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19 September 2020

The touchiest subject

Filed under: cryonics, Events — Tags: , — David Wood @ 8:59 am

Imagine. You’re in a car journey with your family, in the midst of the countryside, far from the nearest town or village.

Out of the blue, your car is struck by a huge lorry. By a quirk of fate, no one is hurt in the accident, except for your beloved young daughter, who should be celebrating her third birthday in a month’s time. The collision has impacted your daughter badly.

Your travelling companion knows a thing or two about medical injuries. It looks very serious, he says. Your daughter will probably die. But if she can be transported, quickly, to a hospital, there’s a chance – admittedly a slim chance – she might be saved. Let’s call for an ambulance, he urges you.

But you oppose the idea. We should not play God, you say. “My daughter has already lived. If we had this accident just outside the hospital, we could have used its facilities. But we’re in the wrong place. Let’s peacefully cradle my daughter in our arms, and think happy thoughts. Perhaps we’ll meet her again, in a life after death.”

Your travelling companion is astounded. You have a chance to continue living with your daughter, for many years, if only you take the necessary steps to summon an ambulance. Act now!

However, your mind is set. It would be selfish to divert scarce healthcare resources, all the way from that distant city, just on the off-chance that operations on your daughter might repair her damaged body.

Indeed, you suspect the whole ambulance thing is a bit of a scam. These ambulance companies are just in it to make money, you tell yourself.

Ridiculous? Hold that thought.

Something pretty similar happened in Thailand a few years ago. The young girl in question wasn’t in a traffic accident, but had an aggressive brain cancer. The problem wasn’t that the incident happened in the wrong place (that is, far from a hospital). The problem was that the incident happened at the wrong time – that is, at a time before a cure for that cancer is available.

And instead of the option of summoning an actual ambulance – with the slim chance of the daughter surviving the long journey to the hospital and then recovering from arduous surgery – in this case, the option in question is cryonic preservation.

The story is told in a Netflix documentary that was released a few days ago, “Hope Frozen: A quest to live twice”. Here’s the trailer:

To my mind, the film is sensitively made. It provides an engaging, accessible introduction to cryonics.

But cryonics is a heck of a touchy subject.

At the time of writing, there’s only one review of Hope Frozen on IMDb.

The film is “very well” made, the reviewer accepts. However, the main proposition is, apparently, “just silly”:

Just silly in many different ways. Their daughter died. End of story. The parents and doctors are trying to play God. She wasn’t even 3 years old…

Over the years I’ve been listening to people’s opinions about cryonics, I’ve often heard similar dismissals. (And far worse.)

It’s hard to think about death. The prospect of oblivion – for ourselves, or for our loved ones, is terrifying. We humans do all sorts of things to buffer ourselves from having to contemplate death, including telling ourselves various stories that provide us with some kind of comfort.

Psychologists have a lot to say about this topic. Look up “Terror Management Theory” on the Internet. (E.g. here on Wikipedia.)

I dedicated an entire chapter, “Adverse Psychology”, of my 2016 book The Abolition of Aging, to that topic, so I won’t say much more about it here. What I will say, now, is that it can be terrifying for each of us to have to think this sequence of thoughts:

  • There are some actions I could take, that would give myself, and my loved ones, the chance to live again, following what would otherwise be a fatal illness
  • But I’m not taking these actions. That must make me… foolish, or irresponsible, or lacking love for my family members
  • By my inactions, I’m actually sending people I love into a state of oblivion that isn’t actually necessary
  • But I don’t like to think of myself as foolish, irresponsible, or lacking love.

Conclusion: cryonics must be bunk. Now let’s scrabble around to find evidence in support of that convenient conclusion.

To be clear, the chances for cryonics being successful are, indeed, tough to estimate. No-one can be sure:

  • What new technological options may become available in the future
  • How critical is the damage that occurs to the body (especially to the brain) during the cryonics preservation process
  • What may happen during the long decades (or centuries) in between cryopreservation and a potential future reanimation.

However, my view is that the chances of success are nonzero. Perhaps one in ten. Perhaps lower. Perhaps higher.

Happily, serious people are carrying out research to understand more fully a wide range of options regarding cryonics.

If you’re interested to listen to a variety of viewpoints about these questions, from people who have thought long and hard about the topic, you should consider attending Biostasis 2020. It’s entirely online.

A number of free tickets are still available. Click here for more information and to register.

The conference is being organised by the European Biostasis Foundation (EBF), a Basel-based non-profit foundation.

Speakers at the conference will include a host of fascinating people

They include Aaron Drake, who was featured in the film Hope Frozen – and whose comments, in that film, I found refreshing and highly informative.

Oh, I’ll be speaking too. My subject will be “Anticipating changing attitudes towards death and cryonics”.

I’m expecting to learn a great deal during these two days!

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