A number of scholars from Oxford University have recently signed up to be cryogenically frozen after their death, which has sparked some debate on the feasibility and morality of cryonics. As you may know, cryonics consists of being frozen after your death, in the hope of being revived at some later time when the technology allows it. The manner of the desired resurrection varies between customers: some of them want to be thawed out as soon as possible, whereas others are just interested in living as uploads in a computer simulation. In this article I will tackle different issues concerning cryonics, one at a time.
Can it be done?
There is a healthy amount of skepticism regarding cryonics, some of it justified. There are two technical challenges to be overcome: freezing and thawing out.
If you freeze a lump of meat, the water in it will crystallize and destroy its cell walls. If this happens on an organism, this process will damage it to the point of making revival impossible. However, some animals have already found a way to solve this issue: tardigrades just overload their blood with glucose, which keeps the water in the system from freezing; frogs just spike their fluids with anti-freezing substances. Humans have learned from this, so much so that it is possible to cryogenically preserve someone while keeping their physical structure intact.
Summarizing, the freezing can be done and is being done.
However, thawing out is still an issue. Some progress has been made with small, simple animals, but mammals are still way ahead. Whether this will be possible at all in the future remains to be seen.
So, can it be done? Maybe. I’d place the odds at a very subjective 80%.
Cryonics Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Is it rational?
Irrespective of whether it can be done, the question remains: should you? The answer, of course, depends on whether you want to live forever or, at least, for longer than you’d normally be capable of should you not freeze yourself.
If you want to have a normal lifespan and have no qualms about dying, cryofreezing is not for you. If you want to live more than that, it could be a good idea, depending on the risks you’re willing to take. In order to analyze this I will put any morality issues on hold and assume a completely selfish perspective. That is: is cryogenics a good strategy if my goal is to live more than my allotted lifespan?
A good approach is to consider the cost/benefit ratio, as well as the risk involved. The cost of cryogenics is quite low: around 30,000 dollars, which can be taken out of your life insurance. This is equivalent to around 30$ a month, which is probably less than what a normal person spends on beer. In this sense, the economic risk one incurs when signing up for cryofreezing is next to zero.
The physical risk to your person is exactly zero. That’s because you’ll already be dead when frozen: what else could possibly happen? I can, however, imagine a few horror scenarios:
- Being revived with no rights and used as a slave or for experiments by some race that’s not human any more and couldn’t care less about a contract you signed 500 years ago.
- Being uploaded to a virtual reality that is nightmarish by mistake or simply because whoever put you there thought it would be fun.
- Being revived with all kinds of physical problems and spending the remainder of your days in excruciating pain.
In this sense, plain dying may be safer: it can’t get better but it can’t get worse. Also, if you are like Buddha and believe life to be mostly about suffering, trying to live forever does not seem like a very wise attitude. But again, we are assuming the people who want to be frozen disagree with this view and actually like living.
So, is it rational? It depends on what you want. It involves considerable risk, given how hard it is to make predictions about the future. However, if you think nothing is worse than dying, the risk is almost zero.
Cryostasis (Photo credit: kulakovich)
Is it moral?
Some people may argue that trying to live forever is immoral. I recently read a pretty obnoxious article in the Telegraph that said so: forcing yourself upon the new generations, taking up their resources, is just plain selfish.
First, a disclaimer: I don’t think the morality of being frozen is an issue, since we don’t do things because they’re moral but because that’s what we want. So if I want to live forever and I think freezing is a good option, I’ll do it, regardless of the morality of my choice.
That said, let’s take a look at the purported immorality of freezing oneself. The argument that doing so uses resources that could go to the next generation seems sound at first, but it has many flaws. The first one is that it can also be applied to people who insist on not surviving past their retirement age, getting expensive cancer treatments and heart transplants while the world struggles in economic turmoil. How can they be so selfish? Why don’t they just die and leave the Earth for the young, who deserve it more than them? I’m sure you can think of many counter-arguments to this, most of which will also apply to cryofreezing.
Also, the claim that frozen people will just take up resources belonging to the new generations is far from accurate. Once our technology allows us to thaw out and resurrect people, it is safe to assume it will also allow us to rejuvenate them. In this, case, frozen people will have young bodies and minds and will therefore be perfectly productive. Which means they will not just not consume resources belonging to other people, but will actually produce resources that other people will use. Finally, as our economy becomes more virtualized, the number of natural resources each person will consume is bound to decrease. The extreme example of this is a completely virtualized world where people live as uploads: in this case, the cost for society of keeping one person alive is extremely close to zero and getting lower every second, as computing resources become cheaper.
So, is it moral? First, whether cryonics is moral is irrelevant; but no, it is not immoral. And, given the crap that’s happening around the world lately, concentrating on a bunch of geeks that decide to freeze themselves seems a bit like completely missing the mark.
(Oh, and here’s a fun comic strip on cryonics)