Imagine there's no sleep

Imagine that human culture has never experienced sleep, but suddenly must experience it to survive. Would they be apprehensive about experiencing it for the first time?

Of course!

Just picture… this total suspension of consciousness, experienced for the very first time in human history. The notion would totally blow our minds. It would be completely shocking. We might even make up stories about dying and being replaced by an identical clone being, or trying to console ourselves that at least we will have a successor on the following day to carry out our desires.

Contrary to popular belief, there is no particular reason to assume that humans who “survive” events like freezing or vitrification would be any different from humans that “survive” sleep or anesthesia. The definition of consciousness we care about is the lifelong continuity of experiences created by memories. We might not like donating 8 hours out of every 24 to a form of comatose oblivion, but we are able to tolerate it. We would die without it — and who wants to die?

Suppose we were to meet an alien culture that undergoes 8 hour periods of liquid nitrogen immersion every night instead of sleeping. We wouldn’t find it a significant barrier to relating to them as fellow sentient beings. We wouldn’t find it socially necessary to mourn their deaths every night or become reacquainted with their newly generated “progeny” every morning. We would just think their suspension habits are an interesting facet of their biological existence, much like they might regard our sleeping habits.

Some people seem to have the idea that cryonics patients can only be “dead” by definition — that the cessation of metabolic activity somehow makes survival via cryonics an absurdity. It is true that current cryonics patients are legally and clinically dead, but that is a matter that will probably change as scientific and social progress is made. In the mean time, there needs to be a clear distinction between destruction and deanimation — which unlike “death” are not social, legal, or philosophical terms but empirical events, much like sleep.

Historical Death Meme

There’s a pretty simple explanation as to where motivated skepticism for cryonics originates. If you currently are skeptical of cryonics, you should carefully consider whether this applies.

Historically, there has been a powerfully optimized meme regarding the topic known as death. If you lost vital signs, you were irrevocably lost. There was nothing that could be done. The belief evolved that there is a mysterious point termed “death” which is in principle irreversible.

From this we developed a custom of honoring or dishonoring people who no longer exist by the mechanism of treating their corpse in certain ways. When criminals were were beheaded with their heads rolling around on the ground and subsequently being stuck on a pike, it was a highly visible sign of disrespect and disgust for the kind of life lived by the deceased. Similarly, steps taken to reduce grotesque appearance of the corpse by embalming or cremation have evolved as a token of respect.

This notion of “rewarding” or “punishing” people after their death serves purely as a signal to the living as to what kind of life should be considered worth living. Likewise, a person’s final moments take on a special significance, despite being just a tiny fraction of their total lifespan. What were they doing when they went? Were they anxious, or accepting? There is a certain poignancy of accepting death rather than fighting, which I imagine a hospice worker like Peggy Jackson would easily relate to. Collectively these special attitudes towards the experience in one’s final moments and state of one’s remains after death are the Historical Death Meme (HDM).

Now, bring cryonics into the picture. The cessation of vital signs is no longer a sign of irreversibility-in-principle. The best mechanism for survival at this point is stabilization followed by cryopreservation. Stabilization is not a cosmetically appealing procedure. If stabilization happens late, this causes disfiguring edema. The scientific fact that it is the best hope the patient has for preserving their brain structure is overshadowed by the cosmetic details — purely because of the HDM.

But this isn’t the only big issue. The bigger issue, which I think is where the bulk of the hostility originates, is that the HDM itself begins to look ethically questionable once you begin to consider that cryonics is admissible. In preparing someone’s corpse, in ignoring their ischemic state as soon as vital functions appear irrecoverable to today’s technology, you are doing the patient a disservice. It’s not just a disservice, but potentially fatal disservice. In fact, by denying them their one shot at life you are showing them a sort of disrespect.

In other words, the perfect conditions for cognitive dissonance have been established. The HDM is highly valued, and an integrated part of the identity of practically our whole society. Doctors must be comfortable giving up on patients, and morticians must be comfortable doing cosmetic rather than life-saving surgery. Heirs must be comfortable taking money that could have been used to cryopreserve their parents and grandparents. To admit that cryonics has a valid chance of working, is affordable, is ethically motivated, and is seriously scientifically motivated and well-researched, would be to strip them of that comfort.

The feelings of unease must be transferred to cryonics as a means of keeping the HDM from appearing unethical, silly, prescientific, and superstitious. Since cryonics is relatively unfamiliar (in terms of the supporting science and actual practice) and has a variety of associations with science-fiction’s hand-waving plot devices and religion’s resurrection fantasies, a motivated skeptic need not work very hard to make themselves feel this way.