Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Wednesday, July 25, 2018

More on being dead


The definition of human life is a profound cultural and political fault line. One end, of course, is when human life begins. This surfaces as a largely emotional debate, and facts don't enter into it very much. For example,here is Zack Beauchamp in Vox, discussing why white evangelical Christians find such an unlikely hero in the Resident. It turns out it's because they're racists, but we already knew that. However, he concludes with this:

Typically, you expect evangelical ideas to flow from religion to politics: They have a deep belief that the Bible prohibits abortion, for example, and support bans on legal abortion as a result. But in this case, Sheila and Linda aren’t starting from scripture; there’s no biblical reason to think Jesus hated the undocumented.
Instead, it’s the other way around. The sense of existential threat — that “the survival of the Christian nation” is at stake — is leading them toward a particular, racialized definition of what their faith means. The evangelical right, and the American right more broadly, is being reshaped to match the white backlash politics that powered Donald Trump’s rise.
While it is true that Jesus didn't hate "the undocumented" (and of course back in his day there generally weren't any visas or passports or border patrols), it is not the case that the Bible prohibits abortion. Beauchamp, who writes about politics for a living, evidently doesn't know that. In fact there is not one word about abortion in the Bible, New Testament or Old, with the possible exception of a passage in Numbers which some people interpret as a ceremony for the purpose of inducing abortion. The public debate about the subject would be better served by the introduction of some facts, of which that would seem to be an important one.

However, what I really want to talk about today is the other end of the fault line, when life ends. Robert Truog and colleagues in JAMA discuss the history of the concept of brain death. For millions of years of hominid existence, there was never any problem deciding when a Homo erectus or Homo sapiens was dead. If you aren't breathing, that's all I need to know. 

But in the 1950s, humans invented positive pressure ventilation, which made it possible to pump air into the lungs of people who, as Truog et al put it, "had no discernible cognitive function." So were these people dead? When was it okay to pull the plug. In 1968 an ad hoc committee at Harvard Medical School decided that "irreversible coma" was equivalent to death. They concluded that this could be established if "over a 24 hour period, the patient did not respond to stimuli, had no spontaneous movement or breathing; and had no reflexes; a flat electroencephalogram provided valuable confirmation of the cessation of brain function."

Some people think that the desire to get transplantable organs influenced this decision, but it seems pretty reasonable on the face of it. Over the ensuing years, states began to write these criteria into law, and now it more or less pertains in all 50. However, as we have seen, not everyone accepts this, and controversies keep erupting over decisions to withdraw "life support" from people who, according to the law, are actually dead.

Originally, defenders of the criteria argued that even if brain dead people were kept on life support, their bodies would quickly deteriorate and the heart would stop. It turns out, however, that this is not really true. It is technically possible now to keep the hearts of brain dead people beating for years. In 2008, a presidential commission proposed that brain dead people are not alive because they have ceased to perform "the fundamental vital work of a living organism." But this creates a problem because many people who are not brain dead require assistive devices to perform said "vital work."

The fact is that for some reason people don't want to grasp the nettle -- on both ends of the debate. What makes us human is not our beating heart or our pumping lungs, it is our consciousness, our capacity to experience. This requires, at a minimum, a functioning frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine, the machine is indistinguishable from the ghost. They are one and the same. Everybody needs to get that before we can have a sensible discussion.
 

12 comments:

Don Quixote said...

Cervantes wrote,

"What makes us human is not our beating heart or our pumping lungs, it is our consciousness, our capacity to experience. This requires, at a minimum, a functioning frontal cortex. There is no ghost in the machine, the machine is indistinguishable from the ghost. They are one and the same. Everybody needs to get that before we can have a sensible discussion."

Based on my informal inventory of the state of the stalls in public bathrooms (highway rest stops, restaurants, office buildings, synagogues and churches, grocery stores, etc.), we are SO fucked if everybody needs to understand complex concepts about the beginning and end of meaningful human life before we can have a sensible discussion.

We're talking about a population that frequently craps without flushing, and which seemingly can't even keep itself from peeing on the floor and all over the toilet seats.

Ah, America.

Anonymous said...



Constantly calling roughly half the population of the US horrible people (racists, bigots, deplorables,etc.)because you don't like their politics is just stupid on its face and it's no way to win votes from them.

Keep it up and enjoy another four years of the Trump Train.




Don Quixote said...

I said I would not respond to "Anonymous"'s responses to my posts, which generally are rude and totally mischaracterize my words. I asked "Anonymous" not to respond to my posts and I would return the favor. I said that "Anonymous" has no sense of humor or irony and not only misquotes my posts, but lies about what I have written.

I will stand by my word. The problems of another human being are not my doing; I didn't cause them, I can't control them, and I can't cure them. It makes me sad to know there are people like this out in the world so I try to see the humor in it :-)

Cervantes said...

Half the people are racists. If they don't want to be called racists, they should stop being racists.

Anonymous said...


"Half the people are racists. If they don't want to be called racists, they should stop being racists.

That is a stunning admission. Few outside the protected and isolated bubble of academia (or maybe (Hollyweird)would ever agree with you. I doubt even many minorities would agree with you.

This demonstrates how radical and out of the mainstream your views really are.

Perhaps you could share the definition you use that counts half the country as horrible, terrible human beings.

Don Quixote said...

I forgot to mention in my post before that I know empirically that there are some incredibly ignorant, angry Caucasian males in this world. Definitely in the USA. I've lived in eight different states in the North, South, and Southwest, and traveled to most of the rest, so I've seen a lot. No doubt some of them are descendants of mean, ignorant, abusive, violent slave owners. I'm not sure why the rest are the way they are. All it takes is abusive adults to raise them to be the way they are. I am really glad not to be a descendant of those people. I'm very lucky to be a radical leftist woke person who appreciates beauty, compassion, humor, and authenticity.

I spend time and converse with rational, compassionate, intelligent people with senses of humor and appreciation for nature and living things. I work with kids, who are generally really amazing humans with incredible potential. It is sad that so many adult Caucasian male people in the U.S. seem to be filled with hate. They're living in a nightmare and it's all they know, and they seem blind to any reality except the torment in their heads.

The Caucasian males I spend time with know how to listen, how to respect themselves, and how to respect others. They are great role models.

Anonymous said...


Cervantes has not answered my simple question so I'll reiterate it again:

What definition of 'racism' are you using that demonizes half the population of the US? It's really a simple question.

All I've heard from you so far is crickets...

If you can't answer, then you have no point.

Anonymous said...

Hmmmm...


"Barack...he's talking down to black people...telling ni***rs how to behave." -- Jesse Jackson

"US would be “ready to embrace a black presidential candidate, especially one such as Obama – a 'light-skinned' African American 'with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.’ ” -- Harry Reid

“And it’s not just a matter of it not being polite to say ‘ni**er’ in public. --Barack Obama

"You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent." -- Joe Biden

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy," --Joe Biden


"They are often the kinds of kids that are called 'super-predators,' " Clinton said in 1996, at the height of anxiety during her husband's administration about high rates of crime and violence. "No conscience, no empathy, we can talk about why they ended up that way, but first we have to bring them to heel." -- Hillary Clinton

Anonymous said...

lol good to see smart people again!
whiaker

Don Quixote said...

I wonder what a "whiaker" is. Perhaps it's something only "smart people" know.

Don Quixote said...

Or then again, perhaps it's like a "covfefe."

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