A Skeptic's Guide to Cryonics
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Cryonics is a small industry that provides low-temperature storage (via vitrification, not freezing) of the body and brain on death. The mind is just structure, and that structure can be preserved for a future in which advanced medical engineering can restore a vitrified mind to life. This will most likely involve a mature nanorobotics industry and the ability to accurately and efficiently manipulate low-level cell structures: things that are a long way out but not beyond reach or impossible.

Sadly the propositions of cryonics are sufficiently forward-looking that most people reject it out of hand without even looking at the wealth of supporting evidence or considering the odds in an unbiased fashion. We live in a world in which it is economically feasible to preserve the mind of near everyone who dies: there could be a massive cryonics industry, with cryonics as the default end of life choice. Yet the status quo is to do nothing, and people evaporate into oblivion. Once the structure of the mind is destroyed there is definitely no coming back from that. If our culture were more rational the choice of cremation or the grave would be the one that is looked at askance, mocked, or rejected out of hand.

Can a case for cryonics be made on skeptical grounds? If we'd have to believe self-identified skeptics this is not only unlikely but cryonics, in fact, is a "logical" target for skeptical scrutiny. The most obvious approach for a skeptic is to demand "proof" for cryonics. Upon closer inspection, this apparently reasonable demand is rather odd. Let's start with a non-controversial definition of cryonics: cryonics is a form of critical care medicine that stabilizes critically ill patients at ultra-low temperatures to allow the patient to benefit from future advances in medicine. Now, what could this demand for "proof" consist of? Does the cryonics advocate need to provide proof that future developments in medicine will indeed be capable of treating the patient? How could such a proof be even remotely possible? The most scientifically responsible answer would be to say "I don't know." And this answer reveals something important about cryonics. The decision to make cryonics arrangements is a form of decision making under uncertainty. Asking for "proof" for such a decision makes little sense.

Why has cryonics traditionally gotten such a poor reception by people who see themselves as "skeptics?" I suspect that some of it has to do with the fact that cryonics is traditionally associated with (religious) concepts such as immortality, very optimistic projections about the accelerating growth of science and technology, the technical feasibility of specific repair technologies (such as molecular nanotechnology), or mind uploading. But none of these ideas is an intrinsic part of the idea of cryonics. In its most basic form cryonics is just the recognition that what might be beyond the scope of contemporary medicine may be treatable in the future. No specific timeframe or technology is implied, or necessary. There are a lot of things that people in liquid nitrogen don't have, but one thing they do have is time.

Link: http://www.evidencebasedcryonics.org/2013/11/22/a-skeptics-guide-to-cryonics/


The statement that "the mind is just structure" is too sweeping in order to be taken seriously. While this position does not necessarily is an affront to the idea of cryonics, the proof that is being sought here is to demonstrate exactly that: that the mind and the brain structure is the same thing. Years of studying the brain structure and function by neuroscientists did not find even a trace of mind in the brain. Furthermore, to my best knowledge, there has been no observation made either in physics, chemistry or biology that could identify a process leading to appearance of mind. No known theories that explain the physical world predict appearance of mind. As a result the question of what is mind remains unanswered and until it has been answered, cryonics remains an interesting but unproven idea.

Posted by: Andrius Baskys, MD, PhD at December 9, 2013 1:53 PM
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