Brain Freeze

There's something immediately funny about cryogenics--freezing dead people so they can come back to life some day, if the technology is every invented.  Sunday's NYT article on the subject tickled my funny bone, but also got me thinking about a very creepy eventuality. Say you opt for brain freezing, rather than whole body freezing (like the man featured in the story). OK, so they unfreeze you some day. 

We tend to think of the brain as what really matters. But embodiment is, well, kind of important. Let's say you wake up in 2100. Maybe they've wired you up so you get inputs from a video camera. (Note: this is the premise for my first screenplay. DON'T steal it!) You look around the room. Not so bad! I survived! There are nice people in the room, intriguing new gadgets you'd like to experiment with. Great. (This part goes on for a while.) Then your automatically scanning videocamera changes perspectives and reveals you--now, just a brain in a tank.

Oh my god! This is really, really bad! Whatever the personal identity theorists may say, what we really feel is "our bodies, ourselves." Maybe the brain is the real me, but it's very, very freaky not to be a brain in a body. And not just freaky. Bodies do great things for us, like allowing us to move around and change the world. You know--walk across the room, pick up a cup, stuff like that.

The article doesn't get into this. In fact, for all its virtues, it has a continuity problem. At one point we're talking about whole body freezers. Next, the author is back to freezing brains. The people featured in the story never talk about the matter. Can you wake up "whole" if you don't bring your own body?

Right, maybe they'll come up with ways to simulate embodiment, as in Robert Nozick's experience machine or the famous brain-in-a-vat. So bodiless people will feel as if they have bodies...and won't have to freak out. But maybe not. Keeping the brain going seems much more doable than putting it in another body, and getting all the sensory and motor connections to work again.

Maybe we make too little of our embodiment--a holdover from the old idea that the real me is my soul. We figured out it's really the brain, but at least in some existential sense, to be me is to have my brain in more or less the same body.


Athena Andreadis said...

Our brains and our bodies make/are our minds. A disembodied brain without anchoring feedback will almost certainly lose its mind (as seen by the milder but very real outcomes of sensory deprivation and phantom limb pain).

If I Can’t Dance, I Don’t Want to Be Part of Your Revolution!

Ghost in the Shell: Why Our Brains Will Never Live in the Matrix

Jean Kazez said...

Athena, Both great articles, and so relevant. Everyone should read them, and in fact I might discuss/link in a later post.

Love the first--for a long time I've been wondering why I can't warm up to transhumanism. Your worries help me think about it.

Re: "lose its mind," You mean (a) that would no longer be me, and (b) the experiences would be badly messed up. But I take it you don't mean (c) no consciousness possible any more.

Faust said...

Time to read Surviving Death imo :)

Re Athena's links. Hayles "How We Became Posthumna" is a good read.

Athena Andreadis said...

Jean, you're right: a and b, but not c. There will be consciousness, and it may be the same or different (I suspect the latter, since thought processes are moulded by their physical substrate). But it would definitely not be "you". This would not make it inferior, just different.

There's a justly celebrated SF short story that faces this issue squarely in connection with transporters -- James Patrick Kelly's Think Like a Dinosaur.

Jean Kazez said...

I know, you're right. Just 1-2 more books ahead of that. If I'd stop working on the Tom Johnson merit badge, it would help. Actually, I'm about to take a fun trip. One of the destinations is the famous Moosewood Restaurant. I will be reporting back. Have you started Surviving Death?

Faust said...

Actually having read Athena's articles more closely I now recommend Johnston to her as well.

Surviving death deals squarely with hibernation, and teleportation, with conclusions that explicitly reject the conclusions Athena comes to (at the identity theory level, the science all seems sound and it's not what he's concerned with), as he recommends a view that rejects standard identity theory and supports multiple embodiment (one self, multiple bodies).

For my own part I'm not weighing in explicitly, but at this point I'm certainly not sold on one identity theory over another. However, I've long thought selves are illusions and that predisposes me towards Johnston's view.

Faust said...

Oh I didn't see your final question. Yes I've finished it in fact. However, it's a dense enough book that more reading will be required. Certainly it's a BOLD book, that attacks well established neo-lockean identity theory, goes after Lewis, takes on Parfit, takes on the Pauline doctrine on bodily resurrection, and finally comes to some really wild conclusions, that I'm thinking pretty hard about. It's not an easy read by any means, but I found it rewarding.

The first lecture is particularly daunting and highly technical once you get passed the preliminaries. Lecture 2 on is where the more interesting stuff is (from my perspective), but a certain amount of chapter 1 is necessary, and any robust counter argument would doubtless have to take it into account.