Christianity and cryogenics
Along the line of organ drafts, I’ve been thinking recently about cryogenics. The practice in which you have your brain frozen when you die so that you can, at some point in The Future, be revived.
Not thinking about signing up for them, of course; they’re absurd. That seems to be the common sense response, and I ultimately agree with it. But the common sense arguments supporting this response, not so much. “They’re expensive”, “They probably don’t work”–on F.H. Bradley’s definition, these two surely count as metaphysics: “the finding of bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct.” They’re expensive: how much should you be willing to pay for eternal life? Isn’t that the pearl of great price, for which you should go and sell all that you have (Matthew 13:46)? They probably don’t work: but so long as the chance is non-negligible, doesn’t the greatness of the prize make the venture worthwhile?
The common sense responses attempt to appeal to certain kinds of facts, namely, scientific facts, facts about what is and isn’t possible. But infinities render all such discussions murky. We might be better off making an ethical argument, in the Aristotelian sense: “If cryogenics did work for you, you might end up wishing they hadn’t.”
I don’t mean the possibility that you might be brought back as an exhibit in a zoo. To make such an objection is to allow the cryogenics advocate’s calculations to proceed apace; all he needs to do is include a term for the fact of this possibility in his equation. But I do mean what this objection meant to get at: we value not life, per se, but flourishing, which, for human beings, entails life within a community; and signing up for cryogenics seems somehow to embody a rejection of that community, a declaration that what really matters to you is not the life you’re living now, within that community, but your life “after the freeze”. It would be duplicitous to pretend that this were not so, to act as if the decision left your relations with your friends and family unchanged:
But he said to another: Follow me. And he said: Lord, suffer me first to go, and to bury my father. And Jesus said to him: Let the dead bury their dead: but go thou, and preach the kingdom of God. And another said: I will follow thee, Lord; but let me first take my leave of them that are at my house. Jesus said to him: No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God. (Luke 9:59-62)
To sign up for cryogenics is to live in anticipation of being frozen. But how can you sustain such anticipation with no continuity between your pre-freeze and post-freeze lives besides the bare fact of it being you who bridges the gap? And, of equal importance, how, after the freeze, can you make your life a fulfillment of that anticipation? If you and only you (with none of your “furniture”) do survive the freeze; and if this leads you to forget your pre-freeze life; then your new life will be indistinguishable from that lived by someone who lived forever without undergoing the freeze. This indistinguishability will render your decision to be frozen unjustifiable.
But, of course, signing up for cryogenics makes one a member of a new community. This changes our moral intuitions; it’s the difference between Rip Van Winkle, who loses his own time through sleep, and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus, who sleep because the time is not yet theirs:
Decius (249-251) once came to Ephesus to enforce his laws against Christians … here he found seven noble young men, named Maximillian, Jamblichos, Martin, John, Dionysios, Exakostodianos, and Antoninos … who were Christians. The emperor told his soldiers to find them, and when found asleep in the cave he ordered it to be closed up with huge stones and sealed; thus they were buried alive. But a Christian came and wrote on the outside the names of the martyrs and their story. Years passed, the empire became Christian, and Theodosius reigned. In his time some heretics denied the resurrection of the body. While this controversy went on, a rich landowner named Adolios had the Sleepers’ cave opened, to use it as a cattle-stall. Then they awake, thinking they have slept only one night, and send one of their number (Diomedes) to the city to buy food, that they may eat before they give themselves up. Diomedes comes into Ephesus and the usual story of cross-purposes follows. He is amazed to see crosses over churches, and the people cannot understand whence he got his money coined by Decius. Of course at last it comes out that the last thing he knew was Decius’s reign; eventually the bishop and the prefect go up to the cave with him, where they find the six others and the inscription. Theodosius is sent for, and the saints tell him their story. Every one rejoices at this proof of the resurrection of the body. The sleepers, having improved the occasion by a long discourse, then die praising God.
So the question must be: is the community of those “awaiting the freeze” one we should want to join–or, rather, one we can justify joining, given that joining it entails rejecting the community in which we now live?
Until now, the argument for cryogenics has closely paralleled that for Christianity. Now the two must diverge, for any justification here must depend on the ethical qualities of the group to be joined, and the ethos of cryogenics and the ethos of Christianity could not be more different. In place of the Christian virtue of faith, transhumanism puts curiosity; in place of hope, expectation; and in place of charity, cupidity. (It’s still cupidity even if the “more” sought, the “utility” to be “maximized,” is located in “us” rather than “me”.) Well, rehearsing these arguments would be too big a tangent, but you can tell from my rhetoric where I stand on the matter.
This is an ethical stance, one I adopt in ignorance of the facts; yet the facts do matter, in cryogenics as in Christianity. It makes a difference whether the life-saving and life-extending technologies on which the promise of cryogenics depends are impossible or merely difficult. If the latter, then my stance does not forbid attempting to bring them about; it only forbids preserving one’s own life through cryogenics when such preservation is possible only through an unjust isolationism. But if the former, then trying to bring them about is not only an exercise in futility, but an attempt at self-distraction and self-deception. It’s the difference, I suppose, between honest science and curiosity in the negative sense.