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January 21, 2010

Eliezer Yudkowsky writes (in Normal Cryonics):

The part about actually signing up may also be key - that's probably a ten-to-one or worse filter among people who "get" cryonics. (I put to Bill Faloon of the old guard that probably twice as many people had died while planning to sign up for cryonics eventually, than had actually been suspended; and he said "Way more than that.") Actually signing up is an intense filter for Conscientiousness, since it's mildly tedious (requires multiple copies of papers signed and notarized with witnesses) and there's no peer pressure.<

Comment: there’s that, but if that was all it was, it wouldn’t be harder than doing your own income taxes by hand. A lot more people manage that, than do atheists who can afford it manage to sign up for cryonics.

So what’s the problem? A major one is what I might term the “creep factor.” Even if you have no fears of being alone in the future, or being experimented upon by denizens of the future, there’s still the problem that you have to think about your own physical mortality in a very concrete way. A way which requires choices, for hours and perhaps even days.

And they aren’t comforting choices, either, such as planning your own funeral. The conventional funeral is an event where you can imagine yourself in a comfortable nice casket, surrounded by people either eulogizing you, or kicking themselves because they weren’t nicer to you while you were alive. These thoughts may comfort those contemplating suicide, but they don’t comfort cryonicists.

No, you won’t be in any slumber-chamber. Instead they’ll cut your head off and it will push up bubbles, not daisies. At the very least they’ll fill your vessels with cold dehydrating solution and you’ll end up upside down and naked at 321 F. below zero, like some shriveled up old vampire.

Will you feel any of this? No. Is it any more gruesome than the alternatives of skeletonizing in a flame, or by slow decay? No. But the average person manages to mostly avoid thinking of the alternatives, and the funeral industry helps them do it. But there’s no avoiding thinking hard about this nitty-gritty physical death stuff, when you sign up for cryonics.

There’s even some primal primate fear involved, something like the fear of snakes. Except that cryonics taps into fears about being alone and alienated in the future, along with primal fears of decapitation (monkeys hate seeing monkey parts, particularly monkey heads). My illustration of the power of these memes is Washington Irving’s short stories: out of the very many he wrote, only two are now remembered, and yet, at the same time, remarkably almost everyone knows those two. They are Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There’s a reason for this.

The psychological factors can surprise the most dyed-in-the-wool atheists who have experience with death. I myself came to cryonics as a physician, already having spent most of a year dissecting corpses, and later seeing much real-time dying. It didn’t completely fix the problem of my own physical mortality. When I came to actually signing up for cryonics, already having been convinced of it for some time, I felt significant psychological resistance, even so. There’s a difference between what you know intellectually and what your gut tells you. Cryonics is like skydiving in that regard.

At this point, it’s worth repeating two of my favorite cryonics stories (the intellectual world is composed of stories, as somebody said, in the same way the physical world is composed of atoms).

Story #1 involves the winner of the Omni magazine essay contest of Why I Want To Be Cryonically Suspended. The prize: a free sign-up to Alcor, no money needed. The young man who won with the best essay about why he wanted to do it, was duly offered the prize he’d eloquently convinced himself, and everyone else, that he wanted. And when it came down to doing it, he couldn’t make himself do it. Interesting.

Story #2 is about Frederik Pohl, atheist S.F. writer of a lot of good tales, including one of the better cryonics stories, The Age of the Pussyfoot. Thirty years ago Pohl was approached by a cryonics organization about signing up, on the basis of his novel and known beliefs. He gave the usual counter argument about the chance not being worth the expense. The return was an offer to cryopreserve him free, for the publicity. He was taken aback, and said he’d have to think about it. Later, after much prodding, he produced what he admitted (and hadn’t realized before) was the real reason: he couldn’t get past the creep factor. Pohl is still alive as of this writing (he’s 90), but he’ll eventually die and won’t be cryopreserved, even though his intellect tells him (and has long told him) that he should.

So, in summary, I’m happy that Eliezer spent some time in Florida socializing with happy yuppies who had already made it past the barrier to signing up for cryonics. But for those out in the world who haven’t actually done that yet--- signed and notarized--- there is one more test of mettle for the Hero, which even they may not realize yet awaits them. This is a test of the power of will over emotion, and it’s not for the faint of spirit. In some ways it’s like the scene from the Book of the Dead where the dead person’s heart is weighed, except that this is where the would-be cryonicist finds that his or her courage is being weighed. It’s like doing the long tax return while signing yourself up for organ donation or medical school dissection, or the like.

I wish them luck. I wonder if anybody asked people at the conference what their own experiences had been, in getting past the tests of the underworld, or the under-MIND, to gain that strange chance to be your own Osiris.

Steve Harris, M.D. Alcor member since 1987