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Date: Sun, 11 Aug 2002 10:57:37 -0400
From: Sabine Atkins <email@example.com>
Cc: transhumantech <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: [>Htech] [Fwd: E-SKEPTIC: CRYONICS REDUX]
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Subject: E-SKEPTIC: CRYONICS REDUX
Date: Sun, 11 Aug 2002 07:18:09 -0700
From: E-Skeptic <email@example.com>
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To: "Skeptics Society" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
E-SKEPTIC FOR AUGUST 11, 2002
Copyright 2002 Michael Shermer, Skeptics Society, Skeptic magazine,
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With the death of Ted Williams and the subsequent brouhaha over his son
spiriting the body away to the cryonics orgranization Alcor where he now
"resides" in a frozen state as a "patient" awaiting "reanimation" in the
future, I gave a number of interviews because of my Scientific American
column I wrote last year on cryonics (and nanotechnology). Because of the
nature of interviews (and the limited space of only 800 words I get in
Scientific American), much of what I wrote and said got boiled down to my
analogy of defrosting frozen strawberries: "this is your brain on cryonics."
Naturally the cryonics folks were none too pleased with my flippant remarks
(sometimes I generate such responses by following H.L. Mencken's quip that a
good horselaugh is worth ten thousand syllogisms).
I received a number of rather hostile letters, but I did get a very
thoughtful e-mail from my friend and colleague (and Skeptic board member)
Steve Harris, who is both a good skeptic and a supporter of (and signed up
for) cryonics (based on a purely probability argument), so I thought it
be constructive to present my original Scientific column below (this is my
original version that is slightly longer than the original published piece
that includes my acknowledgment of their new technique of vitrification),
plus Steve's letter, which I think is very well reasoned and properly
STEVE HARRIS ON CRYONICS
I have heard from numerous cryonicists irked that you took a flip public
stance about cryonics rather than a probabilistic one. This is
particularly ironic inasmuch as you take a probabilistic view of SETI in
your recent column discussing the Drake equation.
FYI, the Drake equation is just a simple Markov probability chain
calculation, applicable to any future event estimation, from whether or not
the space shuttle will blow up, to whether or not cryonics will work.
In fact, physicist Brian Wowk and I more than a decade ago actually *used*
a sort of Drake equation to estimate in a Markovian way the chances that
cryonics would "work" for somebody signed up to do it. It used probabilities
P1: Probability that your memories will survive your cardiac arrest until
the cryonics organization can reach your side and get your brain cool.
P2: Probability that your memories will then survive cryoprotectant solution
and vitrification in liquid nitrogen.
P3: Probability that eventually molecular repair technology will be invented
that is capable of restoring humans, memory intact, when damaged this badly.
P4: Probability that society will survive development of that technology.
P5: Probability that your cryonics organization will survive that long, as
well as you with it (these can be slip into sub probabilities if you like).
P6: Probability that anybody in the best of futures, will be interested,
resourceful, and nice enough to use the technology on you.
P7: Probability that you'll then be allowed to live a life that would be
more acceptable to you than being dead.
Multiply them all together (we presume that the probabilities are
independent of each other, which is maybe a big assumption) and there you
are. Just as with the Drake equation there are many unknowns, and many
places where you get to extrapolate. For example: I argue in the Krell
essay [PUBLISHED IN SKEPTIC 9-3, JUST MAILED THIS PAST WEEK TO
SUBSCRIBERS] that the timeline is somewhere between 50 to 100 years to get
to the Ultimate Technologies.
What's the probability that a cryonics organization will survive the
necessary 50 to 100 years? You can look at the survival record of similar
investment organizations, funds, churches and (my favorite) cemeteries
that are still in upkeep. Stats are available as to the fraction of all
humans ever to go into liquid nitrogen, that are still there now, and how
long for each--and you could in theory figure a Weibull failure curve for
that. (The first guy ever to be frozen in 1967, BTW, is still in just as
good a shape, and is still frozen. But some aren't).
Do memories survive hours of clinical death? We don't know, but you can
culture living cells from human brains after 8 hours of death in the
morgue, even without any special attempt to cool rapidly. That's a clue.
We think that memories are in synapses, and synapses are reasonably (but
not perfectly!) intact in cryopreparations of brain. It's not the perfect
strawberry, but not mush either. Some fraction of cryonicists don't get
their brains saved (we had one go down in the Twin Towers on 9/11 for
example). But there are numbers for that, too. And so on.
In any case, you see the point. There's no more reason to be snotty about
this than SETI, or anything else in the future. Just put down your
reasons, and your estimates. So long as no physics is being proposed
violated, the probabilities should never be really close to zero. I
personally think the memories are there in freshly (a few hours) "dead"
people, and that the development of the ultimate biorepair technology to
get them out is inevitable. Whether our organizations or indeed our
civilization will survive that time or that technology, is another matter.
If they do, I can't think of anything more fascinating than resurrecting
people from the past-- heck they do it with old dinosaur bones. How much
neater with a historical person?
P.S. Keats' refrain of woe in "La Belle Dame Sans Merci" is "The sedge has
withered from the lake,/ And no birds sing." I recently ran across a
somewhat parallel thought in Steinbeck's _East of Eden_: "Oh but
strawberries don't taste as they used to and the thighs of women have lost
their clutch." That's the one I thought of when I read your cryonics
comments. Perhaps you were just having a bad day?
SKEPTIC, Scientific American, September, 2001
Nano-nonsense and Cryonics
Nanotechnology as the Savior for the Sin of Death in the Religious Scientism
Timothy Leary's dead.
"No...he's outside looking in," sang the Moody Blues in their haunting
ballad in words that would prove prophetic--after his 1996 death seven grams
of Leary's ashes were launched into orbit in a nine-by-twelve inch canister
where they circled the earth before burning up in a fiery finale befitting
the man who had spent most of his life tripping out of this world by
But according to documentary producer Paul Davids, whose graphic film
_Timothy Leary's Dead_ ends with a gruesome scene of Leary's head being
hacked off, he isn't dead at all. He is cryonically frozen awaiting
reanimation. The Leary family emphatically denies it and Davids isn't
talking. Both cryonics companies that Leary contacted in his final
years--Alcor and Cyrocare--assure me that Leary has gone the way of all
No matter, since even cryonics proponents admit that anyone frozen to date
will never be reanimated, unless....
The problem is obvious to anyone who has thawed out a can of frozen
strawberries. When they are frozen the water within each cell expands,
crystallizes and shatters the cell wall. The overall structure remains in
tact while frozen, but when defrosted all the intracellular goo oozes out,
turning your strawberries into runny mush. This is your brain on cryonics.
If even cryonicists recognize this detriment to the "suspension" of their
"patients" (as they say in their optimistically-worded lexicon), why would
anyone bother spending $120,000 for a full-body freeze or $50,000 for just
the "neural unit" (the head, to be reattached later to a cloned body), even
if payment can be arranged through an insurance policy with the cryonics
company as the beneficiary? The answer is nanotechnology. Microscopic
machines with on-board computers will be injected into the defrosting
corpse--err...I mean patient--programmed to repair the body molecule by
molecule, cell by cell, until the trillions of cells are restored and the
patient can be resuscitated. "Freeze--Wait--Reanimate" is the catch slogan
of this scientistic religion in which nanotechnology will wash away the sin
of death. The Resurrection is real--for all of us.
Every religion needs its gods, and cryonics has a trinity in Robert Ettinger
(_The Prospect of Immortality_), Eric Drexler (_Engines of Creation_), and
Ralph Merkle, whose magnum opus on "The Molecular Repair of the Brain" can
be downloaded at www.merkle.com. These works include just enough empirical
data and logical reasoning to give one pause. This is a feasibility study
premised on the fact that if you are cremated or buried there is zero
probability of being resurrected. It is a secular version of Pascal's wager
on God. Since the alternative is everlasting nothingness, the nano-cryonics
scenario is worth the gamble.
Is it? That depends on how much time, effort, and money you are willing to
invest in a program that has only a slightly higher probability than zero of
succeeding. To believe in it takes a certain amount of faith in the secular
religion of scientism--a blindly optimistic belief in the illimitable power
of science to solve any and all problems, including death. Look how far
come in just a century, believers argue, from the Wright brothers to Neil
Armstrong in only sixty-six years. Average life expectancy has doubled,
devastating diseases have been eradicated, and Moore's Law--the doubling of
computer power every eighteen months (it's now down to about
twelve)--continues unabated. Extrapolate these trend lines out a thousand
years, or ten thousand, and immortality is virtually certain.
I want to believe the nano-cryonicists. Really I do. I gave up on
college but I often catch myself slipping back into my former evangelical
fervor now directed toward the wonders of science and nature. But this is
precisely why I'm skeptical. It is too much like religion: it promises
everything, delivers nothing (but hope), and is almost entirely based on
faith. And if Ettinger, Drexler, and Merkle are the trinity of this
scientistic sect, F.M. Esfandiary is its Saul who, on the road to his
personal Damascus, became Paul when he changed his name to FM-2030 (his
hundredth birthday and the year nano-cryonics is predicted to succeed) and
declared "I have no age. Am born and reborn every day. I intend to live
forever. Barring an accident I probably will." He forgot about cancer, a
pancreatic form of which killed him on July 10, 2000, three decades shy of
FM-2030--or more precisely his head--now resides in a vat of liquid nitrogen
at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona, but his
lives on among his fellow "transhumanists" (they have moved beyond
"extropians" (they are against entropy), as his apostles Max More, Tom
Morrow, and others who have reinvented themselves eagerly spread the meme of
this branch of the church of scientism.
Is this science? No. Is it pseudoscience? No. It is what I call borderlands
science--that fuzzy area in between where scientistic-based claims reside
that have yet to pass any tests but have some basis, however remote, in
reality. It is not impossible for cryonics to succeed; it is just
exceptionally unlikely (and new techniques are routinely developed, the
latest being "vitrification," where the brain is hardened to a glass-like
substance that avoids freezing damage).
Here we are faced with finding that exquisite balance between being
enough to accept a radical new idea that may turn out to be right, and
skeptical enough not to be hoodwinked into believing bunkhum. My credulity
module is glad that at least a few scientists are devoting their careers to
solving the problem of mortality; my skeptical module, however, indicates
that transhumanistic-extropian nano-cryonics borders uncomfortably close to
religion, and as such I worry, as Matthew Arnold did in his 1852 poem
"Empedocles on Etna," that we will "feign a bliss of doubtful future date,
And while we dream on this, Lose all our present state, And relegate to
worlds--yet distant our repose?"
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