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May 9, 2011 | by  | in Features | [ssba]

What is death, & what is life, anyway?

Life and death seem relatively clear cut initially. TV and movies tell us that the moment someone dies, the most authoritative person in the room knows. It all seems definite at the hospital, where death occurs when the machine makes the long beep noise. Could the beep machine be wrong? Sacrilege!

Let’s start with life, then. We usually know when something is alive. It’s easy enough to know that my dog is still alive—I just prod her. It’s easy enough to know that the fly is still alive—it’s buzzing upside down on the flyswat. It’s easy enough to know when bacteria is still alive—it’s still flagella-ing its way across the petri dish. The Oxford English Dictionary seems to agree that life is:

The condition that distinguishes animals, plants, and other organisms from inorganic or inanimate matter, characterized by continuous metabolic activity and the capacity for functions such as growth, development, reproduction, adaptation to the environment, and response to stimulation; (also) the activities and phenomena by which this is manifested.

That is, any vital organs, whether they are simple tiny bacterial ribosomes or hearty elephant stomachs, work—or at least respond to stimulation. In addition to having functioning vital organs, living things actively use their organs: they consume nutrients, reproduce sexually, and respond to their environment. Consider someone like American woman Terri Schiavo, who was considered to be in a Persistent Vegetative State (PVS) many years before her feeding tube was removed, which in a legal sense ended her life. While in PVS, Terri could sustain her heartbeat and blood pressure unassisted, had impaired vision and could slightly move her limbs. There were claims that her treatment progressed until she was able to say “yes”, “no”, and “stop that”, although for years afterwards, all reports indicated she would never improve from her serious brain damage. She even seemed to be able to communicate and respond to her environment.

Terri’s body was able to fully function except chew and swallow, hence the feeding tube. There was, however, little to no chance Terri would ever recover to the point of conscious use of her body to feed, defecate, or even significantly move. Was Terri alive? Per this definition, no. She could function on a basic level, but had no capacity to do so. Even bacteria with no brain to speak of have the capacity and apparent motivation to function, in terms of moving towards food sources, acting in symbiotic relationships, etc. Are bacteria alive in the same sense a human is? Well, bacteria can die in the same sense as a human.

How about a tree, or algae? Like humans and animals, plants grow; are able to maintain a food supply by growth or minor movement; reproduce; and respond and adapt to their environment. Plantlife can also be considered dead based on when it stops growing and maintaining its cells. Magnifying this back to animal and human life, if ‘thinking’ beings are considered dead once they cease being able to maintain their cells, people with brain damage, or otherwise unable to care for their life or death needs, are just as alive as an uprooted tree left on concrete. Alive—just not for long, without help. Is mental capacity a needless requirement for life? Is our uprooted tree still alive if we have to actively help it maintain all of its vital functions, all the time? Many say yes. Steven Hawking, for one, would very much take exception to the implication that he died years ago.

It’s also worth noting that the ‘right to life’ community views when life begins and ends in the most optimistic of ways. Right to Life New Zealand seemingly even opposes abortifacients. Abortifacients are any ‘contraceptive’ device which stops a zygote—that is, a female’s egg which has successfully accepted sperm and is growing and maintaining cells—from implanting itself in a woman’s uterine wall, so the zygote will not live to become a baby. (In around 50 per cent of pregnancies, the zygote will not absorb into the cell wall regardless; an abortifacient will simply ensure this.) Technically, if an abortifacient kills a living human being, then any pregnancy that miscarries—even an unnoticed one at a few days old—involves the death of a human being. The definition in this case would be that the zygote is alive as its cells are growing and dividing, but the nourishment it requires to continue living is not provided, much as an adult would die without food, water and shelter. Per this definition, a human unable to provide for itself in the most rudimentary of ways is considered alive, so this view usually goes hand in hand with opposition to euthanasia.

Doctors are consistently making breakthroughs to prolong life in humans, or to ensure our bodies recover from previously irrecoverable trauma. Currently, scientists are working on technology that would enable our brain function to fully recover from up to ten minutes without blood flow or oxygen, a feat which in part has led to many differing definitions of death. Death even comes under a number of different guises now: clinical death and legal death, with the most extreme now information-theoretic death. Clinical death is when the body has no breath, heartbeat, or any external proof of life. Legal death may differ from country to country, but generally relates to the point at which a professional decides that an individual is deceased, and thus does not require further medical care. However, both of these definitions may not relate to irretrievable death. Many people can recover from their heart and breathing ceasing, depending on circumstances, and legal death is a legal term as opposed to a medical one. Information-theoretic death, however, is when there is no chance of a cognitive being ever being able to resume cognition, that is, any time after which the entire brain has either started to physically disintegrate or is otherwise destroyed. So, if my brain is stored in a vat for 50 years, after which cognition is resumed a la the Futurama cartoon, I have never undergone information-theoretic death.

Really, what is dead and what is alive comes down to perspective with a hefty chunk of context weighted upon it. Cognition and consciousness will always be problematic, as while we can monitor brain activity, and compare it to brain activity of a thinking/moving person, this gives us only limited insight into how the brain functions. Any view of life and death relative to our ability to function is always problematic, as applying our views to other species, or in light of miraculous recoveries, often seems hypocritical. It does seem that attempting to make life and death black and white only leads to a fight to paint over the grey.


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