06 December 2007

Life and Death

Wed Nov 23, 2005

Life and Death

Philosophy, not being a practical discipline, does not deal with life and death in an excessive way. Compare these with, for example, the question, what is a good life? Or what is good? As far as philosophy is concerned, life and death are given and there is nothing much we can do about it.

Folk or Popular philosophy, however, give a lot of importance to that eternal question: what is the meaning of life? And then followed by the other question: when is it acceptable to take away life? However, questions about the meaning of life are usually fully and exhaustively dealt with by religion, psychology and the self help industry. Whereas the law has always answered questions about taking people’s life. What seems to be legitimate philosophical topics are beginning to look like non starters.

Of course, this is not the case, because applied philosophy, especially, in the fields of medical ethics, biology, personal identity and human rights, have given life and death an important place in philosophy. The questions are different, of course, and in my opinion more interesting. What is life and what is death? When does life begin? When does death occur? What are the necessary and sufficient conditions for life? Do moral principles apply to all forms of life?

So let's start at the beginning: what is life? I think that for practical purposes we should focus on carbon based life and specifically on human life. The reason is simple, we tend to know quite a lot about this form of life. At this point the debate would usually splits into two camps between the physicists or biologists and the clergy or theologians. Biologists would look at the molecular composition of living things and then see if a given molecular structure meets a given set of conditions, for example reproductive ability, response actions and even mobility; of course this is not a complete list of criteria. However, any criteria of what is life starts from the premise that human life must fit that criteria. The question is whether we justified in using human life as a model of what is life? For most religions, only human life is worth talking about and life starts at the point when the soul joins the body which is usually the point of conception. It is interesting to note that this definition meets the Ockham's Razor condition: given a choice, keep it simple.

The question, what is life?, is itself an ambiguous question, which is why different people can come up with different criteria. It is clear that for a biologist, what is life means: under what conditions can we call a set of molecules as having life. The biologist is not looking for some special ingredient labelled life to add to the molecules. Of course this is not to say that life type molecules are not special or different; DNA, provides one important difference. The difference, however, is in composition and not content. For example, a biologist would happily accept that quantum mechanics and the second law of thermodynamics apply to life as much as they do to other non-life type of systems.

For the theologian, the issue is different. The theologian does add an ingredient to molecules, i.e. the soul. It is also very easy for us to say that the theologian is in a way cheating by adding a metaphysical concept to a physical reality. But the theologian is employing a strategy that is not much different from what mathematician and physicists have been doing for quite some time now; explaining a three dimensional entity by referring to a fourth or some other dimension. This, of course, does not prove the existence of a soul, only that we have a method by which we can try to explain life.

But 'what is life?' is more a practical question than a philosophical question. So far, there has not been any serious disputes about what constitutes life. Most of can judge whether something is a living thing or inanimate. Even biologists and theologians have had it easy, but maybe not for long. For the theologian, any life form that was an issue from a human being had a soul and therefore was an a being with life. And for the biologist, anything that was carbon based and met certain criteria was alive or had life. Depending on what they found determined what they did in the situation.

However, today we face two very specific questions. The first is this: what is the status of a cloned human being? The second question, which looks much further into the future is this, what is the status of a carbon based molecule system that was developed in a laboratory? Let's, for the sake of argument, assume that biologists can create a zygote, in the lab, without using human material, would this still be the starting point for a human being?

In both cases, it is implied that both beings have life and probably meet any criteria we might us to define life. But the theologian has to tell us what is the status of a clone since it was not conceived and it was artificially created. Banning cloning is not an answer, of course. And the biologist must also tell us the identity status of a clone, it might be identical by certain strict biological criteria, but not necessarily by human criteria. For example, personal identity.

Creating life form in a lab is probably more controversial. Of course, there are always the fear of creating monsters or playing god when we talk about life created in a lab. More seriously, at the philosophical level we have to ask ourselves whether moral laws apply to lab created life. Would the legal laws or moral principles, that apply for abortions and human experimentation also apply to a law created zygote? It is of course the scope of laws and norms that makes the question of, what is life, a practical question and not so much a philosophical issue. A scientist actually needs to know whether he or she can actually perform experiments in the lab. We need to know because it is we who need to follow moral codes, so we need know who these codes apply to.

The question, when does life start?, is a different type of question. This question, not only does it assume that life exists, but also that we can tell whether something qualifies as having a life. The question also assumes that we have a working definition of what is life. For our purposes, it is enough to ask when does human life start? It is not only scientists that need an answer to this question, but also lawyers, governments, parents and theologians. However, although we can all agree what is a human being and what is not, each group has a different idea of when life starts. And when there is this kind of disagreement between groups on such fundamental issues we are sure to discover that either the groups are being intransigent in their positions or the issue is really a philosophical problem.

Another aspect of the question, when does life start?, exposes a prejudice because we tend to apply the question to physical life. Of course, there is a big advantage in allowing this prejudice, it is easy to answer the question. We can actually point at life and study physical life which we cannot do with, for example, the life of a soul or the life of the mind. It also stops us from giving any special status or meaning, other literary ones, to such statements as the life of the present king of France started in 1950. But as I hope to show later, even such statements are not always easy to reconcile.

Should we allow this question to mean: a) when does carbon based life start and b) when does human life start? The way we interpret this question will be relevant to how we apply moral principles or legal laws to any form of life. The lab created zygote is a case in point. Can we allow the development of lab created zygotes to the point where we can harvest them for body parts? Admittedly, I think we have some time before people have to actually face this problem, in our time we have the status of stem cells to deal with.

But the question, when does (human) life start? is not that easy to answer. If we take conception as the starting point, then clearly cloning does not strictly meet this criteria. Genetic and molecular identity does not seem to equate to logical or personal identity. A cloned human being does not involve cloning their human identity. A curious question would be whether a cloned person would have a cloned soul or a new soul. But the dilemma about cloning is, if clones are a the standard issue human being, then there is no problem about whether we make clones for part harvest. After all we have no problem with other forms if life such as sheep or primates. But if they are standard issue human beings then why should we create clones? After all, we already do create human beings by artificial means.

Of course, conception is a very arbitrary point to select. Today, we know two things about life, first, that (human) life involves DNA and secondly (human) life involves DNA being passed from one generation to another. So when did (human) life start, when human DNA started reproducing itself or the last time it reproduced itself. The point is that there cannot be a break in the chain of life. If there is, we'll end up the way of the dinosaurs. Continuity seem to be a necessary condition for life. Which of course seems to put us in a rather awkward position since it suggests that we have to go back into infinity. But this is not necessary because we only need to go back to the first evolutionary change that started the process of life. However, this collective view of life and when life started puts the individual at a lesser level of importance. It also has the curious implication that life should be seen as a continuum over space and time and not as instances of individual life forms.

However, is it possible that life is just a set of arbitrary events, just instances of individual forms of life rather than a big continuum over time and space? There seems to be something about life that's not arbitrary, and that is death. If life is really a big continuum, then death can only be the demise of individual members of this life continuum. Something analogous to the cells of the body, whilst most cells come and goes the body continues until some catastrophic event takes place, which we call death. By catastrophic I do not mean tragic, but a fatal change; more in the sense of mathematical catastrophe usually associated with dynamic systems. The following example is sometimes given to explain the idea, a catastrophic event is the point when a fresh piece of bread turns into a toast.

Irreversibility is a condition usually attributed to death or the death of some living being. This seems to be self evident given that by definition death is something permanent. The issue is not whether we can stop people from dying or whether we can bring people from the dead, but rather can the dynamics of a physical body be reversed after death. Even if we accept that human beings are not a closed system, for the second law to fully apply, nor necessarily a Mandelbrot set, to which we can apply mathematically determined chaos, we are still faced with the matter of information at the quantum level which will stop us from knowing all there is to know about the dynamics of the system. Of course, some people object to the irreversibility idea on religious grounds. Some would argue that incarnation is possible, and some religions do hold incarnation as a fundamental principle of their teaching. However, it is usually the personality that is incarnated and not necessarily the body. At the very most, some religions allow incarnation in other bodies or other creatures, but never the same body of the same person. Whatever else this tells us about what people are prepared to believe or teach, one thing is for sure, everyone seems to have a problem rejecting the irreversibility principle to death.

An alternative argument to the irreversibility principle is cloning. Would cloning a dead person reject the irreversibility principle? But the objections I mentioned above for cloning in life would still hold for cloning the dead. The most serious of these is that of identity. But if DNA replication is not enough for identity, what is identity? We accept that when a person dies his or her body disappears but not necessarily their identity. For example the personal identities of Napoleon and Nelson still live on.

Then again, what does identity attach to or refer to? Death may finish the body, but not necessarily the identity of a person. However, we do link identity to the physical life of a person’s body. For example, we do not believe that Napoleon nor Nelson continued developing their personal identity after their death. But then what is identity? Let’s take the following example: Lucy, Adam and Nelson. We know that Lucy existed because we have some bones to prove it, but we don’t know much about her identity. Nelson we have no problems with, it’s Adam that challenges the issue of identity. With Adam we have an identity without any physical evidence. This brings me back to point about fictitious characters above; how much are we responsible for the identity and character of others?

Of course, questions about death are important for the same reasons that questions about life are important: we need answers to practical questions. For example, it is very important and very serious how people die. And death need not be due to any sinister causes, for example, fatal diseases or accidents. There are many complex legal, medical, personal, religious and moral issues directly linked to death. When does death take place, is equally important as when does life takes place? However, there are two questions that must be at the top of any list of questions about life and death: how are we going to die? And, when are we going to die?

Take care


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