Profile: Aschwin de Wolf

Aschwin de Wolf in Portland’s industrial district. 

By Nicole Weinstock

If you were an avid puzzler or a member of Facebook in 2014, then you may recall the trending release of Clemens Habicht’s “1,000 colors” jigsaw puzzle. An ode to CMYK printing, it showcases the spectrum of four inks used in this industry standard: cyan, magenta, yellow, and key (black). The puzzle allots one piece for every tone in the color gamut, encouraging a more intuitive approach to assembly than most. While “1,000 colors” is arguably quite bold and synergistic in concept and presentation, it also exudes a level of nuance and singularity, calculation, and detail. It is the perfect introduction to New York-based cryonics advocate and prominent cryonics leader, Aschwin de Wolf.

Though Aschwin’s involvement in the field dates back to the early 2000s, he is perhaps best known for his position as CEO of Advanced Neural Biosciences (ANB), which he co-founded in Portland, Oregon despite initial skepticism about its location. In 2019 he turned heads once more as he led the charge to launch a second ANB office focused on theoretical research in one of the original hot spots of cryonics: New York City. Aschwin  was also the co-founder of the nonprofit Institute for Evidence-Based Cryonics, and is editor of the quarterly Cryonics magazine published by the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. He founded and regularly contributes to the online platform Biostasis, and frequently serves as cryonics consultant and advisor for domestic and global initiatives.

Aschwin smiles with a glass of wine in the window of a Fifth Avenue hotel overlooking the historic main branch of the New York public library in midtown.

As ambitious as he is, work-life balance is an important value in Aschwin’s life and perhaps a vestige of his European roots. He actively cultivates many niche interests ranging from independent niche perfumes to Japanese avant-garde music. Aschwin maintains a blog focused on natural wines and lambic, organizes fermentation meetups, and keeps a vigilant eye for the next best wild game burger. He also pursues unique personal challenges like a week-long water fast or a 100,000 steps-in-a-day Fitbit challenge (equivalent to 50 miles). As you will come to find, the relationship between time and an insatiable curiosity strongly motivates his commitment to cryonics, the future, and life at large.

Art Smart

Aschwin warms his hands around a cup of Genmaicha to combat the damp cold of a wintry day. Staring at his brown rice green tea, he admits, “One thing that I hear a lot is, ‘You know so much about so many things. Where do you find the time?’” As a self-identified introvert, Aschwin enjoys stretches of solitude, and suspects that this is not unrelated. He adds, “That period on my own, of recovery, is also a period where I can read a lot, learn a lot.”

His home has no shortage of supporting evidence. At the de Wolf residence, you can expect the sights and sounds of a life spent diving deep into art, film, music, and wine. You are immediately greeted by the authentic tones of vinyl. Maybe you recognize the soft mezzo-soprano of the late “Queen of Disco,” Donna Summer, or perhaps you hear a rare compilation of sound recordings from non-operational trains. Indeed, Aschwin’s collection of 600-plus records, some of which are stacked in repurposed wine crates—a subtle hint at another de Wolf passion—provide quite a number of musical possibilities for the newcomer.

Aschwin’s fascination with atonal and experimental music is partly rooted in a childhood spent largely at his grandmother’s home. Her neighborhood was simple and small, which allowed its other seemingly mundane characteristics to acquire greater value and a comforting familiarity. Aschwin recalls, “Just hearing manufacturing sounds, trucks or white noise…A lot of that sound is not something that I endure. It’s literally very pleasant for me.”

Just as his musical taste reflects a contemporary leaning, so too does the design of his home. Reminiscent of a gallery, Aschwin’s clean white walls are adorned with a spectrum of framed art throughout. An album poster from New York underground rapper, Roc Marciano, hangs next to that of Los Angeles-based chillwave singer-songwriter, Nite Jewel. Faye Dunaway’s hauntingly shadowed face from an original 1970’s movie poster for the Eyes of Laura Mars stares down a series of photographs from childhood. They are close-ups of textures and shapes from his grandmother’s attic and some of the earliest evidence of his attraction to abstract art. Then there is the poster for the small but mighty Belgian lambic brewer, Cantillon. Did I mention that Aschwin wrote an internationally-respected blog about lambics and wild ales for a decade?

One of 3 images in “Druivenstraat,” a collaborative series of artworks (2015) by Aschwin de Wolf and Avantika Bawa. The photos were taken in the attic of the former home of the late Eva van Oosten, Aschwin’s grandmother, at Druivenstraat 1, Leiden in 2014.

An audiophile and art lover, Aschwin is also quite the film buff. In an exercise to define his movie taste more sharply, he reduced his movie display to reveal only his favorite twenty-five films. From Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert (1964) to The French Connection (1971) to Dawn of the Dead (1978), his all-time favorite movie, Aschwin’s collection reflects a continuing enthusiasm for many of the themes that drew him to film as a teenager: horror, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and slasher and zombie movies from the late 70s and early 80s. He observes, “This interest persists today but I have come to recognize that I was less interested in the blood and gore than in cinematography, atmosphere, and survivalist elements in those films.”

While Aschwin’s movie collection is small but epic, so too is his library. Well, “library” might be a strong word, but the two industrial chic glass and steel bookcases that hold his carefully curated library make for quite an eye-catching marriage. Titles like W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Reggie Oliver’s The Dreams of Cardinal Vittorini, Damian Murphy’s The Imperishable Sacraments, and DeLio’s The Music of Morton Feldman peek out from behind glass panes. Fiction and nonfiction are separated, and some books are part of print runs that were capped at a couple hundred copies. They may bear any one of a number of artisan touches: high quality paper, elegant bindings, or uniquely colored ink. “I don’t feel like I collect expensive books or even necessarily rare books,” says Aschwin. He continues, “If something’s beautiful and appealing and you see it made with great care and passion, then it’s worth owning.”

Though Aschwin’s paperback collection has certainly diminished since childhood, the caliber and themes of his literary preferences have not in large part. But then again, this is largely because these preferences were never particularly juvenile to begin with. “I kind of skipped this ‘young adult’ period [growing up],” he explains. He continues, “When I was able to read, I started reading things like Edgar Allen Poe, and the great novelists.” Indeed, the Hardy Boys and any other literary teen posse catalogued with the abbreviation “YA” had no place in Aschwin’s childhood.

Dutch Roots

His name may have thrown you for a loop— “Ashvin” is a popular Hindu name—but Aschwin was born and raised in the land of the wooden shoes. His favorite color happens to be orange, the most historically and culturally relevant color in the Netherlands, but he is quick to credit coincidence in this matter.

Aschwin’s grandmother cradles her grandson, the start of what would become a very close relationship.

Aschwin grew up in the city of Leiden in the province of South Holland in the Netherlands. It is the birthplace of Rembrandt and home to the oldest university in the country. The Leiden Observatory has also been a significant center for astronomical study since the 1800s. It is just a stone’s throw from the Hortus Botanicus of Leiden, the oldest botanical garden in the country. The city’s continued reverence for both the arts and sciences makes it a rather fitting backdrop for someone like Aschwin.

An “active child,” Aschwin notes with a smirk, he kept an unofficial residence at his grandparents’ home growing up. He preferred the wear and tear of their more aged residential and light-industrial neighborhood. Even more so, he enjoyed spending time with his grandmother, Eva, who was quick to knit him (black) sweaters or bake him Dutch pancakes. Though she has since passed, Aschwin still thinks of her as his greatest life example. He describes her as “one of the most supporting, selfless, and tolerant persons I have ever met.  She was good-natured, generous, and never pushed or demanded anything. This is something many people strive for but to her it was second nature.”

Aschwin’s closest friendships were nurtured inside and outside of class, and in particular, through his favorite sport: basketball. He played on teams until university and sponsors season tickets to the Leiden basketball team for his parents every year. Aschwin has also been a loyal season ticket holder for the Portland Trail Blazers since 2012. In addition to playing basketball, he was also a keen (video) gamer, utilizing the legendary 8-bit Commodore 64 home computer and a cassette player on a “healthy” diet of hamburgers and coke. While kombucha has replaced coke, and gourmet burgers are only consumed sporadically, he still has a strong interest in atmospheric adventure games like Myst or Gabriel Knight.

Aschwin as a boy with his parents, Matthijs and Neeltje, at Europe’s biggest playground, Linnaeushof, in 1979.

Though Leiden is known for its university, Aschwin chose to attend the University of Amsterdam. At the time, the Dutch university system was almost exclusively based on test scores, rather than attendance, participation, or homework. These were favorable conditions for a self-motivated and intelligent introvert like Aschwin. It freed up quite a bit of time for him to hone other curiosities: he volunteered at a local experimental music store, cultivated an interest in designer clothing, and in general, became well-acquainted with the city and its many characters. He even lived in a small apartment in the Red-Light District for some time.

Aschwin specialized in Public Administration within the political science department. It was an interesting time to pursue social science, he explains, as the fall of the Berlin wall was still relatively recent, and some professors were still recovering from their 1960’s Marxism. His ever-increasing interest in economics heavily influenced his eventual master’s thesis, which critically reviewed orthodox theories of market failure. It was dense and theoretical, and his assessors had to pull a professor from the school of economics to ensure its fair evaluation.

Discovering Cryonics

As Aschwin closed in on graduation, he discovered that his passions and preferences were a mismatch in the working world. He explains, “I was interested in politics, but I did not want to become a politician or public official. I was interested in philosophy and economics, but I disliked academic culture.” The professional unknown, combined with a growing dissatisfaction with Amsterdam and Dutch culture, led him to join his then-partner in an overseas move to the U.S. Though he had intended to leave his studies incomplete—he was one class short of his Master’s degree—he quickly reversed his decision in deference to his parents. He flew back to the Netherlands a few times to complete his remaining exams and receive his degree.

After settling down in Arlington, Virginia, Aschwin also spent a couple months in Geneva, Switzerland where he experienced a life-changing medical scare. The cause turned out to be something trivial, but the episode spurred deeper thought on death and aging. After putting finger to keyboard, he ran across cryonics, something he had only ever observed in passing on libertarian websites. Aschwin recalls, “…I found the technical literature quite persuasive, as far as I could understand it, and the associated topics appealed to my growing interest in the natural sciences and disillusion with the social sciences.” Shortly after returning to the U.S., he signed up as a member with Alcor at its Fifth Annual Conference on Extreme Life Extension. It was November of 2002.

From that point onward, Aschwin studied cryobiology and the biomedical sciences in great earnest. His enthusiasm garnered the attention of Charles Platt at the Florida-based cryopreservation research company, Suspended Animation (SA). SA offered him a part-time position and he swiftly moved to West Palm Beach. Over time, he earned full-time employment there, covering a variety of needs ranging from bookkeeping to technical writing to management.

In 2007, Aschwin moved to Phoenix for a year where he began to consult and expand his cryonics writing. He soon discovered that the heat strayed too far from his overcast preferences…But a little city named Portland, Oregon had just the right weather, not to mention many of the elements he missed most from Europe: bike-friendly streets, and great public transit, craft beer, and a music scene that birthed personal favorites such as Grouper, Glass Candy, and The Chromatics. In 2008, he moved to the Rose City, with plans to co-found a new cryonics research company with Chana Phaedra.

Advanced Neural Biosciences

Though cryonics has a strong foundation on the West Coast, the greatest concentration of infrastructure and membership therein has traditionally come from major metropolitan areas in California. The decision to take a chance in Portland raised some eyebrows, but persistence combined with some modest donations paved the way for success. Aschwin and Chana received a generous monetary donation from Cryonics Institute member Alan Mole, a research equipment donation from the Cryonics Institute (later followed by Alcor), and free lab space from Oregon Cryonics owner, Jordan Sparks. In 2008, they incorporated their research company, Advanced Neural Biosciences, Inc (ANB).

ANB’s earliest experiments studied the effects of ischemia on cryopreservation outcome. Though he and Chana both derived a great sense of fulfillment from their work, the first couple of years were tough and demanding. Aschwin recalls how “…we were doing research with little or no compensation on the weekends in addition to our other jobs and contract writing.” For him, that included his work as editor of Cryonics Magazine. After five years however, the winds shifted. They finally received enough support from Alcor and the Life Extension Foundation to sustain their own dedicated research space in Portland. With that upgrade, their experiments became more advanced. They focused on optimizing cryoprotectants for the brain and even reversible whole body biopreservation. 

In 2015 he collaborated with former Alcor President Stephen Bridge on a comprehensive introduction to cryonics and Alcor by compiling the best articles from Cryonics magazine in a handsome book titled “Preserving Minds, Savings Lives”

Aschwin and Chana revealed this new company logo, designed by Avantika Bawa, when they officially moved to their current Portland research space.

In ANB’s eleventh year, Aschwin took another leap of faith, moving to New York City to launch a second ANB branch focused on theoretical and computationally-driven research. The initial reaction of industry friends and colleagues was not unlike the response to his Portland move from years before. Why not the Bay area? Why not LA?

While most viewed an established infrastructure, a vibrant tech community, and a powerful base of cryonicists as attractions, Aschwin was far more intrigued by the challenge of expanding ANB in a place with great untapped potential. Unbeknownst to many, New York was once home to some of the earliest cryonicists many decades ago, and while the state may not have any established cryonics research or storage companies, it is still home to the fifth highest population of Alcor members in the country. “Hopefully, we can do a kind of 360 and make the most exciting things happen here again,” says Aschwin.

Aschwin took this meaningful selfie outside his first New York City apartment in 2019 to mark the beginning of ANB-NYC.

After his official move in early 2019, Aschwin set to work on a number of ANB research projects, starting with the Alcor meta-analysis project with local Alcor member, Michael Benjamin. As Alcor members are aware, the nonprofit creates a publicly available report for every patient case that it handles. The meta-analysis project seeks to consolidate the details of existing and future data into one comprehensive and searchable database. A simple click could then reveal how many cases are unattended deaths, how many cases are straight freezes, how many patients are autopsy cases, and so on and so forth. If trends and correlations between circumstance and outcome could be more easily identified, then they could be used to optimize the methodology of cryopreservation for cases yet to come.

Though the meta-analysis project is still underway, another collaborative project that recently reached completion is the first comprehensive human cryopreservation procedures manual. Co-authored by Aschwin and Charles Platt, this 700-page manual provides the technical background on cryonics procedures necessary to starting a cryonics organization from scratch. In Aschwin’s words, “As a general rule, when people have a technical question about cryonics, it is addressed in that book one way or another.” In a field that lacks a standard textbook, he and other cryonicists view this manual as an important record of institutional knowledge.

In terms of other publications, Aschwin has also been working on the hospital-based Medical Biostasis Protocol. A mostly theoretical document, given that cryonics is not yet considered an elective medical procedure, it describes how a cryopreservation should be done in the best of all circumstances (in a hospital setting). According to Aschwin, many cryonics critics cite ischemic delay or injury as evidence of the failure of cryonics; however, he adds, they often fail to acknowledge that such outcomes are reflective of a medical landscape that neither accepts cryonics nor allows for optimal conditions in which to perform a cryopreservation. Aschwin believes that the Medical Biostasis Protocol will provide a strong counter argument for naysayers, a performance baseline for any cryonics storage company, and perhaps even a useful text in legal proceedings.

In addition to building case report database and standardizing cryonics through the creation of manuals and protocols, ANB-NYC is also focused on journal publications. Their most immediate goal is to publish a trilogy of papers making the case for cryonics, with each paper addressing specific concerns about the field: what happens to the fine structure of the brain after death, what happens on an ultrastructural level you freeze the brain, and what happens to it when you cryoprotect (vitrify) the brain. The first paper, which was already published in the June 2020 edition of Rejuvenation Research, dispels the common belief that the brain rapidly decomposes after someone is pronounced dead. In fact, it demonstrates that it can take many days—if not weeks at low temperatures—before the brain shows significant degradation. The findings were informed by a deep learning algorithm that scanned through various images of the brain post-mortem to distinguish between different instances of ischemia. It is a tool that Aschwin hopes to incorporate in the second paper of the trilogy as well.

It almost goes without saying that Aschwin’s deep knowledge and prowess for technical writing is widely recognized in the field. Unsurprisingly, his cryonics output is not just confined to these “nerdy” topics. He also writes more popular expositions of various aspects of cryonics. One major concern in his writings is the inability of many critics to engage with the specifics of cryonics. In his view, skeptics throw around words like “death” and “damage” in a blasé fashion without specifying how cryopreservation technologies affect the fine structure of the brain. He writes, “If a critic of cryonics claims that cryonics is not technically feasible, insist upon a detailed exposition why the forms of damage associated with today’s technologies cannot be repaired by future medical technologies in principle.” 

Developing Infrastructure in NYC

Outside of ANB, Aschwin is also focused on building an infrastructure to make his city a cryonics destination. An important resource in advancing towards these goals is a formal group of NYC-based Alcor members. He first became acquainted with the group as an out-of-town speaker, but soon became a co-leader after his 2019 move.

The NYC Alcor group has many objectives, first of which is the most basic and historic: socializing. Aschwin explains, “People with outlier ideas like we have – it’s nice to meet in person and feel comfortable talking about the things you care about instead of meeting with cynical skepticism, hostility, or sensationalist questions.” Beyond coordinating meetings, Aschwin has also worked with the group to set up some first response capabilities. Together they created a mutual assistance network through WhatsApp wherein members—after notifying Alcor—can post in the event of a health emergency. Any escalations can reap the benefits of anticipation and a faster response time.

An advocate of pedestrian lifestyles, Aschwin frequently walks to work and events. Here he walks the final stretch of his 100,000 steps Fitbit challenge over the Burnside Bridge in Portland.

While this has certainly been progress, Aschwin has his sights set on something even greater. “I don’t want to leave it at that,” he says. “I think we have the aim of being something a lot more ambitious—to basically do all the procedures in New York itself.” To that end, he has worked with the group to acquire Alcor’s previous first response vehicle and set up both a cryonics first response training and a training course for medical professionals interested in cryonics. The group even organized a sold out cryonics conference in Manhattan in the fall of 2019.

Though the pandemic landscape has limited the group to virtual meetings for the last year, Aschwin anticipates an enthusiastic return to social and training events once conditions allow.

Defining Commitment

In 2022, Aschwin will have two decades of personal and professional commitment to cryonics to his name. In a fringe field that is often subject to harsh mainstream critique, many may ask: how do you stay the course? How do you maintain your resolve? While cryonicists will generally agree on the obvious—the drive to extend life for yourself and your loved ones—Aschwin’s motivations reveal many layers of consideration that reflect a touching humanism and reinforce an abounding curiosity.

In his view, one of the most powerful promises of cryonics is that of second chances. For individuals who suffer from chronic health conditions, severe trauma, or bad luck, or for those who simply regret poor life choices, cryonics is an opportunity to live a more meaningful life. He explains, “It’s like, ‘I want to have a second shot at this, because for 60 years it’s been so many setbacks.’ Or ‘I’m not proud of the person I was. I need more time to do it.’”

Aschwin is also fascinated by the impact of cryonics on the dimensions of experience. The longer a lifespan, the more one can broaden and deepen experiences or interests. “I think there’s almost no limit to how extensive or deep something can be,” says Aschwin. He continues, “Even if you go really deep into something for a long stretch, then you can do something else that is very deep, and something else, and you can go back again to revisit. Just like you replay music.” One dream that Aschwin would fulfill given an extended lifespan is the recreation of the Monroeville shopping mall that formed the main set for his favorite movie, George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978). A project like this would be dismissed within the framework of a typical lifespan, Aschwin explains, “But longevity—real radical life extension—would allow for such projects.”

Aschwin stands outside the Monroeville Mall during a 2017 visit. It is the main set for his favorite movie, Dawn of the Dead (1978).

Perhaps one of the greatest rewards of his commitment to the field, is the prospect of witnessing the first revivals of cryopreserved patients. For him, that experience would be “almost equivalent to magic, but not, of course, in a fake unscientific way.” Indeed, the successful resuscitation of patients would symbolize the apex of his career, and the fruition of many years of dedication.

The Way Forward

Cryonics has come a long way since Aschwin joined the field, but there are still many hurdles to overcome. In his view, the future of cryonics rests even more on internal forces than it does on the more popularly acknowledged external forces. His highest priority right now is streamlining organizational and operational standards. According to Aschwin, cryonics is a relatively small field that attracts a disproportionately high number of visionary leaders. Each shift in leadership brings new ideas and priorities into play, often sacrificing the procedural scrutiny that is characteristic of the medical field. He explains, “I think a lot of people are really not aware that cryonics is prone to this yoyo effect. But when the meta-analysis [project] makes that clear, then people will say, ‘Look now, we have these benchmarks, let us see how we’ve done this year.’” Aschwin hopes that the case database and analyses will ultimately help cryonics enjoy slow but steady progress and growth.

His focus on technical and professional standardization does not exclude consideration of other key areas for the growth of cryonics: namely, membership. For Aschwin, the key to expanding the community does not lie in simply using the talking points that worked for the pioneers of the field. He suggests a strategy that focuses on reaching non-members using pro-cryonics arguments that address their concerns within their own values system. One of Aschwin’s examples include the classic environmentalist concern about the harmful effects of population growth and life extension on the planet. He recommends a response that the knowledge of your existence deep in the future would more than likely encourage rather than discourage more sustainable practices. Aschwin says, “Most people pay lip service to future generations, but when you are part of it yourself, that makes a difference…It’s like the difference in caring for a rental versus something that you own.” Another anti-longevity argument that Aschwin frequently fields is that life is too hard to desire an extension of it. For individuals with these concerns, he focuses on identifying the lack of time as an important culprit, and conversely, the promise of more time as a way to greater ease, healing, and enjoyment of life.

In this vein of thinking, Aschwin draws attention to an article entitled “Beyond Skull and Skin: Concepts of Identity and the Growth of Cryonics.” In this piece, he attributes some of the unfavorable attitudes towards cryonics to the tendency of many cryonics advocates to promote a rather reductionist concept of personal identity and to ignore what most people say matters to them when they think about survival.  He says, “If cryonics has any prospect to appeal to more people, we must present an image of cryonics that emphasizes family, relationships, asset preservation, reintegration, and not just bombard people with technical expositions about brain preservation.”

Aschwin, a keen traveler, in Santiago, Chile in 2015.

In addition to respecting and addressing the concerns and sympathies of non-members, Aschwin also recommends approaching those who are already somewhat open to cryonics: the low-hanging fruit. Cryonics is a bold socio-cultural stance that simply may not hold appeal for everyone. Resultantly, he concludes that the most promising areas for recruitment are where people are analytical and generally optimistic. “That is where I think we can do a very good job,” he says.

Ever living up to the ideal of the “Renaissance Man”, Aschwin has a lot of other non-cryonics related projects in the works. On his fermentation blog he aims to dive deeper into the discussion of wine in philosophy and literature. He is working on an art book about an Italian genre movie.  He launched an art collaboration with minimalist artist Avantika Bawa named “Essential Salts” (readers skilled in the art will notice the Lovecraftian reference). Aschwin also aims to publish more about meta-ethics and social philosophy (he penned an extensive review of contemporary antinatalism a few years ago), and finally, to get his dream of starting a small niche publishing company off the ground. Given the scope and depth of these interests, it is no surprise that he will benefit from the additional time that the success of cryonics will confer.

Aschwin resides in New York City, though he frequently travels internationally for cryonics-related events and initiatives. His personal eclectic website is megapolisomancy.org. He also writes on natural wines and spontaneous fermentation on amforen.com. Most of Aschwin’s cryonics output and initiatives can be found at biostasis.com. He can be contacted through his LinkedIn page.

Protecting cryonics patients

Anyone who has ever reflected on the fragility of human life and the seemingly inevitable rise and fall of complex societies cannot fail to be concerned about the fate of patients in cryopreservation. Cryonics organizations have learned from the early days and abandoned the practice of accepting patients without complete prepayment – a practice that almost invariably guarantees a tragic loss of life when family members or the cryonics organization can no longer afford to care for them. Alcor has given a lot of thought to the financial and legal requirements of keeping patients in cryopreservation but it is understandable that people question the prospect of cryonics patients making it to the time where a suitable treatment of their disease will be available.

This challenge is further exacerbated by the fact that cryonics patients do not have the legal standing that ordinary human beings (or patients) enjoy. If the media revealed blatant incompetence in a local hospital, it would be inconceivable that the existing patients would be abandoned and left to die. In cryonics there is a far greater risk of abandoning both the organization and the patients, despite the safeguards that some cryonics organizations have made to separate the organization from the maintenance of patients. In fact, the most rabid opponents of cryonics have little patience for the idea that abandoning cryonics patients could one day be considered one of the most tragic events in the history of medicine.

The first step to protect cryonics patients is to strengthen your cryonics organization and the legal and logistical structures that have been erected to keep them in cryopreservation. But almost just as important is to give people who have not made cryonics arrangements themselves reasons to protect them. In the case of surviving family members that is usually not a challenge but time may eventually pass the direct descendants of those people by as well. One important practice that can be strengthened is to give these people a face. Cryopreserved persons are not just a homogenous group of anonymous people (unless they chose to be so!) but are our friends, family members, and patients who would like their story to be told.

Fortunately, in the age of the internet this has become a lot easier. Social networking websites like Facebook retain the profiles of deceased and cryopreserved persons unless the family requests removal. Cryonics organizations themselves can offer opportunities for members, friends, and family members to maintain their presence online. Last but not least, there are a lot more people who support cryonics and protection of cryonics patients than people who have made actual cryonics arrangements and these people can be involved and organized as well. As evidenced on a daily basis, you do not have to benefit yourself to support a cause. Cryonics is not just an individual seeking an experimental procedure but part of a broader social movement that hopes to update the way we think about death. In fact, Alcor now offers Associate Membership for those who want to support our mission but do not desire to make arrangement themselves, or not yet.

It is easier to dispose of people who are nameless, who have been removed from the social fabric of life, and who are only perceived as anonymous vehicles of an “erroneous” idea. We cannot decide that resuscitation will work but we can decide to keep their memories alive and personalities present to help them reach that opportunity.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, April, 2013

A pathography of aging

In her book Reconstructing Illness: Studies in Pathography, Anne Hunsaker Hawkins proposes that the modern pathography is replacing the accounts of religious conversion that were popular in earlier eras. What is a pathography? One definition that I found is “the study of the life of an individual or the history of a community with regard to the influence of a particular disease or psychological disorder.” Reconstructing Illness is an extensive study of this genre, how individuals deal with a diagnosis of a serious illness, and its broader role for medical caregivers and society.

One thing that I was wondering about while reading this is whether there are any pathographies of aging. There is no shortage of pathographies about cancer, HIV/AIDS, dementia (etc.) but I was curious if anyone had ever considered writing about the individual experience of the aging process and its inevitable outcome, death. Hawkins’s book has a very useful list of pathographies organized by disease. Perusing this list provides one with a good understanding of which kind of pathographies are popular but I failed to find even one title that explicitly concerns aging. Similarly, a search on “pathography of aging” on the internet did not produce any results. Sure, there are many books about facing death (or dealing with the death of a loved one) or the challenges and opportunities associated with growing older. But I am not aware of any account that treats the aging process in a format that is remotely similar to the descriptions of disease we meet in the pathography, let alone one where the aging process is described as a battle to be undertaken.

This should not be surprising. For most of us, disease is an abnormal condition that is defined relative to the normal aging process. Although a lot of disease is closely associated with aging, most people hesitate to call the aging process itself a disease because it would render the conventional use of the word disease problematic. There are diseases that are characterized by rapid aging in children, such as progeria, but we do call such conditions a disease because the pace at which these children grow older is not normal. In fact, pathographies of accelerated aging diseases might be the closest thing that approaches a pathography of aging.

Regardless of one’s perspective on the causes or mechanisms of aging, if we look at aging at the molecular level we will find a progressive accumulation of damage as we grow older. Whatever we mean by “aging gracefully,” this accumulation of damage stops for no one and ultimately results in death. Because aging is normal, and no one is being diagnosed with aging, there is not a clear, identifiable, moment in life that triggers the experience and events that are documented in the typical pathography. In fact, the universal nature of human aging and our propensity to react more strongly to unexpected events strongly biases humans to respond to specific diseases and not the aging process itself. What we seem to care about is abnormal deterioration and death, not the deterioration and death that is universal and foreseeable.

Not all people react in such a passive manner to aging. Not anymore. To some of us the relatively slow pace of physiological deterioration is a source of anxiety and the fact that it is a universal phenomenon does not provide solace, especially when medical technologies to halt or reverse aging can be envisioned and pursued. What sets humans apart from other animals is that we can recognize a universal condition and not be satisfied with it. Aging is an undeniable source of suffering and loss of dignity, sets the stage for separation and death, and favors short-term thinking over long-term responsibilities. It will only be a matter of time before the first pathographies of those who succumbed to the process while consciously fighting it will reach us.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine 2012-6

Steve Jobs’ morbid glorification of death

According to Steve Jobs, death is such a great benefit to mankind that it would have to be invented if it did not exist:

No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

As the baby boomers age, we can be sure to hear a lot more of what the cryonicist Mark Plus has called, ‘Humanist Death Apologetics.’ Never mind the horror, the destruction, and the suffering that comes with death, because, “it clears out the old to make way for the new.” Fortunately, a more enlightening perspective on death has been offered by the philosopher Herbert Marcuse:

It is remarkable to what extent the notion of death as not only biological but ontological necessity has permeated Western philosophy–remarkable because the overcoming and mastery of mere natural necessity has otherwise been regarded as the distinction of human existence and endeavor…

A brute biological fact, permeated with pain, horror, and despair, is transformed into an existential privilege. From the beginning to the end, philosophy has exhibited this strange masochism–and sadism, for the exaltation of one’s own death involved the exaltation of the death of others…

Modern market economies demonstrate on a daily basis that death is not necessary for the old to make way for the new. Neither do people have to be faced with death to have a meaningful life. Steve Jobs invites us not to be “trapped by dogma” but, unfortunately, he embraced the biggest dogma of all; the idea that human mortality is a good thing and gives meaning to life.

The reader is encouraged to explore some alternative views about death and aging:

Robert Freitas Jr – Death is an Outrage

Ben Best – Why Life Extension?

Aubrey de Grey – Old People Are People Too: Why It Is Our Duty to Fight Aging to the Death

Is a life worth starting? Some personal views

For life—the life of any sentient creature—to be worth living, there must, as Robert Ettinger has often said, be a preponderance of satisfaction over dissatisfaction. If this overall slant toward good rather than bad is maintained, it seems reasonable that one stands to gain by continued existence. I am not sure what fraction of the human (or other sentient) population achieves this positive balance and will not speculate except to note that by appearances there are many humans who do achieve it, along with other creatures, pets in particular, so at least for them, life is worth continuing. To say that life once started is worth continuing does not, as David Benatar points out, imply that it was worth starting in the first place, or should have been started. But I think that, barring certain problematic cases,  it is fair to conclude that a human life at least is worth starting, if there are responsible prospective parents who would like to start it. Here I think it is reasonable to expect that the resulting person will feel that life is overall a benefit, and additionally, that others, the parents in particular, will stand to gain from the new life that has entered their lives. I don’t accept Benatar’s arguments that by and large life is pretty terrible and people delude themselves who think otherwise.

Also I reject his “asymmetry” argument, that it is “good” if a life that would be bad does not come into existence, but merely “not good” rather than “bad” if a life that would be good does not come into existence. (It is easy to see how this asymmetry supports the argument that life should not start in the first place and Benatar refers to it often.) Benatar’s main rationale for this argument seems to be that, while we would consider someone morally at fault for deliberately bringing into existence someone who would be miserable and just want to die, we would not similarly hold someone culpable who elected not to bring into existence someone who would be happy and want to remain alive. This I think should not be the only consideration, for it is based only on the idea of when we should regard an action as bad, and not at all on when we should regard it as good and commendable. (Why this particular asymmetry?) Instead, weighing both sides of the issue as I think is justified, I would opt for the fully symmetric position that it is “not bad” if a life that would be bad does not come into existence, and similarly, “not good” if a life that would be good does not come into existence. On the other hand, I question and doubt whether a life that comes into existence would be bad in the long run, given the prospect of immortality, which I think is a possibility through science (see below).

Life does, of course, have its problems, death in particular, that might call in question whether it is worthwhile after all and thus, whether the life of any sentient being is worth starting.  For this one problem there are a number of possible answers that will be satisfying to different people, and thus can serve as ground for a feeling that life is worthwhile and was worth starting despite one’s own mortality. There is the famous Epicurean argument that death is not really a problem because before it happens it causes no harm, and after it happens there is no victim. There is the Buddhist argument that, more fundamentally, the self is an illusion anyway, so that in fact no persons exist and death never really happens, though bliss can still occur through states of enlightenment which thus are worth seeking. There are various religious traditions that promise an afterlife and a happy immortality for those who prove worthy, or, in some versions, all who are born. Then there is scientific immortalism, which holds that at least substantial life extension through science and technology is possible, so that, irrespective of any supernatural or mystical process, persons of today have more to hope for as they get older than the usual biological ruin and oblivion.

The scientific possibilities for overcoming death come in different varieties that each have their own advocates. Some of these hopefuls, particularly younger ones, focus on the prospect that aging and now-terminal illnesses will be remedied in their natural lifetime, so that they will escape clinical death and need not specially prepare for it. Others who are not so confident have made arrangements for cryopreservation after clinical death, in hopes of resuscitation and cure of aging and diseases when the requisite technology becomes available. Still others hold out for advances on a more cosmic scale that will eventually make it possible to raise the dead comprehensively. (Some possible scenarios for this using multiple, parallel time streams rather than revisiting or recovering a hidden past are considered in my book, Forever for All, and the article at http://www.universalimmortalism.org/resurrection.htm.) The three possibilities are not mutually exclusive, so that, for example, persons who have chosen cryonics may also place varying hopes in the other two. In fact, my personal viewpoint as a scientific immortalist grants some validity to all three possibilities, but I think it is imperative now to be engaged in cryonics, which is almost unique and the clear favorite as a proactive, interventive strategy against death. Passive acceptance of the dying process simply does not feel right, whatever the prospects for near-term medical progress, or on the other hand, resurrections in a more distant, technologically superior future. It goes without saying that I also think future life will be worth living—it should be possible to make it so, if future developments can provide the opportunity.

Review of 'Better Never to Have Been'

Review of  Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence by David Benatar. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006

“Would that I had never been born” is a lament sometimes voiced in the depth of misfortune, a cry of despair we hope may be soon be stilled by something more positive, when the bad things, whatever they are, have run their course. Enter David Benatar, a respected professor of philosophy at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. In the volume here reviewed he offers the extreme view that in fact it would have been better, all things considered, if not one of us had ever existed, or even any sentient life whatever. Life is that bad, he says, and he bases this judgment on certain logical principles along with empirical evidence of the allegedly poor quality of life that most of us are forced to endure in this world. Among the consequences is that no more humans should be born, and the human race (and other sentient creatures) ought to become extinct.

Antinatalism—the viewpoint that birth of sentient life, human in particular, is bad and ought not to happen, is a recurring one theme history, a noted proponent being the philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860). It can also be founded, as Benatar proposes, on certain assumptions considered reasonable by many people today, particularly those of a scientific, materialist outlook who are not inclined to over-optimism. Among the assumptions are that anyone’s life, overall, is an exercise in futility. Death—eternal oblivion—is the eventual fate of each person, and will happen through the normal aging process if not sooner. (Thus there is no serious prospect of a religious afterlife. Though not stated in the book, it is clear also that radical life extension, whether by imminent medical breakthroughs or through an initial “holding action” such as cryonics, is discounted.) Moreover, the human species will eventually die out, as is the fate of all biological species, so the extinction advocated by Benatar must happen in the end regardless. Another important presumption, in this case justified at length, is that in most people’s lives sorrow and misery predominate heavily over joy and happiness, so that their lives are not worth living.

Benatar denies that any good is done in any act of procreation, even if the life of the offspring is predominantly happy and if that person expresses gratitude for having been given life. The very best that could happen, Benatar says, is that no harm would be done, but only if the offspring never experienced anything bad in his/her entire life, an unlikely prospect. Even then, no good would be done or moral credit accrue in bringing that person into existence—good is done only in not bringing into existence any person who, in the course of his/her life, would at least experience some amount of bad. Harm is done, and in any likely circumstance, unacceptably serious harm, in bringing anyone into the world.

Such arguments seem unpersuasive for any of a number of reasons, and many will also find them offensive. In the matter of family planning, the prospective parents will be motivated by thoughts such as a child would bring them joy even as they in turn strive to provide the child with a happy home life and a good upbringing. Overall the child can be expected to be grateful both during the period of childhood and later in life, something that seems borne out in practice, even if hardship also occurs. As tough as the going may be at times, most people do not feel their parents were morally at fault for having had them, and are not ready to end their lives over any perceived shortcomings in their present situation or future prospects.

Benatar devotes a chapter of his book to arguing, nonetheless, that actually life as most people live it is very bad, suggesting that those who disagree don’t realize just how bad it is and are suffering some kind of delusion. But this begs the question of who is to judge. Turning the argument around, is it not possible that Benatar himself is suffering from depression that clouds his judgment? Natural selection of course favors a brighter outlook: Benatar’s thinking is not conducive to reproductive fitness. Beyond that, it is hard to see that his point of view is more “logical” than a more life-affirming one, both being based, when the rhetoric has run its course, on basic gut feelings about what is pleasant or worthwhile or isn’t, in what relative amounts, and how the mix that occurs in life should be assessed.

Despite life’s alleged wretchedness, Benatar himself is not ready to commit suicide but insists that life once started, his in particular, may be worth continuing even if it should not have been started in the first place. (Sometimes this sort of argument is reasonable. A woman should not be raped, but a child born as a consequence should not be killed.) More generally Benatar’s stance is passive rather than proactive: having children should be legal, even though no one should have them, much as we might favor allowing smoking even though it is medically and socially inadvisable.

Benatar is aware that, despite these limited concessions, his stance will be unpopular and devotes much attention to defending it against various possible lines of attack. Still it is doubtful his arguments will persuade many who are not already strongly leaning his way. The rest of us, surely a robust majority of humanity, will find our varied reasons to demur. Religious people will argue that life is a gift of God, children are a blessing, hardships and sorrows happen but can and will be remedied, all will be well in the end. Secular humanists and others of scientific bent may believe with Benatar that their lives must permanently end, and even accept the eventual extinction of all earthly life, yet still remain optimistic, one of their arguments being that “since life is finite, even sometimes very short, each moment of life, handled rightly, is precious.” Scientific immortalists who are hoping for radical life extension will also discount Benatar’s pessimism, though possibly in an odd way supporting the end of the present human species—in this case, however, by replacing it with something better that includes themselves in an enhanced form.

Meanwhile, an antinatalist movement has grown up that has simple, passive annihilation of the human species as its goal, endeavoring as far as possible to discourage everyone from having more children. In addition to a claimed humanitarian purpose—eliminating suffering as Benatar proposes—there is an environmental motive some endorse, arguing that the earth’s biosphere would greatly benefit if there were no humans to befoul it, as they generally do. Potentially a conflict could erupt between antinatalists and immortalists, who hope to be in the world for a very long time. My feeling, though, is that the antinatalist movement is both unpopular and self-limiting—on both counts, natural selection so wills it. Immortalists in any case are not so much trying to populate the planet as trying to endure as individuals. So probably we should not worry too much. Instead let’s talk to these people. Some of them (Benatar included?) may be willing to rethink their position.

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About the author: David Benatar is professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town in Cape Town, South Africa. Though best known for his advocacy of antinatalism in his book Better Never to Have Been, he is also the author of a series of widely cited papers in medical ethics. His work has appeared in such journals as Ethics, Journal of Applied Philosophy, Social Theory and Practice, American Philosophical Quarterly, QJM: An International Journal of Medicine, Journal of Law and Religion and the British Medical Journal.

Non-existence is hard to do

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.

Stuart Gordon's Re-Animator and the science of cryonics

This past weekend Motel X, the Lisbon (Portugal) International Horror festival, had its third anniversary. It is one of the smaller international horror festivals around, but this year they managed to have both Stuart Gordon, director of several Lovecraft adaptions, and John Landis, director of the horror classic An American Werewolf in London, as special guests to provide introductions to their movies and give guest lectures.

Stuart Gordon is perhaps best known for his adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s Re-Animator, also subject of  an earlier post titled H.P. Lovecraft and the science of resuscitation. Although it is one of his earliest movies, the festival did show Re-animator as part of a limited retrospective on Gordon’s work.

Re-animator is about Herbert West’s search to restore life to the dead. When Gordon introduced his movie, he mentioned that the movie is based on a true story, referring to actual research that is being carried out to resuscitate the dead. To a person familiar with cryonics, or even mainstream medical procedures such as hypothermic circulatory arrest, this is not such a strange concept but, surprisingly, the audience started laughing. Even when Gordon insisted on the subject, the audience continued with laughter.

This does show that even people that watch horror and science fiction movies, and the often forward-looking concepts portrayed in them, have a hard time imagining that these ideas are legitimate areas of scientific investigation and that resuscitation of “dead” people  may become reality in the future. This response highlights the struggle cryonicists face to make cryonics more accepted in society.

Two peer-reviewed articles relevant to cryonics:

Yuri Pichugin, Gregory M. Fahy, Robert Morin:  Cryopreservation of rat hippocampal slices by vitrification (PDF)

Benjamin P. Best: Scientific Justification for Cryonics Procedures (PDF)

See also Alcor’s Frequently Asked Questions for Scientists.

Less wrong

Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality:

Over the last decades, new experiments have changed science’s picture of the way we think – the ways we succeed or fail to obtain the truth, or fulfill our goals.  The heuristics and biases program, in cognitive psychology, has exposed dozens of major flaws in human reasoning.  Social psychology shows how we succeed or fail in groups.  Probability theory and decision theory have given us new mathematical foundations for understanding minds.

Less Wrong is devoted to refining the art of human rationality – the art of thinking.  The new math and science deserves to be applied to our daily lives, and heard in our public voices.

A beta-test version of the site is online here.

Patrick Millard's cryonics photography

Patrick Millard is a Michigan based artist who works with different media including photography, painting, mixed media, sound, and installation. He currently works as an adjunct professor of photography at Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College and is a photography instructor at the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts in Grand Rapids.

One of his current photography projects involves cryonics and he hopes to visit other cryonics organizations to continue the project:

Cryonics first began in the late 1960’s as a way to preserve the legally dead with the hope that they will one day be brought back through new technologies with revived youth and health.  Patients are cooled to a very low temperature [below -312ºF, -196ºC] with liquid nitrogen and cryopreserved at that temperature in what are called cryostats. It is inside these Hard Shell, Soft Vacuum [HSSV], or Steel Dewar in the case of Alcor, cryostats that the patient will wait out the time necessary to create life extending and reparative medical advances which will allow the rejuvenation and life extension that is desired.  The hope is that one day future medicine will not only cure disease, aging, and death for those still living,but also provide the opportunity for those who have been in cryostasis to be brought back to a life and body that has been returned to youth and happiness.

Visit the artist’s website.