A Collection of Strange Beliefs, Amusing Deceptions, and Dangerous Delusions

From Abracadabra to Zombies | View All

cryonics

Cryonics claims it can store a dead human body at low temperatures in such a way that it will be possible to revitalize that body and restore life at some unspecified future date. One hook the cryonics folks use is to give hope that a cure for a disease one dies of today will be found tomorrow, allowing that cure to be applied to the thawed body before or while bringing the dead person back to life. Cryonics might be called resurrection by technology and believers in it might be classified as suffering from the Moses syndrome. The simple fact is once you are dead, you are dead forever. This fact may seem horrifying, but it is not nearly as horrifying as the thought of living forever.

The technology exists to freeze or preserve people and that technology is improving and will probably get better. The technology to revivify a frozen body exists in the imagination. Nanotechnology, for example, is a technology that supporters of cryonics appeal to. Someday, they say, we'll be able to rebuild anything, including diseased or damaged cells in the body, with nanobots. So, no matter what disease destroyed healthy cells in the living body before preservation and no matter what damage was done to the cells of the frozen body during storage, nanotechnology will allow us to bring the dead back to life. This seems like wishful thinking. Nanotechnology might rebuild a mass of dead tissue into a mass of healthy tissue, but without a complete isomorphic model of the brain it will be impossible to return a mushy brain to the exact state it was in before death occurred. (Of course, since this is an exercise in imagination, one can posit that some day we will be able to preserve the brain without any decomposition or transformation at all.) In any case, some other jolt, probably electricity, will be needed to get the heart beating and the brain working again, assuming, of course, that the mush brain has been reconstructed into a healthy brain.

Some preserved by cryonics have the head severed from the body after death. Then, either the head alone is preserved, or both the head and the body are preserved separately. Maybe some future technology will allow the head to be attached to an artificial body. It can be imagined without contradiction, as the philosophers say, so it is not logically impossible that some day our planet will be inhabited by bodiless heads that are connected to machines that allow either actual or virtual experiences of any kind imaginable without requiring the head to leave the room. Of course, when that times comes medical science will have advanced to the point where the aging process can be reversed or maintained in stasis.

A business based on little more than hope for developments that can be imagined by science is quackery. (Cryonics should not be confused with cryogenics, which is a branch of physics that studies the effects of low temperatures on the structure of objects.) There is little reason to believe that the promises of cryonics will ever be fulfilled. Even if a dead body is somehow preserved for a century or two and then repaired, whatever is animated by whatever process will not be the same person who died. The brain is the key to consciousness and to who a person is. There is no reason to believe that a brain preserved by whatever means and restored to whatever state by nanobots will result in a consciousness that is in any way connected to the consciousness of the person who died two centuries earlier.

For those who want to live forever, cloning might be a more realistic possibility but I wouldn't bank on it. First, there is the aging problem. Even if cloning is successful, you won't be able to clone yourself as younger. Of course, you can hope that future technology will have solved the aging problem. Perhaps your body can be cloned repeatedly until science can assist you to overcome aging.  However, there is no reason to believe that your clone would be a continuation of you. Your bodies might have identical looking cells, but the only way your minds could be identical is if you had no experience. (It is logically impossible for your bodies to have identical experiences since they occupy different spatial and temporal coordinates.) In that case, you would be as good as dead.

origin of cryonics

Teacher Robert Ettinger (physics and math) brought cryonics into the intellectual mainstream in 1964 with The Prospect of Immortality. Ettinger founded the Cryonics Institute and the related Immortalist Society. He got the idea for cryonics from a story by Neil R. Jones. "The Jameson Satellite" appeared in the July 1931 issue of Amazing Stories. It told the tale of

one Professor Jameson [who] had his corpse sent into earth orbit where (as the author mistakenly thought) it would remain preserved indefinitely at near absolute zero. And so it did, in the story, until millions of years later, when, with humanity extinct, a race of mechanical men with organic brains chanced upon it. They revived and repaired Jameson's brain, installed it in a mechanical body, and he became one of their company.*

Thus was born the idea that we could freeze our bodies, repair them at a later date, and bring them back to life when technology had advanced sufficiently to do the repairs and the reviving.

ethical & other issues

I will leave to others to discuss most of the ethical, legal, political, and economic issues of cryonics. I'll conclude with some comments about the cryonics case of Ted Williams.

Williams died in 2002 at the age of 83. According to his estranged daughter, Barbara Joyce (Bobby-Jo Ferrell) Williams, he left a will in which he expressed his desire to be cremated and have his ashes spread over his favorite fishing grounds in the Florida Keys. His son (Barbara Joyce's half-brother), John Henry Williams, arranged for Williams's body to be processed by Alcor LIfe Extension Foundation. A story in SportsIllustrated.com (SI) stated:

Hall of Famer Ted Williams' head and body are being stored in separate containers at an Arizona cryonics lab that is still trying to collect a $111,000 bill  from Williams' son [he had already paid $25,000], according to a story by Tom Verducci in the latest issue of Sports Illustrated.

Alcor still has Williams's head in a canister and his body in a tank, both filled with liquid nitrogen (to keep the remains at a cool -321 degrees Fahrenheit). According to SI, Alcor representatives met with John Henry Williams, but not Ted Williams, about a year before Ted's death. Furthermore, SI reported that the Consent for Cryonic Suspension form submitted to Alcor after Williams had died had a blank line where his signature should have been.

There was a lawsuit by the estranged daughter that fizzled, allegedly for lack of funds, but no legal action by the authorities was taken against John Henry or Alcor. There is a movement still going to right this ship (see the Free Ted Williams website.) Larry Johnson, who worked briefly at Alcor, is leading the crusade to get Congress and a couple of state legislatures to regulate the cryonics industry and have Ted Williams cremated. A video interview with Johnson on "Good Morning America" discussing the disposition of Ted Williams's body at Alcor can be viewed by clicking here. Johnson's book on the subject, Shiver: A Whistleblower's Chilling Expose of Cryonics and the Truth Behind What Happened to Ted Williams, is scheduled to be published in May 2009.

See also Raëlian and my comments on cryonics in Mass Media Funk.

further reading

books and articles

Ettinger, Robert C. W. 1964.  The Prospect of Immortality. Doubleday.

Kunzman, Alan, with Paul Nieto. 2004. Mothermelters: The inside story of Cryonics and the Dora Kent Homicide. 1st Books Library. (For Alcor's version of the case, see Our Finest Hours: Notes On the Dora Kent Crisis by Michael Perry, Ph.D.)

Johnson, Larry with Scott Baldyga. 2009. Shiver: A Whistleblower's Chilling Expose of Cryonics and the Truth Behind What Happened to Ted Williams. Morgan James Publishing. 

Polidoro, J. P. 2005. Brain Freeze -321° f ~Saving "Reggie" Sanford~. Xlibris Corporation. (A novel about a former baseball player whose body is whisked off to a cryonics facility....)

websites and blogs

Nano Nonsense & Cryonics by Michael Shermer

Cryonics–A futile desire for everlasting life - Only on Wednesdays

Is Cryonics Feasible? Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Dora Kent - Wikipedia ("News coverage at the time [1987] was limited, due to the gruesomeness of the case and the Christmas season.")

Cryonics UK

Debates about cryonics with skeptics (condensed from exchanges that occurred in May-June 2006 in the James Randi Educational Forum (JREF).)

Cryonics: The Issues (An Overview) by Ben Best

Can cryogenic cooling miraculously improve car parts, sports equipment, and musical instruments? - The Straight Dope

Last updated 05-Dec-2013

Shiver
The true story of cryogenics & Ted William.

Snake Oil Science
  Are you a sucker for placebo medicine?

Science Meets Alternative Medicine
Which side should you be on?

The Skeptic's Shop
No shirts, no mugs, no tinfoil hats.

OTHER LANGUAGES

Print versions available in Dutch, Russian, Japanese, and Korean.

The Skeptic's Bookstore

episode 9 - cryonics

© Copyright 1994-2013 Robert T. Carroll * This page was designed by Cristian Popa.