"I don't want to achieve immortality through my works. I want to achieve immortality through not dying." --Woody Allen
One of the more familiar advertisements for Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary shows a picture of the red-jacketed book frozen into a block of ice. Underneath is a definition: "cry on'ics, n the practice of freezing the body of a person who has just died in order to preserve it for possible resuscitation in the future, as when a cure for the disease that caused death has been found."
The advertisement is interesting as a presentation of a specialized word; there is an English term which refers specifically to freezing bodies for other than pathology storage. And the point, of course, is that the word is new enough to the language to be present only in the most up-to-date dictionaries. In fact, the theory and practice of cryonics is just about 30 years old.
The idea of being preserved somehow, in order to wake up Rip Van Winkle fashion in the future, is of course not new. It is an idea which seems to speak from powerful archetypes in the human unconscious, as witnessed by the fact that Rip Van Winkle himself, a character from a short story more than two and a half centuries old, is still familiar to the man on the street. (Think of what most authors would give for that to be true of one of their story characters, 250 years from now). And the always creative Benjamin Franklin once expressed his desire to be preserved in a cask of madeira with a few friends so that he could see what had happened to his beloved republic after several centuries. But Franklin despaired that the technology for dealing with these problems would not arrive in his lifetime, and of course he was correct.
The first serious public suggestion that suspended animation was an idea whose time had finally come, was made formally in the early 1960's. A Michigan Secondary College physics teacher named Robert C.W. Ettinger published a book, The Prospect of Immortality, which suggested that if humans beings were to be preserved by being frozen at very low temperatures very soon after death, then it might not be altogether fantasy that future technology would be able to one day repair, revive, and rejuvenate them.
It was not an accident that Ettinger's ideas were articulated in the early 1960's. In the previous decade, a number of significant advances had been made in the field of cryobiology (the science of the effect of cold temperatures upon living organisms). Living cells had been cooled to the temperature of liquid helium (nearly as cold as it is possible to get), and revived. And tremendous strides had been made in the art of human resuscitation also: In the early 1960's, a man with no heartbeat and no respiration was still considered "dead" (at least in a way), but for the first time now was no longer considered beyond help. With new techniques to shock the chaotic electrical discharges of a fibrillating and stilled heart back into organization, it transpired that a few newly-expired people could be brought electrically back to life in true Dr. Frankenstein style. Even an occasional cold, blue, and clinically dead drowning victim could be revived by the simple expedients of artificial respiration, rhythmic chest compression, and warming.
All of these facts hint at a certain view of reality. Ettinger, being a strict mechanist, saw "death" not as an event, but rather as a continuous process. More specifically, he argued that the label of death was simply the name which was given to the doctor's judgement as to the irreversibility of this process. The statement "the patient is dead," Ettinger pointed out, was merely equivalent to the statement "technology isn't presently good enough to revive him." The "dead" patient of 50 years ago might be revivable today. Similarly, the "dead" patient of today might be revivable 50 years in the future, if a way were found to get him there. And that, of course, was the crux of the idea.
Ettinger argued that machines in this future would be able to repair any amount of damage to the cells and tissues of a body, including damage done by freezing, as long as a sufficient amount of information remained in the cell to define the structure. The process might resemble an archeologist's reassembly of a long broken piece of pottery or papyrus, but in the end would be working and faithful restoration. Even fairly long periods of "clinical" death (i.e., no heartbeat or respiration) were not to be viewed as an automatic unrecoverable deterioration in the structure of the body, for it was beginning to be obvious that human cells (including brain cells) did not begin to fall apart until several hours at room temperature after the heart had stopped. Indeed, living cells had been recovered from corpses after even longer periods of time, and Ettinger argued that for every living cell, there were many more which must be just "barely" non-functional.
Conventional statements regarding brain cell "death" after five minutes without oxygen, Ettinger felt, were meaningless. At the cellular level especially, "death" was a value judgement. Brain cells after five minutes without oxygen looked fine (in later years it has been suggested that permanent brain damage results from small blockages in brain blood flow that do not happen until long after revival had been started). Whatever the mechanisms were, Ettinger felt, they ought to be amenable to intervention.
It was Ettinger's view that eventually the practice of freezing people soon after death would become common-- that indeed, cryonics was not about freezing dead people at all, but rather people who had been labeled that way somewhat prematurely, like Juliet in Shakespeare's play. In the future, machines subtle enough to repair freezing damage on a cell-by-cell basis would be developed. It is known that cancer cells are immortal and forever self-renewing. Eventually, future understanding of cancer cells would be applied to the rejuvenation of normal cells which had aged. When technology improved sufficiently, the frozen dead would be thawed, repaired, cured of their diseases, have youth restored, and embark on the good life. It was a golden prospect, indeed.
In early 1967 someone decided to try it. A California psychology professor named James H. Bedford died of cancer, and per his wishes was frozen in liquid nitrogen at 321 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Life magazine devoted a layout to the procedure, but only a few editions were published before magazine space was preempted by the fatal Apollo 1 fire. The result was that cryonics received its major publicity debut not from Bedford, but from the unaccountably persistent rumor that Walt Disney had been secretly frozen after his death in late 1966. To this day the case of what happened to Disney remains unsolved. Disney's family maintains that he was cremated. A recent Disney biography, unfortunately unreliable on other factual detail, maintains that the great animator is frozen, awaiting "reanimation." The pun has been irresistible to writers.
Unfortunately the history of cryonics from the time of Bedford is a somewhat rocky tale of financial problems, and even (in some cases) incompetence. Several dozen people were frozen within a few years after Bedford. However, keeping them in that state, which required constant tending and infusions of moderately expensive liquid nitrogen, proved more difficult. One organization offered "cryonic interment," and for a time kept a number of refrigerated bodies in a cemetery crypt in Chatsworth, California. Eventually, due to nonpayment by relatives, all thawed. After a time the relatives invariably lost interest, suffered financial problems, or died. The flow of money stopped; the refrigeration failed. Cryonicists almost never thaw accidentally, as in the science fiction movies (it simply takes too long), but they often thaw for financial reasons.
By 1987, the census of intact bodies frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures in the United States had dropped to only three. One of these was Bedford (who after a quarter of a century still reposes in a vacuum-insulated bottle, unchanged). Since 1987, the number of people frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures has climbed to about a dozen (1994). An additional two dozen intrepid souls have chosen and followed through with the cheaper alternative of having only their heads frozen after death-- believing that future technology will be able to one day provide a new body from the blueprint of their DNA. Several more people have started out as whole, frozen bodies, then been decapitated and only their heads saved, as finances ran out and only charity was available. In cryonics, entropy can creep up on you, even nibble on you, a little bit at a time.
Cryonics organizations, however, are growing rapidly, with several hundred people now legally signed up to undergo at clinical death the rather complicated procedure of freezing. Across the country, teams of technicians stand by around the clock ready to rush to the site of an impending demise and begin cooling the body moments after cardiac arrest and pronouncement of legal death. Then, after transportation to a special lab, the body will hooked to a heart-lung machine which maintains oxygenation to still living tissues while the blood is drained and chemicals circulated to minimize freezing damage. Finally, the body will be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen over several days, and transferred to a liquid-nitrogen-filled upright vacuum-insulated flask. The bodies are placed in the flask head-downward, so that in the event of a problem, the feet will thaw first. A special fund is then activated which pays for what cemeteries under similar circumstances call "perpetual care." The fund is usually set up with life insurance money. No more are things dependent on relatives; cryonicists have learned this matter well.
What is the secular humanist to make of all this? Having one's body frozen in the circumstances described above is an act of considerable faith, indeed perhaps faith of a religious magnitude. Cryonics does seem to occupy the same space in the philosophy of the mind as religion (or for that matter secular humanism), so that people who occupy themselves with several of these views at a time are rare. Cryonics indeed offers a sort of religious menu: the chance of salvation by works, the prospect of resurrection after death, the hope of "eternal" (or at least very long) life in a coming millennium. In a sort of modern, technological way, cryonics mirrors the rituals of ancient Egypt, in which the body was fanatically preserved and prepared for a long trip through darkness before being reunited with the breath of life.
If belief in cryonics is a matter of faith, it is useful to inquire in what ways this faith differs from that of the humanist. Both humanists and cryonicists place no faith in God and some faith in man. It can be fairly said, however, that humanists are in general more skeptical about man. How is this so?
To begin with, the philosophy attendant in cryonics places nearly unlimited faith in the ultimate technological achievement potential of mankind. Human beings, according to this thinking, will eventually be able to do anything not prohibited by the ground rules of the universe in which we find ourselves. Since these physical laws do not appear to prohibit the eventual development of technologies to enable people to live for as long as they are likely to want to, cryonicists suspect that not only will this technology eventually come to pass, but that the time frame for development will be in hundreds rather than thousands of years.
Humanists, too, believe that mankind will (in Faulkner's words) not only endure but also prevail-- ultimately mastering all the masterable aspects of the universe. Most humanists, however, have probably not thought out how this mastery will impact the age old problem of mortality. Mankind seems genetically and culturally conditioned to accept the reality of his present life span, and old habits die hard.
Along with a belief in the potential of technology, cryonicists have a touching faith in the potential of their own organizations. Indeed, some cryonics organizations now are run like small parishes, where most of the members know each other and routinely donate time to the common good. Frozen members (the metabolically disadvantaged, if you will) are treated with particular reverence, since each animate member fully expects to wind up in that condition himself by and by.
The outsider is likely to view such arrangements with skepticism, making the Parkinsonian observation that small, efficient, personal organizations become large, inefficient, impersonal organizations eventually. All organizations, even NASA, fall prey to bureaucrats after a time, just as civilizations themselves decay, ala Spengler. The skeptic would argue further that the monies of the unprotesting frozen are likely to make tempting targets in such times. If such wealth becomes large enough, the society of the future will surely find some way to obtain it--even if the tax laws have to be rewritten.
And what about the society of the future? Cryonicists assume, because they have to, that such a society will be rich enough to afford luxuries like newly-thawed people. A further assumption is that the transition from our culture to such an affluent culture will be smooth, without any significant social or economic crises. A few cryonicists worry about where one could get liquid nitrogen in the event of a nuclear war, but these are the lunatic fringe. Clearly, one of the first things which a society in any kind of trouble will shed, is the bodies of its dearly-departed.
And what about other troubles? Long before the time when frozen people can be revived, humanity will have found it necessary to severely control its birthrate. Nor will space migration solve this problem, as some simple exponential calculation will show. Is it likely, one wonders, that a society which no longer welcomes new babies will want to revive people who have already had a comparatively full life, and now are safely dead?
There are other considerations. The question of whether cryonics is likely to work or not is separate from the issue of whether or not the humanist would want to participate in it. Many humanists have seriously questioned whether very much extended life spans would be a good thing if they were a reality. Author Isaac Asimov, a well-known humanist, once stated that he would not want to live more that a normal life span, even if that were possible (and, in fact, was not frozen upon death, though the offer was made to him). He was not alone in his opinions.
Asimov had argued that it is a rather good thing that powerful and inflexible people eventually die and get out of the way for the young. In self-illustration, he argued this thesis powerfully and inflexibly, until his death. But perhaps it might not have to happen. The problem for society of how to keep from stagnating, once lifetimes become very long, is a difficult one, but perhaps not insoluble. Those who believe in the apotheosis of technology argue that one day it may be possible to "reprogram" people routinely for new occupations. Ways may be found to regularly "retire" people from positions of power without having to shoot them. Finally, the optimists contend that it is possible that the undesirable inflexibility which is associated with aging in some (but not all!) people, may not be an inevitable product of repeated experiences wearing deep grooves in the mind, but may instead be the result of loss of critical interpretive brain circuits. As such, the "closed mind" of aging may be preventable with proper brain maintenance. Perhaps even Asimov's closed mind regarding cryonics might have been changed with a bit of biochemical repair-- who knows?
Once it has been decided that the potential rewards of cryonics are worth having, then the question of whether to invest in the belief is one of playing the odds. Cryonicists are fond of pointing out that however poor the odds are of waking up in the future are with cryonics, they are infinitely poorer if one is instead cremated. Nevertheless, this sort of thinking is merely an updated version of Pascal's bet, which most humanists have already rejected.
Pascal, of course, pointed out that the best odds lay in being religious, since if the religious view was correct there was everything to gain, while at the same time if it was wrong there was little to lose. Secular humanists have long argued that, even when one had decided to be religious, there was no way of figuring out which of many mutually exclusive religions was the correct one. In addition, humanists have held that holding an incorrect religious view causes a great deal of loss: loss of freedom to choose one's own sense of meaning, loss of time, wealth, and energy donated to a worthless cause, loss of the freedom to do a number of harmless and enjoyable things without guilt.
Similarly, even if cryonics works as planned, there are losses to be considered. The first comes from the possibility of being thrust, naked and perhaps alone, into the future (we all arrive this way into the world, but generally we don't mind it as babies-- as adults it is another matter). There is to be considered the loss of one's entire social context, and association with every friend and loved one who was not frozen along with you. This loss hits all at once, so far as the cryonaut is concerned. Now comes the very real fear, with us in fiction since Mary Shelley's writings, that greatly extended biological life spans require alienation from society as their price. If we wake up in the future, will we have a place? Or will be like the creature of Frankenstein, doomed to spend our time as outsiders in such a future society, looking in wistfully?
Women seem especially vulnerable to fears of social isolation (probably it is no accident that Frankenstein was written by a woman), and cryonics in fact has not been popular among women, who make up only a quarter of membership in cryonics societies, or less. Some people reject cryonicists not because they don't think it will work, but rather because they are afraid it will.
There is also the not inconsiderable matter of money: several hundred dollars a year in membership fees, plus the cost of maintaining a sixty to one hundred twenty thousand dollar life insurance policy. There is the loss of the care-fund money to one's descendants or to charities (money that buys nitrogen to keep a worthless old corpse frozen could instead be going to Ethiopia). There is the loss of esteem from nearly everyone: from the theists because cryonics comes close to trying to construct a tower of Babel; from the socially-aware nontheists because that life insurance money could have gone to Ethiopia (or your favorite humanist organization). Finally, some potential cryonicists may be tortured by macabre and irrational thoughts about having to spend a considerable number of centuries frozen into a naked statue of oneself, hanging upside down in a giant thermos bottle. This sounds much more uncomfortable than a nice plush casket; the mind does not work rationally in these areas. Why else do coffins have padding?
Of course, to be fair, there are also potential gains from involvement in cryonics which are also independent of whether the technique works or not. Chiefest of these is that cryonics provides a certain amount of comfort for the non-believer. Some of the sting of death can be removed if there remains a chance, however small, that death is not permanent. Of course, the cynic will comment that freezing a corpse is much like putting leftover food in the refrigerator because one cannot immediately tolerate the waste implied in throwing it away. Even if the food is never re-warmed, it is easier to discard if done in two separate steps. So it is, perhaps, with a dead loved-one. Yet comfort is comfort.
Cryonics as a philosophy is perhaps unique in its consideration of the prospect of practical immortality (one can live as long as one wants to) without resort to metaphysics. Ultimately, and perhaps ironically, cryonics may never have significant impact on humanistic thought for this very reason. Humanists have pretty much given up the prospect of immortality. In what may or may not be sour grapes (making a virtue of necessity), secular humanism has come to the conclusion that immortality would not be a good thing to have in any case. One suspects that humanism is not about to be tempted from its carefully defended edifice of rationalism in this, especially for an enterprise with only a small chance of succeeding.
Humanism is ultimately a socialistic belief. Many humanists find their sense of meaning in service to the community. Humanists, noting that cemeteries cover more land area than public parks in Maryland, will have themselves cremated in order to give the living a bit more room. Humanists request donations to the National Cancer Institute in lieu of flowers at funerals. Humanists are organ donors. A humanist is likely to see the act of getting one's corpse frozen at great expense as the ultimate egotism; as a selfishness beyond social redemption.
Cryonicists in contrast, do not mind being selfish. An astonishing number of them are libertarians or even believers in the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Above all else, cryonicists want to live, and regard demands of self-sacrifice by society as a sort of perversion. As a rule, liberal guilt bothers them not at all.
Mankind's philosophies can be characterized according to how they deal with the concept of death. Religious philosophies (at least most of them) deal with death through denial of its existence. The official atheism of the Marxist state, itself a kind of secular religion, by all accounts is astonishingly similar in its treatment of the inevitable. The Russian terminal patient is never told that he is dying. He is even lied to, if necessary.
Humanists believe in death, but try hard not to think about it. When they do, it is with renewed resolve to enjoy life and carpe diem while they can. Humanists write a lot about how the awareness of the surety and finality of death adds meaning, or "tang" to existence. However, it is rare that old humanists write this way. When they do, their essays are much prized, for they bring some sense of relief from the final nagging doubt about the advisability of being old and being a humanist too.
In the end, cryonics remains a quirky and rather unique philosophical phenomenon. In some sense, with its mechanical tinkering and high cost, it is an very American thing, and probably will generally remain so for some time to come. It is an attempt at a high-tech fix that anyone who distrusts technical solutions will surely find appalling.
But whatever one says about cryonicists, one must grant that they have faced man's central problem of mortality without squeamishness, and without any quivering supplication to mystical forces. Cryonicists are not mystics. A cryonicist's liquid nitrogen capsule in one sense is only a strange but recognizable kind of ambulance-- one headed slowly for the emergency room of a hospital that has not been built yet. Cryonicists are simply trying to save themselves and their loved-ones by application of reason, hard work, and perhaps a lot of luck.
And the secular humanist, agree though he may not, must surely respect them for that.