What we are not entirely clear about is what death is. Indeed, our recorded history is bloodied with the disagreements between religions and cultures which hold very different views about what life and death mean. Even today no-one agrees, and so the mystifications about life and death remain and explanations are wanting. However, we do have scientific agreement on how to observe and measure biology in its life and decay, from the minute cellular levels of existence to the total biological system of a healthy body and a dying then dead body. It is true that we do not entirely understand human biology, but we have accepted medical definitions of life and death and we act on them accordingly. However, the accepted definition of death has a history, and this history is one of error and ambiguity resulting from mystifications which are not only religious and philosophical, but legal and medical.
When our medical technology was crude we understood the event of death to be bodily collapse; if a person could not breathe and their heart did not beat they would be considered dead. Primitive or inadequate medicine could not then help people live, even though the affliction that lead to their collapse may be routinely cured today. Because we have more sophisticated medical technology and theory, the criterion of "brain death" is now used to determine when treatment of the body remains an option. Patients are now revived routinely after laying "dead" on the operating table for hours, while their hearts or other vital organs are repaired or replaced. This is a clear illustration that death is not actually an event; unless a person is blown to pieces, death is usually a slow process of decay which begins once the available medicine has failed. The doctor who declares patients dead because their heart and respiratory system can no longer be made active enough to keep the brain alive is also aware that the still living organs inside the person can be removed, kept alive in cold storage and transplanted to another person who is in a better condition. This same doctor would have declared more patients dead sooner, when in earlier times s/he had more limited technology and understanding. This is also the case in impoverished countries where modern medicine is denied through lack of national resources.
Clearly then, complete death takes longer than the failure of organs that support the survival of the brain. It is true that the brain quickly decays once oxygenated blood stops reaching it in adequate amounts (this is called "ischemia"; the condition suffered by tissues and organs when deprived of inadequate nutrients and oxygen carried in blood), but it is also true that all the others cells in the body continue to function well for hours after (brain) death is officially declared. During this time the brain rots over a few hours after medical resuscitation methods have failed; normally the rest of the body can either be left to decompose in its own way, or the organs can be harvested and preserved for donation. The alternative receives little attention because it is unusual compared to standard practice: the body - with all of the organs and the brain - could be preserved using an experimental medical procedure that prevents decay and final destruction.
There are various modern preservative procedures available and they are collectively known as cryonics (a word coined to describe the philosophy of Robert Ettinger who first proposed the idea in his 1964 book "The Prospect of Immortality"); "cryo" meaning cold. Two of the main methods of cryopreservation that employ the science of cryobiology are liquid nitrogen (where tissues are cooled to -196°C) and vitrification (a form of cryoprotectant which avoids freezing and thus eliminates damaging ice-crystal formation by hardening tissues like glass instead).
This life-saving medical procedure seems like science fiction or a con to many people. This is partly because of popular misconceptions and also partly because people are generally unaware of the important distinction between biological function (the moving, feeding, excreting, normally living cell or body) and biological structure (the physical plans and foundations for life, for example, a cellular wall, neural-network or skeleton). Perhaps this unawareness is because the medical establishment is paternalistic, or because people's general knowledge is not too scientific, or because people are content to accept the proscribed protocols of the culture is which they live concerning things like life and death. Together, function and structure allow for life. Cryonics does not preserve all biological functions - vital functions like brain activity and heart-beat are over when modern medicine pronounces a person dead. But cryonics does preserve structure, and this is what makes it so important as a life-saving procedure. It may seem fanciful that death can be stopped as a result of cryonics, but the practice has scientific support (though many scientists and physicians prejudicially dismiss the idea).
The scientific basis for the cryonics experiment is already established, mainly through the science of cryobiology. Cryobiology is that branch of science that is mainly concerned with the study of biological systems at temperatures lower than the normal physiological temperatures for warm-blooded animals (which is 37 degrees Celsius). Low temperatures can slow chemical reactions and preserve biological materials (cryopreservation), or they can disrupt temperature-dependent chemical pathways and destroy biological materials (cryosurgery). Cryobiology has an ancient history, the first written record of the use of low temperatures in medicine is recorded on Egyptian papyrus from 2,500 BC. Hippocrates endorsed the use of cold (460-377 BC) to control bleeding and swelling. Robert Boyle (1627-91) studied the effects of low temperatures on animals, and James Arnott used cryosurgery on cancer in 1845. In 1949, S. Polge, A. U. Smith and A. S. Parkes cryopreserved sperm, initiating a new era of cryopreservation, and progressive research has continued ever since.
The American National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) funded research on low temperature suspended animation during the space race. (The exploration of space was considered to be too limited by human lifespan, because of the vast distances which must be traversed). Many other animals, typically with simple cell structures, have been frozen, stored and revived, like the nematode worm for example. Many types of human cells, including blood, can already be stored indefinitely at low temperatures. Thousands of human embryos have been stored in liquid nitrogen since 1982 and subsequently developed into normal children after implantation and birth. The longest period between storage and revival of human embryos took place after 21 years of cryopreservation resulting in the birth of a healthy boy. This record was reported on May 25th 2004 in Europe's leading reproductive medical journal "Human Reproduction". Indeed, if you believe that a human embryo is a human being, then cryonics has already succeeded. Stored embryos are humans frozen to the point of non-functioning (medical death) with their structures preserved. They are then later revived (they function again) and continue to live. However, older human beings are more complex and can only be preserved at this point in time.
In the natural world examples of revival following deep freezing exist and are being studied. For example, the common wood frog, Rana sylvatica, spends its winters interned in subzero sleep when temperatures drop below freezing. At this point the frog's metabolism stops to a near halt, so its cells can survive on small amounts of oxygen and energy. The liver then begins to create an antifreeze made of glucose inside the frog's cells that keeps most of the water from solidifying. The frog's animation and brain functions are suspended until spring-time when it revives.
Recently scientists at NASA discovered a species of bacteria that had been frozen in ancient ice for 32,000 years. These simple organisms were revived after this very long cryopreservation. It is clear that long term cryopreservation can be naturally survived, hinting at clues which might be used to improve our medicine.
These natural examples and scientific advances in freezing and reviving life show an increasing body of cryobiological knowledge that could lead to the success of the cryonics experiment, success that will bring a new and healthy life for those people who are cryo-preserved.
Life and ?
Essentially, cryonics is an advanced understanding of what death really is, not an alternative to a funeral. This advanced understanding is in knowing that the current legal definition of death is not the same as actual biological death. In current medical practice, those patients whose circulation of blood and spontaneous respiration have ceased are considered dead. Among these patients are some who are "brought back to life" through a combination of persistent life saving treatment and the patient's willpower and fortitude. But there are others who suffer damage so great to the life-supporting systems of their bodies that there are not enough medical resources or knowledge to save their lives. They are then legally dead, and are left to the natural process of decay because we currently cannot do much more to save them. Except now we can save lives by preventing death, an ability which - amazingly - is ignored, mocked or demonised.
Cryonics is the method by which people can be saved from death by cryopreserving them and keeping them safe. Many people are skeptical of cryonics because they do not see the point in freezing (legally) dead people or they do not think cryopreserved patients will be revived in the future. What skeptics fail to realise is that dead people are not being cryopreserved. "Dead" means that there is no possibility for life, but a cryonics patient is possibly alive, not dead. All science deals in probabilities, and it is possible that a cryonically preserved person is not dead because if this person can be revived, then they are not dead, by definition. Today we know for certain that the preserved patient has not been destroyed by cremation or decay. What is uncertain about cryonics patients is that they may or may not be dead. We do not yet know. But we do know that medical ethics demands that unconscious patients with an uncertain prognosis should be cared for and regarded as viable people until proven otherwise.
Is this uncertainty a problem? There can be no harm done to a person about to die by giving them cryonic treatment, despite the fact that the chances of success are unknown. There are an enormous number of medical procedures currently practiced for which it is well known that have little chance of success in the sense of adequate life quality or even continued survival. Doctors do not wait until the patient is declared legally dead before offering them some last desperate unproven procedure. Why is cryonics regarded any differently? It is true to say that this procedure is experimental with no sure chance of success, but the chance is certainly more than zero. Could it be that people simply do not understand cryonics well enough to make an informed choice? Or worse yet, could the resistance to cryonics be due to unexamined medical prejudice, much like the objection to the introduction of anesthesia in the 19th century? Anesthesia was considered unnatural and even irreligious; today's objections seem to be similar and equally outdated. How many people will die before cryonics is considered to be serious medicine?
Cryonics is a heroic attempt to save lives through stopping death as a result of decay, and storing preserved people in the hope that medicine will continue to improve and help later. Rather than accepting the failure to save a life and allow decay to take place, doctors could immediately begin cryonic procedures to secure as much of the person's structure as possible. Cryonics could be an elective advanced medical procedure for those who have no hope for continued life during the present. Cryonics could give hope for those who have none, offering the chance to live again sometime in the future. Eventually we will all face death and cryonics would make that time less terrifying.
Imagine a situation where you are involved in an accident which renders you comatose and unresponsive. Your body can continue to exist with life-support, but your self is just a memory to others. You cannot act, communicate, think or dream. You have no emotions, no reason, no imagination. But you still live in a basic way and there is a chance that medical science will be able to revive you and help you live well again as a complete person. The chances are unclear and a matter of speculation among your peers and the scientific community because no one can predict the future. Many people are currently in vegetative states like this with uncertain lives ahead.
Either the life-support affords you a chance for a healthy life again at some point in the future, or the machines go off and the living wait for your physical death and decay. Perhaps you think this is fine because you do not want the indignity of lying comatose in a bed, cared for by others. But how is your dignity damaged if you do not know? Such considerations are due to the cultural sensitivities of the living. The comatose and the cryopreserved have no such concerns. Will indignity really matter on the day you wake up and realize you are conscious again? Or perhaps you do not want to use up resources better spent on those with much fuller lives, that the money and energy of your life-support should go to others. This is a generous and selfless view, perhaps too selfless considering that you are losing your whole life. What is the chance of great improvement in a person's life measured against the efforts and expenditure necessarily made in cryonic treatment? Medical resources are not being abused by your decision to have a chance to live again; after all, the Hippocratic oath informs the care of trained staff: "first, do no harm". There is no indignity or waste in life-support and this serves as a fine analogy to cryonics.
Imagine another unpleasant situation where you are dying and a doctor tells you that an experimental procedure may save your life. If it doesn't, you will die, though this is going to happen anyway. There are people who have been put in such a position, subjects of untested medical experiments that could save their lives. Cryonics is one of these experiments, the only difference is that we will not know the outcome and we do not know how long it will take to get that answer. But this doesn't matter to you, you will not be aware of time passing.
It is true that the preservative process of cryonics causes some damage. It is also true that the longer a non-functioning (legally dead) person is left unaided, the more decayed a person's structure will become, the more their chances of being healed go down. But so long as the cryonic procedure goes well and the chambers (known as dewars and cryostats, essentially big thermos bottles designed to keep liquid nitrogen cold) containing the cryopreserved body remain attended to, the patient will persist. It is also true that there is continuing improvement in preservation methods compared to previous decades since 1964. This shows no sign of abating, so progress in medicine is likely.
Cryonicists hope that the cryonics medical experiment will not be a failure, that sometime in the future humanity will have enough scientific knowledge (and the wish) to repair preservation damage to a patient's structure as well as the damage that prevented functioning in the patient in the first place. Many cryonicists have faith in the fact that our medical understanding and technology will continue to progress to the point which they can be revived.
Some cryonicists expect that in the future, miniature surgical robots will make treatment of individual cells within the body possible. The advent of this nanotechnology shows the importance of the organisation of the cellular level and our ability to manipulate it. The criterion of "information death" will then determine the limits of medical treatment. This criterion for death is measured by the loss of bodily structure (otherwise understood as information), which has an important impact on selfhood (or self-consciousness or personality, whatever you want to call it). By this I am referring to the consequences of the disintegration of interconnections of cells in the brain and the impact this has on a person's ability to think, feel and act. It is likely that this criterion of "information death" will be the new medical definition of death in this century, so preservation of the body by freezing is a good idea. This is because cryonics would retain the structure (information), which can then be used to help a patient function again.
Other cryonicists hope for even greater things from the future. Some are of a transhumanist bent, believing that technological advances will be so great as to allow us to control physical reality at a fundamental level, enabling an evolutionary leap into an ageless and disease-less universe. Other cryonicists are religious and do not believe that there is any conflict between cryonics and their doctrines. Indeed, some see cryonics as the fulfillment of certain religious prescriptions; for example, when Jesus Christ says "heal the sick... raise the dead" in the Biblical book of Matthew 8:10.
But all cryonicists have their own outlooks on life. Cryonics is not a fringe cult that preys on human fear of death. It is a heroic medical experiment which aims to save lives by preventing death and decay.
It is true that cryonics has revolutionary potential. If it becomes accepted, there will be fewer people who are legally dead. Medical, religious and legal practices will change and people will have to think more about their personal beliefs (e.g. would the last rites be appropriate? what happens to a person's will? how do hospitals logistically deal with this new procedure? and so on). Regardless of the changes, most people want to live longer. This is shown by the fact that most people try to stay healthy and accept medical treatment when it is needed. This implies that most people would want to be cryonically saved if only it was a widely available and understood option, just as most people have brain or heart surgery under anesthesia so as to save their lives today. There are also questions about what would happen if we could revive preserved patients, like: how would they fit into the future world? what would it be like to lose consciousness in a hospital bed and then to wake-up in the future? is this really the original patient waking up? what about the patients loved ones? These are questions that cryonicists often discuss, and usually with great hope and excitement.
I personally feel that cryonics gives me and my loved ones a better chance of living again than any other current option. I hope to partake in the greatest experiment of all time - a measure which will benefit myself and others regardless of whether I am revived, because all scientific experiments are useful. For example, experiments like this can help us to understand how to store organs for transplant. It is this very problem that lead me to research cryonics, because before then I was a potential organ donor. I realise now that I prefer to keep my organs for myself once I am legally dead. (Instead of donating I now support an "opt-out" system of organ donation whereby dead people are automatically considered donors - unless they have stipulated otherwise - so as to increase the supply of healthy organs to those in need of them. Supporting stem cell research also improves the chances of saving lives and giving those lives a greater quality and duration than today's medicine currently has.)
In addition to cryonics I have an interest in life-extension methods through medicines, a good diet and regular exercise. Cryonics is part of my ethics - how I intend to live - and a chance to live well in the future and be part of a progressive movement which seeks an end to the horror of aging, sickness and death.
What cryonicists need to do now is to convince the medical establishment that this procedure is worth the effort. Every living being wants to live and, in civilised nations, human beings have the right to life. To not provide cryonic treatment could be seen as a violation of that political right and of the natural instincts that have kept our species alive for 200,000 years.
Cryonics already exists as a medical procedure; there are over 120 people who are cryopreserved and over 1000 more who have signed the legal documents to ensure they receive the same treatment, and there yet more who are not in a financial, legal or geographical position to take advantage of this life-saving medicine. This is a situation which strikes me as absurd and disgusting. While people unnecessarily die in fear, the hospitals, the law and public opinion lag behind the strides taken by cryonicists. Cryonics is a new life saving technology available today. Letting people die when they could be saved is unreasonable and injust. If physicians are serious about saving lives, and if patients really do want to live, then they should cooperate with cryonics organizations.