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.)