Cryonics, trans-temporal communism and future squatters

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Cryonics and fear of the future

To people who have made cryonics arrangements the biggest mystery remains why more people have not made the same decision. The most obvious answer remains that cryonics has not been proven to “work” yet. People who give this answer usually mean that proof of human suspended animation would lead to an increase in the popularity of cryonics. But even if suspended animation would be technically feasible there would still be the remaining obstacles of finding a cure for whatever disease the patient died of, and, for most people, the need for rejuvenation. In the absence of such hurdles there would be no need for cryonics. Cryonics per definition involves decision making under uncertainty.

In “Why is Cryonics so Unpopular?” it is proposed that the lack of technical feasibility cannot explain the current lack of interest in cryonics. Alcor is now using the least toxic vitrification agent identified in the peer reviewed cryobiology literature but this has not translated into a spike of support for cryonics. One could object that it is still not good enough. The problem with this argument is that this does not answer why more people do not make cryonics arrangements when technologies improve. There are people who made arrangements when cryonics organizations used protocols that produced substantial ice damage. So if one believes technical feasibility determines cryonics acceptance, cryonics should grow faster when its technologies improve.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the technical feasibility argument is that it seems rather strange in a world where millions of people accept all kinds of nonsense for which there is no credible empirical evidence at all. The lack-of- technical-feasibility-argument is also hard to reconcile with the fact that cryonics attracts a disproportional number of Ph.D.’s and people with backgrounds in the natural sciences. There is a lot one can say about the demographics of cryonics, but not that cryonicists are ignorant people who can be easily misled. At the 2010 Teens and Twenties cryonics meeting in Florida most of the attendees considered themselves “skeptics.”

That the technical feasibility argument is not persuasive does not mean that progress in research and improved procedures are not important. Progress in cryonics technologies will improve the chance of resuscitation of those who have chosen to make arrangements. Such progress can also be used to seek better legal protection for cryonics patients.

There have been other explanations for the persistent lack of interest in cryonics. One explanation would have it that cryonics as a concept is credible but that the quality of procedures at the existing cryonics organizations is poor. The problem with this argument is that it is simply not consistent with the empirical evidence. People who are reluctant to make arrangements rarely mention it and there is no evidence that people who research cryonics organizations study the difference between published protocols and practice in great detail. As a matter of fact, people who dismiss cryonics have little knowledge of the protocols and procedures that cryonics organizations claim to offer. Furthermore, if this argument would be correct one would expect it to resonate with people who have made cryonics arrangements as well. Alcor collects data about people who terminate their cryonics arrangements and the data do not support this argument at all.

Last, but not least, if cryonics would be credible in concept but not in practice one would expect people to join their cryonics organization of choice and attempt to improve things. Why would one choose the certainty of death over making an effort to further increase the chance that cryonics will succeed? One objection could be that cryonics as practiced today has a zero chance of working and there is no difference between signing up and not signing up. But this argument is not credible because such a claim can only made if (a) one has direct empirical knowledge of the ultrastructure of the brain that results from current procedures and (b) one has detailed knowledge of the capabilities and limits of future cell repair technologies.  The most plausible reason why critics often categorically deny the chance of resuscitation in the future is because it releases them from moral blame if their criticism of cryonics organizations would result in existing patients being removed from liquid nitrogen storage to be burned or buried.

Would cryonics be more popular if it were bundled with another tangible good or religion? Perhaps, but this fails to explain why there are a lot of unorthodox ideas with no such bundling that are a lot more popular. Bundling cryonics with a religion will alienate everyone who has chosen a different religion. As an experimental medical procedure cryonics should not divide, but unite, people. That is not to say that cryonics does not have distinct demographics that can be studied in an effort to grow cryonics.

One reason why advocates of cryonics are not successful in identifying the cause of its limited popularity may be that they are inclined to exempt cryonics as such from its explanations. The assumption is that cryonics as such is a good idea but technical or practical problems prevent its widespread acceptance. But there is a major problem at the heart of cryonics itself. Many people have little difficulty recognizing that cryonics requires a person to choose to be resuscitated in a far and unknown future.  In a sense, this property of cryonics is more about being “reborn” than about “extending life.” Humans have evolved to want to survive but this instinct does not appear to assert itself when faced with the choice to go into biostatis in anticipation of resuscitation in a far and unknown future.

Some cryonics advocates have argued that human history is full of examples of people who lose everything they have but still prefer survival in foreign and unknown places. But in all these examples the person still persists as an aware person and can respond to his environment. What makes cryonics different from these situations is that a cryonics patient in biostatis is not aware and his fate is completely dependent on the efforts of others. If friends and family have made cryonics arrangements this can provide some degree of fear reduction (as a matter of fact, for many who have made cryonics arrangements it does provide relief), but the future will be mostly shaped by people who are not friends and family.

As a matter of fact, these kinds of fear are often expressed when people discuss cryonics or futurism. And it is often among the remaining concerns if people are presented with evidence that the technical feasibility of cryonics is not as bad as they imagined. So in a sense cryonics could benefit from being “bundled” with something.  And the most important bundle is not “technical feasibility” or “procedures performed by medical professionals” but “TRUST”.  People who make cryonics arrangements should have a feeling that their fate is in the hands of people who are strongly committed to their future. This is easier said than done because it is not reasonable to expect that cryonics organizations will have a strong influence on the shaping of the environment that the patient will be resuscitated in.

The idea that cryonics is not popular because of its intrinsic anxiety-producing properties has testable hypotheses that can be worked out. It also allows for new perspectives on promoting cryonics.

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.