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So begins Simon Jenkins with a recent piece for The Guardian. The story is about a teenager’s decision to be cryopreserved until she will be scientifically resurrected from the frozen dead. For those wondering what this is all about, 'cryonics' is the practice of preserving bodies at very low temperatures in the hope that scientific advancement will ultimately reverse death and 'reanimate' the corpses. Since the story broke out, we’ve seen a flurry of interest in this hot (or should we say frozen?) topic.
This is fascinating on more than one level. First, take Jenkins’ opening comment. From a history of ideas angle, it captures so well the shift in sacredness. Temples and shrines used to be sacred. Animals used to be sacred. Rituals and festive times used to be sacred. Our bodies used to be sacred. Now it’s freedom and self-determination that is our ‘holy cow’.
Don’t get me wrong, this is not to suggest relinquishing control over our bodies is a good thing. A sort of communism of the body is not only absurd, it’s repulsive. Our bodies are us, part and parcel of our (embodied) identity. They give the literal contours of our individuality, but, and this is often missed, they also signal our vulnerability and need for mutuality. My body requires other bodies to fulfil its basic needs: nourishment, security, and pleasure.
There is something intriguing and yet jarring about making self-determination a ‘sacred’ value. This is not the only case in which religious language is deployed to articulate a secular outlook focused on rights and the promises of instrumental reason (science). Interestingly, when the secular humanist tries to convey a sense of importance they often reach for the religious language – the ‘sacred’ being a particularly appealing term.
This does, however, sit uneasily with some of the core ideas of a materialist worldview: that matter is all there is, that everything is relative, and that reality is constructed through and through, from values to voodoo dolls. The idea of the sacred suggests something being ultimate, unconditional, prior to and independent of human decision. But can anything be truly sacred and of ultimate value if we and the blind forces of the universe have ‘made everything up’?
The story is also fascinating as the teenager’s decision speaks volumes about humanity’s inextinguishable longing to defy and defeat death. As another believer in techno-resurrection yearningly put it in a recent BBC News piece: "However long you live is never long enough”.
Secular or religious, you’ll agree that the whole business of cryonics is not a little wonky. But, instead of sneering at the ‘service users’, maybe we should at least appreciate the lucidity and candour. Here are people who soberly reflect on death and make plans around it. To state the obvious, death is a big deal, and few are ready to talk about it. More significantly, here are people who are honest about deep-seated longings of the heart that will not go away with success, status, and an ever higher dose of entertainment.
Still, if their decision to freeze their bodies is based on trust in scientific progress to ultimately reverse death, their trust is sadly misplaced. There are many members of the scientific community doubting that science will deliver the goods. As one cryonics boss put it: it’s a dice roll . Other scientists are yet more sceptical, denouncing the “wishful thinking engendered by cryogenics companies” as being irresponsible.
But even if we were to entertain the fanciful idea, and think in materialist terms, think about it. If a thumb feels strange, as if not one’s own, after it’s been reattached to a hand, how much more confusing would a life after cryopreservation look life. Quite simply, we probably wouldn’t be ourselves. Whatever creature would be revivified, it sure wouldn’t be Nathan, Paul, Jenny etc. We would be, at best, ‘clones’ of ourselves, probably with no memory of our hopes, aspirations, loves, and most importantly, with no memory of the people who’ve made us who we are.
If, however, we are material creatures who are nonetheless more than matter (however that ‘more’ sits in relation to ‘matter), it will take more than scientific progress to kick-start us back into life: Resurrection, not mere resuscitation.
Natan Mladin is a researcher at Theos | @nathanmladin
Image by Wikicommons available under CreativeCommons