Cryonics

The following is a review of Robert Ettinger's 1964 book The Prospect of Immortality. This review is actually part of my (much longer) thesis (which actually isn't about cryonics). But I thought the review part would make an interesting read. I would like to state upfront that although I refer to Ettinger's view of cryonics as a theology, it is not, in fact, a theology according to cryonauts. I say this because if it really were a theology--and cryonics really was a church--I wouldn't write what I've written; belief is very much a visceral, personal, wacky kind of thing. But cryonics claims to be science and not a religion. So I figure, it's fair game.

Much of cryonics theology finds its basis in Robert Ettinger's incredibly silly book, The Prospect of Immortality, which is notable for its completely sincere, and utterly naïve, complacence regarding the future. Even Star Trek, that ever optimistic science fiction drama, postulates a third World War, mass destruction of all major countries and a generation of feudalism before star travel creates the perfect future. Cryonics honestly seems to believe that the social and financial institutions that keep cryonauts frozen today will remain stable over the next hundred or so years. Do they read history, I wonder? Even if you believe in a slowly improving world, you should have noticed that it has a tendency to improve in uneven peaks and troughs: two steps forward, one step back.

The future, Ettinger believes, will be swell, a veritable Golden Age of perfection, so marvelous that we can barely imagine it today. Through genetic engineering, human intelligence, strength and health will all be enhanced, so enhanced, in fact, that frozen individuals will have to be improved, before they wake, in order to keep pace: "we shall be immediately equal to our descendents," Ettinger assures the reader. However, the issue of genetic enhancement dovetails with the issue of identity: if I am genetically altered to the point where I no longer appreciate Shakespeare's puny language (really, Ettinger says that), will I even be myself anymore, and if I am not, what's the point?

Ettinger, ever game, takes on this issue. Identity, Ettinger claims, is man-made. "We have degrees of identity," he postulates and even goes so far as to suggest that souls can share a body; a second "twin-soul" may enter the cryonically frozen body when it is revived. Which begs the question of why I can't simply be buried, leaving instructions in a vault at Alcor (popular cryonics lab) to name some future poor (but improved) slob "Katherine Woodbury." Wouldn't that satisfy Ettinger's request that I demonstrate a "strong and bold" spirit about the future by "seek[ing] growth and betterment, both for [myself] and for others"? Do I need to send my body along for the ride?

The response to the final query is answered in Ettinger's book and by current cryonauts: yes, it matters because it is my "life" or, rather, my body that has been "extended." According to cryonics, being declared dead isn't like being really dead, in the soul-leaving-my-body sense of the word (despite Ettinger's lapse into relativity) as long as the scientists get to me fast enough. I am, literally, put on ice. Eventually, I'll be revived. After all, goes the argument, people have died temporarily and been revived before and nobody squawks (they do it on House all the time). It's just a medical procedure. Penicillin preserves life; nobody bans it. Why should this be any different?

It is here that cryonics fails, to a rather startling degree, to comprehend human nature. Should I undergo hypothermia (one of the more popular examples) or suffer heart failure, I will not be gone for long. After all, if I am not revived quickly, I will die. Should I suffer a coma, my out-of-commission period may be longer, but not any longer than my body can endure. I will not last much more than a generation. I will wake up to a world that, although changed, will be fairly recognizable, and I will have suffered (albeit asleep) through the experience. In fact, I may wake up brain damaged or paralyzed; certainly, my muscles will be weak and my vision disoriented. I will have been influenced, affected, by the passage of time. I am myself because I am growing old. Ettinger would agree with this latter statement, but in Prospect he argues that we are different people at sixty than at six, why should we be surprised that we will be different people in 1,000 years? Yet, between sixty and six, I am there, present, going through the hormonal changes and life changes. I am a participant in that thing called life.

Everybody fears death, Ettinger declares. Nobody is truly courageous in the face of their mortality. Everybody wants a long life. Yet Ettinger consistently fails to appreciate what it is about death that people fear. He quotes from a doctor of psychiatry that "death can be faced more readily if there is little to lose by leaving life than if there is a great deal to lose," yet misses the implications of that good doctor's analysis. "To die, to sleep," Hamlet groaned. "To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub/For in that sleep of death what dreams may come/When we have shuffled off this mortal coil/Must give us pause." Any sensible person, that is. Ettinger, it seems, needs to read more Shakespeare.

With cryonics, Ettinger had simply substituted one unknown for another. If I believe in an after-life, the uncertainty of my future (what comes next) is just as strong as if I freeze myself. In both cases, I must exercise belief that something exists or will exist outside my immediate, temporal experience; at the very least, with cryonics, I must trust in people like Ettinger. (Trusting in someone like Joseph Smith is a good deal more entertaining and far more mind-blowing.) On the other hand, if I don't believe in an after-life, I am simply burdening the new and improved future with the task of reviving and enhancing me (which doesn’t strike me as very dutiful, no matter how bold) in a bid to avoid oblivion. But cryonauts claim that cryonics isn't about fear; they also claim it doesn't conflict with religion. Which it probably doesn't since frozen people are, well, dead, and you might as well be buried in ice as in a crypt (although your relations might balk at the bill).

What Ettinger and his disciples fail to appreciate, in their effort to promote the future, is the underlying non-fun aspect of cryonics. The pleasure of life is the participatory nature of the event. Once you remove the quality of participation, interest flags. There are, according to Wikipedia, only 140 frozen bodies in the U.S. David Koresh had as many people at Waco, Texas. Me thinks cryonics isn't in for the long haul (and those 140 bodies are, I'm sorry to say, going to be thawed).

(Ettinger really is amazingly fatuous. At one point, he postulates a future where there is no motherhood. Women who claim pregnancy and birth is positive and beautiful, he says, are just suffering from "a psychological trick, making a virtue of necessity," and he compares the experience to elimination. So, he's sexist and a jerk. Here's the point, though: Ettinger goes on to argue that "family life" and "the institution of marriage" will still exist and "people will still want children." So, we will be so different we won't want Shakespeare, but not so different that we won't want marriage, families and children. So, basically, Ettinger's future is whatever Ettinger is currently in favor of.)

(Yes, the Shakespeare comment rackled.)

CATEGORY: BOOKS

3 comments:

Henry said...

The cryonics folks were pretty upset when Robert Heinlein died and elected not to be frozen. The jerk. Instead he had his ashes scattered over the Pacific ocean.

Off topic, here are Heinlein's rules for writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

#3 is why I'm not a writer. Rewriting is all I'm good for.

(http://www.nitrosyncretic.com/rah/rahfaq.html)

Eugene said...

Cryonics is old hat. Now it's the "singularity," from the book by Ray Kurzweil: The Singularity Is Near : When Humans Transcend Biology. A summary of Kurzweil's theories here. Here's a somewhat more critical review. Another addition to the library: Frank Tipler's (another physicist) earlier The Physics of Immortality. A scathing review here. And here he comes around and intersects with Kurzweil, as does this link to Phil Bowermaster, who brings God into the picture. It'd be fascinating to get Dad to read both books and then interview him (maybe for your Ph.D.), though he might just roll his eyes.

Another way to approach Ettinger is as a kind of post-modern gnostic. The new versions of Ettinger, Tipler and Kurzweil, seems to following along that same track, except now we become nice shiny machines instead--or even better, non-material information. Pure, 100% Gnosticism!

It reminds me of the good old days when future utopias were about big mainframe computers running the world, except that they were always flying out of control and destroying the world, instead, until some intrepid, emotional humans stepped in. The fictionalized version of Kurzweil's vision, best captured in Ghost in the Shell (both the movies and series), also posits that men will become machines, but also that it doesn't solve anything and just creates lots more problems. Perhaps this is one area where fiction, with its insistence on dramatic conflict and imperfect, tragic, and self-destructive characters, will always cut closer to the truth than science.

Mike Cherniske said...

So, after doing some research on cryonics, I've learned that it's not really that complicated, and thus not really deserving of a whole lot of research (I did find out that the whole frozen head of walt disney thing is a myth, so yay for me). cryonics in real life is rather funny.
Cryonics in media, now that's fun. Perhaps the best use of cryonics in a movie is "Demolition man." now, it's not an oscar winner by any means, but it really does seem to contain all the elements of Ettingers theory... right before it destroys the perfect world that he hypothizes will exist. In the end, Demolition Man can be seen as the ultimate argument against cryonics proving that it wouldn't work. But watch the movie.