Posted on 12 August 2009
Modern medical treatments allow doctors to intervene in cases where previously there would be little or no hope of recovery. In some cases, though, the result of this intervention is to leave a patient in a condition that raises questions about the sense in which they can be considered to be “alive”.
Patients in a persistent vegetative state, for example, have irreversibly lost the brain function that supports their consciousness yet they have sufficient capacity to breathe spontaneously while their body continues to digest food, metabolise and respond to temperature changes. Is such a patient alive?
Determining the answer is important because it dictates how the individual is cared for. If they are alive then, at least in some cases, they must continue to receive treatment. If not, the resources used to care for them could be directed elsewhere and consideration can be given to how their organs might benefit others.
Considering our difficulty answering questions such as these is an area of research pursued by Dr Stephen Holland, from the Departments of Philosophy and Health Sciences.
He argues that while the legal situation is clear - the patient is alive because part of their brain function continues - there is a very strong intuitive feeling that such a patient is dead because as a person they no longer exist.
Dr Holland suggests that this scenario points to our concept of death incorporating two very different ideas. In one sense we see death as an objective biological empirical idea where creatures are complex machines that sometimes breakdown and cannot be repaired. However, death also embraces the idea that it is like something to be the creature in question and, therefore, a creature is dead when it is no longer like anything to be it. The difficulty in answering the question “when does somebody die” lies in the attempt to resolve those two competing ideas.
Dr Stephen Holland is a Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Philosophy and Health Sciences