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« Amino Acids In Space | Main | Space Station Watching »

Days Of Our Frozen Lives

When we last left the Williams children, they were still disputing the disposition of Ted Williams' remains, and had requested mediation.

Talks have apparently broken down, and the matter is going to court, and getting quite nasty. A new witness has come forward saying that Ms. Ferrell was truly estranged, and that Ted Williams would never have confided his wishes to her. We'll presumably see what kind of evidence each side actually has when they get before a judge.

On the theoretical front, Bruce Baugh expands on my previous commentary on cryonics and the ill-defined nature of death. Despite what seems to many to be common sense (as expressed by such trite phrases as "dead is dead"), "dead" is not, in fact, dead. Death is a gradual process of cells winking out, one by one, and absent a sudden dissolution of the body there is no clear dividing line between life and death, despite the apparent neatness of coroners' and doctors' declarations.

Which raises the next issue that I've ignored up until now, which is the vehemence with which the medical establishment and the cryobiological community is so opposed to the concept of cryonics (seemingly emotionally and beyond reason).

Here's an example, in a letter to the editor of the San Diego Union-Tribune, in response to a moronic editorial last week, on July 17. Unfortunately, there's no URL for the editorial, and it costs $1.95 to non-subscribers, which is more than a $1.95 more than it's worth. Here's the abstract:

Cryonics is a crime against natural order

Baseball legend Ted Williams' death has revealed to the more gullible what they may take for a better way to immortality: It's called cryonics and its advantage is that it's not your mirror image that survives, as in cloning, but really you.

People silly enough to seek physical immortality, if that's not a contradiction in terms, have been cheered by the hoopla around the slugger's new frozen home, home at least for now as the family sorts things out. More attention surely means more investment in cryonics, which just may mean lead to an immortality breakthrough.

Beyond that, however, is our conviction that cryonics is one of the dumbest ideas we've ever come across. Even if Williams' immortality were possible -- which it never will be because of the impossibility of recreating the millions of cells that constituted the "Splendid Splinter" in, say, 1941, the year he hit .406--who could wish such a thing?

And here is the letter cheering on this idiocy:

From 1986-1992, I served as chairman of the Committee on Evolving Trends in Society Affecting Life for the California Medical Association. This panel, surely a candidate for first prize in length of title, actually served as the association's ethics committee.

About 14 years ago, the Hemlock Society pushed legislation in California that would allow physicians to be involved in "assisted suicide." Naturally, our committee discussed this legislation at length and the association adopted our recommendation against enactment it. It subsequently was defeated.

Concurrently, a physicist in Sunnyvale, diagnosed with a slow-growing brain malignancy, sued his local district attorney and coroner and the state attorney general to allow his physician to euthanize him in advance of natural demise so that his head could then be frozen and stored by the Alcor Foundation.

Phil Donahue planned a program to discuss this suit and invited me to participate in debate with the plaintiff, the then-director of the Alcor Foundation and its attorney. I expressed reluctance to engage in a debate with three opponents, only to be assured that 150 people in the audience would surely be "on my side." Participation was an experience I will never forget ? and the assurance was on the mark.

You are absolutely correct in that an idea such as cyonics "is an offense against human nature, against natural law, against the natural order of all life." The fact that several hundred people have accepted this cockamamie concept and contributed tens of thousands of dollars is sufficient evidence that the evolvement of human beings as highly intelligent creatures is far from complete.

Elfin Forest

"Elfin Forest" seems an appropriate abode somehow.

Both the editorial writer and the good doctor (even ignoring their lack of understanding of the concept) make the "argumentum ad naturum" fallacy--the notion that that which is natural is therefore intrinsically good. I've discussed the fallaciousness of this argument in the past.

Why the hostility? Part of the answer, I think, is that it represents a major paradigm shift, and the scientific community has never been very good at handling those, at least not quickly.

But a more fundamental reason, I believe, is that if you accept the cryonicists' argument, it is tantamount to accepting the notion that almost everyone who is prematurely declared dead, and is then either buried to rot or burned beyond recognition, is being unwittingly murdered.

And if that's the case, it is the greatest holocaust in history, being performed out of ignorance rather than malice. If I were a member of the medical profession, I'd find the ethical implications of standard practice to be, at the least, extremely troubling. It's much easier to pretend that the old ways are the best, because it doesn't arouse any such potential moral dilemmas.

[Update at 11:30 AM PDT]

Eric Olsen indicates that he still doesn't quite grok the concept.

Rand says that most of the people being frozen for cryonic purposes are within that range and aren't truly "dead" yet. Even this is possible I suppose. But attendant to this point is a dirty little secret, or I don't know if it's a real secret, but I haven't seen anything on it yet: freezing the body does not stop the process of deterioration, it only slows it down. The periods of time we are talking about before science is going to solve the problems required to revive a "dead," deep-frozen body, let alone a freaking DISEMBODIED HEAD, are very long indeed - somewhere between dozens and thousands of years - and during all of that time the body is slowly deteriorating, becoming DEAD not just "dead." And once it's REALLY DEAD, it is dead, trite phrase or not.

At liquid nitrogen temps, it slows it down to the point that it might as well be stopped (unless Eric has some actual data to the contrary), particularly if vitrified, in which the body takes on a glasslike state. There will be very little deterioration over a period of decades (which is all that most cryonicists are expecting will be necessary for the required technology advances). Repeating once again, cryonicists are not making any guarantees--they're just doing the best that can be done, with the technology available at any given time.

Next, in response to my comment here, in response to someone's concern about being reanimated as the same old and decrepit person that was originally suspended, that:

"It is assumed that any technology that can repair the extensive damage caused by freezing can repair anything, so reanimated patients would presumably be restored to youthful vigor. It's not an unreasonable assumption."

Eric asks:

From a scientist (or engineer) who is very careful to distinguish between science and belief, this strikes me as bizarre. This is clearly a belief. It does not strike me as unreasonable to think we might reach a point in the future when we can repair the "extensive damage caused by freezing." I don't know it might be, and it could be hundreds of years, but I'll accept that as a reasonable possibility. But how do you get from there to "repair anything"? Repair incinerated bodies? Repair bodies crushed and encased in molten steel? Repair a broken relationship? Repair original sin? What can this open-ended nonsense mean? And why is it not "an unreasonable assumption"?

It's simple logic. The damage to cells caused by the freezing process is tremendous. It is a much worse structural insult than the result of almost any known disease. Apparently Eric doesn't understand just how difficult a problem reanimating a corpsicle will be.

Any future technology that is capable of repairing that amount of damage would find restoring the cells to full health a trivial additional task, and in fact, it would be difficult to reanimate a person without restoring her to full youth and vigor, almost automatically. Reanimation, if it works at all, can reasonably be expected to work well, and if the technology hasn't advanced to that point, then it won't be done, per the guidelines of the cryonics contract.

Finally, he responds to my point above about the holocaust:

Regarding the medical community, I don't think they are opposed to cryonics because they are afraid of being declared murderers for declaring only-sort-of-dead-bodies dead. I think they are against it because it is a waste of time and money and space and hope. Science has always moved forward and the point at which people were thought to be dead, or as good as dead, has moved forward over time along with it. I am reminded of a Monty Python scene where the cart comes around for plague victims:

"Bring out your dead."
"I'm not dead yet."
"But you may as well be."

People with fatal diseases have been "as good as dead" for most of history. In fact it wasn't that long ago that simply being really old was thought of as good as dead, and the codgers were sent off to die in a cave after they reached a certain age. We do not hold doctors responsible retroactively for actions based upon the knowledge of the day. This would be absurd. Doctors, along with everyone else, can only act upon what they know. We don't blame medieval physicians for drilling holes in people's heads to let out the bad spirits, it's what they did at the time.

That's exactly my point. Just what is the "knowledge of the day"? Cryonicists believe (with some basis) that their knowledge is the knowledge of the day. The arguments in their favor are, to me, irrefutable, if disconcerting. To think that no future technology will exceed our own, or be capable of repairing a suspendee, is hubris of the highest order. But if the medical profession accepts that knowledge, it has very unpleasant implications, in which they must either suspend all, or accept the fact that they're murdering all.

The "holocaust" Rand speaks of is simply an extension of the rule of "as good as dead" carried to our time: if the heart is stopped, the lungs stopped, no brain activity, and rigor mortis has set in, then there is surely no reason not to declare that person "dead" and dispose of them in a proper receptacle.

Yes, there is. Until you can know for sure that the damage done to the body is beyond the repair capability of any future technology (a very brave and egotistical assumption), then there is a reason. Certainly someone whose body has been burned, and the ashes scattered, is beyond help and hope, but rigor mortis is certainly no indicator of irreversibility. Remember that some cryonicists are totally unconcerned with their bodies--they believe that storing the brain only will allow their survival, and I certainly can't prove them wrong.

But even if Eric is correct, most suspensions are performed prior to that point. Ideally, the suspension team is at the "death"bed, and ready to take action immediately upon legal declaration of "death." The only case in which a situation that Eric describes would occur would be in an accident, or an unexpected death in which the patient is not found immediately.

The morality of the "state of the art" is not retroactive: we hold those in the past only up to the standard of the time. The standard of today is "no visible signs of life, stiffening and turning green = dead." This is not a "holocaust" but simple common sense. And common sense is what is so missing from the whole cryonics perspective. No need to get into the theology, philosophy or morality: it just isn't practical and probably never will be.

"Common sense" is greatly overrated. General and special relativity defy common sense. So does quantum mechanics. I'm pretty impervious to arguments from "common sense." I prefer empirical evidence and logic.

I agree that the doctor should not be held morally culpable if he's not aware of the implications of his actions. But I contend that this is exactly why the medical community can't accept the cryonicist argument--not because it's not correct, but because the ethical and practical consequences would be so tremendous.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2002 08:58 AM
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Will absorb - thanks

Posted by Eric Olsen at July 24, 2002 12:55 PM

What if consciousness is similar to a process running on computer? If ones sense of self is "process ID 001" and we experience "kill -9 001" then the restarted "process ID 002" isn't the same self. Or in the case of Cyonics, I die and am frozen. All brain activity ceases but the structure of self is kept intact to be restored later by advanced medicine. The revived Chris might really be Chris02, a new self with all the memories and thoughts of me but not Chris01 which snuffed out when the brain ceased functioning. I'm a Network Administrator not a doctor but I'm not volunteering for Star Treks' transporters for the same reason.

Posted by Chris Sandvick at July 24, 2002 03:03 PM

That doesn't seem to be the way it works. Or if it is, then you're a new person every morning when you wake up. Chris Sandwick v.20020724 will die tonight when he falls asleep, and Chris Sandwick v.20020725 will wake up tomorrow and take his place.

Memories and personality seem to persist even when the brain has gone flat line, based on experiences with major surgery, and extended hypothermic events.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2002 03:23 PM

Another persective is that the frozen body won't be reanimated at all but instead serve as a source of information to create a new entity replicating the mental processes that corpsicle posessed in life. Extracting the subject genome (and possibly editing for improvements such as altering oncogenes)is relatively easy. We can do it now, albeit as fair expense. The technology is advancing at such a rate that I expect personal genomic assays to become common throughout the developed world within the next two decades.

Deriving the contents of a human mind and reproducing them within another brain is a whole other kettle of fish. There are so many unknowns involved that there is no basis for predicting when if ever this will be available.

Comparing to restoring a frozen corpse to viability starting from scratch with just the genomic and mental data bases is probably no more difficult or easier. Without a source of data though it's definitely impossible. (Although some believe that all information is immortal and can be eventually extracted. I'm not holding my breath on that one.) currently the only source for that data is the original body. Keeping it only roughly intact offers at least a semblence of hope as opposed to letting rot.

I hold out no hope at all for anyone currently frozen but I don't begrudge them the attempt to do something instead of nothing. I wouldn't be surprised if within a few years when the price drops Alcor includes a printed record of the subject's genome in each corpsicle container. It will be useful within the subject's life and certainly won't reduce the chance of a second life.

Posted by Eric Pobirs at July 24, 2002 03:42 PM

The language of holocaust rubs me the wrong way, and I'm more sympathetic to the cause than a lot of bystanders are. It seems an...ineffective rhetorical stance, at least without a whole lot more framing.

Posted by Bruce Baugh at July 24, 2002 04:42 PM

Perhaps. I intentionally use it for shock value, to try to shake people out of their paradigm, and get them to view it through a different lens.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2002 05:01 PM

Re: Rands comments

In sleep the brain continues to be quite active, I'm thinking of complete cessation of brain activity. And yes, the implication is that someone recovering from brain flat-line is a new self. I have no idea if such a notion is verifiable in any way, since the primary source of confirmation is the now recovered patient who has full knowledge of who he was. But self may be more than just the stored memories and personality but an emergent property of the continuous interaction of the entire system. A self-aware process killed on a computer will be replicated identically in every way so that it is impossible to tell them apart. But for that killed process, identity stopped with the kill(or did it?). Similiarly did my sense of self stop with the cessation of the system that is my noggin? There's enough doubt for me there that I wouldn't volunteer to be disintegrated and reassembled somewhere else. Or for cryonics unless I'm already declared dead before being frozen. Uploading becomes a more complicated proposition as well.

Posted by Chris Sandvick at July 24, 2002 05:29 PM

Really very fascinating - I've learned a lot. I've posted a response to the response and thanks very much.

Posted by Eric Olsen at July 24, 2002 06:24 PM

Referring back to Chris original post and the analogy to processes, ISTM that cryonics isn't so much forking a new process as suspending Chris001 and then (hoping to be able to) resume it later.

Posted by Rick C at July 25, 2002 04:51 PM

Re: Rick C
"suspending process" That's the hope and maybe it will work that way. The computer analogy may well have no relation with the actual operation of the brain. But from the moment that we are born to the time the brain flatlines that brain is continually active. Freezing won't capture that activity. If self isn't storage but the running process then you haven't cheated death. Either way, my revived brain will likely be saying cyonics was a great idea. I'm just not sure that it would be me.

Posted by Chris Sandvick at July 26, 2002 09:33 AM

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