May 26, 2010
Written with much help from here, and throughout Less Wrong; but a casual mention here1 inspired me to finally write this post. (Note: The first, second, and third footnotes of this post are abnormally important.)and , in response to various themes
It seems to have become a trend on Less Wrong for people to include belief in the rationality of signing up for cryonics as an obviously correct position2 to take, much the same as thinking the theories of continental drift or anthropogenic global warming are almost certainly correct. I find this mildly disturbing on two counts. First, it really isn't all that obvious that signing up for cryonics is the best use of one's time and money. And second, regardless of whether cryonics turns out to have been the best choice all along, ostracizing those who do not find signing up for cryonics obvious is not at all helpful for people struggling to become more rational. Below I try to provide some decent arguments against signing up for cryonics — not with the aim of showing that signing up for cryonics is wrong, but simply to show that it is not obviously correct, and why it shouldn't be treated as such. (Please note that I am not arguing against the feasibility of cryopreservation!)
Signing up for cryonics is not obviously correct, and especially cannot obviously be expected to have been correct upon due reflection (even if it was the best decision given the uncertainty at the time):
Calling non-cryonauts irrational is not productive nor conducive to fostering a good epistemic atmosphere:
Debate over cryonics is only one of many opportunities for politics-like thinking to taint the epistemic waters of a rationalist community; it is a topic where it is easy to say 'we are right and you are wrong' where 'we' and 'you' are much too poorly defined to be used without disclaimers. If 'you' really means 'you people who don't understand reductionist thinking', or 'you people who haven't considered the impact of existential risk', then it is important to say so. If such an epistemic norm is not established I fear that the quality of discourse at Less Wrong will suffer for the lack of it.
One easily falls to the trap of thinking that disagreements with other people happen because the others are irrational in simple, obviously flawed ways. It's harder to avoid the fundamental attribution error and the typical mind fallacy, and admit that the others may have a non-insane reason for their disagreement.
1 I don't disagree with Roko's real point, that the prevailing attitude towards cryonics is decisive evidence that people are crazy and the world is mad. Given uncertainty about whether one's real values would endorse signing up for cryonics, it's not plausible that the staggering potential benefit would fail to recommend extremely careful reasoning about the subject, and investment of plenty of resources if such reasoning didn't come up with a confident no. Even if the decision not to sign up for cryonics were obviously correct upon even a moderate level of reflection, it would still constitute a serious failure of instrumental rationality to make that decision non-reflectively and independently of its correctness, as almost everyone does. I think that usually when someone brings up the obvious correctness of cryonics, they mostly just mean to make this observation, which is no less sound even if cryonics isn't obviously correct.
2 To those who would immediately respond that signing up for cryonics is obviously correct, either for you or for people generally, it seems you could mean two very different things: Do you believe that signing up for cryonics is the best course of action given your level of uncertainty? or, Do you believe that signing up for cryonics can obviously be expected to have been correct upon due reflection? (That is, would you expect a logically omniscient agent to sign up for cryonics in roughly your situation given your utility function?) One is a statement about your decision algorithm, another is a statement about your meta-level uncertainty. I am primarily (though not entirely) arguing against the epistemic correctness of making a strong statement such as the latter.
3 By raising this point as an objection to strong certainty in cryonics specifically, I am essentially bludgeoning a fly with a sledgehammer. With much generalization and effort this post could also have been written as 'Abnormal Everything'. Structural uncertainty is a potent force and the various effects it has on whether or not 'it all adds up to normality' would not fit in the margin of this post. However, Nick Tarleton and I have expressed interest in writing a pseudo-sequence on the subject. We're just not sure about how to format it, and it might or might not come to fruition. If so, this would be the first post in the 'sequence'.
4 Disclaimer and alert to potential bias: I'm an intern (not any sort of Fellow) at the Singularity Institute for (or 'against' or 'ambivalent about' if that is what, upon due reflection, is seen as the best stance) Artificial Intelligence.