This essay was written by Eric Krastel, a cryonics advocate and member of the cryonics organization called Alcor. Eric is the person who first introduced me to the ideas and principles behind cryonics.
This page originally appeared in his online journal, where you can read and reply to comments about the article.
I'm fairly open about my enthusiasm for cryonic suspension as a reasonable alternative to certain death. While I don't go around evangelizing to strangers on the street corner, I also don't shy away from discussion and debate on the subject. As a result, I've heard a lot of the same objections raised time and again from different people. The vast majority is clearly based upon either misinformation or a lack of information about what cryonics is and how it works. With that in mind, I'd like to present a list of the most common objections and concerns that I've heard as well as my responses. These are not straw men- I've heard or read all of these points brought up at some point or another.
A few disclaimers:
1) There are several cryonics organizations out there, but most of the specifics I give here pertain to the Alcor Life Extension Foundation. They're the largest cryonics organization in the world, and the one with whom I'm signed up.
2) I don't work for Alcor, nor am I authorized to represent them in any way. Any views expressed here are mine, though I suspect that my thoughts on this matter don't differ significantly from Alcor's. Likewise I am neither a molecular chemist nor a cryobiologist, though I've spoken at length with people in both fields and studied every piece of literature I could get my hands on that relates to cryonics (pro and con) in the last 13 years or so. Regardless, any errors here are mine as well.
3) From time to time I'm going to be snarky. My motivation in writing this is largely frustration at having to address the same stupid objections that keep coming up over and over. While my objective here is to educate, I do think that sometimes baseless arguments deserve wise ass responses. :-)
4) The intended audience for this is anyone who dismisses cryonics out of hand, as well as any cryonicists who might be interested in what I've got to say on the subject. I know a few people who have looked at cryonics with an open and inquisitive mind, given it serious consideration, and decided against it for themselves. This is explicitly not directed at them! I take no issue with people making informed decisions about their lives. What I'm railing against here is people who refuse to be educated or to consider all of their options.
(Not so) Brief overview of the process
Please note that I'm breezing over a lot of the specifics and technical details, and that circumstances sometimes require modifications to the procedure. Regardless, here's a super-quick overview of the basic process.
First, forget anything you've ever heard, read, or seen in any work of fiction. With the exception of James Halperin's The First Immortal, all of the science fiction that I've read or seen that includes cryonics gets it wrong in some fundamental way or another.
Cryonics boils down to a three-part process- suspension, storage, and resuscitation. The important thing to remember is that while the technology required for the third step is much higher than for steps one and two, this doesn't invalidate the process by any means.
Under ideal circumstances, Alcor is notified (either by you, next of kin, or medical personnel responding to the instructions on the necklace and/or bracelet that Alcor members are provided and encouraged to wear) before you experience legal death. They have "Comprehensive Medical Standby" procedures in place such that if death seems imminent (within a week or so) they arrange to have a response team ready at your location.
The cryosuspension procedure can't legally begin until you've been declared legally dead. Once that happens, the response team restarts respiration and circulation, sets you up on a heart/lung resuscitator, and begins cooling you down using ice and a device called an "octopus". Initial cooling is important because ischemic injury is largely a function of oxygen deprivation to the brain, and the brain's oxygen demand drops very quickly as the temperature goes down.
The team also starts administering an extensive battery of drugs. This includes anesthetics to further reduce oxygen demand, anti-coagulants and vasodilators to maintain circulation, and other drugs to reduce ischemia, maintain pH levels, limit free radicals, etc. Blood chemistry is continually monitored during this process to maintain proper balance.
You're brought down to just above freezing, your blood is replaced with a special organ preservation solution, and you're rushed to Alcor for the rest of the procedure. Once there, surgery is performed to get access to major arteries and another complete wash-out of your circulatory system is done, as the level of cryoprotectant is slowly increased over a couple of hours. Again, temperature, cryoprotectant concentration, and pressure are closely monitored throughout the entire process.
After that your temperature is reduced in a very controlled manner over time until you reach the temperature of liquid nitrogen (-196 C) and are placed in a dewar (usually with other patients) for the long nap (that's the second- and least interesting- part of the process).
The nuts and bolts of step three haven't yet been defined. There are at least a few possible routes that it can take- uploading, cellular repair/cloning, cyborg bodies- and at this point it's too early to tell which will be the most effective, though it's possible that all three will be utilized to some degree or another depending on the condition of the individual patient. The enabling technologies for all three options are progressing rapidly, so which will be available first is anybody's guess. Alcor members are able to express a preference for their mechanism of revival (in particular, some have philosophical issues with uploading), but ultimately the main criteria will probably be "what works best?". One thing that all of the revival paths will almost certainly have in common is the need to repair (or, in the case of uploading, closely analyze and record) cellular structures on a molecular level. As science fiction as that may sound, it's simply an intelligent harnessing of the same types of mechanisms upon which biology already operates, and the rate of progress in developing this technology (nanotechnology) has been growing at an exponential rate since the late 1980's.
How do you know they'll be able to revive you?
Technically I don't. This is very much experimental. However, if you look at it the odds seem very much in favor of it. You're betting on three things:
1) That the cryosuspension has successfully preserved the pertinent details of your brain structure that make you you. Electron micrographs and piles of other experimental evidence support this very strongly.
2) That the technology and will to recover you will exist eventually- not within a single lifetime or within a century or two, but eventually. IMHO to say that we will never develop such technology is laughable, and I'm willing to bet my life on it.
3) That the facility and the meager resources required to maintain it will persist until that time. As I'll detail below, from a financial, geological, and climatological standpoint little short of the collapse of civilization is likely to pose a risk to the people in cryosuspension.
Why would you bother if there's no guarantee?
Short answer: because there is a guarantee of what'll happen if I'm buried or cremated, and I'm not fond of that outcome.
Longer answer: I researched cryonics and related technologies and followed Alcor's activities skeptically for over a decade before actually signing up. There aren't any absolute guarantees of success, but in my estimation the evidence that these guys aren't wasting their time and effort is pretty compelling, and I've never yet heard an argument against it that I'd consider a show-stopper.
It obviously won't work because [insert any basic technical objection here]
Here I go with the snarkiness. While I love when people ask technical questions in an effort to gain a better understanding (and I'll address some technical specifics below), the idea that someone would think that off the top of their head they'd be able to find a "deal breaker" flaw that somehow nobody else has addressed in the over 35 years that cryonics technology has been developed galls me.
C'mon. No matter how smart you may be, if the sum total of what you know about cryonics is what you've seen in movies/TV or read in my LJ, you are not going to find a major technical problem that people for whom this is their academic and technical specialty, and who have made this their life's work, have somehow failed to notice all this time.
However, if you do have a specific technical concern that isn't addressed here, please check here. If it's not addressed there either, post it in the comments and if I don't have a response I'll research it and find out.
Didn't Penn & Teller say that cryonics is bullshit?
Yup, they sure did. I'm a huge fan of P&T, and was really excited to hear what they had to say on the subject. Unfortunately, they really only breezed over it. They gave a quick briefing of what it is and declared it bullshit without providing any real supporting arguments. Instead they showcased a guy who runs a very small cryonics operation (TransTime), was obviously nervous on camera, and gave a poor interview. Their segment makes no mention that there even are any other cryonics organizations (there are at least 4 others), despite the fact that they use footage of Alcor's facility, and despite the fact that Alcor has suspended more patients than every other cryonics organization in the world put together.
They did interview one medical professional whose only argument against cryonics is that ice crystal formation damages proteins.
Won't ice formation cause irreparable damage to cells? Won't your brain turn to mush when it's thawed?
Not if there's no ice. The whole point of perfusing the cells with cryoprotectant prior to suspension is to eliminate the water inside and between the cells and replace it with a medium that won't cause as much damage when it crystalizes. Even that process has now been upgraded to a better one.
A few years ago, Alcor made a significant change to their neurosuspension (head) process when they switched from "freezing" to a process known as vitrification. The important difference is that with vitrification ideally there'll be no crystal formation at all. The vitrifying solution never actually "freezes". Instead it goes through what's called "glass transition". The result is an unparalleled suspension.
Within the last year, Alcor developed the ability to do vitrification for whole body patients as well, though the technology still has room for improvement.
As a side note, Michael Shermer, a gentleman for whom I personally have tremendous respect, based his critique of cryonics almost entirely on damage from ice crystal formation.
What makes you think that vitrification is better, or will work at all?
Because vitrification has been reversed for individual organs, and those organs have been perfectly viable. This is with current technology. Granted, the process has only been reversed for certain organs and not for entire organisms, but it shows that this is a workable process, and that cryonics' goals are really only an evolutionary step beyond what's currently capable. There's nothing magical required here, and no violations of the laws of physics.
Once you're dead you're dead! How can you come back?
How do you define death? Please be specific.
The definition of legal death is not a concrete demarcation, but rather changes as medical technology advances. By that definition, people have been "brought back from the dead" numerous times.
Unless you are obliterated by some violent action, life and death are not binary states. Death is a cascade failure of biological systems, usually starting with cardiac and/or respiratory arrest and ending with ischemia, apoptosis, and decay. In between is a gray area. I think that a good analogy is a line of dominos falling. The objective of cryonics is to halt or suspend that cascade until such time as the damage that has already occurred can be repaired.
Cryonicists generally define death either as "the irreversible cessation of life processes" or as "the point at which the relevant neural structures that define an individual have decayed to the point that they can no longer be extrapolated". By either definition, if you can be revived then you were never actually dead in the first place.
If you come back do you have to pay back the insurance money?
No. Once the insurance has paid out to Alcor then your contract with the insurance provider is completed.
It's a scam!
Can you be more specific? More to the point, can you provide any evidence whatsoever? Can you explain how they've managed to continue to operate for over 30 years if they're a scam? This objection straight up pisses me off, because it displays willful ignorance of Alcor's leadership and operations.
It's true that in the late 1960's and early 1970's there were some charlatans who tried to turn cryonics into a way to make a quick buck. This was in the "wild and wooly early days" of cryonics when everything was new and there was no oversight and no established protocols. No doubt about it, there were some horror stories, and none of the guilty parties either got away with it or have had anything to do with cryonics since about 1973.
To say that things are different now is an understatement. Cryonics has been around for over 35 years now, and nobody in any cryonics organization has gotten rich from it yet, so if it is a scam then it's a really bad one. Alcor processes, accounting, expenditures, and activities are all well documented. There was one Alcor employee who attempted to embezzle money last year. His activities were discovered by Alcor, they reported him to the police, and he went to jail. Alcor also immediately sent notification to all of its members letting them know what was happening, kept us posted, and instituted 3rd party oversight of all of their accounting activities. It would require far more effort and expense for them to try to be fraudulent than to simply do what they say they're doing. :-)
Additionally, most of the employees are also members. If it was a scam they wouldn't waste their money on it. I've met the President and COO personally, as well as Dr. Ralph Merkle (who is on the scientific advisory board), and they're clearly dedicated to what they're doing. Their advisory boards are a who's who of cutting edge science.
Check it out for yourself here.
Want more? Dr. Merkle, examining the plausibility of cryonics in his essay 'The Molecular Repair of the Brain' observes, "Interestingly (and somewhat to the author's surprise) there are no published technical articles on cryonics that claim it won't work...A literature search on cryonics along with personal inquiries has not produced a single technical paper on the subject that claims that cryonics is not feasible. On the other hand, technical papers and analyses of cryonics that speak favorably of its eventual success have been published. It is unreasonable, given the extant literature, to conclude that cryonics is unlikely to work."
Still want more? Check out The Scientists' Open Letter on Cryonics.
I'm not going to sign up until they revive someone!
The desire to see someone revived before signing up for cryonics is very common, and on the surface seems to make sense, but the irony is that once the ability to revive cryonauts is developed there'll be little need to suspend people, since the entire point of cryonics is to put you "on pause" until that technology arrives.
How do you know that people in the future will bother to try to revive you?
There are several reasons why- desire to prove that it can be done, to revive family or friends that are in suspension, to advance science, or general altruism. If you're looking for a completely economic/rational reason, as technology continues to improve and spread eventually the cost of reviving patients will be less than the cost of maintaining their stasis.
Can I have your head after it's frozen?
No. (Yes, I've been asked this.)
What happens to your soul?
I really can't answer that question for you, but I can let you know that cryonics doesn't violate the tenets of any major religion (except maybe Scientology, if you consider that a major religion). It's a medical procedure, like an organ transplant or open heart surgery. It's not "raising the dead".
Why would you want to extend your life or live in the future?
Frankly, if you can't grasp the answer to this then you probably shouldn't sign up for cryopreservation.
All your friends and family will be dead! Won't you be lonely?
They won't be dead if I can help it! I'll hardly be alone. My wife is an Alcor member, as are three of our close friends, and I expect that number to grow.
Additionally, the cryonics community is small and fairly close-knit. I've had the pleasure of meeting quite a few Alcor members and staff, and without exception they're all pleasant, interesting people that I'd be happy to have over for game night or spend a few decades next to, insensate in a steel dewar. I like these people, and we'll all be going through this adventure together, so if nothing else we'll have each other to lean on.
Even setting all that aside, people make new friends in new environments all the time.