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Freezing critique: privileged views and cryonics

Cryonics – the practice of freezing people directly after death in the hope that future medicine can resuscitate them – is controversial. However, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction with an explicit anti-cryonics law (banning advertising or sale of cryonics services), and a legal challenge is apparently being put together. The motivations for the law appear murky, but to some this is a rights issue. As Zoltan Istvan notes, “In a world where over 90 percent of the people hold religious views of the afterlife, cryonics could become a noteworthy global civil rights issue. ” Maybe the true deep problem for getting cryonics accepted is that it is a non-religious afterlife, and we tend to give undue privilege to religious strange views rather than secular strange views.

Ethically, it seems that disposing of bodies should largely follow the wishes of the deceased. This sometimes leads to legal clashes. Many jurisdictions clearly specify how human remains should be disposed, typically with a list of approved methods. In the past the cremation movement fought for the legal right of their preferred form of disposal, succeeding in most of the West where previously burial (on land or at sea) had been the sole approved form: changes do happen over time. Right now a freeze-drying methods for a low-carbon disposal is struggling to get approval. However, currently cryonics is handled as an anatomical donation and hence works differently legally.

There are also practical limitations to how far wishes can be followed. While some Westerners no doubt find the idea of Tibetan sky burial green and appealing, it would likely not be practical in many parts of the world. In India the Zoroastrian version has been forced to be augmented with solar mirrors and captive vulture breeding. A wish that imposes too much effort and obligation on the community would be excessive. However, cryonics is typically fully paid for by the individual, so the only economic loss would be in terms of inheritance (which does cause occasional legal wrangling) and the social obligations are relatively mild (leaving the suspended person suspended until the future; visits are optional).

However, cryonics seem to be challenged far more strongly by friends, family and medical establishment than a corresponding religious belief about burial and afterlife. A Christian patient demanding last rites in order to have a chance at the future resurrection of the body is not seen as excessive or irrational. There is of course a certain degree of religious social capital used here, since less mainstream last rites and beliefs are more likely to be challenged (just as mainstream acceptance of circumcision normalizes something that per se is obviously against widely accepted medical ethical principles; had it been a new practice without the social capital it would have been unlikely to be accepted).

A key part is that cryonics attempts to justify itself on rational, non-religious grounds. According to cryonic belief, enough information about the original bodily state is hopefully retained at the end of the suspension process (acknowledged as being damaging to tissues and dependent on certain biomedical assumptions) that conceivably future technologies could extract it and repair the body. The reasons for this are partially based on empirical investigations in cryobiology (e.g. how tissues are affected by different cryoprotectant formulas and cooling regimens, the effects of different suspension methods, how thawed tissue samples function, decay rates in storage, etc.), but also a set of hazier assumptions about the future (e.g. the limits of technology, the likelihood of restorative medicine becoming powerful enough, that suspension companies can remain viable long enough, that future generations will have motivations to resuscitate suspended people etc.)

It is not uncommon to hear people claim these future assumptions constitute pure faith or pseudoscience, which tends to annoy many cryonicists since they consider their views wholly based on a scientific worldview. But even given a wholly scientific worldview there are many issues where present uncertainty can only allow us to make guesses and take gambles on what will and will not work. And while the ultimate test of cryonics – suspension and resuscitation of a mammal – remains far off today, it can be pursued in a scientific manner through attempted stepwise improvement of current cryobiological methods or pursuit of cell-repair methods: the goal is no less pseudoscientific than exascale computing, although the roadmap is far hazier (so pseudoscience claims need to show that there are no serious attempts to make the roadmap better). However, my argument does not hinge on the actual rationality of cryonics.

The problem for cryonics is that by framing itself as a naturalistic, rational method it also opens itself up to criticism that religious practices avoid – in my opinion an unfair difference.

Relatively few would question beliefs in bodily resurrection – at least to the dying believer’s face – despite the many problems with it (my favourite is the cannibal issue). In fact, we respect religious freedom so deeply that we allow it to affect medical decisionmaking in tricky ways. The most extreme cases such as conscientious objection to certain practices, attempts to control deep preferences in children and adolescentsJehovah’s Witnesses requiring risky blood substitutes, the withholding treatment to children or employees, show that liberal democracies are willing to bend to the wishes of religious people in a medical context to a fairly strong extent (even if there are limits). The fact that the given examples are a matter for academic ethical, and practical legal and medical debate rather than overruled by institutional practice is telling.

One of the effects of religious freedom is that criticising a religiously motivated wish or decision becomes controversial: it can easily be regarded as an attack on the freedom of the believer rather than a criticism of an idea or behaviour (since the believer strongly identifies with their belief). Even though freedom of thought and speech also implies freedom to point out where others are thinking wrong, normal conflict-avoidance and attempts to respect other’s rights often dampen the criticism. How we mumble at the family reunion when grandmother expresses a bigoted view about pagans or our uncle expounds on his latest New Age conspiracy theory!

However, a non-religious rational belief, claimed to be based purely on assessments of fact, has no such protection. We might still not want to argue too much with the conspiracy theorist or anti-vaccination believer (partially because their claimed rational view is often more motivated by other reasons and would be defended as vigorously as any religious claim), but somebody who thinks there should be a flat tax, that asteroid mining is a good idea, or that statins are great is fair game. Cryonics claims to be rational, so one can legitimately grill it about its claims. Most people grill cryonicists about other things (like overpopulation, selfishness etc.) but a fair amount of scientific debate and criticism can take place too. Much of it is ill-informed, but that is again amenable to rational discussion.

The problem is when grilling claims turns into discouraging of burial wishes or even actual obstruction. The fact that one can criticise a position much more freely seem to predispose people to think that it is less worth respecting. While we can doubt the rationality of cryonics, it is by no means stranger than other religiously motivated medical treatments (like maintaining brain-dead patients indefinitely on life support) that are accepted out of respect of the beliefs of people.

Suppose cryonics was clearly a religion, believing that after the Singularity the Great Friendly AI God will with 100% certainty perform a bodily resurrection on the faithful who got the proper technological rites. It seems that resistance to this view would be far lower than for the far less outrageous claim that some current suspension techniques have a certain chance of working well enough that a suspended body lucky enough to reach a decades-away future intact has some small chance of being repaired into a living person. A doctor would likely regard the later as a pseudoscientific futurist view that also uncomfortably parodies some of the tenets of modern medicine (we most dislike the crazy people who believe almost what we do, not the crazies with fundamentally alien views). Various obvious technical counterarguments (ice crystals, ischemia, microembolisms) would present themselves and if not dealt with in impressive detail would seem to undermine the rationality of the patient. This is of course irrelevant to whether the patient should be allowed to make cryonics preparations or avoid autopsy, but the religious patient would have a significant advantage in securing support or at least acquiescence from medical authorities.

It seems that the case for treating cryonics any worse than a faith-based view is flawed. Since the actual eventual efficacy is unknown it might not make sense for medicine or society to treat it as any better either, until better evidence arrives. But since it does represent an important wish for patients (literally a matter of life and death), the practical issues are minor to outsiders, and it is not fundamentally against the ethos of a pluralistic society or other people’s rights, discouraging or obstructing it is unethical.

However, the underlying problem might be that cryonics does speak against a lot of deep-seated views. It is essentially naturalistic (if not necessarily anti-dualist) and would if it worked offer an alternative secular ‘afterlife’. Somebody with a commitment to traditional religion would both think it was in error, and if it worked it might constitute a threat or even refutation to their own core beliefs. Whether expressed explicitly or not, these are powerful motivators for them to not accept cryonics. Given that their misgivings also occur within the critique-privileged religious sphere while cryonics is in the unprivileged rational sphere, they have a rhetorical and social advantage.

I do not think cryonics should turn itself into a religion in order to gain social advantage (some cryonicists are trying) since it is somewhat intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think we need to recognize the problem that we too easily let irrational beliefs slip away because they dress up in religious clothing. We also tend to mix up that just because a belief can (and maybe should) be criticized, acting on it can justifiably be obstructed. For that, we need stronger moral reasons.


(Full disclosure: I have a cryonics contract myself. I think cryonics has a good enough chance to work – maybe 10% – that it is rational for me to pay a few pounds per month for it. But this is a crude backup plan: I rather get immortal by not dying.)

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19 Comment on this post

    1. Hmm, I am not convinced from that paper that cryonics is widely seen as a religious practice. That it can be constructed as one, that it has similarities, yes, but not that it is widely regarded as religious by others. (Also, Capitalizing the Industry looks Pretentious).

      As for circumcision, just do a search on this blog for the topic to see a sizeable number of essays analysing it. The fact that these arguments are curiously ineffective in real-world debates is actually interesting: it shows the weakness of ethics in swaying opinion and behavior when they are entrenched by cultural patterns.

  1. Makes you wonder why religions aren’t jealous the other way. They should take the fact that we don’t feel free to openly criticize them as indicating that we don’t take them as seriously and literally as cryonics folks take their practice.

    1. I suspect most religious conservatives feel like they have numerous antagonists that are openly criticizing them — even if their antagonists feel like they’re restraining themselves.

  2. Anders Sandberg:

    I have provided you with a link to comprehensive info on male circumcision.
    You hold a view that is contrary to that of all major scientific societies, WHO, UNAIDS, etc.

    My confidence in your judgement is sharply reduce after your comment.

    1. Don’t make me sic Brian Earp on you 😉 There are more than enough essays on the problematic medical ethics of circumcision on this site (just search). That various big organisations (sometimes *strongly*) defend views professional ethicists find wrong is interesting from a sociological point of view.

  3. Thank you Anders Sandberg for an excellent article. Really enjoyed reading it. Thank you also for linking to my British Columbia story. I appreciate that. Cheers, Zoltan Istvan

  4. There is a strong religious case for resuscitation generally, and thereby considerable grounds for a religious case for resuscitation technologies like cryonics. While it may be intellectually dishonest for a non-religious person to pretend to religiosity simply to promote resuscitation technologies, it’s not intellectually dishonest for a religious person to point out the religious case for resuscitation technologies.

  5. Don’t you think there are more important ethical issues, like bringing more justice in the distribution of wealth and goods? Even if cryogentics was worth of any scientific interest, it would make no social improvement overall unless it took place in a society where insitutions ensured a form of justice that not only prevents, but also dimishes the increasing gap between the wealthiest and the poorest.

    1. There are likely *way* more important ethical and practical issues (like reducing existential risk, extreme poverty, ageing or bad governments). But does that mean less important activities must stop? Does it mean people may not pay for things that benefit them?

      Many people seem to assume cryonics is a huge, expensive enterprise that is actually competing with other research enterprises, and that lots of people want to sign up and would hence, if it succeed, pose intergenerational and intragenerational justice problems. In practice cryonics after 50 years is a minuscule niche activity with a few thousand signed up and the low hundreds suspended, plus self-funded research (which incidentally may be relevant for storage of transplant organs regardless of how cryonics fares). Unless cryonics becomes something much larger it is not going to affect social justice in the least.

      (And if cryonics ever does go big, it would likely be because it would allow suspensions as a way around limitations in health care: that might potentially be good for social justice if the costs work out: instead of not getting care and dying people could get care later, a distinct improvement.)

      1. I am glad you are acknowledging that were cryonics larger, it might and would probably lead to social justice issues. But then why promote this research activity in the first place if, in addition to the social justice risks:
        (i) there is no serious evidence that tissue preservation is enough for grounding the possibility of bringing back a person to life (persons are not merely organisms);
        (ii) even if there was such evidence, that evidence would fall short of supporting the claim that the person that undergoes cryonics is the same as the person that would be reanimated in the future (in this case, there is no “eternal life argument” in its favour even if eternal life is intrinsically good);
        (iii) even if the evidence was there and fair distribution of wealth and goods made it possible for a reasonable amount of people to live a reasonably equal life in a cryonical society, the limitation of resources would make it utterly difficult for everybody to live a reasonably equal and decent life in a world where resources were used both for those that benefit from cryonics and the others (in particular if the former undergo numerous cryogenics cycles).
        It seems to be that arguments against (i-iii) plus the social justice risk mentioned in my first reply have to be drawn from a full-fledged transhumanist package. Indeed, transhumanists and other elated futurologists often embrace a version of scientific and metaphysical physicalism apt for arguing against (i) and (ii) respectively; and they often conjoin those two claims with a certain view of scientific progress according to which, in the future, there will be virtually no resources limitation. But as it stands, the transhumanist package looks incredibly speculative and vague, so I really don’t see how anybody spending a dime on cryonics would not do better spending it elsewhere instead — for instance on charities.

        1. I do not think social justice would suffer even if cryonics was widespread: a world where many are suspended would both have far cheaper suspensions (economies of scale) and far lower medical bills (current Western end-of-life costs seem comparable). A world where many wait for resuscitation might have interesting priority problems, but as I argue below, the time aspect of cryonics actually makes justice easier.

          (I) I think there is enough evidence to suggest person resuscitation is not impossible. We have experimental results such as successful reimplantation of fairly complex cryopreserved organs like kidneys, Suda’s cat brain experiments (electrical activity resuming after thawing) and the even more convincing maintenance of LTP in cryopreserved brain slices.

          But my overall argument is not dependent on cryonics actually working. It could be the secular counterpart of burial in pyramids. However, I think a liberal society should let people spend their resources on such things if it makes them happy. There might be things that would give greater utility if they were spent upon, but I think the disutility of forcing people to choose something they do not prefer is pretty high.

          (II) This is an argument which people will disagree on even more than whether the present or future technology will be good enough to restore persons. Some cryonicists hold a pattern identity theory of mind and identity which makes them happy with the option of being scanned and turned into software simulations, while other cryonicists hold a firm body-identity view. Even if one does not subscribe to a particularly strong belief that the restored person is a continuation of oneself (perhaps because there is no fact of the matter regarding personal identity), one can still think cryonics is worthwhile by bringing historical knowledge, fulfilment of long-standing preferences, continuation of social bonds, or simply enjoyable mindstates to the future (the last version was how I defended it when being grilled by Parfit and Singer).

          But again, this disagreement does not give us a firm argument against people actually practicing cryonics. One can make exactly the same argument against religious people believing in an afterlife: why should we go out of the way to let them have the right kind of burial, given that we doubt their resurrection actually preserves their identity?

          (III) As you point out, a key question is how much resources there will be for future people versus resuscitating suspended people. Most cryonicists are optimistic about this. One reason is that successful revival methods by necessity implies certain technologies that are likely to make societies materially resource-rich (e.g. cellular repair, nanotechnology, brain emulation). Another is a simple selection effect: in a constrained situation the cryonauts are likely to remain frozen, since they will almost certainly lack voice and have lower priority than extant people with urgent needs. They can wait: delays do not hurt them.

          When resuscitated, they are essentially equivalent to refugees from another location (which happens to be temporally rather than spatially separated). Arguments why they shouldn’t be allowed into society would presumably also be valid arguments against equivalent spatial refugees.

          One of the effects of believing cryonics is feasible is that you want future generations to actually want you back. Of course, there might be contracts being honored mechanically, but anybody thinking about it will realize that if there are people who remember and care about them, they stand much better chances. That actually has some altruism-enhancing implications: being friendly, charitable and doing memorably long-term good things is instrumentally good for survival. Conversely, having a bad reputation may not only hurt survival chances but even potentially lead to future punishment if the crimes were bad enough.

          There is also an incentive to reduce large-scale existential or catastrophic risks, since while suspended they will be exposed to the sum of those occuring during the suspension. That can become a fairly sizeable risk if one is not ultra-optimistic, and hence reducing global risks also gets increased priority. I would be shocked if cryonics considerations turned people to saints, but having more people with a long-term commitment to the future because they hope to be around in it seems to be a good thing.

          In short, I don’t think cryonics is more selfish than religious people hoping to go to heaven (and might have the same mild pro-social effects). The resource demands are at present far smaller than other activities like public art, astrology, sports or religion, so if one wants to argue against cryonics on resource or priority grounds there are plenty of even jucier targets (that might actually yield useful resources). The resource demands in the future for resuscitation might be sizeable, but since they can also be distributed across time in ways that prioritization among living people cannot do, this still makes them manageable.

  6. Anders wrote:
    > In short, I don’t think cryonics is more selfish than religious people hoping to go to heaven
    > (and might have the same mild pro-social effects). The resource demands are at present
    > far smaller than other activities like public art, astrology, sports or religion

    The Alcor site says that the present cost is 775 USD per annum plus the annual life insurance premium for cover of between 80,000 and 200,000 USD. (Also implied are behavioural considerations. i.e. you would prefer to end your life with some advance warning in hospital and notify the Alcor standby service. A burning car crash or falling off a mountain in the wilderness is not recommended).

    If you are wealthy enough and have no dependents then alternative uses for this money are not applicable. But these costs are ‘dead’ money that will not benefit you in this lifetime.

    If there are income restrictions, then the money could instead be invested in your pension scheme, or health insurance (for Americans), or life insurance to benefit your family, or in a better current life-style. You will be forced to make choices. Indeed you may sign up to Alcor as a relatively wealthy single young man and when the costs of family, mortgage, pension, etc. arrive, be forced to cancel your membership. (A young wife with a baby may well have strong opinions on the matter). 🙂

  7. Leaving aside the social justice question that will require a more specific description of a cryonics society to be adequately dealt with:

    On the possibility of person resuscitation: Nothing in my previous posts show that to be impossible. What I am saying, rather, is that interpreting evidence of successful organ cryonics as (indirect) evidence for successful organism or person cryonics is a bit like interpreting evidence of successful quantum teleportation as (indirect) evidence for successful person teleportation. In other words, this does not come close to a workable hypothesis based on theoretical principles accepted within a scientific theory (neurobiology in the former case; fundamental physics in the latter): it’s sheer speculation.

    On the possibility of invoking speculative metaphysics of person to make the idea of person cryonics more serious: From a methodological point of view, it seems to me completely flawed to use speculative metaphysics to ground or defend scientific claims. It should be the other way around: metaphysics should be informed by scientific knowledge and tackle its subject matter by abstracting from it.

    On your comparison between religion and cryonics, and on the implicit claim you made to the effect that one should tolerate cryonics in the name of personal or religious freedom: Of course I don’t think one should ban people from believing something (is it possible?) or having a quasi-religious practices (be they religious or not, as long as they are not morally wrong and do not interfere with social justice). But then criticisms to religious practices apply to cryogenics as well: it is just questionable to spend time/energy/money on leaps of faith instead of actually helping the world become a better place right here right now — hence my comment about giving money to charities, research for cancer and the likes. In this sense, even buying a lottery ticket might be prudentially and morally better than supporting cryonics: via taxation, at least a fraction of the ticket’s price will directly help further social causes.

    On your claim that there is no selfishness behind cryonics as we actually know it: Maybe, yes, but then motivations for promoting or favouring cryonics seem to hinge upon a view of the world that is remarkably out of touch with the current and future issues we have to face.

    1. Reading again my post I regret that my wording might seem here and there a bit ‘ad personam’ against you, Anders Sanberg. Be reassured that I completely respect your position and am grateful to you for this thought-provoking article.

    2. Feasibility: Hubert Dreyfus famously criticised artificial intelligence in the same way, calling it the “first step fallacy”: you can show that you have taken a plausible first step and then infer that if you just keep on walking you will reach a desired remote destination. Which doesn’t work if you are aiming for the moon. There is some merit to this, but it mainly shows that our reliability in predicting technology is bad, not that destinations cannot be reached. Things actually tend to work out better if one instead looks at what the physical constraints are. That way the feasibility of spaceflight could be argued accurately in the 19th century, and we can make arguments against macroscopic quantum teleportation on bandwidth grounds. The problem in biology is of course that it is messy, so even if I show you that the information we believe is essential for a person is still present after vitrification and that cells and tissues can be revived, you can still argue that this doesn’t constitute evidence that cryonic resuscitation is eventually possible – we can be wrong about the information or the possibility of scaling up the revival. In fact, it seems hard to think of what evidence that would be truly convincing to a sceptic. Conversely, the sceptics might helpfully want to show what the big error is – if there is a good reason for infeasibility it ought to be investigated.

      Personal identity: yes, metaphysics cannot actually do much useful work here, one way or another. If cryonics worked it might inform metaphysics, but right now it mainly serves as a thought experiment just like teleportation booths or the swamp-man.

      Helping the world: I think this is the core matter, really. Do we want to spend some of our resources to improve the world here and now, or spend them on something that will improve our future? I think the dichotomy is false, since in practice people spend resources/effort on improving their own present lives, their own future lives, and the world – it is the distribution between them and the effects of these improvements that matter. Even with cryonics I could participate in the Giving What We Can 10% donation pledge: if I did not have cryonics I would be able to give a few pounds more per month. But if I decided to be a bit more ambitious in my career the donation result would likely be at least an order of magnitude larger than the cryonics cut. Should I regard my career laziness as a moral problem larger than the selfishness of cryonics? Perhaps.

      I think the optimal balance between now/future and self/other is probably biased towards future and other – there is a lot more future and other people than there is present and me. There are of course other tradeoffs: help in the present can be monitored for good effects, and it affects people who we know actually exist, while the future is uncertain. But we can change the future much more than the present (especially by working on xrisk reduction, ensuring there *is* a future). This is also why the value of cryonics to me might be larger than to somebody who is more present-oriented: I expect (based on historical trends) that if I survive long enough there will be more and better life for me.

      I think many people see cryonics as selfish, and this makes them criticise it strongly. But they rarely criticise people collecting art, exercising, buying a health insurance, or do many other selfish but acceptably mainstream activities. This is my original post’s main complaint, that cryonics gets short shrift because it is strange and cannot back itself up with a high social capital institution that silences criticism.

      Selfishness is in my view not bad in itself: individuals have reasons to value their continued existence and life projects. Even if one were to think that one person is in principle morally replaceable with another one, existing values and commitments are helped more by retaining existing people. Selfishness turns bad when it causes unjust behaviour. If one were to argue that cryonics is selfish in a bad way, it puts an extremely low bar for unjust selfishness and probably makes most of our daily life unjust. Unless the existence of taxes is what saves it morally.

      In the end, I’d rather help the world by being in it and doing helpful things than hoping my taxes, charity and inheritance does all the work.

    1. I found Lincoln Cannon’s article interesting and informative. Furthermore, some Canadian cryonicists have been thankful that their legal issues in British Columbia have been getting attention. I’m hopeful for a resolution in the future over there.

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