False Modesty Hurts Cryonics
No credible cryonics organization would ever claim that if you get cryopreserved you will be resuscitated in the future. We tend to make more qualified claims and even include language in our cryopreservation contracts about the (potential) challenges that are associated with today’s procedures. One counterproductive attitude that I have encountered since becoming involved in the field, however, is to think that we look more respectable and credible if we put the odds of success really low or claim that patients who were cryopreserved with older, cruder, technologies probably will not be revived. A typical statement goes like, “I think there is about a 2% chance that cryonics will work but I think it is a rational decision to make considering the potential benefits.” When I hear statements like this I always wonder, “how do you arrive at such a probability estimate?” and “what kinds of damage do you exactly think irreversibly erase identity-critical information?” If you make strong statements about the (technical) feasibility of cryonics you’d better back them up.
I think that most of the time these low estimates have little rigorous reasoning or data behind them. True, some have attempted to produce formal probability estimates. While I consider these exercises useful for identifying the various challenges that will need to be overcome for cryonics to succeed, a major problem is that a lot of the individual probabilities that go into these calculations are not independent. For example, if we can produce stronger scientific evidence for brain cryopreservation, legal protections will improve, membership and financial stability will increase, etc. Also, is it reasonable to do probability estimates for things that are considered mainstream medical knowledge or common sense sociological prerequisites? For example, what kind of Alzheimer’s researcher would discuss a potential new drug with the caveat that the drug will only be effective if the brain gives rise to the mind (“who knows, maybe it is a disease of the soul?”), or that civilized society should still exist to introduce such drugs to patients? There are all kinds of conditions that can be considered necessary for cryonics to succeed and if we assign all of these independent probabilities we will always end up with extraordinarily low numbers. No mainstream researcher talks about his / her aims like this.
Another important thing to recognize about likelihood estimates in cryonics is that many of the things that need to go right for cryonics to succeed are outcomes of our own actions. We cannot just sit down, calculate, and wait. We have to get up and do something about them. Cryonics is a field where individuals and small groups of individuals can still make a huge impact on the credibility and sustainability of the field.
Does false modesty about cryonics command more respect from scientists? I don’t think so. If you think that cryonics causes irreversible damage, please explain this on a specific, molecular level. Claiming that today’s cryonics procedures cause “damage” is not an argument against cryonics unless you can make a case for how this kind of damage leads to a condition where the original ultrastructure of the brain cannot be inferred from the damaged state. Information is hard to destroy and in cryonics damage is often produced concurrent with decreases in temperature that lock these changes in place. One quick rule about talking about damage in cryonics: ask for specifics, do not accept sweeping statements about “the brain.” Ask how exactly this damage makes information irreversibly disappear.
Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, October 2015