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More On Religion And Cryonics

He says it's not--it's philosophy, but I don't know how you can make authoritative statements about souls and think that it's not a religious discussion.

Blogger "Mark" (no idea what the last name is), deigns to educate us on why cryonics won't work. We are appropriately grateful.

Most, if not all, of the above links, however, make a fundamental mistake in philosophical anthropology by treating the human being dualistically. Cryonics assumes that after death the body that was a human being is still a human being in some way. Cryonics then assumes that there eventually will be a technique of some kind, a Frankensteinian spark that will bring the corpse back to life.

This is a nice set of strawmen.

In fact, cryonicists assume nothing of the kind. First of all, cryonicists don't accept that a body that's been properly suspended is dead at all, so the Frankenstein comment (a nice little pejorative phrase, that) is inapplicable.

The best response to this silliness, this tendency toward conceiving of the human being as body and soul, whether it be Platonic or Cartesian or any other variation of dualism, is found in the philosophical tradition that started with Aristotle and culminated in Aquinas.

And the best response to this silliness is a) cryonicists don't necessarily believe in dualism--in fact, just the opposite, and b) none of those philosophers are infallible, even assuming that they believe what the author claims that they do.

But even though they probably have no relevance to cryonics, let's see where he's going with this, at least for entertainment.

In this tradition, a human being is not a body with a soul in it, a kind of ghost in a machine. A human being is not the soul itself, a sort of spirit merely using a body. And a human being is not simply a body, a mechanical, purely material entity. But knowing what it isn?t doesn?t move us much toward understanding human nature. So what then is the nature of the human being? To understand the approach of Aristotle and Aquinas you first need to understand the principles of ?matter? and ?form.?

In his treatise On The Soul, though you?ll find the idea in many other places, Aristotle explains that the everyday things we encounter, rocks, plants, animals and the like are all composed by two principles: a material principle or principle of potency, and a formal principle or principle of act. In other words, everything we encounter in our daily lives (with the exception of things like heavenly bodies for which Aristotle had a different theory) is composed of matter, the principle of potency, potential to be some kind of thing, and form, the principle of actuality, actually being a particular kind of thing, e.g. a granite rock, a geranium, or a gazelle. The matter is only the potential of a thing to be ?this particular thing?; matter does not exist by itself (this sounds strange if you don?t keep the fact that matter is a principle of potency in mind). The form is the act by which a thing is ?this particular kind of thing?; and again, with an exception we?ll see shortly, the form does not exist by itself. It is only in a composite of matter and form that ?this particular thing? exists. The composite of matter and form produces a thing which we can point to and say ?this? thing.

This potency-act, matter-form approach was the brilliant solution Aristotle proposed to escape the many cul-de-sacs of early philosophical thought. What?s important in the cryogenic discussion is the fact that a living thing is a composite of matter and form where the form is a ?soul,? a principle of life. When the composite is sundered at death there is what Aristotle called a ?substantial change? that occurs. Just as wood burns to ash, so a living thing when it dies, when the composite of matter and form that made it not only a certain kind of thing but ?this particular thing? no longer exists, there is an immediate change and the form ceases to exist (with one exception that we?ll soon see). The death of a living thing is a complete and irreversible change because the destruction of the composite is the destruction of its principle of act, its form or ?soul.?

So Mark claims to be able to define and detect the exact moment at which a body goes from living to dead. He claims that this is an objectively verifiable instantaneous change in state. If so, he should write up a description of exactly how to measure this, so we can come up with better means of legally declaring folks dead, instead of the ambiguous and arbitrary techniques that we have today. This is a legal and medical breakthrough.

The reality, of course, is that there is no point in general at which a body passes from a live state to a dead one, except in the case of information death (e.g., being incinerated instantaneously, or smashed into a flattened unrecognizable pulp). Simple death by natural causes, or even violent wounds, if the violence isn't to the brain, is a gradual process, not a distinct binary one.

Cryonicists accept that the victim of an information death is truly dead, and there's no point in trying to preserve the remains. However, in most cases, most of the information that constitutes the person remains, and the sooner he or she can be preserved, the more of that information will persist to allow reanimation later. Such a person is not, however, dead.

While a dead body may look like an organic whole, an entity with a single principle organizing it, the truth is that a dead body is a complex of organs and compounds that are themselves undergoing substantial change to less organized elements. Cryonics assumes that after death the ?form? of the body, its organizing principle, remains. But this is not the case. And that?s because the ?form? of a human being is a principle of life, the soul, and when a human being is no longer alive, when the soul no longer ?informs? the human being, the being is no longer human. What made the being human is also what made the human living. You can?t be a human being and not be alive; you can?t be dead and be a human being.

Can our philospher tell us wherein this "soul" resides? Can he show us what instrument we can use to detect its presence or absence, and so determine whether the body is alive or dead?


He simply uses tautological arguments. And again, since the body that he's describing is not dead, simply in suspension, his equating life with humanity and death with non-humanity is meaningless.

I?ve mentioned that there?s an exception to the fact that when a composite being with principles of matter and form ceases to exist, when a living thing dies, the form ceases to be. For a living thing the form is a soul. So when a living thing dies its soul ceases to exist. The exception, which Aristotle likely didn?t grasp fully, but which is thoroughly worked through in Aquinas, is the human form or soul. Aquinas demonstrated that the human being?s fundamental constitution as a rational creature implied a principle of activity which per se did not require a body. In other words, a human being?s fundamental way of being, thinking, understanding, abstracting, occurred without bodily mechanisms. And since activity follows from existence (i.e. you can?t act if you don?t exist), an activity that does not require a body must derive from something that exists without requiring a body. The technical term for this is ?subsistence.? The human soul, unlike any other soul or principle of life (e.g. orange tree, oyster, orca), subsists even after the matter-form composite corrupts. Aquinas refers to the separated soul as an incorporeal subsistent thing with an incomplete nature (since its nature is to inform a human being in a matter-form composite).

You would think this would bolster the cryonics industry. After all, if the soul is still around isn?t there hope that it might again inform the human being? Well, no. The nature of the soul after death can only be known in sort of a negative way, by saying ?what it is not,? or by extrapolating what we observed when the soul was not separated, since an incorporeal subsistent thing is beyond our senses. But Aquinas suggests that the separated soul exists in a sort of twilight zone. It no longer has sensory input and consequently can only understand (it has to still ?do? something if it exists) in an imperfect way. Still, as an incorporeal subsisting thing it cannot be manipulated by us (nor can it be created by us, but that?s for another post). No matter how long you wait for the wonders of technology, there simply is no way for corporeal beings (that?s us) to influence incorporeal entities like separated souls. Science can?t create a human soul and science can?t cause a soul to again inform the human being it once did. It?s not that we don?t know how. It?s that we are barred metaphysically from doing so. The creation of a human soul would require the infinite power of the Creator since it would require creation of something from nothing. The causing of a separated soul to again inform the human being it once did would require the infinite power of the Creator because it would require the ability to move incorporeal substances.

This may all be true.

It may also be nonsense.

Since there's no scientific way to determine its validity, cryonicists assume that there is no such thing called a soul, or alternatively, that it will take care of itself or that God will take care of it as needed, but it's not necessary to be concerned with it in order to suspend and reanimate a person. Any other assumption would be both non-scientific and pointless, until we can come up with the soul detector requested above.

Never mind that the technology is primitive. That?s just a matter of time for cryonic proponents. But cryonics runs into several related fundamental problems of philosophical anthropology ?

1) death is a substantial change and thus irreversible

But since the cryonics patients haven't gone through that irreversible change, this argument is irrelevant

2) the human being is not present in an organ or in a corpse

This is a partial strawman, since cryonicists don't believe that the patient is a corpse. However, the first clause is wrong; the human being is present, for the most part, in the brain. At least that's the operating assumption. It may be wrong, but Mark certainly hasn't proven it to be so.

3) infusing life into a corpse again would require the ability to control an incorporeal subsistent principle (the human soul) which is not possible for corporeal beings in the land of the living

Since souls are irrelevant to the discussion, and the cryonics patient is not a corpse, this is another strawman.

So, sad as it may seem to some, Walt Disney won?t be watching Teddy Ballgame put the wood on the ol? apple anytime in the future.

Even sadder, Walt Disney was never frozen. This is an urban myth.

Not unlike much of the rest of the posting.

[Update at 9:10 PM PDT]

One more comment. I've never before read the words "philosophical anthropology" in conjunction with each other. I think that he's just making it up, and blowing smoke. This post of "Mark's" is an excellent example of the old aphorism "a little knowledge is a dangerous thing."

This is a blog that will definitely not go on my link list.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 22, 2002 04:47 PM
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Aquinas wasn't much of a philosopher, unless you consider Catholic apologism a philosophy. (He died in 1274, which should tell you something about the time period in which he was philosophizing.) Aristotle wasn't particularly enlightened either; nowadays we would consider many of his beliefs to be supersition. Both Aquinas and Aristotle are, to an extent, anachronistic in this day and age, just like Mark's line of thought.

Posted by Eli at July 23, 2002 07:45 AM

I'm sure we're all very grateful to Markdb for steering us away from fallacious dualism to the truth of (wait for it) dualism. 1=3, but 2!=2.

Posted by Anton Sherwood at July 23, 2002 09:19 AM

Until somebody can demonstrate when the soul leaves the body (which means first demonstrating the existence of the soul in the first place) I can't see much merit in a theological opposition to cryonics.

Posted by Stephen Skubinna at July 23, 2002 02:26 PM

Excellent! I get to take on Mark again, assuming it's the same Mark. I feel sorry for Mark. I mean he obviously poured so much of his... ummm, (soul?) into this huge treatise and it's all based on proven false ancient malarkey! Mark should get with the 21st century but he should take a detour at the 19th century when the whole issue of dualism and souls was first put to rest. Medical science then was shocked and amazed when instead of dying, from the spike run through his frontal lobe, Phineas Gage actually lived. However, he had suffered a huge change in personality. Had his non corporeal soul been effected by the injury?

How could this be they wondered! How could an intangible be influenced by the tangible? Wasn't the soul separate from the body and didn't it instead control the body--not the other way round? Think of the theological implications! You could make a good person evil by mere head injury that was no premeditated fault of their own! You could consign masses to hell that otherwise were innocent! What was God to do? How could he have left such a gap in the ontological and teleological arguments? In truth, for the first time they had a hint that the mind was corporeal and the myth of the soul was just that mere myth.

Fast forward to the 20th century and we find that people once considered dead are routinely broughtback to life after a few minutes in the "dead" state of being. Wow! Their souls didn't leave them, how strange! It gets worse when later in the century people dead for up to an hour are brought back to life after suffering cold water drowning. MAJOR CLUE HERE!! The cold protected the MEAT of the brain from degradation so obviously the "who" a person is, is involved in the 'corporeal' MEAT and not some intangible mythical spirit.

Now in the 21st century people are routinely purposefully brought to hypothermic temperatures where their blood is drained and their brains made flatline and obviously no pulse, in other words they are dead by any legal or superstitious definition, and after bloodless surgery to cranium or heart just as routinely brought back to life, the spark of life activating itself at a certain temperature. While in the "dead" state for so long why does their soul not leave? CLUE!! There is no such thing as a non corporeal soul. Read Le Doux's "Synaptic Self".

Posted by James Swayze at July 23, 2002 02:59 PM

Rand, You're a very smart guy and you know the science of this far better than I do, but I have two thoughts.

There is a point when dead is dead. We may not know when that point is, but the point is there. I have heard nothing that leads me to believe that past this point, a body can be revived. Freezing may greatly retard physical breakdown, but it doesn't stop it, and at some point in time - that guy is dead.

Regarding Mark: he is a theologist and his argument is from a theological viewpoint. You can't argue science (though I believe the science of this matter is rather specious) with a theologist and expect any connect whatsoever. Your assumptions are just too different, which you acknowledge along the way.

Posted by Eric Olsen at July 23, 2002 07:55 PM


There is indeed a point where dead is dead, and cryonicists recognize this as well. The difference is that they don't consider such trivial things as lack of breathing, or hearts stopping, or even flat-line EEGs as being that point, because people have been revived from those states. So since we don't know where that point is, because it's based on a certain knowledge base and technology level, they simply want to give anyone who seems to be non-functional by current standards the benefit of the doubt. This seems, to me, to be the (literally) conservative position...

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 23, 2002 08:38 PM

Even assuming that someday it may be possible to revive cryonically frozen bodies, what makes us think that anyone will want to? Most are quite aged and the process of cryonics, itself, creates a fair amount of damage. Absent some magical elixir that reverses the aging process, there wouldn't be much point.

Cryonics appears to be a gimic for extracting money from those who have never come to terms with their own mortality, but who don't believe in an afterlife.

Me? I'm with Mike Royko. When I die, put me in a Hefty bag and call for a special pick-up. If there is an afterlife, the state of my physical body won't matter. If there isn't, it won't matter either.

I'd rather the resources, that would otherwise be spent on cryonics (or a funeral and burial), were spent on the living.

Posted by Bruce Rheinstein at July 24, 2002 05:38 AM

It is assumed that any technology that can repair the extensive damage caused by freezing can repair anything, so reanimated patients would presumably be restored to youthful vigor. It's not an unreasonable assumption.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 24, 2002 08:18 AM


Re your update, sorry I won?t be making your link list. Actually, I?ll probably add your blog to my list when I next update my template. I think my readers would enjoy many of your posts and I?m always trying to widen the spectrum of ideas I link to. Also, I just ran ?philosophical anthropology? through Google and got 5170 results ? and they?re not all from Minute Particulars. Finally, the ?old aphorism? you mentioned reminded me of Pope?s:

"A little Learning is a dang'rous Thing;
Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian Spring:
There shallow Draughts intoxicate the Brain,
And drinking largely sobers us again."

In the spirit of ?drinking largely? I hope to post again on cryonics soon ? I?d like to respond to some of your excellent points but I don?t want to simply restate my earlier post.

Posted by Mark at July 25, 2002 11:19 AM

That's fine, and I'll give you a second chance. But if you're going to argue about cryonics and persuade cryonicists (and rational thinkers and materialists in general), you're going to have to argue in terms that they accept.

Souls are not relevant to the discussion (and they really are religion, not philosophy), because many don't believe in them, and until you can come up with actual proof for them and some way to objectively measure their presence or absence, they have no utility in determining whether someone is dead or alive.

Posted by Rand Simberg at July 25, 2002 11:41 AM

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