22 September 2015

Cryonics: A Probability Greater Than Zero

Frozen to Life cryonics glass brain
Since the recent publication of Kim Suozzi’s story in The New York Times, interest in cryonics has spiked. This is hardly surprising, as Kim’s story is such a heart-rending one. It has evoked much polarised debate. I discuss Kim’s case briefly in my book Frozen to Life. Like me, Kim chose neuropreservation – technically, preservation of the brain, but in practice, preservation of the entire cephalon (head). Unlike me, she is now a de facto ‘cryonaut’ – a person actually cryopreserved. At Alcor’s facility in Scottsdale, Arizona, her head will remain indefinitely in a ‘neurocan’ inside a stainless-steel dewar, bathed in liquid nitrogen and monitored constantly by ‘crackphone’.

I know it sounds bizarre. ‘Cryonicists’ like me are well aware that the majority will find this process at very least distasteful. Some view it as nothing but a weird 21st-century burial practice, perhaps comparing it to Pharaonic embalming. Others see it as desecration of dead bodies. Most critics highlight cost, accusing Alcor and other cryonics organisations of swindling the vulnerable into parting with $80,000 plus for a chimera of immortality.

What the critics don’t come up with is an alternative. One consequence of sapience is that persons don’t want to die. What are we to do about this plangent cry for continued existence? Tell people to get back in their rotting-boxes?

Neuroscientist Ken Hayworth supports cryonics research but criticises Alcor’s preservation methods. His Brain Preservation Foundation is developing a new method – Aldehyde-Stabilised Cryopreservation (ASC) – involving use of glutaraldehye fixative to stabilise brain ultrastructures such as neurons and neurites by crosslinking proteins. ASC is aimed at preventing the osmotic dehydration, and consequent tissue shrinkage, seen in fixative-free cryopreservation methods.

Hayworth is involved in a heated debate with Alcor about cryopreservation techniques. This is science in action, and it is healthy. Less constructive is his criticism of Alcor’s financial model (suggestions from him on improvements to Alcor’s insurance-funded, non-profit set-up would be welcome). Hayworth understands the importance of trying to preserve brains, and to preserve them as best we can using the available technology. Poignantly, he compares destroying brains in the customary manners to the burning of the Great Library of Alexandria. I take a similar line in Frozen to Life, where I ponder how future civilisations will look upon our wanton failure to preserve these most unique and irreplacable data stores. I find this behaviour crass and negligent.

But methodological debate aside, Hayworth and the cryonics organisations agree that brain ultrastructure preservation with a view to future data extraction – or even quickening – is a worthwhile pursuit. Seeing so much to gain, and the probability of success (at some time in the future by some future method) as greater than 0, they proceed with their immense endeavour.

Meanwhile, however, the zero-probabilists – including Michael Hendricks of McGill University – are industriously constructing not technical alternatives but absolute dismissals. Is he really saying that extraction of data from preserved brains in not, even in principle, possible? Not even a little bit? Not even with neurotechnologies centuries advanced from our own? His view is that cryonics is ‘a purposeful conflation of what is theoretically conceivable with what is ever practically possible.’

There is a vitalist tone to Hendricks’ piece. Neurophilosophy arose because scientists and thinkers found that philosophy and neurophysiology taken in isolation each failed to explain adequately the consequences and contradictions of consciousness. Hendricks might consider delving further into this field before pre-loading personal-identity-related questions like ‘What is this replica? Is it subjectively “you” or is it a new, separate being?’

As an Alcor member, I’m hardly an impartial observer of this debate. My plea is simply for intellectual rigour and empathy from both sides. I find current death customs crass, but I understand something of where they came from and why they matter to people. Absolute dismissals of the scientific efforts of cryonicists rankle, but I understand why scientists guard against ‘false hopes’ created by pseudo-scientific claims. As a non-scientist advocate of cryonics, I merely expect neuroscience researchers both supportive and critical of its claims to attempt their falsification. That is their job, after all. I think, in this way, we will eventually come to see cryonics at least as a pattern-storage technology, and certainly no longer as an adjunct to death rituals.

Probabilistically speaking, Kim’s chances may be infinitesimally small, but can you be absolutely sure that they’re precisely equal to 0?

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