Pascal's Wager and Cryonics

More information about cryonics.

In the 1600's, Blaise Pascal proposed the following argument in favor of belief in God. First, either God exists or he does not. Second, either you believe in God or you do not. If you believe in God, and He exists, then you will go to heaven. If you do not believe in God, and He exists, then you will not. If God does not exist, then it does not matter what you believe.

Therefore, as belief in God will do you great good if He exists and do you no harm if He does not, then you should believe in God.

Pascal's Wager (as it is now commonly called) has been widely discussed and criticized on several grounds.

First, you might believe in the wrong God. As explained on South Park, when the Hell Director welcomes a group of new arrivals to Hell, some of them are confused, saying they had been devout Protestants, or Jehovah's witnesses, and shouldn't be in Hell. The Director tells them "I'm sorry, I'm afraid you were wrong... you chose the wrong religion." They ask "well, what was the correct religion?" The Director informs them: "I'm afraid it was 'the Mormons.' Yes, 'the Mormons' was the correct answer."

In other words, Pascal's Wager assumes there are two courses of action, when in fact there are many courses of action corresponding to the many different gods that you might decide to believe in. If you decide to believe in Pascal's God, you have also decided not to believe in all the other Gods, any one of which could consign you to Hell.

Second, it assumes that you can "believe" something because you find it convenient to do so. If someone offers you $1,000 to "believe" that there is a six foot talking pink elephant in your driveway can you do it? If your belief is feigned, will you get the reward anyway? Will God be mad at you if you feign belief in Him and send you to Hell?

Third, how can you make a decision when there is no evidence? Should we not believe that which is supported by evidence, rather than believing anything that pleases us?

Cryonics Payoff Matrix

Cryonics Payoff Matrix
It works It doesn't work
Sign up Live Die, lose life insurance
Do nothing Die Die

The cryonics payoff matrix (right, sometimes called "Merkle's matrix") presents the choice offered by cryonics in a way that is sometimes compared with Pascal's Wager.

The analysis proceeds as follows: (a) there are one of two possibilities, either cryonics works or it does not; and (b) there are one of two courses of action, either you sign up or you don't. This leads to a payoff matrix with four possible outcomes. To use the payoff matrix you must determine the cost of signing up, decide on the value you place on a long and healthy life (as the technology required to revive you should also be able to keep you alive and healthy for a very long time) and the (presumably negative) value you place on being dead. You must then evaluate the currently available evidence to decide whether cryonics is likely to work. Finally, you select that course of action with the greatest expected return.

This analysis avoids the flaws of Pascal's Wager.

First, Pascal's Wager claims to pose a choice between two courses of action and two possible outcomes, when in fact there are many possible courses of action (corresponding to the many Gods you might decide to believe in) and many possible outcomes (corresponding to which of the many Gods, if any, actually exists).

By contrast, the payoff matrix asks you to decide between two outcomes that are generally recognized as distinct and that adequately cover the range of possibilities: life and death -- and two courses of action: signing up or not signing up.

Some might argue that there are other possible outcomes: perhaps you will wake up, but the medical technology of the future leaves you alive but still old and wretched. This seems unlikely as there will be little motivation to revive cryopreserved patients if there is any significant risk of an unsatisfactory outcome, especially if the alternative is to wait a few more years so that better medical technology can provide a more satisfactory outcome. The standards of future medical care are likely to view anything short of vibrant good health as unacceptable. As there are no medical injuries that are fundamentally incurable within the framework of known physical law; excepting only amnesia, and then only if all of the redundant neuronal structures that encode long term memory have been obliterated beyond even the ability of the most sophisticated of future instruments and algorithms to infer; it seems safe to limit our attention to two primary outcomes: full recovery of excellent physical health with substantial or total recovery of long term memory and personality, or outright failure.

A more difficult issue is deciding on the value we place on each outcome. Life can be more complex than simply being alive or dead. Some of us find life more enjoyable than others. More challenging, some might view "death" as a good thing that we should seek out. Shirley MacLaine, for example, said "Everyone who has died and told me about it has said it's terrific!"

For this reason, each person using this analysis must answer for themselves what value they place on being alive and what "value" they place on being dead. Most of us view being alive as a better outcome than being dead, but not all. I have a few friends who rate life as barely tolerable. They would no doubt assign values to life and death that differed little, if at all. Shirley MacLaine might assign a positive value to being dead.

Second, in cryonics there is no question about whether you "believe" or not. The choice is whether to sign up, or not sign up. Your mental state is not an issue. While most people who sign up think cryonics will work, this is not a requirement and has no direct influence on the outcome.

Third, there is plentiful evidence available to evaluate cryonics. Cryonics is based on the proposition that a sufficiently accurate preservation of your physical structure, particularly of your brain, will preserve you -- your hopes, dreams, personality and memories. Standard texts on human long term memory and neurology tell us a great deal about what physical structures must be preserved if the information critical to defining who we are is to be preserved, and we have extensive experimental and theoretical results about the nature of cryopreservation injury. If the structures critical to long term memory and personality are likely to be preserved by cryopreservation, and medical technology in the future is likely to be able to repair the injuries that occur before and during cryopreservation, then cryonics is likely to work.

There are many published articles and books about long term memory (e.g. The Molecular Biology of Memory Storage, Principles of Neural Science and innumerable others). For a particularly on-point, recent and authoritative review see Synapses and Memory Storage by Mayford M, Siegelbaum SA, and Kandel ER; Cold Spring Harbor Perspectives in Biology, April 10, 2012. There are also articles discussing the feasibility of molecular nanotechnology and nanomedicine and articles analyzing the technical feasibility of cryonics.

There is further discussion of Pascal's Wager and cryonics at Overcoming Bias.

Click here for an overview of cryonics and links to further reading.