Thursday, October 19, 2023

Defining Death

I've been reading a book called WHEN THE "DEAD" ROSE IN BRITAIN, by Nicole C. Salomone. After a forty-page overview of the history of medicine in Europe and Britain, the author delves into "premature burial and the misdiagnosis of death," mostly in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Among the various related topics covered, there's a chapter on European vampire legends, the main reason I bought the book. Over hundreds of years, doctors as well as clergymen and philosophers debated and analyzed in great detail the dividing line between life and death and the criteria for diagnosing death. They distinguished between apparent death (or suspended animation) and absolute death, from which no recovery was possible.

Some physicians explained the essence of aliveness as the "vital spark," rather tautologically defined as the force that maintained life in the body. Later, it was suggested that the vital spark was in fact electricity, a hypothesis seemingly validated by the fact that an electrical current sent through an animal cadaver can make its limbs move. The recognition of the absence of breath and heartbeat as probable but not certain evidence of death inspired development of techniques for resuscitation, some of which produced concrete benefits in reviving victims of drowning and eventually led to CPR as we know it today. Societies for "the Recovery of Persons Apparently Dead" were organized. Salomone seems to accept as fact most of the recorded accounts of people misdiagnosed as dead, often prepared for interment and buried or dissected. On the other hand, the lack of specific details in many of those stories (e.g., names and precisely identified locations) leads me to think a lot were what would now be called urban legends. In any case, a widespread belief in and fear of premature burial in the nineteenth century resulted in the invention of numerous models of "safety coffins."

In modern times, medicine and the law have determined that life resides in the brain. Permanent cessation of brain activity -- "brain death" -- equals the demise of the person. Robert Heinlein's very uneven brain-transplant novel, I WILL FEAR NO EVIL, includes an extended dialogue on this issue, for me the most interesting scene in the book.

If a person has apparently died and been restored to life, was he or she actually dead during the period of "apparent death"? Are "near-death experiences" genuine glimpses of the afterlife or merely the random firing of nerve impulses? Maybe such people are only "mostly dead," like the hero in THE PRINCESS BRIDE.

If science eventually develops a technique for uploading a person's consciousness into a computer, as often envisioned in speculative fiction, is a person whose body has died with the mind preserved in this way alive or dead?

In the Star Trek universe, given that the transporter disintegrates the transportee into component particles that are reassembled at the destination, do people being teleported survive the experience? Or, as Dr. McCoy speculates, do you die every time you step onto the transporter pad, to be replaced by an exact duplicate? If it's an exact duplicate, though, how could you tell? Your memories and personality seem unimpaired. Furthermore, what about the episodes when a transporter accident creates two of the same person? Does destroying one of them or even merging them together (or splitting a new individual generated from two people by the transporter into his component halves, as debated in one VOYAGER episode) count as murder? In the eighteenth century, when the foolproof way of determining whether someone was alive or dead was to wait until the body started to decompose, the quandary was simple by comparison.

Margaret L. Carter

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