1/27/10

Minsky's Wager



OK, so a life extension drug is not available. What's a mere mortal to do? It turns out you can have yourself frozen.
Robert C. W. Ettinger is ninety-one years old and he is a founder of the cryonics movement. When he dies, the blood will be drained from his body, antifreeze will be pumped into his arteries, and holes will be drilled in his skull, after which he will be stored in a vat of liquid nitrogen at minus three hundred and twenty degrees Fahrenheit. He expects to be defrosted, sometime between fifty and two hundred years from now, by scientists who will make him young and strong and tireless.
Ettinger is the owner of the Cryonics Institute, so presumably gets a discount
Ettinger has already frozen his mother and his two wives, along with ninety-two other people who await resurrection inside giant freezers in a building just a few blocks from his house, in Clinton Township, Michigan.
For regular folk, the price is $28,000, plus a yearly subscription fee before death. Okaaaaay.

It turns out some very smart people go in for this idea. MIT computer legend Marvin Minsky is going to have himself done at a rival business in Arizona called Alcor. He thinks this is perfectly rational. Why? Apparently this is the explanation he sent to New Yorker writer Jill LePore:


Which looks an awful lot like this famous argument:



Now, Pascal's Wager doesn't tempt me at all.  I think if an all-good God exists, he's not an egomaniac who will give me an afterlife (or not) depending on whether I believe in him and pray to him. I really don't think believing and praying would increase my chances of surviving in an afterlife by one iota.

But getting frozen might increase my chances of survival (here)...even if just by one iota.  So what about it? Should I rip off my descendants for a little chance of a lot more life? (Is that a tendentious way of asking the question?!)

7 comments:

amos said...

I'm a lot less trusting than Mr. Minsky. First of all, what if the company goes bankrupt? What if there is a massive power failure and the refrigeration can no longer function? What if the company starts to cheat and to lower electricity costs turns the refrigeration off at night, as lots of supermarkets do? After all, the current management will not be around in 200 years, so no one can sue them for negligence. Will my descendents continue pay the yearly fees? I doubt it. Why assume that in 50 or 250 years they'll invent a youth pill? Maybe even if they manage to revive my corpse in 250 years, it will be brain dead. Such faith in the future is touching, but I don't share it. Better leave the money to your children or donate it to Haiti.

Wayne said...

Pascal's Wager is a good inductive argumentative form.... So it really pans out depending on what we stick in it. God doesn't work as well as Pascal would like it to. But cryonics is a much more compelling case for it.

The odds really don't matter for Pascal's wager to work. The odds of the power company or the company I freeze myself at still being in business is irrelevant. Its ultimately a cost-benefit analysis. A small upfront cost for potentially incredible payoffs.

But here's where Minsky messes up. I could use the money that I spend to preserve myself, and make my current life much better, than necessarily taking a gamble on making my future life better. Or better yet, I could spend my money on others to better many more people's lives than just my own.

People have used the same argument to argue against turning on the Large Hadron Collider (small possibility of ending the world... so don't turn it on). But neglect to really analyze the "no" bet to the fullest.

amos said...

What's more, I, my self, am not an ahistorical entity, which can discover a new life project in 250 years: my self, my projects, my joys are all based on a personal history, on being born in 1946, on having the tastes and values of my generation (and of having learned something from other generations), on having friends who in general are of my generation: my self, without all that accumulated mileage, has no meaning, none at all.
When I die, it's over, because my world, the world of my values, of my friends, will die around the same time as I will.

Jean Kazez said...

Wayne, I don't see why you say the odds of success don't matter. In Pascal's Wager, this is almost true, since the pay off (eternal life) is so huge. In Minsky's Wager, the odds do matter because the payoff isn't that huge. You could get defrosted in 200 years and then get hit by a bus a day later. The odds of successful resurrection have to be pretty good, or you may as well spend the $28,000 on yourself or your descendants.

Amos--Yeah--I don't why get why it would be so great to come back into a strange world. Then again, it would be awfully interesting to see what was going on.

amos said...

By the way, in monetary terms, perhaps we should think of how much money 28,000 dollars, invested in a diversified, but conservative portfolio of stocks,
bonds, and other financial instruments would bring in 200 years.

Wayne said...

Jean- the odds don't matter so long as there is no gain from betting no. My argument is that there is gain from betting no.

Saying the odds are slight makes no difference if there is no gain on the other side of the wager.

Say you and I play a game. I flip a coin and you call it. If you call tails and you win, and get nothing. If you call tails and lose, you get nothing. If you call heads and win you get a dollar. If you call heads and lose you get nothing.

There's no reason to call tails ever. Now change the odds. Instead of flipping a coin, we open up a random page in the Oxford English Dictionary. If the page is 4003, you win a dollar. If its ANY other page, you win nothing. It makes sense to only bet 4003, even if the pay off isn't that huge.

Anonymous said...

I have always found Pascal's wager to be a good defense for the claim that it is rational to believe in God - even if we can't completely prove that God exists. While it prpably can't convince anyone to believe, it may convince you to take a serious look at religious belief.