Cryonics as something else

At EconLog economist Bryan Caplan has posted a number of blog entries that perfectly illustrate what happens when cryonics is not presented as a form of experimental long term critical care medicine but linked to other ideas such as transhumanism, mind uploading, and immortalism. One post is titled “What’s Really Wrong With Cryonics” but a close reading of the post and subsequent exchanges between Caplan and cryonics advocate Robin Hanson leave little doubt that this exchange is really about the technical feasibility of mind uploading and the nature of identity.

These topics are of great philosophical and practical interest to some but have little relevance to the technical feasibility of cryonics. When a person goes in for surgery it is not common to engage medical personnel in abstract arguments about the nature of identity prior to induction of anesthesia. Similarly, when hypothermia is used to allow complete circulatory arrest in complex surgical brain procedures it is not common to object that this procedure puts the soul at risk. Even people who do not subscribe to the  empiricist premise that underpins modern medicine have come to accept the procedures that are associated with it. Cryonics, as conceived and practiced by organizations like Alcor, is just an extension of the idea that metabolism can be reduced or stopped without inevitable irreversible death.

It is therefore surprising how many discussions about cryonics actually deal with “something else”: overpopulation, transhumanism, the Singularity, egoism, religion etc.  It would be convenient to put most of the blame on people who do not want to seriously engage with the technical and bio-ethical arguments involving cryonics but there is an undeniable tendency of some cryonics advocates to dwell excessively on the issues that triggered their own interest in cryonics or alternative methods to preserve one’s identity.  There is nothing forbidding cryonics to be linked to such topics but in light of the fact that cryonics as understood by the average person faces formidable obstacles of its own, it is not good public relations to link what is essentially a logical development within medicine to speculative futurism.

Bryan observes that he’d like to think “that Robin’s an outlier among cryonics advocates, but in my experience, he’s perfectly typical.  Fascination with technology crowds out not just philosophy of mind, but common sense.” We have made similar claims on this website but with the purpose to advance the cause of cryonics. Bryan is dead-on regarding the issue of common sense, but it is the same common sense that compels one to conclude that philosophy of mind has little practical relevance to biomedical research and practice. Unless Bryan can make a persuasive case that lowering the temperature of a patient to +20 degrees C raises no philosophical issues but lowering the temperature to -196 degrees C does raise philosophical issues there is no reason to introduce such issues into debates about the technical feasibility of cryonics.