Frozen souls: Hooked on cryonics

Religion is nowhere to be found in a fascinating New York Times Magazine article titled "Until Cryonics Do Us Part."

On second thought, religion is everywhere in this compelling, 2,900-word account of the marital stress created when a husband decides, "Hey, when I die, freeze my brain so I can live again if science figures out how to resurrect me."

Ostensibly, this story features two non-religious people. There is the wife, Peggy, a hospice worker. There is the husband, Robin, an economics professor.

The piece characterizes Peggy this way:

Peggy describes herself as not religious and "definitely not a Christian," though she lacks Robin's surety that nothing lives on when the body dies. Her line of work has left her focused on managing the last days of life, partly by encouraging her charges to stop fixating on medicine. Families come from hospital to hospice obsessed with numbers: blood count, blood pressure, heart rate. "Look at his face," she counsels. "Does he look comfortable? It's very common-sensical, but it takes a lot of work to get people to let go of the hospital stuff."

(Just imagine the politically correct Times including a phrase such as "definitely not a Muslim" or "definitely not a Jew" in a story. I think some editor might have argued that "not religious" pretty much eliminates any organized faith group. But I digress.)

The article paints this picture of Robin:

Robin is the kind of nerd who is very excited about the future, an orientation evident on his C.V., which lists published articles like "Economic Growth Given Machine Intelligence" (on why robots will give us growth rates "an order of magnitude" higher than we've currently got), "Burning the Cosmic Commons: Evolutionary Strategies of Interstellar Colonization" (on what behaviors we can expect from extraterrestrials) and "Drift-Diffusion in Mangled Worlds Quantum Mechanics" (it's very complicated). His enthusiasm is evident in the way he talks about these ideas, hands in the air, laughing amiably every time he brings up the distance between his own theories and those of the mainstream. If he is in a chair, the chair is moving with him.

Yet, just below the surface, this really seems to be a story about religion. The Church of Cryonics, if you will. You've got faithful adherents mildly confident that, after their last breaths, preservation of their brains will lead to life after death. You've got non-believing spouses -- generally wives -- raising concerns about their partners' beliefs.

What's that force threatening marriages? It certainly appears to be interfaith conflict.

The story itself grasps the religious symbolism, but not the religion angle:

Of the nonreligious white males who predominate in the ranks of cryonicists, many are software engineers, a calling that puts great faith in the primacy of information. "If you have a hard drive on a computer with a lot of information that is important to you, you save it," says J.S., a 39-year-old cryonicist and software engineer who lives in Oregon and who will not allow his full name to be used out of fear that his wife would divorce him. "You wouldn't just throw it into a fire. It's clear to me that memories are stored as molecular arrangements. I'm just trying to preserve the memories."

Near the end of the article, there is this:

It has not escaped the members of the often sappily life-affirming cryonics community that their practice, so often thought to be the province of either misfit loners or rugged individualists, involves great faith in the competent benevolence of other people. Nor is Robin Hanson blind to the extent to which he depends on his tribe. Marriage, despite its lack of clean edges and predictable outcomes, is one of the few institutions he seems to have no interest in reforming. Peggy describes their conflict as akin to a deep religious difference, bridgeable by some core shared belief. "Robin and I have been together for 28 years," Peggy says. "We've always loved spending time together. He is an excellent father. He devotes an enormous amount of time and energy to family life. And that has to be there."

Despite those passages, this is a story about faith that neglects to deal with that fact.

In other words, this story is haunted. Thus, we get no exploration of the main characters' religious backgrounds (except for the red-flag-raising "definitely not a Christian" reference). In a story about life, death and faith, such details matter. Regrettably, they're ignored -- victims of a mistaken notion that this is a story about non-religious people.

It's not that gigantic a stretch to suggest that this piece is as much about theology as science. The article -- otherwise remarkable -- suffers for its failure to recognize that.

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