Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

Cryonics is the preservation of living humans or animals by extreme cooling with the aim of restoring them to a normal animate state at a later date. It is commonly confused (by me, at least) with cryogenics, which is simply the science of making things very cold.

I mention this as I was quite surprised to see the IET Engineering & Technology magazine featuring and article on cryonics. Like many people, I have always considered cryonics to be pure science fiction, taken seriously only by a minority of hopefuls who presumably desire to wake up in a world filled with rich eccentrics.

The article dispelled a number of my misconceptions. For example, modern cryonics is not freezing. Freezing causes ice crystals to form which makes a big gooey mess of cells, probably destroying any chance of revival. The modern process involves vitrification, which is achieved by replacing cell-fluid with cryprotectant fluid before extreme cooling. This fluid is unfortunately toxic, at least you can’t live with it in place of your cell-fluid. So all cryopreservation work has to be done after legal death, otherwise they’d be killing the patient. However, cryonicists do not consider clinical death to be a real death – unless it involves the destruction of information in the brain. Rather they consider cryonically preserved people to be alive but inactive, like someone in a deep coma. This is perhaps not unreasonable given the number of people who’ve been clinically dead – without heartbeat or breathing – and have been fully revived. Indeed this is the premise on which CPR is based.

While I certainly won’t be saving up to have myself cryopreserved, the whole thing seems slightly less crazy now. Slightly.

However, the process of reviving a cryonically preserved patient is still not possible with current technology. The hope is that future technology, especially nanotechnology, will someday be able to reconstruct a cyropreserved patient as well as reverse the aging process or condition which would have killed them. They also need to replace the cryoprotectant with cell-fluid. An alternative is to electronically scan the brain to reconstruct a working copy. Judging from the preservation case studies provided by the non-profit Cryonics Institute, preservation techniques appear to be carefully researched and carried out. Nevertheless, none of this is a guarantee of future revival. Cryonics currently requires an expensive leap of faith.

How big a leap? Is full revival of humans likely? The E&T article interviewed Tanya Jones, Alcor Life Extension Foundation’s executive director who said,

“While we are seeing that stem cells can actually revive every organ in the body, we still have many years of research until cryonics is a reversible procedure [...] However, recent testing has proven that it is already reversible for an individual organ down to -130°C, based on the testing of rabbit kidneys.”

Meanwhile, Ben Best of the CI says,

“Bull sperm have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and used for fertilisation since the early 1950s… And, since 1982, human embryos stored in liquid nitrogen have been used by fertility clinics with much success. Additionally, nematode worms have been successfully cryopreserved in liquid nitrogen and then revived.”

I’m no biologist, but it would seem there are some big differences between sperm and a  brain. In particular, sperm are individual cells, adapated to live outside the body for extended periods. Plus only a few of them need to survive for the revival process to be considered a success. A brain however, needs a constant supply of oxygen to prevent damage and can be irrevocably changed if a small percentage of cells die or the connections between them are lost. It’s difficult to tell how much damage has been done to even the most carefully cryopreserved human brains. Only when a human or animal has been revived and shown to have retained earlier memories can we say that there’s evidence this is possible. For now, my guess is that it’s unlikely people being cryopreserved today could be reanimated with their identity intact.

Having learnt about this, I wondered what religious people made of it. My assumption was that they’d be hopping up and down in anger that science is daring to intrude on the afterlife, which is usually considered sacred religious turf. Certainly it seems that the willingness to believe that cryonics can work may stem from a similar motivation to the belief in a supernatural afterlife – the fear of death.

To my surprise I’ve found little religious consternation over the ideas and aims of cryonics. Steve Tsai at apologetics.com considers the implications of Crygenic Resuscitations for a Christian world-view and concludes them to be no different from short-term resuscitations.

Part of this may be due to the way cryonics markets itself as a medical intervention for the living, rather than a ressurection of the dead. The Alcor Life Extension Foundation has a couple of thorough articles on cryonics and religion, comparing it to heart transplants and other life-saving surgery and concluding that we have a religiously-driven obligation to preserve life whenever possible and that this should include cryonics.

However, I suspect the main reason that religious institutions do not spend any time condemning organisations such as Alcor is because they don’t see them as a threat. There are still only a small minority of of the population willing and able to sign up for cryonic preservation and for most of us it remains science fiction. Even apparently innocuous subjects like Harry Potter or The Beatles can find themselves on the receiving end of religious wrath when they become popular enough to distract attention from religious ideas. I suspect that if cryonics was to become commonplace, such that many people’s fear of death was lessened, religions would lose one of their unique selling-points and express their disapproval in no uncertain terms.

5 thoughts on “Cryonics – Eternal Life or Wishful Thinking?

  1. I realize transhumanists hate to be told this, but I have to say that investing in cryonics strikes me as the secular version of Pascal’s Wager. There are some illuminating parallels: for instance, the “avoiding the wrong hell” problem.

    Cryonics advocates assume that you’ll wake up in a world immeasurably better than ours – one where we’ve perfected technological immortality, say. But what if you wake up in a world that’s far worse? What if the future is an apocalyptic ruin like in the Terminator movies, or is run by malevolent superintelligences (like Harlan Ellison’s AM) that take pleasure in inflicting as many different kinds of torment on human beings as they can dream up? We simply have no idea whether the future will be better or worse, and to stake your fate on it being the former is, as best as I can see, indistinguishable from any kind of religious faith.

    Similarly, Pascal assumed that religious faith was essentially cost-free, but overlooked the many acts of ritual and devotion that most faiths demand of their members. Similarly, we can ask whether investing in cryonics is the best use of our society’s resources, or whether we might not be better using that time and effort to improve the lives of people who exist right now and whom we know are suffering. I think, morally speaking, we should concentrate on helping all the people in the present, rather than selfishly sending a few of us into an unknown future.

  2. Ebonmuse,
    It seems far more likely to me that humanity would either destroy itself, or be far too busy/selfish to bother reviving corpsicles. For a society to come about that goes to the (probably extreme) trouble of reviving people just to torture them is a dystopian vision of Biblical proportions!

    There is an issue of whether you have invested in the right preservation technique. That is perhaps similar to Pascal’s wager. It seems likely that the early cryonics “patients” would likely be a disgusting mush if thawed out. Even if the “first in, last out” policy eventually got around to them when nanoscience is super advanced I doubt there would be much they could do to reanimate them coherently.

  3. Are you so seriously sure that the future will be a bad one? What about progress? We have seen tons of progress, not just scientifically but socially as well. Are you of a mind that it will all be undone and pointless by the time nanotech matures? How exactly do you see this happening?

    Sure we should be cautious, mindful of possible dystopias. That’s part of what drives social progress — and its the reason otherwise optimistic authors take the time to write dystopian novels. When people are aware of what could go wrong, they tend to step in and fix it. If they have the courage and imagination to do so, that is. Do you?

    What we really need for this tech to be widely used is for it do become demonstrably reversible. I’m betting this could be done by 2020, if we funded it like the Apollo project. Like a trip to Mars. Except it would have more practical benefits, and actually make the trip to Mars cheaper.

    Think for a bit about the possible applications for a conveniently reversible cryostasis machine that really works. There could be household models, so you can work “full-time” even if part-time work is all that is available. Or strategically stasify until the price of gas and food goes down. Sundry stuff like that. I’d bet they would also use them in emergency rooms to reduce doctors’ workloads, and thus increase patient survival rates.

    There’ll be controversial, questionable and somewhat negative applications as well — like any technology. Maybe they’ll stasify illegal immigrants instead of shipping them home or giving them green cards. Mentally unstable people could end up frozen indefinitely until their condition is well-understood enough (and manpower is available) to treat them effectively — as might cancer victims. It’s not like it is going to be heaven, but it should be better than today, just as today is better than yesterday.

    At least, that seems like a very reasonable assumption to me…

  4. Luke,

    Yes there are certainly some interesting possible implications (interesting in a Sci-Fi kind of way, they might not all be pleasant).

    I’m mostly in agreement with you that based on past experience society will most likely progress socially as well as technologically. I don’t think that progress will be linear and no doubt there will be slip-ups and atrocities on the way, but it seems unlikely that we’d slowly descend back into the dark ages. I think a happy healthy prosperous society is more likely to revive cryonics patients than a disease-ridden, oppressive society in the turmoil of war.

    Ebonmuse’s moral argument against spending resources on this kind of thing doesn’t quite convince me.

    I think, morally speaking, we should concentrate on helping all the people in the present, rather than selfishly sending a few of us into an unknown future.

    This argument could be used to cancel all space programs and any technology that doesn’t directly help people suffering in the world today. Perhaps there’s a case for that. Finding out about the history of Mars is interesting, but it’s hard to justify paying for that when we could be improving the quality of life for the world’s poorest people. In any case, ridding the world of poverty would make technological progress much easier as the entire world would be in a position to contribute, potentially… (anyway, back on topic).

    Cryonics is expensive, but I don’t think that expense is paid for by the taxpayer – if it was, I’d certainly complain. It’s more often a wealthy (or moderately wealthy with the right insurance) individual who might not otherwise be persuaded to leave their millions to international aid or investment schemes like Kiva anyway. If optimistic rich people want to speculatively fund this kind of technology (and therefore the research that goes with it), that’s fine by me. It might throw up some useful medical breakthrough from which the world can benefit.

  5. Where cost is concerned, and where you are willing to wait a while for reanimation, there has been some speculation that chemical preservation is just as good. It would cross-link everything and kill a lot of enzymes (which is good if you want to prevent self-digestion) but these could probably be re-generated with nanotech. The important thing to do is preserve the basic information of the dendrite trees. Anything else of import can be cloned from your DNA.

    The cheapest form of preservation would probably be to have the hospital pathologist remove the brain (carefully) and immerse it in a formaldehyde solution. This would be like donating the organ to research. While you’re at it, you can always donate the rest of your organs to patients in need of them.

    Having a huge life insurance policy is not necessary this way, but is still a good idea. You can establish a philanthropic fund to brighten your memory, and thus increase your chances of getting high-quality reanimation services. Or you can send it directly to research on nanotechnology. Or like you said, put it in Kiva-style microloans.

    I’m not sure this is as good as cryonics (where there is more enzyme preservation, and lots of cells will actually come back to life) but there are some things about it that are better. No ice crystals and no thermal cracking. You can use epoxy to fix it in a solid state, which would make it easier to handle. Also it is a lot less demanding of complex procedures at an emergency point in time. Plenty of people skilled in organ removal already exist, and there is less social resistance to preserving an organ, versus a whole head or body.