On the nature of death and personhood

Most of my friends who work with the brain are “scientists” who ponder about how the brain “works”. They poke and prod and measure things trying to find out what it means when an impulse moves from one place to another through various neurotransmitters. I don’t think any of this matters because it won’t lead to an understanding of what and why we are. I’m interested in where the rubber meets the road, especially what makes us people, not a collection of neuron circuits. Hammaroff is trying to explain philosophical concepts using physics. I didn’t think that was possible the first time I heard it, and I still don’t. I think the ultimate explanation, if there is one, lies in the realm of philosophy. But I’m not smart enough to understand much really involuted philosophy, and certainly not physics since I can’t add two and two three times and come up with the same number. I try to understand it using a common sense filter.

Having said that, I suspect there are aspects of the brain that are very computer-like, and those secrets will be unlocked in the future. Whether the seat of the soul will be the ghost in the computer is a much more interesting and elusive concept. Person-hood probably has some storage area. Maybe not, but let’s argue that it is unlikely to exist in the ethereal mist. Everything that makes a “person” is possibly contained in the transfer-RNA of those parts of his brain reserved for memory and storage of experience. The technology for unlocking this resource and transferring the information to a super-computer does not currently exist but it will in the future, as the development curve for computer power is almost vertical. It’s only a matter of time. As far as that goes, it’s only a matter of time before computers become “self aware” as in the “Terminator” sense, but I digress.

If this information can be uploaded, there is no technical reason why it cannot be downloaded back into a storage area (super-computer?) or (why not?) another brain wiped clean of information. There are people that think this is possible, or will be in the future. Cryonicists are involved in the practical aspects of this, and currently there are about 150 severed heads reposing in liquid nitrogen awaiting the day. (Am am not a Cryonicist myself but I understand the theory because I have friends that are passionately involved).

In so doing, all memory and experience would be restored in a different brain. Does that make the same individual that now tutors brainiac graduate students in physics? Technically, it’s probable but I suspect not. The information held in the portion of the brain that serves as the repository of the person is not all there is. I suspect the person-hood is more than the sum of his parts. It is the interaction of the sum of the parts that would not necessarily occur outside the delicate balance in it’s original setting, even though all the parts were present. Like cutting up a camel and then putting him back together. All the parts would fit but they would not necessarily function the way they did before.

We have very issues in deep in clinical medicine that blend into philosophy and even morality. The issue of organ donation for transplantation is quickly heading in this direction. For the moment I will simplify it for you. Traditionally organs are only donated after brain death, which is defined as clinical death by law and by current social agreement. Recently, another way of defining death has become popular, that of “cardiac death”, when the heart dies, the brain eventually dies, and so it’s death once removed. Again this is complicated, so trust me on this for a while.

The maxim is that when the heart dies, brain death is inevitable so the patient is “dead enough” to offer up organs for donation. But the key to brain death is “irreversibility”. By statute, the brain must be irreversibly dead become clinical death occurs. But with cardiac death, the brain may or may not be irreversibly dead. We don’t know because we don’t try to resuscitate the patient after cardiac death occurs. This brings up an interesting philosophical question involving cryonics.

Consider this interesting thought experiment.

The drill that occurs in the initiation of cryopreservation is interesting. The dying process is monitored and observed and then the patient is officially pronounced dead by a physician. At that point the patient is very legally dead. Once that pronouncement is made, the patient becomes a cadaver, and the rules for dealing with cadavers are quite different than with live humans. The concept of “consent” changes (a patient cannot consent to be dead at a finite point, but once dead, the family can order up just about anything). The consent for the cryopreservation kicks in (illegal before death). The cryopreservation team springs into action and “resuscitates” as much as they can to insure the best possible tissue condition for the procedure of preserving enough brain function to someday retrieve t-RNA and other goodies from the brain. This involves restoring blood flow to the brain ASAP. A mechanical CPR device is quickly brought to bear and “effective” CPR is initiated, creating forward flow of circulation. Inotropes and vasopressors are brought into play. The cadaver is intubated and placed on mechanical ventilation.

Now it gets interesting. In many instances, the cadaver “wakes up” following this treatment. Pupils respond again and spontaneous motion occurs. In many cases they use the potent sedative 5-hydroxy GABA (brought in from Mexico) to stop moving them around. Then the major artery and vein are cannulated and the preservation brew is circulated through the tissues to protect it from ice crystals during the freezing process with liquid nitrogen.

Was this patient really “dead”? Sure he was. He was officially pronounced dead by a licensed physician. A patient is dead when his doctor says he’s dead. The morgue and the Conqueror Worm await. Is the person Is morally, ethically spiritually, physically, positively, absolutely, undeniably, reliably and most sincerely dead? That’s a lot more arguable.

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