Thursday, March 18, 2004

Youniverse, by Robert Ettinger (Sneak Preview)

This article was written for Betterhumans in 2004 and edited by Betterhumans staff. I have found an online version at the Cryonics UK website and copied it here.

Youniverse, by Robert Ettinger (Sneak Preview)

Waking from cryonic suspension, you might find this a highly influential philosophy book of the early 21st century

By Giulio Prisco
Special to Betterhumans

Self-centered thinking: In his latest, yet-to-be-published book, Robert Ettinger develops a philosophy based on the principles of "me-first" and "feel-good"

The two first books of Robert Ettinger, 1962's The Prospect of Immortality and 1974's Man into Superman, started the cryonics movement. Ettinger, frequently referred to as the "founding father of cryonics," has run the Cryonics Institute since its inception, overseeing a growing number of frozen patients and hoping to restore them, sooner or later, to a longer and more interesting life in a better world. Besides running the Cryonics Institute, Ettinger has dedicated the past few decades of his long and accomplished life to developing and fine-tuning his philosophy, now explained in his new book, Youniverse.

Youniverse will hopefully be published soon, probably in 2005 as soon as a publishing deal is closed. In the meantime, Ettinger has been so kind as to email a draft to several reviewers, and the book's Website is frequently updated with news and snippets of content.

After reading the draft, and though I do not fully agree with many of Ettinger's views, I can say that this is one of the great philosophy books of all time. If you are interested in the future, or the present, Youniverse deserves a place on your bookshelf. If you are interested in the meaning of self and identity, and the nature of reality as it is being slowly and painfully uncovered by modern science, you want to have Youniverse on your bookshelf. If you are looking for a practical philosophy to establish bridges between the fundamental nature of things and how you ought to live your day-to-day life, this book is for you. And of course, anyone interested in cryonics will find here new insights, including ways to estimate the likelihood of revival for today's cryonicists.

Me-first, feel-good philosophy

The moral philosophy of Ettinger is based on two principles: "Me-first" and "feel-good." Indeed, the book is subtitled "Toward a Self Centered Philosophy." Ettinger doesn't view these two principles as unproven axioms, but rather as a straightforward consequence of human nature. "Me" is the only part of the world that we can experience directly, so "me" has to come first in our scale of values, and well-chosen objectives and goals have to lead to a state of increased "feel-good."

Ettinger demonstrates that even "altruistic" behavior can, and should, be derived from these two principles. For example, I could go for a beer instead of writing this review, and this would lead to immediate feel-good. But I believe that the memes contained in the book should be fostered, so writing the review feels better. Probably Mother Theresa spent most of her time in a state of feel-good.

Being already sold on the basics, I found more interesting the analysis of "what is me?" Having said that "me" is the most important thing in the universe, how does Ettinger define it, precisely?

In some sense, everyone knows the answer to this question: I am that person who woke up this morning with a well-defined set of memories and beliefs, including the certainty of being the continuation of the person who went to sleep last night. But Ettinger goes through a series of examples and thought experiments to show that defining self and identity can be subtler than we may think.

His examples range from simple—you come back to consciousness after surgery—to complex—you get a sufficiently complete brain scan, and after a couple of centuries your memories are uploaded and "run" on some kind of future computational device. His answers to the Big Question, "Are you still you?" in these two extreme scenarios are "definitely yes" and "probably no."

Despite being considered a visionary thinker, Ettinger often thinks as a scientist of the "old school"—in the good sense. He is always very careful to distinguish between facts and assumptions, and goes down hard on what he considers faulty reasoning—that is, logically wrong deductions or unproven assumptions. So he is not very sympathetic to "uploaders" who, equating self with information, would immediately answer "yes" to the Big Question the second scenario above. His main argument against uploaders goes like this: We know that a biological brain can be conscious, but on the basis of known facts we can only assume that a computer can be conscious, and such assumption can be wrong.

The same considerations lead him to question, in another set of examples and thought experiments, the possibility of true—conscious—artificial intelligence. To elaborate a theory of self and personal identity, Ettinger develops the concept of "self-circuit," a placeholder for a yet-to-be-discovered combination of information and wetware that generates and holds consciousness.

Bad assumptions

Of course, Ettinger is quite right in reminding us that we should not draw conclusions from unproven assumptions, yet I think that overall he applies this principle too strictly. For example, thinking that I will wake up tomorrow morning is an unproven assumption. Yet on the basis of my current state of health and my estimate of the probability of being killed tonight, I feel that I can make good decisions based on this assumption.

Similarly, it is true that since I have never seen a conscious computer program I can only assume that one may exist, yet it seems to me a reasonable assumption, coherent with many facts and with the general worldview that I have developed on their basis. If in a few decades we develop technology with the capability to acquire a sufficiently complete brain scan (whatever this means in quantitative terms) for future uploading, I think I will be willing to give it a try.

I think that part of the problem stems from Ettinger being too protective of cryonics as the only practical means to survive until a scheme for immortality in a biological body is found. I intend to be cryonically preserved after death as I think it is the best bet available today and for the foreseeable future (indeed, I am a member of the Cryonics Institute), but I would also bet that sooner or later technology will allow us to make backup softcopies of humans. To another big question, "If you run two copies of one's mind, which one is the continuation of the conscious original?" I would answer, "Both" and I do not think that this poses a big philosophical problem.

And surprisingly for someone who attacks unproven assumptions with such vigor, Ettinger makes some big assumptions of his own. He has built the Cryonics Institute as a US organization, and its frozen patients are stored in the US. He places his trust in the hope that US federal and local administrations will remain sufficiently open-minded about cryonics until today's patients are restored to life. In view of the sad advantage acquired by fundamentalists and apologists of death in shaping US policies, I am afraid that his trust is misplaced—in other words, he is basing too much on an unproven assumption—and that the cryonics industry needs a bit of geographic diversification, the development of cryonics facilities in other countries that could be used as a backup solution should the US turn into a cryonics-unfriendly territory. I think that this should be a priority for the international cryonics movement.

Deep thoughts with a southern twang

Still, Ettinger has managed to produce an accessible book with much range and depth. Readers who dislike slogging through heavy philosophical jargon will be pleased that he always uses simple and plain language, at times decorated with southern slang. It is evident that he aims to make his philosophy understandable to everyone.

I am sure that after publication, Youniverse will be used as a rich source of quotes and one-liners to counter the "wisdom" of anti-progress "thinkers" such as Leon Kass and Francis Fukuyama ("the apologists of death") who have recently acquired, very unfortunately, a disproportionate influence on contemporary US media and policymakers. "Leon, dear boy, if you want to suffer and die, feel free," Ettinger writes. "Ordinary people usually find it simple to choose between life and death." Ettinger also refers to "a new type of vermin or parasite, the self-styled bioethicist, who has nothing useful to contribute, but finds a comfortable parasitical niche complaining about the ethics of extending and improving human life."

Youniverse is also full of interesting and thought-provoking analyses of side issues. For example, mathematicians will be interested in the chapter on the "paradoxes" of logic and the more detailed analysis of Goedel's incompleteness theorem (not a big issue, according to Ettinger), and physicists will be interested in the chapter on quantum physics and its various interpretations.

While the book does have some shortcomings—in his brief history of philosophical thought, for example, Ettinger bashes nearly all previous thinkers, including some who deserve better—it also has much to recommend it. I am confident that I will wake up from cryonic sleep to find out that Youniverse is recognized as one of the more influential philosophy books of the early 21st century.