On the unpopularity of cryonics: life sucks, but at least then you die

by gwern 8y29th Jul 2011468 comments

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From Mike Darwn's Chronopause, an essay titled "Would You Like Another Plate of This?", discussing people's attitudes to life:

The most important, the most obvious and the most factual reason why cryonics is not more widely accepted is that it  fails the “credibility sniff test” in that it makes many critical assumptions which may not be correct...In other words, cryonics is not proven. That is a plenty valid reason for rejecting any costly procedure; dying people do this kind of thing every day for medical procedures which are proven, but which have a very low rate of success and (or) a very high misery quotient. Some (few) people have survived metastatic head/neck cancer – the film critic Roger Ebert, is an example (Figure 1). However, the vast majority of patients who undergo radical neck surgery for cancer die anyway. For the kind and extent of cancer Ebert had, the long term survival rate (>5 years) is ~5% following radical neck dissection and ancillary therapy: usually radiation and chemotherapy. This is thus a proven procedure – it works – and yet the vast majority of patients refuse it.

Cryonics is not proven, and it is aesthetically disturbing (indeed even disgusting) to many people. It is also costly, and not just in terms of money alone. It is costly in countless other ways, ranging from the potential for marital discord, social alienation, ridicule, social isolation, disruption of family relationships (and with grief coping mechanisms) during the dying process, and on and on and on. And it does cost a lot of money, because if you figure the lost present value of capital for life insurance, dues, and end of life expenses related to cryonics, then that is a very significant dollar amount; my guess is that for a whole body patient who signs up at age 35 with Alcor, it is in the range of ~ $500,000 to $750,000 2010 dollars!

...Beyond this, many other factors come into play, such as perceived interference or lack of competitiveness with religion by cryonics, lack of endorsement by authority figures, such as physicians and scientists, actual marketing faux pas’s, such as the Chatsworth debacle and the use the words “death” and “dead” to describe cryonics patients. Then come factors which would, if cryonics were proven to work, be down in the noise, or more accurately, nonexistent, such as they way the current cryonics facilities look, the appearance and qualification of staff and so on.

...Over the past few days, with the passing of Robert Ettinger, cryonics has received a level of planet-wide media attention it has not received in decades. One interesting and valuable result of this is that various news venues have solicited public comment about cryonics, and what’s more, about immortalism, or radical life extension. As usual, cryonicists have been deaf to the criticism, expressed and implied in these remarks from the “marketplace. Or worse, they have been contemptuous, without being clever in their contempt and in their responses.

[quotes from comments & people]

What do these remarks mean? Well, they mean exactly what they say they mean in most cases. That may be hard to understand, especially if you look at the demographic data for how “happy” people are the world over. What you will find, if you do, is that people in Western Developed nation-states are extraordinarily happy. In fact, they are unbelievably happy (Figure 3).

Figure 4: Your life and future prospects can still be grim and relatively hopeless and yet your evaluation of your satisfaction with life vary dramatically depending upon whether you have a full belly, or even if you’ve had a meal in the past few hours.

How is this possible? The answer is that happiness is complex and exists on many different levels. The most important and the most difficult to measure is existential happiness. The issue of their existential happiness is something most people rarely, if ever confront, and almost never do so in public when asked (unless you ask them in the right way, such as, “Would you want to live forever?”). The reason for this is that if they respond by saying “My life is a boring exercise in getting from day-to-day with a lot of nagging miseries and frustrating inconveniences,” they would appear as failures, as whingers , and as losers. Few people find that acceptable!

...Figure 5: Humans were not evolved to be confined to a fixed space day-after-day and to do boring and repetitive work which is usually personally meaningless, and is done on the orders of others who are also omnipresent to supervise its execution. That is the working definition of hell for hunter-gatherers and they are uniformly both horrified and disgusted to to see “civilized” man behave in this way.

...Then there are the other people you must necessarily interact with. Several of the people you work with are complete monsters, in fact, they despise you and they go out of their way to make your job and your hours at work more difficult. And the customers! Most are OK, but some are horrible – encounters with them leave you shaking, and sometimes fearful for your job. Speaking of which, there is always some degree of apprehension present that you might lose your job; you might screw up, the economy may take a nosedive… In any event, your survival is critically dependent upon your job. Others whom you work with are better compensated, and those that own the enterprise you work for are getting rich from it, and that rankles. But, beyond these concerns, this isn’t what you really wanted to do with your life and your time. When you were fifteen, you wanted to _______________, to travel, to see the world, and to meet interesting people and do interesting things. Instead, here you are. And every day you are a little older and a little more run-down. The clock is ticking. When you looked in mirror this morning, you had to face it yet again; you aren’t young anymore and you aren’t going to get any younger.

...And frankly, why should you even try? You were raised with a very limited repertoire of interests, ambitions, and capabilities. It is so hard to survive in this world, even in this relative paradise of Western Technological Civilization, that mostly what you had to learn and spend your time thinking about were how to acquire the skills to compete and to make a living and support your offspring and your dying parents. All so that this cycle can be repeated, yet again (and to what end?). You laugh at people who talk about what makes the stars shine, how long the universe will last, where all the dark matter is, are there multiverses, what would it be like to “see” in the full electromagnetic spectrum, or even what it would be like to sit down and talk with Chinese workers or Egyptian shop keeps, and find out what they really think about Islam, democracy or the USA, without someone on the TV telling you what they think (and getting wrong)?

...The fundamental problems are these, in no special order:

  • Most people lack autonomy in their daily lives. Next to life itself, freedom is the most precious value; and most people’s lives are functionally devoid of it. Many cryonicists fail to see this, because they are self employed, are in jobs that offer them compensating satisfaction, or that they don’t perceive as “work” (e.g., they are not watching the clock just waiting for the torture to be over for another day).
  • Most people have a very limited range of interests and possibilities for gratification. This problem cannot be fixed for most by giving them more money, or even more money and autonomy. Do that, and they will drown themselves in what they already have, or kill themselves with drugs. How many cars, planes, and pairs of shoes or houses can you really gain joy from?
  • The vast majority of people over 30 don’t feel well a significant fraction of the time. They have colds, flu, osteoarthritis, and most importantly, they are poorly conditioned as a result of jobs that enforce immobility and make them sedentary. As a result, they are tired and drained from their work and home responsibilities at the end of each day, and worst of all, they spend that part of the day when they feel the best and are most alert, doing what other people tell them to do – not what they want to do.
  • They are losing their own youth and health and watching others suffer and die around them. How’s that for a satisfying life experience? Every day they turn on the news or talk to friends or family, and find that another fixture in their life is dead, or dying. As John Donne said, “Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankind; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

...Thus, when it comes to happiness, people who are socially inept and who have trouble coping emotionally with the exigencies of life are, on average, the least happy. It should thus come as little surprise that our prisons are currently filled with a disproportionate number of people who are more intelligent than average and who lack the social coping skills to get on in society. They are also smart enough to know that many of the rules and orders given them are arbitrary and have no basis in reason beyond maintaining the status quo. As sociologist and educator Bill Allin has observed: “People with high intelligence, be they children or adults, still rank as social outsiders in most situations, including their skills to be good mates and parents.”[4]

The relevance of this to cryonics should be obvious to most cryonicists; cryonics attracts, with massive disproportionality, the highly intelligent. Indeed, many of the arguments that make cryonics credible, require a remarkable degree of both intelligence and scholarship. Inability to understand the enabling ideas and technologies usually means the inability to understand, let alone embrace, cryonics.  A disproportionately unhappy population of smart people translates to a disproportionately large population of ideal market candidates for cryonics being unwilling and indeed, unable to embrace it.

...There is no one solution or easy fix. The first step is to realize that what the marketplace is telling us is true: many people don’t want to live because the existential ground state of their lives is a gray-state of dysphoria at best, and at worst, a state of active misery, relieved only occasionally by a few quickly snatched minutes of relief, or if they are lucky, joy. That state of affairs can only be addressed by showing people very real and concrete ways in which the quality of their lives can be improved, both here and now, and in the future. Heaven isn’t waking up from cryopreservation and having to go into work two weeks later – FOREVER. That is the very definition of hell for most people. And the mystics have been smart enough to carefully exclude any mention of time-cards from their hereafters. The Mormons and the Islamists have even had the good marketing sense to offer up eternities where each man commands his own world, or at the least, his own harem.

Conclusion, graphs, and references in article. As usual, I recommend reading Chronopause.com as Darwin has many good articles; to quickly link a few:

  1. ALCOR finances
  2. Master biomarker for health & aging
  3. Technological evitability
  4. The AIDS Underground (lessons for transhumanists)
  5. Harry Potter and Deathism
  6. Robert Ettinger obituary
  7. Damage in the aging brain
  8. Business & charity failure rates
  9. Factors in corporate longevity
  10. "Does Personal Identity Survive Cryopreservation?"
  11. Cryonics PR in Google N-gram
  12. "A Visit to Alcor"
  13. Soviet ICBM sites

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