Beyond Skull and Skin: Concepts of Identity and the Growth of Cryonics
“Where does the mind stop and the rest of the world begin?” So begins a 1998 paper by Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers called “The Extended Mind.” In this much discussed article they defend the position that cognition, or the mind, does extend beyond the skull and can include objects or operations performed outside of the body, such as the use of calculators or notebooks. There are a lot of complicated and intricate issues involved here but I want to draw attention to the following passage at the end of their paper:
What, finally, of the self? Does the extended mind imply an extended self? It seems so. Most of us already accept that the self outstrips the boundaries of consciousness; my dispositional beliefs, for example, constitute in some deep sense part of who I am. If so, then these boundaries may also fall beyond the skin. The information in Otto’s notebook, for example, [Otto has Alzheimer’s disease] is a central part of his identity as a cognitive agent. What this comes to is that Otto himself is best regarded as an extended system, a coupling of biological organism and external resources. To consistently resist this conclusion, we would have to shrink the self into a mere bundle occurrent states, severely threatening its deep psychological continuity. Far better to take the broader view, and see agents themselves as spread into this world.
If we consider the idea that the self extends beyond the skull and skin, how does this affect our understanding of identity? Clearly, the self and identity are closely related and I suspect that many people would agree that a rich understanding of identity is not exhausted by considering a person’s brain and body. In this article it is not my intention to wade too deeply into semantic issues, or attempt to resolve philosophical debates, but to argue the point that the public perception of cryonics would benefit from embracing a richer concept of identity that includes a person’s social environment, life achievements, possessions, and other assets.
Reductionism in Cryonics
One might argue that cryonics is itself a form of reductionism because it approaches the brain solely as a biochemical entity. This can be admitted, but in this sense it is no more reductionist than the premise of mainstream medicine and neuroscience. In fact, in a properly conceptualized vision of cryonics one can remain agnostic about debates concerning “materialism” or “the soul.” What matters in cryonics (and in medicine in general) is whether approaching the brain from a biological perspective can produce meaningful treatments for medical conditions. I think it is rather obvious that the answer to this question is “yes.”
There is another sort of reductionism associated with cryonics that is more controversial, or perhaps I should say, less appealing to many people. The idea is that preservation of the body is identical to the preservation of a person’s identity. If we can cryopreserve the person’s body in a manner that permits future resuscitation of the person, then his identity has been preserved. In cryonics this idea has often been the starting point for further reductionism. The most notable example is the idea of neuropreservation in which only the brain (usually protected by the head) is deemed to be necessary for the preservation of identity. Neuropreservation raises a lot of complex issues which I will not address here and have covered in another publication.
The most important point I want to make here is that our concept of the self or personal identity is not exhausted by our brains and that our existing bodies mean something to us, even if faced with the argument that an “identical” or “improved” body can be made for our cryopreserved brain in the future.
This kind of reductionism does not stop here. I have even seen arguments that what “really matters” is preserving the hippocampus, presumably being the seat of our memories. For most people, however, our life history (which is closely associated with our identity) cannot be reduced to memories and cognitive operations. The brain is about a lot of other things, too.
Reductionism can also express itself through a position that only “structural” preservation matters, usually confined to the “structural” preservation of the brain. If this argument is made in defense of the cryopreservation of non-ideal cases, under the assumption that as long as the original structure can be inferred from the damaged structure, it is a commendable position. However, how much brain structure must be preserved to prevent information-theoretic death is not something that can be known with certainty and the most conservative approach is to aim for making our procedures reversible by contemporary medical criteria. We do not yet have a good enough understanding of the neuroanatomical basis of personhood to make such a sharp departure from mainstream medical validation.
Cryonicists who believe in “substrate independent minds” (i.e. mind uploading) would even argue that repair and restoration of the original structure is not necessary and perhaps even inefficient. We can “just” do a molecular scan of the (damaged) structure of the cryopreserved brain, reconstruct the original structure “in silico,” and revive the person in a computer. In this vision, identity is not just reduced to brain but to information about the brain.
We now have identified various concepts of identity. At one extreme we have a very rich concept that not only includes a person’s brain and body but also his social environment, assets, and life achievements. At the other end of the spectrum is the idea that a person’s identity can be captured by a scan of their brain ( and perhaps even just the hippocampus). In the remainder of this article I will defend the position that if we want cryonics to appeal to a wider audience we should embrace a much richer concept of identity.
The Failure of the Cryonics Movement
Since the 1980s cryonics organizations have not failed in keeping their patients in cryopreservation. In that sense, cryonics has made impressive progress compared to the days when patients where often moved from one location to another because of insecure funding, sometimes culminating in having to let them thaw. Where the cryonics movement has not been particularly successful is in persuading the general public, or at least a substantial number of people, to make cryonics arrangements. This lack of enthusiasm for cryonics has been discussed intensely in the cryonics community and several reasons have been put forward: scientific credibility, affordability, transparency of cryonics organizations, ignorance, irrationality, religion, a pro-mortalist culture, or fears of the future. In my personal experience, the two major reasons for not choosing cryonics are a lack of confidence in its scientific feasibility, and a fear of future alienation.
Let me be clear that I think it is extremely important to demonstrate the scientific feasibility of cryonics. Even if it doesn’t make cryonics a whole lot more popular, improving our procedures and developing credible resuscitation technologies, is of great importance to the people who have chosen cryonics. I do not think, however, that demonstrating the scientific feasibility of cryonics (i.e. human suspended animation) will produce a substantial attitude change towards cryonics.
First of all, I think it can be quite persuasively argued that the scientific case for cryonics is already quite strong. Ideally, we can cool down the patient to 0°C without compromising viability. The newer generation of vitrification agents can eliminate ice formation in the brain and preserve its fine ultrastructure. The ongoing trends towards miniaturization in manufacturing (such as 3D printing) and biology eventually will give rise to molecular repair technologies that can reverse aging and repair any damage associated with today’s cryonics procedures. One would believe that these developments are at least plausible to hundreds of thousands of people, if not millions. Instead, the number of people who have made cryonics arrangements does not exceed 2,000 (as of writing).
There is another way of looking at this. If insufficient scientific credibility is the reason for the lack of enthusiasm for cryonics how can we explain that millions of people spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on unproven cures when diagnosed with a terminal condition? How can we
explain the much greater popularity of astrology and all kinds of “esoteric” healing? A stunning number of people in the United States believe in the existence of ghosts (according to one poll, 45%!). Are we really supposed to think that the scientific arguments favoring the claims of astrology or the existence of ghosts are stronger than those favoring cryonics? The argument that scientific credibility is holding back cryonics cannot withstand close scrutiny and fails to take into account what moves most people to endorse an idea.
For example, the famous science fiction writer and science popularizer, Arthur C. Clarke, was no stranger to cryonics. He even assisted Alcor during its legal battles in the 1980s. As he states in a supportive letter, “Although no one can quantify the probability of cryonics working, I estimate it is at least 90%—and certainly nobody can say it is zero.” For a long time, Alcor’s Cryonics magazine had one subscriber in Sri Lanka, presumably Clarke who lived there. But even Clark had no personal interest in making arrangements. (He died in 2008, and was buried.) Clark is no exceptional case. There are a lot of people who believe cryonics is plausible. What concerns them is not that cryonics may not work but that it will work, thrusting them into a distant, unknown future with obsolete skills and no money, friends or family.
Most people do not associate cryonics with continuing their lives but with losing everything they care for as the price of admittance to some dystopian neverland—not a very appealing prospect. I do not know if we can completely neutralize those fears, or even make cryonics at all appealing to the great majority. But I do think some progress can be made if we embrace a richer concept of identity and let it shape our communication about cryonics and the services we offer.
Preserving the Extended Self
I will refer to this richer concept of identity as the “extended self.” It does not just refer to the brain or body of the patient but also to his friends and family, his career and achievements in life, his assets and possessions. The concept of an “extended self ” is not just a theoretical construct but has already been used to great benefit in the study of marketing and consumer behavior. If the aim of a cryonics organization is to preserve the extended self, what changes would need to be made? In the most general sense, it would require that we listen carefully to people about what makes them uncomfortable about being cryopreserved. We do not need to start from scratch here. We know what the predominant concerns are. I think that the common denominator that runs through most concerns is that people want their post-revival life to be a continuation of their existing life. There is one notable exception and that is people would want to be cured of the medical condition that caused them to be cryopreserved. In most cases this will require not just curing this disease but also reversing aging. It is important, however, to make it clear that these post-resuscitation decisions can and should be made by the person in question. This is why it is important to present a wide variety of visions of the future that will appeal to a wide range of people.
One unappreciated point about cryonics is that the delay between pronouncement of legal death and resuscitation only exists for people other than the patient. From the subjective experience of the patient resuscitation will be instantaneous. So I suspect that many of us would like a home to return to and continue our life. Unless we live in a post-scarcity economy where money has lost its utility it would also be helpful if we can continue to afford living in our homes and make purchases. Then there are also our personal belongings. If we are able to return to our homes a lot of those should be available once again as well. In short, “taking it with you” is not just a matter of setting up a personal trust but should extend to a person’s money, property, and possessions.
Of course, we cannot expect society to remain static when we are in cryopreservation and the organizations or companies entrusted with these responsibilities will need to be authorized to adapt to these changes. Does a house need to be renovated? What kind of upgrades need to be installed to keep up with technological changes in residences? Should one’s money (or a portion thereof) be exchanged to new digital currencies? Which personal belongings need to be replaced with newer items and which should be retained in their original state for personal or sentimental reasons? We cannot consult the patient in cryostasis and will need to be guided by common sense, written and verbal instructions, and practical considerations. I suspect, however, that most people would agree that an effort to maintain and upgrade our assets and possessions is much preferred to not having any at all.
When it comes to our social connections things are both easier and more difficult. Unlike managing a residence or personal belongings we would not have to make decisions about what to keep and not to keep. We would like to be reunited with our loved ones, family, and friends. Would it not be a lot easier to adapt to a new world if the people who were closest to you before you got seriously ill will be there, too? The biggest challenge here is to present a vision of cryonics where such a scenario is the logical and moral choice. Where making cryonics arrangements is the expression of social connectedness and family values, instead of being perceived as going it alone. This will not be a trivial task but I do not think we can claim, today, that we have put a lot of effort into this. I also suspect that cryonics organizations that make an effort to keep people who have been cryopreserved visible and part of our memories will have an easier time to convey the social nature of cryonics.
Will my skills, qualifications, degrees, and career achievements be completely irrelevant in the future? That is a frequently expressed and justified concern about cryonics. I have decided to treat this topic in this section about reintegration because I think it would not be plausible to claim that a cryonics organization (or associated organization) can successfully claim to resolve this completely.
The first point I want to make is that for many people who are revived in the future returning to their prior job may not be the most urgent matter provided their assets have been well preserved. In fact, even assuming a moderate growth rate, a patient in cryopreservation has a reasonable chance to come out rather well because no withdrawals are made for daily living expenses (aside from a modest asset management fee). Considering the fact that most people are cryopreserved at an old age, many of us will have accumulated some assets that can be preserved and invested during cryostasis.
Not everyone will be completely satisfied with this answer, or optimistic about their financial status in the future, but I think it is not realistic either to ignore this point. As far as the question
of obsolete skills is concerned, I suspect we will see a lot of variability here. People with skill sets that are known to change in the future (for example, maintenance of landline telephones) may be faced with greater challenges than people who work in “timeless” occupations such as artists
who use traditional means of expression (painting) or wine makers. It will be fair to say, however, that the vast majority of people who have been cryopreserved for a long time (more than 100 years) will need to adapt to changes in occupations.
If a person comes out of cryostasis moderately secure, I do not think this constitutes a formidable challenge. The prediction that technologies will accelerate in the future does not necessarily mean that it will become harder to adapt. Even for people who are not cryopreserved during this period a greater pace of technological change will produce a corresponding demand for means to adapt to these changes. I suspect that a lot of these changes can be broken down into several distinct components and some of them can be addressed when the person is in cryostasis. For example, if society changes from email to a different kind of online communication we would expect that a cryonics organization (or whoever administers and maintains the patient’s communications) would make sure that the patient will be able to access his correspondence in a contemporary format. One can think of things that can be done during a person’s absence that will allow her to adapt more quickly and successfully. Reintegration does not start after resuscitation but should be an ongoing concern when the patient is cryopreserved.
The aim of a credible cryonics organization should not only be to cryopreserve the patient but to assist in re-integration into society, too. It stands to reason that when a cryonics organization is reasonably confident that resuscitation is imminent, increasing thoughts will be given to the reintegration of their patients. Not all cryonics organizations may have such a strong emphasis (or set aside money for this), though, but confidence in an organization’s motivation and ability to do so could become an important criterion in choosing cryonics organizations. It is also likely that future charitable and for-profit organizations will focus their attention on reintegration of cryonics patients.
In closing, there is another aspect of reintegration that needs to be pointed out. People often tend to think of a revived cryonics patient as an “intruder” in a new society. Is that a reasonable assumption? Why not consider the idea that such people will be approached with a mix of curiosity and admiration? Why assume that revived cryonics patients only have things to learn and nothing to offer? Occasionally, advocates of cryonics are accused of being too “utopian” but it cannot be denied that a lot of skeptics have distinct dystopian views of the future. Which brings me to my last point. Cryonics organizations and their members should make an effort to present realistic but desirable visions of the future. The emphasis here is on visions. Instead of imagining the future as something scary, or at least as something presenting a series of challenges, it would be nice to be offered a panoply of good reasons to want to live longer.
Cryonics, no doubt, will always be associated with cryopreservation of the body or brain. That is the core activity of a cryonics organization. But if we want more people to make cryonics arrangements, we need to embrace a much richer concept of identity that gives people the impression that our ultimate goal is to ensure that their lives will be continued after resuscitation
instead of being dumped in a foreign and incomprehensible world. I am not arguing that cryonics organizations should feel exclusively responsible for this but I do think we can do a lot better than we are doing today and hope that more people will be motivated to further strengthening their cryonics organizations along those lines.