A couple of days ago, media outlets in the UK were filled with opinion pieces about the case of a girl who had died from cancer.
The reason a media fuss was made about it was because the young woman had won a legal claim to be allowed to be cryonically frozen upon her tragic, premature death. It is considered a landmark case; and it is genuinely fascinating for a host of reasons.
Cryonics is basically a process of preserving the body in extremely cold temperatures, with the aim of possibly being able to revive it at some unknown date in the future. A glycerol-based chemical (a kind of anti-freeze) is fed into the body, which, after reaching -130 C, is placed in a container and immersed in a vat of liquid nitrogen.
The idea of cryonic preservation has been in public consciousness for decades, since it was developed in the 1960s, so that it is a fairly widely understood concept, even if there are differing opinions as to whether, in its present form, it will work. There are also the standard moral arguments about whether it is even a good idea or not. The judge in this particular case, Mr. Justice Peter Jackson, ruled in favor of the terminally ill girl’s wish to be cryonically preserved after disputes about whether this would be permissible. The 14 year-old became the first British child to undergo the procedure and was taken to the US for preservation.
She had written in a heartfelt letter, after a long struggle with terminal cancer; “I want to live and live longer and I think that in the future they may find a cure for my cancer and wake me up. I want to have this chance.”
In cryonics, it is asserted that the human subject – including what we might loosely term ‘personality’ – can survive, even within an inactive brain: assuming, in theory (and theory only) that the original encoding of memory and ‘personality’ can be reconstituted. ‘Cryonicists’ posit that the brain’s information content can be reactivated, so long as the brain structure remains intact. Fascinatingly, some also argue that the cryonically frozen human subject shouldn’t be considered ‘dead’ (even if, by standard definitions, they have clinically’died’), so long as the critical information (in the brain) that is crucial to ‘personality’ can be defined as being intact.
In other words, by this reckoning, if someone is in a state of cryonic freeze, so long as the brain structure is intact, the person could still be regarded as ‘alive’; though the more correct term would be potentially alive, sort of a human version of Schrodinger’s Cat. The cryonicist view would be that the girl is not considered deceased, but in a state of sleep or suspended animation.
There’s perhaps something that feels counter-intuitive about that on first glance; it feels instinctively difficult to digest that a body (and brain) reactivated a hundred years or so after initial ‘death’ could simply reactivate not just the physical being and biological and chemical functionality, but also the personality of the person, the psychological make-up, etc, and generally the sorts of hard-to-pin-down elements that we tend to most associate with ‘the person’.
Some scientists refute the underlying methods, suggesting, for example, that the vitrification process (where over 60% of the water inside cells is replaced with protective chemicals) would potentially cause damage to the brain, such as membranes being ruptured or sensitive neuronal connections being compromised.
But the truth is that this is still all very speculative. What this 14 year-old girl was choosing to do was to take a chance, or a leap of faith if you like, with the possibility that this could happen and she might have a second shot at life. She simply didn’t want to die so young, and in her own words, didn’t want to be “buried in the ground”.
“I’m dying, but I’m going to come back again in 200 years,” the girl, who remains unnamed, is reported to have said.
I’m personally not sure there needs to be any moral or ethical dimension to this story; though some newspapers will no doubt go down that road and ask whether it is ‘right’ that this process should be undertaken. People do like to moralise about things like this, but I don’t really see the point. The young girl was going to die anyway; and all that has really happened is that, instead of being reduced to ashes or buried in the ground, she has been frozen instead and given a possible shot at revival some day in the future; hoping that the technology or medical advances could exist that would allow the girl to be both revived and cured of her cancer.
The entire thing is a vast unknown, of course.
There’s no guarantee the means will exist to effectively do either of those things. Plenty of scientists still refute the idea of cryonics successfully reviving human beings. This young woman would’ve been well aware of that; for her, this would’ve been a stab in the dark. But she had nothing to lose: and she chose to confront the injustice of being made to die at 14 wTth the possibility of living again, far beyond her era.
What I find potent about this too is the sense that this young woman chose to take a leap of faith; except it wasn’t in religion, but in science and in the future (I don’t know if the girl also had any religious beliefs or upbringing). Her decision also seems to be an embodiment of the Star Trek III theme I quoted in the title and that has resonated with me since I was a kid, about Kirk “turning death into a fighting chance to live” and never accepting a “no-win scenario”.
Scare stories about possible ‘epidemics’ of people wanting to be cryonically frozen to ‘cheat death’ overlook the fact that this process is very expensive and won’t be something that most people would consider doing. And moral reservations about ‘playing God’ seem to miss the fact that we’ve been ‘playing God’ for a long time already, with everything from blood transfusions and organ transplants to simple anti-biotics. Some opinion pieces also characterise this process as being an attempt at ‘immortality’, but in the case of the 14 year-old girl it really isn’t; she was simply someone who didn’t want to die at 14 and figured she might some day get to live out a fuller lifespan. There is no insinuation here that she would ‘live forever’ or seek to ‘cheat death’ multiple times.
Admittedly, at some point in the future there might be bigger moral questions that do arise, concerning life and death, particularly if, in said future, there is much more availability and demand. There are also perhaps legitimate concerns that companies presently offering this service are simply profiting from selling something that is purely speculative and may not be deliverable.
It is a fascinating subject though. And leaving aside for now any accusations of charlatanism, as well as any of the more philosophical or spiritual questions about what constitutes the ‘person’, the ‘mind’ or even the ‘soul’ (and whether a physical/biological revival of the person in the future might be lacking that ineffable ‘consciousness’ or ‘essence’ that we all instinctively feel we possess, but which mainstream science has yet to comfortably identify), I have wondered whether I, given the means, would choose the same path too.
And I’m putting it to any of you reading this: would you choose cryonic preservation with the possibility of revival at some distant future date?
More specifically, if it could be guaranteed (which it presently can’t; but it’s still an interesting question) that the technology or medical advances would exist at some future date to revive you – and if money was no issue – would you put yourself forward for cryonics? Again, let’s assume – for the sake of this post – that the cryonic preservation and revival works and the companies presently offering it aren’t running a scam.
Lots to consider, of course. No friends or family from your original lifetime would exist in that future. If you were lucky, you might have some distant descendants to acquaint yourself with; but even that wouldn’t be a guarantee. Culture, lifestyle, technology, and much else, will have changed drastically from what you’re now familiar with. Many of your frames of reference would be meaningless. Relating to people might prove difficult.
Much depends on how far in the future we’d be talking about. It could be more than 200 years: if it was four or five hundred years, the adjustment might prove impossible.
I thought about it, and considered that if you were to pluck someone from a hundred years ago – so 1916 – and plop them in our present day, would they be able to cope with the world as it now is? They might. There are people who live as long as that anyway; even to over a century. I imagine that if you took someone from the era of the Great War and put them in 2016, the transition – though it would take time and probably a lot of therapy – could be made eventually.
Go further back, however, to about 200 years and take someone from 1816, and then I imagine there would be massive problems. Asking someone from 1816, who hasn’t even experienced radio yet or cars, asking them to acclimatize to a 2016 lifestyle, media, technology, society, etc, would probably be too much.
By the same measure, reviving someone from 2016 200 years from now might produce the same problems. On the other hand, someone familiar with technology in 2016 might struggle a lot less than someone from 1816 would in 2016. If I was to go into Han Solo style carbonite tomorrow (pictured below, though not strictly a cryonic process), knowing what I do about present technology, it is entirely feasible that the technology and culture that would await me 200 years from now upon awakening wouldn’t be so confusing. Also, it wouldn’t just be about my understanding of contemporary 2016 technology – I also have a substantial frame of reference for what *expected* future technologies and society might be like, as most of us do.
That’s because we read science or tech magazines or websites, as well as being well-schooled in cult or popular science-fiction ideas about the future, going all the way back to H.G Wells.
The notion of cryonic preservation and revival has been explored in various pop culture, from Futurama and South Park to Captain America and various Star Trek stories. In fact, it was the whole premise of Matt Groenig’s Futurama series. In other words, I’m fairly confident that nothing that might be going on, technology or lifestyle-wise, two centuries from how would be anything that I haven’t already watched Kirk and Spock encounter in some Star Trek episode or another.
So, basically, I would already have the pre-existing frames of reference via which to make sense of the world I wake up in. Some things might be surprising or take getting used to, but it is difficult to imagine anything would be utterly impossible to process.
The difference between our hypothetical person from 1816 and someone from 2016 is that the 1816 person – due to certain, key technological or scientific thresholds having not yet been crossed in his era – would have very deficient frames of reference for understanding our society and lifestyles. Most of us, on the other hand, might manage the transition better. On the other hand, if someone from 2016 was to be revived several hundred years from now, or a thousand years from now, it would presumably be much more difficult – perhaps even impossible – to acclimatize.
But if we’re talking within an approximate limit of one to two centuries (which is the time-frame loosely being talked about), I’m not sure the human race and human society would evolve beyond recognition in just two centuries. Whatever’s going on in two-hundred years, it should be something that someone in 2016 would be able to understand and deal with.
Unless I’m massively overlooking or underestimating the potential for a major digression from what I generally expect human civilisation to develop as; I’m also of course ignoring extreme possibilities, such as human extinction, a world-ending event or some other calamity.
There would also be psychological issues, however; trauma, maladjustment, alienation, for example. ‘Loneliness’ is the word I’ve seen pop up in newspaper articles. It would, we can imagine, be especially difficult for a very young person, who hasn’t built up all that much life experience. To wake then to a world with no parents, siblings or familiars would be very tough, and if you were to be revived at the same bodily age, you would presumably need parental figures to guide you and look after you.
It seems to be assumed by some that, if the brain functions and information centers could be reactivated, the person would be able to function entirely as they once did in the past, with the same knowledge, information and understanding. We can’t know that this would be the case, however; an intensive amount of re-education may be required, along with the education that would be necessary to learn about the new world they were waking up in.
The first person ever to have been cryogenically frozen was psychologist, Dr James Bedford. His deceased body is reported to still be in good condition. A number of others have undergone the process too, though still in fairly limited numbers (and apparently the story that Walt Disney was cryogenically frozen is only an urban myth). Maybe in the future, as is depicted in Futurama, there could be help groups for revived cryonic subjects, where they’d be encouraged to help each other acclimatize to their new lives – while reminiscing about their century, no doubt.
It wouldn’t be easy. But moving country isn’t particularly easy either or changing school.
I could be way off-the-mark here; and you may have a completely different attitude towards this than I do. And admittedly, one of the biggest hypothetical concerns I would have is the difficult question of, as mentioned earlier, what we think it is that defines ‘the person’.
There are many – particularly those with strong religious convictions or spiritual mindsets – who would argue that we as human beings should be focused on spiritual immortality and not on physically ‘cheating death’; they might also even argue that the latter interferes with or jeopardizes the former.
When we talk about the notion of ‘reviving’ someone many years after they’ve originally shaken off the mortal coil, it does beg the question of what we mean when we use terms like ‘we’ and ‘us’; or, more appropriately, terms like ‘me’ and ‘I’. I don’t, by the way, propose any answer to that – I’m only acknowledging the question. We’re in very tricky territory when we try to define concepts like the ‘soul’, or ‘mind’, or ‘consciousness’ or even ‘personality’; those are all vague, nebulous concepts to modern science, yet could in fact be absolutely crucial to our instinctive measure of what a ‘person’ really is.
The Materialist view would insist that what we may or may not think of as ‘soul’, ‘mind’, ‘consciousness’, self-identity or whatever else, is actually an illusory self-perception created by the processes that go on in our brains; and that, basically, everything we think of as ‘us’ is in fact entirely self-contained within the biological entity and within the brain in particular, with no need for any esoteric considerations.
If that is the case, then it is entirely possible that a ‘person’ – or what we think of as a ‘person’ in the fullest sense – could be fully revived and restored to life if successfully cryonically preserved.
It is still a complete unknown at this time, however.
Which is just one way in which modern mainstream science probably has a long way left to go in trying to fully understand or decode the mysteries of existence. In fairness, it hasn’t been considered science’s place to comment on religious or spiritual concepts like the ‘soul’; but when scientific procedures reach the realm of manipulating life, death and possible resurrection, science inevitably will have to begin to contend with those kinds of questions.
Which may be one of the reasons why many mainstream scientists are uncomfortable with human-related cryonics.
As for the question of whether I would, in theory, consider cryonic preservation and the possibility of revival at a future date, I think I probably would. It would be a total stab in the dark; but I think the Spock part of me would simply be too curious to turn down the opportunity of getting to examine the world that might exist far beyond what would’ve been my natural lifetime. Hell, the time-period I wake up in might well have starships, transporter technology and matter-replicators. Come to think of it, if this 14 year-old girl was to be revived in 200 years (as she suggested in her letter), that would place her right on the cusp of the (fictional) classic Star Trek timeline in the 2200s.
But the question I’m asking is: would you do it, if you could?
The idea, at any rate, that we might, as a species, get to a point where death really isn’t death is something you could view as positive or negative, depending on your own considerations – but it is fascinating, in any case. At some point in the future, our entire sense of what ‘death’ is or should be might change radically.
And regardless of any concerns about possible negative connotations in this area, there is also something somewhat beautiful, I think, about the idea that a young girl who fate tried to rob of her life at an early age might get to live again, generations after the rest of us are long gone.