5 dangerous ideas about cryonics
The cryonics organizations Alcor and the Cryonics Institute have taken great care to correct some of the persistent myths about cryonics. With so much widespread misinformation being circulated in the media it seems trivial to pay attention to some of the misconceptions that some people who are sympathetic to cryonics hold. But the price of ignoring these opinions is that progress in the science of cryobiology and practice of human cryopreservation is adversely affected. What follows is a list of 5 “dangerous” ideas (or misconceptions) about cryonics and their consequences.
1. First in, last out.
A popular expression in cryonics is that the first person who was cryopreserved will require the most extensive repair technologies and therefore will be the last person to be resuscitated. The underlying assumption in this view is quite reasonable: when advances in cryopreservation technologies are made, demands on advanced future repair technologies will be lessened. The problem with this view, however, is that it assumes that advances in cryobiology and neuroprotection are the only factor influencing the quality of care in cryonics. Unfortunately, advances in the science of cryopreservation will not automatically translate into better patient care. Other factors, such as the delay between time of “death” and start of procedures, and the protocols, equipment and personnel of the responding cryonics organizations, matter as well. For example, if a cryonics standby team is not able to get to a patient before 24 hours after cardiac arrest, pumps him full of air during remote blood washout, and ships him back to the cryonics organization at subzero temperatures, that patient will not benefit from advances in human cryopreservation such as rapid induction of hypothermia, neuroprotection and vitrification.
A professional cryonics organization with “old” technologies may on average do better than an incompetent cryonics organization with “new” technologies. The important lesson to be drawn here is that the concept of “patient care” is a meaningful concept in cryonics and consumers of cryonics services need to evaluate their cryonics providers on their ability to provide good care.
2. Only the future will tell us how good our cryonics procedures are.
It is true that only the future will tell us whether cryonics patients will be resuscitated or not; but that does not mean that we cannot say anything meaningful about the quality of care in individual cryonics cases. The most obvious point is that we can compare actual patient care to the published protocols and objectives of the cryonics organization. More specific observations can be made during a cryonics case using medical equipment. In a well-run cryonics case a number of physiological and chemical measurements are made to determine the response of a patient to various interventions. As a general rule, the objective of cryonics stabilization procedures is to keep the brain of the patient viable by contemporary medical criteria. The danger of thinking of cryonics as one single experimental procedure that can only be evaluated in the future is that it ignores the fact that actual cryonics procedures consist of various separate procedures that can be monitored and evaluated using existing medical tools. The least that a cryonics consumer should expect from his cryonics organization is that it discloses its cryonics procedures to the general public and produces detailed case reports.
3. Cryonics patients are no longer being frozen.
Because not all cryonics patients will be “ideal” cases, this view is vulnerable to the same objections as the “first in, last out” rule, but there are some other issues that are important to mention in this context. The most important fact to be stressed is that ice formation is not a binary all or nothing thing but a continuum ranging from straight freezing (cryopreservation without cryoprotection) to complete elimination of ice formation. Although there have been many cases where patients have been frozen without the use of a cryoprotective agent, its opposite, complete vitrification, should be considered a theoretical ideal. The degree of ice formation is determined by the nature and concentration of the cryoprotective agent. For example, low concentrations of the cryoprotectant glycerol will result in more ice formation than higher concentrations of glycerol.
What has changed in the recent years is that both major cryonics organizations are now offering cryopreservation using vitrification agents. Although these vitrification agents are formulated to eliminate ice formation, it is generally believed that such a result is not achievable in all tissues and organs in the human body at the moment. Another important point to be made is that not all solutions that can eliminate ice formation are equal because they can differ greatly in toxicity. The technical challenge in cryonics is not so much to eliminate ice formation but to develop vitrification solutions with no or limited toxicity. Although it is correct that contemporary vitrification solutions can solidify without ice formation, delays in response time, poor patient care, and high toxicity can offset most of these advances.
4. The probability that cryonics will work is X.
Both critics and supporters have made specific probability estimates about how likely cryonics is to work. In its worst form such probability assessments convey nothing more than putting a number on overall feelings of pessimism or optimism. More serious attempts have been made to calculate a specific probability that cryonics will work. Such attempts usually go as follows: A number of independent conditions (or events) for cryonics to work are distinguished, these conditions are “assigned” a probability, and the total (or joint) probability is calculated by multiplying them. Although such calculations give the semblance of objectivity, they are equally vulnerable to the fundamental objection that assigning one single number to the probability that cryonics will work is just a lot of hand waving. How many independent events are there and how do we know that they are independent? What is the basis for assigning specific probabilities to these conditions? What are the effects of minor changes in the numbers?
Probability calculations are not completely useless. They can help us in identifying important conditions that need to be satisfied for resuscitation. They can also help identify weak links that can be improved. But probability estimates can be dangerous as well when we take them too seriously and discourage people from making cryonics arrangements. The point here is not that we should refrain from being skeptical but that if we make quantitative estimates we should be able to back up our statements with rigorous arguments or just confine ourselves to more qualitative statements. Another objection to making cryonics probability estimates was made by the cryonics activist and mathematician Thomas Donaldson. He makes the common sense point that many of these conditions are not independent of what we do. We can make a contribution to increasing the probability that cryonics will work.
Last but not least, what does it mean when we talk about “cryonics working?” It is conceivable that cryonics will work for one person but not for another, reflecting improved technologies and protocols. Perhaps asking the question if cryonics patients can be “revived” is the wrong question. As the cryobiologist Brian Wowk has pointed out, the real question is how much original personality would survive the many possible damage/repair scenarios, not revival per se. Survival in medicine is not a simple black-and-white issue, as evidenced by people who recover from stroke or cardiac arrest but with personality and memory alterations. And it is worth mentioning once more that how much of our personality survives is depended on what we do to improve the quality and long-term survival of our cryonics organizations.
5. I will sign up for cryonics when I need it.
It should be obvious without much reflection why this is a dangerous idea. At the time a person really needs cryonics, he may no longer be able to communicate those desires, lack funding to make arrangements, or encounter hostile relatives. A more subtle variant concerns the person who expects that aging will be solved before cryonics will be necessary. This person may or may not be right, but such optimism may not make him more immune to accidents than other people. This mindset is often observed among young “transhumanists” and practicing life extensionists. A related, but rarer, variant is to postpone making cryonics arrangements until the cryonics organization makes a number of changes including, but not limited to, hiring medical professionals, stop wasting money, becoming more transparent, giving members the right to vote, etc. Such issues are important, and need to be addressed, but a safer response would be to join the organization and influence its policies, or, if this will be necessary, combine with others to start a competing cryonics organization without such flaws.
There are not many people who think that it is sensible to make cryonics arrangements, but there are even fewer people who have actually made such arrangements.
As we have seen, some of these dangerous ideas share the same or related assumptions and produce identical effects: decreased scrutiny of cryonics organizations and a decreased chance of personal survival. An important common theme is that cryonics cannot be treated as one single monolithic technology and that the fate of our survival depends as much on the state of the art in human cryopreservation technologies as on the competence of cryonics providers. Caveat emptor!