Hated Because It Might Work

Imagine someone who wanted their body dumped into an active volcano when they died, in order to really be one with Earth.  Even if this cost tens of thousands of dollars, few people would dump a significant other, or divorce a spouse, for this. Sure it is a bit weird, but hardly a deal-breaker.  Yet people do commonly divorce spouses for wanting their body dumped in liquid nitrogen at a similar expense, to live again.  (Bryan Caplan is aghast.)  What is the difference?  Two possibilities:

  1. Even though skepticism about whether cryonics will work is one of the main arguments against it, in fact people think there's a substantial chance cryonics might actually work.  This triggers an abandonment reaction, like your buying a one-way-ticket to a distant land from which you could never return.  And it creates uncertainty about whether you are actually dead, making it harder for loved ones to have closure after a funeral.  This is the reason my wife gives for intending to prevent my being frozen. 
  2. Saying you want to do something weird for value or symbolic belief reasons is far less threatening than saying you want to do something weird for instrumental reasons.  Common social norms encourage acceptance of weird values and symbolic beliefs, as long as those don't much effect ordinary behavior.  But by saying your weird act is a much better way to achieve important ordinary goals, you are saying the rest of us are making a big mistake. 
GD Star Rating
Tagged as: , , , ,
Trackback URL:
  • http://jamesdmiller.blogspot.com/ James D. Miller

    If (2) is right then why isn’t their hatred towards people who use astrology to make important decisions?

  • Cameron Taylor

    I’d place my money on (2).

    James… Astrology isn’t very weird. It also doesn’t make any actual predictions. It’s somewhere between an inkblot and a random number generator.

  • http://shagbark.livejournal.com Phil Goetz

    Do wives object less if the husband says, “Honey, let’s both be frozen”?

    A wife might be more bothered by a husband signing up for cryonics, and not continuing to bug her to get signed up for cryonics, than by the signing up itself.

  • justanotherchick

    I think I agree with your points, particularly #1.

    A weird, expensive funeral desire — dumping your body into a volcano, having your ashes scattered from every continent, having your ashes launched into space, etc. — is still a funeral. It’s still a closure ritual. (And I think that many people who had very extravagant funeral desires have heirs who cut some corners on arrangements in order to get more of the estate to themselves, but even ordinary funerals are expensive.) There is no doubt that the deceased is, well, deceased, and has no further influence over how his wishes are carried out. You can talk about it in a normal manner; wanting an extravagant and unusual funeral is conventionally eccentric.

    There’s no closure to cryopreservation — all that expense along with all of the emotional weight of a funeral, and you don’t even get as much as the peace of a good ending out of it! You don’t get the things you’d be paying for in a funeral: the money spent on funeral expenses is not really for the dead person. The money spent on cryopreservation is. And you live with that knowledge hanging over you that he’s still in some sense around, you have to deal with questions from others of what happens afterward, you have to deal with your own thoughts of what he will do in the future without you. It seems unfair: you have to keep being concerned about him even though he has no further concern for you.

  • http://www.scissor.com/ William

    I think there’s another factor here.

    Consider the sort of vegetarian promotion video that shows the process of meat being made. Now show it at a steak dinner. Or show an bonus exhumed corpse at a funeral. Intellectually, steak-eaters know where the meat comes from, just as people at a funeral know what happens when you put a dead body in the ground. But they don’t want to think about it.

    By talking about cryonics, you’re forcing people to consider death and dying. People don’t like that. The other body-disposal options are familiar to them; they can skip over them lightly, handling them with the thick gloves of euphemism. But a new idea forces them to really look at things that they’d rather ignore. Dumping a body in a volcano may be a little weird, but it’s basically cremation, and it’s not very different than a Viking burial or a Hindu funeral pyre.

    And personally, I think the cryonics thing is kinda rude. If it doesn’t work, it’s a waste of resources. If it does work, it’s inflicting a bunch of frozen heads on a distant future that is unlikely to have a big need for them. Given that I always hear of it in the context of personal cryonics, where somebody is looking to preserve there own head, rather than something with any social benefit angle, that reinforces the impression of rudeness. So perhaps some of the reaction is a “Who do you think you are?” thing.

  • Jordan

    Most people have already invested in a back up immortality plan, it’s called religion. To them a desire not to die is human and forgivable, an active desire to live forever a little less so, but being willing to take a crap shot, last ditch risk to preserve yourself seems overly desperate. It’s a slap in the face of God: don’t you want to go to heaven?

    Most people that aren’t religious still irrationally cling to religious morality; I suspect this case is no different. Reading through the responses to the cryonics posts it’s clear a majority of people simply don’t embrace individualism. They maintain the same judgment as the religious but maneuver their rationalizations towards arguments of selflessness, global utility, etc.

    As a typical example just read William’s above post, “If it doesn’t work, it’s a waste of resources. If it does work, it’s inflicting a bunch of frozen heads on a distant future.”

    Personally I don’t choose to continue living today to provide utility to the present world. I likewise don’t aim to be alive tomorrow for the utility of tomorrow’s world.

  • Doug

    You are acting as if the friend deep down believes cryopreservation will work and that’s why they’re upset. I think your answers would be more realistic if you attribute the belief to them that cryopreservation will not work, and see why they still might be upset by it.
    I think that the friend sees you have signed up for cryopreservation and thinks, “this guy is really weird. He does things that are unusual and super geeky. He’s not willing to accept the reality that we’re all going to die, and that it’s part of the natural order of life.” Depending on the person that might be enough to break up.
    There is some chance that cryopreservation will work. But I think you are overestimating the chance of eventual success. Almost certainly, the decay will be too much to reconstruct. A 1 in a million chance is better than a zero chance, but only a little better.

  • Carl Shulman

    I have seen more cases of #1 than #2.

  • James Andrix

    A wife might be more bothered by a husband signing up for cryonics, and not continuing to bug her to get signed up for cryonics, than by the signing up itself.

    There is also a ‘a life without you is not worth living.’ expectation. This is the test-his-commitment adaptation executing. They might be hostile specifically (but unconsciously) to see if the husband will drop the adventure-plan in favor of her.

    Choosing a between a spouse an cryonics would be a dicey choice, where a spouse taking a strong stand could exert influence over something important, so the choice communicates a lot.

    I wonder if the effect is muted in couple with children. if it can be reframed as a way to know your great great great grandchildren and have meaningful family continuity, it might trigger more female acceptance.

    IT is now being put out as a long shot high payoff gamble, even by proponents. It could also be viewed as a essential part of long term stable loving relationships. One good cryoromance movie could change everything. Title Idea: Follow Me

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    Phil, yes.

    William, ordinary medicine makes folks think about death too, yet it is wildly popular.

    James, people use use astrology strongly for important decisions are treated differently from people who use it to break ties on little decisions.

  • http://doubtfulpalace.com Tim Walters

    Other possibilities:

    3. You’re wrong about the volcano thing, and it would be just as firmly rejected.

    4. The spouse sees the cryonaut as a sucker.

    5. The spouse sees the cryonaut as arrogant for being confident (to the tune of $80K+) of the specific progress of future technology, despite the failure of most previous attempts at such prediction with equally plausible rationales.

  • http://www.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk Richard Kennaway

    “There is no doubt that the deceased is, well, deceased, and has no further influence over how his wishes are carried out.”

    The same is true of the frozen.

  • http://doubtfulpalace.com Tim Walters

    6. The spouse sees the cryonaut as a coward.

  • Bman

    In a previous post, it was stated:

    > But in four decades of cryonics, only about a thousand folks have signed up, and a hundred have actually been frozen.

    Here it is stated:

    > Yet people do commonly divorce spouses for wanting their body dumped in liquid nitrogen at a similar expense, to live again.

    One would think it unnecessary to point out, on a blog devoted to bias and probability estimation, that spouses divorcing over cryonics cannot be “common” when cryonics itself is so uncommon.

  • Uncommon insight


    “One would think it unnecessary to point out”
    Yes, exactly, so why do it? We can figure out the patently obvious meaning, i.e. ‘it is common among people who want to use cryonics that they get divorced by their spouses for it.’

  • Brian

    By talking about cryonics, you’re forcing people to consider death and dying. People don’t like that.

    I think that’s the big one. It also applies to aging; people have no problem with spending millions of dollars on research that might produce a slightly more effective treatment for one specific disease, but it’s weird/repugnant/immoral to investigate attacking the primary root cause of infirmity.

    And personally, I think the cryonics thing is kinda rude. If it doesn’t work, it’s a waste of resources. If it does work, it’s inflicting a bunch of frozen heads on a distant future that is unlikely to have a big need for them.

    It’s no more “rude” than any other means of spending ~$100k on yourself.

  • maej

    My guess is part of the issue some wives have with husbands who want to freeze themselves is a fear of altered incentives. Will the husband’s behavior change given his time horizon for doing things is altered? Will he invest less in his relationship with the wife? Will it change his desire/investment in children or child rearing?

    Part of cryonics is not just a desire not to die, it’s about a desire to see and live in a (presumably) really cool future. It’s like getting to go to heaven but without having to earn it through religiously prescribed behaviors.

    Mostly I view cryonics as a low probability option. It may or may not work. Indeed, if it did work, my guess is that the odds would be pretty high that I’d end up killing myself shortly after I woke up. In other words, if I’m setting pretty when I’m older, I’d pay to have myself frozen.

  • samantha

    To me the sole reason for cryonics is the desire to not be bound by a fixed aging and death as we are all too aware of being this side of practical immortality. Cryonic preservation is one possible way to escape this more or less automatic death sentence. It may not work but it is the only option before we get serious anti-aging, rejuvenation, cures for all diseases, mind backups and so on.

    To deny a loved one the chance for much longer life, even if only as a potential extension, is not in the least a loving act. I would be very hard pressed to stay with a spouse who vowed to oppose my continued existence or at least the chance of it.

  • Tom Breton

    Many of these things could also be said about an ambulance ride (ordinary, not “to the future”)

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    We are terrified of death because we know it’s final, and are terrified of those who think it is possible to recover from ‘death’ because we fear the consequences if they’re right.

    Most people are therefore inclined to perceive spending $80,000 on an attempt to attain ‘immortality’ as foolish, even if they wouldn’t reject spending that much on a funeral. Most especially if they do not themselves have the $80,000 to spend on attempting to recover from death.

  • http://occludedsun.wordpress.com Caledonian

    Also, we know what we’re getting when we sign up to have our bodies dumped in a volcano. Cryonics is a grab-bag of uncertainty, and many suspect it’s a scam.

    How is cremation a scam?

  • http://t9productions.com/ Nathaniel Eliot

    I think you overestimate the willingness of most people to go along with financially ill-advised plans of their spouses. I’ve certainly heard of marriages falling apart over less than ten grand worth of apparently superfluous expenses. Given that for most people cryonics appears to be nothing but snake oil, I doubt there’s a need to assume deeper motives.

  • http://www.weidai.com Wei Dai

    I think the financial explanation is a good one. Men are more likely than women to want cryonics for themselves, because females are more risk-averse than males, and signing up for cryonics is taking a big gamble. You’re trading off losing money in 100% of possible worlds for a second life in 5% (or whatever) of possible worlds. So for the woman, given that she doesn’t want cryonics for herself, it seems pretty unfair that her husband is spending that kind of money on himself. And saying “let’s get frozen together” doesn’t work because you’re still asking her to make a sacrifice for your benefit.

    One thing that does work, I think, is to save up enough money before marriage to sign up for a pre-paid plan. Or make up her loss somehow.

  • http://denisbider.blogspot.com denis bider

    I think the most likely factor is something along the lines of “What a horrible waste of money [that my spouse could leave to me or children] for such an unnecessary and ridiculous departure from how things should be.”

    I think opposition to a partner’s cryonics plans might mainly be prejudice and an unwillingness to think things through. This could likely be coupled with a firm belief in souls and afterlife, which renders cryonics seemingly stupid. The cryonicist appears to obstinately want to remain stuck in this reality instead of “passing on” to bigger things, whatever those might be.

    Then there’s also the argument made by William, who opines that cryonics is rude. “Wasting resources”, “imposing yourself on others” – as if these things were not intrinsic to life itself. Anyone who doesn’t want to waste resources or impose themselves on others should probably drop dead right now, because their very existence is opposed to their values.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/rationaldisequilibrium/ Carl Shulman

    “Anyone who doesn’t want to waste resources or impose themselves on others should probably drop dead right now, because their very existence is opposed to their values.”

    That’s surely not universally the case, intelligent life can save resources that would otherwise be wasted illuminating empty space and such, and the existence of many or most people benefits most others. Someone who engages in productive work and contributes to public goods is quite likely to be a net benefit for others. Now, while it’s true one can’t actively contribute while in cryonic suspension, the motivation to earn the funds to pay for it serves as an incentive for socially productive and beneficial activity.

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog Richard Hollerith

    it’s true one can’t actively contribute while in cryonic suspension

    Finish the thought, Carl. One cannot contribute — no need for the qualifier “actively” — while in cryonic suspension and one cannot contribute after cryonic suspension because any civilization able to revive a person from suspension is a civilization in which a human is obsolete in the same way that in our current civilization, a chimpanzee is obsolete. This is true even though David Ricardo’s appeal to comparative advantage is correct when applied to most humans. I say “most” humans because even among humans free to engage in frictionless trade, more than a few individuals currently living are incapable of contributing more to our current civilization than the opportunity cost of keeping the individual alive — which, again, is the same position the chimpanzees are in.

    I hasten to add that I am firmly opposed to any policy by any government that would impede any individual or voluntary cooperation between individuals from keeping any individual alive on the argument that keeping him or her alive is not a net benefit or contribution to civilization. This is one of those rules, which on this blog has been referred to as deontological ethics, that is necessary because humans (and especially coalitions of humans in positions of power) cannot be relied on to make strictly consequentialist ethical conclusions.

    In summary, the justification for cryopreservation rests on the proposition that the person being preserved has intrinsic value; it cannot be justified by the instrumental value of the person being preserved. Will you please concede that point, Carl?

  • http://profile.typekey.com/hopefullyanonymous/ Hopefully Anonymous

    I’m speculating, but I think your wife’s fucking with you. In my experience, most people don’t particularly care if you’re going to cryopreserve yourself, other than to take advantage of their superiorly majoritarian position in the discussion to lightly mock you.

  • http://cryonet.org unperson

    I see a lot of the same sort of thinking that goes on with cryonicists here–cryos seem to think that when it comes to cryonics, that people actually apply logic objectively. No way. In many areas of life, people do not apply logic. Why would they do so with cryonics?

    In fact a lot of what people do is not driven by some independent free will or logic at all, but is driven by hormones, status-seeking behavior, need to conform, need to reproduce, etc. We may justify our actions with rationalizations, but really our actions usually will achieve some basic drive.

    For cryonics to make it to the next level, to break out, cryonics needs to attach itself to, at least in some indirect way, to certain, already-established biological/social drives and institutions. For example, religion/spirituality. Also, adventure-seeking as a form of status seeking.

    Everyone in cryonics seems to assume that humans are Homo Sapiens Rationalisticus, but it is more like Homo Sapiens Rationalizationicus.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/sentience/ Eliezer Yudkowsky

    If abandonment is the problem, this suggests that heavily pressuring your wife to sign up for cryonics will result in better relationship outcomes. Trying to pretend it’s a personal choice that she can make any way she wants, may not have the intended effect. A testable hypothesis, if we could collect statistics.

    Better yet, have the cryonics talk before you get into a potentially marriageable relationship with someone – “I don’t want to fall in love with someone who’s going to die on me.” That makes it clear you’re not trying to leave her by signing up, but that, when the relationship starts, it’s not just till death do you part.

    From a third-person standpoint – I want you to sign up, and I want your loved ones to sign up. If your loved ones don’t sign up, then I’m sorry for you, and you’re going to experience pain about that. But I still want you to sign up, even if it’s sad, because humanity needs to get moving on this, and that means that some people have to be first. If she can understand that’s how you see the moral imperative, then again it might help on the abandonment issue.

    I don’t really know, though; I have no experience in this area.

  • Carl Shulman

    “In summary, the justification for cryopreservation rests on the proposition that the person being preserved has intrinsic value; it cannot be justified by the instrumental value of the person being preserved. Will you please concede that point, Carl?”

    I don’t concede that there *cannot* be non-intrinsic reasons to revive someone. There are Prisoner’s Dilemma/Newcomb’s problem issues here.


  • steven

    Carl, I think if that reasoning goes through it proves lots of things that are even more interesting than the future reviving cryonicists, perhaps including the prediction that paperclip AIs will use some significant fraction of their resources to reward paperclip AI creators.

  • Carl Shulman


    Not necessarily, these things would depend on a lot of particular facts, e.g. how the actions of different entities at different times are related.

  • http://aidevelopment.blogspot.com/2008/12/cryonics.html Dennis Gorelik

    I agree with Richard that frozen body has no value for the society (either current or future).
    That means “irresponsible body maintenance right now” and “no proper thawing process in the future”.
    That results in almost zero chances of recovery in the future paradise (even if it’s theoretically possible from technical perspective).

    Cryonics competes for people’s money on the same level as any other religions do. I think that eventually Cryonics will be fully transformed into religion (like it happened with Scientology).
    In fact Scientology and Cryonics could even merge with each other

    Penn and Teller Calls BS on Cryonics Scam

  • http://www.cmp.uea.ac.uk/~jrk Richard Kennaway

    Dennis: I didn’t say the frozen body has no value (the entire point of cryonics is that it might), only that it has no power. That is the biggest problem I see with cryonics: how can you guarantee the safe keeping of your corpsicle for decades after you have ceased to have any say in the matter? How many dead people have had their posthumous wishes actively carried out for that long?

  • kurt9

    Its the issue of closure. It is not the possibility that cryonics may work that causes many people to hate it. It is the lack of certainty that it will work. When someone gets frozen, they exist in a sort of indeterminate state between life and death. Most people cannot handle this. They want to know if the person is either dead or alive. They want either closure or being able to have the person around as a living, thinking human being.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/robinhanson/ Robin Hanson

    This post was about a comparison between two scenarios. Yet most commentors ignored the comparison to just talk about cryonics. It is almost as if commentors browse posts looking for their favorite buzzwords and upon finding one mentioned leap into their standard speech on it. I could save a lot of work if instead of writing thoughtful posts I just cycled through mentions of a standard list of buzzwords.

  • http://profile.typekey.com/Psy-Kosh/ Psy-Kosh

    Robin: hrm… maybe you should try that and see what happens. 🙂 As far as the whole hostile wives thing, never heard about that. I don’t have much of a comment on that because my model of reality didn’t even contain that in the first place. I don’t know really what would explain that data. How does it compare to say an atheist wife’s reaction to her husband suddenly deciding to participate in a particularly expensive religious ritual or whatever to, say, speed his soul on to the beyond? I am certainly not equating cryo with this (although the motivations are similar) but I think it would be informative to find out if the reaction is of similar intensity.

    Similar for religious wife and husband who participates in such a thing from a different religion.

    ie, _IF_ all three have the same level of reaction, then I’d say that the “hated because it might work” hypothesis is probably false and relates more to the “relative weirdness”… that is, the distance it is from what the wife views as something acceptable/vaguely normal in their (or her) own usual “in crowd”.

    Dennis: from what I saw of that, they didn’t even touch on the core philosophy, the whole information-theoretic definition of death. The whole “even if the body itself is more or less lost, it stops the information that made you you from decaying, so we may be able to ‘read that off’ later on” thing. So I’m not really sure they’ve actually shown it to in any way really be a scam.

    Also, why did they talk to one of the smaller groups rather than Alcor or CI?

  • http://rhollerith.com/blog/ Richard Hollerith

    I don’t concede that there *cannot* be non-intrinsic reasons to revive someone.

    OK now I understand: if, for example, an agent made an agreement to revive, it can be rational for the agent to honor the agreement even if the agent assigns zero intrinsic value to the frozen human.

    I stand by my statement that a frozen human is an obsolete human. (Actually, there is a very small probability that a human would not be obsolete even when surrounded by vastly more capable agents, but the probability is low enough to make it almost misleading for me even to mention it in a short comment.)

  • Pingback: Debating Cryonics – Lone Gunman

  • stargirl

    Your wife intends to PREVENT you being frozen. This is beyond normal dis-respect. She should be ashamed to openly refuse to honor her husband’s wishes.

  • Pingback: Overcoming Bias : Am I A Moralist?