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.

The presumption of death

Bertrand Russell once said that “most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they do so.” One does not need to look any further than the many responses to Kerry Howley’s recent article about cryonics and hostile partners in New York Times Magazine to find support for Russell’s witty remark. One commenter suggested that “an easy solution would be to just agree with him all the way to the grave. Then bury or cremate him. He’ll never know.” Such a cruel attitude may not be completely representative of what most people think about spousal disapproval of cryonics but it cannot be denied that some hostile partners and relatives have exactly responded in this way when faced with the legal death of a family member who had made cryonics arrangements. As a matter of fact, even indifference to a partner’s cryonics arrangements is a source of problems because the decreased sense of urgency, and a general unwillingness to assist with even the most basic cryonics first-aid procedures, produces substantial ischemic damage. Interfering with an individual’s cryonics wishes raises serious ethical questions because someone’s chance of survival has been reduced from a positive probability to zero.

Peggy Jackson, Robin Hanson’s wife, wonders “what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?” This is a strange presumption to make about life and death.  Our culture generally does not have this presumption about moral worth and non-existence. As a general rule, we do not feel that someone has to justify her reason to seek medical care and try to remain alive. The argument is even less relevant in the case of cryonics because cryonics is not publicly funded. It is also a persistent misunderstanding that the objective of cryonics is immortality. It cannot be denied that some who have chosen to make cryonics arrangements have a desire for immortality but both major cryonics organizations simply present cryonics as an experimental medical procedure to treat terminally ill patients who cannot be sustained by contemporary medical technologies. As such, there is no credible rationale to depart from the presumption in favor of life that is implied in today’s medical practice.  “What is so bad about me that I should not seek an experimental medical procedure like cryonics?” should be the obvious response when the presumption of death is made.

‘Choose life at any cost,’ ” Peggy says. “But I’ve seen people in pain. It’s not worth it.” We can agree that people should not choose life at any cost, but what is often ignored in discussions about cryonics is the rather obvious point that cryonics patients will not be resuscitated in the painful and debilitated state of a terminal patient but in a rejuvenated body without the disease the patient suffered from. Without such a condition for resuscitation, cryonics would be an exercise in futility.

One can only agree with bioethicist James Hughes that “there is a lot of ancient cultural stereotyping about the motives and moral character of people who pursue life extension”. In a number of posts on Overcoming Bias Robin Hanson himself has commented on the New York Times Magazine article. Robin draws an interesting parallel between the practice of Sati (“a funeral practice among some Hindu communities in which a recently widowed woman would either voluntarily or by use of force and coercion immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre) and objection to one’s partner’s cryonics arrangements.

Interestingly, Robin Hanson also seems to believe that a major source of anxiety about cryonics is fear of the future. Cryonics has “the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” Robin further thinks that a lot of the opposition to cryonics is driven by the possibility that it might actually work. After all, “If people were sure it wouldn’t work there’d be no point in talking about selfishness, immortality, etc.  If the main issue were a waste of money we’d see an entirely different reaction.” This suggests that cryonics organizations could benefit from altering their public relations strategies. Less emphasis on discussing technical feasibility and more emphasis on dealing with anxiety issues.

The libertarian economist Bryan Caplan always gives cryonics serious consideration but sometimes has the habit of starting his discussion of the topic on a wrong note by discussing the most outlandish resuscitation scenarios instead of just focusing on the most basic form of cryonics; resuscitation of the same physical person that has been cryopreserved. Caplan seems to  be quite interested in the question of what the odds of cryonics working are. Aside from the obvious rejoinder that the odds are much lower than they could be if cryonics was permitted as a pre-mortem elective medical procedure, the point needs to be reiterated that a small dedicated group of people can substantially increase these odds through scientific research and the creation of robust cryonics organizations.  Cryonics is not just an issue of determining fixed probabilities but also about supporting the idea and participation to increase the odds of meaningful resuscitation of people who have been written off by today’s medicine.

Cryonics is decision making under certainty par excellence. If you cannot stomach any kind of uncertainty, cryonics is not the best decision for you. As the mathematician, and current Alcor patient, Thomas Donaldson has said: “There is an IRREDUCIBLE UNCERTAINTY which is basic to cryonics , not merely an adventitious consequence of our ignorance about how memory is stored.” In his article Neural Archeology Donaldson recommends that “if you’re involved in cryonics, you’ve got to make your peace with the unknown, because it will always be there. You’ve simply got to make your peace with it.”

The one silver lining of the recent discussion of partner hostilitily to cryonics is that there has been an increasing recognition of the need for financial and legal strategies to prevent catastrophic interference with one’s cryonics arrangements.  Some of these strategies will be discussed in an upcoming issue of Alcor’s Cryonics Magazine.