The pursuit of cryonics as medicine

The biggest obstacle to the acceptance of cryonics is medical myopia; the idea that someone who has been pronounced dead by contemporary medical criteria will still be considered dead by future criteria. Advocates of human cryopreservation strongly argue against this. There are few things more discomforting than the idea that medical professionals of the future will look back in horror and wonder why we gave up on people who still possessed the neuroanatomical basis of their identities and memories.

But there is another kind of myopia in the public discussion of cryonics that warrants consideration. It is taken for granted by some critics of contemporary cryonics that cryonics has always been framed as a form of medicine. Nothing could be further from the truth. The history of cryonics is replete with debates between advocates of the medical model and those who believe that timely transport of the patient to a cryonics facility for low temperature storage should be adequate for future resuscitation by advanced nanotechnology. It is only because  cryonics advocates with medical and research backgrounds such as Mike Darwin and Jerry Leaf vigorously argued for adopting conventional medical techniques and protocols that today’s cryonics organizations can even be criticized  for falling short of these criteria.

There is a silver lining to a lot of the controversy that surrounds today’s cryonics . Critics now adopt the premise that cryonics is a form of medicine to make a case against practices they consider suboptimal.  It was not long ago that public critics of cryonics simply dismissed the whole idea as pseudo-science. This was never a sophisticated response but ongoing advances in cryobiology (such as vitrification of the central nervous system) and synthetic biology/nanotechnology have made this position even more of a showcase of ignorance. When people read the news about animals being cloned from straight frozen DNA they will be less receptive to tendentious claims that existing cryonics technologies are hopelessly inadequate to preserve the identity of a person.

The current development in which cryonics is being criticized from a clinical framework should have positive effects on how cryonics will be approached from a regulatory framework. It does not make sense to argue that cryonics is a pseudo-science and offering false hope but at the same time insist that cryonics organizations adopt high standards of medical care. The acceptance of the concept of “patient care” in cryonics would be incoherent without (implicitly) embracing the premise that cryonics patients have interests and deserve legal recognition of that fact. As more public information is disseminated about the quality of brain vitrification that is possible today, the need to recognize cryonics as an elective medical procedure will receive more attention from bioethicists and medical professionals.

There are those who believe that the acceptance of cryonics itself is being held back by amateurism. If this is the case there should be unexploited profit opportunities for cryonics providers that pursue the highest standards of medical care.

Hans Reichenbach on evolution

Hans Reichenbach’s The Rise of Scientific Philosophy is among the most accessible and illuminating statements of logical empiricism. Although the book can be read as an introduction to philosophy, the central message of the work is that most of what constitutes philosophy is either (outdated) pre-scientific speculation or incoherent reasoning.

One of the most powerful chapters in the book is  about evolution. Reichenbach starts by contrasting the inorganic world, which obeys the laws of physics, with the organic world, which is goal directed. But then he goes on to show that the semblance of design and purpose can be accounted for by an evolutionary explanation, and that all biological phenomena can be reduced to physical phenomena. We do not need two separate sciences to account for non-living and living phenomena and can have a unified science about matter. Anticipating synthetic biology, Reichenbach suggests that future science should be able to create life through purposeful manipulation of inorganic matter.  Then Reichenbach moves from the evolution of the microworld to the evolution of the universe and reviews how contemporary findings in physics and astronomy affect questions about the past and the future of the universe.

Throughout his discussion of the relationship of science and philosophy, Reichenbach presents a number of distinct logical positivist positions:

It has become a favorite argument of antiscientific philosophies that explanation must stop somewhere, that there remain unanswerable questions. But the questions so referred to are constructed by a misuse of words. Words meaningful in one combination may be meaningless in another. Could there be a father who never had a child? Everyone would ridicule a philosopher who regarded this question as a serious problem. The question of the cause of the first event, or of the cause of the universe as a whole, is not of a better type. The word “cause” denotes a relation between two things and is inapplicable if only one thing is concerned. The universe as a whole has no cause, since, by definition, there is no thing outside of it that could be its cause. Questions of this type are empty verbalisms rather than philosophical arguments.

At the end of the chapter, Reichenbach criticizes the widespread view that there are other means of establishing knowledge which can answer questions that science cannot:

The elimination of meaningless questions from philosophy is difficult because there exists a certain type of mentality that aspires to find unanswerable questions. The desire to prove that science is of a limited power, that its ultimate foundations depend on faith rather than on knowledge, is explainable in terms of psychology and education, but finds no support in logic. There are scientists who are proud of when their lectures on evolution conclude with a so-called proof that there remain questions unanswerable for the scientist. The testimony of such men is often invoked as evidence for the insufficiency of a scientific philosophy. Yet it proves merely that scientific training does not always equip the scientist with a backbone to withstand the appeal of a philosophy that calls for submission to faith. He who searches for truth must not appease his urge by giving himself up to the narcotic of belief. Science is its own master and recognizes no authority beyond its confines.

This passage raises the important question of whether the position of logical empiricism is self-applicable. The same issue has been encountered by critical rationalists. One “solution” to this challenge is to make critical rationalism coherent by holding all positions open to criticism, including critical rationalism itself. This approach, called “pancritical rationalism” or “comprehensive critical rationalism,” has been proposed by the philosopher William Warren Bartley in his book  The Retreat to Commitment. Bartley’s solution has been criticized for producing logical paradoxes and its vacuous nature. Hans Reichenbach response was to develop a distinct probabilistic account of knowledge to avoid some of the remaining “rationalist” tendencies in contemporary empiricism.

Logical positivism found itself in the peculiar situation of struggling with its own internal consistency while at the same time seeing many of its basic tenets reflected in contemporary scientific practice.  One of Hans Reichenbach’s projects was to develop a scientific account of philosophy to resolve this situation.

Convergence08

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Read the press release here.

Early bird registration closes in 13 days (Oct 20, 2008).

Soft nanotechnology

Ever since humans imagined the ability to deliberately manipulate matter on the atomic scale, they have glimpsed the boundless possibilities of the science of nanotechnology. And for almost as long, they have disputed whether molecular machines should be built using a “hard” (physical engineering) or “soft” (biology-based) approach. On his blog, Richard Jones, author of the book Soft Machines, discusses some of the more intricate details and debates in molecular nanotechnology.

In a recent post, Jones delves into the issue of what lessons nanotechnology should take away from biological systems: should we view cell biology as the penultimate achievement in nanotechnology, or can we improve upon the slap-dash, trial-and-error approach of evolution by making rational choices in materials? In his words:

The engineers’ view, if I can put it that way, is that nature shows what can be achieved with random design methods and a palette of unsuitable materials allocated by the accidents of history. If you take this point of view, it seems obvious that it should be fairly straightforward to make nanoscale machines whose performance vastly exceeds that of biology, by making rational choices of materials, rather than making do with what the accidents of evolution have provided, and by using the design principles we’ve learnt in macroscopic engineering.

The opposite view stresses that evolution is an extremely effective way of searching parameter space, and that in consequence is that we should assume that biological design solutions are likely to be close to optimal for the environment for which they’ve evolved. Where these design solutions seem odd from our point of view, their unfamiliarity is to be ascribed to the different ways in which physics works at the nanoscale. At its most extreme, this view regards biological nanotechnology, not just as the existence proof for nanotechnology, but as an upper limit on its capabilities.

Ultimately, argues Jones, nanotechnology has a lot to learn from biological systems — but that doesn’t preclude the possibility of improving upon it, either. He cites the emerging science of synthetic biology as a field that is using a sensible engineering approach to the development of biological nanodevices such as molecular motors, and wonders if this approach may ultimately lead to a biomemetic nanotechnology.

The right lessons for nanotechnology to learn from biology might not always be the obvious ones, but there’s no doubting their importance. Can the traffic ever go the other way – will there be lessons for biology to learn from nanotechnology? It seems inevitable that the enterprise of doing engineering with nanoscale biological components must lead to a deeper understanding of molecular biophysics. I wonder, though, whether there might not be some deeper consequences. What separates the two extreme positions on the relevance of biology to nanotechnology is a difference in opinion on the issue of the degree to which our biology is optimal, and whether there could be other, fundamentally different kinds of biology, possibly optimised for a different set of environmental parameters. It may well be a vain expectation to imagine that a wholly synthetic nanotechnology could ever match the performance of cell biology, but even considering the possibility represents a valuable broadening of our horizons.

In a more recent post, Jones announces the upcoming Soft Nanotechnology meeting in London next year.

A forthcoming conference in London will be discussing the “soft” approach to nanotechnology. The meeting – Faraday Discussion 143 – Soft Nanotechnology – is organised by the UK’s Royal Society of Chemistry, and follows a rather unusual format. Selected participants in the meeting submit a full research paper, which is peer reviewed and circulated, before the meeting, to all the attendees. The meeting itself concentrates on a detailed discussion of the papers, rather than a simple presentation of the results.