Freezing critique: privileged views and cryonics
Cryonics – the practice of freezing people directly after death in the hope that future medicine can resuscitate them – is controversial. However, British Columbia is the only jurisdiction with an explicit anti-cryonics law (banning advertising or sale of cryonics services), and a legal challenge is apparently being put together. The motivations for the law appear murky, but to some this is a rights issue. As Zoltan Istvan notes, “In a world where over 90 percent of the people hold religious views of the afterlife, cryonics could become a noteworthy global civil rights issue. ” Maybe the true deep problem for getting cryonics accepted is that it is a non-religious afterlife, and we tend to give undue privilege to religious strange views rather than secular strange views.
Ethically, it seems that disposing of bodies should largely follow the wishes of the deceased. This sometimes leads to legal clashes. Many jurisdictions clearly specify how human remains should be disposed, typically with a list of approved methods. In the past the cremation movement fought for the legal right of their preferred form of disposal, succeeding in most of the West where previously burial (on land or at sea) had been the sole approved form: changes do happen over time. Right now a freeze-drying methods for a low-carbon disposal is struggling to get approval. However, currently cryonics is handled as an anatomical donation and hence works differently legally.
There are also practical limitations to how far wishes can be followed. While some Westerners no doubt find the idea of Tibetan sky burial green and appealing, it would likely not be practical in many parts of the world. In India the Zoroastrian version has been forced to be augmented with solar mirrors and captive vulture breeding. A wish that imposes too much effort and obligation on the community would be excessive. However, cryonics is typically fully paid for by the individual, so the only economic loss would be in terms of inheritance (which does cause occasional legal wrangling) and the social obligations are relatively mild (leaving the suspended person suspended until the future; visits are optional).
However, cryonics seem to be challenged far more strongly by friends, family and medical establishment than a corresponding religious belief about burial and afterlife. A Christian patient demanding last rites in order to have a chance at the future resurrection of the body is not seen as excessive or irrational. There is of course a certain degree of religious social capital used here, since less mainstream last rites and beliefs are more likely to be challenged (just as mainstream acceptance of circumcision normalizes something that per se is obviously against widely accepted medical ethical principles; had it been a new practice without the social capital it would have been unlikely to be accepted).
A key part is that cryonics attempts to justify itself on rational, non-religious grounds. According to cryonic belief, enough information about the original bodily state is hopefully retained at the end of the suspension process (acknowledged as being damaging to tissues and dependent on certain biomedical assumptions) that conceivably future technologies could extract it and repair the body. The reasons for this are partially based on empirical investigations in cryobiology (e.g. how tissues are affected by different cryoprotectant formulas and cooling regimens, the effects of different suspension methods, how thawed tissue samples function, decay rates in storage, etc.), but also a set of hazier assumptions about the future (e.g. the limits of technology, the likelihood of restorative medicine becoming powerful enough, that suspension companies can remain viable long enough, that future generations will have motivations to resuscitate suspended people etc.)
It is not uncommon to hear people claim these future assumptions constitute pure faith or pseudoscience, which tends to annoy many cryonicists since they consider their views wholly based on a scientific worldview. But even given a wholly scientific worldview there are many issues where present uncertainty can only allow us to make guesses and take gambles on what will and will not work. And while the ultimate test of cryonics – suspension and resuscitation of a mammal – remains far off today, it can be pursued in a scientific manner through attempted stepwise improvement of current cryobiological methods or pursuit of cell-repair methods: the goal is no less pseudoscientific than exascale computing, although the roadmap is far hazier (so pseudoscience claims need to show that there are no serious attempts to make the roadmap better). However, my argument does not hinge on the actual rationality of cryonics.
The problem for cryonics is that by framing itself as a naturalistic, rational method it also opens itself up to criticism that religious practices avoid – in my opinion an unfair difference.
Relatively few would question beliefs in bodily resurrection – at least to the dying believer’s face – despite the many problems with it (my favourite is the cannibal issue). In fact, we respect religious freedom so deeply that we allow it to affect medical decisionmaking in tricky ways. The most extreme cases such as conscientious objection to certain practices, attempts to control deep preferences in children and adolescents, Jehovah’s Witnesses requiring risky blood substitutes, the withholding treatment to children or employees, show that liberal democracies are willing to bend to the wishes of religious people in a medical context to a fairly strong extent (even if there are limits). The fact that the given examples are a matter for academic ethical, and practical legal and medical debate rather than overruled by institutional practice is telling.
One of the effects of religious freedom is that criticising a religiously motivated wish or decision becomes controversial: it can easily be regarded as an attack on the freedom of the believer rather than a criticism of an idea or behaviour (since the believer strongly identifies with their belief). Even though freedom of thought and speech also implies freedom to point out where others are thinking wrong, normal conflict-avoidance and attempts to respect other’s rights often dampen the criticism. How we mumble at the family reunion when grandmother expresses a bigoted view about pagans or our uncle expounds on his latest New Age conspiracy theory!
However, a non-religious rational belief, claimed to be based purely on assessments of fact, has no such protection. We might still not want to argue too much with the conspiracy theorist or anti-vaccination believer (partially because their claimed rational view is often more motivated by other reasons and would be defended as vigorously as any religious claim), but somebody who thinks there should be a flat tax, that asteroid mining is a good idea, or that statins are great is fair game. Cryonics claims to be rational, so one can legitimately grill it about its claims. Most people grill cryonicists about other things (like overpopulation, selfishness etc.) but a fair amount of scientific debate and criticism can take place too. Much of it is ill-informed, but that is again amenable to rational discussion.
The problem is when grilling claims turns into discouraging of burial wishes or even actual obstruction. The fact that one can criticise a position much more freely seem to predispose people to think that it is less worth respecting. While we can doubt the rationality of cryonics, it is by no means stranger than other religiously motivated medical treatments (like maintaining brain-dead patients indefinitely on life support) that are accepted out of respect of the beliefs of people.
Suppose cryonics was clearly a religion, believing that after the Singularity the Great Friendly AI God will with 100% certainty perform a bodily resurrection on the faithful who got the proper technological rites. It seems that resistance to this view would be far lower than for the far less outrageous claim that some current suspension techniques have a certain chance of working well enough that a suspended body lucky enough to reach a decades-away future intact has some small chance of being repaired into a living person. A doctor would likely regard the later as a pseudoscientific futurist view that also uncomfortably parodies some of the tenets of modern medicine (we most dislike the crazy people who believe almost what we do, not the crazies with fundamentally alien views). Various obvious technical counterarguments (ice crystals, ischemia, microembolisms) would present themselves and if not dealt with in impressive detail would seem to undermine the rationality of the patient. This is of course irrelevant to whether the patient should be allowed to make cryonics preparations or avoid autopsy, but the religious patient would have a significant advantage in securing support or at least acquiescence from medical authorities.
It seems that the case for treating cryonics any worse than a faith-based view is flawed. Since the actual eventual efficacy is unknown it might not make sense for medicine or society to treat it as any better either, until better evidence arrives. But since it does represent an important wish for patients (literally a matter of life and death), the practical issues are minor to outsiders, and it is not fundamentally against the ethos of a pluralistic society or other people’s rights, discouraging or obstructing it is unethical.
However, the underlying problem might be that cryonics does speak against a lot of deep-seated views. It is essentially naturalistic (if not necessarily anti-dualist) and would if it worked offer an alternative secular ‘afterlife’. Somebody with a commitment to traditional religion would both think it was in error, and if it worked it might constitute a threat or even refutation to their own core beliefs. Whether expressed explicitly or not, these are powerful motivators for them to not accept cryonics. Given that their misgivings also occur within the critique-privileged religious sphere while cryonics is in the unprivileged rational sphere, they have a rhetorical and social advantage.
I do not think cryonics should turn itself into a religion in order to gain social advantage (some cryonicists are trying) since it is somewhat intellectually dishonest. Rather, I think we need to recognize the problem that we too easily let irrational beliefs slip away because they dress up in religious clothing. We also tend to mix up that just because a belief can (and maybe should) be criticized, acting on it can justifiably be obstructed. For that, we need stronger moral reasons.
(Full disclosure: I have a cryonics contract myself. I think cryonics has a good enough chance to work – maybe 10% – that it is rational for me to pay a few pounds per month for it. But this is a crude backup plan: I rather get immortal by not dying.)