Killing Yourself to Live
I recently observed a heated exchange on Facebook about cryonics. One person said something to the effect that cryonics lacks evidence and that chemical preservation (“chemopreservation”) is the preservation technology backed by real evidence. Such statements bother me for a number of reasons. The most important reason, and this cannot be reiterated enough, is that while evidence can be presented that strengthens the case for cryonics (i.e. makes it more plausible), cryonics as such cannot be proven yet because this would require that we have certain knowledge about the capabilities and limits of future medical science. But the whole premise upon which cryonics rests is that future medicine may be able to fix conditions that cannot be treated today (including additional damage done by the cryopreservation process itself). Cryonics is a form of decision making under uncertainty and demanding proof in advance for its success is asking for the impossible.
The other problem, which I have covered in more detail in my extensive treatment of chemical preservation called “Chemical Brain Preservation and Human Suspended Animation” (Cryonics Magazine, January 2013), is that the evidence in favor of chemical preservation is necessarily incomplete because functional tests are excluded. All preservation technologies that involve a form of chemical fixation produce one consistent outcome. They render the (brain) tissue “dead” by contemporary viability criteria. Now, one could argue that making such an argument is akin to what opponents of cryonics do when they claim that our patients are dead. But this is a misunderstanding of the aim of human cryopreservation.
Cryonics is not just about “preserving structure” or preventing information theoretic death. Cryonics as practiced by Alcor is about keeping the patient alive. It is only when we fail to meet this objective that we are obliged to argue that lack of viability does not mean irreversibility. We can examine the brain (or the whole body) in its damaged state to infer the original state and (eventually) revive the patient. So when we use concepts such as “preservation of structure” or “information-theoretic” death it is important to remember that these are conservative fallback options when our efforts to keep the patient alive by conventional medical criteria have failed. The possibility of inferring the original state from the damaged state should never be used as an excuse to permit more damage than necessary. And this is the problem with chemical preservation of the brain. To borrow a song title from the metal band Black Sabbath, such approaches to life extension are akin to “killing yourself to live.”
Why is all of this important? If we want cryonics to gain greater recognition we should conceptualize it as something that is an extension of contemporary medicine but smarter. Cryonics breaks with the prevailing practice of abandoning people simply because they cannot be successfully treated by today’s medical technologies. What may appear irreversible now may be treatable in the future. But we do want to place these patients in cryostasis in the most viable state. Ultimately our aim is widespread recognition for placing critically ill people in suspended animation until a cure for their disease is found. Instead of saying “look how good the structure of this patient’s brain looks” we should aim for a situation in which we can say “this patient is in the same condition as when (s)he was admitted to us but now we have hundreds of years to think about a medical cure.” Evidence of good ultrastructural preservation after vitrification constitutes a strong case for cryonics, but cryonics can do better than doing good electron microscopy.
Originally published as a column in Cryonics magazine, June, 2014