13. January 2011 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics · Tags: , , ,

The Kurzweil Accelerating Intelligence blog features a short interview with new Alcor CEO Max More:

Q: Where do you see cryonics in the future?

We’ll look back on this 50 to 100 years from now — we’ll shake our heads and say, “What were people thinking? They took these people who were very nearly viable, just barely dysfunctional, and they put them in an oven or buried them under the ground, when there were people who could have put them into cryopreservation. I think we’ll look at this just as we look today at slavery, beating women, and human sacrifice, and we’ll say, “this was insane — a huge tragedy.”

More here.

A review of  contemporary antinatalist writings

Originally published in Cryonics, 2nd Quarter, 2010 (PDF)

“Coming into existence is bad in part because it invariably leads to the harm of ceasing to exist.” David Benatar

If they could get a corpse to sit up on an operating table, they would jubilantly exclaim, “It’s alive!” And so would we. Who cares that human beings evolved from slimy materials? We can live with that, or most of us can.” Thomas Ligotti

The persistence of pessimism

When I sent out an email message soliciting contributions on the topic of philosophical pessimism and antinatalism one person declined with the reasonable response that such positions are only taken seriously by a handful of far-out philosophers. Humans have evolved to procreate and seek happiness. What is the point?

The reason why I have not been inclined to so easily dismiss the recent renaissance of philosophical pessimism is because negative and tragic views about life are woven throughout human history and culture. Most dominant religions have little positive to say about the state of humanity (after the fall) and the prospects for a life devoid of suffering on earth. Despite its relative sophistication, even Buddhism presents a picture of the universe as a source of suffering. Much can be said about pessimism but not that its influence is outside the mainstream.

Even the antinatalist position that it is better never to have been and that we have a moral obligation not to procreate is not completely obscure. Who has not had the experience of talking to the grumpy old lady who wonders why anyone would want to bring children into this world? We routinely dismiss such positions as being out of touch with reality but modern culture persists in linking intellectualism to pessimism. This perhaps should not be surprising because, as a general rule, excessive thinking comes at the expense of sensual experience. One reason why many intellectuals are biased towards pessimism is because it provides them the opportunity to rescue us with their ideas. Antinatalism offers the triumph of Reason against existence itself; the ultimate triumph of the Intellectual.

Philosophical aversion to pessimism can be found among the finest thinkers in the history of philosophy. There is David Hume, the great empiricist thinker, and an amiable and optimistic person. Then there is Friedrich Nietzsche, who, despite a life of disease and isolation, recognized that pessimism is not an objective feature of the universe but the expression of a weak and oversensitive mind. The twentieth century witnessed a strong renaissance of the empiricism of David Hume in the form of logical positivism. These philosophers rightly abstained from putting forward a “philosophy of life,” but optimism about science and humanity’s potential is clear in their foundational writings. It is also interesting to note that the most recent forceful responses to pessimism have not come from professional philosophers but from libertarian economists who do not display the slightest intellectual embarrassment in claiming that life is getting better all the time.

In my opinion, the most obvious question that can be raised about philosophical pessimism is whether its supporting claims are factual descriptions of reality or just expressions of temperament. Another interesting question is whether philosophical pessimism necessarily obliges us to the antinatalist position. In seeking answers to these questions we turn to the literature of contemporary antinatalism.

Jim Crawford’s Confessions of an Antinatalist is a highly readable autobiographical exposition of antinatalism. Thomas Ligotti’s book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race is more ambitious in scope and contains a wealth of historical information on pessimism, discussions of modern science, and, not surprisingly, a review of the theme of pessimism in horror literature. David Benatar’s Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is the most rigorous exposition of antinatalism to date. This book covers a lot of ground and I will confine myself to some of its main topics only.

The harm of coming into existence

In its purest form antinatalism may not be attainable but the framework that informs this position rests on a couple of sound premises: (1) we do not impose a harm (or withhold a benefit) by not bringing someone into this world; (2) we do impose a harm by bringing someone into the world when this person’s life will be bad. Jim Crawford believes that these premises are evident and I see little reason to dispute him. The real debate about antinatalism is how to determine that a person’s life is (or will be) bad, and how much consideration the interests of parents should be given.

One of the most problematic aspects about the work of Crawford and other antinatalists is that they have little patience for the argument that life is better than they think it is. In some passages it is hard to distinguish the antinatalist from the Marxist. If people think that life is much better than Crawford makes it out to be, the standard rejoinder is that these people suffer from a form of false consciousness (pessimists frequently use words like “truly” and “really”). In some passages this attitude borders on intolerance. A prime example can be found in Crawford’s discussion of childhood. For many people growing up was a period of great happiness and discovery. Crawford’s agitated dismissal of such accounts introduces an element of illiberalism in what is otherwise a humanistic endeavor. It is in these passages that antinatalism turns into bitter ideology.

The way the term “bias” is employed is deeply problematic. It is used as if there is an objective perspective that can reached were it not for those pesky evolutionary biases coming between the person and the universe. At times the author appears to be saying that if evolution did not select in favor of those wanting to survive we would not want to survive. This is not particularly helpful. Some of these “biases” do not cover up anything but just make us happier.

Let us assume here the metaphysical premise that there is an objective, material reality that can be known through the use of reason and empirical observation. This does not mean that there is one “correct” fit between an organism and the world. A person who is manically depressed perceives the world in a different matter than a person who is not. How we are “wired” and respond to our environment is not a matter of “correct” or “incorrect.” Thinking otherwise would be hard to reconcile with an evolutionary outlook in which life is just the outcome of random interactions of organic molecules.

One argument that remains available to the pessimist would be that the probability of creating a miserable life is too high to warrant procreation. But it is at this point that the “transhumanist” can enter the debate and claim that our expected quality of life is no longer just the outcome of a “random” evolutionary process but can be brought under rational control. We should endeavor to make happy children.

In my opinion, the short response to empirical pessimism can take the following form. Pleasure and pain are both part of existence. For some sentient beings pleasure outweighs pain, for other sentient beings pain outweighs pleasure. A moral agent cannot add up, subtract, or divide these elements for life as a whole to produce an objective quality-of-existence function. The antinatalist runs into the same problems as all the utilitarians and welfare economists who have tried to define a social utility function as a guide for public policy. As Thomas Ligotti notes in his book, “…the reason for the eternal stalemate between optimists and pessimists, is that no possible formula can be established to measure proportions and types of hurt and happiness in the world. If such a formula could be established, then either pessimists or optimists would have to give in to their adversaries.” I think that the best response available to the antinatalist would be to follow David Benatar’s example and present a strictly formal argument, or simply argue that in case of doubt, we should abstain from procreation.

Escape strategies

After spending the bulk of his book persuading the reader that life is suffering, Crawford discusses what he calls “Escape Strategies.” In his treatment of Buddhism as an escape strategy he could simply have made the obvious internal critique that desire may be sufficient, but not necessary for suffering. Crawford’s treatment of Christianity is scathing, which may indicate regret because the author himself was a Christian for awhile. Why have children if there is the prospect of eternal damnation? Good question, but I think that a Christian can respond by saying that following Scripture is more important than applying human morality to God’s creation.

The last escape strategy that Crawford reviews is hope, which turns into a discussion of futurism and transhumanism. The argument that many of those pursuing life extension will not be around to benefit from it is too simplistic. Unless the brain is completely destroyed at death, the neuro-anatomical basis of identity can be preserved at cryogenic temperatures for a very long time. No delusional expectations about the future are required. People in cryostasis have time. But then the author delivers a critique that I think deserves serious treatment by transhumanists (discussions about “friendly AI” do not exhaust this topic by any means). In a nutshell, we should not expect that technological progress will necessarily produce moral progress. And even if it will, accidents happen. Technologies that can be designed to produce great joy can be used to create great suffering as well. If humanity can manufacture hell without God, the case for pessimism and antinatalism may be strengthened.

Interestingly enough, the anticipation of such dark future technologies may present a (subconscious) obstacle for many people considering cryonics. Hundreds of millions of people believe in the craziest things like astrology and psychoanalysis, but only a handful of people (around 1500) have made cryonics arrangements. This lack of interest can  hardly be attributed to ignorance, and perhaps the most persuasive answer may be hidden in Crawford’s book. Cryonics basically forces people to deal with the question whether they would like to be “born again” in a far and unknown future. As a general rule, the answer seems to be “no.” Antinatalists may find additional ammunition for their position in studying the reasons for the low sign-up rate for cryonics.

Mahayana antinatalism

Antinatalists should expect a lot of obvious questions such as “are most people not glad to be alive?” or “why not kill yourself?” I fear that Crawford’s answer to the question “why not kill yourself?” risks undermining the orthodox antinatalist project. If empathic sensibility can make an enlightened antinatalist who wants to stick around it is arguable  that antinatalists should make an effort to remain alive in an effort to reduce the amount of (future) suffering in the universe. Antinatalists then become life extensionists. To use conventional Buddhist terminology, perhaps at some point there will be a Theravada version of antinatalism (focused primarily on non-procreation) and a Mahayana version of antinatalism (concerned with the elimination of the suffering of all sentient beings).

David Benatar runs into a similar problem when he ponders the question whether bringing new people into the world could be justified to reduce the suffering of the last remaining people. It seems to me that how an antinatalist deals with such practical moral issues depends on how the ethics of antinatalism is conceived. Do we have a “right” not to come into existence or is the objective of antinatalism to juggle with small and great suffering towards the ultimate end of its complete abolition?

If antinatalism is conceived as a strictly individualistic endeavor, concerns about the suffering of all humans can be easily dismissed. But in that case antinatalism would just collapse into individualist pessimism. Who cares about suffering, as long as it is not me! This is not the kind of sentiment that is generally found in antinatalist writings. I do not think that the question whether there might be moral reasons to remain alive, and, yes, bring into being forms of life that are benevolent but ruthless towards suffering, can be easily dismissed.

At one point Crawford observes that secular and smart people are having fewer children. This does not look good for the inevitable triumph of antinatalism. Under such scenarios antinatalism produces dysgenics, and if one believes that stupidity and evil go hand in hand, increased suffering for more people.

To me it is not unlikely that, in practice, antinatalism leads to more suffering because it will only be adopted by sympathetic human beings such as Crawford. The antinatalist cannot argue that the amount of suffering in the universe cannot be increased nor decreased. The whole point of antinatalism after all is that suffering can and should be decreased. But how to go about this may be more complicated than it appears. A sober assessment of the practical implications of antinatalism may require revision of the antinatalist position itself.

Confessions of an Antinatalist is a fine and humane book, but in the end it is also a book of the converted written for the non-converted. Thomas Sowell has noted that in economics there are no solutions but only trade-offs. I would not be surprised if antinatalists will come to a similar conclusion at some point.

Suffering without meaning

Thomas Ligotti is a contemporary horror writer whose fiction work  is marked by cosmic nihilism, alienation and the fragile nature of reality. As a great admirer of the work of Ligotti I have been reluctant to comment on his non-fiction. Fortunately, unlike many other artists, Ligotti has little interest in “critical theory” or “progressive” politics. His book The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror is not concerned with such trivial topics but with the bleak fate of humanity in a deterministic and indifferent universe.

The book starts off with an introduction by obscurantist philosopher Ray Brassier, whose work would certainly qualify for the description that Ligotti gives to Schopenhauer’s oeuvre (“too overwrought in the proving to be anything more than another intellectual labyrinth for specialists in perplexity”).

Reading Ligotti’s account of why humans reject truly bleak views about life it would be interesting to see how antinatalists respond to the existence of orthodox Calvinism. Accepting a universe without free will that is ruled by an omnipotent God who has decreed that the majority of people will suffer in hell for His self-glorification seems a lot more terrifying to me. Nonetheless, millions of people have accepted this theological perspective. The existence of Reformed theology lays to rest the view that humans have an intrinsic desire to avoid doctrines that are too terrible too contemplate.

When Ligotti discusses the work of antinatalist Peter Wessel Zapfe once more we find the view that there is an objective predicament of mankind that is hidden by false consciousness. It is remarkable to see the similarities between those who argue that we do not want look our “oppression” straight in the face and those who argue that we avoid coming to terms with the horror of existence. What  is often lacking here is the recognition that there is also a wealth of literature about human suffering that supports the idea that we would be happier if we did look nature straight in the face. No nonsense about “moral responsibility,” “sin,” “duty,” “the greater good” etc. Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Max Stirner are representatives of this school of thought.

What is intriguing about Ligotti’s book is that it reads like a rather delicate balancing act. On one hand, we have the detached observer (my favorite) who is bemused at the show business of both the optimists and pessimists. On the other hand, it is unmistakable that Ligotti feels affinity with the philosophers of cosmic horror and pessimism. His fiction does not leave much room for any other conclusion. But The Conspiracy Against the Human Race contains more than a few (unintended) suggestions how someone who declines to take sides would present his argument.

Hard determinism and the illusion of the self

I have a hard time relating to the Ligotti’s discussion about determinism and pessimism. Hard determinism (or hard imcompatibilism) is just a part of the “scientific worldview” and it is not obvious to me why it should be a source of despair. Ligotti then discusses the existence of the “self.” I am inclined to think there is an important difference between free will and the self. Modern science can make sense of the world and human action without assuming free will. I am  not convinced that this is possible if the concept of the self is rejected. Unlike free will, the recognition of a “self” comes at a later stage in evolution. It has been argued that primitive people could not clearly distinguish the self from its surroundings and thus were not able to discover the laws of physics and manipulate it to their benefit. The philosopher Hans Reichenbach developed a pragmatic case for the existence of the external world and the self in his seminal work Experience And Prediction: An Analysis of the Foundations And the Structure of Knowledge. Ultimately, the Kantian question whether something “really” exists (or what something “really” looks like) does not seem particularly helpful in the study of reality, as the early logical positivists of Vienna understood well.

Why would anything that neuroscientists discover about the self and how it is constructed be a source of dread? If you believe that life is just the result of random meetings of organic molecules, it stands to reason that the physical basis of consciousness and the self reflects such a process. Why would accepting such ideas make one a “heroic pessimist?” Why the pessimism at all? Ligotti even agrees. “One would think that neuroscientists and geneticists would have as much reason to head for the cliffs because little by little they have been finding that much of our thought and behavior is attributable to neural wiring and heredity rather than to personal control over the individuals we are, or think we are. But they do not feel suicide to be mandatory just because their laboratory experiments are informing them that human nature may be nothing but puppet nature. Not the slightest tingle of uncanniness or horror runs up and down their spines, only the thrill of discovery. Most of them reproduce and do not believe there is anything questionable in doing so.”

Ligotti also discussed transhumanism, but not in much depth. As a transhumanism skeptic myself, I found little to object to but it seems that Ligotti’s real target is what is called Singularitarianism. This part in the book seems something of a missed opportunity because there is substantial overlap between Ligotti’s fiction and themes that are discussed by transhumanist writers: living in a computer simulation, parallel universes, alternate realities etc.

When Ligotti reviews near-death experiences and ego-death, the common-sense neurological explanations that were invoked in discussions of free will and the self are largely absent (a notable exception is his discussion of the possibility that a brain tumor can cause such an “enlightened” state). For critical-care physicians it is a given that many people suffer (regional) cerebral ischemia during the dying process. As such, it is surprising (but encouraging) that not more people claim enlightenment after they recover. These periods of  transient oxygen deprivation can produce long term damage and a “re-wiring” of the brain, which can explain the new perspectives these people adopt. From a physicalist perspective, death of the ego is (partial) death of the brain, something one may or may not want to celebrate.

In Ligotti’s book the reason for pessimism is multi-factorial. It includes the lack of meaning in an indifferent universe, the reality of hard determinism, and the illusion of the self. The works of Benatar and Crawford are more restricted in scope and mostly focus on more mundane suffering. Ligotti’s philosophical horror is much richer, but I wonder how much of it will resonate with people who embrace a scientific view of the universe. The Conspiracy against the Human Race may not have been designed as an argument against “unweaving the rainbow” (to use Richard Dawkin’s useful phrase) but it sometimes reads like one.

There is a lot in Ligotti’s fine book that I have not discussed such as the extensive treatment of pessimism in horror fiction, loads of interesting philosophical and scientific references, plus illuminating discussions of obscure authors such as Peter Wessel Zappfe and Philipp Mainlander. As such, it can also be considered as an indispensable reference for philosophical pessimism and cosmic horror.

Empiricism and non-existence

David Benatar is a rigorous philosopher. His work can be situated in the analytic tradition and he makes an honest attempt to anticipate objections to his own views. When he argues for positions using mainly logical arguments he is quite persuasive. A being that does not exist can neither be harmed nor benefited. I cannot see how this argument (or  tautology?) can be successfully refuted. But when Benatar attempts to argue that the quality of life of most people is much worse than they think it is, multiple challenges arise. I do not think this is the result of Benatar’s poor reasoning but because the fields that he relies on – evolution, social psychology, happiness research and the study of cognitive biases – are notorious for allowing competing views. It seems to me that ultimately Benatar cannot escape the charge that he pays excessive attention to theories that claim that we think we are happier than we really are. Perhaps I have spent too much time in the wrong subculture but it seems to me that the phenomenon of people claiming to be less happy than they really are should not be ignored either.

Like Crawford, Benatar cannot completely escape the charge of illiberalism. Classical liberalism takes very seriously the challenges in reaching satisfactory conclusions about the quality of other people’s lives. In practice this means that we exercise restraint in making strong cognitive and moral claims about the feelings and preferences of other people. This is a mindset that does not seem to come easily to antinatalists. Benatar is on more agreeable ground when he simply derives his antinatalism from uncertainty; “some know that their baby will be among the unfortunate. Nobody knows, however, that their baby will be one of the allegedly lucky few.”

Benatar believes that even if his empirical argument about the poor quality of our lives fails, his formal argument from asymmetry is still left standing. He thinks that even if there is one single painful pinprick in an otherwise good life, we still harm that person by bringing him into existence. I think that Benatar is “proving” too much here. We can agree that anyone who conceives a child cannot escape the prospect that this person will experience some harm. But from this it does not follow that the person is harmed in a meaningful moral sense without considering the expected overall quality of that life. Perhaps Benatar would respond that I have not understood his argument, and I will admit that I have a difficult time understanding why the possibility that a person’s pleasures are expected to outweigh the pains do not alter his argument. I think that both bringing into existence a life that is invariably good and a life that is generally good can be morally defended on the grounds that there will not be any post-natal moral objections from the person involved. Of course, we are not morally obliged to do so, because we will not deprive the unborn of such a good life if we don’t have children. But since most parents have a positive interest in having children, in practice this tips the scales in favor of some (but not all!) procreation. One problem I can see with my argument is that it might permit the creation of a life form that would experience great suffering but with an unalterable survival instinct and no cognitive possibility of moral blame or regret. Some antinatalists might even claim that this is a rather accurate description of the human race as it exists today.

As an empiricist, I generally give the benefit of doubt to empirical observations when they appear to conflict with logical reasoning. I think that this preference itself can be justified on historic and pragmatic grounds. The claim that coming into existence is always a harm is not consistent with the reports of all those who have come into existence. That seems to be a non-trivial epistemological roadblock for antinatalism.

When Benatar discusses the moral duty not to have children he runs into the obvious problem of how the interests of the parents should be weighed against the interests of the child. One does not need to be an ethical egoist to believe that the interests of the parents count for something. In this case the question returns to how bad the life of most people is and, as discussed, this is a rather vulnerable part of antinatalism. Benatar attempts to answer the obvious objection that most people who have been born do not regret this or blame their parents. But when I read his thoughts on “indoctrination” I only see further evidence of the anti-liberalism in his writings.

In fairness to Benatar (who seems to identify himself as a liberal of some sorts), he does defend the legal right to procreation because he admits that there can be reasonable disagreement about his views. I think this point is particularly important for antinatalism since reasonable objections often come from the very people whose lives Benatar characterizes as very bad. That is not to deny that society can choose to be less supportive of people who engage in reckless procreation. Such behavior can be substantially decreased by withholding benefits that encourage or reward such behavior. Benatar correctly argues that if one subscribes to a consistent interpretation of the Kantian argument that future people should not be treated as means, then all reproduction is morally dubious. But whether that highlights the virtues or defects of Kant’s ethics I leave to the reader to ponder.

Benatar highlights the importance of making a distinction between the decision to bring someone into existence and the decision to continue life. Even if we commit to the idea that it is better never to have been we can still have reasons for wanting to continue life. As a matter of fact, Benatar entertains the argument that the prospect of death itself is one of the reasons why existence is bad. Those who follow Epicurus believe that death cannot be experienced and thus cannot be a bad thing for the person. This is an extremely difficult argument to refute, but Benatar’s discussion of this topic is quite illuminating because he points out that those who hold this position may also have to commit to the view that death can never be good for a person. One only needs to imagine a person whose life is one of continuous suffering to see that this is not a plausible argument.

As an academic Benatar is less hostile to religion than Crawford and Ligotti but I do not think he can successfully escape the objection that antinatalism requires an atheist perspective. One does not have to be a scripturalist to note that Benatar is only concerned with the fate of humans and not with the interests of God. Perhaps Benatar cannot see any positive value in human suffering because his information about Creation is incomplete. Theodicies that reconcile the existence of God and the existence of Evil are not difficult to generate. As Plotinus has observed, “We are like people ignorant of painting who complain that the colours are not beautiful everywhere in the picture: but the Artist has laid on the appropriate tint to every spot.”

Antinatalists and life extensionists

One would think that cryonicists and life extensionists should be repulsed by antinatalism. I think such a view would be mistaken. All the antinatalist authors discussed here are motivated by empathy for the suffering of all sentient life. We should also welcome the analytical and physicalist perspectives that underpin their writings. Too much (Continental) philosophy is simply an insult to the intellect and a waste of time. If a case should be made for pessimism it needs be stated in a form that is amenable to reasoned debate and empirical investigation.

Of more specific interest to life extensionists is the plausible prospect that our abilities to decrease suffering will (necessarily?) be matched by our abilities to increase suffering too. This is a possibility that should be studied in great detail by advocates of molecular nanotechnology, strong AI, and Substrate Independent Minds.

It is no secret that cryonicists are underperforming in terms of reproduction. But as Howard V. Hendrix discusses in the article “Dual Immortality, No Kids: The Dink Link between Birthlessness and Deathlessness in Science Fiction,” this may not be a coincidence. If biological immortality becomes a credible option, having children as a substitute for personal survival will lose much of its appeal.

Most rewarding for cryonicists is the unique perspective that antinatalists can bring to the debate concerning why so few people have made cryonics arrangements. The hostility of many people towards cryonics cannot be explained if people categorically believe that  meaningful resuscitation (revival) is impossible. It is the prospect that cryonics may actually work that induces severe anxiety. If the antinatalists are correct in their assessment that coming into existence is always a harm, the unpopularity of cryonics might be indirect evidence for their position.

I want to close this review with one word of advice to those who engage in debates with antinatalists. Most antinatalists waste little time reminding their readers how controversial their ideas are. They think that they have uncovered the greatest taboo of all time. As an empirical matter, this is doubtful. Antinatalist ideas can be freely discussed in modern Western countries, something that cannot be said about a number of other controversial ideas. Antinatalists are also quick to point out that their pessimism should not be dismissed as an expression of weakness and depression. But then the antinatalists commit a similar error by too easily viewing optimism as a defense mechanism or a form of bias. But is it completely unreasonable to look for the neurophysiologic and genetic basis of pessimism and optimism? The uncompromising naturalism in the work of the antinatalists  supports such an inquiry.

Jim Crawford: Confessions of an Antinatalist (Nine Banded Books 2010)

Thomas Ligotti: The Conspiracy Against the Human Race: A Contrivance of Horror (Hippocampus Press 2010)

David Benatar: Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence (Oxford University Press 2006)

Thanks to Dr. Michael Perry for discussing some of the topics in this review and proofreading an earlier version of this document.

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.

 

On the cryonics discussion list Cryonet cryobiologist Brian Wowk weighed in on the topic of mind uploading in a post that merits quoting in its entirety:

I read with interest Bob Ettinger’s recent remarks about Mark Gubrud’s piece in The New Atlantis.

http://futurisms.thenewatlantis.com/2010/06/why-transhumanism-wont-work.html

Although I have not been around as long Bob, I have nevertheless observed arguments about uploading, identity duplication, and related subjects for decades.  In all that time there are two things I’ve never seen: (a) A truly new argument, and (b) Someone change their mind.  What is seen are people who passionately believe they are correct, and who believe that they have just the argument to finally convince the other side that they are right.  They never do.

I have come to believe that the question of whether a computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind (assuming equivalence in this context is even definable) constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable.  It’s almost a matter of taste, like alternative interpretations of quantum mechanics that assume different underlying realities that give exactly the same measurable results.

Eventually the distant day will come when the computational processes of a human brain are duplicated in an electronic computer, or even in another identical organic substrate.  When that day comes, we can be certain of this: If the person who was “duplicated” believed before duplication that duplication constitutes survival of the self, then, by definition, the duplicated entity will insist vociferously that indeed they did survive.  This has ethical implications.  Conversely,
an entity derived from a person who did not believe in this form of survival might be quite unhappy to be told that they were the product of a destructive scan of somebody.  This too has ethical implications.

Philosophical truth aside, evolution selects against humans who spend time worrying about whether sleep, anesthesia, or biostasis endangers personal identity.  Similarly, it is easy to predict which side of the uploading and duplication debates will win in the long term.  There is no entity more invulnerable or fecund than one that believes it consists of information.

Recent discussions of the topic of mind uploading on the Cryonics Institute members mailing-list contradict Wowk’s claim about people changing their mind about mind uploading. Robert Ettinger posted an itemized list with objections against the idea of mind uploading as a strategy for personal survival and I weighed in on the (current) lack of experimental evidence to settle the matter. The effect was that some people changed their mind or became more agnostic about mind uploading.

Wowk may be correct that the question whether a “computationally equivalent duplicate of a human mind…constitutes a continuation of the original person may be objectively unanswerable.” The discussion about mind uploading and persistence of the original person has distinct similarities with discussions about solipsism, consciousness, and the existence of the external world. It is not inconceivable that in a world where mind uploading has become routine the debates will still continue because the hard problem of persistence of the person is not falsifiable in a meaningful manner.

There are mind uploaders and there are Mind Uploaders. The Mind Uploaders are a small but vocal minority who display little patience for the argument that the technical feasibility of mind uploading requires empirical verification and cannot be completely settled by logical deduction or thought experiments. As cryonics activist and ex-Alcor Board member David Pizer says, “Having existed with Uploading Lovers for many years now, I believe they are as firmly entrenched in their beliefs as  traditional religious persons believe that their souls are going to Heaven after death here on Earth.”

Cryonics is often associated with ideas like mind uploading and transhumanism. One negative consequence of this (un)intentional association is that some people who are considering cryonics feel that they have to embrace a much larger set of controversial ideas than what they are actually being asked to consider. As a result, there is a real risk that people reject cryonics for reasons that have little to do with the proposal of cryonics itself. Advocates of cryonics do not do themselves a favor by promoting the idea of human cryopreservation as part of a larger set of futurist ideas instead of just promoting cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to extend life. There is too much at stake to alienate people by piling more controversial ideas on top of what is already considered to be a radical idea. Such a low-key attitude will also produce a more consistent message because it extends the element of uncertainty that is inherent in cryonics to other areas of life as well.


In the March 2010 issue of Reason magazine Tim Cavanaugh writes about the rift between transhumanists who favor biological enhancement versus those who favor non-biological “mechanical” enhancement:

These days transhumanists talk a lot about subcutaneous data ports, permanent immersion in virtual reality, even extending male life spans by removing the gonads. But they spend noticeably little time considering enhancement through inheritable, rather than mechanical, means. “I don’t know why biological stuff is off the plate,” says Greg Fahy, chief scientific officer at Twenty-First Century Medicine Inc. “It’s just not the flavor of the day.”

There are distinct similarities between those who believe that biology is “messy”, “chaotic” and “dumb” and those who advocate centralization and top-down solutions to solve social problems.  In both cases, evolution, competition and spontaneous order are perceived as leading to “sup-optimal” or “unfair” outcomes that can and should be improved upon  through uniform decision making by intelligent decision makers.  Skeptics of such grandiose views point out that a society with distributed knowledge and incentives requires decentralized decision making. And, as Anthony de Jasay has noted:

When a social state of affairs, instead of being collectively decided, is left to emerge from a large number of individual decisions, the effects of the latter tend to be normally distributed: a few prove disastrous, a few are superbly good, and most are middling. The likelihood of the resulting state of affairs being totally disastrous or wholly superb is negligible. When, however, one collective choice is responsible for a state of affairs, no normal distribution can be relied upon. A single wrong decision that “seemed a good idea at the time” suffices to cause disaster.

Can we predict a-priori what enhancements will be beneficial and which will be harmful to an individual? In many cases, the most  useful arbiter will be experience, or to those of a more prudent temperament, the observation of others. Tim Cavanaugh writes:

There is grandeur in the view that genetic enhancement will produce outcomes that can’t be modeled by Bayesian optimization. Better machines and longevity treatments have the attention of the human enhancement community now, but the real fun, and the real mystery, will be found in creating varieties of people, who in turn will have concerns and beliefs and bodies that differ radically from our own. Will all those differences be attractive or adaptive? The beauty of evolution is that we can’t know the end—but we can get more skillful in crafting our part of the beginning.

Even if mankind would be able to improve upon the “chaos” of existing biology, this would in no way mean the end of evolution and competition. Things evolve and evolution will still remain a useful tool to model the interaction of various ideas and systems. One application of particular interest is to use evolution to discover strategies to eliminate or slow down aging, as practiced by biological researchers such as Michael R. Rose.

Unfortunately, Cavanaugh mentions cryonics (“frozen brains”) as as a subdivision of transhumanism. There are an increasing number of  influential cryonicists who strongly object to this identification of cryonics with transhumanism. They see cryonics as an experimental medical procedure that, like any other medical procedure, should not be linked to any kind of “ism.”

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

13. November 2009 · Comments Off · Categories: Science, Society · Tags: , , ,

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.

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)

The association of cryonics with “transhumanism” seems inevitable but is problematic.  It seems inevitable because cryonics should be most attractive to people with a very positive perspective on the future capabilities of technology. Barring rapid advances in mitigating aging, cryonics  offers the only credible option for transhumanists to become a part of that future. It is unfortunate because it can have adverse effects on the objective of making cryonics a part of conventional medicine, and further alienates people who are open to the idea of human cryopreservation but fear the future.

For some people the choice for cryonics does not so much represent optimism about the pace of technological progress, or a desire for immortality, but rather skepticism about our contemporary definition of death.  This is not a trivial distinction. Despite some popular misconceptions, cryonics is not necessarily linked to having an extreme position on the pace of technological progress.  One can be a conservative regarding the timescale that it will take to develop credible cell repair technologies and be a staunch cryonics advocate without any contradiction.  Similarly, a commitment to cryonics does not necessarily mean that one has to root for the most radical and optimistic school of thought in nanotechnology.

The unfortunate association between cryonics and transhumanism has recently been addressed by ex-Alcor president and cryonics advocate Steve Bridge in his perceptive article Has Cryonics taken the Wrong Path? The Unnoticed Conflict between Rescue Technology and Futurist Philosophies. So far Bridge’s article has had limited effect and cryonics representatives are rarely invited to speak at any conferences outside of the predictable “Transhumanism-Singularity Industrial Complex.” This development does not just reflect a lack of effective and credible spokespersons that can make a persuasive scientific case for cryonics, it also reflects a lack of concern about cryonics being perceived as one element in a larger transhumanist or Singularitarian project.

There seem to be indications, however, that this climate is changing.  Cryonics activists such as Mark Plus and longevity advocates such as Anne Corwin have increasingly  expressed reservations about certain strands of futurism and the unsolicited identification with these movements. Another welcome development is scientific researchers such as Richard Jones who do not necessarily disagree about the  possibility of molecular cell repair technologies but reject the meliorist and quasi-religious tendencies in contemporary futurism.

In a recent blog entry about Ray Kurzweil, Richard Jones writes:

One difficulty is that Kurzweil makes many references to current developments in science and technology, and most readers are going to take it on trust that Kurzweil’s account of these developments is accurate. All too often, though, what one finds is that there’s a huge gulf between the conclusions Kurzweil draws from these papers and what they actually say – it’s the process I described in my article The Economy of Promises taken to extremes – “a transformation of vague possible future impacts into near-certain outcomes”….The difficulty, then, is not that there is no science underlying the claims Kurzweil makes, nor that this science isn’t very exciting on its own terms. It’s that this science can’t sustain the sweeping claims and (especially) the fast timescales that Kurzweil insists on.

It would be unfortunate for cryonics to be identified with naive thinking about society and technology and sellers of snake oil. Recent management and staff changes at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation indicate a renewed emphasis on sound business operations and medical credibility. It remains to be seen if these changes constitute a broader effort to re-position cryonics as an important player in the world of medical innovation.

16. July 2008 · Comments Off · Categories: Cryonics · Tags: , ,

From: ExtroBritannia

Cryonics: Why it has failed, and possible ways to fix it – with Mike Darwin

The next ExtroBritannia event is scheduled for Saturday August 2, 2008; 2:00pm – 4:00pm.

Location to be announced asap.

Lead Speaker: Mike Darwin, President of Alcor Life Extension 1983-1988, Research Director 1988-1992. Described by Wikipedia as “Second only to Robert Ettinger as one of the most influential figures in the controversial field of cryonics”.

The talk will draw on the speaker’s extensive personal experience with cryonics – the low-temperature preservation of humans and other animals that can no longer be sustained by contemporary medicine, until such time in the future when resuscitation may be possible.

The talk will cover: the audacious ambition and vision of cryonics, practical details of how it works, a whistle-stop history of cryonics, issues with the governance of cryonics organizations, factors influencing public perception of cryonics, and reasons for both fear and hope for the future of cryonics.

Special attention will be given to the decline of cryonics in the UK and the failure of UK cryonics to establish a robust, full-service beachhead in Britain. The talk will also highlight what can be done to re-establish cryonics in the UK as a stable enterprise that will deserve the confidence of both its members and the public as a competent, high quality undertaking offering services which meet the highest ethical, scientific and biomedical standards.

The meeting is sponsored by the UK Transhumanist Association. There is no charge to attend. Join the debate!

Discussion is likely to continue after the event, in a nearby pub, for those who are able to stay.

There’s also the option of joining some of the UKTA regulars for drinks/lunch beforehand, starting c. 12.30, in a pub (to be announced). To find us, look out for a table where there’s a copy of Aubrey de Grey’s book “Ending Aging” displayed.

Venue: To Be Announced – somewhere in Central London