X-Message-Number: 0036
Subject: Many Are Cold But Few Are Frozen: A Physician Considers Cryonics

	     A Physician Considers Cryonics
	     (c) 1994 Steven B. Harris, M.D.      

	"I don't want to achieve immortality through my works.  I want
to achieve immortality through not dying."
					  --Woody Allen

   One of the more familiar advertisements for _Webster's New
Collegiate Dictionary_ shows a picture of the red-jacketed book
frozen into a block of ice.  Underneath is a definition:  
"_cry on'ics, n_ the practice of freezing the body of a person
who has just died in order to preserve it for possible resuscita-
tion in the future, as when a cure for the disease that caused
death has been found."

	The advertisement is interesting as a presentation of a
specialized word; there _is_ an English term which refers
specifically to freezing bodies for other than pathology storage. 
And the point, of course, is that the word is new enough to the
language to be present only in the most up-to-date dictionaries. 
In fact, the theory and practice of cryonics is just about 30
years old.

	The idea of being preserved somehow, in order to wake up Rip
Van Winkle fashion in the future, is of course not new.  It is an
idea which seems to speak from powerful archetypes in the human
unconscious, as witnessed by the fact that Rip Van Winkle
himself, a character from a short story more than two and a half
centuries old, is still familiar to the man on the street. 
(Think of what most authors would give for that to be true of one
of _their_ story characters, 250 years from now).  And the always
creative Benjamin Franklin once expressed his desire to be
preserved in a cask of madeira with a few friends so that he
could see what had happened to his beloved republic after several
centuries.  But Franklin despaired that the technology for
dealing with these problems would not arrive in his lifetime, and
of course he was correct.

	The first serious public suggestion that suspended animation
was an idea whose time had finally come, was made formally in the
early 1960's.  A Michigan Secondary College physics teacher named
Robert C.W. Ettinger published a book, _The Prospect of Immortal-
ity_, which suggested that if humans beings were to be preserved
by being frozen at very low temperatures very soon after death,
then it might not be altogether fantasy that future technology
would be able to one day repair, revive, and rejuvenate them.  

	It was not an accident that Ettinger's ideas were articulated
in the early 1960's.  In the previous decade, a number of
significant advances had been made in the field of cryobiology
(the science of the effect of cold temperatures upon living
organisms).  Living cells had been cooled to the temperature of
liquid helium (nearly as cold as it is possible to get), and
revived.  And tremendous strides had been made in the art of
human resuscitation also:  In the early 1960's, a man with no
heartbeat and no respiration was still considered "dead"  (at
least in a way), _but for the first time now was no longer
considered beyond help_.  With new techniques to shock the
chaotic electrical discharges of a fibrillating and stilled heart
back into organization, it transpired that a few newly-expired
people could be brought electrically back to life in true Dr.
Frankenstein style.  Even an occasional cold, blue, and clinica-
lly dead drowning victim could be revived by the simple ex-
pedients of artificial respiration, rhythmic chest compression,
and warming.

  All of these facts hint at a certain view of reality.  Ettin-
ger, being a strict mechanist, saw "death" not as an event, but
rather as a continuous process.  More specifically, he argued
that the label of death was simply the name which was given to
the doctor's judgement as to the irreversibility of this pro-
cess.  The statement "the patient is dead," Ettinger pointed out,
was merely equivalent to the statement "technology isn't pre-
sently good enough to revive him."  The "dead" patient of 50
years ago might be revivable today.  Similarly, the "dead"
patient of today might be revivable 50 years in the future, if a
way were found to get him there.  And that, of course, was the
crux of the idea.

  Ettinger argued that machines in this future would be able to
repair any amount of damage to the cells and tissues of a body,
including damage done by freezing, as long as a sufficient amount
of information remained in the cell to define the structure.  The
process might resemble an archeologist's reassembly of a long
broken piece of pottery or papyrus, but in the end would be
working and faithful restoration.  Even fairly long periods of
"clinical" death (i.e., no heartbeat or respiration) were not to
be viewed as an automatic unrecoverable deterioration in the
structure of the body, for it was beginning to be obvious that
human cells (including brain cells) did not begin to fall apart
until several hours at room temperature after the heart had
stopped.  Indeed, living cells had been recovered from corpses
after even longer periods of time, and Ettinger argued that for
every living cell, there were many more which must be just
"barely" non-functional.

  Conventional statements regarding brain cell "death" after five
minutes without oxygen, Ettinger felt, were meaningless.  At the
cellular level especially, "death" was a value judgement.  Brain
cells after five minutes without oxygen looked fine (in later
years it has been suggested that permanent brain damage results
from small blockages in brain blood flow that do not happen until
long after revival had been started).  Whatever the mechanisms
were, Ettinger felt, they ought to be amenable to intervention.

	It was Ettinger's view that eventually the practice of freezing
people soon after death would become common-- that indeed,
cryonics was not about freezing dead people at all, but rather
people who had been labeled that way somewhat prematurely, like
Juliet in Shakespeare's play.  In the future, machines subtle
enough to repair freezing damage on a cell-by-cell basis would be
developed.  It is known that cancer cells are immortal and
forever self-renewing.  Eventually, future understanding of
cancer cells would be applied to the rejuvenation of normal cells
which had aged.  When technology improved sufficiently, the
frozen dead would be thawed, repaired, cured of their diseases,
have youth restored, and embark on the good life.  It was a
golden prospect, indeed.


	In early 1967 someone decided to try it.  A California psycho-
logy professor named James H. Bedford died of cancer, and per his
wishes was frozen in liquid nitrogen at 321 degrees below zero
Fahrenheit.   _Life_ magazine devoted a layout to the procedure,
but only a few editions were published before magazine space was
preempted by the fatal Apollo 1 fire.  The result was that
cryonics received its major publicity debut not from Bedford, but
from the unaccountably persistent rumor that Walt Disney had been
secretly frozen after his death in late 1966.  To this day the
case of what happened to Disney remains unsolved.  Disney's
family maintains that he was cremated.  A recent Disney 
biography, unfortunately unreliable on other factual detail,
maintains that the great animator is frozen, awaiting 
"reanimation."  The pun has been irresistible to writers.

	Unfortunately the history of cryonics from the time of Bedford
is a somewhat rocky tale of financial problems, and even (in some
cases) incompetence.  Several dozen people were frozen within a
few years after Bedford.  However, keeping them in that state,
which required constant tending and infusions of moderately
expensive liquid nitrogen, proved more difficult.  One 
organization offered "cryonic interment," and for a time kept a
number of refrigerated bodies in a cemetery crypt in Chatsworth,
California.  Eventually, due to nonpayment by relatives, all
thawed.  After a time the relatives invariably lost interest,
suffered financial problems, or died.  The flow of money stopped;
the refrigeration failed.  Cryonicists almost never thaw acciden-
tally, as in the science fiction movies (it simply takes too
long), but they often thaw for financial reasons.

	By 1987, the census of intact bodies frozen at liquid nitrogen
temperatures in the United States had dropped to only three.  One
of these was Bedford (who after a quarter of a century still
reposes in a vacuum-insulated bottle, unchanged).  Since 1987,
the number of people frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures has
climbed to about a dozen (1994).  An additional two dozen
intrepid souls have chosen and followed through with the cheaper
alternative of having only their heads frozen after death--
believing that future technology will be able to one day provide
a new body from the blueprint of their DNA.  Several more people
have started out as whole, frozen bodies, then been decapitated
and only their heads saved, as finances ran out and only charity
was available.  In cryonics, entropy can creep up on you, even
nibble on you, a little bit at a time.

	Cryonics organizations, however, are growing rapidly, with
several hundred people now legally signed up to undergo at
clinical death the rather complicated procedure of freezing.  
Across the country, teams of technicians stand by around the
clock ready to rush to the site of an impending demise and begin
cooling the body moments after cardiac arrest and pronouncement
of legal death.  Then, after transportation to a special lab, the
body will hooked to a heart-lung machine which maintains 
oxygenation to still living tissues while the blood is drained
and chemicals circulated to minimize freezing damage.  Finally,
the body will be cooled to the temperature of liquid nitrogen
over several days, and transferred to a liquid-nitrogen-filled
upright vacuum-insulated flask.  The bodies are placed in the
flask head-downward, so that in the event of a problem, the feet
will thaw first.  A special fund is then activated which pays for
what cemeteries under similar circumstances call "perpetual
care."  The fund is usually set up with life insurance money.  No
more are things dependent on relatives; cryonicists have learned
this matter well.


	What is the secular humanist to make of all this?  Having one's
body frozen in the circumstances described above is an act of
considerable faith, indeed perhaps faith of a religious magni-
tude.  Cryonics does seem to occupy the same space in the
philosophy of the mind as religion (or for that matter secular
humanism), so that people who occupy themselves with several of
these views at a time are rare.  Cryonics indeed offers a sort of
religious menu:  the chance of salvation by works, the prospect
of resurrection after death, the hope of "eternal" (or at least
very long) life in a coming millennium.  In a sort of modern,
technological way, cryonics mirrors the rituals of ancient Egypt,
in which the body was fanatically preserved and prepared for a
long trip through darkness before being reunited with the breath
of life.
	If belief in cryonics is a matter of faith, it is useful to
inquire in what ways this faith differs from that of the human-
ist.  Both humanists and cryonicists place no faith in God and
some faith in man.  It can be fairly said, however, that human-
ists are in general more skeptical about man.  How is this so?

	To begin with, the philosophy attendant in cryonics places
nearly unlimited faith in the ultimate technological achievement
potential of mankind.  Human beings, according to this thinking,
will eventually be able to do anything not prohibited by the
ground rules of the universe in which we find ourselves.  Since
these physical laws do not appear to prohibit the eventual
development of technologies to enable people to live for as long
as they are likely to want to, cryonicists suspect that not only
will this technology eventually come to pass, but that the time
frame for development will be in hundreds rather than thousands
of years.  

	Humanists, too, believe that mankind will (in Faulkner's words)
not only endure but also prevail-- ultimately mastering all the
masterable aspects of the universe.  Most humanists, however,
have probably not thought out how this mastery will impact the
age old problem of mortality.  Mankind seems genetically and
culturally conditioned to accept the reality of his present life
span, and old habits die hard.

	Along with a belief in the potential of technology, cryonicists
have a touching faith in the potential of their own 
organizations.  Indeed, some cryonics organizations now are run
like small parishes, where most of the members know each other
and routinely donate time to the common good.  Frozen members
(the metabolically disadvantaged, if you will) are treated with
particular reverence, since each animate member fully expects to
wind up in that condition himself by and by.  


	The outsider is likely to view such arrangements with skepti-
cism, making the Parkinsonian observation that small, efficient,
personal organizations become large, inefficient, impersonal
organizations eventually.  All organizations, even NASA, 
fall prey to bureaucrats after a time, just as civilizations
themselves decay, ala Spengler.  The skeptic would argue further
that the monies of the unprotesting frozen are likely to make
tempting targets in such times.  If such wealth becomes large
enough, the society of the future will surely find some way to
obtain it--even if the tax laws have to be rewritten.

	And what about the society of the future?   Cryonicists assume,
because they have to, that such a society will be rich enough to
afford luxuries like newly-thawed people.  A further assumption
is that the transition from our culture to such an affluent
culture will be smooth, without any significant social or
economic crises.  A few cryonicists worry about where one could
get liquid nitrogen in the event of a nuclear war, but these are
the lunatic fringe.  Clearly, one of the first things which a
society in any kind of trouble will shed, is the bodies of its

	And what about other troubles?  Long before the time when
frozen people can be revived, humanity will have found it
necessary to severely control its birthrate.  Nor will space
migration solve this problem, as some simple exponential 
calculation will show.  Is it likely, one wonders, that a society
which no longer welcomes new babies will want to revive people
who have already had a comparatively full life, and now are
safely dead?


	There are other considerations.  The question of whether
cryonics is likely to work or not is separate from the issue of
whether or not the humanist would want to participate in it. 
Many humanists have seriously questioned whether very much
extended life spans would be a good thing if they were a reality. 
Author Isaac Asimov, a well-known humanist, once stated that he
would not want to live more that a normal life span, even if that
were possible (and, in fact, was not frozen upon death, though
the offer was made to him).  He was not alone in his opinions. 

	Asimov had argued that it is a rather good thing that powerful
and inflexible people eventually die and get out of the way for
the young.  In self-illustration, he argued this thesis powerfu-
lly and inflexibly, until his death.  But perhaps it might not
have to happen.  The problem for society of how to keep from
stagnating, once lifetimes become very long, is a difficult one,
but perhaps not insoluble.  Those who believe in the apotheosis
of technology argue that one day it may be possible to "reprogr-
am" people routinely for new occupations.  Ways may be found to
regularly "retire" people from positions of power without having
to shoot them.  Finally, the optimists contend that it is
possible that the undesirable inflexibility which is associated
with aging in some (but not all!) people,  may _not_ be an
inevitable product of repeated experiences wearing deep grooves
in the mind, but may instead be the result of loss of critical
interpretive brain circuits.  As such, the "closed mind" of aging
may be preventable with proper brain maintenance.  Perhaps even
Asimov's closed mind regarding cryonics might have been changed
with a bit of biochemical repair-- who knows?


	Once it has been decided that the potential rewards of cryonics
are worth having, then the question of whether to invest in the
belief is one of playing the odds.  Cryonicists are fond of
pointing out that however poor the odds are of waking up in the
future are with cryonics, they are infinitely poorer if one is
instead cremated.  Nevertheless, this sort of thinking is merely
an updated version of Pascal's bet, which most humanists have
already rejected.

	Pascal, of course, pointed out that the best odds lay in being
religious, since if the religious view was correct there was
everything to gain, while at the same time if it was wrong there
was little to lose.  Secular humanists have long argued that,
even when one had decided to be religious, there was no way of
figuring out which of many mutually exclusive religions was the
correct one.  In addition, humanists have held that holding an
incorrect religious view causes a _great deal_ of loss:  loss of
freedom to choose one's own sense of meaning, loss of time,
wealth, and energy donated to a worthless cause, loss of the
freedom to do a number of harmless and enjoyable things without

	Similarly, even if cryonics works as planned, there are losses
to be considered.  The first comes from the possibility of being
thrust, naked and perhaps alone, into the future (we all arrive
this way into the world, but generally we don't mind it as
babies-- as adults it is another matter).  There is to be
considered the loss of one's entire social context, and associa-
tion with every friend and loved one who was not frozen along
with you.  This loss hits all at once, so far as the cryonaut is
concerned.  Now comes the very real fear, with us in fiction
since Mary Shelley's writings, that greatly extended biological
life spans require alienation from society as their price.  If we
wake up in the future, will we have a place?  Or will be like the
creature of Frankenstein, doomed to spend our time as outsiders
in such a future society, looking in wistfully?

    Women seem especially vulnerable to fears of social isolation
(probably it is no accident that Frankenstein was written by a
woman), and cryonics in fact has not been popular among women,
who make up only a quarter of membership in cryonics societies,
or less.  Some people reject cryonicists not because they don't
think it will work, but rather because they are afraid it will.

   There is also the not inconsiderable matter of money: several
hundred dollars a year in membership fees, _plus_ the cost of
maintaining a sixty to one hundred twenty thousand dollar life
insurance policy.  There is the loss of the care-fund money to
one's descendants or to charities (money that buys nitrogen to
keep a worthless old corpse frozen could instead be going to
Ethiopia).  There is the loss of esteem from nearly everyone: f-
rom the theists because cryonics comes close to trying to con-
struct a tower of Babel; from the socially-aware nontheists
because that life insurance money could have gone to Ethiopia (or
your favorite humanist organization).  Finally, some potential
cryonicists may be tortured by macabre and irrational thoughts
about having to spend a considerable number of centuries frozen
into a naked statue of oneself, hanging upside down in a giant
thermos bottle.  This sounds much more uncomfortable than a nice
plush casket; the mind does not work rationally in these areas. 
Why else do coffins have padding?

	Of course, to be fair, there are also potential gains from
involvement in cryonics which are also independent of whether the
technique works or not.  Chiefest of these is that cryonics
provides a certain amount of comfort for the non-believer.  Some
of the sting of death can be removed if there remains a chance,
however small, that death is not permanent.  Of course, the cynic
will comment that freezing a corpse is much like putting leftover
food in the refrigerator because one cannot immediately tolerate
the waste implied in throwing it away.  Even if the food is never
re-warmed, it is easier to discard if done in two separate
steps.  So it is, perhaps, with a dead loved-one.  Yet comfort is


	Cryonics as a philosophy is perhaps unique in its consideration
of the prospect of practical immortality (one can live as long as
one wants to) _without resort to metaphysics_.  Ultimately, and
perhaps ironically, cryonics may never have significant impact on
humanistic thought for this very reason.  Humanists have pretty
much given up the prospect of immortality.  In what may or may
not be sour grapes (making a virtue of necessity), secular
humanism has come to the conclusion that immortality would not be
a good thing to have in any case.  One suspects that humanism is
not about to be tempted from its carefully defended edifice of
rationalism in this, especially for an enterprise with only a
small chance of succeeding.

	Humanism is ultimately a socialistic belief.  Many humanists
find their sense of meaning in service to the community. 
Humanists, noting that cemeteries cover more land area than
public parks in Maryland, will have themselves cremated in order
to give the living a bit more room.  Humanists request donations
to the National Cancer Institute in lieu of flowers at funerals. 
Humanists are organ donors.  A humanist is likely to see the act
of getting one's corpse frozen at great expense as the ultimate
egotism; as a selfishness beyond social redemption.

	Cryonicists in contrast, do not mind being selfish.  An
astonishing number of them are libertarians or even believers in
the philosophy of Ayn Rand.  Above all else, cryonicists want to
_live_, and regard demands of self-sacrifice by society as a sort
of perversion.  As a rule, liberal guilt bothers them not at all.


	Mankind's philosophies can be characterized according to how
they deal with the concept of death.  Religious philosophies (at
least most of them) deal with death through denial of its
existence.  The official atheism of the Marxist state, itself a
kind of secular religion, by all accounts is astonishingly
similar in its treatment of the inevitable.  The Russian terminal
patient is never told that he is dying.  He is even lied to, if

	Humanists believe in death, but try hard not to think about it.
When they do, it is with renewed resolve to enjoy life and _carpe
diem_ while they can.  Humanists write a lot about how the
awareness of the surety and finality of death adds meaning, or
"tang" to existence.  However, it is rare that old humanists
write this way.  When they do, their essays are much prized, for
they bring some sense of relief from the final nagging doubt
about the advisability of being old and being a humanist too.

	In the end, cryonics remains a quirky and rather unique
philosophical phenomenon.  In some sense, with its mechanical
tinkering and high cost, it is an very American thing, and
probably will generally remain so for some time to come.  It is
an attempt at a high-tech fix that anyone who distrusts technical
solutions will surely find appalling.

	But whatever one says about cryonicists, one must grant that
they have faced man's central problem of mortality without
squeamishness, and without any quivering supplication to mystical
forces.  Cryonicists are not mystics.   A cryonicist's liquid
nitrogen capsule in one sense is only a strange but recognizable
kind of ambulance-- one headed slowly for the emergency room of a
hospital that has not been built yet.  Cryonicists are simply
trying to save themselves and their loved-ones by application of
reason, hard work, and perhaps a lot of luck.

	And the secular humanist, agree though he may not, must surely
respect them for that.

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