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Death-Pros and Cons of Social Death and Biological Death

Determining the absolute moment of death is a complex issue, far more complex than any math equation. Questions about brain death and how it relates to social needs and desires is becoming a popular topic among scientists and philosophers. The following is an abstract by Dr. James J. Hughes from a paper he presented in Havana, Cuba, in 1995. His paper was prepared for the Second International Symposium on Brain Death and is titled: "Brain Death and Technological Change: Personal Identity, Neural Prostheses and Uploading." Here is the Abstract:

The death at issue in the brain death debate is not an empiric reality, but a social category, "social death." It is a question of which bodies we are comfortable using and disposing of in certain ways, and not comfortable giving medicine or food as if they were "alive." Until recently both mind and body stopped functioning at the same time, and this "death" and "social death" were generally seen as one phenomenon. There were important exceptions, however, in many cultures where particular diseases and disabilities earned a social death definition before the physical death had occurred.
In the modern world, whole brain definitions of death arose as a result of the technological deconstruction of death as a unitary phenomenon. The whole brain definition was at the outset a compromise between those who prefer a neocortical definition, and those who prefer the whole body definition. This paper argues that the whole brain definition of death is an unwieldy, historical compromise which will unravel as 21st century technologies permit the repair, replacement and manipulation of body, and especially brain, tissue. These technologies will present anomalies to the whole brain definition which will force us towards, and then beyond, a neocortical definition of death. New biological and cybernetic technologies will make clear that social life is properly attributed to any biological system with a particular set of subjective experiences - personhood. These technologies will also create tremendous material incentives for the living to stop treating the permanently unconscious as socially alive.

In his paper, Hughes argues against the position of the whole brainer promoters who contend that death is determined as a single event when the entire brain is dies. He argues in favor of some "neocorticalists" (excluding the unitarian "neocorticalists") who support the idea of a mind-body framework that distinguishes between social and biological life and death. Hughes makes a strong argument for his position, reminding everyone that technological advances will eventually replace body and brain. Those advances, he believes, will change the social definition.

One of Hughes' most interesting pieces of evidence in his argument for a social definition of death is that there is no absolute line "between social death and life. Instead of a universal binary dead-alive recognition, cross-cultural evidence would suggest more of a two-by-two table." Hughes supports his argument by considering the practices and beliefs of primitive and sophisticated societies:

Corpses are treated in some societies as being inhabited by the vital principle for long after we would declare death, as for instance among the Tibetans who continue to chant verse to the body and its listening spirit for a week after respiration has stopped. And many societies invest greater or lesser faith in the continued presence of the dead as members of the social order, with rights and obligations.

Hughes also takes into account the cross cultural views of various societal beliefs about when life begins. He notes:

Partum is not the universally recognized beginning of social life. In some societies infants were not considered persons until one year of age.... Some religions and cultures hold that social personhood begins at conception, or before. Some societies recognize a continuity of identity across individuals, on the grounds that one person can or should assume the roles and obligations of another.

To read his entire paper, click "Brain Death and Technological Change: Personal Identity, Neural Prostheses and Uploading." The following bibliography is reprinted from Dr. Hughes' paper to aid in further research:


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