Thursday, July 8, 2010

Cryonics as a repugnant transaction

The NY Times has an article on those who wish to have their remains frozen after death, in the hope of eventual resurrection at a time when medical technology might make that feasible. Much of the story focuses on economist Robin Hanson of GMU, and his wife Peggy Jackson, a hospice worker who finds the idea unpleasant. The article goes on to say that this is quite common: many people, in particular the spouses of enthusiasts, find the idea repugnant. (It's not every NY Times article about an economist that includes references to Gilgamesh and Voldemort...)

Until Cryonics Do Us Part

"Robin, a deep thinker most at home in thought experiments, says he believes that there is some small chance his brain will be resurrected, that its time in cryopreservation will be merely a brief pause in the course of his life. Peggy finds the quest an act of cosmic selfishness. And within a particular American subculture, the pair are practically a cliché.

"Among cryonicists, Peggy’s reaction might be referred to as an instance of the “hostile-wife phenomenon,” as discussed in a 2008 paper by Aschwin de Wolf, Chana de Wolf and Mike Federowicz.“From its inception in 1964,” they write, “cryonics has been known to frequently produce intense hostility from spouses who are not cryonicists.” The opposition of romantic partners, Aschwin told me last year, is something that “everyone” involved in cryonics knows about but that he and Chana, his wife, find difficult to understand. To someone who believes that low-temperature preservation offers a legitimate chance at extending life, obstructionism can seem as willfully cruel as withholding medical treatment. Even if you don’t want to join your husband in storage, ask believers, what is to be lost by respecting a man’s wishes with regard to the treatment of his own remains? Would-be cryonicists forced to give it all up, the de Wolfs and Federowicz write, “face certain death.”

"Premonitions of this problem can be found in the deepest reaches of cryonicist history, starting with the prime mover. Robert Ettinger is the father of cryonics, his 1964 book, “The Prospect of Immortality,” its founding text. “This is not a hobby or conversation piece,” he wrote in 1968, adding, “it is the struggle for survival. Drive a used car if the cost of a new one interferes. Divorce your wife if she will not cooperate.” Today, with just fewer than200 patients preserved within the two major cryonics facilities, the Michigan-based Cryonics Institute and the Arizona-based Alcor, and with 10 times as many signed up to be stored upon their legal deaths, cryonicists have created support networks with which to tackle marital strife. Cryonet, a mailing list on “cryonics-related issues,” takes as one of its issues the opposition of wives. (The ratio of men to women among living cyronicists is roughly three to one.) “She thinks the whole idea is sick, twisted and generally spooky,” wrote one man newly acquainted with the hostile-wife phenomenon. “She is more intelligent than me, insatiably curious and lovingly devoted to me and our 2-year-old daughter. So why is this happening?” "
"Whether or not the human race subconsciously equates attempts to defeat death with treachery, it’s true that a general air of menace hangs over the quest for immortality in Western literature. Think Gilgamesh or Voldemort. “There is a lot of ancient cultural stereotyping about the motives and moral character of people who pursue life extension,” says James Hughes, the executive director of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, a nonprofit organization enamored of life extension. Hughes has chosen not to participate in what he considers a worthy experiment. “Although it’s a rather marginal bet for a potentially huge payoff,” he says, “I value my relationship with my wife.” "

HT to Tyler Cowen at MR, whose post contains some related links.

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