I like my head, and I like even better that it is attached to my body. Despite the title of this post, I have no plans to have my head cut off, frozen, and kept in a jar. But to a certain extent, I can respect the decision of those who do follow this decapitative path (pardon the neologism). This might seem like science fiction; but as of May 2015, 86 people were being kept in neurocryopreservation at a facility in Scottsdale, Arizona. In other words, these 86 people have had their head removed (after clinical death), cryogenically frozen, and kept in preservation. At Alcor Life Extension Foundation, $200,000 can purchase whole-body cryopreservation, while $80,000 gets you neurocryopreservation (i.e. just the head). Alcor currently has over a thousand members registered to receive cryopreservation at their (clinical) death. The basic idea behind all of this is that technology will eventually advance to such an extent that those kept preserved – so-called ‘cryonauts’ – will be able to be revived and to continue living their life. Cryonics companies – Alcor being one among several others – suggest two principal technologies that might one day restore life to those in suspension: mind-uploading, the first possible method, involves reproducing a brain’s neural pathways in computer hardware and software in order to wake the mind up again; the second possible method involves scanning the brain and rebuilding it along with a body. If these technologies are developed, losing one’s head literally need not imply losing it figuratively.
Some might level the following objections against this practice: (1) it involves a naïve faith in technology; (2) the conception of personal identity underlying these proposed technologies may be philosophically suspect; (3) it reflects a kind of Gnostic dualism in which the mind flees the evil of the body; and (4) it represents a transhumanism that endeavours to reshape and transcend human nature rather than finding flourishing in living in accord with our nature, including the limitations of that nature. I agree with all of these objections, but think that the impulse toward cryopreservation nevertheless reflects a deep truth about our existence: the human story is not meant to end with death. All of this technological struggle against death should further strengthen the conviction in us that death is not meant to be the last word for human beings – indeed, we yearn for immortality. Those who try to avoid thinking about death by endlessly distracting themselves from this question obscure this truth much more than those who face it and decide to struggle against death through technology. Christians, too, should be mindful of death.
One of the great traditions to emerge from Medieval Christendom was the memento mori, the practice of reflecting on one’s death so as to develop virtue and hope in the salvific work of God. The memento mori reminds us that, as in the Book of Ecclesiastes, everything done under the sun is but vanity and a chasing after the wind. On Ash Wednesday, many Christians receive the imposition of ashes accompanied by the reminder that we are but dust and that to dust we shall return. Properly reflecting on our death this way helps us to cultivate the art of dying well, by which we avoid despair at the end of our life and humbly trust in Christ’s redemptive love, a love that encompasses the end of pain and the wiping away of every tear in a renewed eternal existence. The purpose of the memento mori, then, is to lead us to an ever deeper faith in God. One famous memento mori is that of a skull on a desk (pictured above right). One could also imagine a frozen head in a container, a reminder that we should ultimately trust God and not our own technological mastery of the world, but also a reminder that death is not meant to be the end of our story.
Elliot Rossiter is a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies at Concordia University of Edmonton. He earned a PhD in Philosophy in 2014 from the University of Western Ontario; the subject of this dissertation concerned John Locke’s view of the moral and physical laws of nature. He has a new-found love of the Rocky Mountains and enjoys cycling, watching sunsets, and popping the perfect pot of popcorn. He and his wife Sarah are members of St Joseph’s Roman Catholic Basilica in Edmonton, Alberta.