17. November 2010 · Comments Off on Historical Death Meme · Categories: Cryonics · Tags: , , ,

There’s a pretty simple explanation as to where motivated skepticism for cryonics originates. If you currently are skeptical of cryonics, you should carefully consider whether this applies.

Historically, there has been a powerfully optimized meme regarding the topic known as death. If you lost vital signs, you were irrevocably lost. There was nothing that could be done. The belief evolved that there is a mysterious point termed “death” which is in principle irreversible.

From this we developed a custom of honoring or dishonoring people who no longer exist by the mechanism of treating their corpse in certain ways. When criminals were were beheaded with their heads rolling around on the ground and subsequently being stuck on a pike, it was a highly visible sign of disrespect and disgust for the kind of life lived by the deceased. Similarly, steps taken to reduce grotesque appearance of the corpse by embalming or cremation have evolved as a token of respect.

This notion of “rewarding” or “punishing” people after their death serves purely as a signal to the living as to what kind of life should be considered worth living. Likewise, a person’s final moments take on a special significance, despite being just a tiny fraction of their total lifespan. What were they doing when they went? Were they anxious, or accepting? There is a certain poignancy of accepting death rather than fighting, which I imagine a hospice worker like Peggy Jackson would easily relate to. Collectively these special attitudes towards the experience in one’s final moments and state of one’s remains after death are the Historical Death Meme (HDM).

Now, bring cryonics into the picture. The cessation of vital signs is no longer a sign of irreversibility-in-principle. The best mechanism for survival at this point is stabilization followed by cryopreservation. Stabilization is not a cosmetically appealing procedure. If stabilization happens late, this causes disfiguring edema. The scientific fact that it is the best hope the patient has for preserving their brain structure is overshadowed by the cosmetic details — purely because of the HDM.

But this isn’t the only big issue. The bigger issue, which I think is where the bulk of the hostility originates, is that the HDM itself begins to look ethically questionable once you begin to consider that cryonics is admissible. In preparing someone’s corpse, in ignoring their ischemic state as soon as vital functions appear irrecoverable to today’s technology, you are doing the patient a disservice. It’s not just a disservice, but potentially fatal disservice. In fact, by denying them their one shot at life you are showing them a sort of disrespect.

In other words, the perfect conditions for cognitive dissonance have been established. The HDM is highly valued, and an integrated part of the identity of practically our whole society. Doctors must be comfortable giving up on patients, and morticians must be comfortable doing cosmetic rather than life-saving surgery. Heirs must be comfortable taking money that could have been used to cryopreserve their parents and grandparents. To admit that cryonics has a valid chance of working, is affordable, is ethically motivated, and is seriously scientifically motivated and well-researched, would be to strip them of that comfort.

The feelings of unease must be transferred to cryonics as a means of keeping the HDM from appearing unethical, silly, prescientific, and superstitious. Since cryonics is relatively unfamiliar (in terms of the supporting science and actual practice) and has a variety of associations with science-fiction’s hand-waving plot devices and religion’s resurrection fantasies, a motivated skeptic need not work very hard to make themselves feel this way.

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