HBD: Human Biodiversity

The Atheist Quest for Immortality

Kerry Howley, who writes for Reason, has an article in the NYT about men who want to live forever and the wives who nag them about it.

There are ways of speaking about dying that very much annoy Peggy Jackson, an affable and rosy-cheeked hospice worker in Arlington, Va. She doesn’t like the militant cast of “lost her battle with,” as in, “She lost her battle with cancer.” She is similarly displeased by “We have run out of options” and “There is nothing left we can do,” when spoken by doctor to patient, implying as these phrases will that hospice care is not an “option” or a “thing” that can be done. She doesn’t like these phrases, but she tolerates them. The one death-related phrase she will not abide, will not let into her house under any circumstance, is “cryonic preservation,” by which is meant the low-temperature preservation of human beings in the hope of future resuscitation. That this will be her husband’s chosen form of bodily disposition creates, as you might imagine, certain complications in the Jackson household.

“You have to understand,” says Peggy, who at 54 is given to exasperation about her husband’s more exotic ideas. “I am a hospice social worker. I work with people who are dying all the time. I see people dying All. The. Time. And what’s so good about me that I’m going to live forever?”

The provenance of this disagreement remains somewhat hazy, as neither Peggy nor her husband, Robin Hanson, can remember quite when he first announced his intention to have his brain surgically removed from his freshly vacated cadaver and preserved in liquid nitrogen. It would have been decades ago, before the two were married and before the births of their two teenage sons. With the benefit of hindsight, Robin, who is 50 and an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, will acknowledge that he should have foreseen at least some initial discomfort on the part of his girlfriend, whom he met when they were both graduate students at the University of Chicago. “I was surprised by her response,” he recalls, “but that’s because I am a nerd and not good at predicting these things.”

Robin is the kind of nerd who is very excited about the future, an orientation evident on his C.V., which lists published articles like “Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence” (on why robots will give us growth rates “an order of magnitude” higher than we’ve currently got)...His enthusiasm is evident in the way he talks about these ideas, hands in the air, laughing amiably every time he brings up the distance between his own theories and those of the mainstream...

“I’m just really terribly curious,” Robin told me in January over Skype. “Cryonics isn’t just living a little longer. It’s also living quite a bit delayed into the future.” Peggy’s initial response to this ambition, rooted less in scientific skepticism than in her personal judgments about the quest for immortality, has changed little in the past 20-odd years. 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 than 200 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?”

Of course this is a male thing, reflecting sex differences.

Man: “I can live forever.  Worth a shot.”

Woman: “No, it just doesn’t feel right.”

Christians read an article like this and say atheists are afraid to die and should just come to the LORD for eternal salvation.  And while most atheists I’ve talked to say they have no desire to live forever, I think it’s for the same reason they have no wish to fly: the fact that it’s impossible prevents one from hoping for it.  But if the technology does come, then the longing for eternal life can be (re)kindled.  I had no wish to live forever before reading this article, but now I do.  Will Israel survive?  Will China adopt eugenics and turn into a nation of Gods?  Will there still be a white Europe in a hundred years? I want to know these things.