Why pick on cryonics?

by on July 10, 2010 at 1:58 pm in Economics, Philosophy, Religion, Science | Permalink

A few of my lunch compadres have asked why I compare cryonics (unfavorably) to acts of charity, rather than comparing other acts of personal consumption (I enjoy the gelato here in Berlin) to charity.  My view is this: the decision to have one's head frozen is not primarily instrumental but rather expressive.  Look at the skewed demographics of the people who do it, namely highly intelligent male readers of science fiction, often with tech jobs.  Is it that they love their lives especially much?  Unlikely.  Instead it's a chance to stand for something and in a way which sets them apart from many others.  It's a chance to stand for instrumental rationality, for Science, for attitudes which go beyond traditional religion, for the conquering of limits, for probabilistic reasoning, and for the notion that the subject sees hidden possibilities and resources which more traditional observers do not.

It's like voting for a very unusual political candidate.

In my view the people interested in cryonics are often highly meritorious, as is Robin.  So I'm very sympathetic with a) letting them do what they want, and b) praising them and their affiliations, simply because they are productive and smart and also not harming others.  Those factors militate in favor of cryonics and indeed I am happy to endorse laissez-faire for the practice but still I don't find myself settling into really liking the idea.

Let's say I use another Hansonian construct and put everyone behind a contractarian veil of ignorance.  I then ask: given that we don't know who will be born into which position, which expressive symbols do we want these highly intelligent individuals to send, and also to identify with, given that reputation is limited and publicity is scarce?  Keep also in mind that society is insufficiently appreciative of intelligence and we would prefer that more people had greater respect for analytic thinking.  There are also many worthy causes out there.

I don't see the positive deal here.  I believe the world would be better off, and the relative status of the virtuous nerds higher, if instead the cryonics customers sent more signals which were perceived as running contrary to type.  Ignoring cryonics, and promoting charity, would do more to raise the status of intelligence and analytical thinking than does cryonics.

On the practical side, while I am a non-believer, I also think that charity has a greater chance of bringing a longer life to one's self – or immortality — than does signing a cryonics contract.  That's an even stronger triumph for probabilistic thinking than what the cryonics customers have on tap.

Addendum: If you haven't already, do go back and read both Quentin and #44 on these issues.  Bracing stuff.

1 Andrew July 10, 2010 at 2:09 pm

I never even mention it unless people are making irrational arguments.

2 Andrew July 10, 2010 at 2:30 pm

Btw, both of your generalizations are wrong about me. I only speak for myself. I don’t try to characterize other people who appreciate this technology any more than I characterize people who like any other technology. Although Apple fundamentalists are interesting. I appreciate cryonics for one reason. It’s going to work. Eventually.

Luckily, I’m not meritorious enough for Tyler to care what I signal to others.

3 Dirk July 10, 2010 at 2:47 pm

Speaking as someone who was frozen for 7000 years and has returned briefly to this period via a time-machine to bury a few things, I would like to say that endlessly serving our ant overlords still beats the wife coming along.

4 Andy McKenzie July 10, 2010 at 3:16 pm

I don’t buy the signaling hypothesis. Why are you ignoring the market data? Two points, namely that 1) people tend to underestimate how badly others want to live a long time, health status be damned (see here: http://jama.ama-assn.org/cgi/content/abstract/279/5/371), and that 2) many if not most people who sign up for cryonics do so in secrecy, so much so that there is a some thrust to get cryonics sign ups to come out of “the closet”. Both points run strongly contra to your narrative. I do however appreciate that you are willing to tackle these questions at all.

5 Adrian Ratnapala July 10, 2010 at 3:24 pm

I kinda sorta belong to the demographic of which Ttker speaks, and if I were to have my head frozen, it would be because I want to see the far future.

6 Steven July 10, 2010 at 4:02 pm

What does it mean to love your life “especially much?” So folks that only love their lives an average amount feel neutral towards death?

7 DPR July 10, 2010 at 4:10 pm

I like your take on this Tyler. You express it very well from both the standpoint of liberty, efficiency, and personal taste.

8 londenio July 10, 2010 at 7:01 pm

I think one thing that annoys cryonics-agnostics (like me) is the perception that cryonics-supporters are actually assigning a higher probability to the success of cryonics than they are willing to admit. When they argue about the possibility of being brought back to “life” in a distant future, they claim that the probability of success is like 5% or 0.5% or whatever. But they argue with an intensity that makes this probability seem more like 50%. They evangelize as if the probability was indeed 50% or more. More importantly, potential cryonic techniques seem surprisingly effective in liberating cryonics-supporters from the fear of death. They discover cryonics and all of a sudden death is not necessarily a certain event. This comforting thought is very strong and it is not consistent with a 0.5% probability of success.

9 SforSingularity July 10, 2010 at 8:06 pm

> Is it that they love their lives especially much? Unlikely.

As someone who intends to sign up, I have to say that is the exact opposite is true of me, though I am very much a technophile.

I think of how much more of the good things in life I’d get in the world that reanimated you. You’d be famous, possibly rich, and you’d live practically forever (all with the caveat of “probably”, and the rebuttal that the expected utility calc is dominated by such extra-good possibilities).

10 Philo July 10, 2010 at 8:23 pm

It is odd to view a commitment to cryonic preservation (of oneself) as primarily a matter of *signaling*; I’m sure most of those so committed don’t view it so. And if the issue is just about signaling, it’s trivial.

Of course, there’s a lot of signaling in *charity*, too. Most charity (in my very casual observation) is just gestures, poses, signals, that cost more than they’re worth, and deserve as much disparagement as you’re giving to dabbling in cryonics. You might compare cryonics with the *good sort* of charity, that is beneficial on net and (therefore) praiseworthy and valuable. But to engage in that sort consistently is much harder than people seem to think.

P.S.: “It’s like voting for a very unusual political candidate.” The disanalogy: voting is almost costless, while cryonic preservation consumes real resources.

11 gtown July 10, 2010 at 8:45 pm


“Let’s say I use another Hansonian construct and put everyone behind a contractarian veil of ignorance. I then ask: given that we don’t know who will be born into which position, which expressive symbols do we want these highly intelligent individuals to send, and also to identify with, given that reputation is limited and publicity is scarce?”

is pure John Rawls. Rawls is the one that made this idea
popular in economics/political economy, in A Theory of Justice. To credit it to Hanson is a big intellectual history fail.

12 Andrew July 11, 2010 at 5:07 am

Also, to me, freezing is the only thing that always works in my lab. Anecdotal, yes. Irrelevant, probably. Cells are way different from brains. However, I believe in the structural theory of brain function. To me, it must be thus. Otherwise, there couldn’t be regulated plasticity.

However, this 5% or 0.5% prediction of success for the cryonics supporters you cite is irrelevant to me. This is apparently a prediction for themselves. I don’t understand Bayesianism, but it is either a 1 or zero. It is either going to work, as a technology, or not. Predicting your own success rate is a prediction or speculation. You are predicting where the state of the technology is today relative to where it will be at full capability.

Speculations are irrelevant to me. I make predictions. When something is going to happen is not something I spend time on. I just look at it, decide it’s going to work, and then my job is to move towards the goal, not spend time making speculations (that would have to be updated every year) on the success of the technology as it stands today. I’m a cryonics objectivist.

It sounds weird for one to say one isn’t selfish (It’s like saying your best friends are Jewish) but I don’t see how it is any more selfish than the working of a heart surgeon (or his customer who hopes some day there is an artificial heart). Am I working in the industry? No. Few can make a living there yet. So, that leaves proselytizing. All I want to take away from anyone else is clouded thinking.

13 Bernard Yomtov July 11, 2010 at 12:25 pm

Lots of consumption is expressiveness rather than instrumental, also. It’s not for nothing that “conspicuous consumption” is part of our language.

I think this is true of foodies to a substantial extent. I mean, think about it. There are people who are happy to say that some place serves the best fried chicken, or whatever, in the country, or maybe the world. Or to seek out obscure eateries and foods and talk about them in exalted terms. What’s that all about, if not signalling, or just showing off?

“I have subtle and sophisticated tastes. I travel widely and seek out new experience avidly. I have discovered the finest dish of beans and rice in the universe, so good that other celebrated versions of this combination taste like mud in comparison. Too bad you’ll never get try it unless you use a machete to hack your way through miles of jungle, at just the right time of year, and reach this tiny village, where it is prepared only on the Winter Solstice.”

14 nyhoff July 11, 2010 at 12:45 pm

The really macabre sci-fi horror would be if the mind was conscious while the brain was frozen.

Waiting thousands of years for technology so that you can wake up would surely drive you too insane for scientists to be able to explain that they are waiting for a body donor for you.

15 kurt9 July 12, 2010 at 1:18 am

I have an equally unexplored hypothesis: that the people who want their heads frozen are people with intense curiosity about the future and a driving need to satisfy that curiosity.

As someone who has been in the cryonics milieu for over 20 years, I can tell you that this is indeed the case. Tyler’s comments about cryonics are completely asinine. His comments also demonstrate an intellectual laziness that is all too common in academia today. He obviously has never associated face to face with people signed up for cryonics. If he spent time with people either signed up for cryonic suspension or the various organizations themselves, he would have far better understanding of their motivation and purpose. The fact that he has not, but insists that he has a valid opinion about them, merely shows laziness and idiocy with regards to the subject itself.

I expect far better from someone like Tyler, who usually does have insightful comments on this blog.

16 kurt9 July 12, 2010 at 2:03 pm

What I would like to know is why anyone (like Tyler) who is not interested in cryonics themselves would even care about the subject at all?

17 superflatiron July 29, 2010 at 11:12 pm

I would like to know is why anyone (like Tyler) who is not interested in cryonics themselves would even care about the subject at all?

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