Transhumanism: a not-so-new new-wave global movement describing itself as ‘a class of philosophies of life that seek the continuation of the evolution of intelligent life beyond its currently human form, by means of science and technology.’ This belief, which first made headlines in the 1990s, has steadily gained support ever since, and while I was initially highly sceptical, there is no doubt that those pushing the theory are on to something commercially and, just possibly, philosophically too. This is a world that I regarded as belonging to some distant future with flying cars and teleportation, but a quick Google search revealed whole businesses, bitcoin economies and ways of life revolving around the belief that humans really can – and ought to – live forever. Yet, does the vast scale of this movement make it morally correct? What justification is there for obtaining immortality other than selfishness?
What first caught my eye from the plethora of transhumanist organisations was a cryopreservation institute: ALCOR Life Extension Foundation. With just 40 years since its foundation and fewer than a dozen full-time employees, ALCOR made over $2 million in revenue in 2017 alone, making them the leading cryonics institute globally, and their CEO and transhumanist activist, Max More, a millionaire. So, what exactly is this multi-million-dollar enterprise? Cryopreservation is essentially the preservation in liquid nitrogen of people who would otherwise die due to the limitations of today’s medicine. I was quickly dragged down the rabbit hole of ALCOR’s online world of sci-fi-like inventions and possibilities. There were webpages covering areas from case-studies and cryopreservation demonstrations, to an FAQ section for ‘bio-luddites’ (non-believers in the transhumanist world).
I remember tentatively clicking on the ‘cryopreservation process’ page and being surprised to find out that it involved no freezing whatsoever, rather the replacement of blood with a solution to stop cells from bursting at sub-zero temperatures. I was more disturbed however, by the discovery that when critically ill patients are close to de-animation (i.e. death – transhumanists only refer to death in quotation marks and with a high degree of scepticism; as death loses its omnipotent connotations if you believe in immortality), there’s a ‘standby-team’ near them at all times, complete with bags for when the patient’s blood is sucked from their body, and an ice-bath to plunge them into minutes after ‘legal-death’. These various tools would surely be a harrowing sight for the patients, knowing that their literal lifeblood will be drained from their veins seconds after their heart stops beating (after all, no one dies in front of the crematorium, or in a morgue). Nevertheless, over 3600 people from all over the world have paid up to $220,000 for a lifetime membership to ALCOR for cryopreservation. The possibility of ‘resurrection’ must be an alluring concept to those with terminal illnesses, or even those who simply have enough money for membership. However, the more I thought about cryopreservation, the more questions I had. The essence of this moral dilemma boils down to one thing: a battle of science and ethics. The ever-evolving argument between ‘Can we do it?’ and ‘Should we do it?’
Trying to make sense of the ethical implications of cryopreservation is enough to make anyone’s head spin, due to almost every part being completely hypothetical. However, if we theorise that ‘reanimation’ is possible, what are the real-life implications for the patients? No expert in the world can accurately envision how waking up 200 years in the future alone, or perhaps even surrounded by their own descendants, will affect someone’s mental health. Will their memories remain intact? If not, will they really be the same person? As is it not from our memories that our sense of self – our individuality – stems from? What are their human rights? What if society has evolved so much that their level of intelligence isn’t high enough to play any real part in society? The unfortunate and frustrating truth is that no one knows, but it seems that many cryopreservation believers have accepted this. Dr Ralph Merkle (ALCOR member and Director since the 1980s) stated in a video interview quite simply that ‘Cryonics is an experiment. So far, the control group isn’t doing too well.’ A little morbid, yes, but still a solid argument that gives the argument some scientific acceptability. As for my many questions regarding what would actually happen to the patients if they are revived, I was left with no answers. It seems that transhumanists are still fighting to prove the effectiveness of the cryopreservation process but have not yet put much thought into what will happen if it actually works. However, bad mental health and unemployment aren’t the only problems that resurrecting people 200 years in the future may cause.
In a world where massive population expansion is leading to completely unsustainable levels of pollution and global warming, is it really ethical to store vast numbers of people that could eventually be introduced to what will likely be an even more over-populated world than what we already live in? We are all too accustomed to the shocking statistics of over-population: over half of our forests and wetlands have vanished in the past century, all due to the population more than doubling in only four decades. If humanity will be nine billion strong by 2038, what about 200 years from now? We may even have already colonised the galaxy by then (yet another problem for the ALCOR patients – have the FAQ experts thought about how bodies floating in liquid nitrogen will fare in zero gravity?). Perhaps they will get their own planet, a sort of time-warp or possibly even a museum of Earth 200 years before they were reanimated. Whatever way it’s looked at, reanimation will surely only worsen our ongoing disaster, as if even a third of our population is cryopreserved as standard by then, then the projected figure for future populations will surely be wrong by a couple billion.
I can understand why the future of these patients and cryonics in general remains unclear. However, there remains one question that still keeps me up at night: what happens to the reanimated when they die again? Will cryopreservation be seen as the new burial? Or will we all eventually be an omnipotent consciousness, wired into a hard drive by that point? In fact, Transhumanists have dubbed this merging of human and technological intelligence the slightly ominous and Matrix-esque ‘Singularity’. The most likely option would be that if cryopreservation is successful once, it will be used again, thereby continuing the cycle of consciousness. It is at this point that cryopreservation loses all appeal for me. Who wants to be truly immortal? Real immortality isn’t even fathomable to most people, yet there are some who actively seek it, and believe it will happen in their lifetime. These are the immortalists: another worldwide network that’s just as real and, perhaps, even more mind-bending than the transhumanist organisation. The anthropologist Abou Farmiain stated that ‘Paradoxically, Immortalists believe that given the development of scientific knowledge, humans can enjoy life after death, yet it is precisely their attachment to life in this world that leads them to this faith’. There isn’t a way to ponder the ethics of cryonics without spiralling into all sorts of life-questioning dilemmas, but if the scientific basis for cryogenics is divided and uncertain, what else could we turn to for guidance when navigating the murky waters where philosophy and science collide?
For many, their guidance on the morality of cryopreservation stems from their religion, but in our largely secular society, there exists an increasing cross-over between ethics and religion. A starting point for those who follow Christianity, for example, would be that humans should not actively seek to extend their life past what it naturally should be on our finite Earth, and they should accept that death is part of life, and they are destined for peace with God in Heaven. There were many such comments in the anonymous ALCOR FAQ, with one particularly memorable reply being ‘flying is unnatural for humans, but there’s no moral opposition to planes!’. Granted, this logic was a little rough around the edges, but I could genuinely see where they were coming from. But if reanimation becomes the norm, or the Singularity is achieved, what happens to God? How will new people be born? Surely computers can’t just programme a new consciousness? Will Heaven just stop receiving souls? Are there souls in the Singularity? However, it seemed like the transhumanists were busy answering the hundreds of other bio-luddite’s queries, as I unfortunately got no response when I posed my questions to the members of the FAQ page, not even a witty comeback.
To conclude, the world of transhumanism and cryopreservation is a web of moral, ethical, philosophical, scientific, and religious dilemmas. Unfortunately, my original aim of deciding whether cryonics was morally correct or not was lost somewhere between the fifth article on the transhumanist argument as to why cryogenically reanimated cyborgs should be given citizenship rights, and my third email to the Cryonics Institute regarding my confusion to absolutely everything. Whether or not I will choose to become a member of the ALCOR community, and float around in liquid nitrogen for a few centuries in a tank full of strangers – both bodies and heads – for a chance at reanimation remains to be seen, but one thing for sure is that I’ve got a lot to think about, and many websites to scour before plunging into the ice-bath.
1. Anon. ‘What is transhumanism?’: https://whatistranshumanism.org/#about (accessed April 2019)
2. ALCOR life extension foundation (information): https://alcor.org/ (accessed March 2019)
3. Cryonics institute: Information on membership, statistics, processes and case-studies: https://www.cryonics.org/ (accessed March 2019)
4. Dr. Merkle’s video interview for the Humanist Community in Silicon Valley: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IAei0a8FE18 (accessed April 2019)
5. Talal, Asad, ‘Thinking about the secular body, pain and liberal politics’ from Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 26, No 4 (November 2011) pp. 657-675 for the American Anthropological Association: https://www.jstor.org/stable/41336307 (accessed April 2019)
6. U.S. Transhumanist party ‘Transhuman Bill of Rights’ https://transhumanist-party.org/tbr-3/ (accessed April 2019)