Christopher Hitchens is probably dying of cancer.  Hitchens is a well known author, journalist and militant atheist.  Having read much of his work I believe he is also a very high IQ rationalist who enjoys being provocative.  He has written "I am quietly resolved to resist bodily as best I can, even if only passively, and to seek the most advanced advice."

Hitchens should be extremely receptive to cryonics.  Convincing him to signup would do much for the cryonics movement in part because he would immediately become our most articulate member.

I have written to him about cryonics, but I suspect he is getting tens of thousands of emails and probably won't ever even read mine.  I propose that the Less Wrong community attempt to get Hitchens to at least seriously consider cryonics.  We could do this by mass emailing him and by linking to this blogpost.  

Here is an article in which he talks about his cancer. His email address is at the end of the article.

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We could do this by mass emailing him

Let's not spam the guy whose attention we want.

Entirely agreed.

I think that an approach by someone who Hitchens might already have some respect for would be best. Are there any suitable candidates?


I've observed that the world's most awesome people are pretty strongly connected, graph-theoretically. I would bet that there are well fewer than six degrees between, say, Eliezer and Hitchens under the relation "good friends with".

Randi's speaking at the Summit. I'll talk with him.

Thank you.

I'm guessing that if you do that, most of the things we could do over and above that would be positively counterproductive - would you agree?

How did this go? I recall he made a comment in his talk that was less anti-death (with respect to his own life, at least) than we might have hoped...

Of course a different cluster of awesome people not strongly connected to the one we know about wouldn't be one we know about. For example, I can't think of any awesome people who are active principally in East Asia or India, and it's demographically unlikely that there aren't any.

Even worse, I'm not really aware of awesome people who are active primarily in Continental Europe as opposed to the Anglosphere. Europeans use English as a trade tongue, but not really for building cultural communities. So there isn't an easy way to figure out what's going on around Europe without knowing a bunch of languages.

This might be easier to investigate if you gave us an operational definition of "awesome." If it reduces to "those you admire," and it probably does, it shouldn't be surprising that they're all clustered together. You find new people to admire by the recommendations and name-droppings of those who have similar tastes to you.

Okay, the people who promote a certain cluster of ideas centering on skepticism, rationalism, atheism and libertarianism, in the U.S. and culturally connected nations. (Which, yes, is quite close to "people I admire". I wasn't trying to claim it was especially surprising, although I am often surprised at just how tight it is.) In particular: * Eliezer * Robin Hanson * Steve Landsburg * Peter Thiel * Patri Friedman * James Randi * Penn Jillette (and Teller) * Adam Savage & Jamie Hynaman * Trey Parker & Matt Stone * Dawkins * Hitchens and probably some others I can't think of right now.
How About Eliezer, Peter Thiel, Peter Diamandis, done... I know that Peter Diamandis would NOT be turned away by Hitchens... Now, it is just a matter of getting ahold of a few mullionaire/billionaire types...
3Paul Crowley
This is a tempting approach. I'm guessing, though, that if Diamandis was going to go around promoting cryonics to his friends, he'd have done it already; but maybe he'd be sympathetic enough to pass on a letter, or something?
Some may not know this, Steven Landsburg is a member here since I posted a quotation from his latest book. Here is a highly interesting discussion that resulted from it.
The four horseman probably are, one of them being Randi who speaks soon the singinst conference.

The four horsemen are Dennett, Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins, no?

I always feel embarrassed for them when I hear them called that.

They have sort-of adopted the label. I'm thinking of the lecture at which Dennett put his hand up and started a question with "I'm Dan Dennett, one of the four horsemen of atheism, and I'd like to ask..."

Oh my, I confused them.
Most English speakers probably are that closely connected. If you reduce it to "is acquainted with", most people in the world.
The problem with connecting to somebody is to know how you're already close. A depth-6 search of the acquaintance graph is unmanageable from any starting point outside of the few remaining uncontacted tribes.
Perhaps Sam Harris, being that he is a well-regarded skeptic and another of the Four Horsemen. He is also a SENS supporter (fairly close in memespace to cryonics), and, as a neuroscientist, should be able to see fairly easily why cryonics is plausible in principle.
Sam Harris doesn't believe in the existence of the self, however, so he would probably argue that cryonics has nothing to save.
I wonder what that means. Where does he talk about that?

Hitchens is a well known author, journalist and militant atheist.

I don't think "militant" is the right word here. Militant christians shoot abortion doctors. Militant muslims employ suicide bombers. Militant leftists take hostages and hide in jungles, and militant authoritarians form lynch mobs.

Militant atheists, by comparison, write books and engage in debates & mockery (if Hitchens is any example).

Using this term to refer to unapologetic atheists is a tactic used by fundies who want to make the public fear and hate atheists as much as they fear and hate extremists who actually use deadly violence. I don't think we're well-served in adopting it.


In a recent piece for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens makes the following comment:

somebody has written to me from a famous university to suggest that I have myself cryonically or cryogenically frozen against the day when the magic bullet, or whatever it is, has been devised. (When I failed to reply to this, I got a second missive, suggesting that I freeze at least my brain so that its cortex could be appreciated by posterity. Well, I mean to say, gosh, thanks awfully.)

The context (in which this is listed among various pieces of pseudoscientific treatment advice he has received) makes it clear that he is dismissive of the idea.

Which is a shame, needless to say.

I find it very much easier to imagine him being the sort of skeptic that considers cryonics on a par with homeopathy, though I would be delighted to be wrong.

Are you signed up, btw?

He can be highly skeptical, that's fine. Cryonics doesn't require faith for it to work.

He's probably already undergoing expensive and unpleasant treatments that he considers to have low probability of success.

Cryonics is expensive but painless. And if it works, we can be pretty certain it had nothing to do with the placebo effect.

How could he turn down a chance, however slight, to debate Christian theology after returning from the dead?

7Paul Crowley
You don't have to convince me - I'm signed up with CI. But the point is that cryonics has a better chance of working than, say, placing a fried egg over your grave, and that's something people find very hard to grasp or work with.
If a chance is sufficiently slight, it's not worth putting a substantial amount of money into. You're moving into Pascal's Wager territory.
If the chance also has a huge payoff, then it can be worth it. And yes this is very much like Pascals Wager, But Pascal's Wager is a correct form of argument for a course of action, if the numbers come out right. It's just a standard risk analysis. Pascal's Wager is fallacious when used as an argument for the truth of the matter.

"How could he turn down a chance, however slight, to debate Christian theology after returning from the dead?"

My answer is: At some point, "however slight" is "too slight." I stand by my statement. Your initial statement implies that any non-zero chance is enough; that's not a proper risk analysis.

Yes, with Alcor

I'm seriously thinking of emailing Michael Shermer about it. He replied to my last email, and his position seems to be more sympathetic than it used to be; as a celebrated skeptic, he would have some credibility.

I have had the EXACT same idea!

However, my plan was to contact his publicist through Alcor or one of the other Cryonics companies (all one of them I think)

Update: Hitchens has died. Reading various obits and memorials, I see zero mention of cryonics.

Another good person who wants to go out on his own terms.

First question: what about Randi? Is he signed up?

Per Rudi Hoffman, he's "open to the idea, but has not done anything about it."

AARGH! Someone needs to take him aside and tell him to sign up now - tomorrow could be too late. Cryocrastination is bad enough at any age, but at 82?

Skeptic would/could/should be the easy target for mass convincing. Someone there should be able to look up the facts and write nice stuff on it.
Skeptic magazine? I'd guess that it would be unwilling to publish anything very positive about cryonics, given Founder, Publisher, and Editor-in-Chief Michael Shermer's very public anti-cryonics stance.
7Paul Crowley
Shermer's position may have shifted since he wrote Nano Nonsense and Cryonics: when I asked him about it he recommended I read David Brin, Steve Harris and Gregory Benford. EDIT: see also his description of Steve Harris's reply to his article as "very well reasoned".
Are Skeptics known to ever change their minds? I got a bit disappointed, when it seemed to be a group of people that shout basic level cached ideas about religion and new age around. How rational are they actually? A skeptic is no singularist, but at least he should not stop at the easily refuted counterarguments.

Are Skeptics known to ever change their minds?

Christopher Hitchens demonstrated a great ability to change his mind. He agreed to be waterboarded and it took him less than 10 seconds to change his mind about whether or not waterboarding was torture.

5Paul Crowley
There are several examples of people asserting that waterboarding isn't torture and agreeing to undergo the experience. I know of none who have thought so afterwards. Of course, one will undoubtedly step forward - talk is still cheap, even after such an experience. The real test would be if anyone would volunteer to undergo it twice.
Wait. "waterboarding isn't torture" is not a question on which changing one's belief is evidence of rationalism. Asking or answering the question at all is a political ploy only. The rationalist reaction is to taboo the word "torture" and reduce the question to something physical and testable. I don't know anyone who claims waterboarding is pleasant, or something that one would volunteer for in most cases.

The question of whether waterboarding is torture has at least a little bit of factual underpinning-- that's why it's possible for the experience to change people's minds about it.

In particular, people who say that waterboarding isn't torture are apt to claim that it isn't painful enough for anyone reasonable to object to it being used.

Wait. "waterboarding isn't torture" is not a question on which changing one's belief is evidence of rationalism. Asking or answering the question at all is a political ploy only. The rationalist reaction is to taboo the word "torture" and reduce the question to something physical and testable.

Tabooing a word isn't the only response that's rational, especially because that is a not even well-known technique. In this circumstance, what Hitchens change of mind essentially meant is that he agreed afterwords that the experience was so unpleasant that any definition of "torture" that captured his intuition of the term would have to include waterboarding. Cyphergoth's point stands: Hitchens was willing to change his mind when confronted with evidence. Whether there might be a marginally more rationalist thing to do is somewhat besides the point.

I agree with all commenters that experiencing waterboarding led Hitchens to change his mind about the amount of unpleasantness/harm in the experience. I wonder how he'd react to 3^^^3 copies of himself getting dust specs in their eyes.

I agree with your proposal to taboo the word "torture" here in order to properly understand the situation, and that its use is essentially political. Nonetheless Hitchens's expectation of what it might be like as an experience was very much violated, and instead of just giving us all bravura to appear consistent, knowing that he wouldn't have to do it again, he said so, and I respect that.

If I taboo the word "torture", I get: people would rather face the humiliation of a climbdown over their public statements on it than do it a second time.

He never said it wasn't torture... the experience just made him somewhat more enthusiastic in his pre-existing opinion.

Are Skeptics known to ever change their minds?

Will you change your mind if I self-identify as a skeptic who has changed their mind? In this earlier comment I listed three examples of recent updates.

I got a bit disappointed, when it seemed to be a group of people that shout basic level cached ideas about religion and new age around. How rational are they actually?

Pretty rational. These are cached thoughts often because they are generally correct. (ETA: Similarly, for example, when people make arguments here about why qualia should matter, fairly basic arguments are often presented about why they aren't mysterious. Reversed stupidity is not intelligence and all that.)

Indeed, I've found that if anything LW is more likely to take for granted simplistic negative views about religion than much of the skeptical movement. For example, see this thread where a user made a trivially wrong claim about Newton's religion and its impact on his work as a scientist. That claim got voted up to +6. Eliezer spotted that the claim was dubious enough to ask for a citation but didn't do the minimal thought that was required to correct it, and it took me to actually go through and explain why the ... (read more)

Yes. I overgeneralized. I sometimes wonder if 'that is all', the fight against homeopathy, religion, fortune teller etc. is highly valuable. It sometimes seems to me like boring grunt-work where more would be possible. The picture of sanity plumbers sounds nice. Yes. I fell into this trap quite often, and still do.
I'm having a hard time thinking about topics they should have changed their minds about from recent years. Most of the stuff skeptics argue is so terribly wrong that there isn't much chance of anything sensible ever coming out of it, and skeptics end up being more like sanity waterline plumbers than scientists. There might be an analogy to psychiatry made here. Psychiatrists deal with genuinely diseased thinking day in and day out, so if they had to assess some genuinely novel philosophy, there might be some trouble. The most high-profile case where the scientific fringe ended up being right and skeptics had a serious opportunity for changing their minds I can think of was continental drift 50 years ago. Someone will probably want to suggest the many-worlds interpretation here. If the arguments that have been around here that internalizing MWI would actually make people change how they behave do hold, this would actually be a good example, but I'm still seeing MWI as mostly just a conceptually simpler interpretation of accepted physics.
Adult neurogenesis is a recent major reversal of longstanding dogma, but I don't know if its proponents were 'fringe' or not. Another example might be the (mental & physical) health benefits of meditation, which seems to have been the exclusive province of fringey New Age types up until the '90s or whenever the surveys and experiments began coming out.
A good example would be one that either significantly changes how we see the world, plate tectonics definitely qualifies, or will make people change their behavior in some way if assumed true. Adult neurogenesis is a recent discovery, but it seem to change either that much. Human brains are still finicky and brain damage is very, very scary. I'm also not aware of there being any movement for adult neurogenesis warranting the attention of skeptics before the discovery was conclusive, which there apparently was for continental drift. Meditation is a better example though. The discovery of actual beneficial neurological changes is likely to make people meditate more. It's not a very strong example though, as I don't think skeptics have been very hostile to meditation itself before the findings (unlike claims that meditators can levitate, cure cancer and bring about world peace). The fact that an exercise repeated regularly through many years leads to measurable anatomical differences isn't exactly a paradigm shift related to our understanding of human physiology either.
What, compared to plate tectonics? What utility exactly does plate tectonics have? That seems about as useful as finding the Higgs boson: providing an explanation for well-characterized and predictable phenomenon like continental drift. You can't even predict earthquakes knowing plate tectonics. Here I think we have a paradigm shift over time that makes it hard to understand*. Try to put yourself back in the '60s or '70s - the age of Timothy O'Leary, of talking to dolphins, the Age of Aquarius, the Beatles going to India. The mind is separate from the body. Stress is just a word, not a known killer from countless studies (see the Wired article). Schizophrenia seems to be caused by mothers not loving their children. IQ is not hereditary. How could a bunch of neurons possibly mess with the subtle chemical balances that rule the rest of the body? Are there little neurons connected to levers in glands which only fire when strange foreign syllables are repeated a lot? For that matter, how could sitting down and doing nothing whatsoever or reciting some mantra like a Buddhist monk improve your health and happiness? If that isn't counterintuitive, I don't know what is. * For a Reddit comment, I was looking up Kevin Kelly's Maes-Garreau Law about biases of futorology toward dramatic change by the end of the futorologist's life, and the introduction strikes me as relevant:
It doesn't have much utility, but it changes the way we understand the world in a pretty big way. Not revolutionizing physics big, but turning the immense, eternal and unchanging face of the Earth into something that moves and flows in deep time is pretty impressive viscerally. Adult neurogenesis just doesn't seem as big, even though it probably has more utility. Viscerally big things are ones which draw the attention of the people skeptics debunk, so that's why I'm picking them out here. If a brain does focused relaxation, it gets better at relaxing. I don't see how this would have been very counterintuitive 50 years ago. The unexpected part was the causation going from mental actions to brain anatomy. Now I'm actually interested about the history of this concept. The correlation between mental abilities and brain anatomy has been entertained for something like 200 years. Abilities getting very much better with training has been known forever. So when was the idea that training a skill could actually change the relevant brain anatomy to a degree first introduced? I've no idea.
Why is relaxation something to get better at? Why isn't it just the absence of effort? And even if we assume that it's a skill, why meditation and not, say, watching The Ed Sullivan Show? Plenty of people found that relaxing.
Neuroplasticity. A few episodes of the brainsciencepodcast deal with them, and the book of Norman Doidge: the brain that changes itself. Nutrition is a topic that is still up for grabs.
This is a good question. Michael Shermer changed his mind about anthropogenic global warming.
Is this a good thing? (That is not a rhetorical question!) As far as I can tell from the essay, he used to claim to hold a Lomborg position, but he doesn't indicate knowing what that position is. I think he switched positions for majoritarian reasons (which he mentions, along with data). That would seem to lose him the "skeptic" label! That might be good if he were explicit about it, but he simultaneously claims to be data-driven, while not presenting any data that Lomborg disagrees with.

I'm not impressed by someone who changes their position because everyone else in their tribe has done the same. I am impressed by someone who changes their position for majoritarian reasons and says so explicitly.

...and is, in fact, correct. Otherwise that could lead you to being impressed by those impressed by majoritarianism enough to become theists.

I'm a big fan of Hitchens... I read pretty much everything he writes, and generally think he's pretty awesome.

But there is that little thing where he's a communist.

Yes, still.

Now I don't hold it against him, but I think its something worth keeping in mind before talking about him as if he was a great hero of rationalism.

Do you know what he means by communism? This is a real question, not a rhetorical move.
Well, he doesn't use the word "communist" - he calls himself a "trotskyist". I admit that I'm not entirely clear on these kinds of fine distinctions between various forms of marxist/lenninist thought, in much the same way that I'm not clear on the fine distinctions between various branches of christianity - in my mind they're all just filed under "nonsense".
There's a lot of variety even among Trotskyism, at least to a Trostskyist. But I like that sort of thing; I keep track of this (and also varieties of Christianity) as a hobby. The only thing that you can count on is that Trotskyists have fewer atrocities to rationalise than other Leninists, although Leninists have more to rationalise than other Marxists. Hitchens accepts the label ‘ex-Trotskyite’ here, so it may not really matter.
Insofar as we can make any conterfactual historical observations, it's a pretty safe bet that this is only because it was quickly squashed by rival factions. As dirty leftist scum, I observe that opponents of my ideology are absolutely right in calling Trotskyism the most extreme and totalitarian branch of Communism - more ruthless and with more grandiose goals than Stalinism. (Feel free to downvote for politics.)
Ah, I don't care about that.
Sorry, I can't find a cite, but I recall him saying, in the context of being asked if he's still a 'Socialist', something to the effect of "I no longer identify as a Socialist, not because my beliefs have changed, but simply because there's no longer any functioning international socialist movement to be a part of. But I still think the marxist analysis of history is valid"
You may be thinking of this article in Reason. The relevant question is at the very bottom of page 1, with the answer on page 2. But now we've switched from Trotskyism to socialism, which is a lot more general.
Right, but I think he only used the word 'Socialist' in that context because that's how the question was phrased, not because he's abandoned Trotskyism for a more general form of Socialism - if that were the case, the Hitchensphere would have heard about it. I'm pretty sure that if you asked him, he'd tell you he's still a Trotskyist at heart.
I'm not sure what this means. He still has high regard for Trotsky and the historical movement of socialism. (Here is evidence, dated 2005, and more, dated 2004.) So you can certainly hold that against him if you are so inclined. I interpret his statement in Reason to mean that socialism (and so presumably Trotskyism) has outlived its utility. And not because the movement has died out (as I read it) but because society has progressed beyond anything that the ideology of socialism can address. Edit: Added another reference.