Brain Life and Death

This is the 19th blog in the series which began with The Brainless Bible and the Mindless Illusion of Self and is exploring ideas about free will, the mind, the brain and the self. The previous blog is Remembering What we are Told.  This blog series is based on the recent books of two scientists who are considering some claims from neuroscience about consciousness and free will:  Michael S. Gazzaniga’s  WHO’S IN CHARGE?:  FREE WILL AND THE SCIENCE OF THE BRAIN and Raymond Tallis’  APING MANKIND:NEUROMANIA, DARWINITIS AND THE MISREPRESENTATION OF HUMANITY.

The last issue I will bring up in relation to the topic of the brain and free will is the issue of what defines a human as being alive (which no doubt some would say defines when a human is a human).  Dick Teresi writing in the May issue of DISCOVER magazine, “The Beating Heart Donors,” points out that “In 1968, thirteen men gathered at the Harvard Medical School to virtually undo 5,000 years of the study of death.”   What these 13 men did was to redefine death by defining the concept of brain death.  For the previous 5000 years death was declared when the heart stopped beating or when the lungs could no longer breathe. “When his breath depart he returns to his earth” (Psalm 146:4).   Teresi claims now “you were considered dead when you suffered the loss of personhood.”   At this point in history, “the medical establishment assumes that the brain is what defines humanity and that a functioning brain is vital to what is called a human being’s personhood.”   Teresi says this new definition of death was not in any way established by the scientific method – no experiments were performed on humans or animals and no patients were used as the basis for establishing this totally new concept of and redefinition of death.  Teresi connects this new definition of death to the committee’s being fixated on making human organ transplants more possible.  Today the organ transplant industry harvests human organs and $20 billion per year in business.  It is a business made possible by changing the criteria for declaring a person dead – and Teresi notes the donors and their families are excluded from receiving one penny of the income generated.  The profits are reaped by this medical industry.

Teresi points out that today it is largely anesthesiologists who question “whether beating heart cadavers truly are unfeeling, unaware corpses.”   They are “questioning the finality of brain death.”  The article offers a number of anecdotes which call into question the very premises on which brain death is based.  It is very unsettling reading – and appears not in a religious journal but a scientific one.   The moral questions raised cannot be answered by science alone.

Teresi’s article is not directly related to the issues I raised in this blog series about the brain and free will.  He isn’t addressing the same issues that I have as he focuses only on questioning the certainty of death when the criterion used is brain death.  However, It certainly seems possible that the neo-atheist denial of consciousness or self will somehow shape the debate about brain death.  If a human is nothing more than a lump of atoms, what does brain death mean anyway?  And if there is no personhood (since some of the neo-atheists ideologically claim the ‘self’ is an illusion caused by the biochemistry of the brain) then how can the medical profession use the loss of personhood (brain death) as a criterion for determining when a person dies?  Of course the issues now being raised by the neo-atheists regarding free will were not part of the thinking of scientists in 1968.    We have, however, again come to that same point that science cannot be separated from morality, and no real morality can be deduced from materialism.

The creation of Adam

[Christianity, by the way, doesn’t deny that humans are made up of the same stuff as the rest of the universe.  Even the literal readers of Genesis 2 see God taking the dirt of the earth to form the human being.  Christianity however denies that materialism is all the human is.  For Christians with Jews see God breathing life into the human – a non-material element animates the human.  Humans consist of body (material) and spirit (breathe, immaterial) which come together to form the soul (the interface point between the material and the spiritual).]

In his article, Teresi points out the importance of our understanding of what it means to be human.  The definition of what a human is or when a human is alive are essential questions which cannot be answered by science alone. [As Teresi points out “science” did in fact decide – without following the scientific method – that death is defined by brain not heart activity.   But now some in the medical professional are questioning both the science and the morality of this decision.] The implications of these questions and their answers are obviously central to issues of declaring someone dead and harvesting organs for transplant.  There are 20 billion reasons why we should be concerned about what is happening with these medical decisions.  We come again to the realization that the claims of the neo-atheists and adherents of scientism are not abstractions but affect if not threaten us all.  For the concept of “brain death” allows scientists to decide when to stop a beating heart, or, rather when to disconnect it from its original body/person to transplant it to someone new.  The questions raised have ultimate implications for this same industry has created the expectation in thousands of critically ill patients that they can be helped by a transplant.  The intention is good but the unintended consequence might be that some donors are chosen for death so that a recipient can benefit, and a $20 billion dollar industry can continue to profit.

The implications for the unborn and abortion are also there.  The prolife lobby is trying to get laws passed that recognize human life as soon as a beating heart exists.  But there is another lobby which is arguing human life exists only if the brain above the brain stem is functioning.  The brain dead (‘permanently non-functioning brain’) definition says a flat EEG confirms death.  I  don’t know at what age of fetal development an EEG registers, though some brain activity is detected normally between 40-43 days of development.  Brain death is defined when a person can’t breath spontaneously.  No wonder many think a fetus cannot be considered human or viable.   The concept of brain death is not going to be a resolving issue in the abortion debates.  But because it shapes our thinking of what it is to be alive and to be human, it has repercussions on our understanding of these issues.

Claims from atheist ideologues that free will does not exist are ultimately not purely abstract philosophical debates.  They have real and practical implications for how we understand and treat our fellow human beings – the newly conceived in the womb as well as the dying-but-not-yet-dead.  To believe that science is somehow a morally neutral enterprise is to misunderstand the real life implications of the philosophical assumptions which shape scientists and scientism.  While science is not antithetical to morality, neither is its application morally neutral.  Remember Einstein’s comment that science can only tell us what can be done not what should be done.  The desire to deny the existence of free will or consciousness or self is an ideological one, not a scientific one.  It is applying materialistic assumptions to non-materialistic ideas.  It is a reductionism that debases and dehumanizes people denying the very things (which are observable – a key scientific criterion), that make humans unique in the world.  We consciously ask and explore questions about existence and free will.  We experience life at an non-materialistic level (consciousness, emotional, intellectual, creativity, morality) that itself offers proof of the existence of consciousness and free will.  And for believers in a Creator, we see the proof around us that something other than the material world exists.  Our material existence is inseparable from the non-material existence.  Science doesn’t disprove free will but rather shows the limits (and we would say insufficiency) of the materialist point of view of scientism.

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
    the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
 what is man that you are mindful of him,
    and the son of man that you care for him?

 Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
    and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
     you have put all things under his feet,
 all sheep and oxen,
    and also the beasts of the field,
 the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
    whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

(Psalm 8:3-8)

The next and last blog in this series:  Mind and Man

The Acts of the Apostles

During the weeks following Pascha, we read liturgically in the Orthodox Church from the Acts of the Apostles.  St. Justin Martyr (d. ca 165AD) offers a brief synopsis of ACTS and of the early church:

“For from Jerusalem there went out into the world, men, twelve in number, and these illiterate, of no talent in speaking, but by the power of God, they proclaimed to every race of men that they were sent by Christ to teach too all the word of God. And we who formerly used to murder one another do not only now refrain from making war upon our enemies, but also, that we may not lie nor deceive our examiners, willing die confessing Christ.” (St. Justin Martyr in For the Peace from Above: An Orthodox Resource Book on War, Peace, and Nationalism edited by Fr. Hildo Bos, pg. 102)