Cryonics and fear of the future

To people who have made cryonics arrangements the biggest mystery remains why more people have not made the same decision. The most obvious answer remains that cryonics has not been proven to “work” yet. People who give this answer usually mean that proof of human suspended animation would lead to an increase in the popularity of cryonics. But even if suspended animation would be technically feasible there would still be the remaining obstacles of finding a cure for whatever disease the patient died of, and, for most people, the need for rejuvenation. In the absence of such hurdles there would be no need for cryonics. Cryonics per definition involves decision making under uncertainty.

In “Why is Cryonics so Unpopular?” it is proposed that the lack of technical feasibility cannot explain the current lack of interest in cryonics. Alcor is now using the least toxic vitrification agent identified in the peer reviewed cryobiology literature but this has not translated into a spike of support for cryonics. One could object that it is still not good enough. The problem with this argument is that this does not answer why more people do not make cryonics arrangements when technologies improve. There are people who made arrangements when cryonics organizations used protocols that produced substantial ice damage. So if one believes technical feasibility determines cryonics acceptance, cryonics should grow faster when its technologies improve.

Perhaps the biggest problem with the technical feasibility argument is that it seems rather strange in a world where millions of people accept all kinds of nonsense for which there is no credible empirical evidence at all. The lack-of- technical-feasibility-argument is also hard to reconcile with the fact that cryonics attracts a disproportional number of Ph.D.’s and people with backgrounds in the natural sciences. There is a lot one can say about the demographics of cryonics, but not that cryonicists are ignorant people who can be easily misled. At the 2010 Teens and Twenties cryonics meeting in Florida most of the attendees considered themselves “skeptics.”

That the technical feasibility argument is not persuasive does not mean that progress in research and improved procedures are not important. Progress in cryonics technologies will improve the chance of resuscitation of those who have chosen to make arrangements. Such progress can also be used to seek better legal protection for cryonics patients.

There have been other explanations for the persistent lack of interest in cryonics. One explanation would have it that cryonics as a concept is credible but that the quality of procedures at the existing cryonics organizations is poor. The problem with this argument is that it is simply not consistent with the empirical evidence. People who are reluctant to make arrangements rarely mention it and there is no evidence that people who research cryonics organizations study the difference between published protocols and practice in great detail. As a matter of fact, people who dismiss cryonics have little knowledge of the protocols and procedures that cryonics organizations claim to offer. Furthermore, if this argument would be correct one would expect it to resonate with people who have made cryonics arrangements as well. Alcor collects data about people who terminate their cryonics arrangements and the data do not support this argument at all.

Last, but not least, if cryonics would be credible in concept but not in practice one would expect people to join their cryonics organization of choice and attempt to improve things. Why would one choose the certainty of death over making an effort to further increase the chance that cryonics will succeed? One objection could be that cryonics as practiced today has a zero chance of working and there is no difference between signing up and not signing up. But this argument is not credible because such a claim can only made if (a) one has direct empirical knowledge of the ultrastructure of the brain that results from current procedures and (b) one has detailed knowledge of the capabilities and limits of future cell repair technologies.  The most plausible reason why critics often categorically deny the chance of resuscitation in the future is because it releases them from moral blame if their criticism of cryonics organizations would result in existing patients being removed from liquid nitrogen storage to be burned or buried.

Would cryonics be more popular if it were bundled with another tangible good or religion? Perhaps, but this fails to explain why there are a lot of unorthodox ideas with no such bundling that are a lot more popular. Bundling cryonics with a religion will alienate everyone who has chosen a different religion. As an experimental medical procedure cryonics should not divide, but unite, people. That is not to say that cryonics does not have distinct demographics that can be studied in an effort to grow cryonics.

One reason why advocates of cryonics are not successful in identifying the cause of its limited popularity may be that they are inclined to exempt cryonics as such from its explanations. The assumption is that cryonics as such is a good idea but technical or practical problems prevent its widespread acceptance. But there is a major problem at the heart of cryonics itself. Many people have little difficulty recognizing that cryonics requires a person to choose to be resuscitated in a far and unknown future.  In a sense, this property of cryonics is more about being “reborn” than about “extending life.” Humans have evolved to want to survive but this instinct does not appear to assert itself when faced with the choice to go into biostatis in anticipation of resuscitation in a far and unknown future.

Some cryonics advocates have argued that human history is full of examples of people who lose everything they have but still prefer survival in foreign and unknown places. But in all these examples the person still persists as an aware person and can respond to his environment. What makes cryonics different from these situations is that a cryonics patient in biostatis is not aware and his fate is completely dependent on the efforts of others. If friends and family have made cryonics arrangements this can provide some degree of fear reduction (as a matter of fact, for many who have made cryonics arrangements it does provide relief), but the future will be mostly shaped by people who are not friends and family.

As a matter of fact, these kinds of fear are often expressed when people discuss cryonics or futurism. And it is often among the remaining concerns if people are presented with evidence that the technical feasibility of cryonics is not as bad as they imagined. So in a sense cryonics could benefit from being “bundled” with something.  And the most important bundle is not “technical feasibility” or “procedures performed by medical professionals” but “TRUST”.  People who make cryonics arrangements should have a feeling that their fate is in the hands of people who are strongly committed to their future. This is easier said than done because it is not reasonable to expect that cryonics organizations will have a strong influence on the shaping of the environment that the patient will be resuscitated in.

The idea that cryonics is not popular because of its intrinsic anxiety-producing properties has testable hypotheses that can be worked out. It also allows for new perspectives on promoting cryonics.