Cryonics, the atheist’s second coming?

Wait But Why (WBW) has written an interesting post about Cryonics, which is the practice of preserving a body, or a part of the body, in the hope that future humans will resuscitate that body, so the person associated with that body can continue living a happy, healthy life. I learned a bunch about what this process of “freezing” yourself entails, as well as the motivations that go into actually paying for, and doing, this. But, one thing struck me most of all: this sounds remarkably similar to the Christian Rapture.

Cryonics hinges on the faith that people in the future will solve all of their, and our, petty problems before developing a way to bring back to life folks who were beyond medical help in the past. According to WBW’s post, the folks who have paid for this admit there is risk in the whole plan, but they believe that the risk (and the cost associated with trusting a company to maintain their bodies) are worth the pay off of continuing to live life once society has solved the problem of mortality.

It seems to me that clientele for this service must have a pretty strong commitment to scientific materialism, believing that the human body is the foundation of consciousness, and that once the body has degraded sufficiently, life as any human would want to live it is no longer possible. If clients held ontological beliefs that entailed any sort of mind-body dualism, soul theory, or ontological idealism, then paying a large portion of one’s life savings to preserve their material body should be absurd. In other words, the mind must irreversibly cease or decompose with the body for cryonics to make sense.

What’s more, this does something interesting to the traditional Christian view of the Rapture. As you probably well know, Christians believe that dead believers will be reanimated around the time that Jesus Christ returns to earth, and then they will ascend to heaven to live forever. Cryonics moves this trope to the material world, attempting to recreate this process through scientific methods which don’t exist yet, and I find this fascinating. Of course, Christians don’t need to pay for cryonics because they’ve “bought” their resurrection with faith in God, so the purchase doesn’t make financial sense. However, those who don’t believe in the Christian God need to trust someone else to give them eternal life.

But so much for an explanation of cryonics, and an analysis of the beliefs that might justify it. What I find interesting is the need to cling to life to the point that one is willing to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars to gamble on waking up in the future. Something bothers me about this whole endeavor. To oversimplify my feelings, it seems that folks who are willing to pay for cryonics wake up to this realization:

16eclsThen, after digging around in the couch for lots of spare change, they buy an insurance policy in the name of the corporation that’s going to “care” for their corpse while they wait for the world to reanimate them.

To me, this feels like the metaphysical equivalent of a Ponzi scheme. If you wouldn’t give your life’s savings to a Wall Street firm to double your money, why would you give it to an insurance company or a cryonics company? The pay-off is unknown, and maybe impossible. This seems like gambling on an enormous scale. What am I missing?

Moreover, there’s a problem with the second law of thermodynamics. It takes energy to keep human body parts in liquid nitrogen, and once those people are reanimated, they will also require energy to stay living. Assuming that future humans aren’t perpetual motion machines, we can’t all live forever. This makes cryonics a niche industry by necessity. The day it is popular, we’ll need to solve an over-population problem that’s an order of magnitude larger than the one we currently face. The success of cryonics hinges on its high cost and low adoption rate, which unless I’m missing something, seems like a selfish way to go through the world.

Is the possibility of death so daunting, or life so amazingly good, that you won’t move over and make space for the next generation that is waiting for the resources you’re consuming? I expect that a cryonics proponent believes that humans will solve the population problem before they decide to reanimate the dead, and I hope they’re correct. But that means you’re going to keep waiting, putting more time and energy-cost between you and living — more time that allows for disaster to strike your cold, hard body.


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