"We are such stuff as dreams are made on." Shakespeare, The Tempest

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Realive

In 2016, Robert McIntyre, a graduate of MIT, became the first person to freeze and then revive a mammalian brain—that of a white rabbit. “When thawed, the rabbit’s brain was found to have all of its synapse, cell membranes, and intracellular structures intact.”[1] The film, Realive, made that same year, is a fictional story about a man with terminal cancer who commits suicide to be frozen and revived when his illness could be cured. In the context of McIntyre’s scientific work, the film’s sci-fi demeanor belies the very real possibility that cryogenics could realistically alter fundamental assumptions about life and death even just later in the same century. What the film says about the life and death is timeless, however, in terms of philosophical value.




Diagnosed with inoperable brain cancer, Marc Jarvis opts for cryogenics. His body is to be frozen and revived when technology has advanced to the point of being able to reanimate him and cure the cancer. “I’d be able to live longer,” he blandly tells his friends, who are skeptical. For this to happen, he responds, “I guess I’d have to trust humanity.” He is referring to the advent of the necessary medical technology, rather than to the question of whether global climate change might extinguish the species in the meantime. This “sin of omission” by the screenwriter is particularly strange, given physicist Steven Hawkins’ prediction at the time that the species would have at most a century left on a habitable Earth.

In the story, living longer isn’t Marc’s actual goal, so he may well be indifferent to the plight of the species as he informs his friends of his decision to go with cryogenics. He does not commit suicide with the hope of being revived when he could be cured so he could live out the rest of his life.  As he tells Elizabeth, his nurse after he is revived 60 years later, in 2084, “Suicide was my way of fighting the arbitrariness of cancer.” Suicide, he tells her, was “the only way of avoiding the agony and the uncertainty of when death would finally arrive.” In retrospect, he says that being able to end his life at his choosing gave him the power to die peacefully. He had not really thought he could be reanimated; suicide, he tells Elizabeth, “gave me back control over my life.” He had accepted death; things were fine as they were. He accepted his experience of life as that which it had been, even though he was still young (roughly 30). The fear was gone, he tells Elizabeth more than 100 arduous days after having being revived. His fear of death is still gone, he informs her as he then asks her to help him commit suicide again. He has already died once. He is once again prepared to end his life. His final wish: “To be nothing again, to disappear, to finally rest in peace.” Why? To return to an after-life existence in heaven? Or out of a preference for not existing over the pain of living?

Just after being revived, he is enthusiastic. “I was going to die,” he tells the medical team in front of his bed. “I was going to disappear, forever, and I’m alive again. I’m alive!” But he quickly realizes that his “new life” comes with some rather serious drawbacks, medically speaking. At least for some weeks, his body seems permanently “on the verge of collapse.” He records the following for future posterity: “Life, what do we expect from it? Certainly not this fragility, this half-speed existence. We definitely don’t expect a medical history full of afflictions and minor defects, a propensity for phlegmbosis, numbness in the extremities, involuntary movements, loss of equilibrium, scaling of the skin, irritation of connective tissue, respiratory insufficiency, cardiac insufficiency, incontinence, impotence. You don’t expect so many limitations so soon.” His physician tells him that he could expect a life like people with chronic diseases or the elderly, and he would have to maintain at least periodic connection to a machine that keeps him alive. In erroneously assuming that these conditions would be permanent, both Marc and his physician dismiss the likelihood that medical science would continue to advance. 

To be sure, Marc’s medical team knew Marc would lose all of his memories, after which no medical science could bring them back. You expect at least to keep your memories, Marc narrates for posterity. “What if your memories were erased as well? What will become of me once my memories have faded?” Fortunately, a device exists in 2084 that can allow people to recover memories without actually remembering anything, but he dismisses it outright too. He could still draw on those stored memories mentally—hence indistinguishable from him really having the memories—and perhaps advancements in medical science could literally grow more “gray matter” such that Marc would someday begin to accumulate new memories. In short, the static nature in the assumptions made not only by Marc, but, more astonishingly, by his medical term in 2084 is astonishing, given their experiences with medical advancements.

At any rate, Naomi, Marc’s girlfriend before he died, had herself frozen in hopes of being together with her true love again someday. Elizabeth wants to assure Marc, “Someday you two will be able to be together again like you were before; it’s only a matter of time.” Here in Elizabeth we find the openness of a dynamic assumption; medical science should be regarded as a moving target!  Yet he isn’t buying it. He knows Naomi’s bodily condition is not good; the process of freezing had not gone well. “I don’t even want to imagine Naomi if she’s trapped in someone else’s body, someone else’s life,” he tells Elizabeth. “That’s your fear talking,” Elizabeth correctly tells him. In short, Marc has lost hope—faith in medical science and even in life itself. Accordingly, he wants to commit suicide again, and he wants Elizabeth to bracket her own hope and assist him.

The nineteenth-century European philosopher, Ludwig Feuerbach, aptly describes Marc’s rationale for killing himself “for good” (i.e., without any hope of being reanimated again). “A man who kills himself does not take his life, it has already been taken from him. That is why he kills himself; he destroys only a semblance of himself; what he casts away is a mere shell whose kernel, whether by his fault or not, has long since been eaten away. But a healthy, normal life . . . is and should be man’s highest good, his supreme being.”[2] Marc expects a healthy, normal life; it is his god. Yet paradoxically death is not his enemy, for suicide is to him simply a preference for not existing over life without his god.

Life and death are of course the true characters in the fictional drama. Expectedly, religion is in the mix, though surprisingly only explicitly in a few instances in the film. The position taken in the film, through Marc as a witness—albeit fictional—is that life “is nothing more than a state of matter . . . there’s nothing transcendent or divine about it.” As such, life is merely biological. In fact, Marc opines that it is life that’s “scary, not death.” Life is “always on the verge of extinction.” A human life can quickly, and unexpectedly end without the person having any control over it. As for the soul, Marc figures it is maybe “the part that is lost when you freeze the meat and thaw it out again.” In short, the film adopts a materialist perspective. There is no after-life, other than revitalized, or unfrozen, life itself. In other words, being reanimated—not resurrected!—is the only after-life, or, more accurately, life after life. In between them: nothing. Not existing. How hard this is to apply to ourselves!

“Welcome back to life, Marc,” the physician says as Marc regains consciousness upon being revived. “Do you remember anything about the other side?” Is there an afterlife?, the physician wants to know. The first report of a possible “eye-witness” of heaven in human history is underwhelming: “Fear, dying, waking up,” Marc answers without a hint of excitement. Later, he makes it explicit: “Before I died, I thought there was nothing after death. Now I’m sure.” He is the only person alive immune from what Feuerbach describes as the fantasies of profligate human imagination. Marc records his (or the screenwriter’s) own thoughts as follows: “Why do we yearn so desperately for life after death? What is it that we want? Perhaps reward for our grief, or punishment for our sins. No, what we really expect to find is what we already know; what we once had and lost. If there was something, we would turn it into more of the same—the same chaos and the same beauty, the same reward for the same effort, the same tale by the same idiot. If there was something, it would probably be purgatory.” In other words, we construct, or hope for, an after-life looking all too familiar—human, all too human. The “most sensitive, most painful of man’s feelings of finiteness is the feeling or awareness that he will one day end, that he will die,” Feuerbach suggests.[3] All a person knows and experiences is premised on the ongoing—perceptually-seeming “ever” present—basis of existing, the end of which must surely be felt to be torrentially horrendous. A human’s “defense against death is the belief in immortality.”[4] People who think they know for a fact there is an afterlife might want to pause at word in italics. None of us know, which is why the screenwriter of the film has Marc’s physician ask.

The physician—a man of science!—is disappointed in Marc’s answer as it is well within the realm of biology. He wants for there to be a religious dimension so much that he over-reaches cognitively. In presenting Marc to the public (i.e., investors), for example, he refers to Marc as “the first person resurrected.” However, resurrection is a distinctively religious term that refers to a spiritual-physical body; Jesus’ resurrected body, for instance, goes through the door of the Upper Room and yet he is hungry so he asks for a fish! Clearly, more is going on here than reanimation or revitalization. Cryogenics does not even constitute the sort of miracle as Jesus performed in bringing Lazarus back to life, and yet Marc's physician refers to his successive cryogenic attempts, including Marc, as Lazarus!

In short, Marc’s (albeit fictional) body is not supernatural, and yet the physician uses terms suggestive of a religious miracle. In fact, he refers to Marc as the first resurrected man more than once in the film. It is as if man of science were driven instinctually to make what is human, divine. According to Feuerbach, “Man makes a god or divine being of what his life depends on only because to him his life is a divine being, a divine possession or thing.”[5] God is beneficent (because good), and thus of use to humans—hence petitions are made as a matter of course in many liturgies, but the underlying presupposition or basis of this belief in the divine attribute is that human life is itself of great worth (i.e., divine).

Therefore, Marc while still young and yet seemingly deprived of God’s beneficence has a knee-jerk reaction for his life to go on, albeit after some time of not existing. Alternatively, he could pin his hopes on heaven, yet he dismisses it even before he knows it to be a fantasy of the human imagination tinged with fear. Yet even in ostensibly wanting to live more, or again, it is to be on his terms.

According to Feuerbach, we are the gods—or, more accurately—our human ideals are our true gods—the potential of the species, which Feuerbach erroneously claimed is infinite. The danger in idolizing our ideals lies in settling for nothing less. Hence Marc acts rashly, I submit, in committing suicide again. His god is human, all too human. If Feuerbach was right, even the ostensibly religious deity is really just human life in its infinite potential. Yet the terrain of our experience is finite—our perception, feeling, and cognition only go so far. Even cryogenics in itself could merely extend a human life, rather than making human beings immortal.

 




[2] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 52.


[3] Ludwig Feuerbach, Lectures on the Essence of Religion (New York: Harper & Row, 1967), 33.


[4] Ibid., 34, italics added.


[5] Ibid., 52.