12 January 2010

Confessions of a Justified Brain-freezer

And so to cryonics.

I have posted about this before but now I think I am ready expand on that. Cryonics is emotive because it is to do with death and all things to do with death are emotive. Death-denial is perhaps the greatest (and most important) psychological game we play with ourselves throughout our short lives.

Once you get past religion (unless you wish to fool yourself) you are faced with the prospect of your own eventual non-existence in all its cold-gleaming, gut-wrenching starkness. Allow yourself to feel it for a while and then stop. Because there is nowhere to go. You can't rationalise it because there is no rationale to death for sentient beings like us. Your brain will cease to function and some well-meaning (but ultimately complicit) loved-one will put the remains of your unique molecular structure into the ground to rot, or burn them to ashes in a purpose-built oven.

Getting past religion (which happened to me around age 5) and much later discovering something of my physical composition, is not enough. The realisation that death is the end, is not the end of the realisation. Why be in such a hurry for your full-stop? Everything is made of atoms. When you die your body does not immediately fall into a heap of stinking slurry. You have a structure and there is some time available to store the most important part of that structure - your brain. You are your structure - your emotions, your memories, your personality - is all made of atomic structures. Why denegrate those who chose not to have it summarily burnt to ashes?

The more I think about this the more I feel that humanity is making a terrible mistake in the way it deals with death. How often have you heard "it's about those that are left behind"? No. Your death is about you. Granted, you are going to cause them some inconvenience in their time of greatest distress, by insisting that your remains be treated differently when you die. But those you leave behind will still exist as sentient beings in the universe, you will not. If they don't understand what that means then they still have the luxury of time to learn.

What we need are practical measures. Organ donation is now a well-established practice. We treat donated hearts and kidneys with the utmost respect. What about brains? You can't transplant them but does that imply that they should just be left to turn to soup? Why not cool all dead bodies, where possible? This could be implemented in hospitals. There would be a cool-room where all dead bodies would be taken. The cooling would help to delay the degradation of all organs, making more of them available and viable for transplantation. Those seeking cryonic preservation (neuropreservation) of their heads (and bodies if necessary) could be readily catered for. Organisations such as Alcor could collect from the hospitals and put the heads into long-term liquid nitrogen storage.

The above may sound unpalatable to you but what do you care? You will be dead. Does this process lack dignity? What could one possibly mean by that? How about some dignity of structure? Some respect for beautiful cellular architecture?

But this costs money, right? It is expensive because it is a relatively new idea and novelty costs money. Even now cryonics is not prohibitively expensive and it is likely that the price will come down rapidly as more people request it. Remember that when cryonics first appeared in the 1960s most people still had no idea that the entirety of their "self" was composed of physical structures within their brains. We now know this to be true and more people will realise it over time, so it is logical to assume that more and more people will choose cryonics as a result of this.

Do I expect to be 'woken up' from death at some point? No, of course I don't expect it. The chances of it happening are infinitesimally small. But those of us who are used to reading about science and technology quickly develop an ability to 'project forward'. We are cynical about bad science, and bad reporting of science, but also optimistic about the possibilities. We can look at the endless possibilities in terms of probabilities. Is it probable that future civilisations will consider death to be an inconvenience? Is it probable that they will try to do something about it? Is it probable that they would be interested that others before them had tried to do something about it? Is it probable that they might be interested in using their advanced medical knowledge to tinker around with some vitrified heads in canisters in Arizona? Is it probable that, at some point, they might succeed in reviving one? The probabilities get smaller the further down this line of reasoning you go, but they never reach zero.

My thought processes simply don't allow me to think of death in the way that I used to. That will be uncomfortable for some people. I'm not interested in 'moral' arguments against cryonics, as I have never heard one with any substance. I am interested in the scientific arguments, as they are healthy and useful. The distaste for cryonics within religious circles is obvious and to be expected. That is satisfying to know. But, for those of us able to think clearly about death there is no excuse for summarily dismissing the idea.

I have never met anyone who truly accepts the notion of their own eventual death. I have met plenty of people who just shut the subject down, or dismiss it as inevitable and unchangeable.

That is probably true. But only probably.

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