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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Ethics of Cryonic Preservation

In his book Singularity Rising, James. D. Miller ends with a ringing endorsement of cryonic preservation, the freezing of the human body in hopes that medical science will one day be able to revive that body. There are already companies such as Alcor that will do such cryonic preservation. This reminds me of my favorite cryonics joke, referring to a brand name of frozen treats:

Man: Did you hear that the son of Ted Williams had his father's head cryonically preserved?
Woman: Really? So what do you call that, when you have your Dad's head frozen?
Man: You call it a Popsicle. 

Cryonics may be the subject of jokes, but Miller is dead serious about it. He says that his thinking has evolved to the point where he now believes “underuse of cryonics is the greatest evil of our time.” Miller's reasoning is along the lines that if we have some means of freezing people, and we fail to use such means, it is almost like murder. Miller asks:

How will the future judge us if cryonics works and future historians come to believe that we should have known that it would work? Will our descendants think us monsters for letting so many die unnecessarily?

Let us look for a minute at the ethics of cryonic preservation. Imagine you are about to die, and you have $150,000 in your bank account. Is it moral for you to use that money to have your body cryonically preserved? I doubt that it would be a good moral choice.

There are two reasons why it seems that it would not be moral to do such a thing. The first reason has to do with energy use and carbon footprints. According to the web site of the cryonic preservation company Alcor, “Alcor patients are stored under liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -196°C.” (Talk about a euphemism, using the term “patient” rather than the word “corpse.”)

Preserving a body at such a super-low temperature uses up a huge amount of energy every year. The problem is that in today's world, energy use usually requires fossil fuels to be burnt by things such as coal plants. The more fossil fuels that are burnt, the more quickly we heat the planet, and the more we put the environment at risk, making many species extinct, putting many humans (and perhaps even the survival of our species) at risk. Can we imagine how much worse global warming would get if we burned up a lot more coal so that every dead person could be cryonically preserved?

The second reason why it would apparently not be moral to have yourself cryonically preserved is that you could use the same funds in an alternate way, and save quite a few lives. You could donate that $150,000 to some charity which fights hunger around the world, or pays for vaccinations. A donation of about $150,000 would save multiple lives, given that there are poor countries where people subsist on only a few hundred dollars a year. By using the money to cryonically preserve yourself rather than donating to a life-saving charity, you are spending the money on a project that merely has a small chance of saving one life rather than making a contribution that will probably save several or many lives. That's not morally sound.

This argument is based on the claim that there would be only a very low chance of you being revived from cryonic preservation, but is that assumption correct? Let's look at the odds. In order for you to be successfully revived after you were frozen, each of the following eight conditions would have to be met:

Condition 1: You would have to be successfully frozen soon after death. It would not do for you to die  1000 miles from your cryonic preservation company. In such a case, your brain would undergo too much damage before they put you under the deep freeze. You would have to die relatively near your cryonic preservation company, and your body would have to be quickly transported to them.

Condition 2: You would have to be successfully frozen in the right way. Your cryonic preservation company would have to take great care to preserve your body in the right way. This would be a dicey proposition, because they might be freezing people for 50 years or 100 years before anyone got around to reviving a body; so no one would know exactly what was the right way to preserve the body (for example, no one would know whether it was some particular chemical that should be injected into the brain, or some other chemical). Also, the staff working for your cryonic preservation company would have to work very carefully, which might be unlikely (since some of them might be thinking to themselves: who cares, the guy's dead).

Condition 3: Your cryonic preservation company would have to stay in business until science advanced far enough to allow resuscitation of frozen bodies. This might be unlikely, because it might take many decades until such a time. During such a time there might be all kinds of social and economic upheavals that might lead to the collapse of your cryonic preservation company, plus the possibilities of nuclear war or the banning of cryonics by some conservative administration.

Condition 4: The funds you had supplied to the company would have to last until science advanced far enough to allow resuscitation of frozen bodies. Given inflation and escalating energy costs, that might be very unlikely. Once your account balance fell to zero, your cryonics company would probably incinerate or bury your body. 
Condition 5: Consciousness and memory would have to be based purely on physical brain states, and not on delicate energy states that would be lost during freezing. Your memory and consciousness might depend purely on physical arrangements of neurons, or it might also depend on very delicate electrical and quantum state conditions in your brain. If the latter case is true, your memory and personality is likely to get completely wiped out by decades of low-temperature cryonic preservation.

Condition 6: There would have to be no soul that survives death. Based on things such as near-death experiences, apparition sightings, and children who report reincarnation memories, many people believe there is something like a soul that survives death. If that is true, it will not work to try to revive a frozen body. If, for example, your soul has gone on to some heavenly realm, then it will not reappear in your body when someone tries to unfreeze it.

Condition 7: Science would have to figure out a way to resuscitate frozen bodies. This part is very unlikely. We have no promising approach here, other than warming a body up, zapping it with electricity and hoping for the best.

Condition 8: When they revived your body, the resulting personality would have to be you, rather than a new person. An additional uncertainty is that when they revived your body, you might find that your memory was entirely wiped out. So the resulting personality might not really be you, but some new “blank slate” mind that might really be a whole new person.

The probability of all of these conditions occurring would be very low. This is why from a moral standpoint it is far better for you to have your will leave your money to charity than for you to make an arrangement with a cryonic preservation company. Much better to save lives for certain with a charitable donation than to start down some chilly high-tech road that will very probably not save even one life.