A Personal Update

Hello from Blagoevgrad, Bulgaria! A few months ago I accepted a position teaching Business Ethics at the American University in Bulgaria (AUBG), and since that time I have barely had a moment to breathe. I moved my things into storage in New Jersey, traveled once to Philadelphia and twice to New York City for various parts of the visa issuance process, and then just this week settled into a lovely apartment that is literally a three minute walk from the classroom where I will be teaching.

A year ago I never would have predicted the faintest possibility that I would take a job anywhere overseas. But when the opportunity came along, I tried to set aside my preconceptions, and now that I am here I am sure I made a wise choice. I am excited about the fact that for the first time I will be teaching at a small liberal arts university, one where my discussion-centered teaching style will not be perceived as strange and where there is a much closer community, both in physical proximity and in spirit, than I have thus far been accustomed to.

My blog has been on hold not just because of my being preoccupied by everything associated with the move, but also because I needed to reflect on how it would fit into my life here at AUBG. I’ve now had an opportunity to do that. I expect I will have a lot more to say about business and ethics, going forward, since I will be immersed in business ethics for my teaching. But with that subtle shift aside, I’ve concluded that I will pick up the blog precisely where I left off. This blog is my opportunity to use my philosophical toolkit, and I hope portions of my fiction writing, to illuminate important issues for non-specialists and non-philosophers. And I intend to continue doing just that.

The Loves of Cupid and Psyche

The following is my translation of a delightful poem that appears in La Fontaine’s The Loves of Cupid and Psyche:

 

O sweet Delight, without which, from our childhood days,

Living and dying would become for us equals;

Universal magnet of all the animals,

Whom you know to attract in such powerful ways!

For you everything moves here below.

For you we run after sorrow,

When you, when your charms draw us in.

He is neither prince, nor captain,

Nor minister of state, nor soldier, nor subject,

Who lacks you as his sole object.

We nourish other things if, as fruit of our poise,

Our ears are left uncharmed, bereft of scrumptious noise.

If this sound did not make us quiver with pleasure,

Would we sing even one measure?

 

That which one calls glory in magnificent names,

That which served as the prize in the Olympic Games,

Truly belongs to none but you, godly Delight.

And is pleasure of sense counted as something slight?

Why should Flora’s gifts dot the lawn?

Why exist sunsets and the Dawn,

And Pomona’s delicate fruit,

Bacchus, who gives good meals their root,

The woods, the waters, the prairies,

These mothers of sweet reveries?

So many dazzling arts, all of them your offspring?

Why the Chlorises, their triumphant charms, their spring,

Except to maintain your commerce?

I, innocent, hear this thought: a certain rigor

Which one opts to exert at first

Will later prove pleasure’s trigger.

 

Delight, Delight, who long ago used to control

Greece’s most noble mind and soul,

Disdain me not, come to lodge at my home with me,

And busy you will always be.

I adore games, romance, reading, and art,

Town and country, indeed all else; there is nothing

Not good to me, all-governing,

Even to the dim pleasure of a brooding heart.

Come, then; and do you wish to know, O sweet Delight,

The true measure of this good, the one most fitting?

No less will suit me than a century, counted right;

Thirty years are not worth living.

Thank You Notes: FIRE

One of the core missions of this blog is to do what I can to promote scientific and technological progress. Every once in a while, I will highlight organizations which already exist and which we should support as part of the battle for science.

This week, I would like to highlight The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE). Their mission is:

to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.

By and large, universities, particularly in the United States, remain bastions of free thought. But any encroachment on free speech and free thought is disturbing, and if the trend toward barbarism continues at its current pace, there will certainly be an impact on all of our lives. A culture which shouts down the original thinkers will eventually succeed in stamping them out.

Many of the people being shouted down and attacked recently may very well be wrong or even despicable, but then was Galileo not despicable to the Catholic Church? The most revolutionary and world-changing truths are bound to be challenging and provocative, and though I don’t know that any such truths have been shouted down yet, we must not risk embracing the sort of culture that allows for that.

Francis Bacon and Images of Utopia

Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis was published in 1627, and although it was a work of fiction, a fable about a utopia, it proved to be just as influential as Bacon’s philosophical writings—that is to say, very influential. This series of posts is an introduction to Bacon’s Utopian vision by way of a mysterious illustration that I came across some time ago.

As Bacon saw the science of his day, it was dominated by two misguided approaches: the dogmatic blend of Aristotle and Christianity which lacked grounding in experience, and the trial-and-error experimentalism which lacked order and method. Many natural philosphers of the late seventeenth century took Bacon seriously and aimed for a middle course, a methodized approach to experimentation.

Bacon’s methodological ideas are inextricably linked to the Utopianism of the New Atlantis. For there can be no such thing as an ideal method apart from a conception of that method’s goal. For Aristotle, the goal was a life of contemplation, and his method was designed with that aim in mind. For many of the Renaissance experimentalists, the goal was to improve human life in this or that way, e..g., by treating diseases or by turning lead into gold. In Bacon’s mind, these goals, while noble, were too narrow, such that nobody saw the need for anything more than a trial-and-error method.

Bacon’s goal was epic in scope.

The work and aim of human power is to generate and draw a new nature or new natures down onto a given body. But the work and aim of human knowledge is to discover the form of a given nature, or the true difference, or the naturing nature, or the source of emanation. (New Organon II. 1, my translation)

Bacon’s idea that knowledge is power is familiar to many, but the subtlety of Bacon’s point is rarely appreciated. The point is that when we know the true nature of something, we have the utmost power to create that thing. Earlier experimentalists sometimes succeeded in curing a disease or preserving a slab of meat, but their power was limited because it wasn’t based on knowledge of the true nature of things.

Even many of those who disagreed with Bacon about the details of his method were  captivated by the future that he envisioned in The New Atlantis. In the next post in this series, we’ll consider what that future looks like.

Objections to Cryonics: The Duplication Problem

In my earlier post, I argued that cryonics is a kind of emergency medicine. As with all emergency medicine, nobody wants to have to use it. Cryonauts, as the pioneering souls who go into this state of suspended animation are sometimes called, would prefer that cures for aging and age-related diseases be found before they meet their end. But today, when all else fails, cryonics is the best that medicine has to offer.

But if that if so, why do so few people want the procedure for themselves? I do not think it is just a matter of practical concerns such as cost, and I won’t attempt to deal with easily quashed myths that are addressed elsewhere. (For the record, the procedure is usually paid for with a life insurance policy and is affordable for any middle class American that can afford to drink Starbucks coffee twice a week.)

Instead, I want to deal with some of the objections that might give an already informed, life-loving person some pause. I will start with the one which worries me the most: cryonics is hopeless because it fails to maintain the continuity of consciousness. Even if doctors can jumpstart your brain at some point in the future, that will do you no good because you have already vanished out of existence. The revived person will be a new person. Sure, they will be physiologically and psychologically very similar to you, but they will not be you.

Comparing cryonics to general anesthesia may be instructive. When people are put to sleep, they lose all awareness and wake up a few hours later as if no time has passed. I would expect the experience of cryonics to be very much like this, but there is an obvious difference in what is mechanically going on in the brain. The brain under anasthesia is still very much active; the brain of a cryonaut is a motionless piece of glass.

Most cryonicists say that this does not matter. All that matters is whether the information about you is preserved. Since the information—your memories, beliefs, character traits, etc.—is encoded in the structure of the brain, not in its continued activity, we only need continuity of structure. When the activity of that structure resumes, your consciousness will resume. Perhaps we could compare this to a computer that is turned off. Accordingly, those who are vitrified are neither living nor dead, but are rather in a state of suspended animation. They are potentially living but currently inactive.

But my concern with my own continued survival is not about preserving the information stored in my brain. That is such an impersonal way of thinking about the desire to keep on living. I know that some would disagree, and I can’t yet explain the disagreement, but I would very much look forward to living for hundreds of years even if I forgot everything about my past and had to forge a new identity. As it is, I already have a horrible memory of my childhood. This is a sign to me that I care less about who I am than with the fact that I am.

Let us call the hypothesis that cryonic revival results in a duplicate of your old self the Cryonic Duplication hypothesis. A possible response to my concerns is that this hypothesis cannot in principle be tested. Whether it is true or false, we would expect to observe the same things: vitrification -> suspended animation -> repair and revival -> conciousness. Even the revived cryonaut could not answer my concerns because he would be qualtiatively indistinguishable from his old self, whether he was a new person or not.

For some philosophers, this would be the last nail in the coffin where my concerns should be laid to rest. Untestable hypotheses are commonly regarded as pseudo-scientific mumbo-jumbo. If we are going to entertain the Cryonic Duplication hypothesis, we might as well entertain the hypothesis that you are constantly being replaced by duplicates from one moment to the next all throughout your life. And that is a hypothesis which will clearly get us nowhere.

All the same, continuity of activity matters to me, and I can’t entirely explain why. I do not think it is just because the fate of the cryonaut is outside their own hands, or because revival is not guaranteed. Maybe it is because turning to glass, even for a time, falls quite short of the fate I would want for myself. It is possible my confusion—if it is a confusion—is more about time than about consciousness. From the perspective of a being who could perceive a trillion years as if it were a second, the cryonaut would maintain continuity of consciousness. Maybe I am appealing to intuitions rooted in premises that I ought to check, and I welcome such premise-checking in the comments.

But here’s the thing. Even if I am right, cryonics is still a reasonable option. I may not care as much about being revived when I am unsure whether it will be me that is revived, but I find some comfort in the possibility of revival nonetheless. If I were on an exploding Starship Enterprise and the transporter were my only way out, I would use it, even though in that case I am very confident that the person on the other side will be a duplicate.

Even if it is a duplicate in some sense of that term, it is surely better than the alternative.

In Defense of Cryonics

I am back! A number of unexpected obligations have slowed my progress in my creative endeavors, but I am finally back in a position where I can re-dedicate myself to this blog.

This post will be the first in a series on cryonics, the science of using low temperatures to preserve human life with the aim of future revival. (I had some other posts planned, and I will return to those in due course.) The ethical, legal, and metaphysical issues involved in cryonics are all complex, but the essence of the issue is quite simple.  Cryonics should be thought of under the umbrella of emergency medicine, or, a little more generally, of life-extension technology. It offers some chance, though of no course no guarantee, of an extended lifespan at some point in the future when superior technology becomes available. When it is conceptualized in this way, as I think it should be, the value of cryonics to those who want to live should be just as obvious as the value of chemotherapy or organ transplants to those who need them.

There are many myths and misconceptions about cryonics out there, so I know that my view will meet with some skepticism, hostility, and even disgust. If that is your initial reaction, stick with me. Even if I can’t persuade you that you should choose cryonics for yourself—that is, after all, a personal decision which depends on your own circumstances and priorities—I hope you will at least come to appreciate the perspective of the thousands of individuals who have chosen the procedure.

In this first post, I offer a simple argument for cryonics based on an analogy between cryonics and therapeutic hypothermia.

Generally speaking, there is a period of time after cardiac arrest before the brain and other tissues become irreversibly damaged. This is why CPR is possible. If blood circulation can be quickly restored, then a person that is pronounced dead can be brought back to life. The main obstacle is ischemia. The cells throughout our body begin to die as soon as the supply of new blood is cut off. But death is not immediate, and as long as the brain is not dead, there is hope.

Under normal circumstances, it would take tremendous luck to revive a patient even minutes after cardiac arrest. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that this does happen and, when it does, we celebrate it.

Now introduce colder temperatures, which slow down the metabolism and thereby slow down the process of ischemic damage. In one remarkable case, a Swedish woman named Anna Bagenholm was pulled from ice cold water with no heartbeat and revived more than two hours later when doctors warmed up and recirculated her blood. Though she woke up in bad shape, she is reported to have made an almost full recovery within ten years.

Anna Bagenholm’s revival and recovery should be celebrated. “I think it’s amazing that I’m alive,” Bagenholm herself said some months after the accident.

How does this case differ from the possible cryonic recoveries of the future? The length of time is different. My view is that it will take upwards of one hundred years before we are ready to revive the first cryonics patients. The mechanism of preservation and the technologies are not exactly the same. Cryonicists attempt to do deliberately and in a controlled manner what happened to Anna Bagenholm partly through luck. One of the most obvious technological differences is that cryonics must vitrify the brain—turn it into a glass—in order to prevent the damage associated with ice crystals. And cryonics is perhaps somewhat less likely to succeed. We do not yet know how to undo the chemical damage caused by the process of vitrification. Over time, though, the technology will improve. Two hundred years from now, reviving cryonics patients may prove to be far easier than it was to revive Anna Bagenholm.

If there were no objections to cryonics, I think the story would end there. Cryonics is just the first step in an emergency medical procedure that will be continued a hundred years from now when we have the necessary technology. But of course the story does not end there. My next posts will address some of the most plausible objections.

Origin Story

This is the first post in what I hope to be an important new part of my creative life. I thought I would begin by saying a bit about where this site has come from and where it is headed.

A chapter in my life came to a close in June 2014 when I completed my PhD in philosophy at UC San Diego. Since then, I have been working, perhaps fumbling, to put together my post-PhD career. Currently, I teach Philosophy of Science courses at Rowan University and spend some time as a guest in the Princeton Philosophy Department. I also plan to do some additional teaching at Rowan College of Burlington County.

Teaching is wonderful, but let’s talk about that another time. As an academic philosopher, I am also expected to write. I wrote my dissertation on the 17th century philosopher Francis Bacon and what he might be able to teach us about the possibility of certainty in science. For years now I have been writing somewhat technical analyses of Bacon’s ideas for an audience that I can count on the fingers of one or two hands.

For a couple of years, I have also been working, in fits and starts, on another project, a sci-fi novel about a secret society that has uncovered the key to medical immortality. Because death is always possible—even the most advanced medicine won’t save you from a supernova—many of these immortals have developed an unhealthy aversion to risk-taking. The novel has a number of deeply philosophical themes, but it also aims to be a page-turner.

For a while now, I have been wrestling with the question of how to do more of the creative work that I enjoy and less of the creative work that I dread—and how to make a career of it. That last bit is the difficult part.

That is where this website and blog come in. I have stories to tell and ideas to share, and in keeping with trends elsewhere in the marketplace, I think I can cut out the middleman of academia by taking some of my work straight to you.

A mission statement is one of the hardest things to write, but I offer the following tentative attempt at one: Ever since Aristophanes, in his Clouds, ridiculed Socrates for supposedly making the weaker argument seem sound, the clouds have been a metaphor for ideas that are divorced from the real world. As a philosopher and thinker concerned with life here on earth, I hope to reclaim that metaphor by offering a big picture perspective on ideas that matter. I am especially interested in the role of science and technology in human life and in what we can do to accelerate their progress.  Hang around for a while and read my notes from the clouds.