An Arendtian Perspective on Cryonics
Towards the Destruction of our human Condition?
More than a thousand individuals worldwide have made concrete arrangements to have either their full bodies or their brains cryopreserved following their death. This technique, which originally started in the USA, is now progressively spreading all over the world. In a landmark case, ruled on the 18th November 2016, the High Court of London enabled a 14-year-old terminally ill British girl to be cryogenically frozen. Individuals that choose for this option will have their bodies or brains conserved to temperatures reaching up to -196°C. The aim of this procedure is to wait until future medical and scientific advances will allow to bring them back to life. Through Hannah Arendt’s conception of the ‘human condition’, this essay by means of a threefold analysis will analyse whether cryogenics is a mean to escape, extend or destroy our human condition. This analysis raises several questions such as: What are the moral ethical dilemmas that this technique poses? Can the law encapsulate this phenomenon? What would happen if this (in)humane technique combines with our ever-expanding computed technology?
On November 18th, 2016, the High Court of London ruled in favor of a 14-year-old British girl affected from an incurable cancer, to be cryogenically frozen. The cryopreservation being the preservation of cell and tissues by freezing is a well-known process in medicine. Seen with fertility treatments, where sperm and embryos are preserved, cryonics is arguably taking cryopreservation to its extreme. More than one thousand people have made legal and financial arrangements to enable either their full body or brains to be cryopreserved after their death. The process of ice-free cryopreservation so-called vitrification permits cell-tissues to be cooled down to -120°C to physically vitrify organs until further medical and scientific advancements are made, to allow the brain and the body to come back to life1See Alcor (n.d.). About Cryonics. Retrieved from http://www.alcor.org/AboutCryonics/index.html. A commercial cryonics organisations based in the United States2Alcor is one of the biggest cryonics company, the other one is based in Russia attached to the British teenage girl’s case, a cost relative to the level of research needed to cure her cancer. Alcor charged an amount equating to nearly 43,000 euros, ten times as much as an average funeral. In a press release stemming from this case, the company affirmed that there was no guarantee that any cryonics patients would be revived in the future, although declaring with “confidence that the probability of success is greater than zero”3See Alcor (2016). Who Decides What We Can Do With Our Body (And Brain)? Retrieved from http://www.alcor.org/Statement-on-Cryonics.pdf.
While scientific theory underlying cryonics is controversial due to its speculative nature, there remains considerable debate about its moral and ethical implications4JS and M and F. Case No: FD16P00526  EWHC 2859 (Fam). HIGH COURT OF LONDON JUSTICE FAMILY DIVISION. 10 Nov. 2016. Retrieved from https://www.judiciary. gov.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/js-judgment-20161118.pdf. For those companies, who attach to the unmeasurable value of life, the laws of the market, the process of life can be stopped and restarted if cell tissues and chemistry are well preserved. From an Arendtian perspective, one cannot but wonder, is the process of cryonics enabling the escape or the extension of our human condition? By means of a threefold analysis, this essay will first determine that cryonics is a way to escape the human condition. Borrowing Nietzsche’s aphorism, man became with the evolution of biotechnologies, themeasure of his own existence. In a later stage, the process of cryonics will be observed through the lens of an extension of the human condition. With the means of technology, artificial biological developments became an ever-increasing measure to the environment of man. Finally, this essay will demonstrate that this powerful extension requires the introduction of the field of bioethics in combination with an appropriate legal-ethical system. From Habermas’ teachings, it will become clear that even if cryopreservation has a therapeutic nature, the expansion of our human nature might in turn, lead to itsdestruction.
CRYONICS AS A MEAN TO ESCAPE THE HUMAN CONDITION
Nietzsche questioned the values of Christianity, often related to what he terms the “European man”. In Human, All too Human, the neo liberal condition, which he described at the time as the “commerce and industry, interchange of books and letters, the universality of all higher culture, the rapid changing of locality and landscape” would necessarily weaken if not destroy, the idea of distinct nationalities. As a matter of fact, the opening of borders lead to a “perpetual crossings” which consequently triggered “a mixed race, that of the European man”5See Nietzsche, F. W. (1878). Human, All too Human: a book for free spirits. Section 475 : European Man and the Destruction of Nationalities. He then drew his famous aphorism, “Where has God gone?” he cried. “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. We are all his murderers.”6See Nietzsche, F. W., & Kaufmann, W. A (1882). The Gay Science: With a Prelude in Rhymes and an Appendix of Songs. Section 125: The Madman.
With the death of God, Nietzsche metaphorically highlights empirical evidenceofthe depreciation of religious values. Since men no longer believe in God, morality derived from religion is deprived of any metaphysical foundation. This lead to the upsurge of liberal values and exacerbated anthropocentrism. Consequently, the order of values shifted, transforming the veneration from God-man (Christ) to Man-god. The reversed centralization of the man was upheld by Plato in Laws, where he recalls the saying of Protagoras “not man – who because of his wants and talents wishes to use everything… but “the god as the measure even of mere use objects”7See Hannah, A. (1958). The human condition. New York, p 159..
Today, many researchers strive to make life “artificial”, thus cutting the last bond through which “man belongs among the children of nature”8As cited in Arendt (1958), p 2. The father of cryonics, Robert Ettinger progressively started in 1962 to research the idea of making life artificial, thereby shaping our human condition. For Arendt, it is in the uniqueness of the earth and our earthly nature that the “quintessence of the human condition” lies. For her, it provides human beings with a habitat in which movement and breathing can take place without effort nor artifice9Ibid.. Adversely, cryonics, as an artificial process in itself is a step towards escaping men’s imprisonment from earth, which breaks off if not – disrupts the cyclical nature of life.
Foreseen by Arendt seven years before research on cryonics were ever published, the escape from our human condition is manifest “in the desire to mix “frozen germ plasm from people … to produce superior human beings” and “to alter their size, shape and function”10As cited in Arendt (1958),p 2. The desire to improve individuals by creation lies within the hypothetical success of the cryonic science, which according to Professor Rostand would have the possibility to improve individuals “intelligence … , favor social behavior, kindness and devotion and the introduction of psychosurgery … would … raise the individual above himself”11As cited in Ettinger & Rostand (1965), pp143 ; see Rostand, J. (1959). “Can Man Be Modifed?” Saturday Evening Post.
The quest to expand men’s life-span beyond the hundred year-limit12As cited in Arendt (1958), p 2 is according to Ettinger “exactly man’s nature” as for him, it is in our nature “to go against nature”13As cited in Ettinger & Rostand (1965), p 79. For Arendt, this is a rebellion against human existence as it has been given by God or secularly speaking as a “free gift from nowhere, which he wishes to exchange, as it were, for something he has made himself”14As cited in Arendt (1958), p 3. This movement can, therefore, be analyzed through the reversal of values, where man became the “measure not only of his own life whose existence now depends upon him but of literally everything there is.”15As cited in Arendt (1958), p 158
In essence, this contains an intrinsically troubling aspect as it no longer simply considers that man must live his life fully without any religious ‘subterfuge’, far beyond this ideal, man is now able to escape from human condition through the evolution of biotechnologies, of which he is the sole man action. With cryonics, the individual breaks through philosopher’s milestone as he is able to give an artificial to a millenary quest: to kill death16See Taiar, M. (2016). L’avenir de la nature humaine : vers une « cryogénisation libérale » ? . Retrieved from http://jeanmoulinpost.com/lavenir-de-la-nature-humaine-vers-une-cryogenisation-liberale/. Similarly, he gives himself a ‘divine’ character, one that is capable to fight against the natural cyclical life, inherent to his existence.
CRYONICS AS AN EXTENSION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
We can easily imagine that the ethical debates surrounding biotechnologies and cryonics in particular, are not unanimous. The ethics (of the Greek ethikos “concerning morals, moral”) is the science of morality. Those debates lead to the creation of ‘bioethics’, a specific field which springs from a reflection on the impact of biological and genetic revolution on our human condition. During the Nuremberg trials, Nazis doctors were condemned for using deported and interned victims of the Holocaust as ‘guinea pigs’ for clinical trials. Those revelations rendered the creation of bioethics indispensable.
Bioethics raises the question of the moral responsibility of doctors and scientists in research and its applications. Rapid artificial biological developments enabled on the one hand, the combating of diseases and disabilities, while on the other hand, it opened new implications for the human condition17Archives de la XIème législature. (2000). Bioéthique : une approche historique Découvertes scientifques, évolutions de la société, travaux législatifs. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/11/dossiers/bioethique-2.asp. In the same vein, debates surrounding motherhood, in particular surrogacy confronts us with the realities of the globalization process. For Julia Kristeva, the womb becomes part of the neo-liberal condition as babies are not only biologically tailor-made but similarly to cryonics, an unmeasurable value of life is commercially attached to them.
An industry of profitable exploitation opens up, consequently leading to the de-politicization of the private life into the public realm. Alike cryonics, it is the merge of the private in to the public which raises complaints about the perversion of ends and means in modern society. From an Arendtian sense, “men become the servants of the machines they themselves invented”18As cited in Arendt (1958), p 145. Since the human condition is attached to everything that is conditionally given or man-made, man then immediately becomes a condition of his further existence. This implies that “man ‘adjusted’ himself to an environment of machines the moment he designed them”19As cited in Arendt (1958), p 147. From this, a system of enslaved interdependence emerges.
Going back to ancient Greece, being enslavedwas an inherent facet of our human conditionas one can only gain his freedom through the domination of those whom they subject by force20See Arendt (1958), pp 83-84.
While for Arendt the homo faber is the lord and master not only the “whole earth” but also of himself and doings, this is neither true for animal laborans, who remains the servant of nature and the earth21As cited in Arendt (1958), p 139, nor the man of action, who remains “in dependence of his fellow man”22As cited in Arendt (1958), p 144. With the process of cryonics, the dead man of action remains dependent on the know-how of his fellow homo faber, who in turn, became enslaved by machines.
Yet, for this political theorist the question revolving around the evolution of technology is not one of a binary nature: “it is not so much whether we are the masters or the slaves of our machines, but whether our machines still serve the world and its things, or if, on the contrary they and the automatic motion of their processes have begun to rule and even destroy world and things”23As cited in Arendt (1958), p 151. From this perspective, the cycle of nature resembles that of technology as both make their presence felt in the man-made world through the“constant threat of overgrowing or decaying it”24As cited in Arendt (1958), p 98.
Alike Arendt, for Robert Ettinger the idea of homo faber as the master of nature becomes void with the impact of artificial biological developments. For him, the process of cryonics implicitly views the modern man not as the “acme of development” but solely as “a rung on the evolutionary ladder”25As cited in Ettinger & Rostand (1965), p 77. While technology enabled the enlargement of material power, biological and bioengineering techniques allows for the development of mankind. For Arendt, the “innate structure of the human organisms are transplanted in an ever-increasing measure into environment of man”26See Arendt (1958), pp153 ; Heisenberg (1995), pp 14-15. With such a process, the evolutionary ladder of mankind will keep on increasing and man who has already “evolved from lower forms of life, … will continue to ascend, through those artificial techniques , both racially and individually”27As cited in Ettinger & Rostand (1965), p 77.
CRYONICS AS THE DESTRUCTION OF THE HUMAN CONDITION
The process of extending our human condition is a complex phenomenon and requires the implementation of a legal-ethical system. In the 19th century, the French legal system allowed everyone to organize his own funeral as he wished, although a precise framework had been established: only incineration and burial were permitted28Loi sur la liberté des funérailles, 15 November 1887. In The Future of Human Nature, Jürgen Habermas reasons that not all manipulation of our human condition are to be allowed. He does consider that morality and metaphysical considerations should no longer challenge the legitimacy of technical extension as he admits that an evolution of biotechnology in the modern age is adequate. Yet, he does highlight the importance of framing these developments by means of a legal system that encompasses ethics.
In the French legal system, some key principles guide the domain of bioethics: the right to respect for life, the preservation of human dignity and individual and social responsibility29Archives de la XIème législature. (2000). Bioéthique : une approche historique Découvertes scientifiques, évolutions de la société, travaux législatifs. Retrieved May 25, 2017, from http://www.assemblee-nationale.fr/11/dossiers/bioethique-2.asp. Those principles are inherent aspects of Habermas’ philosophy. For him, the absolute value of each human being prevents any form of interference in the lives of others. The changes must therefore be decided according to “objective criteria” and must not be “comfort” modifications30See Harbermas (2003). While in his book, Habermas refers to specific issues suchas the procedure of pre-implementation genetic diagnosis (PGD), which provides a diagnosis of embryos with a genetic defect brought about by artificial fertilization31As cited in Habermas (2005), p 232, the case of cryogenics differs.
With the process of cryonics, we assist to post-mortem modification of our human nature, which could arguably be considered as therapeutic as the objective is to wait for the discovery of new treatments. Pursuing on this line of thought, it is this therapeutic aspect which can be retrieved fromAmerican laws. An individual has the right in almost fifty states, to freely choose cryonic suspension, as anatomical gifts are legal for medical and research proposes32Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act 2006. By allowing cryonics companies to operate on its territory, the United States is allowing according to Habermas for the manipulation of our human nature “arbitrarily according to subjective preferences whose satisfaction depends on the market”33As cited in Harbermas (2003), p 12.
Yet for Arendt, technology, which allows for “the transformation of life and world through the introduction of the machine has strangely led astray through an all-too-exclusive concentration upon service or disservice the machines render to men”34As cited in Arendt (1958), p 151. From this perspective, the cryopreservation of the body and the cryonic preservation of the brain might in turn create a disservice to men. Following one of the hypothetical experiments of Robert Ettinger, if by means of “supersurgical techniques” the brains from the skulls of two men are lifted and we interchange them, then person X who puts a mask resembling Y, remains in essenceX. If this ‘mask’ is of living flesh and extends to the whole body, the conclusion would remain the same35As cited in Ettinger & Rostand (1965), p 127. The ‘assemblage’ of X’s brain in Y’s body will probably lead X to identify as himself, however, since personality depends heavily on the environment and the body, this experiment becomes non-trivial36Ibid..
Since our vision of the body is rooted in the connection of our mind, the body of Y will only serve as a ‘host’ for X. In a Kierkegaardian conception, it will be therefore difficult for person X to access the ‘power of being one-self’ (le pouvoir d’être soi-même). This conception requires that the individual appropriates his past (his experience and his memories) by self-criticism in order to be able to reflect upon it in the future. With the process of cryonics, the question of identity andself is attached to no certainty. As seen with the non-triviality of the aforementioned experiment, there is no reasonable degree of probability that we will be able to reactivate memories and past experiences – essential when it comes to the shaping of our personality. With the process of cryonics, Descartes’s principle of cogito ergo sum (« I think therefore I am ») becomes double-edged as brain activity constructs the personality of oneself and this ability is not only found within the possibility of thinking about the past, but also used to think about oneself in the future.
Currently, the potential artificial extension of our human condition attaches two utopian beliefs, the first one being the ability to resuscitate an individual and the second being to cure his un-curable disease. Taking into account the number of years before technological developments will be able to bring humans back to life, their past will surely no longer be applicable to the present and a fortriori, it will remain a major challenge for him to acquire a correct understanding of himself. From an Arendtian lens, a cryopreserved individual might not be able to enter nor fit the social realm. Consequently, this might result in the individual being further alienated from his own situation, thereby creating serious psychological disorders. Linking it back to the teachings of Jürgen Habermas, they seem to oppose this scientific technique not in terms of its therapeutic aspect, but rather in terms of its philosophical and psychological dimension.
From an Epicurean perspective, the unacknowledged fear of death is the primary cause of anxiety amongst human beings, which deeply roots extreme if not irrational desires. Cryopreservation being a technical prowess is thus the mere reflection of an irrational human ideal: to live in an infinite way, in a world yet finite. Until science realizes this ideal, it can be said that the process of cryonics enables man to escape from their human condition by extending it. The evolution of biotechnologies is stretching our human nature to the extremity of the cyclical nature of life. With cryopreservation, man can measure his own life, whose existence depends upon him. Cryonics, merging both, the biological process in man and the natural process of growth and decay in the world, enables man to become part of the cyclical movement of nature37See Arendt (1998), p 98. By extending the innate structure of human biology, man develops into an ever-increasing measure of its own environment. Yet, by analyzing the process of cryonics as the moment where the man of thought and the man of action begin to take different paths, another scenario emerges.
Since action and speech reveals the plurality of our unique distinctness, if the cryopreservation of the brain does not follow that of the body, then speech and action will eventually not follow the same route, leading to death of the human life as it is no longer lived among men38See Arendt (1998), pp 177-178. The potential death of our human condition is further observed in the solution to map the brain of the individuals being cryopreserved on a computer. Consequently, this would lead to the re-creation of one-self whose personality, identity and mind are reduced to being mere computed data and information. This would lead us to hypothetically assist to a reversal of values comparable to that of religion in which man becomes trapped into an endlessly repetitive cycle, whose measure is capsulized by technology. While the process of cryonics started as a demonstration of power against the cyclical nature of life, it could quickly transform into an [in]human form of violence dictated by the invisible force of technology.