What's Really Wrong With Cryonics
By Bryan Caplan
“I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.“
One of the most engaging after-lunch conversations of my life was when Robin Hanson sat me down and gave me the cryonics version of the Drake Equation. The Drake Equation multiplies seven variables together in order to calculate the number of civilizations in our galaxy with which communication is possible. The Hanson Equation, similarly, multiplies a bunch of factors together in order to calculate how many expected years of life you will gain by signing a contract to freeze your head when you die.
During his presentation, I noticed that Robin spent almost all of his time on various scientific sub-disciplines and the trajectory of their progress. On these matters, I was fairly willing to defer to his superior knowledge (with the caveat that perhaps his enthusiasm was carrying him away). What disturbed me was when I realized how low he set his threshold for success. Robin didn’t care about biological survival. He didn’t need his brain implanted in a cloned body. He just wanted his neurons preserved well enough to “upload himself” into a computer.
To my mind, it was ridiculously easy to prove that “uploading yourself” isn’t life extension. “An upload is merely a simulation. It wouldn’t be you,” I remarked. “It would if the simulation were accurate enough,” he told me.
I thought I had him trapped. “Suppose we uploaded you while you were still alive. Are you saying that if someone blew your biological head off with a shotgun, you’d still be alive?!” Robin didn’t even blink: “I’d say that I just got smaller.”
The more I furrowed my brow, the more earnestly he spoke. “It all depends on what you choose to define as you,” he finally declared. I said: “But that’s a circular definition. Illogical!” He didn’t much care.
Then I attacked him from a different angle. If I’m whatever I define as me, why bother with cryonics? Why not “define myself” as my Y-chromosome, or my writings, or the human race, or carbon? By Robin’s standard, all it takes to vastly extend your life is to identify yourself with something highly durable.
His reply: “There are limits to what you can choose to identify with.” I was dumbstruck at the time. But now I’d like to ask him, “OK, then why don’t you spend more time trying to overcome your limited ability to identify with durable things? Maybe psychiatric drugs or brain surgery would do the trick.”
I’d like to think that Robin’s an outlier among cryonics advocates, but in my experience, he’s perfectly typical. Fascination with technology crowds out not just philosophy of mind, but common sense. My latest cryonics encounter was especially memorable. When I repeated my standard objections, the advocate flatly replied, “Those aren’t interesting questions.” Not interesting questions?! They’re common sense, and they go to the heart of the cryonic dream.
Personally, I’d really like to live forever – in the normal English sense of the phrase “live forever.” I wish cryonics could realistically offer me that. Unfortunately, the sophistry of its advocates leaves me pessimistic. If they had a ghost of a chance of giving me what I want, they wouldn’t need to twist the English language.