Many of you readers have already heard of a technology of speculative utility called cryonics, but for those of you who haven’t, here’s the deal in brief. For forking over some sum between $10,000 and $250,000 U.S., technicians will preserve either just your brain (at the low end) or whole body at very low temperatures as shortly as possilbe after your death. The rationale for this queer practice is the in-itself-plausible thought that who you are — your thoughts, personality, memories, preferences, personal identity in sum — is encoded somehow into the structure of your cells, and so that if this structure is preserved shortly after death, some future civilization with super technology will be able to somehow revive you, fix whatever it was you died of, and give you a new life in the future. Neat, huh?
Bracketing for the sake of this post the question of whether these procedures will ever actually work, I’d have to say I wouldn’t find cryonics a particularly good deal if my future existence were to consist of an extended period of what I have now. After all, I’m a guy who thinks it would have been great if he had never been born in the first place, so I’d sure be a damn fool if I were to plunk down thousands of dollars in hopes of being re-born into an extended period of more of the same. And what’s more, something I’m keenly aware of that cryonics enthusiasts seldom address is the possibiilty that the future into which one might be revived would be even worse in significant ways than the world we live in today. Call such futures Malign Reviver Futures. Examples of such possible futures include.
- Slaveowners. You are revived by people who think it might be fun to have you as a plaything or a pet. Not likely to be that much fun.
- Mad Scientists. You are revived by people who want to use you as some sort of laboratory rat.
- Religious Fanatics. The future is dominated by a religious cult who want more converts, and you are about to become one of them, whether you want to or not.
- Historical Re-enactors. Our distant descendants are building ancestor simulations as a way of gratifying their curiosity about history, and you are about to become raw material to be fed into a simulation are part of one (or perhaps many) of them. What is more, you are about to find out, human history is not very nice. Among other things, it is full of victims of war, famine, pestilance, natural disasters, crime, genocide, economic exploiation, etc. Have fun learning!
But okay, maybe none of this is wrong (although I have yet to hear a compelling argument that it isnecessarily wrong). People who are going in for cryonics are apparently betting that the future into which they might be revived will be at least as good as lives worth living now.
Might I be so bold as to suggest that the future is likely to be bimodal? Suppose it is not a world of one of the Malign Revivers but of Benign Revivers. The people who are ultimately going to pull you out of your tube of liquid nitrogen ar geniunely kind and want the best for you. I suppose that could be a genuinely bright future. After all, if they have technology so sophisticated that they can turn all your life-ravaged, freezing-damaged cells back into a functioning individual, then it seems highly unlikely that they are afflicted by the sort of garden-variety evils of disease and aging that afflict us still in the twenty-first century. At the very least, your potential life in the future will be long and healthy. You can finally catch up on all those books that sat on the shelf in your life. You will finally have the time to learn The Well-Tempered Clavier beyond the C-major prelude. An interesting variety of highly attractive sex-partners might be on offer (a though that I am positive must lurk at the back of the minds of most if not all cryonics enthusiasts).
That the future is glorious compared with the crappy present is something I think most cryonics folks believe. One of thier early proponents, Robert Ettinger, opens one of his books with this confident declaration: “By working hard and saving my money, I intend to become an immortal superman.” Ettinger’s apotheosis hasn’t yet arrived, but I’m certainly not going to declare than it can’t arrive. In his prediction that it would arrive, Ettinger pretty much set the tone for the movement that followed him.
But if the future is glorious, then one wonders why cryonicists aren’t more eager to get their preservations underway. A lot of awful things can happen to you in the course of life that will screw up the entire cryonics project:
- You could die in such a way that makes it impossible to preserve your information. Your body (or brain) might never be recovered by a cryonics preservation team, or when it is recovered, it might be too decayed or damaged for anything to be recovered. You could be flying on an airplane that crashes into the sea, or into an accessible mountain range. You might be crushed to fragments in a collapsing office tower, as many of the World Trade Center victims were. You might in an automobile accident on a remote highway and die in an emergency room in some podunk town somewhere. They busy attending physician might not bother to call the cryonics people (or might disdainfully think cryonics is bullshit and not worth his time). By the time of your “recovery,” days later, your corpse has been at the mercy of small-town morticians.
- Even if you don’t die in a way envisioned in (1), your life might be destructive of who you are. You might develop of and then die of Alzheimer’s Disease or some other form of dementia. Even if you’re preserved immediately after death, there’s really very little or nothing of “you” left in what ends up preserved.
- Even if you live a long lfe and die unmarked by the illnesses envisioned in (2), the person who dies might not really be “you,” in an important sense, but will be a cranky old person, someone who, as a consequence of a lifetime of experience (mostly unpleasant, probably, because that’s how human life is) has really rather different beliefs and values from what you have now. Is that what you want to preserve?
Happily there is an answer to all these worries, a very simple solution. It is as follows: get the cryonics team over to where you are now, and get yourself frozen right away. That way, none of these things can happen. The person brought back by the Benign Revivers will be guaranteed to be you. You and living in the glorious future with your thoughts, your memories, your beliefs and values. The only technical problem here is that the procedure might be against the law (against assisting “suicide” or something) but I’m sure this problem can be worked around by finding a jurisdiction sufficiently respectful of individual liberty to allow the procedure to be done.
What? You think that this would be killing yourself? What’s the matter? Don’t you have confidence that cryonics works? It’s not killing yourself. What you doing is just trading away whatever years there might happen to be at the end of your “natural” life — years that are nearly certain to be beset by aging and all its attendant miseries, I might add — as a way of being secure against the risk that you won’t be revived in the future.
Don’t you think the technology will work? Don’t you want to be an immortal superman?
Cryonicist! Get into that tube!