The Threat of Cryonics

bylsparrish9y3rd Aug 2010217 comments


It is obvious that many people find cryonics threatening. Most of the arguments encountered in debates on the topic are not calculated to persuade on objective grounds, but function as curiosity-stoppers. Here are some common examples:

  • Elevated burden of proof. As if cryonics demands more than a small amount of evidence to be worth trying.
  • Elevated cost expectation. Thinking that cryonics is (and could only ever be) affordable only for the very rich.
  • Unresearched suspicions regarding the ethics and business practices of cryonics organizations.
  • Sudden certainty that earth-shattering catastrophes are just around the corner.
  • Assuming the worst about the moral attitudes of humanity's descendants towards cryonics patients.
  • Associations with prescientific mummification, or sci-fi that handwaves the technical difficulties.

The question is what causes this sensation that cryonics is a threat? What does it specifically threaten?

It doesn't threaten the notion that we will all die eventually. Accident, homicide, and war will remain possibilities unless we can defeat them, and suicide will always remain an option. It doesn't threaten the state, the environment, anyone's health, or any particular religion. It doesn't cost much on a large scale, doesn't generate radioactive waste or pollution, has a low carbon footprint, and is both religiously neutral and life affirming.

Rather, it seems to threaten something else, less conspicuous and more universal. This something I have termed the "Historical Death Meme", and is something which we can see influencing all human cultures throughout history. It is something we probably aren't too comfortable about leaving behind, and perhaps in fact shouldn't be. And yet, it is at least as prescientific and as hazardous as creationism.

According to the HDM, if you die the cosmetic state of your body matters. If it is grotesque, you are dishonored; if not, you are respected. Society has taken advantage of this in historical times by flaying, beheading, or hanging corpses. The idea is that despite the fact that these things have zero direct impact on a living individual who can feel them, the disgust and revulsion felt in looking at them from the outside is symbolic in some way. Likewise, when a person dies and is embalmed or cremated, the features are either restored to normal or obliviated entirely.

A second aspect of the HDM is that your attitude and feelings at the end of your life matter more significantly than ever before. We tend to place great store in people's last words and final wishes. If a person is dying, their social status changes dramatically. We can't easily despise a dying person -- at least not without stooping to the level of truly despising them.

These elements of human culture and psychology have intertwined to make acceptance of cryonics very difficult. Cryonics does not regard the individuals in question as dead. Thus it would be immoral to focus on cosmetic surgery rather than on reducing the amount of brain damage. The fact that disfigurement happens isn't the problem, it is that cryonicists don't care about the amount of disfigurement. This contradicts the HDM and represents a threat to anyone who strongly identifies with it.

Cryonics also encourages an attitude of resistance towards death, of rational decision making, and of taking exception to social norms we disagree with. The HDM states that attitudes towards the end of life are important, and in fact amplifies them such that a whisper is the same as a shout. It seemingly shows that the person not only thinks they are capable of making a better decision than the vast majority of other individuals, but are not above bragging about it and rubbing it in the faces of those who make a worse decision. A simple step of enlightened self-interest is suddenly escalated to the perceived level of extreme narcissism.

The HDM does not attempt to establish irreversibility of death beyond a shadow of a doubt, it assumes it based on loss of vital signs and lack of immediate revival. Originally the breath was used, then heartbeat; now the brainwave is considered an acceptable signal. In whatever case, the presumed criteria for reversibility is that it must be immediately measurable and based on current technologies. To remove the ability to be certain of death -- making it a complex ongoing research project rather than a simple testable hypothesis, is a threat. The HDM depends on death being an immediately known quantity, because it depends on simplistic human emotions being engaged rather than complex human reasoning processes.

Problems notwithstanding, the HDM is one of the most poignant displays of humanity ever. Throughout history, humans have buried their dead, mourned and cried over their dead, honored their dead, and used obscene displays of corpses to punish their dead. For millions of years there has been nothing we could possibly do about death, once it happens, and it has been pretty much crystal clear exactly when it has happened. Our art, our culture, our very humanity, has been anchored in this one seemingly immutable aspect of life. Then cryonics comes along, something we can possibly do about the matter. It's not a guarantee of survival, nor a risky operation that you'll get immediate feedback on. The only guarantee it provides an escape from unnecessary death, subject to certain abstract conditions and unknown facts about the universe. You can't just stop thinking about death, you have to start thinking about it in another way entirely. A more rational, imaginative, creative, lateral way.

It makes a strange sort of sense, that so many of the world's leaders and thinkers are united in their opposition -- be it passive or active -- for this threat to the traditional way of thinking. It cuts deep. The reason it is such a threat is that it takes one essential human value, respect for life, and pits it against another: traditional respect for the dead. The latter is more fragile, its value less clear, and its cognition level less conscious. It has never had to defend itself. In a fight, we all know which would win. And that is precisely why cryonics is a threat.

Who stands to lose face if cryonics is taken seriously? The answer is: Lots of good people. Practically everyone who participates in the HDM does. Here are some specific examples that come to mind.

  • Doctors who pronounce death in unambiguous terms.
  • Lawyers and lawmakers who write and defend laws based on unambiguous notions of death.
  • Morticians whose cosmetically based surgery is ethically dubious when applied to a patient that might survive.
  • Heirs who accept money that could be used to save the life of their benefactor.
  • Writers and movie-makers whose stories involving death have less satisfactory and romantic conclusions.

The list goes on. The unavoidable fact is that in asking society to accept cryonics, we are asking for a lot. We are asking humans to admit how fallible they are, asking a generation to turn against the deeply honored ways of their ancestors. The costs are dire indeed.

And yet we cannot ethically just shut up about it. No lives should be lost, even potentially, due solely to lack of a regular, widely available, low-cost, technologically optimized cryonics practice. It is in fact absolutely unacceptable, from a simple humanitarian perspective, that something as nebulous as the HDM -- however artistic, cultural, and deeply ingrained it may be -- should ever be substituted for an actual human life.