Sunday, February 12, 2012

Should we freeze ourselves? (Index and Introduction)

This post serves as both an index and introduction to my new series posts on the ethics of cryogenic suspension. Cryonic suspension, for the purposes of this series can be defined in the following manner:

Cryonic suspension: Is the process or technology through which a mature human body (or some part thereof, typically the brain or head) is frozen and stored in the hope that it will be revived at a future date.

Definitions are always imperfect — somebody will probably argue that I’ve left something out of the above — but I think this one can be accepted (as a stipulation if need be) since it is the kind of cryonic suspension mentioned therein that is of concern in this series. The series explores the ethical arguments arising from the question: should we have ourselves cryogenically suspended?

1. The Structure of the Series
This series structured in an unusual manner, at least in comparison to other series on this blog. For starters, each post in the series deals with one — and only one — argument for or against cryonic suspension. Typically, I’d cover several arguments in one post, but I decided this more fragmented approach afforded some advantages.

Primarily, it gave me an excuse to avoid writing lengthy introductions to each post reviewing key parts of the preceding discussion. Although I usually enjoy writing such introductions, they can become tiresome. In addition to this, the fragmented format allows for easy revision and expansion of the series. Again, this is unlike my previous efforts. Why so? Well, primarily because I found the academic literature on the ethics of cryogenics to be rather sparse. Indeed, I only managed to locate one academic article on this topic (as well as some internet resources):

David Shaw, “Cryoethics: Seeking Life After Death” (2009) Bioethics, 23(9): 515-521

So I’m going to base my initial draft of the series on Shaw’s article, along with my own elaborations thereof. But I’m hoping that by publishing the series here, I might be presented with some additional resources to consider and arguments to address. That way, I can expand on what I initially say and build a fairly comprehensive database of arguments for and against cryonic suspension.

My goal is to write one entry per week in this series. I’m hoping this is a reasonable and attainable goal. I haven’t always been the best at completing the series I start — indeed, regular readers may note that I’ve essentially abandoned the custom of announcing series in advance of writing them, preferring now to cobble series together from previously written material — but I feel more confident about completing this particular one because the workload on the individual posts should be relatively low.

2. Cryogenics and Disorienting Dilemmas
Why am I doing this? I think it’s worth emphasising here that I come to this issue as a non-advocate. In other words, unlike many of those writing about cryogenics on the internet (at least, unlike many of the people I have read) I’m not writing this series with the explicit aim of convincing you that you ought to have yourself cryogenically suspended. Instead, I’m writing it with the explicit aim of dispassionately analysing the arguments for and against cryogenics.

That said, I do have something of a bias when it comes to this topic. The bias is my belief in the positive role that it can play in teaching students critical thinking skills. In his book, Teaching for Critical Thinking, Stephen Brookfield says that critical thinking is a process that consists of four stages: (1) identifying the assumptions that frame our thinking and determine our actions; (2) checking out the degree to which these assumptions are accurate and valid; (3) looking at our ideas and decisions from multiple perspective; and (4) in light of all this, making informed decisions. And although we may quibble with this four-stage model, I think Brookfield’s definition captures the important elements of critical thinking. It is a skill-set which all educators should try to inculcate.

In outlining some of the techniques that teachers can use to inculcate the skills of critical thinking, Brookfield highlights (chapter 3) the potential of disorienting dilemmas. These can be defined in the following manner:

Disorienting Dilemma: Any decision-making problem (real or hypothetical) that forces you to reassess or think differently about something which you previously have taken for granted.

Such dilemmas get their name from the notion that they are so unsettling that they “diorient” you from your worldview. They are important in teaching critical thinking in that they tend to be a highly effective way in which to encourage the four-stage process outlined above. Strictly speaking, they need not always be dilemmas since that term connotes a decision-making problem in which there are two possible courses of action. They could be trilemmas, or quadrilemmas or whatever. In the case of cryogenics there is a dilemma to contend with: should you freeze yourself or not? (We'll talk about the precise nature of that dilemma in more detail in the first proper entry of the series).

It is my contention that this dilemma can be genuinely disorienting. A proper consideration of the issues that bear upon it, will force you to confront assumptions of fact and value. What’s more, it will force you to think seriously about the degree of confidence that you place in your moral and factual beliefs.

It is thus because of its potential to serve as a disorienting dilemma, and not because of some desire for eternal or prolonged life, that I am enthusiastic about analysing the case for cryogenic suspension. This might seem slightly odd to cryo-enthusiasts, but it’s how I feel about it.

3. The Index Proper
I think there’s been quite enough stage-setting in this post, it’s time to get on with the main event: the index to the series itself. As I said above, in this first draft of the series, I’m going to be using David Shaw’s article on cryoethics as my basic guide to the topic. And since Shaw’s article looks solely at the ethics of cryonics, I will avoid, for the time being at least, considering the technological feasibility of cryonics. I may consider this at some future point, but such an eventuality is unlikely for two main reasons: (i) it’s well outside my own area of expertise and (ii) as we shall see, the technological feasibility of cryonics does not need to be particularly strong for the main arguments to work.

There is one complication surrounding the term “ethics” that is worth mentioning here. In his article, Shaw draws a distinction between prudential and ethical arguments. A prudential argument being one that works from the premise that every person acts in accordance with (their perception) of their own self-interest, and a moral argument being one that works from some premise based on an objective value (e.g. “we ought to maximise human welfare”). If I were in a metaethical mood, I might challenge that distinction on various grounds, but since I’m not in that mood right now, I won’t. I will just use the phrase “the ethics of cryonics” to refer to both the moral and prudential arguments surrounding cryogenics. It might be worth bearing that in mind as you read along.

Anyway, at last, the index.

Series Index

0. The Cryonics Dilemma Considered

1. You should not freeze yourself
1.1 The Loneliness Argument
1.2 The High Cost Argument
1.3 The Opportunity Cost Argument
1.4 The Unproven Technology Argument
1.5 The Non-Physicalist Argument
1.6 The “Revival is Unlikely” Argument
1.7 The “Revival Before Cure” Argument
1.8 The "Life will be Boring" Argument
1.9 The Environmental Cost Argument
1.10 The Better Causes Argument
1.11 The Organ Donation Argument
1.12 The Death-Definition Problem
1.13 The Slippery Slope Argument

2. You Should Freeze Yourself
2.1 The Future Benefit Argument
2.2 The Time Travel Argument
2.3 The Wager Argument


  1. There's also plastination, incidentally:

    1. Thanks for that. I might incorporate that in at some stage. Your page is definitely an untapped resource (from my perspective), one that I'll have to look at in more depth.

    2. Well, I'm really a tyro at cryonics matters; I should finish that page because Darwin sent me some pretty in-depth materials from when he was comparing plastination with cryonics.

      (Suffice it to say that if you ever invoke the science side of things - or the historical part, like the dishonesty of the cryobiologists - and you aren't citing Mike Darwin or his Chronopause articles, you are probably doing it wrong.)

    3. Unfortunately, from even a skim reading of the Chronopause page I get more discouraged from getting into the science side in too much depth (at least for the time being).

  2. Interesting! I shall follow this with interest. I'm currently constructing some arguments of my own against life extension (of which Cryonics is one participant), so I look on with trepidation to ensure I haven't been pre-empted in the literature! ;)

    1. Yes, I read your Prezi version. I'm hoping to consider your kind of argument at some stage as well. I thought it was very clever. Did you take it from somewhere (or were you inspired by a particular author) or is it entirely your own creation?

    2. Entirely my own, as far as I am aware (although I need to look at population ethics stuff in greater depth). I'm going to be spending my summer at the Uehiro centre for applied ethics in oxford to expand/improve it. So it might be worth waiting a bit until then!

    3. Well, that should be cool. I might discuss it with you over email or something before then. It's probably the best anti-argument I've come across, but I have some concerns.

  3. I'm not sure if this has been considered for this series. Most cryonic advocates seem oblivious to the possibility of awakening to find themselves permanently and secretly enslaved as a research subject, with no rights, freedoms, or hope of self-terminating their miserable existence.

    There are countless non-human animals and many human victims of Nazi doctors who can attest to the horrors of that kind of existence. I can imagine many future scenarios where this outcome would be more likely than benevolent treatment.

    I look forward to following this series.

    P.S. I was unable to post this comment using Firefox v9.0.1. The option to prove that I'm "human" briefly flashed and then disasppeared. IE worked fine.

    1. Hi Bill, I think that's an interesting possibility. It's not one brought up by Shaw in his article but it might be worth including at some point (possibly after the "Revival is unlikely" argument). I suspect the issue here will be the relative probabilities of different possible outcome. In principle, virtually anything could happen to you once your revived, the question is how likely are they and are they enough to offset the potential benefits of revivification.

      As for your Firefox problem, I'm afraid I've no idea what caused it. I'm just using the default commenting system on blogger (which was recently updated).

  4. Bill: *of course* advocates have considered that objection.

    Your objection, by the way, falls into the old pattern: 'I know tons of smart people and geeks have pondered & debated cryonics for half a century, but nevertheless, without looking anything up, I'm going to make a criticism I think is novel despite spending perhaps 10 seconds thinking it up!'

    I really hate that failure mode.

    1. It would be absurd to think this is an original thought - nice strawman argument, gwern.

      My point was that enthusiasts seem oblivious to the risk. The fact that you're trying to stifle discussion of this issue (calling it "failure mode") suggests that you're immersed in future fantasy.

      Feel free to blindly subject yourself to an unknown future. I prefer to be more thoughtful about my choices.

    2. Bill specifically accused advocates of being 'oblivious' (as do you, 'blindly' or 'immersed'), so yes, that's *exactly* what he's doing.

      But feel free to think that you are more thoughtful and insightful on the topic than the advocates. Don't let me change your mind or cause you to think of some (any) counter-arguments...

    3. Feelings of enthusiasm cause people to strongly favor ideas that support their fantasies, and to discount ideas that are a "buzz-kill." In fact a "go, go, go" mentality is synonymous with enthusiasm.

      Perhaps "oblivious" is too strong a word. I'll soften it to say that given the nature of enthusiasm, cryonic enthusiasts tend to underestimate probability of experiencing a really shitty outcome.

    4. Bill, Gwern, and unknown,

      Let's keep it civil guys, please.


      Yes, feelings of enthusiasm/bias most certainly distort analytical balance. That said, I would attribute Bill's claim of "obliviousness" more to "there's not a whole helluva lot you can do about it" than to failure to notice, or less-than-diligent consideration.

      Kinda like a regular person (non-cryonicist)living with the knowledge that death -- and a horrible death at that -- could come at any moment. Not a case of being unaware, or having inadequately considered it, but rather the more ordinary default situation of we, the delighted-to-be-alive, focusing on life and living.

      It is entirely possible that some bad outcome might confront the suspendee upon revival. Certainly, this deserves a balanced analysis. As the outcome is currently indeterminate, and stands among a whole range of possible outcomes, let's evaluate them in an orderly fashion before choosing our conclusion.

  5. Yeah, I might just do one entry covering all the less-significant "what if X happened...?" arguments since they seem to suffer from similar problems.

  6. Just to be clear about this, are you only speaking of preserving post-natal (or even adult) persons? I take it that you are not focusing on the freezing of gametes and embryos as part of fertility treatment.

    If the academic literature is sparse, you may need to resort to SciFi. Larry Niven wrote several stories about cryonic suspension, which included arguments for and against the practice (or particular forms thereof). One of the big "anti" arguments was that people are shirking their responsibility to contribute to human progress, and just trying to cash in on that progress (which may fit into the "opportunity cost" argument).

    SciFi often depicts cryonic suspension as a tool for interstellar travel, which would have different implications than just using it as a way to pass time on Earth. But it is probably less ethically interesting for that reason.

    1. Yeah, only post-natal freezing. I've changed the definition to reflect that, adding the word "mature" before "human body". Admittedly, that's still a little opaque, but I don't want to go all the way to post-natal just yet and I don't want to say "adult" either since I can imagine situations in which a pro-cryonicist might argue for childhood cryopreservation.

      Thanks for the Larry Niven suggestion. I know there's plenty of sci-fi out there dealing with the topic. I've also been looking at some of David Brin's recent scribblings on this topic, apparently his new novel (due out this summer) will be dealing with transhumanist themes.

  7. > One of the big "anti" arguments was that people are shirking their responsibility to contribute to human progress, and just trying to cash in on that progress (which may fit into the "opportunity cost" argument).

    Pfft. And how are cryonicists paying for it all?

  8. Looking forward to this series. Never even considered ethical arguments against it, only scientific arguments against the possibility. Looking at your index doesn't seem promising for the anti people at first glance though.

    1. Yes, well that might be a function of the source I'm working from here. I think Thrasymachus (above) has one of the better anti-life extension arguments out there (there are others too, but it depends on whether we want to lump all life-extension technologies in with cryopreservation. I think it would be best not to do that).

  9. The categories could be organized. For instance:

    I. Costs:

    a. High magnitude of costs:
    The High Cost Argument
    The Opportunity Cost Argument
    The Environmental Cost Argument
    The Better Causes Argument
    The Organ Donation Argument
    The Slippery Slope Argument

    b. High chances of such costs:
    (High for most except perhaps "The Slippery Slope Argument" and "The Environmental Cost Argument", variably short of probability 1 for the others.)

    II. Benefits:

    a. Low benefits:
    The Non-Physicalist Argument
    The “Revival Before Cure” Argument
    The "Life will be Boring" Argument
    The Loneliness Argument

    b. Low chances of any benefits:
    The Unproven Technology Argument
    The “Revival is Unlikely” Argument

    c. Negative consequences:
    The Death-Definition Problem

    d. Chances of such consequences:

    1. Yeah, that might work better, particularly since this will be analysed as a decision problem. I'll consider revising the structure of the presentation as I go along.

  10. Thank you for doing this. I'm looking forward to it.

  11. Sebastian Seung has some interesting stuff on the feasibility of cryonics in his book Connectome.

  12. Thanks for the comments. I heard about Seung's book, but I have not read it yet. Thanks for the suggestion. Need to actually get to work on this properly now...

  13. Very pleased to discover this undertaking of yours. Particularly like the tone, which seems to set the stage for a civil and serious discussion.

    I've been a cryonics proponent for 20 years and a transhumanist for fifteen (longer, if you count all those years before transhumanism emerged to claim its name).