Immortality and cryonics

In “Philosophical Models of Immortality in Science Fiction,” (in: Immortal Engines: Life Extension and Immortality in Science Fiction and Fantasy) John Martin Fischer and Ruth Curl construct a taxonomy for immortality. As can be seen in the figure on the left (click for larger image), only some models of immortality meet the criterion of real personal immortality in which an individual leads an indefinitely long single life (atomistic non-serial immortality). If we leave the issue of solipsistic and non-solipsistic immortality to the side (see David Deutsch on solipsism), the only mature method listed to achieve immortality which is available right now is cryonics. Strictly speaking, cryonics itself does not achieve immortality, but it can enable a person to reach a time when technologies that can produce immortality may be available.

For many people who aspire to become immortal it is doubtful that technologies that can achieve real immortality will be available in their lifetime. But even if all “immortalists” living today would be able to benefit from life extension escape velocity, accidents do happen, and breakthroughs in rejuvenation will not be of benefit to those who are dead. Cryonics (or any form of biostasis) is not just a backup strategy to ensure that an individual will reach a time where immortalist technologies are available, it will remain necessary as long as individuals are at risk of injury that cannot be treated by the prevailing medical technologies of the time.

So far it has been assumed that immortality is possible but there are problems with immortalism. Immortality would mean a zero probability of information-theoretic death and avoidance of the most formidable obstacle of all, the heat death of the universe.

Even individuals who hope to benefit from SENS and have made arrangements for cryonics live in a world with a non-trivial probability of information-theoretic death. Minimizing the probability of information-theoretic death should be the objective of radical life extension — an outlook which itself must be balanced against values such as the quality of life.

Ev Cooper's cryonics classic published online

Few, if any, cryonicists today can retrace their personal interest in cryonics to Evan Cooper. Despite the broader recognition of Robert Ettinger’s book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” which was commercially published in 1964, Cooper’s privately published 1962 manuscript, “Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now,” is an important parallel effort in what would later become known as cryonics. Soon afterward Ev also started the first cryonics organization, the Life Extension Society (LES), from which several other cryonics societies eventually emerged.

Ev was a charismatic leader, but the LES lost influence over the years as the various Cryonics Societies began to operate in earnest; particularly after the Cryonics Society of California performed the first human cryopreservation of Dr. James H. Bedford in January 1967. Later that year Ev called off his annual LES conference and  began to diminish his efforts, leaving the movement by 1970.

Always an enigmatic character, no one knows much about why Ev disappeared and removed himself from cryonics. Cryonics activist Mike Darwin notes in the March 1983 issue of Cryonics Magazine that Ev’s former wife, Mildred, said that “he turned away from cryonics because of overload, burn-out, and a general sense that it was not going to be a viable option in his lifetime.” In the same issue, Saul Kent notes that the political struggles engendered by the emergence of the new cryonics societies also seem to have played a role in Ev’s decision to walk away from cryonics. He spent the remaining years of his life sailing along the Eastern seaboard until he failed to return home after an attempt to sail his inadequately repaired boat from Martha’s Vineyard to Beaufort, South Carolina, in 1982. Ev Cooper was presumed lost at sea.

We may never know exactly why Ev Cooper turned his back on cryonics — he destroyed all personal papers and most of his correspondence sometime before his death — but we can surmise that in order to have been the first cryonicist (or at least the first advocate of forming a cryonics movement), Ev must have been an optimist. His book, reissued by the Society for Venturism in 1991 and offered below in both printable HTML and PDF formats with the help of Mike Perry, is a forward-looking synthesis of information, indicative of Ev’s ardent hope for the potential of science to benefit humankind. Ev’s book not only discusses the use of cold to preserve patients in the hope of future resuscitation, a substantial part of his manuscript is devoted to reviewing different scientific means to achieve “physical immortality.” The author also anticipates a lot of other “futurist” topics like synthetic biology, transhumanism, mind uploading, and the singularity.

We remain hopeful that Ev’s other expectations in life were met, and are duly thankful for his early and unique contribution to the field of cryonics.

“Immortality: Physically, Scientifically, Now” by Ev Cooper (writing as Nathan Duhring):

** HTML format

** Adobe portable document format (PDF)