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The Big Chill: When Cryonics Divides a Marriage

July 12, 2010, 1:32 PM
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Did you hear the one about the cryonics enthusiast who married the hospice worker? It sounds like the setup for a dark joke, but that's exactly what Robin Hanson and Peggy Jackson did 28 years ago. Robin, a professor of economics at George Mason University, is preparing to have his brain frozen in anticipation of eternal life in the great "futurocracy" yet to come. This is more than a little frustrating for Peggy, who spends her days coaxing patients to accept the inevitability of death.

The author of the article, Kerry Howley, reports that this relationship dynamic is so common that the cryonics subculture has even got a name for it, the "hostile wife phenomenon."

It's a bittersweet story. Robin and Peggy seem very much in love. Yet Robin is spending huge sums of money to prepare for an eternal life without her:

“Cryonics,” Robin says, “has the problem of looking like you’re buying a one-way ticket to a foreign land.” To spend a family fortune in the quest to defeat cancer is not taken, in the American context, to be an act of selfishness. But to plan to be rocketed into the future — a future your family either has no interest in seeing, or believes we’ll never see anyway — is to begin to plot a life in which your current relationships have little meaning. Those who seek immortality are plotting an act of leaving, an act, as Robin puts it, “of betrayal and abandonment.” [NYT]

Peggy insists on separate bank accounts so that she doesn't have to see Robin's yearly dues to the cryonics facility.

Maybe it wouldn't be so bad if cryonics were like organ donation, where you could check a box and forget about it. Unfortunately for cryonic refusniks like Peggy, the movement seems to consume a lot of the enthusiast's time and resources in the here and now.

Cryonics buffs may be asking a lot of their spouses, as well. It's a big commitment for the surviving spouse to shepherd the deceased through the freezing process. Suffice it to say that it's much, much more involved than calling the funeral home and picking out a casket. Peggy has sensibly washed her hands of the whole matter, thereby further decreasing the likelihood that Robin will live forever. I couldn't bear to say "no" if my partner asked me, but I'd also really, really resent it. Who wants to deal with the brain-removal technician when you're mourning the love of your life?

The cryo crowd insists that they're making the only rational choice, considering that the options are "certain death" or the remote possibility of eternal life. That all depends on how much it costs right now and how likely the payoff is. Even cryonics buffs will admit that the likelihood of the payoff is very small, but they insist that the price is low enough to justify the wager. "The hostile wife phenomenon" suggests that the price could be a lot higher than most cryonics enthusiasts account for in their calculations.

I imagine it would be excruciating for a non-believer to live with someone who was constantly gloating with his cronies about how great life was going to be in the imagined distant future, without you. Atheists married to evangelical Christians probably experience similar frustrations. Some people probably just shrug off the difference of opinion. I think I'd feel deeply alienated from someone who charted his future on a totally different time scale. Knowing that you're going to die that makes every day you choose to spend with someone that much more of an investment. What's it like to be with someone who thinks they've got all the time in the world?

Cryonics is a secular act of faith that's scarcely more plausible than the belief in supernatural salvation. Howley does a good job of explaining the logistical challenges of cryonics--from being able to whisk the body out of the hospital in time to perfuse it, to transporting it to Arizona, to making sure that someone keeps topping up the liquid nitrogen for thousands? (tens of thousands?) of years.

The cryonics enthusiasts are making a version of Pascal's Wager: It only costs you a little bit to believe in God, and if you believe you might go to heaven, whereas if you don't believe you're damned to hell. So, it's rational to believe. The rejoinder is that we can't be sure if that's the deal on offer. Maybe if we pick the wrong God, we'll be damned. Maybe God actually rewards skeptics and punishes believers. Who knows? By the same token, we have no idea whether cryonic reanimation means eternal bliss or eternal torment, or most likely, a lot of money wasted for nothing.

The cryonics enterprise is based on extremely dubious precepts, including the hope that reanimation technology will ever be discovered and the supposition that anyone will be interested in reviving the brains of long-dead nobodies when the time comes. I've seen enough zombie movies to wonder if communities of the future will welcome the living dead with open arms. Could guys like Robin handle being reanimated as members of a despised minority? To bad I won't be there to find out.

[Photo credit: By flickr user Ant Smith, licensed under Creative Commons.]

Many thanks to Amanda Marcotte of Pandagon for sending me the link. Update: Here's Amanda's take on cryonics for the lovelorn at Double X.

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The Big Chill: When Cryonic...

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