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The Pascal’s Wager of Cryopreservation

photograph of man trapped under ice

In 1967, James H. Bedford, a psychology professor at California University, died. However, unlike most, Bedford didn’t plan to be buried or cremated. Instead, the Life Extension Society took ownership of his body, cooled it, infused it with chemicals, and froze it with dry ice before transferring it into a liquid nitrogen environment and placing it in storage. Bedford’s still preserved remains reside in Scottsdale, Arizona, under the Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s watchful eye. Upon undergoing this process, Bedford became the world’s first cryon – an individual preserved at sub-zero temperatures after their death, hoping that future medical technology can restore them to life and health. In other words, Bedford’s the real-life version of Futurama’s Philip J. Fry (minus the I.C. Wiener prank).

While Bedford was the first cryon, he is by no means alone. Today, Alcor is home to roughly 190 cryonically-preserved individuals. All of them hoped, before their deaths, that preservation might afford a second chance at life by fending off biological decay until possible restoration. But, Alcor is not the only company offering such services. Oregon Cryonics, KrioRus, and the Shandong Yinfeng Life Science Research Institute provide similar amenities. While exact figures are elusive, a recent New York Times article estimates that there are currently 500 cryons globally hoping, after paying between $48,000 to $200,000, to undergo the procedure upon their demise. Indeed, as I have written elsewhere, cryopreservation is no longer housed solely within speculative fiction.

Cryopreservation’s growing popularity might lead one to think that the potential for revival is a sure thing. After all, why would so many people spend so much money on something that isn’t guaranteed? Nevertheless, resurrection is not inevitable. In fact, not a single cryon has ever been revived. Every person who has undergone preservation is still in storage. The reason for this lack of revival is comparatively simple. While we can preserve people relatively well, we don’t have the technology or know-how to revive cryons. So, much like burial and cremation, there’s a (probably good) chance that cryopreservation is, in fact, a one-way trip.

This might lead us to the question why people are willing to invest such significant sums of financial and emotional capital in something that seems like such a poor investment. When money could be spent enhancing one’s life before death, bequeathed to loved ones, or donated to charity, why are people willing to flitter tens of thousands of dollars away on such a slim hope. One potential answer to this uniquely modern dilemma comes from the seventeenth-century philosopher and theologian Blaise Pascal and his argument for why we should believe in God’s existence.

Pascal’s Wager, as it is commonly known, is an argument that seeks to convince people to believe in God, not via an appeal to scripture or as an explanation for why the world exists. Instead, Pascal argued that individuals should believe in God out of self-interest; that is, believing in God is a better bet than not believing in him.

Pascal starts by admitting that we cannot ever truly know if God exists. Such certainty of knowledge is simply unobtainable as God, if they exist, is a divine being residing beyond mortal comprehension. In other words, the existence of God is not something we can ascertain, as God’s existence cannot be proven scientifically or reasoned logically.

However, even though we cannot positively claim God’s existence from evidence or inference, we can make claims about what would happen if we did/didn’t believe in God in cases where God either exists or not. In his 1994 book chapter, McClennen formulates Pascal’s argument in the form of a decision matrix like the one below:

God Exists God does not exist Total outcome rating
Wager for God Gain all (+1) Status quo (0) +1
Wager against God Misery (-1) Status quo (0) -1


Either we believe in God, or we don’t, and either God exists, or they don’t. Out of this combination of possibilities arises four potential outcomes. If God exists and we believe in them, we’re afforded the chance to go to heaven. If God exists and we don’t believe in them, we go to hell and suffer eternal torment. If God doesn’t exist, then it doesn’t matter if we believe in them or not, the outcome is the same.

So, Pascal argues, in the face of incomplete information, it is best to place our bets on that outcome that has the most significant payoff: God’s existence. Even if you’re wrong and God doesn’t exist, the worst result is that everything stays the same. On the other hand, if you wager that God doesn’t exist, and they do, an eternity of agony in hell awaits you. If you’re wrong, the best outcome is everything being the same. In other words, the worst outcome if you believe in God is the best outcome if you don’t. Again, if you’re going to gamble, you should put your money on the better payouts.

What does this have to do with cryopreservation? Mirroring Pascal’s acknowledgement that we cannot honestly know if God exists, we also cannot know if the technology required to revive people from cryopreservation will ever be developed. It might, and it might not. Firm knowledge of this is something we simply cannot gain as it is impossible to know what developments in medicine and technology will occur over the next several centuries. In the face of this uncertainty, we’re left with a similar wager to the one Pascal envisioned. Either we believe that cryopreservation will be entirely successful, enabling curative revival, or we don’t. So, drawing inspiration from McClennen, we can make a matrix mapping the outcomes of such a belief, or lack thereof:

Cryopreservation works Cryopreservation does not work Total outcome rating
Wager for cryopreservation Revived (+1) Dead; money wasted (-0.5) +0.5
Wager against cryopreservation Missed the chance at a revival (-1) Dead (0) -1


Much like gambling on the existence of God, gambling on cryopreservation’s success provides the best outcome (a return to life), whereas wagering against its development provides the worst result (missing out on the chance for more life). Even if cryopreservation isn’t successful when one thinks it would be, and that person wastes their money financing a futile endeavor, that still isn’t as bad an outcome as missing out on the chance of revival. Overall, then, a belief in cryonics affords the best result.

This form of arguing is common amongst those who advocate for cryopreservation, with many asserting that even if there is a minute chance that cryopreservation will work, it is infinitely preferable to the certainty of death offered by burial or cremation. As The Cryonics Institute asserts, “The Cryonics Institute provides an ambulance ride to the high-tech hospital of the future. When present medical science has given up on you or your loved ones, we seek another solution. The choice is yours – Do you take the chance at life?”

Now, this argument only works if you believe in the validity of Pascal’s original wager, and there are reasons not to. But, when faced with the gaping maw that is one’s demise, isn’t any gamble preferable to the certainty of death?

To Wear a Mask or Not During the COVID-19 Pandemic

photograph of groups of people walking on busy street wearing protective masks

The COVID-19 pandemic is a worldwide phenomenon that has disrupted people’s lives and the economy. Currently, the United States leads COVID cases in the world and as of this writing, the United States has the largest amount of confirmed deaths, and ranks eighth in deaths per capita due to the virus. There are a number of factors that might explain why the numbers are so high: the United States’ failed leadership in tackling the virus back in December/January, the government’s response to handling the crisis once the virus spread throughout the United States, states’ opening up too early — and too quickly — in May and June, and people’s unwillingness to take the pandemic seriously by not social distancing or wearing face masks. Let us focus on the last point. Why the unseriousness? As soon as the pandemic hit, conspiracy theories regarding the virus spread like — well, like the virus itself. Some are so fully convinced about a conspiracy theory that their beliefs may be incorrigible. Others seem only to doubt mask-wearing as a solution.

Part of the unwillingness to wear face masks is due to the CDC and WHO having changed their positions about wearing masks as a preventative measure. From the beginning, the U.S. Surgeon General claimed that masks were ineffective, but now both the CDC and the WHO recommend wearing them.

Why this reversal? We are facing a novel virus. Science, as an institution, works through confirming and disconfirming hypotheses. Scientists find evidence for a claim and it leads to their hypothesis being correct. As time goes on, scientists gather new evidence disconfirming their original hypothesis. And as time continues further, they gather more information and evidence and were too quick to disconfirm the hypothesis. Because this virus is so new, scientists are working with limited knowledge. There will inevitably be back-and-forth shifts on what works and what doesn’t. Scientists must adapt to new information. Citizens, however, may interpret this as skepticism about wearing masks since the CDC and WHO cannot make up their minds. And so people may think: “perhaps wearing masks does prevent the spread of the virus; perhaps it doesn’t. So if we don’t know, then let’s just live our lives as we did.” Indeed, roughly 14% of Americans state they never wear masks. But what if there was a practical argument that might encourage such skeptics to wear a mask that didn’t directly rely on the evidence that masks do prevent spreading the virus? What if, despite the skepticism, wearing masks could still be shown to be in one’s best interest? Here, I think using Pascal’s wager can be helpful.

To refamiliarize ourselves, Pascal’s wager comes from Blaise Pascal, a 17th-century French mathematician and philosopher, who wagered that it’s best to believe in God without relying on direct evidence that God exists. To put it succinctly, either God exists or He doesn’t. How shall we decide? Well, we either believe God exists or we believe He doesn’t exist. So then, there are four possibilities:

God exists God does not exist
Belief in God
  1. +∞ (infinite gain)
2. − (finite loss)
Disbelief in God 4.   −∞ (infinite loss) 3. + (finite gain)


For 1., God exists and we believe God exists. Here we gain the most since we gain an infinitely happy life. If we win, we win everything. For 2., we’ve only lost a little since we simply believed and lost the truth of the matter. In fact, it’s so minimal (compared to infinite) that we lose nothing. For 3., we have gained a little. While we have the truth, there is not infinite happiness. And compared to infinite, we’ve won nothing. And finally, for 4., we have lost everything since we don’t believe in God and it’s an eternity of divine punishment. By looking at the odds, we should bet on God existing because doing so means you win everything and lose nothing. If God exists and you don’t believe, you lose everything and win nothing. If God doesn’t exist, compared to infinite, the gain or loss is insignificant. So through these odds, believing in God is your best bet since it’s your chance of winning, and not believing is your chance of losing.

There have been criticisms and responses to Pascal’s wager, but I still find this wager useful as an analogy when applied to mask-wearing. Consider:

Masks Prevent Spreading the Virus Masks Don’t Prevent Spreading the Virus
Belief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (1) (Big Gain) People’s lives are saved and we can flatten the curve easily. (2) − (finite loss) We wasted some time wearing a piece of cloth over our face for a few months.
Disbelief in Masks Preventing Spreading the Virus (4) (Big Loss) We continually spread the virus, hospitals are overloaded with COVID cases, and more deaths. (3) + (finite gain) We got the truth of the matter.


For (1), we have a major gain. If wearing masks prevents the spread of the virus and we do wear masks, then we help flatten the curve, lessen people contracting the virus, and help prevent any harms or deaths due to COVID-19. (One model predicts that wearing masks can save up to 33,000 American lives.) This is the best outcome. Suppose (2). If masks do nothing or minimally prevent the spread of the virus, yet we continue to wear masks, we have wasted very little. By simply wearing a restriction over our face, it is simply an inconvenience. Studies show that we don’t lose oxygen by wearing a face mask. And leading experts are hopeful that we may get a vaccine sometime next year. There are promising results from clinical phase trials. And so wearing masks, having a small inconvenience in our lives, is not a major loss. After all, we can still function in our lives with face masks. People who wear masks as part of their profession (e.g. doctors, miners, firefighters, military) still carry out their duties. Indeed, their masks help them fulfill their duties. The inconvenience is a minor loss compared to saving lives and preventing the spread of the virus as stated in (1).

Suppose (3). If (3) is the case, then we’ve avoided inconvenience, but this advantage is nothing compared to the cost (4) represents. While we don’t have to wear a mask, celebrating the riddance of inconvenience pales in comparison to losing unnecessary lives and unknowingly spreading the virus. Compared to what we stand to lose in (4), in (3) we’ve won little.

Suppose (4). If we decide (4) is the strategy, we’ve doomed ourselves by making others sicker, we’ve continually spread the virus, and hospitals have had to turn away sick people which leads to more preventable deaths. We’ve lost so many lives and caused the sickness to spread exponentially, all because we didn’t wear a mask.

Note that we haven’t proved that masks work scientifically (although I highly suspect that they do). Rather, we’re doing a rational cost-benefit analysis to determine what the best strategy is. Wearing masks would be in our best interest. If we’re wrong, then it’s a minor inconvenience. But if we’re right, then we’ve prevented contributing to the spread of the COVID-19 virus which has wreaked havoc on many lives all over the globe. Surely, it’s better to bet on wearing masks than not to.

States’ Rights, Sports, and the Harm of Gambling

Image of gamblers in a sports betting hall.

The Supreme Court has struck down a federal law prohibiting sports betting. In 1992, a federal law prohibited states from authorizing sports gambling. This week, Justice Alito provided his reasoning in favor of protecting states’ rights, wanting to avoid the federal government interfering with state legislatures making their own rulings regarding the issue of wagering on professional and amateur sports, which is indeed legal in Nevada. Many states anticipated the Supreme Court ruling and have been mobilizing to profit on their newfound avenue for revenue. Citizens will be able to start wagering on sports in New Jersey, for instance, in the next two weeks or so.

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