Friday 9 July 2010


Kerry Howley's piece in the New York Times Magazine is lovely.

Robin Hanson wants to be cryogenically preserved on death; his wife, Peggy, works in a hospice helping folks deal with death and is no fan of cryogenics.
Among cryonicists, Peggy’s reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz.“From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.” The opposition of romantic partners, Aschwin told me last year, is something that “everyone” involved in cryonics knows about but that he and Chana, his wife, find difficult to understand. To someone who believes that low-temperature preservation offers a legitimate chance at extending life, obstructionism can seem as willfully cruel as withholding medical treatment. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains? Would-be cryonicists forced to give it all up, the de Wolfs and Federowicz write, “face certain death.”
I'm not opposed to cryonics, but I've not signed up. It's a form of Pascal's wager that offers far better odds than heaven, but still odds that seem vanishingly slim. I'd put non-trivial odds on a future mapping of a frozen brain being sufficient to generate whole brain simulation, but lower odds that the frozen brain can be revived. As Alcor puts it:
Cryonics is not a belief that the dead can be revived. Cryonics is a belief that no one is really dead until the information content of the brain is lost, and that low temperatures can prevent this loss.
And while I place positive value on there being some simulated version of me existing a couple of centuries from now, I still probably irrationally place undue weight on that it's this instance of this consciousness that wakes up rather than a copy. If cryonics were available at low cost, I'd sign up. But it isn't exactly cheap. Then again, lots of medical treatments are far more expensive. As Howley notes:
Robin’s expertise extends to the economics of health care, a domain in which enormous amounts of money are spent on experimental procedures with only a small chance of extending life. Like many cryonicists, he says he thinks of bodily preservation as experimental end-of-life medical care, and it is within a medical context that he typically introduces the subject of cryonics to his health economics class at George Mason. His students rarely accept this framing. “We spend most of the semester talking about how people are obsessed with taking any small chance at living longer,” Robin says. “And then when we get to cryonics, it’s: Well, who needs to live longer? What’s the point of living anyway? Why can’t we solve global hunger?”

In other words, while his wife says that medical technology has an unfortunate stranglehold on the way we die, Robin longs to claim the mantle of medical science for his attempt to avoid death altogether. But here he doesn’t expect to succeed, and as with most societal attitudes that contradict his intuitions, he’s got a theory as to why. “Cryonics,” Robin says, “has the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” To spend a family fortune in the quest to defeat cancer is not taken, in the American context, to be an act of selfishness. But to plan to be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning. Those who seek immortality are plotting an act of leaving, an act, as Robin puts it, “of betrayal and abandonment.”
None of this forms a binding constraint in our house. It's rather that, given low odds of successful recovery from cryonics, paying off the mortgage gets higher priority.

If I'm ever able to get over my irrationalities about prioritizing this instance of me over potential alternatives, I suppose I'd have to upweight cryonics.

For folks excessively interested in this sort of thing, check this mindbending piece of science fiction philosophy by Daniel Dennett.

And Robin comments on the article here.

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