Having been diagnosed with cancer last year, writer Christopher Hitchens has died. He was known as as an outspoken atheist, which is not, in itself, identical to being a committed rationalist in any systematic way. Even so, he seemed to have the virtue of moral courage, the willingness to speak the truth as he saw it, without fear.

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A stupid waste of a fantastic mind.

Hacker News doesn't seem to be having any of it, either. I got voted to 3rd top post then hit with a barrage of downvotes after Phil Welch's comment. Asking under Crocker's Rules, could I have phrased my comments more... sensitively? The goal of a rationalist is to win, and it is useless to engage reason and data when this meets affective heuristics and turns off the audience.

[-][anonymous]11y 19

I wouldn't have brought the subject up at all (in response to this particular piece of news), if I wanted to avoid offense. Cryonics is a heavily politicized issue. By mentioning it at all, you're doing the equivalent of starting a debate about libertarianism in the middle of a funeral.

Of course, avoiding the issue might kill people. Just remember that killing people quietly is generally less bothersome than yelling loudly, especially on the Internet.

I would actually analogize it to 'criticizing Steve Jobs's wacky dietary and medical choices during the national mourning'.

[-][anonymous]11y 0

Then I shan't avoid offense. It should still be indirectly minimized as to maximize message throughput.

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It's not particularly hard to start debates about libertarianism in places that are not the middle of a funeral. Let's do that.

Hacker News doesn't seem to be having any of it, either. I got voted to 3rd top post then hit with a barrage of downvotes after Phil Welch's comment. Asking under Crocker's Rules, could I have phrased my comments more... sensitively? The goal of a rationalist is to win, and it is useless to engage reason and data when this meets affective heuristics and turns off the audience.

It is hard to argue with shallow declarations of 'distastefulness' I'm afraid. And being more 'sensitive' isn't necessarily the wise approach. Phil Welch's move is an act of aggression. It's an attack at a perceived vulnerability because he thinks he can get away with being completely illogical just because of the context. The best you could do is preempt it with not more sensitivity but by expanding your reasoning such that your position is framed as the moral high ground before he gets his chance to take a shot. Don't be nice to immoral moralizers!

You could have put some disclaimers signaling that you understand Hitchens might not agree with this 100%, but it needs to be said anyway even if it offends some people. Hitch never sugar-coated anything, so I'm guessing being blunt at his funeral -- with properly signaled self awareness about the fact that you are being blunt and taking exception to funeral norms -- would actually be okay by most of his fans. The fact that you just put the link and made it sound like he would have wanted the reader to agree with this article, actually was a bit offensive.

He called you a Randroid. As wedrifid pointed out, 'polite' would not be the best term to describe the optimal manner for presenting your particular views in that context.

Today I cozied up under my blankets, put Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 3" on repeat and low volume, watched The Best of Hitchslap, and might have had tears in my eyes somewhere around this point.

P.Z. Myers, another famous atheist, had this to say:

As atheists, I think none of us can find solace in the cliches or numbness in the delusion of an afterlife. Instead, embrace the fierce strong emotions of anger and sorrow, feel the pain, rage against the darkness, fight back against our mortal enemy Death, and live exuberantly while we can. Confront mortality clear-eyed and pugnacious, uncompromising and aggressive.

It’s what Hitch would have wanted of us.

It’s how Hitch lived.

I suspect that cryonics won't catch on in the atheist/skeptic/humanist community, if ever, until enough people with status in it think they invented it.

Currently these fellows view cryonics as an assault on the common sense and moral intuitions about death we absorb at an uncritical stage in our cognitive development, along with religious doctrines which tend to reinforce them. (See the New England Primer for a famous historical example.) To them we say something which sounds like, "Xerxes the Great did die,/But cryonicists say not I."

We still have Larry King in the queue, possibly. I encourage him to follow through on his plans for cryotransport, despite the fact that for a celebrity, a lot of people apparently don't like him.

While I think that cryonics in principle could make sense, and I don't share the intuitive problems with it, in practice I belief that the changes to be resurrected in a sort-of continued existence is very, very small. In terms of life expectancy, resources spent in other ways seem to have a higher utility.

Now, I may very well be wrong (I'm certainly no expert on the latest in cryonics research), but do you think there is any realistic chance for cryonic success, given the technology of, say, the next twenty years?

Do you mean:
...realistic chance to restore, within the next 20 years, an otherwise-dead-but-cryonically-preserved brain in such a way as to preserve the associated person's continued existence?
or: ...realistic chance to preserve, within the next 20 years, an otherwise-dead brain in such a way that it can at some later time be restored with the associated person's continued existence preserved?

I think the chances for the former are very, very small; the latter chance is slightly better (there could of course be some technical breakthrough), but let's say I wouldn't bet my life on that either...

Again, I'm no expert in these matters, and I'd be delighted to see some research that shows I'm overly pessimistic.

Of course, most cryonics advocates don't recommend having oneself cryonically preserved as an alternative to actually living one's life, merely as an alternative to having oneself burned to ash or buried in the dirt after one dies, both of which seem like even worse bets.

They're cheaper. If cryonics has a <1% chance of working and you're not rich they likely yield more QALYs.

If I take "not rich" to mean unable to afford cryonic suspension without giving up other things that contribute significantly to my QALY-count, agreed. That said, that seems like a pretty low threshold for "rich."

I belong to the We-Have-to-Get-Off-Butts-And-Make-Cryonics-Work School, which makes the usual probability approach pretty useless. Thomas Donaldson wrote that if treat our current choices as the "seeds" of future events, then probability becomes something which we can start to control in our favor.


It's so sad. I got a chance to meet him when he came to speak at my school slightly before he was diagnosed. One of the best speakers we've had.

[-][anonymous]11y 2

Had a shot of whiskey while watching the best of "hitchslap" playlist on youtube. a great thinker that wil be deeply missed. While i definitely did not agree on all his stances (iraq war) there have been very few men I have been in agreement as much as Hitchens.

He will live on through his work though, the only true form of an "after life".

I've just posted a posthumous criticism of Hitchens' dismissal of cryonics to Hacker News and G+:



Spent yesterday rereading Letters to a Young Contrarian. Absolutely heart-breaking.

After a 3 second search, I couldn't find the quote, but I recently read a quote from Hitchens saying he had no political party, and was just a rationalist.

He's said it in many ways at different times, but he seemed to characterize himself as a partisan of Enlightenment values of rationality and freedom over faith and force.

This quotes him as saying,

"I'm a member of no (political) party. I have no ideology. I'm a rationalist. I do what I can in the international struggle between science and reason and the barbarism, superstition and stupidity that's all around us."

I have no ideology.


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