Scientific Proof for Cryonics?

A cryonics advocate makes an eloquent case for cryonics. Then a scientist is called upon to dismiss the idea of cryonics because there is “no proof” for it. Unfortunately, such a statement reveals that the “scientist” in question does not know the difference between empirical science and logic, and also does not understand the difference between cryonics and suspended animation.

As the evolutionary biologist Satoshi Kanazawa writes in a November 16, 2008 column for Psychology Today “The knowledge that there is no such thing as a scientific proof should give you a very easy way to tell real scientists from hacks and wannabes… Proofs exist only in mathematics and logic, not in science. Mathematics and logic are both closed, self-contained systems of propositions, whereas science is empirical and deals with nature as it exists. The primary criterion and standard of evaluation of scientific theory is evidence, not proof.” He goes on to write that “all scientific knowledge is tentative and provisional, and nothing is final. There is no such thing as final proven knowledge in science.”

What is the proper role of science in cryonics? Let’s say that a person proposes that if we freeze a person after clinical death there is a reasonable expectation that more advanced medical technologies can reverse the freezing damage, the medical condition that gave rise to this person’s critical condition, and also the aging process that caused this medical condition in the first place. We can respond to this proposal by asking a number of questions. What will freezing do to the fine structure of the brain? How will future medical technologies infer the original state of the brain from the frozen state? What kind of technologies are required to repair the brain and restore the person to a healthy and youthful state?

These are the kinds of questions where science (and reasonable extrapolations of where science will be heading) is important in evaluating the idea of cryonics. And we are not limited to just consulting existing science, we can also push science in the direction of minimizing the damage incurred during cryopreservation so the odds of revival for the typical cryonics patient will increase. For example, in 2000 Alcor changed its protocol from limiting freezing to eliminating it through a technology called vitrification. Advances in gene editing, virus modification, and nano-scale 3D printing can make the idea of cell repair more plausible. Advances in science and technology of this nature can make people update their prior (subjective) estimates about the probability of cryonics being successful.

What such advances in science cannot do is to provide “proof ” that cryonics will work. They cannot do this because all scientific knowledge is “tentative and provisional,” but it also cannot do this for a more fundamental reason. Cryonics is not suspended animation. Cryonics concerns
stabilizing people for whom no successful medical treatment is available to permit them to benefit from future advances in medicine. By definition, it is not possible to prove that these technologies will become available.

What people who insist on “proof ” for cryonics want to see is evidence of reversible cryopreservation. Human suspended animation is indeed a research- and clinical objective that a credible cryonics organization should aim for. But it cannot be emphasized enough that while “proof ” of suspended animation would provide strong support for the practice of cryonics is it is not necessary for the cryonics idea to be plausible. What is necessary for cryonics to work is that the brain (and rest of the body) of a person are preserved to a degree that the original, healthy, state of the brain can be inferred from the preserved state. Perhaps future “neurological archeology” technologies will reveal that even freezing of the brain without cryoprotectant allows for complete revival.

A proper understanding of cryonics requires that scientists recognize the difference between providing proof and updating expectations based on empirical evidence. But it also requires the scientist, as the great cryonics writer Thomas Donaldson once recognized, to make peace with the unknown because the capabilities of future science remain a matter of debate and we cannot say for certain when a person is dead by information-theoretic criteria.

Originally published as a column (Quod incepimus conficiemus) in Cryonics magazine, July-August, 2016