X-Message-Number: 32182
From: Mark Plus <>
Subject: "What's Really Wrong With Cryonics"
Date: Sun, 29 Nov 2009 06:28:01 -0800


NOVEMBER 29, 2009
What's Really Wrong With Cryonics
Bryan Caplan

"I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it 
through not dying."
                                                          --Woody Allen

One of the most engaging after-lunch conversations of my life was when Robin 
Hanson sat me down and gave me the cryonics version of the Drake Equation.  The 
Drake Equation multiplies seven variables together in order to calculate the 
number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication is possible.  The
Hanson Equation, similarly, multiplies a bunch of factors together in order to 
calculate how many expected years of life you will gain by signing a contract to
freeze your head when you die.

During his presentation, I noticed that Robin spent almost all of his time on 
various scientific sub-disciplines and the trajectory of their progress.  On 
these matters, I was fairly willing to defer to his superior knowledge (with the
caveat that perhaps his enthusiasm was carrying him away).  What disturbed me 
was when I realized how low he set his threshold for success.  Robin didn't care
about biological survival.  He didn't need his brain implanted in a cloned 
body.  He just wanted his neurons preserved well enough to "upload himself" into
a computer.

To my mind, it was ridiculously easy to prove that "uploading yourself" isn't 
life extension.  "An upload is merely a simulation.  It wouldn't be you," I 
remarked.  "It would if the simulation were accurate enough," he told me. 

I thought I had him trapped.  "Suppose we uploaded you while you were still 
alive.  Are you saying that if someone blew your biological head off with a 
shotgun, you'd still be alive?!"  Robin didn't even blink: "I'd say that I just 
got smaller." 

The more I furrowed my brow, the more earnestly he spoke.  "It all depends on 
what you choose to define as you," he finally declared.  I said: "But that's a 
circular definition.  Illogical!"  He didn't much care.

Then I attacked him from a different angle.  If I'm whatever I define as me, why
bother with cryonics?  Why not "define myself" as my Y-chromosome, or my 
writings, or the human race, or carbon?  By Robin's standard, all it takes to 
vastly extend your life is to identify yourself with something highly durable. 

His reply: "There are limits to what you can choose to identify with."  I was 
dumbstruck at the time.  But now I'd like to ask him, "OK, then why don't you 
spend more time trying to overcome your limited ability to identify with durable
things?  Maybe psychiatric drugs or brain surgery would do the trick."

I'd like to think that Robin's an outlier among cryonics advocates, but in my 
experience, he's perfectly typical.  Fascination with technology crowds out not 
just philosophy of mind, but common sense.  My latest cryonics encounter was 
especially memorable.  When I repeated my standard objections, the advocate 
flatly replied, "Those aren't interesting questions."  Not interesting 
questions?!  They're common sense, and they go to the heart of the cryonic 

Personally, I'd really like to live forever - in the normal English sense of the
phrase "live forever."  I wish cryonics could realistically offer me that.  
Unfortunately, the sophistry of its advocates leaves me pessimistic.  If they 
had a ghost of a chance of giving me what I want, they wouldn't need to twist 
the English language.
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