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.

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.