Cryonics, the soul and immortality
Could technology one day provide immortality? Could deep frozen corpses be revived? A reader’s question provides food for thought.
Published: 13 February 2010 (GMT+10)
Nick V. from Australia wrote asking about cryonics, the practice of deep freezing people in the hope of resuscitating them at a future time when technology has caught up.
I have a question that I cannot find an answer to on your site (which is wonderful by the way).
The subject is cryonics, immortality and what this means for the Christian/Creationist.
The science and possibilities of cryonics are covered elsewhere. But suffice to say that preservation technologies are improving every year and the likelihood of resuscitation is climbing as time progresses. I suggest that the achievement of immortality as a species (as opposed to invincibility) is scientifically only a matter of time.
As a staunch creationist/Christian this worries me. What is the net effect? If the wages of sin is death, and we achieve immortality (perhaps eventually invincibility) as a species, then what?
And what happens to the soul during suspension?
I wish to state that this question is no longer science fiction. There are many many people frozen as we speak, with hundreds/thousands more already signed up (see companies like Alcor for example).
I look forward to your response.
Yours in Y’shua,
Dr Carl Wieland responds
I agree that it is no longer science fiction in the sense that people are being deep frozen in the hope of waking up one day again.
However, the idea that such deepfrozen hopefuls are going to actually be resuscitated is definitely in the realm of science fiction.
Until it happens, all discussion is firmly in the area of speculation. My personal view is that it will never be feasible to restore such deepfrozen entities.
When the information on our biological materials deteriorates past a point, what we call it is death—and by definition, death is a biologically irreversible condition. If reversibility is indeed to be possible in the future, one would have to rethink not just the biological definition of death, but what it means for the concept of the soul. However, that raises the question of whether
a) it will ever be possible and
b) whether, even if it were possible, God would permit such to occur.
The matter you raise about the soul is an important one, in any case. We have previously noted that information in biology is an immaterial entity, though I think that the immaterial part of a person is not limited to information. So to revive a dead person, you would need to do much more than simply reconstruct all the biological information. (As the Bible says, “the body without the spirit is dead”—James 2:26.) But as an exercise, let’s just look at the biological issue alone, to get an idea of how big a problem it would be to try to reconstruct just the biological information.
Firstly, there is a huge amount of biological degradation that takes place in a very short period of time after death, no matter how quickly the cryonicists get to work. This process is called autolysis, the destruction of cells and organs by their own enzymes, and this occurs before there are physical signs of decomposition. Secondly, despite deep freezing, deterioration continues, only more slowly—there would be a limit to preservation even if someone was frozen before death. This is the relentless march of the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Just think what happens when you have a steak or even a stew in a freezer for ten years—it dries out, just like the flesh of many frozen mammoths. The technical issues are even much more than trying to unscramble not just an omelette, but a fried omelette; it would be like literally trying to reconstruct the original raw egg down to the fine details of the tiniest degree of molecular order DNA it contained. And no matter how “snap-frozen” the body, the background radiation would eventually erase DNA information. One would need to have a precise map of all the biological information, including the information that goes to make up a person’s memory, personality, etc. That sort of information cannot be obtained ‘after the event’. It would have to be all mapped out beforehand. The task would be roughly equivalent to creating a human being, literally from dust.
And even that assumes that all that is necessary is a restoration of the biological order, having previously ‘downloaded’ their thoughts/memories, etc., and that there is nothing more involved to people than that. And as indicated I don’t believe that information is all there is to it.
Since the wages of sin is death, then if humans were to achieve immortality through technology, this would falsify the Bible in that area. That is another good reason for being able to confidently predict that without God’s recreation of a sinless, deathless world, as He promised, such immortality will never be achieved.
For a further discussion on such matters as the soul and material vs immaterial, the following paper may be helpful to you.
See also Peter Singer: ‘Christians condone murder to harvest donor organs’. Is he right? which discusses definitions of death.
Nick wrote back:
Hello Dr. Wieland,
Thankyou for your well-written and considered response to my question.
I love God immensely and am seriously considering cryonic suspension for myself (although I am still quite young, fit & healthy).
In truth, these questions have plagued me as I work in technology. I see the exponential doubling of technological progress and constantly observe new developments that were previously considered all but impossible. Although I realise our science at present is still quite immature (and also subject to the corrupting forces of capitalistic interests), the rate of breakthrough’s and advancement leads me to believe that what seems impossible today may—very likely—be very possible.
As you pointed out, I have carefully considered God’s position on this. If this technology eventuates successfully, then it may invalidate God’s word. Which cannot happen. So either Christ returns before the technology is achieved (but then He said no-one knows the time except the Father), or some other option that I cannot think of.
Regardless of whether Cryonic suspension succeeds, the advancement of medical technology suggests that perhaps we will conquer nearly all disease, and stop the cellular aging clock. This is effectively immortality and I believe may be a much more earlier development than cryonic resuscitation. Perhaps even conceivably within the lifetimes of some alive today.
I am motivated by a desire to witness the second coming of our Lord in addition to—and I’ll be honest—avoiding the pain of death. It’s not the dying itself that worries me (as my salvation is assured in Y’shua), but the absolute physical agony associated with it.
You have certainly made me think. I am aware of cellular damage as the result of water crystallisation puncturing the cell walls; but the introduction of cryonic fluids is meant to alleviate this problem somewhat. I will certainly be reading more on autolysis in addition to the other resources you mentioned.
Lastly, thanks again for your response. Information on this important concept is sadly and considerably lacking from a Christian/Creationist perspective.
Yours in Y’shua,
Thanks, Nick …
My mother used to constantly look forward to the Second Coming—she admitted to me once that she was not afraid of being dead, as she was a strong believer, but afraid of the process of dying. When her time came to be called home, she went to be with the Lord peacefully—in her sleep. As a former doctor who experienced a good number of people’s deaths, I can assure you that the idea of ‘absolute physical agony’ is greatly overblown. There are merciful mechanisms built into our biology.
On one other point—the bit about medical technology overcoming all disease and stopping the cellular aging clock. That would be sensational indeed, but even then it would not be immortality. Let’s imagine that had happened, and that somehow (in a development which I think would be even more miraculous) it had been made available to all, rich or poor. Including the people of Haiti. Then along came another earthquake in Haiti. There would still be 100,000 dead, despite the conquest of aging and disease.
Interesting article. I thought this recently published PNAS article might be of relevance to this discussion:
It’s all about how the rate of somatic cell mutation is what likely causes aging and since it is rampant in the body and is destructive of information, it essentially cannot be stopped. Additionally, it speaks of a “dramatic reduction in fitness” (i.e. dying out) of the human race within a couple centuries based on the germline mutation rate.
Many thanks for your feedback and the weblink.
I’ve passed the link on to him and some colleagues for their interest.
Thanks once again.