Friday, July 14, 2017

Snake annihilation and partial death

The following five principles seem to be rationally incompatible:

  1. Every part of a living organism is informed by its form.

  2. If any part of an organism is informed by its form, the organism is alive.

  3. An snake would be dead if everything but the tailmost one percent of its length were annihilated.

  4. Simultaneity is relative, as described by Special Relativity.

  5. Being informed by a form is not relative to a reference frame.

To see the incompatibility, consider this case. A snake of ordinary proportions is lying stretched out in a line and is then instantaneously completely annihilated. Notice an interesting fact about this snake:

  1. Every bit of this snake is informed by the form of the snake whenever it exists.

This follows from (1) and the setup of the situation. Note that (6) will not be true in the case of snakes that meet a more ordinary end than by complete instant annihilation: those snakes leave behind parts that are no longer informed (they may be parts only in a manner of speaking, but I think nothing in my argument hangs on this). It is to make (6) true that I supposed the snake annihilated instantaneously.

Now, by (4), the claim that the snake is must have been said with respect to some reference frame F1. But it follows from Special Relativity and the geometry of linear snakes that there will be a reference frame F2 relative to which the snake is annihilated gradually from the head to the tail rather than simultaneously. There will thus be a time t2 such that relative to F2 at t2 the snake has been annihilated except for the tailmost one percent. At t2 relative to F2, that tailmost one percent is informed by the form of the snake by (5) and (6). By (2), the snake is alive at t2 relative to F2. But by (3), it is dead at t2 relative to F2. So, the snake is both alive and dead at t2 relative to F2, which is absurd.

I am not sure what to do about this argument. I feel pushed to deny (2). Perhaps something could be dead simpliciter but still have living parts. But that’s an uncomfortble position.


Daniel Waweru said...

There's good evidence of a number of bodily functions continuing, even after death: famously, human hearts can continue to beat for some time after a person is dead. Equally, there was a widely reported study this year, in Open Biology, which seemed to show that at least some cells remain alive for days after death.

Consider also the contrary case: are parts of the organism dead while the organism remains alive? Certainly: a healthy person's body kills and expels cells quite frequently. The life of an organism and the life of its parts do come apart.

Like you, then, I'm tempted to reject (2).

Alexander R Pruss said...

All good points, but it's not clear that the biologically living cells that survive the organism's death are in fact living in the metaphysical sense -- that they are informed by the form of the organism.

Every organism we know of has some non-living parts: electrons, protons and neutrons. But I am not sure if a dead *cell* is still a part of the body that it is in.

Another interesting question in the vicinity is whether sperm aren't still a part of the man even while they are outside the man. If they are, then they are informed by the form, and might stay thus informed even if the man died.

Angra Mainyu said...

Hi Alex,

This seems to be a problem under Aristotelian metaphysics or similar (as a non-Aristotelian, I don't find this problematic).
But leaving that aside, what do you make of the following scenario?

Jack is a professional assassin, and shoots Bob in the head because he was hired to do so. Bob's heart, however, survives. Alice is a patient who gets Bob's heart. Jack is arrested, and accused of first degree murder. The evidence that he shot Bob in the head is overwhelming. Jack's lawyer, however, says that Bob is not dead. He's still alive, since his heart is still alive. Moreover, he points out that the heart is not informed by the form of Alice. In fact, Alice's own immune system would kill the heart if it were not suppressed by drugs.
The defense attorney also says that trying to equate the morality of Jack's action with that of an act of murder won't cut it, because criminal law does not extend punishments by analogy. So, Bob is not dead, and Jack should not be found guilty according to the law.
The prosecutor responds that even if the organism is not dead, Bob - the person - is dead, and Bob's heart is not Bob. Moreover, if Bob's brain is dead, then Bob is dead. But the defense attorney claims that embryos before the development of the brain are persons, and that so are people in life support despite the degree of damage to the brain, so the brain is not required for the person to exist. So, he insists that Bob is alive.

Has the lawyer created reasonable doubt?

Now let's say that life goes on, and a new technology is developed. This new tech allows organs to be grown in a lab, with the DNA of a living human being. A heart with Alice's DNA is grown. Great, so she wants the heart implanted. But she begins to wonder whether she would be killing a human organism, which she considers akin to murder (that's what she believes about abortion too; I think she's wrong, but that's not the issue).

Angra Mainyu said...

Let's say the prosecutor insists that Alice's form informs the heart after the transplant, even if her immune system would kill it if allowed to work normally. The defense attorney replies:

"I don't think that that is the case. But let's say that the prosecutor is correct. Then, Bob is dead, but my client did not kill him. In fact, Bob survived until his heart was implanted into Alice's chest. From that point on, the heart was no longer informed by Bob's form, but by Alice's. That killed Bob. So, my client is only guilty of attempted murder, not murder. Granted, my client mortally wounded Bob, and that would have resulted in murder...if it weren't for the fact that some doctors killed him first, by placing the heart into Alice's chest.
On the other hand, if I'm right Bob is still alive. Either way, my client is not guilty of murder".

Alexander R Pruss said...

A plausible thing to say is that just as when you eat and the food is incorporated into you, the food comes to have your form, so too when a replacement organ is incorporated into you, it comes to have your form.

Angra Mainyu said...

That raises the additional issue that without a drug to supress your immune system, your body would destroy the organ. Another difficulty is the view that when you eat your food, it comes to have your form: the food that comes to have your form is not alive anymore. You incorporate the components. But the living stuff dies. There may be some exceptions, like perhaps some yogurs that come with bacteria that colonize your gut. But they do not have your form: they have theirs (i.e., assuming an Aristotelian picture, etc.).

But assuming there is a way around those issues, it seems to me that the ones I raised earlier are moved from one place to another rather than resolved, for the following reasons:
In the court case, the defense attorney makes the argument I have in my third post above - i.e., the doctors killed Bob when they transplanted the heart, so his client is not guilty of murder, but only of attempted murder.
As for Alice, if the organ is already informed by her form, getting rid of it is not a problem for her. But now she has another problem: She comes to believe that the doctors killed a human being by giving her the heart. Generally, this seems to raise a problem for transplants.

Angra Mainyu said...

In light of your reply to the other post, I'd add that if the prosecutor says that organs removed from the body are no longer informed, the defense attorney says what killed Bob may well not have been the shot to the head, but rather, the actions of some doctors who - when he was still alive - removed his heart, liver and kidneys, and gave them to different people, hastening his death (he would have died anyway, but perhaps more slowly). So - the lawyer claims - there is reasonable doubt at least as to who killed him.
This also seems to raise the problem for transplants: by removing the heart, liver, kidneys, etc., from the body, are doctors not perhaps killing the patient?

Alexander R Pruss said...

"by removing the heart, liver, kidneys, etc., from the body, are doctors not perhaps killing the patient": They surely are IF the patient is alive at removal. Hopefully, they only remove the organs once the patient is dead.

Angra Mainyu said...

Sorry if I was unclear, but that was the point I was getting at: the defense attorney attempts to create reasonable doubt that his client didn't kill Bob, by means of arguing that Bob was still alive when the doctors removed the organs.
He argues on the basis of standard Aristotelianism, plus the principle #2 on your list (and an assumption in your argument that the organs are parts of the organism), as follows:

P1. Bob is the organism whose form informs Bob's heart, liver, kidneys, etc., as long as they are not removed from the body. [This follows from standard Aristotelianism, if I'm getting your points about it right].
P2. If any part of an organism is informed by its form, the organism is alive. [that's principle #2 on your list].
P3. Bob's liver is a part of Bob.
P4. Bob's heart is a part of Bob.
etc. (listing all of the organs that were transplanted; we can further specify if needed, but I don't think that's required).
C. Bob was alive until the organs in question were removed from his body.

So, the defense attorney says that while his client mortally wounded Bob, and Bob would have died of his injuries if left alone, some doctors intervened while he was still alive, and also inflicted several wounds, each of which would on its own be a mortal wound, like removing the heart, the liver, the kidneys, etc., so there is at the very least a reasonable doubt as to who killed Bob (the attorney can also argue that the doctors did it, but he only needs to create reasonable doubt).

The defense attorney needs to create reasonable doubt, but he has not (well, I claim he has not, but saying he has would be a really big bullet to bite, and would be very serious problem for organ transplants). The judge of facts should convict Jack on the basis of the evidence presented to them.

So, I would be inclined to say that the conjunction of standard Aristotelianism, principle #2 on your list, and the hypothesis that the organs are part of the organism, is so improbable it does not even create a reasonable doubt.