Cryonics, Immortality, and Philosophy

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In 2018, Palgrave published my monograph entitled “The Ethics of Cryonics, is it immoral to be immortal?” in which I discuss some of the most common objections to cryonics and to indefinite life extension more generally. The book chapters are grouped into three main parts as follows:

  • 1) Cryonics as an ethical problem;
  • 2) Cryonics as a step towards immortality; and
  • 3) Alternative uses of cryonics.

In this article, I will only focus on the first two parts of the book, as in the third part I discuss the possibility of using cryonics as an alternative to euthanasia and of using the (hypothetical) cryopreservation of fetuses as an alternative to abortion. The first part of the book introduces cryonics, a new technology, the object of somewhat “old” objections. Those who are familiar with objections against cryopreservation of human embryos for In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) when it was first introduced in the 1980s won’t be too surprised to see that there are a number of arguments against cryonics that are pretty similar to those against embryo cryopreservation (and many new biotechnologies, including human cloning, or genetically modified organisms). New technologies are often accused of being “against nature” or “against God’s will”. In the case of cryonics, the main complaint is that dying is natural and/or what God has planned for humans, so trying to escape death is a form of hubris, an attempt at interfering with natural laws or God’s law, with potentially devastating consequences for humanity. The same people who are against a new technology because it is not natural, or because it goes against God’s will, usually don’t apply the same kind of objections to technologies that are no longer new, even though such technologies are as much “against nature” as the new ones. So, for instance, these people are not against using Intensive Care Units when they are necessary to save someone’s life, even though, quite obviously, such therapies are not “natural” and, given their goal of extending the life-span of someone who is dying, they are also against God’s plans. So, quite often, this kind of objection stops being used against new technologies when such technologies are no longer perceived as “new”, and people get used to them. It wouldn’t be too surprising if, in a future when cryonics is used routinely, it would no longer be perceived as against nature. Another common argument against new technologies is that only rich people can afford them (at least, this is often the case when they are first introduced on the market). The high cost of these technologies promotes inequality because they provide an advantage to people who can afford them (as they usually do), and therefore they increase the gap between the rich and the poor. In the case of cryonics, this gap would be particularly significant because it could make a difference between living for a few decades (as we all currently do) and living indefinitely. A common response to this kind of objection is that the price of new technologies usually decreases over time, and this could certainly apply to cryonics as well, although it doesn’t mean that people who can afford cryonics now are advantaged compared to those who can’t. It’s worth remembering that if a certain technology is considered necessary at a societal level, it usually gets subsidized by the state (for instance, in countries with a public health system, the first IVF cycle is free). Cryonics can be relatively affordable if paid for through an insurance plan, but of course, this doesn’t mean that everybody could afford it through an insurance plan, because some people live in such poverty that they can barely afford food and shelter. But although it is undeniable that extreme poverty is one of the greatest plagues of humanity, it seems that worrying about it only with respect to new technologies is rather inconsistent. There are people who are so poor that they cannot afford basic care, and die of very curable diseases. So, it seems reasonable to argue that the main issue here is not the gap between people who can afford cryonics and those who can’t, but rather a much bigger problem with social and economic inequality, a problem that a ban on cryonics (or any other expensive biotechnology) wouldn’t help to solve.

In this first part of the book, I also discuss objections that are specific to cryonics, such as its being a waste of resources, and its being too risky an investment. Cryonicists are sometimes accused of being selfish, either because they waste organs that could be used for transplants (hence, they choose a relatively small chance of surviving over a very high chance of saving several lives) or because they spend on cryonics the economic resources that they could have donated to an effective charity aiming at saving the lives of people living in extreme poverty. As far as organ donation is concerned, I agree that neuropreservation might be the most moral choice, because it allows use of the cryonicist’s organs for transplants. However, it is fair to say that not all cryonicists would qualify as organ donors, especially those affected by cancer with spreading metastases, so not all cryopreservations, and indeed, probably not even most of them, constitute a waste of organs for transplants. I find another argument quite compelling, however, and harder to dismiss. The money used on cryonics could be used instead to save the lives of people in developing countries. Consider that the cost of cryonics (depending on the type of cryopreservation one chooses and the company involved) ranges between $28,000 and $200,000 and that, according to the metacharity Give Well the median estimate of a lifesaving donation is between $900 and $7,000. So a cryonicist could save between 4 and 220 lives if she decided instead to donate the money she would have allotted to cryonics to one effective charity. If one thinks that they have a duty to maximize utility, these numbers are quite compelling (not all people do, of course, but I think that one indeed has such a duty). This objection based on wasting money does apply to almost all non-necessary expenses in our lives, from bottled sparkling soda to big houses, from cruises to cars. However, one could object that cryonics is different from other non-effective or selfish investments because it is an investment with no returns. While one can enjoy driving an expensive car, cryonics has a very small chance of succeeding (or at least I am assuming that for the sake of argument), hence it’s unlikely to provide any increase in wellbeing to the people spending money on it. This objection, however, seems to fail to fully acknowledge the potentially extremely high gain one could have from cryonics. If cryonics works, it could allow people to gain indefinite life extension, being therefore the most cost-effective treatment one could possibly undergo. So even though the chances of cryonics succeeding are quite small at the moment (again, assumed for the sake of argument), its potential enormous gain makes it, I argue, a reasonable monetary investment. A different order of objections to cryonics is based on the idea that, even if future technology allowed the revival of people who undergo cryonics now, future people wouldn’t be interested in using it to revive the cryopreserved. There are various reasons why future people wouldn’t revive the cryopreserved: one is scarcity of resources (hence no interest in bringing back to life people who would contribute to exhausting such resources, be they economic or natural). Another reason could be lack of interest in homo sapiens. This scenario would be more likely if enhancement were to become so extreme as to transform us to a different species altogether, let’s call them the posthumans. If the differences between us and them were so dramatic that they would view us as we perceive insects, they would have no particular reason to revive the cryopreserved. Cryonicists often refer to themselves as a community and they rely on future members’ willingness to resuscitate them. The sense of community shared by past, present and future cryonicists should (hopefully) be stronger than any future disincentive to revive the cryopreserved. Of course, there is no guarantee that future members of such a community would feel a duty to revive people who had been cryopreserved centuries before, but the uncertainty about this scenario doesn’t seem to justify giving up on cryonics altogether. Let’s call them transhumanists. Finally, another set of objections focuses on the possibility that life as a revived person would be so bad that cryonics would end up being a bad investment even if, technically, it worked out. One possibility is that revived humans would lack the physical or cognitive features that could become necessary in order to have a good life in the future world. If this were the case, and life on Earth turned out to be too difficult or too painful to the revived, they could end up having a miserable life, or even choosing death. It is also possible that, despite a future world being a wonderful place to inhabit, the revived would struggle to adapt to a dramatically different environment where everything is new and nothing feels familiar. Also in this case, the distress experienced by the revived could be so intense that their life could be perceived as not worth living. However, it is impossible to predict which hypothesis about the future world is more likely to be right. Given the uncertainty, being optimistic and hoping cryonics will succeed at shipping people to a happy indefinitely long life is not unreasonable. After all, uncertainty about the future is the hallmark of human existence, with or without cryonics. In the second part of the book, I focus on cryonics as a necessary step toward indefinite life extension. Even though immortality is not necessarily a shared goal of everyone choosing cryonics, cryonics currently is a necessary step to anyone who would like to achieve immortality or indefinite life extension. In modern societies, death is often perceived as something negative, as the ultimate evil that one should avoid as long as possible. Curiously enough, though, immortality is also considered undesirable.

One of the most famous philosophy papers on the topic of longevity/immortality was published by Bernard Williams in 1973: “The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality”2 . Elina Makropulos is given an elixir that extends her life by 300 years, and can be taken many times. However, after taking it once at 42 years, she decides not to take it again and to die at the age of 342. The elixir not only extends Elina’s life well beyond average, but also allows her to stop the ageing process, so that she is healthy and doesn’t suffer from age-related issues. And yet, Elina chooses to die instead of continuing to live because “Her unending life has come to a state of boredom, indifference and coldness. Everything is joyless: ‘in the end it is the same’, she says, ‘singing and silence’.” Williams identifies three features that make Elina Makropulos’ life (or any very long life) undesirable: 1) fulfilment of all categorical desires; 2) dramatic change in categorical desires with consequent loss of identity; 3) living an unrecognizably human life. Let’s start from the first argument against immortality introduced by Williams, the fulfilment of all categorical desires and the consequent lack of interest in continuing to live. According to Williams, categorical desires are those desires, projects, and plans that propel people to the future. Examples of categorical desires are the desire to learn to play an instrument or to write a book. Once these desires are satisfied, the interest in continuing to exist quickly declines. Of course, one could develop new ones, but at some point, after a few decades or centuries, boredom and lack of interest in the future would necessarily become unbearable and make death more desirable than life. Although this is a possibility, it is also plausible to imagine someone whose categorical desires have been depleted, or have never been present, and yet has a desire to live. Not all our desires have the form of projects and goals we want to achieve in the future. Some desires are just contingent (this is the term used by Williams), in the sense that they are prompted by needs. However, it is not so absurd to imagine a life worth living where only contingent desires are satisfied. Indeed, it seems that most human animals don’t have categorical desires, but the satisfaction of contingent desires is sufficient to make their life worth living. It is not unthinkable that some humans (at least) would consider their life worth living even if their categorical desires had been fulfilled and they were only left with contingent desires to be satisfied. Also, it is not so obvious that categorical desires would necessarily be fulfilled with time, as some of them adapt to new circumstances. If we think of someone who has the categorical desire of helping family members, then as long as the family keeps growing, the desire cannot be fulfilled. But let’s now concede, for the sake of argument, that categorical desires are indeed necessary in order to live a life that is preferable to death. It is still plausible that someone living a very long life would develop new categorical desires, so that, once the older ones are satisfied, she is propelled to the future by new ones she has developed. According to Williams (and this is the second part of his argument), such a person would cease to be herself, as personal identity, so to speak, is held together by one’s categorical desires. This objection, however, seems to apply also to average-long lives. Most people, if not all people, have different categorical desires through their life, as it is normal to have different plans and aspirations as children, teenagers and adults. However, we do have the perception that such desires are part of different stages of our lives, rather than being parts of someone else’s life. If our life-span were much longer, or even indefinitely long, we could have the same perception of being the same person through time even though our plans, desires and goals changed quite radically many times. Of course, this doesn’t mean that having a coherent narrative of our own story is not important in order for each of us to be able to say “I’ve made it, I’ve been revived after cryonics and I have lived a thousand years.” We humans organize the past events within a narrative that enables us to make sense of them, that is, in a way that constitutes a coherent story. If we perceived our past as scattered images or episodes, without the framework of a coherent story, it would be very difficult for us to make sense of the past, and hence, to remember it. We don’t know if the human brain can coherently organize past experiences and thoughts for hundreds, thousands or millions of years. If at some point over a very long life the ability to keep the pieces of the past linked coherently to each other got lost, then we would know that we had reached the maximum length of human life. But until that point is reached, it seems that it makes sense to keep living. Finally, let’s consider the last argument against immortality put forward by Williams, i.e. the one according to which an indefinitely long life would not be recognizably human. An indefinitely long life, especially when paired with rejuvenation treatments, would bring about a separation between chronological and biological age. This means that someone could appear to be a 20 year old whereas instead they could well be 20,000 years old. One interesting question I discuss in the book is whether there is, to a certain extent, a correspondence between biological and psychological age. As noted by philosopher Samuel Scheffler, we understand life as made of stages, and we attribute proper behaviours and goals to each stage of life3 . This means, for instance, that whereas we don’t find it impressive for a 20 year old to be able to cook themselves a meal, we would find it impressive if a 10 year old were able to cook for themselves. Understanding life as a sequence of stages, allows us to set goals for ourselves and to compare ourselves to others. We know that there is no infinite time available in order to achieve our goals and to go through certain stages of life, and knowing that we have only limited time forces us to progress at a certain pace. If we were immortal, or if our lives were indefinitely long, and in any case much longer than they currently are, the stages of life as we currently know them would become irrelevant. As these stages would dissolve, we would lose out current guide to prioritize certain activities over others.

For instance, if we had the goal of climbing Mount Everest, we would currently make plans to do this by about age 30, because the human body starts declining after a certain age, as professional athletes know very well. However, if the human body never aged and imposed no time constraints, the mountaineering feat could be postponed until we were (chronologically, not biologically) much older, say 50,000. It is hard to predict whether we would have a motive to do things in the present, or procrastinate as much as possible. Moreover, we don’t know if, given endless time and endless youth, we would still go through the same stages of life. Many people get married between their 20s and their 30s, then have children, and become grandparents in their 60s. Would people still have children in their 20s or 30s if life were indefinitely long, or would they want to have children at all? What if the desire to have children comes from perceiving that the body is ageing, or from knowing that a third of our life has passed by? It is quite plausible that an indefinitely long life would change or dissolve the correspondence between biological and chronological age, and our current understanding of the stages of life. It is not possible to exclude that, as Bernard Williams argued, becoming extremely long-lived or immortal would deprive us of a distinctive feature of being human, and would make our life not recognizably human. However, it is not necessary to be human in order to enjoy being alive, and to benefit from cryonics and subsequent life-extension. It is possible that becoming immortal would turn future humans into post-humans, but that wouldn’t make cryonics a worthless investment, as long as such creatures would be able to appreciate their life (and there is no reason to assume they wouldn’t). Finally, I consider the argument that an immortal life would be boring as put forward by other philosophers, besides Bernard Williams. According to Shally Kagan, an immortal person would become disengaged with the world, because they would reach all their goals.4 Todd May has argued that, after a very long life, one would become bored of learning new things, and therefore could not develop new goals.5 But I don’t think it is possible to predict if everyone would become bored over a very long life, or if some would be more bored than others. In a sense, life becomes more and more boring the longer we live, because the excitement of novelty fades away in almost all realms of life, and even novelty itself can become, in a sense, familiar and less exciting. However, not all bored people would rather be dead than bored, and we don’t know if future technologies, such as for instance virtual reality or brain uploading, would solve this kind of problem. Of course, it is not impossible that, even after the advent of new technologies, life would become too boring or too tiring, after a certain number of centuries or millennia. But, I argue, the possibility that one would want to stop living at some point of their very long life doesn’t make cryonics a useless investment. Just like we don’t think it’s useless to save a three year old, even though they’ll probably die after a century or so, we have no reason to think that cryopreserving an 80 year old would be useless because they might want to die when they turn 300 or 50,000 years old.

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