Responsibility, Probability, and Durability

From Cryonics July 1989

by Thomas Donaldson

Recently Steve Harris and Mike Perry have discussed estimates of the probability of our revival. Their discussions have been very useful not as numerical estimates but as discussions of the issues involved. After all, few readers would attach exactly the same numbers to each issue.

But there is an assumption lying behind both of these estimates which deserves examination. Some of the factors Steve and Mike raise we can easily think of as appropriate issues to which to apply the notion of probability. Others, however, are far too bound up with our own actions. It’s reasonable to ask, first of all, whether the idea of probability means anything at all in that context.

Here is an example of the problem I’m raising, with the issues raised to an absurd level just for clarity. A new gambling house sets up in Reno. The owner undertakes to bet with everyone about whether or not he, the owner, will do his laundry tomorrow. Bets are made today and close at 6 PM. (Perhaps gambling houses already operate this way?) Do we, then, expect a rush of clients?

The problem with this bet is that he, the owner, has some control over whether or not he does his laundry. Not only are the dice loaded, but he gets to pick, after all bets are laid, which loaded die to use. Computing probabilities only makes sense when the events bet upon are known to be random. For Mike and Steve, this means that our actions can have NO effect upon the outcome. I don’t mean “only a very little.” NO means none at all, zilch, zero. Why zero? Because our actions now are seeds, not just “observational errors” which lead nowhere. Once we admit that our actions can influence these events, how do we predict by how much and when?

Within a very wide range, what happens to us is our responsibility. We are not passive betters on the outcome of events. I mean this both in the narrow sense of I, me, myself, and in the broader one of cryonicists generally. How can I (myself) affect my frozen fate 100 years from now? Well, for one thing I can choose my cryonics society. I can try to make its officers not only honest and competent as individuals, but operating within a constitution which keeps them honest and competent or throws them out of office. And I can provide enough resources so that evasive action is possible when any threat appears. Third, I can try to arrange that equipment, supplies, and competent people will be available when I’m declared legally dead. And of course last of all I can try to create other cryonicists.

But of course someday I will be frozen. What control do I have then? Not directly, but through other cryonicists who succeed me. We have all joined together for a journey across time. If anyone is revived 50 years from now, even with technology far in advance of ours and in another country, it will strengthen my chances. I believe the important part to remember about Mike and Steve’s social catastrophes is that every one of us is putting out effort to see that they do not occur to us.

That qualification gets to the gist of my point in this article. It is wrong for us either individually, or as a class of people (cryonicists) to take occurrence of world-wide or even Solar System-wide events as necessarily our own personal fate. It is wrong and far worse than wrong. Habits of mind which identify ourselves with the general fate of humanity assume an abdication of that exact responsibility we must take over our own fate. Putting our fate into a model of passive probability assumes our own passivity.

Some people made money hand over fist during the Depression. They did so not by preying on others but by providing needed services, just as people do today. Many German Jews escaped Hitler, by an agility of mind which told them that now was the time to leave a place where their family had lived for centuries. We want to choose a cryonics society agile enough that when the mobs come to loot the facility, they find only empty dewars and bare offices; when the nanotech beasties come for us, we meet them with a nanotechnological immune system which consumes them. We very much should not identify our own fate with that of “society” or “mankind” or even the Earth (cryonics societies should found offices off the Earth as soon as that becomes possible). Didn’t we become cryonicists because we proposed to escape that which all the philosophers said was the common fate of all mankind? Floods, earthquakes, meteor impact, major war, mobs searching for us in every cranny, how could we be fazed by such trivialities having once adopted our major goal?

It is, after all, not as if we have only five minutes to prepare for such events. Haven’t you noticed that cryonics is a very long term project? Every year we should all look up from our local cryonics tasks and think about dangers over the longer term. No cryonics society, for instance, has a constitution which satisfies me completely. There are other issues too. Part of our responsibility consists exactly of foreseeing problems which now look far away. To be immortal means to be farseeing.

Finally, since both Mike and Steve discuss the Fermi problem as an indicator of our future, I have a few words about that. One scientist closely involved with the search for ETI summed the matter up: the fact that we don’t see anyone else says something unknown about the existence or the intentions of an advanced society.

Currently we live in an apocalyptic age, when myths of total worldwide destruction lie on everyone’s mind. Before nanotechnology, it was nuclear war. Before then (a long time!) it was poison gas. That’s a highly biased view of the facts: what about the other possibility? Children can look on adults and wonder how they can eat asparagus and forego so much candy. We don’t really know what we will grow into, either as individuals or as a member of humanity. We can’t even estimate probabilities for events we haven’t ever imagined. That’s one of the most fascinating parts of cryonic suspension. Whatever we become in 1000 years it’s certain that every one of us would surprise ourselves if we could see it now.