The 2008-3 issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine contains a number of articles about the pitfalls of (excessive) scientific optimism and its potential adverse effects on the organizational and practical aspects of cryonics. My own contribution contrasts cryonics as medical conservatism with the kind of scientific meliorism that is often associated with movements such as transhumanism and singularitarianism. In particular, I express reservations about the arguments that intend to show that reversible cryopreservation and resuscitation of cryonics patients is inevitable because the required technological advances do not contradict our current understanding of the laws of physics. Instead of relying on abstract “rationalist” arguments I propose to focus more strongly on generating and disseminating empirical evidence that people who are engaged in science and medicine today will find persuasive, especially as it pertains to revising our contemporary definitions of death.

The same issue also contains an important contribution by Glen Donovan about the relationship between science and cryonics. Is cryonics a science? If it is not a science, what is it? This piece discusses cryonics from the perspective of the philosophy of science. This is an approach that has received little attention to date but it seems to me that the status of cryonics and its associated research programs can benefit from  discussing cryonics utilizing the tools and concepts of analytic philosophy. In particular, one project that could constitute an  important contribution would be to give specific empirical meaning to a concept like information-theoretic death.

Aschwin de Wolf – Scientific Optimism and Progress in Cryonics (2009)

Consumers are constantly bombarded with advice about health. Lower your cholesterol, avoid carbs, take dietary supplements, avoid Teflon, get a full body scan, etc. Such advice does not fall on deaf ears. Who does not want to remain healthy, look good, and extend life? Two other factors contribute to our eagerness to consume and follow health advice. First, the accelerating growth of knowledge in fields such as biology and biochemistry. Second, a reasonable assumption that if some chemicals and behaviors can harm us,  there must be chemicals and changes in behavior that can confer great benefits.

The role science plays in contemporary thinking about health is a double edged sword. On the one hand, it can be used to debunk grandiose claims about health by subjecting these claims to rigorous scientific investigation. On the other hand, the authority of  scientists can can be abused to support products or lifestyle changes for which there is little evidence. For many people and journalists, the phrase that “research proves” something is often enough to act on health recommendations, regardless of the nature and quality of the evidence. But it does make a lot of difference whether “research proves” means a small number of experiments in a test tube or a multi-country randomized human trial.

And that is where Robert J. Davis’ book The Healthy Skeptic: Cutting through the Hype about Your Health comes into play. What makes Davis’ book stand out over other books debunking contemporary health claims is that he gives the reader a set of solid guidelines to evaluate scientific statements about health in general. Another major strength is that the author does not single out one group of health hustlers but argues quite persuasively that misinformation about health is not confined to pharmaceutical companies or sellers of dietary supplements, but is rampant among government, non-profit organizations, and consumer activists as well. For example, as  the author writes about consumer activists:

Simply because they’re looking out for our welfare doesn’t necessarily mean that the public interest groups always tell us the truth. Rather than helping us, they can sometimes cause harm by frightening us unnecessarily and diverting our attention from risks that are far more important. As healthy skeptics, we need to apply the same scrutiny to their advice as we give to that from the industry-funded groups or anyone else.

The most “timeless” aspect of the book is the chapter where the author discusses the use and abuse of science in health. Before drawing our wallet or changing our diet, we can ask ourselves the following eight questions:

1. What kind of study is it (laboratory research, short-term human studies, randomized clinical trials etc.)
2. How big is the effect?
3. Could the findings be a fluke?
4. Who was studied?
5. Is there a good explanation?
6. Who paid for the research?
7. Was it peer reviewed?
8.  How does it square with other studies?

As should be clear from those questions, behind the phrase “research proves” are many shades of grey. As the author points out, the question of how a study squares with other studies is perhaps the most crucial question. There is so much (poor) research being published that almost any claim about health can be supported by scientific studies. Sellers of dietary supplements often exploit this by presenting only studies that “support” their recommendations. If health advice does not come with qualifications and/or opposing research conclusions are not mentioned at all, one should be very wary.

Perhaps the most important chapters for life extentionists are those on dietary supplements and “anti-aging doctors.” Davis gives a number of useful recommendations to evaluate claims about supplements:

- Verify “clinically proven” claims
- Don’t assume that “natural” means safe
- Be skeptical of claims that a souped-up or specifically targeted vitamin or mineral supplement is better than an ordinary one
- Don’t be swayed by weasel words (such as “maintains heart health” or “provides immune support”)
- Be wary of organizations or individuals who provide information about supplements and also sell them

When all is said and done, the book does not recommend any radical interventions to improve health or prolong life and sticks to the usual recommendations (don’t smoke, exercise, moderation in eating and drinking, etc.) This is not because of cynicism, but because the more radical claims are just not backed up by contemporary science.

Life extensionists and futurists may believe that they are mostly immune to wishful thinking and the marketing of snake oil but  they may be less immune to more subtle psychological (deadly) traps such as the belief that “this time, things are different,” or the naive assumption that all problems can be solved, given enough time and knowledge. Although progress in science can benefit from scientists that are committed to achieve  important goals like increasing the maximum life span or even defeating death altogether, in reality it is often hard to tell the difference between being motivated by such desires and simply assuming that they will be satisfied, and thus crossing the line into meliorist dogmatic belief.

An interview with the author can be found on the Amazon page for the book.

22. October 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Death · Tags: , , , , ,

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

In 2007, cryobiologist Armand M. Karow passed away. Unlike many contemporary cryobiologists, Karow offered cautious support for the objectives of cryonics. In the mid-1960s, Karow served on the Scientific Advisory Council of the Cryonics Societies of America (CSA). He also published a regular column titled “Scientifically Speaking” in Cryonics Reports, a publication by the Cryonics Society of New York (CSNY).

One of these columns, “The Suda Experiment,” contains his comments on   Isamu Suda’s cat brain experiments. Suda perfused whole cat brains with low concentrations of glycerol and recorded electrical brain wave activity (EEG) after storage at high subzero temperatures and rewarming. But as Karow points out, “the generation of EEG’s is not necessarily an indication of organized, coherent activity… The EEG tracings obtained by Suda probably could have been generated even if a large number of the cells were damaged.”

A similar point can be made about studies that demonstrate viability in brain tissue after long periods  (1 hour) of warm ischemia. Although such studies are helpful to persuade critics of cryonics that cryopreservation or warm ischemia do not (instantly) destroy the brain, there is a tendency in cryonics to selectively highlight studies that are “outliers” in their field to make the case for cryonics. A related issue is the scientific meliorism implicit in the view that whatever can be imagined as not contradicting the laws of chemistry and physics will occur, a view of which the scientific, psychological, and social  aspects will be discussed here in more detail in the future.

Armand Karow – The Suda experiment (Cryonics Reports, 1967)

Cryobiologist Brian Wowk on the Suda experiments and cryonics (Immortality Institute Forum, 2006)

Just a superficial look at the history of the life extension movement will suffice  to show the rise and fall of numerous fads and trends in ideas about the mechanisms and “treatment” of aging.  Psychological meliorism and simplistic visions of biochemistry create overly optimistic expectations about extending the maximum human lifespan.  But how can we know if a treatment is able to extend the maximum lifespan of humans without giving it to them and waiting….

In his article “Why Cryonics Will Probably Help You More Than Antiaging” (2004), cryonics activist Thomas Donaldson contrasts cryonics with antiaging as a means to life extension and argues that a major advantage of cryonics is that cryobiology research can move at a much faster pace than anti-aging research, especially as it pertains to humans:

The best possible proof that a treatment will indefinitely prolong the lives of human beings must come from a demonstration of its effects on human beings. Not fruit flies, worms, mice, or rats, but human beings. Yet there’s a small problem here: we are human beings ourselves, and a proof that a treatment prolongs the lifespan of people will take … at least the lifespan of some people…cryobiology can progress much faster than antiaging. Not only that, but its progress almost totally lacks the problems of proving that an advance has happened. The state of a brain, or even a section of brain, after vitrification and rewarming to normal temperature, shows directly whether or not the method used improved on previous methods.

What about treatments that have been shown to extend the maximum lifespan in small mammals? Or using  treatments that have been shown in humans to stop or slow down the aging process?

“It takes a long time and the actual reports on clinical use of a drug for physicians to get an idea of the effects of longterm use of that drug.  Very few drugs of any kind get formal tests for the entire lifespan of normal people taking them.”

Even if people are not prevented from experimenting with various life extension technologies, these epistemological and practical problems cannot easily be overcome.

“No matter what some scientists say, a cure for aging involves many problems all of which will need time for their solution. Even now, you may be young and feel that you need not think about cryonics because some means to slow your aging will come before you’ve gotten very old, and from that still other means to slow your aging even more … and so to true agelessness. In this article we have seen why such dreams of a rapid solution to aging cannot come fast for any of us. At the same time, cryonic suspension able at least to preserve our brains in a reversible form, allowing restoration of vital functions, looks likely to come much sooner.”

And as Robert Prehoda pointed out in an old interview, successful treatment of aging will still leave an individual vulnerable to accidents:

Immortality is statistically impossible because accidents would eventually eliminate all individuals in any non-aging population.

Despite these arguments, the life extension and “transhumanist” movement remains many times larger than the people who have made cryonics arrangements.  Some reasons for this are explored in another entry, but the mystery remains.