Cryonics as a measure of rationality?
Most cryonics advocates are often frustrated by the amount irrationality, ignorance, and hostility when other people encounter the idea of human cryopreservation. It should not be surprising then that some of us have simply concluded that most people “just don’t get it.” Which raises an important question. Is making cryonics arrangements a strong measure of rationality? After all, a close examination of Alcor members indicates that most of them are highly educated, a disproportionate number of them have PhDs, and their backgrounds are often in fields where strong analytic skills are required; computer science, neuroscience, biochemistry, etc. Another indicator is that cryonics is relatively popular in communities with a high proportion of “nerds.” In fact, a number of “leaders” in the “rationality” community (Robin Hanson, Eliezer Yudkowsky) have cryonics arrangements and have made public arguments in favor of cryonics. In short, someone who has made cryonics arrangements is not prone to short term gratification and minimizes cognitive biases, one could argue.
The problem with this characterization of cryonics as a measure of rationality is that it does not explain why the overwhelming number of people who can be considered highly analytical or rational have not made cryonics arrangements. Many cryonicists are smart but most smart people are not cryonicists. To explain this we will have to look elsewhere.
The 18th century skeptic and analytical philosopher David Hume once wrote that “reason is a slave to the passions.” In the case of cryonics, no matter how smart a person is, if the person does not have a passion for life (and an aversion to death and aging) that person will not be primed for an enthusiastic personal endorsement of cryonics. Closely related to having a desire to live and to pursue life extension is a an optimistic temperament. A cryonicist is not necessarily “wildly” optimistic, but (s)he should at least think that life is worth living and not be prone to thinking about the future in dystopian terms. I am also inclined to think that such a person is prone to think “like an economist” (to use Bryan Caplan’s phrase). With this I mean that a person can think in a probabilistic manner, does not see the world as a “zero-sum game,” and sees developments like automation, computerisation and biotechnologies in a positive light.
Do these combined traits produce a favorable attitude towards cryonics? This still cannot be the complete story because the traits discussed so far are shared by many millions of people in the world and support for cryonics is extremely small. I want to single out two additional traits that are usually required to prime someone for cryonics. The person also needs to be a non-conformist of some kind. When cryonics is as small as it is, strongly endorsing cryonics makes someone stand out (to put it mildly). And this “standing out” is not comparable to just having a bizarre hobby or a strange sense of style. It can sometimes produce confusion or hostility in other people, which can turn even our most life-affirming friends and family into apologetic pro-mortalists.
The most important trait, in my opinion, and the one that really distinguishes the cryonicist from the non-cryonicist, is the ability to deal with vulnerability, uncertainty and the unknown — in some cases, to even welcome it. People who have been around in cryonics for awhile know that ultimately (that is, when you dig a little deeper) skeptics are really afraid to be resuscitated in a distant and unknown future. This should not be easily dismissed. Personal identity is not identical to the brain or the body (as a simplistic version of cryonics would have it) but extends to all the things and people that have become part of a person’s life. To many people, the cryonics proposal means survival at the cost of losing everything that gives meaning to their lives.
If we look at the limited acceptance of cryonics from this perspective, does this inspire optimism in persuading more people? An immediate response would be negative because fundamental character traits are hard to change. Another approach, however, is to change the conceptualization and delivery of cryonics so that these fears are not triggered. In particular, it might serve a cryonics organization well to transition from an organization that just “stores” a human body or brain without specific resuscitation and reintegration scenarios to an organization that offers more comprehensive means of identity preservation. Such an organization puts a strong emphasis on the cryopreservation of families and friends. It will offer means of asset preservation and personal belongings. It develops specific resuscitation protocols which are updated and calibrated as our knowledge and technologies improve. And it makes serious efforts to provide a reintegration program which seeks to minimize adjustment to the time in which an individual is resuscitated.
Is endorsement of cryonics a measure of rationality? Yes, but without a desire to live, a reasonably optimistic attitude, an independent mindset, and, most of all, confidence in a cryonics organization to preserve all that is important to a person, being smart by itself is not going to do it.
This is a web-exclusive edition of the Cryonics magazine column that was omitted from the April 2015 issue.