Bryan Caplan  

Cryonics and the Hanson Family

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Wordsmith Kerry Howley has a great piece on the Hanson family and cryonics in the New York Times Magazine:
"I'm just really terribly curious," Robin told me in January over Skype. "Cryonics isn't just living a little longer. It's also living quite a bit delayed into the future." Peggy's [Robin's wife] initial response to this ambition, rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality, has changed little in the past 20-odd years. Robin, a deep thinker most at home in thought experiments, says he believes that there is some small chance his brain will be resurrected, that its time in cryopreservation will be merely a brief pause in the course of his life. Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness.
Still, I would have written the piece a little differently.  To me, the primary questions are "What is the probability that cryonics works?," and "What counts as 'working'"?  If cryonics genuinely had a 5% chance of giving Robin ten extra years of healthy life, then Robin's right, and Peggy's just plain wrong.  If, in contrast, cryonics had a 5% chance of eventually creating a mere computer simulation of Robin, but only a one-in-a-million chance of reviving the flesh-and-blood man, cryonics does indeed seem like an undue financial and emotional burden on his family.

Either way, what appears to be Peggy's main argument against cryonics is hard to fathom:
I see people dying All. The. Time. And what's so good about me that I'm going to live forever?
Since we're talking about Robin, I'm tempted to actually list his shockingly numerous wonderful traits.  But his merit is beside the point.  If a million innocent people were going to be executed, and you could save one utterly mundane person by pressing a button, it's morally obvious that you ought to press it.   The lucky fellow's nothing special, but if he enjoys being alive, that's more than enough to justify his preservation.


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COMMENTS (11 to date)
megapolisomancy writes:

We can debate the probability of cryonics working for as long as we want but we will not produce a satisfactory answer. Cryonics is *per definition* a form of decision making under uncertainty because it involves stabilizing people at low temperatures who cannot be treated by todays medical technologies.

Since there is negligible deterioration at the temperature of liquid nitrogen, cryonics patients are not in a hurry. It may be excessive optimism to believe that one day we will have technologies to cure these patients and rejuvenate them, but it also seems excessively pessimistic to argue that we will *never* develop such technologies.

It is clear that whatever the probabilities are they are lower than they could be as a result of the kind of hostility displayed by some of the people in this article. The issue of hostile interference with cryonics raises some complicated ethical questions.

Philo writes:

"If cryonics genuinely had a 5% chance of giving Robin ten extra years of healthy life, then Robin's right, and Peggy's just plain wrong. If, in contrast, cryonics had a 5% chance of eventually creating a mere computer simulation of Robin, but only a one-in-a-million chance of reviving the flesh-and-blood man, cryonics does indeed seem like an undue financial and emotional burden on his family."

No comprendo! Robin Hanson's value to almost all other people lies in his intellectual productions, which a computer simulation could do just as well. From the social point of view a computer simulation is very nearly as good as the flesh-and-blood item.

The main question is whether his intellectual productions are worth the expense of cryonic preservation and reconstitution. On this point, no doubt, opinions will differ.

Zdeno writes:

So Bryan, do you assign zero utility to leaving behind a simulated version of yourself? I agree that the difference between eternal life in flesh Vs. Em form is non-trivial, but I would prefer to live forever as a brain scan over the alternative of dying.

nazgulnarsil writes:

costs are only an issue for people that absolutely must spend every spare cent on positional goods.

Sam writes:

Perhaps what Peggy objects to is the personal cost (in terms of fraction of Robin's estate entailed towards maintaining the cryonics): perhaps she weighs the benefit of taking that money and using it to save lives in the present more heavily than the possibility of resurrecting Robin at some far future date.

ajb writes:

Isn't the answer to the conflict obvious?: Robin signals that he values his pet theories more than harmony with his family.

Gil writes:

Yeah, what's with the "flesh and blood" fetish?

Bigot! :-)

Larr D'Anna writes:

"mere" computer simulation? It seems more than likely that a future that could simulate Robin by scanning his frozen head would be perfectly capable of providing a virtual environment to feed to his simulated senses that would be adequate enough to make his life worth living.

Or are you worried that a simulated Robin wouldn't be a Real Person the way a flesh and blood Robin would be?

Carl writes:
If, in contrast, cryonics had a 5% chance of eventually creating a mere computer simulation of Robin, but only a one-in-a-million chance of reviving the flesh-and-blood man
That would be a bizarrely large gap. A society capable of reviving cryonics patients should (then, or soon thereafter) be capable of doing in situ repairs of your brain if it's at all physically possible. One in 50,000 odds that such repair is possible seem ludicrously extreme (we have no good physical reasons to think it impossible given maximal technology).
Chris Hibbert writes:

@Sam: According to the article, Peggy's not spending her efforts prolonging people's lives, but easing their deaths. So your "perhaps she weighs the benefit of taking that money and using it to save lives in the present more heavily than the possibility of resurrecting Robin at some far future date" is a non sequitur.

Brian writes:

What do you mean by "mere simulation"? People are self modifying programs in their natural form. The important parts of Robin will still exist when loaded into a computer.

Why would his family be emotionally burdened?

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