Robert Ettinger‘s book Youniverse: Toward a Self-Centered Philosophy of Immortalism and Cryonics is a book containing many insights and deep thoughts, yet has such an informal writing style that many readers might not take it seriously. I know of no other work of philosophy in which the author begins a sentence with “Anyway,”. Ettinger writes that the first cryonics-related organization was founded “in 1962 or 1963, I forget which”, then says “Why don’t I look it up?” and justifies himself by reference to a Woody Allen movie. This is not the kind of writing one expects from a philosophy treatise.
Ettinger may not take himself too seriously, but he is even more dismissive of most of the world’s foremost philosophers and religious figures. The writings of Aristotle are called “ramblings”. In describing William James’s statement that James was only able to understand Hegel while under the influence of nitrous oxide, Ettinger notes how appropriate it is that nitrous oxide is also called laughing gas. Ettinger wrote that “Rousseau has been extravagantly praised, and not only by himself”, but dismisses Rousseau as unoriginal, incoherent, not profound, and frequently wrong. Ettinger describes the philosopher G.E. Moore as being “definitely confused as well as confusing, abounding in contradictions and non-sequiturs, sometimes substituting assertions for arguments.” Ettinger often seems himself guilty of the last accusation. He faults Isaac Asimov for the “absurdity” that without the “saving grace of death” the rigid views of the old would prevent further progress — but leaves a critique of Asimov’s argument “as an exercise for the reader”. Ettinger writes that “Paeans of praise have poured from the pens of platoons of panting pundits” concerning Godel’s Incompleteness theorem, which he dismisses as a linguistic trick associated with the failure of physics to correspond identically with formal (mathematical) systems. By finding the quote from Wittgenstein “I don’t know why we are here, but I am pretty sure that it is not in order to enjoy ourselves”, Ettinger has massively deflated my respect for the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Ettinger describes the modern “self-styled bioethicist” as a “new type of vermin or parasite” whose major accomplishment has been to create “the illusion of looking down on people far above them.”
Ettinger wrote that “fear of God” is generally really fear of parents, neighbors, and a lifetime of conditioning. He says people too readily submit to tradition rather than use reason. To be “normal” is to have the same delusions as the neighbors. He says loyalty “is frequently a worthy habit”, but sometimes nothing more than an unjustified habit. Ettinger says faith is arrogant certainty in the absence of evidence, which ultimately “boils down to sacrificing your integrity for a bit of comfort”. To Ettinger it is obvious that non-human animals have consciousness and feelings, and that a God that disregarded the suffering of animals on the grounds that animals have no soul “would have less compassion than the average human”. Like many physicists, Ettinger seems accepting of the idea that time and the universe began with the Big Bang, but wonders where God would be before He created time and the universe. Ettinger can make no sense of an omniscient, omnipotent God creating people who need to live their lives to prove whether they deserve Heaven or Hell. Ettinger says that a benevolent God would forgive the skeptics, who should therefore have no reason to compromise their integrity and disbelief.
Ettinger’s irreverence extends to the legal system. Frequent use of appeals courts and split decisions in the Supreme Court are given as evidence that laws are unclear or that bias is pervasive. He describes juries as “ignorant, stupid and readily swayed by irrelevancies and by histrionics”. In connection with the adversarial system, Ettinger wrote “All lawyers are frightening, and specialty litigators are terrifying. Some firms are said to keep their lead litigators chained in a tower room and fed raw meat until needed.” I asked Mr. Ettinger what his beloved son (a lead litigator at a prestigious law firm) had to say about the law chapter, but I got no definitive response.
As the book title YOUNIVERSE implies, Ettinger believes that “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible basis for conscious motivation. He also states that a person ought to want whatever will maximize future “feel-good”, and that people do not always want what they ought to want. Ettinger believes that “figuring out what we ought to want is the primary problem of philosophy”. He says that a main aim of YOUNIVERSE is to debunk the views that values are arbitrary or externally given.
Ettinger challenges the claim of David Hume that “You can’t derive an ‘ought’ from an ‘is'”, and — like Ayn Rand with her Objectivist Ethics — he does so by reference to values being rooted in biology. Ettinger disparagingly dismisses Rand’s views as narcissism, “me generation”, and “looking out for number one” without explaining how this differs from “me-first”. Rooted in biology, Rand makes survival the basis of her ethics, rather than “feel-good”. Ironically, Ettinger writes more approvingly of Nietzsche’s self-centeredness, although Ettinger faults Nietzsche’s belief in the importance of power over other people as a core value. (Ettinger notes that Nietzsche believed Russians and Jews, rather than Germans, would be the “master races” of Europe.)
I disagree with the arguments of Rand and Ettinger for deriving “ought” from biology. Biology dictates that animals value food and water, but many humans have committed suicide by refusing food and water. To assert that such people are “wrong” and did not do what they ought to have done would be attempting to externally impose values upon them. Ettinger could argue that such people were acting in such a way as to maximize their satisfaction — “me-first” and “feel-good” (he gives the examples of a woman rushing into a burning building to save her baby, or “saints” who gain personal satisfaction from ascetic service to others). But by that argument they were wanting what they ought to want. The point Ettinger seems to be making is that people should not allow others to impose their values upon them — should not be driven by guilt, social pressure, the need to conform. But if people are driven by these motives, they are nonetheless still maximizing their satisfaction. Ettinger might say that such people are acting without integrity by not being true to themselves, but why should people be blamed for valuing the opinions of others and for this being important to them? If it is “impossible to be motivated by anything other than self interest, because motivation means what is important to the self”, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. If “me-first” and “feel-good” are the only possible bases for conscious motivation, then the word “ought” is inappropriate. The only reason that people fail to want what they ought to want is because of matters of fact, not matters of value — people failing to appreciate the consequences of their actions in the context of their values.
The issue of determinism and free will is a subject about which I have thought, read, and written about considerably (see A Case for Free Will AND Determinism ), yet I found Ettinger’s chapter on this subject impressively thoughtful and informative. I mostly agree with Ettinger’s views, about which we are both very much in the minority. I won’t say much about the issues or insights I gained in the determinism chapter, but I will comment on how he applies determinism to cryonics. Ettinger notes that “determinism is very nearly equivalent to” conservation of information, which implies that any human who ever lived could be reconstructed without having been cryonically preserved — except that there may never be adequate computing power.
Although I can conceive of retaining my personal identity in the total absence of any memories that I have, I nonetheless find the idea hard to relate-to. I am even less comfortable about the idea that the essence of my personal identity is feeling. Ettinger has firmer opinions on these subjects than I do, but I sense that his emphasis on feeling as the essence of personal identity contradicts his admonishments about the use of reason against intuition, tradition, and conditioning.
Ettinger skims over the subject of ischemic damage in cryonics, and I think he is wrong to say that “cryothermic damage will in most cases be the most difficult to reverse”. Freezing damage is like broken pieces that are nonetheless intact, whereas ischemic damage is like dissolution or decomposition of structure. Nonetheless, I cannot quantify my argument in terms of “most cases”. I think Ettinger is wrong to cling to the word “immortality” as meaning “indefinitely extended life” when its literal meaning is “eternal life”. His use of the word “immortality” presents cryonics as an alternative to religion rather than an extension of medicine.
Although Ettinger acknowledges that death will mean an end to suffering, he sees a number of disadvantages, including
“…it’s hard to enjoy life when you’re dead.
…daisies are prettier when viewed from above.
…you can only vote in Chicago.
…you need extra strength deodorant.”
But mainly, “Life is better than death because it is more interesting.” (For my own views on the subject, see: Why Life Extension?)
In his lifetime of reading Ettinger has collected numerous notable quotes, and these gems are liberally sprinkled throughout YOUNIVERSE. Some of my favorites include “‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ presupposes that you love yourself” (Miguel de Unamuno), “The greatest part of our happiness depends on our disposition, not our circumstances” (Martha Washington), and Will Rogers’s WWII suggestion for getting rid of German U-boats: “Boil the Atlantic Ocean. How do we do that? Hey, I’m just an idea man, I leave the details to the engineers.”
Ettinger also has a chapter called “Misunderstandings” which deals with his insights into a wide variety of subjects. Indicative of my “anti-intellectual” bias, is the fact that my favorite is Ettinger’s observation that torque (force X lever arm length) has identical units to work (newton-meters), despite the fact that work and torque are completely different. He offers no solution or explanation, however.
A consequence of Ettinger’s informal writing style is that there is much autobiographical material throughout YOUNIVERSE. But the last formal chapter (I am not counting the Appendix) is explicitly autobiographical. He says “I have perhaps a few thousand admirers, hardly any of whom give me much thought or attention”. Ettinger speaks of his loneliness in having experienced the loss of all his friends and family of his generation, and that there is nobody left whom he wants to impress. Indicative of Ettinger’s world-weariness is his quote of a comment made by his brother that all of life is “killing time and amusing oneself while waiting to die”.
Ettinger’s final comments concern his plan to have a pre-mortem “jolly wake” with music, speakers, toasts, and other festivities prior to a suicide intended to improve the conditions of his cryonic preservation. Ettinger notes earlier in the book that “many people are more afraid of seeming cowardly than of facing danger”, which is why suicide with an audience of friends and family would boost his courage. The last line of the chapter reads “If I never wake up, my last experience will have been better than most — a very brief comfort, to be sure.”
Although there are some cryonicists who believe that Robert Ettinger would be the perfect cryonicist to win sympathy for voluntary self-euthanasia to improve cryopreservation, I am not one of them. How can you justify voluntary euthanasia in a non-terminal person when there is no way of knowing how many years of life that person could be expected to live? How can you justify voluntary euthanasia for ANYONE not suffering from a terminal disease, or expect the public to be sympathetic to voluntary self-euthanasia under these conditions? Even for terminal cryonics patients, I would not be to eager to see a public association of cryonics with self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide. Cryonicists would be accused of taking advantage of mentally-compliant sick and elderly people for monetary reasons, which would lead to even more cryonics-unfriendly legislation.
And there are practical problems, not the least of which is the danger of autopsy. Many cryonicists, myself included, cling to life tenaciously — much more tenaciously than the average person. I would find it very difficult to euthanize myself or have myself euthanized. The ideal situation is when death is nearly certain to occur within a week. But this is the condition in which standbys are typically initiated, not the condition in which standbys fail to occur. Heart attack is a common cause of death, and this is most often unexpected. Most cryonicists who receive standby are people dying of cancer, and whose slide toward death is along a more predictable path. The ability of cancer victims to euthanize themselves would make the standby process easier, but that would have no effect on reducing the number of cryonicists who deanimate without standby, despite having arranged for standby. There are no convincing arguments that simplifying self-euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide will lead to the majority of cryonics cases having greatly improved cryopreservation by significantly reducing the number of cryonicists deanimating under unfavorable conditions.