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What does it mean to exist in complex relationships with machines? What insights can be offered to our understandings of these relationships by the theologically significant theme of ‘love’? What critical assessments can be made of our multiple uses of technologies in shaping our futures, by reflecting on our pasts?

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Disquiet over the prevalence of social and economic individualism has a long history. In a world of mobile Capital and increasingly mobile people, communities of common tradition and locality appear to be under threat from the advent of a fragmented market society. Are these complaints against individualism justified? And crucially, how should Christians respond to them? Digging down into the substance of these questions, this project will consider the theological, liturgical and scriptural resources Christians have for understanding the notion of individualism in relation to issues of education, public life and the formation of democratic citizenship.

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Monday
Dec052016

Lazarus on Ice: Cryonics and Life after Life

Last month, media attention was drawn to the case of a 14-year-old girl who had died of cancer. Although a saddening case, this was not the full extent of the story: according to the girl’s wishes, she was granted legal permission by a high court judge to have her body cryogenically frozen, in the hope that she would one day be able to be reanimated and brought back to life, once medicine had progressed enough.

Cryonics is a specific branch of experimental medicine that freezes people to maintain them in a cryopreserved state. It derives from the Greek root term ‘kryo’ (κρύο), meaning ‘cold’. Although, at present, the technology does not exist to thaw people out and reanimate them (hence the experimental nature of it), procedures are undertaken on the basis of faith in developments in medicine and technology that will one day allow for the subjects to be safely brought back to life. Cryonics, as such, fundamentally works on the principle of cryogenics, which is a broader branch of science that involves the production of materials at very cold temperatures. Materials operate differently at these lower temperatures, and this has use in a range of industries and applications from special effects on films and in nightclubs (using liquid nitrogen), to rocket fuels (using liquid hydrogen), to freezing food on larger and industrial scales.

While it is perhaps only a subtle distinction, then, between cryonics and cryogenics, it is one worth noting, particularly insofar as it pertains to a difference between complex, or conscious, and non-conscious matter. We can thaw out cryogenically frozen materials safely as and when needed (indeed if at all needed), yet when it comes to the cryogenic freezing of living organisms, the technology and detailed knowledge is still lacking. We meet, in a sense, the frontier of our skills and insights, but this does not curb a fundamental faith in the power of us or our technologies to reach the point where they will one day allow for the revivification of icy bodies. This resounds strongly with Francis Bacon’s visions and ideals for humans and their technologies, where both are connected by a scientific method that allows for the celebration and expansion of our abilities.

The specific news story and the wider issue of cryonics capture media and public attention because of the bold and radical changes that they propose, and the implications that they have not only for our future, but also for how we understand our abilities as a species and as amplified via technologies. Are we comfortable with the idea of being able to put our bodies, our personalities, and all the things that make us who ‘we’ are, on ice? Can we acclimatise ourselves to the ability to hold ourselves in suspension and to wake up in a different world unfamiliar to our own?

These questions raise further important ones that pertain to questions about how we understand who ‘we’ are in the first place. Is the self a purely material, neurological phenomenon that can be thawed out in its preserved state? This adopts a materialistic perspective that would rely on the assumption that everything about the organism – including ‘life’ and indeed ‘consciousness’ – is of the same stuff as the rest of the body, which is a position that would find a lot of support in contemporary understandings of science. However, there are those who would regard the ‘self’ or the ‘soul’ (where the two are somewhat interconnected via the Koine Greek notion of ‘ψυχη’, or ‘psyche’) as distinct from the ‘stuff’ of the rest of the body, and indeed this is part of the controversy surrounding Julian Offray de la Mettrie’s position that regards the human as essentially a mechanism not unlike the rest of nature. For opponents of Mettrie – even contemporary ones – the ‘self’ cannot be reduced to such a mechanistic modelling, and this is why Descartes for example was comfortable to consider animals as machines but not humans who have more complex selves and thought processes. If any of these oppositions are to be taken, then cryogenics becomes an increasingly untenable endeavour. And there are yet others who regard the self as constituted by its relationships, as a malleable structure that is contextually defined and dependent. If this is the case, then cryonics will not thaw out the same self but a different one by virtue of the different context that not only technologically enabled such thawing, but that also is formed of different people and ideas than that from which the person was frozen in the first place.

While cryonics gives us an opportunity through which to explore these models of identity, at present they do not offer any answers and thus they pose a sense of risk. There is risk in the technologies and the capabilities of humans that they may fail or fall short of idealistic expectations; there is a risk of fundamental changes to the self that is frozen and thawed, perhaps even beyond those that are anticipated or even sought; and this is not to mention the risk in the companies that offer such cryonics services, and their ability to remain commercially viable and to cover their running costs over an indefinite period of time. (Indeed, it is not irrelevant to note here that a number of bodies have had to be thawed out improperly due to the closure of companies.) With all of these cases, what are being wagered are actual lives. That is not to say, to be sure, that the risk is not worth taking: in the case of the 14-year-old girl that made the headlines recently, her argument put forward to the judge was about losing out on a potentially longer life due to cancer. What this reveals are assumptions about the value of longevity, and the human war on disease and suffering. The message is fairly simple and straightforward: life is worth protecting, and even if we can’t at the moment, we have reason to have sufficient faith in the future and the developments of our abilities to be able to stall our interventions in the interests of therapy until such technologies enable it.

And here is the key word that highlights the significance of theology in this technology: faith. It is faith in human and technological abilities that underscores efforts in and examples of cryonics. There are theological resonances and parallels with this story, namely with the story of Lazarus, who was brought back to life from his tomb by Jesus and via the glory of God (John 11). Does this story vindicate developments in cryonics? Does it underwrite our efforts in cryonics? Is God’s glory channelled through these technologies? One way to explore these issues is to ask what the ‘life after life’ is that is sought by attempts at earthly resurrection, both divine and technological. What is the quality of life that is being sought through cryonics? What, in other words and in theological terms, is Lazarus’ fate post-revivification? Questions that science poses at the frontier of life and death present new challenges but there are traditions and narratives that can equip us and can guide us in our reflections on the benefits and drawbacks of this and other technologies that may look set to become increasingly prevalent in society. Are these necessary risks, for example, insofar as they mediate God’s glory, or insofar as they compete with it? Is it riskier to surrender the body after death to a sort of afterlife on earth, or elsewhere? These are but some of the theological, moral, and metaphysical questions that we should be engaging with in attending to explorations of cryonics.

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