Nick Olson on the False Hope of Cryonics

Our very own Nick Olson recently published an article on ThinkChristian regarding the “renewed interest (and false hope) in cryonics”. Cryonics, if you didn’t know, is the process of preserving the body — or parts of the body — at extremely cold temperatures (think -196°C) with the hopes of reviving it at a later date. Those who submit to the process are essentially hoping to cheat death, and essentially experience a sort of immortality.

Such attempts may seem foolish to Christians, since we believe in both a bodily and spiritual resurrection. However, Olson’s article ought to give us pause to reflect on how we often think about such a resurrection, and the immortality promised us in Christ. He writes:

A confession: if I thought God’s Kingdom was going to be a spiritual eternity of higher-conscience floating around, I’d probably hope against hope for cryonics, too. Indeed, there’s something inherently dissatisfying about these mythical visions of a disembodied afterlife, and I think that “something” is the negative connotations it provokes about created existence itself. It implies a pronouncement of Heaven defined in wholly escapist terms. This implicitly negative pronouncement runs counter to a holy judgment on created existence rendered from the beginning: “It is good.”

What’s more, cryonics — even if were successful, and so far, there’s no real evidence that is successful — fails to address a deeper issue (emphasis mine).

[I]nterest in cryopreservation isn’t just the natural desire for bodily immortality. It’s also representative of an imaginative investment in avoiding mortality in both word and deed. Absent the confessed need for the Physician and the spiritual transformation He brings, cryonics is an unwitting quest to preserve ourselves as we are in our spiritual impoverishment. Part of our collective existential plight is the day-to-day refusal to think about death’s impending doom and why it hovers over our collective conscience. We fill our daily lives with all manner of distraction from this reality – including the prospect of literally avoiding death via cryopreservation. But our unwillingness to face the inevitable is a willful ignorance which produces a false reality wherein certain spiritual and moral questions are rendered avoidable.

The interest in cryonics is yet another example of how things that were, for so many years, considered the domain of sci-fi, are making inroads into the cultural consciousness, and will likely present growing challenges to long-standing notions regarding human existence.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Mark Plus

    People will probably call cryonics “false hope” until the first successful revivals happen. Then they may call cryonics something like “low-temperature stabilization of the patient’s condition,” or words to that effect, and accept it as an advance in trauma medicine.

    Cryonics does have a basis in science, and I’ve had my own arrangements for cryonic suspension with the Alcor Foundation since 1990, funded by life insurance. Cryonicists want to develop “medical time travel” or an ambulance ride across time to try to benefit from the better medical capabilities of future societies.

    Fortunately for young people with aspirations of becoming the next, say, Sergey Brin, Elon Musk or Craig Venter, cryonics in its currently underdeveloped state provides plenty of opportunities. Give it a look.

    Refer to:

    1. General but outdated background information on the idea, mainly of historical interest now:

    The Prospect of Immortality (1964), by Robert Ettinger:

    http://www.cryonics.org/book1.html

    2. “Cryopreservation of rat hippocampal slices by vitrification” (a peer-reviewed scientific paper):

    http://www.21cm.com/pdfs/hippo_published.pdf

    Microscopic examination showed severe damage in frozen–thawed slices, but generally good to excellent ultrastructural and histological preservation after vitrification. Our results provide the first demonstration that both the viability and the structure of mature organized, complex neural networks can be well preserved by vitrification. These results may assist neuropsychiatric drug evaluation and development and the transplantation of integrated brain regions to correct brain disease or injury.

    3. Mike Darwin’s Chronosphere blog:

    http://chronopause.com/

    Mike goes back nearly to the beginnings of cryonics in the late 1960’s, and his blog offers a metaphorical gold mine of information, including references to a lot of scientific papers, about the field and its current but probably surmountable problems.

    4. The X PRIZE Foundation has a concept under consideration for a Cryopreservation X PRIZE:

    http://www.xprize.org/prize/cryopreservation-x-prize

    This competition offers two benefits to humanity. First, the ability to increase the number and availability of transplantable organs for patients with organ failure; and second, the ability to move forward the science of human cryopreservation which offers the ability to preserve patients with incurable diseases until a time when medical science has sufficiently progressed to be able to treat the disease.

    5. MIT neuroscientist Sebastian Seung defends cryonic suspension as a feasible scientific-medical experiment in his book Connectome, and he spoke at Alcor’s conference in Scottsdale, AZ, on October 20:

    http://alcor.org/conferences/2012/index.html

    http://hebb.mit.edu/people/seung/

    http://www.amazon.com/Connectome-How-Brains-Wiring-Makes/dp/0547508182

    http://www.scribd.com/doc/100220308/Aschwin-de-Wolf-s-review-of-Connectome-by-Sebastian-Seung

  • Khannea Suntzu

    For those who see categorically no reason to conclude there actually is some kind of spiritual reality the discussion is moot – we will die on account of our bodies being complex mechanisms. This isn’t a debate or a conclave. There are many possible truthful assertions (or lies) we can make about reality, and the one in which there is some kind of “soul” mechanism, and the other one where life is a very complex yet wholly mechanistic complex (respectively some form of governing deity may or may not exist, whatever She might turn out to be).

    I am saddened I can not believe in the explanation of reality where there is a spiritual reality. My cognition is wired as to liberally apply Okham’s razor, based on my knowledge and beliefs. And as far as I am concerned evidence weighs squarerly in favor of a reality where (although sad) we die.

    Objections from the spiritually inclined to the contrary, attempts to engineer a somewhat lengthier existence of humans (by whatever means) is a good thing. That these attempts cast a shadow of dismissal on the endless pursuit of affirming the godhood (She) by prayer, and wholesale ritualized acceptance of Death notwithstanding, I see no rational alternative to have these aspirations. The religiously inclined need to come to grips with the fact that an ever growing segment of humanity simply has different ideals and ideas.

    Agreeing to disagree also implies that both parties who are mutually offended ‘by the core values of the other side’ have the rationality to understand the premises of the other side. As an example, I feel nothing but bile and seething resentment for any christians who insist “Hell” exists. In other words, I’d love punching people in the face who teach young, impressionable children about “Hell”. However I understand “Hell”, I have studied “Hell”, and I can hold a meaningful and somewhat respectful discussion about the historical and religious reality of this concept.

    Very soon the spiritually inclined might have to come to terms with doing the same with regards to the basic premises of materialist (non-religious) thinking. It wouldn’t hurt to look at this example of Cryonic suspension with a somewhat more open mind – for instance derivatives of research in to these forms of suspension might in some probability be used to save trauma victims, and resuscitate them an hour after where before the medical profession would have pronounced death a decade or so before.

    In other words – science progresses and one day you loved ones might be with you whereas a decade before they might have become declared dead.

  • yeldan

    I will say this:

    Just as, contrary to other living beings, man has relations with his home, so he has relations with the world, and just as he has relations with his relatives, so by nature he has earnest relations with mankind. And just as he desires temporary permanence in this world, so he passionately desires immortality in the realm of eternity. And just as he strives to meet the need of his stomach for food, so he is by nature compelled io strive to provide for the stomachs of his mind, heart, spirit, and humanity. He has such hopes and desires that nothing apart from eternal happiness can satisfy them. I asked my imagination: “Do you want to live for a million years and rule the world but then cease to exist, or to live for ever but have an ordinary and difficult existence?” I saw that my imagination wanted the latter, feeling pain at the first, and said: “I want to live for ever, even if in Hell!”
    Thus, since the pleasures of this world do not satisfy the imaginative faculty, which is a servant of human nature, man’s comprehensive nature is certainly attached to eternity. For man, therefore, who despite being afflicted with these boundless hopes and desires as capital has only an insignificant faculty of will and absolute poverty, belief in the hereafter is a treasury of such strength and sufficiency; İs such a means of pleasure and happiness, source of help, refuge, and means of consolation in the face of the endless sorrows of this world, and is such a fruit and benefit that if the life of this world were to be sacrificed on the way of gaining it, it would still be cheap.
    From Staff of Moses, Risalei Nur collection by Said Nursi.

    http://www.nur.gen.tr/en.html#leftmenu=Risale&maincontent=Risale&islem=read&KitapId=398&BolumId=8216&KitapAd=The+Staff+of+Moses&Page=-1

  • Khannea Suntzu

    I suppose, but I still think it’s a load of bullshit.

  • sailor1031

    I guess there’s something about this that I’m not getting. Don’t you have to die first, before you can be frozen? Even if they freeze you while you are alive you’re going to die, no?

    Another thing is, having had frostbite long ago I know that freezing then thawing flesh does a great deal of damage. If the entire body is frozen then thawed I think it likely that the damage would be so extensive as to render the thawed body uninhabitable.

    One other issue is who is going to keep the freezing chambers running – without interruption – for the many years it may take to figure out how to re-animate a frozen body? and where is the spirit while all this is going on? Lot of questions here but no answers that I see.


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