Thursday, 24 November 2016

** FATHER FRANK’S RANTS Rant Number 703 21 November 16 CRYONICS AND HOPE


‘I want my body preserved in liquid nitrogen. I’ll then wake up in a hundred years and enjoy life again.’ Thanks to the cryonics technique, a British girl dying of cancer has achieved the first wish but…what about the second? Waking up as the same person she was before she died?

Plato and Aristotle help. For Aristotle soul and body are one. To have a soul is nothing over and above having a body. A living body whose parts are organised, formed in a certain way. Providing future scientists can unfreeze the teenager’s body (corpse?), thaw the brain without damaging the cells, cure her illness and restore her memories, feelings and sense of identity as a rational being, Aristotle would say that she has survived bodily death and is alive again – as the same person.

Plato’s buzzword is dualism. A person is not a unity but a duality. There is a physical part, the body, and a non-physical, spiritual, essential part – the soul. And the soul is the real person. For Plato the body is the soul’s tomb. Death is liberation from matter, the shackles of the body, and release into a higher realm, the soul’s true home. On this view it matters little whether the girl’s body survives death – the key is whether her soul does.

Our secular and ungodly culture, however, dislikes the old-fashioned word ‘soul’. It prefers ‘mind’ or ‘consciousness’. Still, you can reformulate the problem thus: will the ‘awaken’ girl be conscious of herself as the same person as before? Have the same sense of self? As she opens her eyes, will she feel like someone waking from a long, long sleep: ‘Oh, hello! That’s me! Nice to be back! What's Britain like now? I am so curious!’ On a dualist account of personal identity, that is not logically impossible. How human consciousness could survive intact a temperature -196C seems a little tricky but…not so if it is mental, not physical stuff.

Think of Washington Irving's beguiling tale ‘Rip Van Winkle’. Rip is a rustic fellow living by the Catskill Mountains in the pre-revolution American colonies. Rambling far into the wilds, he meets some strange, gnome-like characters having a drinking party. After quaffing a flagon of agreeable liquor, Rip falls sounds asleep. When he wakes up, he notices peculiar changes about. As he gets back to his village…it’s a new world! His house, his old friends have gone, along with King George III. America is now a republic. They first take him for a spy but gradually the truth dawns: he has dozed off for 20 years!

Rip quickly adjusts, is received by his daughter and is happy again. What about the teenage girl? A hundred, two hundred years before she can be reanimated and cured would wreak great, weirder changes in society. (Try your imagination. Can you do it?) The shock might overwhelm her. Who would care for her? How would she get a job, be educated, survive? She may be treated as a freak. The alienation might be too much. She may well yearn to be back into the nitrogen tank. For good.

Back to dualism. Difficulty doctrine. After Descartes, dualists are unfashionable. Descartes held that soul and body were two radically different substances but he could never explain how, if so, they could interact. Today few philosophers and even fewer scientists believe in a disembodied consciousness. Self-awareness is necessarily in the brain and that’s all. Er…although Professor Richard Swinburne disagrees. In learned papers he argues for the mind being an immaterial thing, totally distinct from the body. How precisely the deceased’s mind might then later be connected with a new body, he doesn’t say. Maybe some hitherto undiscovered software will be devised, so that a living person’s memories could be read off from the brain and stored as a program, a set of instructions? Later fed into special hardware, i.e. an indestructible silicon body? (Remember Robocop?)That would ensure not just temporary survival but immortality – wow!

That egregious organ of infidelity, The Times, writes that cryonics, with all its difficulties (and expenses), offers people hope. Hope, eh? Hope is deeply engrained in human nature and it should not be despised. But the Scriptures tell of two types of hope, human and divine. Human hope can be flimsy. From winning the lottery to meeting the dreamt-of female who will change your life. And there are also wicked hopes. The Acts of the Apostles mention evil men who exploited a demon-possessed slave girl. After St Paul had cast out the demon from her, the owners’ perverse hope of gain was foiled (16: 16-18).

Christian, divine hope is unlike that. It is rooted in God’s intervention, in the miracle of Christ’s Resurrection. And in the presence of the Lord in people’s life. Did anyone in her family, school and friends ever teach the teenager the Christian hope? A hope not relying on fanciful technological wizardly but on the omnipotent power of the Creator of the universe? Of that true, supernatural hope that alone can bring the dead back to life?

‘I am only 14 years old and I don’t want to die, but I know that I am going to…I want to live and live longer…in the future they might find a cure and wake me up’. So the girl hoped. But was it really hope or rather despair?

Revd Frank Julian Gelli


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