Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Thoughts On Immortality, Cryonics

"Remembering that I’ll live forever is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything – all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in face of endless time, leaving only what is truly important."
--The immortal Steve Mobs

People say a lot of nice things about death. Even atheists who should know better. It's depressing. An immortalist can often counter those things directly, trying to argue why in fact they're not nice, but there are other roads one can take.

An elevator pitch against them all is: "suppose there was a civilization much like ours, only no one died from old age or sickness because their medical technology was pretty advanced. (Some still died from suicide or catastrophic accidents but those were rare and decreasing every year.) Do you think they would want death around ages 70-90 forced upon them like we currently have?"

Another road is taken through the top fake-quote. For everything nice said about death, something equally nice can be said about life. (It's surprising how frequently the deathist statement can simply be reversed.) If I could write fiction well, I might best contribute to humanity by shaping a subculture of it to really want immortality--or at least life lasting a few billion years since the ultimate fate of the universe is still unknown. There is precious little fiction celebrating incredibly long lives.

Another road is a meta-road, a road that remarks upon the previous road. So much thought and mental power is given to justifying death--can you really not sit for five minutes with your eyes closed and come up with just one reason why immortality might be good? (Not necessarily a reason that death is bad, I'm not asking you to do logic.)

I think this problem of believing death as a good thing is the greatest cultural problem our species has ever had or will have. Interestingly, the Pirahãs--known for their annoying-to-anthropologists differences from other studied tribes--view death somewhat apathetically. They don't care so much, it's just something that happens. And they laugh at the stupidity of someone killing themselves because stupid things are funny--at least they're human in that respect!

The worst arguments come from the atheists, though. You can convince a religious person that immortality is something good, because they actually believe that if they believe in an immortal afterlife. In Mormonism there's also a Resurrection, suggesting that some day the world of the living will reunite with the world of the dead. There are also multiple levels of heaven, with the top one, reserved for very righteous people, being a place of challenge, progression, and creation and exploration of other worlds and people's--a place where you become as a god yourself. So it's these stories, that the dead aren't really gone, that we'll all reunite here on Earth, that let religious people keep their religion without being forced to oppose all technological and medical progress that can lengthen our lives considerably.

The atheist, on the other hand... they're fully aware that when they die, it's over. They're fully aware that no one going away is coming back. (Though there are some who hope that the memories of those who knew the deceased--along with DNA, writing samples and contents, everything--may contain enough information to reconstruct the person. But so far as I know this is just a hope.) Then they argue that that's the way things should be. I can't imagine what must go on in their brains. Some people call those atheists evil, I wouldn't go that far but it is disturbing that they preach death knowing exactly what death means unlike the naive religious people. Disturbing from the perspective of someone who believes death to be bad.

Once that initial hurdle is passed, though, once you get someone on board with the idea that life is good, and death is bad, you can start talking about whether cryonics will work and whether it's worth the money to sign up. Cryonics is the process of "freezing" (no actual ice crystals form) your body or just your head down to very cool levels such that no chemical reactions take place--hopefully preserving your brain enough that everything which makes up "you" can be recovered later. A better term than freezing is vitrification, because it's more like preserving a glass model of your brain that doesn't change.

Alcor, the pricier-and-higher-status cryonics group, has a lot of great material on their website. For example, in their science FAQs, they lay out what all scientists should agree on, and what they can disagree on, with respect to cryonics currently.

We can all agree on matters of fact:
  • Cryonics cannot be reversed by any simple means.
  • There is still no definitive proof that cryonics can preserve long-term memory or personal identity.
  • Freezing damage can be avoided if sufficient water is removed from an organ and replaced with cryoprotectant.
  • There is evidence for good structural preservation of brain tissue when high concentrations of cryoprotectant are properly introduced prior to cooling.
  • Technologies capable of characterizing and manipulating matter with atomic precision, should they ever be developed, are implicitly sufficient for reversing cryonics if enough neurological information is preserved.
  • The legal label of death is irrelevant to cryonics, except as it pertains to cerebral ischemic injury and the impact of such injury on information essential for retention of memory and personality.

The interesting points of disagreement that Alcor notes:
  • The likelihood that memory is being preserved with current techniques.
  • The likelihood that technologies capable of the required analysis, repair, and tissue regeneration will be developed.
  • The practicality of maintaining cryopreserved people long enough for such technologies to be developed.
  • The ethics of cryopreserving people before cryonics is proven to work.
  • The ethics of not cryopreserving people until cryonics is proven to work.

Another one I might add is the likelihood of being revived given it's possible. I only add that one since it seems to come up as an objection, though I think it's trivially defeated.

I believe cryonics has at least 5% chance of working. I don't think that's just my prior probability bound talking, but if you want to think that, go ahead for now since this post isn't going to justify my reasons for believing it.

If you accept life is good, death is bad, and cryonics may be a legitimate way of escaping death for people alive now, at least it's a significantly better chance than being buried or cremated, the next question is: what are the costs? (Note for reference that most traditional funerals easily run into the thousands.)

Cryonics at the Cryonics Institute can be had for as little as $40,000, give or take a few g's. This can be paid with life/death (however you like to call it) insurance, so what's left is about $1k in a membership fee you can pay over time. Bank of America offered me accidental death coverage through an insurance company when I got my checking account, so I pay something like $3 per month for $30k in coverage (I forget the exact amounts). I got a letter recently asking if I want to increase my coverage. Each $50,000 (up to $300,000 for me) is $4.50/mo. I've been thinking to increase to $50k and sign up for cryonics with CI already. $4.50/mo for life insurance is, literally, pennies for me, and I suspect it is too for anyone with internet access.

So why am I not signed up yet? One part of it is laziness, and that's a really shameful thing to admit. There's another part of the reason, but that's private. It's also just as flimsy.

Posted on 2011-12-08 by Jach

Tags: cryonics, philosophy, thought


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Max December 11, 2011 09:25:54 AM Nice post. One thing you don't cover is the whole body vs. neuro choice. If you understand the rationale for neuro, the cost difference between CI and Alcor is much smaller. If you would like to discuss your reason for not signing up and why Alcor may be the better choice, please call me at Alcor at 480-905-1906 x113.

--Max More
Jach December 12, 2011 12:10:34 AM Thanks for bringing that up, Max. There's a whole other tier of decision making once you say "Yes" to cryonics! Deciding whether to go head-only as Alcor provides seems obvious to me, though I think the act of removing a head is an uncomfortable issue for a lot of people to think about even if they're already won over to suspension in general... Alcor's minimum price drops from $200k to $80k when going the head-only route, that's pretty significant.

(A head-only route may also help avoid complications with spouses who want a body in a grave or ashes in an urn--I believe Robin Hanson's wife said something along the lines of "Alcor gets his head, I get the rest of him.")

On Alcor vs. CI, I think Alcor is probably better for improving the chances of the procedure "working", where working factors in everything from suspending quickly enough to the company lasting long enough so that they oversee the patients and revive them. Everyone should do their own research to see if the added costs make sense for them, though, and distance-to-facility may also factor in.
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