TransVision 2010 Presentation by Giulio Prisco
CRYONICS: Understanding Why It Failed
Cryonics is one of the great transformative ideas in human history, on par with the invention of agriculture, the industrial revolution, or evolutionary theory. Fundamentally, there are two kinds of new ideas; incremental ideas that advance our technology and scientific understanding gradually, and “paradigm changing” ideas that overturn the whole social structure, from morals through commerce. Examples of paradigm changing ideas are the Copernican system as opposed to the Ptolemaic, earth-centred view of the solar system in astronomy, and germ theory as opposed to Vitalism in biology.
Such revolutionary ideas are successfully promulgated in one of two ways: The first is by “seduction,” wherein the populace and the powers that be don’t understand that the new idea will destroy their most important cultural values and entirely transform their civilization. Instead, they are “seduced” by the “irresistible advantages” while being blind to, or ignorant of, the powerful transforming or damaging effects of the new idea or technology. Agriculture and the industrial revolution are examples of seductive introduction of paradigm changing ideas that transformed human culture destroying the then extant ethical, social and political milieu. Beginning 100,000 years ago with the start of agriculture, these technologies resulted not only in civilization as we currently understand it, but also a in a huge increase in the number of humans, as well as a mind-numbing increase in suffering and a reduction in mean life span by ~30%; a reduction which was not reversed until the mid-20th century.
The second route to introducing paradigm changing ideas is by “insurgency;” a more or less militaristic attack on the “hard core” of the existing order. The work of Imre Lakatos, (a philosopher of mathematics and science), who rejected the idea of mathematics and science as a patient accumulation of ever more complex truth, in favour of a model wherein advances occur as a result of dramatic proofs and refutations provides the framework for understanding insurgent scientific and technological change. Lakatos proposed a model of scientific advance wherein there is a “hard core” of scientific or mathematical theory which is surrounded by a “protective belt” of gentle inquiry. It is work going on within this protective belt that incrementally advances or erodes the hard core of the paradigm. Virtually all of routine scientific research (institutional science) operates in the zone of this protective belt while revolutionary, or paradigm changing ideas, penetrate it, smash the hard core, and thus demolish the whole structure. Cryonics, like Natural Selection, or the theories of General and Special Relativity, is core-smashing in character, and in the case of cryonics, the idea is so antithetical to the existing order of civilization that it can it only be advanced by insurgent means. This is so because cryonics overturns the Vitalistic view of life, challenges the conventional definition of death, invalidates the core tenets of contemporary medicine, erodes the need for a mystical afterlife, radically redistributes capital (disrupts inheritance, bequests, and mortuary customs), mandates a complete change in reproductive behavior, perturbs generational succession, requires space colonization, requires (and supports) profoundly disruptive technologies such as cloning, regenerative medicine, nanotechnology, artificial intelligence, and finally, ends the species and enables, if not requires Transhumanism.
As a consequence, cryonics creates adverse emotional and intellectual states within the existing culture such as survivorship guilt, indefinitely extended anxiety and uncertainty accompanying life-threatening illness (the cryonics patient remains ‘critically ill’ for decades or centuries), prevents the psychological closure that accompanies “true” death with disposition of remains, creates indefinite anxiety about the well being of cryopreserved loved ones, disrupts the intimacy of family interactions during the “dying” process, may bitterly divide family members who are opposed to cryonics versus those who are in favour, and blocks or disrupts deeply held mechanisms for coping with death and bereavement that are inculcated from childhood by eliminating the customary wake, funeral, and other comforting rituals.
Because of the profoundly socially disruptive character of cryonics (and for that matter, Transhumanism), the only way these ideas can ultimately succeed in a time frame sufficiently short to save our lives is by a relentless insurgency; the idea that cryonics was just an extension of medicine and is compatible with religion and existing social and political institutions, while superficially satisfying, is both mistaken and bound to fail. (These approaches are useful as tools or pabulum in that they delay understanding by the culture that we represent its destruction, indeed that we represent the destruction of the human species and its replacement with us, which is unquestionably the most horrible thing imaginable; if they could imagine it, which thankfully, they can’t.)
An examination of the history of ideas successfully promulgated by insurgency reveals that careful advance preparation is necessary and that missteps or mishandling of such ideas during their launch is usually catastrophic. Natural selection and the idea of Drexlerian nanotechnology are both examples of paradigm changing ideas requiring insurgency where the innovators understood the danger these ideas posed to the existing order and took extraordinary steps to launch them with great care, attention to detail, and ultimately with a well organized and militant supportive intellectual militia.
Unfortunately, in the case of cryonics, the two men responsible for its creation and dissemination, Evan Cooper and Robert Ettinger, were intellectuals and introverts; neither was of a practical nature with expertise in finance, enterprise or engineering. They launched cryonics absent any of the detailed preparative work and planning that must necessarily accompany the successful launch of any new idea, let alone a paradigm challenging one, like cryonics. By contrast, both Charles Darwin and Marx were aware of the incendiary nature of their theses and both took decades to research and refine their arguments with meticulous scholarship before exposing them to public criticism. Unlike communism or natural selection cryonics required practical implementation in the world in 1964. Thus, in addition to its ideological component, it required the immediate creation of a variety of goods and services, such as human-sized cryogenic dewars, rescue and recovery teams, perfusion procedures and equipment and so on.
In the medical, biomedical and cultural context of 1964, the year Ettinger’s The Prospect of Immortality was published, the discovery of the structure of DNA was only 11-years old, CPR was only 4-years old, the Uniform Determination of Death Act would be passed until 1978 (14-years later), the first heart transplant was 3-years in the future (1967), and most of the United States had no emergency medical system (EMS) (ambulances were hearses driven by Funeral Directors).
Cryonics started without any significant or detailed forethought on practical matters making an incredibly challenging situation into an impossible one. This resulted in the first failure of cryonics when, during the period from 1964 to 1972 there was an initialization failure due to absence of entrepreneurship (abdication of responsibility for implementation of cryonics to others), no first approximation of technological specifications. no business planning, active endorsement of con men, frauds and the incompetent, failure to define death with scientific rigor and to establish “cryonic suspension” as a “fourth state” as distinguished from life, death, and true suspended animation (i.e., a condition with an uncertain prognosis and an uncertain time course to resolution), use of the words death and dead to describe cryopatients, identification and alliance with the mortuary and cemetery trades, as opposed to the medical and scientific professions, failure to develop any in-house standards of care, either technical or financial and thus a failure to professionalize cryonics.
What was needed was the clear definition of the “critical functional elements” required for a cryonics program in 1964. These included institutional elements such as brochures, educational seminars, legal counselling, management, financial arrangements, cost estimating and the like; as well as technical elements such as an emergency notification system, a perfusion and storage facility and equipment required to provide liquid nitrogen storage.
This did not happen in cryonics until an aerospace engineer, Fred Chamberlain, and a businessman, Art Quaife, came into leadership positions within cryonics circa 1975. It was only then, over a decade after cryonics was launched, that the first rudimentary procedures and accompanying instruction manuals for recovery and perfusion, as well the design and construction of the first hardware for performing cryopreservation, including construction of a mobile perfusion facility in the mid-1970s came into being. These initialization failures resulted in a cascade of follow-on problems; such as lack of adequate capitalization, no access to high quality profession and technical services such as physicians, cryobiologists, businessmen, and cryogenic equipment manufacturers, and most importantly, created intense hostility from the scientific community at large, finally, inevitably lead to the Chatsworth catastrophe.
Distinct from initialization failures, there are inherent in cryonics several corrosive and self destructive ideas that have grown over time until they have virtually overwhelmed cryonics today. The first of these is “temporal load shifting,” or more colloquially, the problem of ‘our friends in the future.’ This utterly corrosive idea that which is nevertheless intrinsic to the success of cryonics” (we can’t revive ourselves) posits that ‘our friends in the future’ have unknown limitations which quickly morphs into the belief that they will have none. Even more conveniently, those ‘friends’ are not yet born, so they cannot possibly object to the shifting of our technological and financial shortcomings today onto a potentially ‘near omnipotent’ future technology is easy, seemingly creditable, and removes the burden for urgent (or any) action to improve things now. This causes cryonicists to increasingly shift the burdens, technological and financial, present and future, onto the people (supermen) who we believe will revive us from cryopreservation, a concept that may fairly be called Trans-Temporal Communism: from cryonicists now according our ability (none); and from our ‘supermen friends in the future’ according to our needs (infinite).
This attitude raises the questions: How accurate is our vision of the future? How much hubris can we afford to have as seers, when our very lives depend upon the outcome? How many of your friends today are willing to pay for all your medical expenses, as well as set you up in a new life while also feeding, clothing and housing you while you are re-educated, retrained and put back on your feet? What moral and cultural code will make tomorrow’s people, or Transhumans, different from Bill Gates, or even the Dalai Lama, from how they treat their friends in need today? An even more damaging extension of this idea is the concept that the Singularity is at hand, and therefore any expenditure of effort on cryonics makes little sense to the young and hopeful. Omega point technology will allow resurrection of everyone – even the long dead – so why bother?
Trans-Temporal Communism leads to the creation of ‘Future Squatters; people who believe that technological advances will happen when conditions are right for them to occur. This is a brilliant position because it is never wrong; it is the perfect piece of circular reasoning that justifies doing nothing. This creates a perverse situation wherein intelligent and talented people who enter cryonics do not, as might at first be thought, find it impossible to believe that cryonics, vast extension of the human life span, or, for that matter, many of the transformational technologies of Transhumanism are impossible, but rather they that find it not only believable, but inevitable that these developments will occur within their lifetimes (i.e., Kurzweil and deGray).
Many, if not most in the Transhumanist and cryonics community believed that ‘history has an inevitable trajectory’ and that it is ‘designed to benefit them personally.’ Even glancing contact with history should cause any reflective person to realize that while the historical trend has been towards progress, the total time spent by the average member of species under good conditions has been miniscule, compared to the time spent under what can only be characterized as truly terrible conditions. What’s more, long periods of darkness and misery have occurred between ages of progress, and without any question the majority of humans who have ever lived, or who are living now, have no prospect of benefiting from progress, and arguably have suffered because of it.
Thus, the core problem in cryonics is the absence of a philosophical and moral basis for cryonics and the accompanying ethics and dogma required to enforce it. The Future Squatters who have come to dominate contemporary cryonics are not merely parasites content to sit and wait until robots show up at their doors with immortality on a silver platter, all too often they are actively contemptuous and dismissive of the (fewer and fewer) people working hard to build a practical, sustainable and robust cryonics that withstand the tests of time and deliver its patients to a future they have created; a future not only technologically capable of restoring them to life; but morally and financially impelled to do so, as well.
||Eugen Leitl is a German cryonicist and transhumanist activist, a computer scientist and an expert in several disciplines including neurotechnology.
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