Cryonics Revival Scenarios

Ralph Merkle’s new article “Revival of Alcor Patients” constitutes an important contribution to the growing cryonics survival literature. What sets Merkle’s latest piece apart from (his) prior efforts is its extensive treatment of the validation of revival attempts (“did we do it right?”) and the ethical principles of revival.

The most important distinction between revival methodologies concerns those that involve in-situ repair and revival and those that aim for repair and revival on a different substrate (i.e. “mind uploading”) after conducting a (molecular) scan. Merkle also presents a revival scenario that involves a destructive scan of the cryopreserved individual, followed by in-silico repair, and biological revival. Some cryonicists (including the “godfather” of cryonics, Robert Ettinger) have expressed concerns that some of these proposals will not produce meaningful individual survival. In particular, it is argued that “running” a complete simulation of the brain on a computer won’t give rise to consciousness, let alone produce individual survival.

Since it may be quite some time before technology is at a state to favor one position over the other, we need sound principles to make prudent decisions now. In his article “Brain Preservation and Personal Survival: The Importance of Promoting Cryonics-Specific Research” (Cryonics magazine, November-December, 2017), Alexandre Erler introduces a new kind of “wager” to make such decisions when faced with philosophical uncertainty concerning the nature of identity and consciousness.

The use of Pascal-style “wagers” is nothing new in cryonics. The most famous wager was proposed by Ralph Merkle himself to compare the potential outcomes for an individual who faces a choice between signing up for cryonics or not. “Merkle’s Wager” consists of a matrix of four choices: Sign up and it works; sign up and it doesn’t work; don’t sign up and it works; don’t sign up and it doesn’t work. Merkle concludes that signing up for cryonics is the favored rational option. Michael O’Neil and Aschwin de Wolf extended this wager to making a choice between neuropreservation and whole body cryopreservation in their “The Case for Whole Body Cryopreservation” article (Cryonics magazine, expanded version, June 2014). Most readers may not be too concerned about the loss of identity-critical information in either cryopreservation option but being wrong on the nature of consciousness could be fatal. If consciousness is substrate-dependent and/or destroying the original brain (during a scan) excludes personal survival, choosing a wrong revival method can produce certain death, despite having received an excellent cryopreservation.

Erler simply asks the question what would be the prudent choice to make given that we cannot know with certainty (right now) which philosophical position is right. The short answer is that in-situ repair and revival of the preserved brain (or whole organism) will give rise to individual survival regardless of which philosophical view is correct.

One thing that is important to emphasize here, which is also discussed in Ralph’s repair article, is that non-destructive (molecular) scans of some kind and in-silico repair may still be a necessary step for in-situ biological repair and revival. The conservative position on revival is limited to the claim that it would not be prudent to instruct the cryonics organization to discard the original brain and seek revival by “running” that model on a computer.

Alcor allows for members to express their revival preferences. One complex question is whether it is currently possible to give informed consent for a revival scenario other than in-situ biological repair. A related question is to what degree cryonics organizations should honor requests for enhancements during the revival process, especially if these requests are (then) known to produce substantial identity-altering effects. There has been little in-depth discussion of these topics to date.

Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, May – June, 2018