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 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.

Faith healing – What evidence would I need?

A Christian friend of mine (No, not that one, another one) recently mentioned in his Facebook status that he’d witnessed miraculous healings at a Christian gathering. Ever the sceptic, I responded by posting a video of James Randi’s investigation of faith healing. In this video, Randi exposes US televangelists Peter Popoff and WV Grant.

He responded to me by asking:

“… Ever wondered what evidence you would need…”

Which is a very sensible and reasonable question. If I couldn’t say what evidence would convince me that I’m wrong about faith healing, I could be accused of holding my sceptical position irrationally, dogmatically, “No matter what”. Adam Lee covered this idea in respect to religious belief in general and the result is his Theist’s Guide to Converting Atheists essay which I’d recommend to everyone.

For me it’s not enough to be able to say, “This could have been a miracle” – not getting rained on when you forgot your umbrella could have been a miracle, but it could just as easily be chance. I’m trying to find something which could only have been a miracle. Recovering from a particularly nasty cold might have involved divine intervention, but this also happens naturally, so we can’t be sure a miracle occurred in that particular case. So I’m not interested in evidence of improbable healings, but impossible healings. Impossible that is, without miraculous supernatural intervention.

The evidence has to be reliable and evaluated in a way that does not allow bias, whether intentional or not, to creep in. To start with, the patients should be carefully assessed to ensure that they genuinely suffer from the claimed illness in the first place. Then we need to be able to judge easily whether or not they have been cured.

Ailments such as back pain, migraines or depression are probably not worth investigating as it is too hard to independently assess them – you can only rely on what the patient tells you.

Ideally we should also be reasonably confident of what caused the healing. If the patient visited mystical healers of all stripes then a few weeks later finds themselves cured, we still have some unanswered questions.

So to summarise, the miraculous healing would need to be something which:

  • Could only occur due to a miraculous healing.
  • Can easily be judged a success or failure by all around.
  • Can be linked to a specific faith healing claim.

A good example of this would be an amputated limb regrowing. If a group of Christians gathered around a multiple amputee and prayed for him to regrow his limbs and it they did indeed regrow then you’d have a very convincing case. I’d like to witness this myself, but also have other independent witnesses there to check I wasn’t hallucinating or missing some sleight of hand (or leg). This idea is examined in detail by the website Why Won’t God Heal Amputees, which says on the subject of healing amputees:

Notice that there is zero ambiguity in this situation. There is only one way for a limb to regenerate through prayer: God must exist and God must answer prayers.

That may seem very stringent and a very narrow way to define faith healing, but I think it’s warranted. It’s the only kind of faith healing we could really be sure about. Furthermore, I’m just an ordinary person and I could easily be fooled. I’ve seen enough stage magicians do tricks I couldn’t explain, heard (and believed) enough tall tales and been swayed by enough anecdotal evidence to know that I’m as gullible as the next guy.

So I think it’s reasonable – prudent even – to ask that these standards of evidence are met. Incidentally, these ideas are by no means exclusive, I’m sure there are other tests which could potentially provide excellent evidence of faith healing. I’m keen to hear other people’s suggestions. If we could agree on a reasonable experiment that could discern real faith healing from false faith healing, I’d be happy to try it out and post the results here.


Faith schools and Accord

Faith schools are an issue that feature regularly in the British news. About a third of the schools in this country are faith schools, of which the majority are Church of England. We’re sometimes complacent in the UK to think that the established religion in this country is benign, but faith schools give us a reminder that this is not always the case.

Firstly, faith schools are allowed to discriminate, both in their admissions and employment policies. For example, they can prefer children whose parents are regular church attendees. Predictably, in areas where the best school happens to be a religious one, desperate parents attend church for the requisite number of weeks to get their child into the school, before leaving again. Quite apart from the absurdity of this, discriminating on the grounds of religious belief contravenes the Human Rights Act, 1998, Article 9 “Freedom of thought, conscience and religion”. Denying entrance to a school – especially a publicly-funded one – is a clear example of discrimination.

In many cases, faith schools are exempt from having to comply with discrimination legislation:

Schools cannot discriminate against gay or lesbian pupils or their parents during the admissions process or in lessons. But guidance accompanying the legislation makes it clear that faith schools will not face prosecution for teaching in strict accordance with their religious views.

Some Christians, such as Melanie-Mcdonagh, have commented that discrimination is a perfectly normal and acceptable way to run a religious school.

But it’s precisely the fact that they are discriminatory that makes them Catholic, or Anglican, or Jewish, or Muslim.

I’ve heard as much from Catholic colleagues planning to send their children to the local faith school. Worse, there are plans for more faith schools on the horizon.

Thankfully, there are other Christians who have their heads screwed on properly regarding faith-school discrimination. Simon Barrow of Ekklesia writes:

If church schools are overwhelmingly funded by the general taxpayer, as they are, then the public as a whole has a reason to expect that they will be run for all by all.

Simon Barrow is co-director of Ekklesia, a Christian think-tank which regularly comes up with progressive and humanistic suggestions. Together with organisations such as the BHA and The Association of Teachers and Lecturers they have formed a coalition aimed at ensuring inclusive education for all. The organisation is called Accord and includes amongst its supporters people from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds. I’ve already made a small donation to them and I’d encourage those who agree with Accord’s aims to do likewise.

So why are some religious people so keen on faith schools? I think part of it is the popular misconception that people of their own religion are inherently better people, more moral and no doubt they’d like their children to grow up being good people. But another aspect is about the argument from religious confusion.

The argument from religious confusion points out the vast differences in religious beliefs and perceptions of a god or gods across the world. It suggests that this is more consistent with people inventing diverse imaginary gods, rather than with a genuine deity influencing the world and communicating with humanity. There is a plethora of religions out there, each with numerous sects and variations, so what makes any one of them so special? As Ebonmuse puts it,

“The religions on this planet cannot all be right – but they could all be wrong!”.

The great thing about this argument is that it’s so simple, there’s no sophisticated philosophical concepts required. At the age of ten years old, my wife stumbled on the argument from religious confusion while looking at an Atlas. Until then she’d be taught in a convent school with a predictably narrow religious focus. The human statistics she saw showed her that a large number of people in the world weren’t Christian. She still cites this as the first doubt she had about religion.

Faith schools, by separating children from those who believe differently, can keep the argument from religious confusion hidden under the carpet for longer. If everyone you know is a Christian, it’s harder to see the other options as valid. Stereotypes about other faiths can be maintained more easily, their beliefs kept in mysterious shadows, not in the real world, seeming more like fiction than anything which “real” people believe.

I think it’s important that children are taught about religion (aka “Comparative religion”), where lessons are phrased something like, “Some people believe…” rather than “The Truth is…”.

Furthermore, as the religious atheist observes, religious segregation very often means de facto racial segregation too.

The new Hindu Krishna-Avanti school has all Asian pupils. In the same education authority, I suspect that St John Fisher RC School has almost no Asian pupils, nor the Moriah Jewish Day School.

I can’t think of a single instance where social segregation has been a good thing. I don’t expect faith schools to be an exception.