Facing death with Epicurus

James Warren is to be complimented for writing a thorough and persuasive book on Epicurean thinking about death. In Facing Death: Epicurus and his Critics, Warren offers a detailed review of Epicurus’ view that “death is nothing to us.” His treatment of Epicurus’ critics should be considered a success for the following three reasons. The author has a genuine understanding of  the Epicurean philosophy with all its nuances. Second, unlike many philosophers, Warren devotes a lot of time to presenting the arguments of Epicurus’ critics in their most charitable form, sometimes even raising novel potential objections, before refuting them. Finally, although the author allows for the possibility that the human fear of death may be hardwired, and even an evolutionary advantage, he stands out among other philosophers in not have a strong desire to refute Epicurus, a trait that negatively affects a lot of the literature on Epicurus.

Because the Epicurean view on the fear of death is often misunderstood, the author distinguishes and reviews four interpretations of the argument in the first chapter, Fears of Death:

1. The fear of being dead.
2. The fear that one will die, that one’s life is going to end.
3. The fear of premature death.
4. The fear of the process of dying.

In the following three chapters the author thoroughly reviews three different themes in the Epicurean tradition: the argument that death cannot be a harm because if we do not exist we cannot  experience the deprivation of things that life offered, the argument that since we do not consider the period before we existed as a harm we cannot claim that the period after we exist is a harm, and the argument that death cannot be premature or prevent a person from having attained a complete life. The chapter on premature death is of particular interest to life extensionists because it discusses the issue of immortality  from an Epicurean perspective, briefly contrasting Bernard Williams‘ argument against immortality with the Epicurean tradition.

Because Warren ultimately does not find Epicurus’ critics persuasive, he devotes the final chapter to the question of what living an Epicurean life would imply. An important reason for exploring this issue is to explore the argument that even if the Epicurean view on death is correct, it would lead to consequences that few are willing to accept or are highly impractical. The author singles out two issues: would it be incoherent for an Epicurean to write a will (as Epicurus himself did) and the desirability of prolonging one’s life.

Most reasons for executing a will are rejected as inconsistent with the Epicurean tradition but a notable exception is made for a line of reasoning that finds a rational reason for writing a will in the value of strengthening one’s relationship with friends during life:

…the knowledge that a friend will leave certain items in a will to another may ensure the continued assistance of this future beneficiary during the remaining period of the testator’s life. The beneficiary reciprocates in advance, as it were, for the goods which he has been pledged and will receive when the other dies.

This argument in favor of writing a will may have broader implications. If an Epicurean has reason to be positively involved with the fate of people who may be still alive after him, a related argument could be made that he could also be concerned about future generations because of the effect of overlapping generations. If such an argument is possible, the Epicurean view that we can neither experience good nor bad things  after we cease to exist can be reconciled with dispositions such as protecting the environment or contributing to causes that do not have a chance to succeed during a person’s lifetime. By doing so we are signaling our disposition to cooperate, reap the benefits of cooperation, and respect justice as mutual advantage.

If we should not fear death, why prolong life? Here Warren is at greater pains to reconcile Epicurus-style reasoning and a wish to remain alive. But as the author admits, perhaps one obstacle for such a reconciliation is the “highly debatable” Epicurean view that pleasure cannot be increased beyond the absence of pain, a view that seems to be at odds with both  personal introspection and empirical observation. It  may not be  incoherent to believe that death cannot be a harm but prolonging a life that is an (overall) positive experience is desirable.  Some variants of this argument, however, would run into the objection that comparing the value of existence and non-existence is nonsensical because the latter cannot be experienced. As a matter of fact, the obvious point that death cannot be experienced is one of the central tenets of Epicurean thinking. Does that just leave the Epicurean with the position that he “will simply continue to live with no sufficient reason  either to kill himself or to want to survive until tomorrow?” It is clear that this issue would benefit from some smart analytic thinking. Further benefit may be obtained  by seeking an answer to the question why the “intellectualist stance on the emotions” that informs Epicureanism  seems to contradict human psychology as it has evolved.

Brownian motion and nanotechnology

Brownian motion started when Robert Brown looked into his microscope and observed that pollen suspended in water moved around in a continuous random motion. Wanting to rule out some “vital life force,” Brown also  investigated dead things such as sand and metals but he observed the same jittery motion. The dead danced as well. Or perhaps the Epicureans anticipated the phenomenon of Brownian motion in Lucretius‘s scientific poem On the Nature of Things:

Observe what happens when sunbeams are admitted into a building and shed light on its shadowy places. You will see a multitude of tiny particles mingling in a multitude of ways… their dancing is an actual indication of underlying movements of matter that are hidden from our sight… It originates with the atoms which move of themselves.

The writer Mark Haw has been so fascinated with the phenomenon and history of Brownian motion that he decided to write a book about it called Middle World: The Restless Heart of Matter and Life. This accessible introduction covers the history of Brownian motion, the “mesoscopic” middle world between the (sub)atomic world and the world of “large” objects,  taking us from the puzzling observations of Robert Brown to its relevance for the upcoming science of nanotechnology. Commenting on the challenges that the middle world, where “objects simply cannot  stand still,” presents to Eric Drexler’s vision of  “hard” nanotechnology, the author observes:

Matter in the middle world does things differently.  You could insist on modeling your machines after the macroworld and finding chemical ways to achieve that. But why not use the fantastically rich range of things that matter does in the middle world to come up with whole new ways of solving engineering problems? Why not profit from unavoidable restlessness? We know it can be done: life has already done it.

Although published 3 years earlier than Haw’s book, Richard Jones picks up this very theme in his excellent book Soft Machines: Nanotechnology and Life. This book presents a more technical treatment of Brownian motion and other nanoscale phenomena that an advanced nanotechnology simply cannot work around.  But instead of resisting the unruly world of randomness and sticky objects, Jones proposes to embrace these phenomena as the most obvious road to build nanoscale devices. Although the author does not completely dismiss the “top-down” Drexler approach, he strongly prefers to use the bionanotechnological tools that nature has provided and to improve upon them. He also introduces an approach called “biomimetic nanotechnology” that would involve “the copying of the principles of operation of biological nanotechnology, but executing them in synthetic materials.”

Since August 2004, Richard Jones also publishes a blog that reports on the future of nanotechnology  and has featured informed critiques of the Drexlerian vision of radical nanotechnology and Singularitarianism.

Human cryo-anabiosis

Recent advances with the use of hydrogen sulfide, carbon monoxide and “hibernation induction triggers” to depress metabolism in animal models have  renewed interest  in the possibility of human hibernation.  The ability to drastically depress human metabolism without the use of cold (or in combination with cold) would have a number of important medical and scientific applications including the stabilization of trauma patients, prolonging the time of safe circulatory arrest in surgery, and space travel.

In 2007, the author published a review of the field of depressed metabolism for Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine and expressed skepticism about the prospect of real hibernation in humans any time soon. But this does not mean that we cannot learn from natural hibernators to identify metabolic pathways that can be inhibited to prolong the period the brain can sustain circulatory arrest at normothermic and hypothermic temperatures. As evidenced by the remarkable period myocardium can sustain energy deprivation and still recover, there is still a lot about human metabolism that remains obscure.

Like many ideas in biogerontology, the idea of chemically manipulating human metabolism as a medical procedure to prolong or save lives has gone through various cycles of optimism and disillusion. In his 1969 book Suspended Animation, the author Robert Prehoda presented a number of proposals to manipulate  metabolism in humans. Another person who wrote about depressed metabolism, or “human anabiosis,” was the cryobiologist Armand Karow (1941-2007). During the year 1967 Karow wrote a 5 part series on the science and prospect of depressed metabolism in humans for Cryonics Reports which is made available for this first time online. Although Karow devotes most of his series to the technical obstacles to achieve real suspended animation using cryogenic temperatures, he also discusses the use of metabolic inhibitors to protect vulnerable organs during cooldown to cryogenic temperatures.

Armand Karow – Goal: Human Cryo-Anabiosis (1967)

Cloning of frozen mice and cryonics

Japanese scientists have managed to clone a mouse that had been frozen without any cryoprotection for 16 years at minus 20 degrees Celsius. The researchers used the researchers used brain cell nuclei, and planted it into an egg of another living mouse, leading to the birth of the cloned mouse.

Although the objective of cryonics is not to be resuscitated as a genetic copy of oneself but to resume life as the same individual, this is encouraging news because it  reinforces the idea that cold can be used to preserve life and identity relevant information. If such feats are possible without any cryoprotection, the prospects for vitrification to preserve the identity of a person are strengthened.

These new cloning techniques also hold promise for preservation of endangered species and, as some speculate and hope, may even allow the possibility of resurrecting extinct animals such as the woolly mammoth.

What is unfortunate is that these type of discoveries draw attention to the negative sentiments and  ignorance many people have when it comes to cryonics. In one article critics were quoted as ‘saying how undesirable this type of research is’, that ‘it brings the world closer to the day when people try to clone long- dead relatives stored in cryopreservation clinics’ and ‘that it could even lead to a macabre new industry – in which people leave behind ‘relics’ of their bodies in freezers in the hope that they could one day be cloned’.

Although such arguments do not directly apply to contemporary cryonics, which involves the resuscitation of the same person and requires consent of the patient, such reactions are further evidence that most of the resistance against the idea of human cryopreservation may not be technical but psychological in nature.

We can only hope that when the resuscitation of cryonics patients becomes a reality we all live in a much more open-minded and tolerant society.

Link: DNA / Tissue freezing at the Cryonics Institute

Help Kronos' Chris Heward fight his cancer

Chris Heward past away on January 10, 2009. This post will remain here to remember Chris and his struggle against cancer.

John Schloendorn, who is a  postdoc at ASU’s Biodesign Institute and doing scientific research on the LysoSENS project for the Methuselah Foundation, asks you to support Chris Heward’s fight against cancer.

A new Facebook group to support Chris in his fight has been created here.

The white blood cell donor screening form is located here.

Dear all,

My friend Chris Heward was diagnosed with Stage IV terminal esophageal cancer. His chances of surviving a year are less than 1%, even with the best available care. For those of you who don’t know Chris, he is the president of the Kronos Science Laboratories, a Phoenix-based anti-aging hub

http://www.kronoslaboratory.com

Those of you who do know Chris will understand that he is not going down without a fight. Chris has very much the power of Kronos behind him, and we all hope that the experimental effort being launched there will not just benefit Chris, but many other sufferers of terminal cancers.

Plan A is based on the granulocyte therapy developed by Zheng Cui. Many of you know Zheng as well, and will remember that he made headlines throughout the anti-aging communities last year by achieving a complete cure for all types of cancer tested in the mouse.

A brief recap: Zheng by accident discovered that one of his mice was immune to any transplanted mouse or human cancers. This remarkable animal resisted a million times the dose of cancer cells that is 100% lethal to other mice. The trait turned out to be heritable in a single-gene mendelian fashion, but the responsible gene has so far resisted discovery. The cancer resistance was mediated by leukocytes, probably mostly of the granulocyte type. Granulocytes from the cancer-resistant mice chase cancer cells in a petri dish and destroy them. Granulocytes from other mice do not do that. Transplantation of granulocytes from cancer-resistant mice into other mice can transfer the cancer immunity, as well as cure existing cancers of all types tested (which were many types!). When Zheng looked in people, he found: Granulocytes form cancer patients never chase cancer cells. Granulocytes from healthy people sometimes chase cancer cells. Granulocytes from people in cancer-free families often chase cancer cells.

In September 2008, at the Methuselah Foundation sponsored “Aging 08” conference at UCLA, Zheng announced the launch of a clinical trial investigating the therapeutic effect of transplanting granulocytes from cancer-free donors (apt at chasing cancer cells in petri dishes) into cancer patients. A video of Zheng’s Aging 08 talk discussing all this in more detail is available here:
http://www.vimeo.com/1650186

Shortly after Aging 08, Zheng’s trial was put on hold by the FDA for certain bioethical concerns they had, and has been on hold since. Unfortunately, it is quite normal for this agency to charge ahead with the speed of a glacier. Chris does not have that kind of time. Our friends at Kronos are now scrambling to revive Zheng’s technology and apply it to Chris in the few months he has left. However, even for Kronos, this is not possible without your help. Here are a couple of ways:

*(1) Donate granulocytes*
The most critical resource for this project are granulocyte donors. The granulocyte donation process itself is harmless and simple for the donor. Granulocyte transplantation is in routine clinical use to treat a variety of infections. However, for Zheng’s therapy, many donors are needed to treat one patient, and the donors have to be selected for limited blood type and immune system compatibility. Thus, a fairly large number of individuals must be screened. If you get selected, the benefits will include adequate payment, possibly a free trip to Zheng’s facility at Wake Forest, Florida, and – in my opinion best of all – knowing whether your granulocytes possess the cancer-chasing ability. Oh yes, and who knows, maybe help discover the cure for cancer. Please complete the attached form to participate in the first round of screening. Send it to Wendy at Kronos: Wendy.Bezotte@kronoslaboratory.com Her email address and (shared!) fax number are also given on the form. I sent mine today.

*(2) Forward this message*
To reach a large enough number of donors, please forward this information to as many people as you can. Chris values his life a lot more than his privacy, and is explicitely asking us to launch this as a chain email. If you have a blog, blog away. If you’re a rockstar, announce it on stage. Don’t forget to attach the form. Or pour sacks of them into the audience.

*(3) Wish Chris well*
Chris has set up a Facebook page where he tells his story in a more personal way, and posts updates. Search “Chris Heward” and you will find him — he’s the smiling bald guy. If you would like to help in other ways, email Wendy directly, Wendy.Bezotte@kronoslaboratory.com

That’s all folks. Let’s see what we can do.

John Schloendorn

Interview with Alcor readiness coordinator Regina Pancake

This is the second in a series of interviews with individuals in the life extension and cryonics movement. The first interview was with Cryonics Institute president Ben Best. This interview is with Regina Pancake, Alcor’s Readiness Coordinator.

How did you get involved in cryonics?

My story is not your typical in the details, but in the overall it was a brush with death, which is more common in our membership.

Cryonics was on my radar back in the 80’s when I lived in San Francisco. I had seen it only briefly on a nightly news cast, and I knew someday I’d sign up for such. What better fast forward button could you have, was my theory. It would allow me to fight what seemed, until that moment during the evening news, the inevitable.  So sometime after that epiphany, when I moved back to L.A in 1990 and I was then physically close enough to the facility, I took the tour, which was given by Mike Darwin.  I then started volunteering for manual labor level projects at the facility on weekends. I’m the kind that dives in and I wanted to know all the people. But signing up was too expensive for me at the time I thought.

What pushed me over the line and into sign-up was a very fateful trip to Mexico in 1991. Four of us went to view the full eclipse of the sun that occurred on July 11th that year. We had a great time, but after we saw what we came to see we were driving back to L.A. the next day when at about the half way point, 50 miles north of Guerrero Negro (600 miles south Tijuana in Baja California) something blew apart on the truck and we had a roll over accident. I’m still not sure to this day what exactly happened. I was in a position facing out the driver’s side back window of the shell, lying on a futon, next to Max More who was also on the trip. As the truck rolled over on its first toss, I went through the window and landed on my feet in a crouching position and stood up in time to watch my truck take two more turns before it came to rest on its wheels, off to the side of the road, now facing southbound, though we had been moving northbound.  My landing was a total fluke, no ninja-like qualities here. It was the most surreal experience I think I’ve ever had.

The silence after the truck’s repeated massive collisions with the pavement was like time had stopped in a freeze frame. As I took in the scene of all our belongings strewn across Highway One, Mike Perry (who was another one of the four in the vehicle) was the worst hurt. In the hours that followed after the accident, we had several points where we could have lost him. He had essentially been scalped and his skull was now exposed. The skin from the top of his head had been peeled back to the nape of his neck. Luckily for us all, the fourth person in the vehicle, Karl Martin, who had been driving that shift, had paramedic training and one hell of a first aid kit. He saved Mike from dying in those early minutes.

After many an American stopped to help we were taken by Mexican soldiers to an ambulance and brought to a small clinic some fifty miles south, back at Guerrero Negro. Took me an hour and a half to get through to Alcor because the phone lines were horrible, and being that this was ’91 there were no cell phones to speak of.  But once I did get through, it was Mike Darwin who answered the phone. After I had him speak to the only doctor there, I got the phone handed back to me and I’ll never forget Mike Darwin, in a very commanding yet reassuring voice saying, “Don’t you let them touch him! We’ll be there very soon!”  Sure enough, 8 minutes later (yes, eight minutes), a rapid extraction team/air ambulance called Flight for Life came through the doors. I cannot tell you how grateful I was at that very moment, to be a part of the society that had such capability!

They then stabilized Mike Perry who had been groggy but conscious now for awhile, and as they wheeled him through the doors and into the waiting ambulance that would take him to the air strip that was less than a mile from us, he sat up on the gurney with what seemed to be his last rally of strength, pointed at me and said in the most pleading voice, “Regina! Sign up with Alcor!” and then he collapsed onto the gurney. I swore to him I would if I made it out of Mexico alive, which was still an open question at the time.

When we got back, I promptly signed up and I got my necklace and bracelet by that October. I refer to this entire story as our “Mexican Odyssey.”   After we all had seen doctors in the States the next day, Max called me on the phone to tell me what he had learned had occurred whilst we had been in Mexico. Jerry Leaf had gone down. Alcor nearly had two back-to-back cases.

What is a typical day at Alcor like for you?

I start some of the work at home in the morning, reading any technical reports or ongoing school work for my education in emergency medicine over the first cup of coffee. Then it’s off to the Alcor facility. There are always projects in the works. I try to keep it to only two to three at a time, but I have a prioritized list that stretches a good ways. I come in in the morning, and after I check for messages, return or make phone calls while people are most likely at their desks around the country or other places where I’m looking for products and check with management for any burning issues that might become the priority of the day. All that and not necessarily in that order.  Beyond that ritual, I dive into the more physical stuff early. Moving of heavy things, etc. By afternoon I turn my attention to the writing. Returning of emails, fleshing out of inventory lists and Excel sheets galore. Right now, the focus is on retooling of the transport kits. Of the four basic cases that it consists of, I’m on number two.

What is your favorite part of the job?

Talking with the people that are our membership. I love talking to fellow cryonicists.  Seeing progress in shades as this place continues to transform. And then there’s building things. Equipment, networks of people, systems of organization.  I do enjoy all that.

How is Alcor’s regional stabilization team expansion/growth coming along? What regions are most active / least active? What is your strategy for increasing volunteer participation in underactive regions?

At this point, I’m in retooling mode. I was tasked with that first and then second would be the expansion from our existing six teams to a total of fourteen.

Our six existing teams are: Southern California, Northern California, Nevada, Florida, Massachusetts and the United Kingdom. Of those teams, the most active is the Southern California team with more than ten people on it. They practice once a month. The Florida and Nevada teams are professionals with our Alcor kits. The Florida kit is at Suspended Animation and would be utilized by the professional team there if needed. Nevada is also a professional team that is staged in Laughlin. And when I say “professional” I mean this is their day job. Nevada’s team are EMTs and paramedics of one level or another all in the employ of the major casino there. They get daily practice with their talents just by doing their EMS services for non-cryonicists. Our protocols are similar. Although there is a departure point when they are just beyond the normal EMS processes. They practice our protocols to keep fresh at least once a quarter. If anyone wants to know more, just call me. The number is 480.905.1906. My extension is #100.

Massachusetts is on the other end of the scale. I’ve only got two guys out there. They could stand a beefing up. I’m not blaming anybody here, its just they need more people on that team. Its a tad shy to say the least. How I’ll go about augmenting teams in need would be researching who in our membership would fit the bill, approaching them individually through email first, then phone call if they are so amiable. Also by casting a wide net through advertising for these regions within our own magazine. I think I can get that done. I know the editor. [grin]

Where we would be expanding into with new teams are as follows:

Melbourne, Florida

Portland, Oregon (that’s you Aschwin!)

The Midwest

Texas

and then three places in Canada, only one of which I’ve got a leader for up there at this time. Christine Gaspar. In Toronto. She’s an ER nurse and cryonicist.

What have you learned since coming to work at Alcor?

Besides how to put up with living in the desert, a lot more about emergency medicine that is for sure. And how non-profits differ from the film industry….in high contrast sometimes. But human nature is fairly similar at its roots everywhere.

How have your experiences at Alcor changed your perception of cryonics? What would you like to tell other cryonicists based on that change of view?

Don’t fall for the “Our Friends from the Future will save us” syndrome. WE are responsible for our own survival and it is up to WE the Living, in the constant “now” to deal with what our pieces of this generational puzzle are. In the film industry there was something similar. During production you’d always hear someone say, “Don’t worry, we’ll fix it in post.” Production people are a somewhat different set from post-production people. Production would assume that the “magic” of Computer Generated Imaging (CGI) would save the day. More than half the time they would be very wrong.  This is human nature again, and we are subject to it unless we make a conscious effort to not give into that.  And we need to get away from this “just do me” attitude. Less passive, more active cryonicists.

In retrospect, looking back to when you moved to Arizona from California and started working at Alcor, has what you expected the Alcor Experience to be, mostly proven to be the same?  If it turned out quite different from what you expected, describe how.

That’s rather hard to quantify. I had mixed feelings about the whole thing. I hate the desert.

I knew what I was getting into though, due to the fact that I was running the team in LA with Peter Voss’s help for about 5+ years. I had started to turn up the focus on our team about halfway through that time period. As I internally acknowledged my own passion for this capability of reversing death and aging, it came into sharper focus.  I’d been out to Alcor several times during that. So no real surprises.

If you could change one seemingly impossible thing about Alcor, what would it be?

That we need this whole thing at all. It is, after all, the second worst thing that can happen to you. The first being that you die and melt back into the environment. Other than that, it would be to professionalize the whole place with nothing but well funded medical professionals with a laser like focus as if this was the Manhattan Project. Then I’d just be serving coffee here.

Do you agree that Alcor should allow for more membership involvement in formal decision making?

As Bertrand Russell once said, “The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.” I think we can all appreciate the relevance of that here in our community.

I’m not here to deal with those more puzzling aspects of Alcor’s cryonics culture.

I see both sides on this though. I do think there should be some open door policies. Some mechanisms in the system of our interactions between the triad of staff, board and membership. But on the other hand, you can put too much of your time and energy just defending your positions on whether to turn right or left. Getting cryonicists to agree on anything can be like herding cats. There has to be a balance struck. Cooperation, like our lives depend on it….which it does.

How many people have signed up for cryonics due to your direct influence?

Only one that claims it. Todd Huffman. I went on a hiking trip in Utah with him and a group that John Smart put together in 2003 and had eight hours in the car with him both ways. We had a lot of time to talk this through. Maybe others. I don’t know, I don’t have any hash marks on my desk top if you get my meaning.

What is your vision of the future of cryonics?

In the next few years I want to see us pull off deployment of regional whole body cryopreservation. This will allow us to deal with the issues of logistics that are currently playing against us. We really have a narrow window in which to give a patient a high quality cryopreservation. And every town/city/state has variants of different rules for the transportation of what they, at that point, consider human remains. Regional whole body cryopreservation is the lynchpin to turning that around and having time then playing on our side. Which is what we’re doing with cryonics in the first place. We’re taking that ambulance ride though time rather than through space. Gotta start that ride sooner and closer to where we tend to deanimate. Which is at home near family, if you’re lucky.

Ideally though, what I’d really like to see is that we will be able to reverse it in my lifetime.

What do you consider the biggest difference between working in the movie business and cryonics?

The people in the movie industry are more entertaining. No offense people, but by far there is no other place that attracts so many fevered egos in one place that are so talented and charismatic. Watch the movie “The Player” with Tim Robbins. It completely rings true as to what it is like to a T.  The stress levels are through the roof. Ages you fast. The film industry runs at 45 while Alcor runs at 33 and a third. (If you don’t get that reference, count yourself lucky to be that young and Google it up.)  That said, one thing I can no longer say as a calming mantra is, “Relax, its only a movie.” Cryonics is slower and more serious.

What are your hobbies and interests?

Science fiction, films of all genres, space advocacy, cats, (I’m destined to be a cat lady the rest of my life), non-linear editing of films and online media content, and transhumanism,  among many many others and not necessarily in this order.

What is your ALL TIME favorite movie and why?

Gads! Just one?! Can’t do that. So I’m going to color outside the lines of your question.

Black and White Sci fi hands down is: The Day the Earth Stood Still.

In truly mind bending content: Waking Life.

In Anime: Ghost in the Shell and then there is Blade Runner (director’s cut only).

All these speak to me. If you’ve seen any or all of these and you understand, then you’d know what I’m talking about.

Then there’s Minority Report, Vanilla Sky, Star Trek (pretty much all of them), 12 Monkeys (actually anything from Terry Gilliam)….you get the idea. There is just no way I can say ALL TIME favorite. Too limiting. And as a cryonicist, you know we don’t like those, now do we?

Lindbergh and Carrel's quest to live forever

It’s difficult to follow up a best-selling book about the cultural history of the penis, but David M. Friedman has a knack for engaging readers in topics that others find difficult to broach. This time he tackles the touchy subject of death by relating the intertwined biographies of Charles Lindbergh and Alexis Carrel in his new book, “The Immortalists: Charles Lindbergh, Alexis Carrel, and Their Daring Quest to Live Forever.”

Like most people, I had only heard of Charles Lindbergh as an aviator and in the context of his first child having been kidnapped and murdered. Imagine my surprise, then, when I happened upon a passage in Cardiopulmonary Bypass: Principles and Practice outlining Lindbergh’s contributions to Alexis Carrel’s isolated organ perfusion research in the 1930s – contributions which, for the first time, “permitted sterile, pulsatile perfusion at variable ‘pulse rates’ and variable perfusion pressures.”

Wait a moment. How did the world’s most famous aviator become involved in organ perfusion? Although much information about Lindbergh and Carrel’s work exists online, Friedman’s book provides a much more personal history of these two accomplished men.

Lindbergh’s overnight catapult into fame and adulation as the first man to fly across the Atlantic ultimately culminated in his loathing the press and greatly valuing privacy. A few years after his groundbreaking flight from New York to Paris in the Spirit of St. Louis, Lindbergh began thinking about things other than aviation. In particular, he wondered why people should have to die. Always an ambitious person, he decided to enter the realm of biology in order to seek the solution to eternal life. Once he made his quest known, it was not long before he was introduced to Alexis Carrel.

Carrel, a French scientist working at the Rockefeller Institute in New York, had already been awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1912 and was far along in his own personal quest for immortality when Lindbergh came along. Convinced that the body was little more than a machine with replaceable parts, Carrel had begun his research by culturing cells from animals and keeping them alive indefinitely after the animal had died, thus “proving” the immortality of man and inviting him to move on to the next step: culturing entire organs. So far, Carrel had been successful at keeping the organs alive outside of the body for a few hours by perfusing them with a nutrient medium, but infection invariably set in and caused the organs to fail.

Lindbergh tackled the problem of creating a better perfusion pump with gusto. Using his engineering expertise and an innate sense for biology he eventually developed a pump that kept the perfusate sterile, thus allowing organs to be kept alive for several days or even weeks. Carrel and Lindbergh published their preliminary results in Science (“The Culture of Whole Organs,” July 21, 1935) and Lindbergh described the perfusion pump in a separate article published later (“An Apparatus for the Culture of Whole Organs,” September 1935, Journal of Experimental Medicine). The entire effort was then written up for publication as a book (“The Culture of Organs”) in 1938. As a team, it was obvious that Carrel and Lindbergh were made for one another.

That was true in more ways than one. Carrel was a eugenicist through and through, and often expounded on his ideas and philosophies with Lindbergh when they weren’t in the lab. Lindbergh had long considered himself superior to the masses of people he sought to avoid (especially journalists), and Carrel’s theories provided him justification for his opinion of himself and other “great men.” Eventually, Lindbergh became so enamored with eugenics that he developed a profound respect for Nazi Germany, much to his protégé’s dismay. Eugenicist or not, Carrel (like most Frenchmen who lived through World War I) hated the Germans and cautioned Lindbergh against speaking too loudly in their favor.

But speak loudly Lindbergh did. In fact, he abandoned the laboratory altogether in order to promote his new cause: non-interventionism. Becoming the spokesman for the America First Committee, he toured the U.S. speaking against America’s involvement in World War II, arguing that we should instead allow the situation in Europe to play out on its own accord. But while he believed that America should not involve itself in foreign wars, he also said that he would be the first to defend his country if it were attacked.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Lindbergh tried to make good on his promise. However, having thoroughly irritated the Roosevelt administration with his anti-war rallies, he was prevented from serving his country as anything but a civilian. To prove his patriotism Lindbergh fought in the South Pacific, providing cover for American bombers and pilots and eventually shooting down a Japanese plane himself, with the knowledge that if he were caught he would receive no aid from the U.S. and would stand alone.

Carrel, meanwhile, returned to occupied France after retirement from the Rockefeller Institute and tried to create an organization of the brightest thinkers in France to create policies to guide and govern the common people and return his country to glory. Ultimately this project failed and Carrel died ostracized and under house arrest.

When the war was over, Lindbergh visited the concentration camps in Germany and saw the horror and devastation perpetrated in the name of supposed science. He was beside himself and couldn’t believe that the “neat” and “organized” Germans that he had admired would commit such atrocities. He returned to the U.S. to examine his life – and came to the conclusion that he, too, had allowed science to dominate his perspective. He documented his monumental change in attitude in a book called “Of Flight and Life” in 1948. Friedman documents:

“…Lindbergh was urging Americans to break free from the “grip of scientific materialism,” lest it lead them, shackled and helpless, to “the end of our civilization.” The choice facing America, Lindbergh wrote, was as simple as it was stark: “If we do not control our science by a higher moral force, it will destroy us.”

This about-face led Lindbergh to an even greater revelation: that he was no longer an immortalist. After spending time in Africa and coming to appreciate the beauty of nature, Lindbergh dedicated the remaining years of his life to environmentalism. Friedman writes that “The person who once tried to save the world by saving white civilization would now try to save the world from white civilization.” Lindbergh wrote:

“When I watch wild animals on an African plain, my civilized [method] of measuring time gives way to a timeless vision in which life embraces the necessity of death.” I see individual animals as mortal manifestations of immortal life streams; and so I begin to see myself. I am not only one, I am also many, a man and his species. In death, then, is the eternal life which men have sought so blindly for centuries, not realizing they had it as a birthright.”

When faced with a cancer diagnosis in 1974, Charles Lindbergh had already made his peace with death, believing now that it was only through death that man may become immortal. With the same determination that he had done everything in his life, he planned his funeral down to the last detail. When the time came, he flew to his home in Maui and reminisced with his wife and children about his life – one of the most accomplished lives of the 20th century. Then, the man who was the first to fly solo across the Atlantic, who made the “Model T” of perfusion pumps, and who became a great political activist turned environmentalist, finally abandoned science…or, as he told the doctors who wished to continue treating his cancer in its last stages, “no, science has abandoned me.

Famous preserved body parts

The website TopTenz recently published a list of the Top 10 Most Famous Preserved Body Parts. The list includes Galileo’s finger and Albert Einstein’s brain. As has been discussed on this blog before, the preservation of human brains (no matter how frivolous the intention) raises a number of important questions about the nature of death and the possibility of  future resuscitation. The brain constitutes the physical basis of the person and, under ideal conditions such as prompt vitrification, preserving the brain is akin to preserving that person.

Not mentioned in this list is the strange fate of the brain of Benito Mussolini, the fascist leader of Italy. It is claimed that parts of Mussolini’s brain are contained in a box together with his remains in a tomb in his birthplace Predappio in Italy. In his travel diary “They Stole Mussolini’s Brain (Well, Almost),” industrial musician Boyd Rice published a hilarious account of his visit to Predappio and involvement in an (ultimately abandoned) attempt to steal Mussolini’s brain.

Further reading:

Albert Einstein’s brain and information-theoretic death

Also on TopTenz:

Top 10 Researchers who Experimented on Themselves

My road to a possible future

My experiences with death began in 1974, when I was age 10.

On Labor Day Sunday, while watching the Jerry Lewis MDA telethon, my father told me to turn the TV off.

When I asked why, he said my grandfather, age 74, died.

I would learn years later that he had emphysema and heart trouble.

I did not know my grandfather well, and, being a grammar school student, I didn’t understand death that well.

I was just told he would go to a better place.

Over the years, I would be to more funerals: a schoolmate who died in a skiing accident, three of my grandparents, a friend of a co-worker, and so on.

Man has been hard-wired to accept death, as horrible as it is, for millennia.

I was not alone.

Then, about a month or so after my 43rd birthday in August 2007, my life would change.

First, a co-worker who had been in poor health since an accident several years ago passed away.

Then I encountered several sleepless nights, fearing that I would not wake up again.

I then broke down in tears one Friday at work and was evaluated at hospital.

A second trip a couple of weeks later, this one for several days, followed.

I eventually entered several weeks of group therapy.

Then my mother, age 66, informed the family that she had liver cancer.

The news prompted me to investigate alternative therapies and medicines on the web in what would eventually become a vain attempt to save my mom, who died a week before Thanksgiving.

It was during this search that I learned about life extension and cryonics.

I began paperwork with Alcor, and initiated correspondence with Regina Pancake and Diane Cremeens, who were very helpful.

I still communicate regularly with Regina.

I also conferred with Rudi Hoffman, an insurance agent from Florida who specializes in dealing with cryonicists.

Everything seemingly went well until I received word from Rudi that AIG turned me down, because of a “bi-polar episode” which sent me to hospital on Super Bowl Sunday.

I should have known at that moment that the New England Patriots were going to have a bad day.

Several other minor health issues apparently caused AIG to throw up red flags.

I then employed my backup plan: I switched the beneficiary of my group life policy at my place of work, which is portable, to Cryonics Institute, upon Rudi’s recommendation.

I then contacted Andy Zawacki and Ben Best at CI and eventually filled out the appropriate forms.

Late this past spring I was accepted.

It took the death of a college schoolmate at 45 from heart failure in April to add more urgency to a serious issue.

I eventually declared CI the beneficiary of my 401K funds, which have lately taken a beating.

It’s been over a year since I began my research into cryonics.

I said so long to my career as a starving artist on the “open-mike” comedy circuit.

I waved goodbye to my stalled career as a football coach, a job I had on several occasions during the 1990s.

I found out that a couple of friends stopped being so when I told them of my desire for a longer life.

They used the same deathist argument, which goes, as the comic Bob Newhart would say, something like this:

“Why do you want to live forever? I don’t want to come back and be without my family and friends.”

“What if I come back and the world is much worse than it is today?”

“Why don’t you live your life today and make the most of it?”

It’s easy for anyone to say this, but look at an 80-year lifespan, for argument’s sake, and look at the everyday issues that one must address (work, family, economics, etc.) and one does not have that much time with which to begin.

My family is not crazy about my wishes.

They don’t believe in cryonics, but they will respect my wishes, or so they have said.

Even though my younger sister has power of attorney and is my estate’s executor, and despite the fact that I have paperwork completed with an attorney, I don’t know if I can trust anyone in my family if and when the need arises.

My mom’s death was not the only bell-weather event that I experienced over the last year.

I turned 44 in June.

My high school class celebrated its 25th year reunion.

I didn’t go because, as one who was not considered very popular, I didn’t want to risk having old wounds re-opened. I didn’t want to see classmates trying to impress each other with what they did with their lives after graduation, and I feared seeing some classmates who I did like suffer from the aging process.

I walked through my old grammar school for the first time in almost 35 years recently, and realized two things: first, it is scheduled to be torn down and replaced with a stadium on my local college’s campus, and I could no longer act like a child at heart.

I do not look forward to turning 50 and seeing my body and mind eventually break down.

I dread the prospect of seeing more of my family, friends and heroes fade from images and voices to echoes and memories.

I visited my high school football coach several weeks ago.

He, like my father, is in his early-70’s and has been recovering from a serious auto accident.

I told him that, despite what I may have learned from him in the classroom or on the football field, he unknowingly taught me the most important lesson one can learn: do not be afraid to think outside the normal bounds of society.

I would say “thinking outside the box” would have been a bad pun, considering the subject in mind.
I have no problem telling people of my interest in cryonics because I don’t want to see suffering and death.

Period.

Sadly, I have realized that I can’t save everyone in my own little world but myself.

I follow many technological web sites and read as much as I can about life extension.

Today, Bob Ettinger, Ray Kurzweil and Ben Best hold greater importance in my life than Muhammad Ali, the boxing legend, Jim Kelly, the Buffalo Bill quarterback who played in four straight Super Bowls, or Bret “Hitman” Hart, the pro wrestler who earned the right to say he’s “the best there is, the best there was, and the best there ever will be.”

I had to rethink my views on religion and spirituality.

How can one’s mind or spirit take one to Heaven or Hell when science says you go nowhere but oblivion?

I have heard people speculate that it may be from 20 to 100 years before the first resident of a cryostat or dewar leaves his or her confines for a renewed and greatly expanded life.

When that event happens, I am sure that much of what mankind has taught itself about so many things will be changed forever.

I don’t want to be left behind.

I want to contribute as much as I can to the cryonics and life extension communities as I can before my time comes to enter the cryostat (that is, if no cures for aging and related diseases are found by then).

I fear death, not only for myself, but for others.

This fear, plus my interest in cryonics and life extension, is what drives me today.

I’m not sure whether I will commemorate the holidays this year or in the years to follow.

What good are toys, games, appliances and other things when we, as a community and, I hope, as a race, should work toward giving and preserving life, which is the greatest gift of all?

The secular case against immortality

In 2003 George Hart published an article called “The Immortal’s Dilemma: Decontructing Eternal Life” , making a secular case against immortality.  Hart mainly uses logical arguments and provides a fair amount of room to address a number of possible objections to his position. In a nutshell, Hart considers two variants of immortality, one without the option of termination and another with this option. The former is argued to be undesirable (a position that most life extensionists would agree with) and the latter is impossible because of the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals:

“Personal immortality poses this dilemma: without the termination option, we will face infinite periods of time when we will wish we could terminate our immortality; with the termination option, we will eventually and inevitably face a period when we will exercise the termination option and thus put the lie to our supposed immortality.”

In his 2004 article “Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality,” mathematician, cryonics activist, and author of “Forever for All,” Mike Perry, reviews a number of arguments against immortality and those of George Hart in particular. Perry does not find Hart’s position on the inevitability of an executed deathwish persuasive. Perry also takes issue with Hart’s position on personhood and the memory and information requirements of immortals.

One aspect that seems to be prevalent in philosophical arguments against immortality is the alternate use of personhood and boredom objections. When it is argued that immortality does not necessarily have to be boring, critics of immortality answer that an unending life with infinite experiences necessitates demands on  memory information storage that will undermine the requirement that immortality is only meaningful if it is experienced by the same person. Alternatively, when an unchanging personality is assumed, it is argued that boredom will inevitability occur. But the choice between loss of personhood or boredom may not be necessary if personhood is not defined in such a “dogmatic” fashion but allows for both psychological continuity and meaningful identification with the past. As Perry notes:

trying as we are to anticipate the possible future before it happens, and how we will deal with our problem of memory superabundance when many new options should have opened up. In that hopefully happy time a “science of personal continuation” should have taken shape to properly deal with the matter. Nay-sayers like Hart try to discount any such prospects once and for all, based on today’s perspectives with their inevitable limitations.”

Toward the end of the article, Hart’s personal position on immortality becomes more pronounced and his reasoning less careful. Hart speculates that it may be “that only a finite life can be meaningful because only a finite life can be a story that has a beginning, middle and end. Death is what frames our life, and only a framed life can have meaning.” But why life can only be meaningful when it is perceived as a story with an ending instead of a never ending story remains obscure. Toward the end of the article , the author becomes even more blunt when he states that “life is meaningful when it is lived; that is enough. To ask for more is almost greedy.” But this argument is proving too much and would undermine any case to prolong life by scientific means, including conventional medicine. Hart is too fine of a writer to mean this. So how long is too long?

Although arguments against immortality should be evaluated on their philosophical merits, it is often not hard to detect the person behind the argument. As discussed before, this issue is particularly present among writers who stress the issue of boredom and stagnation in relation to immortality, employing a one-dimensional and unimaginative view of life and experience in order to make the case.

When discussing the (logical) inevitability of a deathwish among immortals, Perry further notes that “the rather morbid dwelling on a putative, recurring death-wish suggests that Hart may not be so happy with his own life,” as evidenced by statements such as:

“In theory you can imagine without contradiction what it would be like to be alive for a trillion or even a trillion trillion years from now. This thought experiment creates its own horror, one that is mind-numbing and nauseating.”

Perhaps secular “pro-death” philosophers believe that the case against religion is strengthened by debunking one  of the reasons people believe in the supernatural (the promise of immortality). But this would be throwing away the baby with the bathwater. If scientific means will become available to extend the maximum human life span, there is no a-priori reason why secular thinkers should not rejoice in that development, just as we are now embracing advances in medicine to heal and prolong life.

Although speculation about how immortality may affect human psychology can be intriguing, our limited  knowledge about the universe and lack of empirical observations of actual immortals make this a highly speculative affair, leaving much room for injecting personal feelings and wishful thinking. These feeling can be negative, as evidenced by the life extension cynics, or meliorist in nature, as expressed in the writings of Mike Perry:

“Clearly there are many possibilities, but I conjecture that personality types capable of and desiring very long survival will not be so varied or inscrutable as to baffle our understanding today. Instead they should basically be profoundly benevolent, desirous of benefiting others as well as themselves, and respectful of sentient creatures in general. They will acknowledge that enlightened self-interest requires a stance with a strong element of what we would call altruism. They will be intensely moral, but also joyful in the exercise and contemplation of their profound moral virtues—for an element of joy will be essential in finding life worth living, even as it is today. These joyful, good-hearted beings, then, will be the types to endure, and will refine their good natures as time progresses, so as to increasingly approximate some of our ideas of angelic or godlike personalities, as endless wonders unfold to their growing understanding. “

Few philosophers against immortality argue that today’s lifespan is too long. Which again raises the question, how long is too long? Ultimately, such an answer can only be answered empirically by the individuals who will live a much longer lifespan than those living today.

Mike Perry – Deconstructing Deathism: Answering a Recent Critique and Other Objections to Immortality