21 Nov, 16 | by Iain Brassington
About 18 months ago, Imogen Jones and I wrote a paper musing on some of the ethical and legal dimensions of Christopher Priest’s The Prestige. One dimension of this was a look at the legal status of the bodies produced as a result of the “magic” trick – in particular, the haziness of whether they were alive or dead; the law doesn’t have any space for a third state. The paper was something of a jeu d’esprit, written to serve a particular function in a Festschrift for Margot Brazier. If I say so myself, I think it’s a pretty good paper – but it’s also meant to be fun, and is clearly rather less serious than most ethico-legal scholarship (or anything else in the book, for that matter).
So it’s a bit of a surprise to see relevantly similar themes popping up in the news. If we’re freezing people in the hope of curing terminal illness in the future, what’s the status of the bodies in the meantime (especially if the death certificate has been signed)? There’s a load of questions that we might want to ask before we get too carried away with embracing cryonics.
Right from the start, there’s a question about plausibility. For the sake of what follows, I’m going to treat “freezing” as including the process of defrosting people successfully as well, unless the context makes it clear that I mean something else. Now, that said, the (moral) reasons to freeze people rely on the plausibility of the technology. If the technology is not plausible, we have no reason to make use of it. It wouldn’t follow from that that using it’d be wrong – but since the default is not to act in that way, it’s positive reasons that we need, rather than negative ones. Neither could we really rely on the thought that we could cryopreserve someone in the hope that the freezing-and-thawing process becomes more plausible in future, because we’d have no reason to think that we’d chosen the right version of the technology. We can only cryopreserve a person once: what if we’ve chosen the wrong technique? How would we choose the best from an indefinitely large number of what we can at best treat as currently-implausible ones?
So how plausible is it to put a body on ice, then revive it many years later? It’s been pointed out by some that we currently do preserve embryos without apparent ill-effect, with the implication that there’s no reason in principle why more developed humans couldn’t be frozen successfully. However, whole humans are a wee bit more complex than embryos; it’s not at all clear that we can extrapolate from balls of a few cells to entire humans. Even the admittedly limited experimental evidence that it’s possible to freeze whole organs won’t show us that, since we’re systems of organs. One can accept that an organ is a system, too; but all that means is that we’re systems of systems – so we’ve squared the complexity. And, of course, the timescales being considered here are tiny compared with the kind of timescales envisaged in cryonic fantasies. more…