:

It is nice to see philosophers taking a serious interest in science and bringing their discipline’s tools and perspectives to the high table of important social debates about the future of technology. But the attempt becomes a not particularly funny joke when a well known philosopher starts out by deploying a really bad argument and ends up sounding more cuckoo than trekkie fans at their annual convention.

There are several arguments that can be made against simple extrapolations of past trends and the way many transhumanists think about the progress of science.  Some of these arguments have been made in my own piece Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics. It is striking that when futurists have to estimate a timescale for important breakthroughs these events almost invariably are projected to happen within their lifetime, and even if they do not, there is some way to be a part of them. This tendency itself is indicative of how rationalism, wishful thinking, and self-interest can shape our ideas about the future.

David Stove and the Plato cult

David Stove’s book The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies is a remarkable collection of essays. As a staunch positivist ,the author is not impressed with most of what constitutes “philosophy” (or the quality of our thinking in general). As Stove laments in the preface, “there is something fearfully wrong with typical philosophical theories.” But unlike the early 20th century logical positivists, Stove has little hope for formulating a criterion that shows why the opinions of most philosophers are nonsense and completely devoid of common sense. As a consequence, Stove is forced to look for alternative  strategies to explain the “exceedingly strange” views of prominent philosophers.  Most of the essays in Stove’s book are informed by a perspective that investigates non-rational causes that could throw some light on the matter.

For example, the thoughts of Karl Popper, who Stove holds responsible for facilitating an era of irrationalism in the philosophy of science, are explained by the spirit of the “Jazz Age” (anything goes) that is expressed in Popper’s philosophy.   Stove’s case is not  all that persuasive. The most obvious line of criticism is that it is highly implausible to attribute the spirit of the Jazz Age to a grumpy, intolerant person like Karl Popper. If anything, in light of Popper’s personal traits, the anti-authoritarian aspirations  in his writings are actually quite remarkable.  Stove missed the most obvious personal explanation available to him; Popper’s obsession to refute the logical positivists. One would look in vain in Popper’s writings for a celebration of the Jazz Age but it is not hard to detect Popper’s compulsive need to establish his place in the history of thought.  Obviously, this cannot be done through incremental refinements of the theories of previous philosophers; it requires a new way of looking at things (falsificationism).  If Stove would have argued that lifting concepts from the political realm and using them in epistemology is the road to confusion and leads inevitably to the epistemological anarchism of Paul Feyerabend and the vacuous “pancritical rationalism” of William Bartley, he might have been on firmer ground.  Instead, Stove argues that the main emotional impulse of Popper was ultimately what he calls horror victorianorum,” the  irrational distaste for, or condemnation of, Victorian culture, art and design. As a self-proclaimed conservative, one would expect Stove to launch a strong defense of the politics and culture of late Victorian England but, oddly enough, Stove seems to have considerable sympathy for horror victorianorum and it is only the rational side in him that forces him to admit that this emotional response has little intellectual merit.

The other essays in The Plato Cult and Other Philosophical Follies are similar cases studies of philosophers with crazy ideas including a scathing review of Nozick’s attempt to engage in “non-coercive” philosophy. Of most interest is the final chapter called “What is Wrong with Our Thoughts? A Neo-Positivist Credo.” It is in this essay where the strict positivist outlook of Stove finds its most forceful expression. Stove cites a number of passages of the works of Plotinus, Hegel and Foucault and cannot explain how (supposedly) intelligent people can express such madness. What characteristics do all these ideas have in common? Stove has considerable sympathy for the logical positivist project to find criteria to eliminate metaphysics and nonsense from philosophy but does not believe that finding such criteria will be comprehensive enough. He refers to Tolstoy who said that all happy families are the same while every unhappy family is unhappy in a different way.  There are endless ways in which human thinking can go wrong. In the end Stove is pessimistic about the prospect for rational thought: “genetic engineering aside, given a large aggregation of human beings, and a long time, you cannot reasonably expect rational thought to win.”

Stove may be correct about the ultimate fate of the human race, but he may be too pessimistic about developing criteria that discipline thinking. The mistake of some of the early logical positivist may not have been so much in looking for such criteria but insufficient recognition of the fact that such criteria need a context to be useful. Instead of saying that the statements of, let’s say, Hegel or Heidegger, or not meaningful (period) it would be better to say that such statements are not meaningful in the context of action or prediction. As Hans Reichenbach writes in his logical empiricist masterpiece “Experience and Prediction:”

It seems to me that the psychological motives which led positivists to their theory of meaning are to be sought in the connection between meaning and action and that it was the postulate of utilizability which always stood behind the positivistic theory of meaning, as well as behind the pragmatic theory, where indeed it was explicitly stated.

From this perspective, critiques concerning the self-applicability of the logical positivist criterion of meaningfulness can be avoided by linking cognitive significance to action (including such endeavors as experimental science) in a way that itself can be subjected to logical or empirical investigation. In essence, this “pragmatic” element would introduce a more thoroughgoing empiricism. Logical positivists like Carnap were not hostile to this idea as evidenced by his ongoing efforts to refine his criteria so as not to exclude the achievements of modern science.  Broadly speaking, we look at successful scientific efforts (which basically comprise all sciences that can be reduced to physics and mathematics) and “reverse-engineer” our criteria around this.  Such efforts may produce new roadblocks but there is a good chance that the resulting criteria will eliminate of lot of the madness that Stove finds in most philosophers, intellectuals, and public policy makers.

The "yuck factor" and cryonics

In sensationalized accounts of cryonics, explicit descriptions of cryonics procedures, and that of neuropreservation in particular, are used to invoke a negative response in the reader.  Some bioconservatives have argued that disgust experienced in response to certain ideas and practices is “the emotional expression of deep wisdom, beyond reason’s power fully to articulate it” (Leon Kass). In some cases, such as senseless violence, this is not necessarily an unreasonable approach because it may reflect a preserved instinct against behavior that is harmful to the individual or group. In such examples, however, the wisdom of repugnance can be corroborated by rational justification as well.

Where such an appeal to gut feelings is less fruitful, however, is in the context of medicine and forensics. The daily activities of many medical professionals and morticians consist of activities that would produce a strong negative gut response in most people who would observe them in all their detail. As the Alcor Life Extension Foundation points out in a document denying the mistreatment of Ted Williams:

Consider if a journalist did this expose of the funeral industry: “Funeral Home Scandal: Bodies injected with poison, organs mutilated, remains stuffed into wood boxes and covered with dirt!” It’s all true, right? Of course, if a disgruntled apprentice embalmer went to a sports magazine describing in graphic detail the use of a trocar during embalming of a sports celebrity, or the physical effects of cremation, he would be escorted out of the building by security.

The “yuck factor” that is produced in many people when they read about the details of cryonics procedures is not evidence of  pseudo-science or mistreatment. As a matter of fact, the procedures that are routinely performed in cryonics labs are designed to preserve life, not to destroy it. In this sense, the practice of cryonics can claim the moral high ground over prevailing methods of dealing with “human remains,”  where critically ill people are buried or burned because contemporary medicine has not yet found a way to treat them. If anything, it is this kind of medical myopia that should trigger the yuck factor.

Five important empiricist philosophy books

Most contemporary philosophers and social scientists have little interest and understanding of logic or the physical sciences and  therefore have little to offer to those who want to understand the philosophical aspects of knowledge. The following five books have been written by thinkers who have a great respect for science and the importance of empirical observation. With the exception of one book, no 21st century thinkers are featured to ensure that hype is not mistaken for importance.

(1) Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy (1951) is one of the best 20th century books on philosophy. The author shows how speculative and rationalist philosophy has been gradually replaced by the natural sciences. Writing from a consistent empiricist perspective, Reichenbach proposes that the lack of progress in philosophy is due to philosophers asking themselves questions that could only have been answered by the experimental method and the tools of modern logic. In the chapter about induction Reichenbach answers David Hume’s skepticism about causality and proposes a pragmatic justification of induction.

(2) Alfred J. Ayer’s Language, Truth and Logic (1936) is a classic and accessible exposition of logical positivism (or logical empiricism) by an English philosopher. Logical positivism is a school of thought in philosophy that is strongly shaped by the advances in physics and mathematics and seeks to eliminate metaphysics and meaningless statements from philosophy. Like most other philosophers in this tradition, Ayer kept refining his views throughout his life but always remained committed to the objectives of the original Vienna Circle.

(3) Rudolf Carnap was the most important exponent of logical positivism but his writings are of such an abstract and technical nature that most fellow philosophers and scientists are only familiar with his early popular statements of the positions of the Vienna Circle. A notable exception to his demanding work is his book An Introduction to the Philosophy of Science (1966) which is based on a seminar Carnap taught on the philosophy of the physical sciences. This book is not only valuable for its rigorous treatment of the philosophical foundations of physics but also represents a good summary of the views of the late Carnap.

(4) Bertrand Russell is among the most popular philosophers of the 20th century and had little reservations about speaking his mind on topics ranging from atheism to marriage. Unlike most philosophers that work in the analytic tradition, Russell had a great interest in the history of philosophy which would find its destination in his monumental and rich A History of Western Philosophy (1945). Russell attempts to treat the thinking of most philosophers he discusses with respect but the mindset of a logician and scientist is ever present, making this book one of the few available histories of philosophy from a (sometimes reluctant) empiricist perspective. The book does suffer from Russell’s highly subjective approach in some chapters, notably his rather melodramatic treatment of Friedrich Nietzsche.

(5) Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Fooled by Randomness: The Hidden Role of Chance in Life and in the Markets (2001) is not a book on philosophy but the general approach that informs his book about the role of chance in life and markets is informed by a thorough skepticism about our claims to knowledge. As a “skeptical empiricist” Taleb stands bemused at the urge of humans to seek and detect patterns everywhere and our illusions about control. Taleb’s work received a lot of well deserved attention after the 2008 financial crisis but his distinct epistemological views still receive little attention.

Interview with Alcor member David Croft

david_croftDavid Wallace Croft is an Alcor member in the Dallas area where he lives with his wife Shannon and five children, Ada, Ben, Tom, Abe, and Ted.  He is employed as a Java software developer and is a part-time doctoral student.  His contact information and his weblog are available at www.CroftPress.com.

1. How did you first learn about cryonics?

I first learned about cryonics from the Extropians.  I think I first learned of the Extropians from “Wired” magazine.  I really liked what I read in the Extropian Principles so I dug into this subculture online.  I was a volunteer Webmaster for the Extropy Institute for a brief period.

2. When did you join Alcor and what motivated you to become a member?

Along with every other techie, I was swept into the Silicon Valley dot com boom during the late 90’s.  I worked next to Xerox PARC so I would sometimes wander over to attend their guest lectures including a slideshow on the subject of cryonics presented by Dr. Ralph Merkle.  I had a chance to attend local cryonaut dinners and meetings including a meeting at the Shaw-Merkle residence.  Actually signing up remained on my to-do list for a few years until I saw an ad on the back of the shirt of insurance agent Mr. Rudi Hoffman at an Extropian conference.  I approached him and he helped me make it happen.

3. How does your membership impact your life plans or lifestyle?

My Alcor membership has given me some peace of mind with regard to the terror of impending death.  I lost my faith in the supernatural afterlife at an early age and I struggled with the ramifications.  Now that I am middle-aged with five children, death is less frightening but I still think about my dwindling days with some despair.  My cryonics hope keeps me functional.

I am currently in Dallas but my long-term plan is to find a job in Phoenix, possibly in academia, so that I can establish my retirement residence near Alcor.

4. What do you consider the most challenging aspect(s) of cryonics?

Even amongst my atheist allies, cryonics is considered crazy.  When I read Humanist literature, I see a “mortalist” attitude where an acceptance of death is considered the rational alternative to belief in a supernatural afterlife.

5. Have you met any other Alcor members?

I have enjoyed my fellowship with members over the years, most recently at the Alcor conferences.  Awhile back, we had a cryonauts dinner here in the Dallas area with Dr. Scott Badger, Chana de Wolf, and Todd Huffman; I note that all four of us are involved in the study of the mind and brain.  I had the opportunity to attend one of the annual get-togethers hosted by Max and Natasha More in nearby Austin.  I also sample the CryoNet, Society for Universal Immortalism, and Venturists electronic mailing lists.

6. What areas of Alcor’s program would you like to see developed over the next 5-10 years?

I would like to see more Alcor conferences.  I would also like to see Alcor establish a second operational center in another location.

7. What kind of lasting contribution would you like to make to cryonics?

I would like to help establish a democratic religion for cryonaut brights.  I was inspired by the 1933 “Humanist Manifesto” proposing Humanism as a new religion.  I am the Treasurer and a co-founder of the Society for Universal Immortalism (SfUI), formerly known as the Transhumanist Church, which requires cryonics suspension arrangements before becoming a voting member.  I have also created a website for my own personal micro-religion which I call “Optihumanism”.  In my “Optihumanist Principles”, I have attempted to blend Religious Humanism, Neo-Objectivism, and Immortalism in a concise statement of my beliefs.  Less seriously, I also have a webpage for my “Cryobaptist Church” which makes the tongue in cheek assertion that salvation can be achieved by a post-mortem baptism in liquid Nitrogen.

8. What do your friends and family members think about your cryopreservation arrangements?

In general, my friends and family think it is a bit eccentric.  I am attempting to plant seeds with my wife and children by introducing them to cryonics fiction.

9. What are your hobbies or special interests?

One of my special interests is church-state separation activism.  With the assistance of my Objectivist friend and attorney Dean Cook, my family has legal cases pending challenging the constitutionality of a couple of new laws involving religion in Texas public schools:  a mandatory moment of silence and adding “under God” to the state pledge.

I am also a part-time doctoral student in Cognition and Neuroscience at the University of Texas at Dallas.  Although my Bachelors is in Electrical Engineering, my two Masters degrees had a focus on neuroscience and neuromorphic systems.  As a programmer, I have been hired to work on a number of interesting projects including neural network chip design, intelligent software agents, peer-to-peer frameworks, and multiuser 3D environments.  My academic research could be described as pursuing artificial intelligence via a study of spiking neuronal networks.

10. What would you like to say to other members?

Many of my atheist, humanist, objectivist, and immortalist friends do not have children.  I recommend that you have them if you can.  Children are blessings we give to ourselves.

Less wrong

Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality:

Over the last decades, new experiments have changed science’s picture of the way we think – the ways we succeed or fail to obtain the truth, or fulfill our goals.  The heuristics and biases program, in cognitive psychology, has exposed dozens of major flaws in human reasoning.  Social psychology shows how we succeed or fail in groups.  Probability theory and decision theory have given us new mathematical foundations for understanding minds.

Less Wrong is devoted to refining the art of human rationality – the art of thinking.  The new math and science deserves to be applied to our daily lives, and heard in our public voices.

A beta-test version of the site is online here.

Cryonics and transhumanism

The association of cryonics with “transhumanism” seems inevitable but is problematic.  It seems inevitable because cryonics should be most attractive to people with a very positive perspective on the future capabilities of technology. Barring rapid advances in mitigating aging, cryonics  offers the only credible option for transhumanists to become a part of that future. It is unfortunate because it can have adverse effects on the objective of making cryonics a part of conventional medicine, and further alienates people who are open to the idea of human cryopreservation but fear the future.

For some people the choice for cryonics does not so much represent optimism about the pace of technological progress, or a desire for immortality, but rather skepticism about our contemporary definition of death.  This is not a trivial distinction. Despite some popular misconceptions, cryonics is not necessarily linked to having an extreme position on the pace of technological progress.  One can be a conservative regarding the timescale that it will take to develop credible cell repair technologies and be a staunch cryonics advocate without any contradiction.  Similarly, a commitment to cryonics does not necessarily mean that one has to root for the most radical and optimistic school of thought in nanotechnology.

The unfortunate association between cryonics and transhumanism has recently been addressed by ex-Alcor president and cryonics advocate Steve Bridge in his perceptive article Has Cryonics taken the Wrong Path? The Unnoticed Conflict between Rescue Technology and Futurist Philosophies. So far Bridge’s article has had limited effect and cryonics representatives are rarely invited to speak at any conferences outside of the predictable “Transhumanism-Singularity Industrial Complex.” This development does not just reflect a lack of effective and credible spokespersons that can make a persuasive scientific case for cryonics, it also reflects a lack of concern about cryonics being perceived as one element in a larger transhumanist or Singularitarian project.

There seem to be indications, however, that this climate is changing.  Cryonics activists such as Mark Plus and longevity advocates such as Anne Corwin have increasingly  expressed reservations about certain strands of futurism and the unsolicited identification with these movements. Another welcome development is scientific researchers such as Richard Jones who do not necessarily disagree about the  possibility of molecular cell repair technologies but reject the meliorist and quasi-religious tendencies in contemporary futurism.

In a recent blog entry about Ray Kurzweil, Richard Jones writes:

One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”….The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.

It would be unfortunate for cryonics to be identified with naive thinking about society and technology and sellers of snake oil. Recent management and staff changes at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation indicate a renewed emphasis on sound business operations and medical credibility. It remains to be seen if these changes constitute a broader effort to re-position cryonics as an important player in the world of medical innovation.

Nanotechnology: The message matters

A recently conducted study brings a warning to technophiles who think that the facts are all that matter when informing a group of people about a new technology. The fact of the matter is that the message matters more.

In their article “What drives acceptance of nanotechnology?” (Nature Nanotechnology), the Cultural Cognition Project and the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies reported that, when presented with balanced information about the benefits and risks of nanotechnology, a diverse sample of 1500 people who were largely unfamiliar with nanotechnology became deeply divided regarding its safety as compared to a group not shown such information.

The dividing line was cultural: “People who had more individualistic, pro-commerce values, tended to infer that nanotechnology is safe,” said Kahan, the lead author of the study, “while people who are more worried about economic inequality read the same information as implying that nanotechnology is likely to be dangerous.”

Seeing that people respond so differently to the same information has caused many experts in the field to call for risk-communication strategies that take these findings into account. In this way, they hope to prevent a nanotechnology “culture war”:

“The message matters,” said David Rejeski, director of the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies. “How information about nanotechnology is presented to the vast majority of the public who still know little about it can either make or break this technology.