The False Hope of Cryonics

One of the most common accusations leveled at cryonics organizations is that they offer “false hope.” For this accusation to make sense, critics would have to demonstrate it is impossible in principle, or at least highly unlikely, for cryonics to work.

What would it mean for cryonics organizations to offer a service which, at best, is “highly unlikely to work”? If the cryonics premise, that cryogenically preserved individuals could eventually be revived in a functioning, healthy state with memories reasonably intact, contradicted the known (or well-accepted) laws of physics, one could certainly justify the charge of “false hope.” But who has ever shown this? No one, of course. Nor have they approximated it by arguing that “well, it probably contradicts what is physically possible, including any technology likely to ever be developed in the future.” Has anyone shown this? (Have you seen any of their probability estimates and do you agree with them?) For cryonics to have the best chance of working, deterioration of the body needs to be halted as soon as possible and future medical technologies will need to cure the original disease of the patient – and any additional damage sustained during the cryopreservation process itself. It is commonly assumed that some kind of medical technology will be needed that can manipulate matter at the molecular level. Such developments are envisioned and being developed right now. Human biology itself demonstrates on a daily basis that it is possible to conduct biochemical actions with molecular precision.

A more empirical, biological, argument that could be made is that deterioration of the brain after pronouncement of legal death is so rapid that there is not enough left of the brain to repair or even infer its original state. It can be admitted that resuscitation without cognitive deficits is challenging or presently impossible after circulatory arrest of 10 minutes or more. But this does not mean that the ultrastructure of the brain itself has been wiped out. In fact, experimental studies that actually look at this ultrastructure do not show major changes to identity-critical structures for hours after cardiac arrest.

Critics also tend to conflate their criticism of cryonics done under good conditions with what is done under difficult, suboptimal circumstances, as if the obviously bad scenarios could not be improved upon even under the best of circumstances. Current cryonics protocol at Alcor is to start cryonics procedures (restoring circulation, cooling) immediately after pronouncement of legal death. (If cryonics were recognized as an elective medical procedure, there would be an even smoother transition, with less stress to the tissues, from terminal illness to cryopreservation.)

What about freezing damage? If a human brain is frozen without cryoprotection the freezing damage will be considerable. But does this damage preclude inferring the undamaged state of the brain from the damaged state? I am not aware of any serious arguments or empirical studies that show this. One important point that always needs to be kept in mind about cryonics is that damage occurs at the same time as molecular motion is arrested by cold, and cold is not a reliable means of erasing information. But more importantly, the freezing-damage argument is misplaced because in cryonics the brain is vitrified instead of frozen, which largely eliminates freezing damage. True, the high concentrations of cryoprotectants needed for vitrification still cause some degree of toxicity. But this kind of injury is not the mechanical damage seen in freezing, and may even be difficult to detect on an ultrastructural level at all.

As far as I can tell, the naïve and irresponsible accusation that cryonics offers a “false hope” rests on either a misunderstanding about what is involved in cryonics (or would be needed for success) or what cryonics organizations communicate to (prospective) members.  Considering the trends toward reversible cryopreservation and further miniaturization in engineering and medicine, it is reasonable to expect that the conditions for cryonics to work will be met in the future. Cryonics is not just an “act of faith” but an “act of reason.”

I would even go further and claim that those who uncritically throw around phrases like “false hope” are encouraging a form of “false despair.” For they categorically refuse to engage with the logical arguments and science that support cryonics. Their reckless talk instead is a further supporting buttress for  rationalizations of aging, disease, and death. All this we firmly reject, and instead are working toward further human enhancement.

Originally submitted as a column for Cryonics magazine, March-April, 2017. Readers may want to compare with the alternative exposition by Ralph Merkle that was published.