Monday, February 22, 2010

Dead Wrong?

Since death is one of the things we try to avoid in doing engineering ethics, it only stands to reason that we need to have a good, widely accepted definition of death. This might not be as easy to agree on as you might think.

Michael Shermer is one of the nicest atheists you'll ever meet. He is a cheery, humorous person by nature, endowed with a strong sense of fairness and even generosity in debate, which is more than you can say about some skeptics. I once heard him speak at a conference that included many religious believers, and his attitude toward them was always courteous, but he never allowed them to get away with logical lapses. In his monthly column for Scientific American, Shermer shows the same combination of humor and rigor, so I was interested to read what he had to say about death in the March issue.

He starts off by saying, "Have you ever died and come back to life? Me neither. No one has." He goes on to describe a panel he participated in on Larry King Live in which several folks who claimed that they had died and come back to life told about their experiences. Shermer was more than willing to admit they had experienced a "near-death" state, but he says that death is a process, not an instantaneous event. And although he doesn't say in so many words, he clearly excludes anyone (or any living entity, presumably) from the category of ever having been "dead" if they are now living, no matter what state they were in at an earlier time.

That makes sense in a way, but consider the following situation. There are certain small bacteria whose internal workings are so simple that they can be frozen at liquid nitrogen temperatures or below without suffering permanent harm. A biologist told me once of an experiment he performed. He took one of these bacteria and chilled it so cold that you could show that all chemical and metabolic activity in the bacterium was frozen out—at that point, it was just an inert inanimate object and harbored no more lifelike activity than a salt crystal. Then he gradually warmed it up again to the point that its inner machinery thawed out and it began processing food and excreting waste and so on—in other words, it came back to life.

Now here is the critical question: when the bacterium was in its suspended-animation state, was it alive or dead? The answer depends on your definition of death.

If we use Shermer's definition, strictly speaking, we can't say until we know the subsequent history of the thing. Suppose that the biologist then lifted the frozen bacteria out of the cryostat, still frozen, and ran it through an acid bath or something that disintegrated the critter into its constituent atoms before it thawed out. Even Shermer would have to admit it was dead at that point. But he wouldn't have been able to say earlier, because if the biologist had instead thawed the thing out and got it going again, by Shermer's own definition, it would never have died. Like the guests on Larry King Live, it would have simply had a near-death experience.

This is not just a trivial thought problem. Out in California, there is a company that for a hefty fee will take your body (once you have ceased to function), freeze it in liquid nitrogen, and preserve it until such time as science has advanced enough to get you going again. If Shermer wants to be consistent, he can't say that those people are dead either, since neither he nor anyone else knows for absolutely sure that some day, scientific progress may enable the revival of people on ice like that. It's a good thing Shermer doesn't run a life-insurance company, because if he did there would be a lot of survivors of those frozen entities in California who wouldn't get their death benefits, because the alleged deceased doesn't meet Shermer's definition of death.

To turn theological for a moment, the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of Jesus is a central, if not the central, tenet of the faith. If Jesus really did rise from the dead, then by Shermer's definition, he never died, and if his followers rise some day too, they never died, either. Oddly (or maybe not so oddly), Jesus himself talks this way. In the Gospel of John, just before Jesus tells the dead and smelly Lazarus to come out of his tomb, he tells Lazarus's sister Martha that "He who believes in me shall never die." The Gospel doesn't say what Lazarus claims to have experienced during his four days in the tomb, but he later makes an appearance at the first-century equivalent of Larry King Live—a large banquet—and becomes sufficiently famous that the authorities plot to kill him as well as Jesus. If Shermer had been around then, I'm sure he would have said that Lazarus merely had a near-death experience as well.

Perhaps engineers can be satisfied with a pragmatic definition of death. If someone comes to be in a condition that makes it very unlikely they will be up and around and paying taxes any time soon, then we can consider them to be dead, no matter what philosophers or skeptics like Shermer or Christians say. I'm a Christian myself, and maybe the ancient custom of referring to believers who died in the faith as asleep rather than dead would be worth reviving. But if we revived it, it never really would have died, now, would it?

Sources: Michael Shermer's column "Surviving Death on Larry King Live" appears on p. 32 of the March 2010 issue of Scientific American. For those interested in the cryonics movement, Jill Lepore's report on the Cryonics Institute, one of the leading people-freezing outfits, appears in the Jan. 25, 2010 issue of The New Yorker.

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