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The challenges of defining death

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Keeping alive someone in a vegetative state by means of artificial respiration etc. has a cost. For every body maintained in this way either (a) someone must go without treatment, or (b) every living person pays a little more in health insurance.

Thus there is a significant cost to society.

We have learned that science is the only reliable guide to reality. That's why we use it for all aspects of our lives. We don't design aircraft based on prayers or beliefs: we use calculus and reams of empirical data about airflow, stress, drag, etc. The fact that many people are still trapped in magical thinking (belief in "souls" and "afterlife" and "the primacy of the heartbeat") is irrelevant. We do not consult irrational folk tales when we seek to create meaningful additions to the world around us; we use empiricism and the corpus of science.

Therefore individual beliefs about what is "really" the definition of death are irrelevant. As a society we need to arrive at the best-available current definition based on science, not on magical thinking. And once we've arrived at an adequate definition that is defensible based on real-world data, we must abide by it until a more adequate definition may arise at some point in future based, once again, on real-world data. Otherwise where should we stop when trying to accommodate magical beliefs? Should we let witch-doctors design tower blocks? Should we let ardent religionists pray that a suspension bridge made from magical fronds according to some mythological text will in fact support the weight of modern vehicles because beliefs are just as relevant as calculus and a knowledge of materials science?

Brain death is the current best-supported definition. By all means let us see if there may be better definitions; but let us not pretend that magical thinking is acceptable in any realm of human endeavor.

ashbird in reply to CA-Oxonian

I would say that when a person relies on hope or prayer to a Bigger Being to sustain him/herself through a difficult time, we ought not deride that behavior as "magical thinking".
Personally, I see it as a perfectly normal human behavior.

Sense Seeker

When my brain is dead (no, it isn't yet, McGenius), please switch off the machinery. After taking my organs.
Fine if other people want to have their own, non-evidence-based definition of death and want to be kept 'alive' after their brain has stopped functioning.
But I sure as hell don't want to contribute to such irrational wastefulness. So no state support please.

ashbird in reply to Sense Seeker

@Sense, Be careful with the use of the term "evidence-based" (I am serious, not joking). For some folks (these would be the particularly "religious" folks), "evidence" means something that exists in their head. It becomes an utterly circular thing if you engage in an argument with them.

Sense Seeker in reply to guest-aannoeoj

"Do you really declare yourself worth terminating as soon as others consider your existence wasteful?"
I'm not inviting you to terminate me purely on the basis that you deem my existence worthless. I wrote 'when my brain is dead'. Doctors can determine that without making any judgement about the wastefulness of my existence.

Sense Seeker in reply to ashbird

True, 'evidence' can be anything that is presented in support of an assertion. My evidence may not convince you.
Still, it can be helpful to ask for evidence when assertions are made. It makes explicit how someone comes to their position. It may prompt the asserter to re-examine the basis for their belief, or enable the oberver to judge the plausibility of the facts and logic of the proposed underpinning of the assertion.
Indeed, better not ask for evidence when discussing the location of the soul, unless you have time to kill.

ashbird in reply to Sense Seeker

You know I agree with you by and large (that's 90%) on what constitutes "convincing evidence" to a reasonable mind.
I was just issuing a note of *caution* for you on how the term could mean different things for different people, to the extent a single person's believed "evidence" MUST", on pain of going to hell, overthrow the evidence of all consensus evidence offered by the medical community - Examples: If a sperm and an egg never met, no fertilization takes place and therefore no baby results; OR one lay person's "medical evidence" ought to throw out that of the vast majority of professional's evidence derived from well-honed knowledge and experience.


Besides emotions of parents, medicine needs new research. Maybe brain indeed can partially recover when body is on long-time life support? Medical definition of death comes from the time when today technology did not exist. Today medical situations could not be checked.


So there should be one definition for super rich who can afford expensive life support. And one for the rest.

guest-aannoeoj in reply to sikko6

Fact is that lethal injection is cheaper than majority of modern medical procedures. If you let economic factors into consideration in terminal care, the optimal decision is always killing as many severely ill people as soon as possible.