May 28, 2024

Pascal’s Wager taken out of deep freeze

UK ethicist defends cryonics

What would the 17th century French mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal think of cryogenics — the business of freezing people until such time as they can be revived and cured? Given his scepticism about science, not much. However, in the latest issue of the journal Bioethics , David Shaw, of the University of Glasgow’s Dental School, has thawed out Pascal’s famous Wager to defend it. 

Some readers might recall that Pascal’s Wager works like this. If you are a betting man, he argued, it is preferable to put your chips on the existence of God because the benefits of the afterlife are so great that they dwarf the fleeting pleasures of atheism. As theology, Shaw says, this argument has been discredited. But it succeeds for cryonics:

… successful cryonics would be a form of life-support that delays, rather than returns the user from, death. It is true that there is only one convincing argument in favour of cryonics. But the point is that this positive argument is so very strong, both practically and ethically, that it trumps all the self-interested arguments against cryonics, and the ethical objections are not strong enough to prohibit the practice. At worst, cryonics offers a slim chance of living for a few more years. At best, it offers a slim chance of living forever. Ultimately, the Cryonic Wager is overwhelmingly attractive for the rational humanist, even without the prospect of eternal life.

One by one Shaw dismisses the common arguments against freezing people in the admittedly slim hope of revival — selfisness, lack of money, slim probability of revival, and so on. Ultimately cryogenics makes sense because “for atheists who don’t believe in an afterlife, cryonics represents the only chance of life after ‘death'”.

Alcor, the American company which freezes whole bodies and neuropatients (ie, heads), has an extensive website which explains the process. It currently has 905 members enrolled and 88 patients in the freezer. As soon as a member is pronounced clinically dead, its doctors jump into action, place the patient in a ventilator and begin the freezing process. As Shaw points out, if embryos can be frozen and revived, theoretically, why can’t adults?

Sounds crazy? To shame the sceptics, Alcor cites Forest Ray Moulton, a University of Chicago astronomer who reputedly declared in 1932, “There is no hope for the fanciful idea of reaching the Moon because of insurmountable barriers to escaping the Earth’s gravity.” ~ Bioethics, September  

Michael Cook
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