Philosophical and Theological Perspectives Preliminaries

Human groups engage in different behaviors upon the death of one of their members. They do so because they have different understandings of the nature of the individual self and, consequently, of the death of the self. Yet every human society needs a way of determining when one of its members has died, when the quantum change in the self that both requires and justifies death behaviors has occurred, when the preparation of the bodily remainder of the individual for removal from the sphere of communal interaction both may and must begin.

This need for a line of demarcation between life and death suggests that for societal purposes, the death of an individual must be a determinable event. There has been debate, however, about whether death is an event or a process. Those engaged in this debate have appealed to the biological phenomena associated with the shutting down of a living organism. Some of them have argued that death is a discrete biological event; others, that it is a biological process. In fact, neither biological claim settles the philosophical question of whether death is an event or a process. Different communities decide whether to view the biological phenomena associated with death as an event or a process. For societal/cultural reasons, it is essential that some terminus be recognized.

Death is a biological process that poses a decisional dilemma because, arguably, the biological shutdown of the organism is not complete until putrefaction has occurred. Human communities have a need to decide when, in the course of the process of biological shutdown, the individual should be declared dead; they must decide which functions are so essentially significant to human life that their permanent cessation is death. For a variety of reasons, death has come to be associated with the permanent cessation of functions considered to be vital to the organism rather than with the end of all biological functioning in the organism. These vital functions play a pervasive and obvious role in the functioning of the organism as a whole, and so their use as lines of demarcation is reasonable. With their cessation, the most valued features of human life cease forever, and it is reasonable to regard that as the event of a person's death. Advances in medical technology, permitting the mechanical maintenance of cardiac and respiratory functions in the absence of consciousness, force us to evaluate the functions we have always associated with life, and to choose which of them are essentially significant to human life or so valuable to us that their permanent loss constitutes death. The ancient and (until the late-twentieth century) reasonable assumption has been that death is an irreversible condition, so it should not be declared until the essentially significant functions have irreversibly ceased.

In pretechnological cultures, humans undoubtedly drew on the functional commonalities between other animal species and themselves to decide that the flow of blood and breathing were essentially significant functions. When either of these functions stopped, no other important functions continued, and predictable changes to the body ensued. Since it was beyond human power to alter this course of events, the permanent cessation of heart and lung functioning became the criterion used to determine that someone had died.

This choice has clearly stood the test of time. Often referred to as the traditional cardio-pulmonary criteria, there is certainly no reason to impugn this choice for a society lacking the technological life-support interventions characteristic of modern medicine. But it is important to see that even in a pretechnological culture, the choice of the traditional cardiopulmonary criteria was a choice, an imposition of values on biological data. It was a choice based on a decision concerning significant function, that is, a decision concerning what is so essentially significant to the nature of the human being that its irreversible cessation constitutes human death. Such a decision is informed by fundamental beliefs and values that are philosophical/theological/cultural in nature.

If a technologically advanced culture is to update its criteria for declaring death, it must reach to the level that informs such a decision. Deciding the normative issue concerning the essentially significant characteristic of a human being is impossible without an ontological account of the nature of the human being. The assumptions and beliefs we hold on these matters form the combined philosophical/theological/cultural basis upon which we dissect the biological data and eventually bisect them into life and death.

Such assumptions and beliefs constitute the most fundamental understandings and function as the often unseen frame through which people view, assess, and manipulate reality. As a rule, this frame is inculcated through the broad range of processes that a social group uses to shape its members. The frame itself consists of assumptions and beliefs that are used to organize and interpret experience. They are deeply yet pragmatically held beliefs that may be adjusted, adapted, discarded, or transformed when they cause individual or social confusion, cease to be useful, or no longer make sense. Arguably, changes in the capacity to resuscitate and support the human body in the absence of consciousness have brought that society to such a point of non-sense. To respond fully to this crisis, people must consider the various philosophical and theological perspectives in their culture that inform thinking about human nature and death.

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