Thinking inside the box: the crime of cryonics

5 May 2009 by Jeremy Bentham, posted in Uncategorized

Greetings, my friends.

Having previously expounded upon the subject of my own preservation at UCL, and the principles of auto-iconism in general, I thought it might be fitting to share with you my reflections upon how far and in what manner those principles have been carried into operation in these present times.

Surely the best known modern instance that might seem consistent with my ideas on this head must be the embalmed body of V.I. Lenin in Moscow, which, I understand, has been seen by a number of visitors exceeding 10,000,000 since being first displayed in 1924. This might well seem to be a triumphant vindication of my own conceptions; but to what degree can the body of Lenin be said to accord with the design of the mind of Bentham?

As a memorial to the dead man, it is undoubtedly efficacious. However, my intention was that auto-icons might benefit the living directly, by obviating the need for ostentatious and costly memorials of stone and marble, of the kind in which Lenin is housed. Insofar as the body is said to require daily maintenance, its preservation thereby represents another instance, and that a continual one, of those needless contributions levied by the dead upon the living.

I conceived that auto-icons would aid in diminishing the horrors of death propagated by religion, an end that one might expect to be shared by the advocates of political principles as directly at odds with established religion as were those of the Jacobins of my own day. But I own that I am at a loss to understand how this salutary end has been promoted by the setting up of men such as Stalin, Mao and Kim-Il-Sung as the objects of a devotional cult that seems more consistent with the reverence afforded to the divine Pharaohs of Egypt than to the avowed adherents of an atheistical philosophy.

The anatomical methods pursued by Dr. Gunther von Hagens appear to be rather more in keeping with my intentions. By the use of an ingenious technique known as ‘plastination’, he has been able to preserve both individual viscera and entire bodies in a durable form that can serve as excellent anatomical specimens.

This has facilitated the teaching and advancement of the biological and chirurgical sciences. Von Hagens has produced a host of spectacular displays of auto-iconic figures of humans and animals produced by this means, which have been a source of wonder, delight and instruction to multitudes around the globe.

In doing so, to be sure, he has greatly enriched himself, and allegations of voyeurism and unscrupulous use of human remains have been made against him. But even if substantiated, such charges must be weighed carefully against what are, to my mind, the great benefits his work has produced in educating public opinion regarding science, and in helping to allay the still too widespread fear of death. Regarding the latter, Von Hagens would surely do much good by stipulating, as I did, that his own remains be preserved and displayed post mortem in the fashion of an auto-icon.

I must own that I am somewhat less convinced of the utility of the practice known as ‘cryonics’
whereby individuals arrange for the preservation of their bodies after life has apparently expired, through the technology of cryogenics, in the expectation that the subsequent progress of science will be such as to make possible their revival at some future date. The wish to cheat death in this way may well be perfectly comprehensible; indeed, although the term is new, the impulse it describes is certainly not. In my own day, Benjamin Franklin speculated on the possibility of devising ‘a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant.’ Dr. Franklin’s ‘very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence’ is a sentiment that is easily understood. But, sad to say, in spite of the great augmentation of the sum of scientific knowledge, the physicians of today are no closer than were their alchemical forebears to the secret of rekindling and infinitely perpetuating the spark of life.

It seems to me, therefore, that cryonics rests upon a very dubious calculus, in which present pain is offset only by the purely hypothetical and uncertain prospect of the pleasures of a possible future continuation of a person’s life. Nor should the extent of that pain, both immediate and continuing, be underestimated. I understand that one wealthy American, a Mr. Pizer, has invested $10 million of property in what is termed a ‘personal revival trust’, a legal contrivance that will enable him to resume his title at such time as he may be returned to life. The lawyers of my time would doubtless salute the genius of their descendants in deriving such bountiful new sources of mischief and expense from the progress of science!

This is ten millions of capital that will be denied to the use of the living. Ten millions, the profit of which will be rendered of no possible benefit to the owner, or to humanity at large, for an indeterminate period. For the time being, it is wealth put to no better use than the gold in churches, or the riches that were interred with barbarian kings. A high price to pay indeed for allaying the fear of death, and surely the inversion of my own conceptions of how the preservation of the dead might be made to benefit the living.

Your ever laborious and devoted Servant
J.B.

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