Wednesday, December 13, 2023

The inappropriateness of matter explanation of death

A standard Aristotelian explanation of when an organism dies—when its form separates from the body—is that this happens precisely when the organism’s body is no longer “fit” for the form, say because it completely fails to support the basic functions of the type of organism that the form specifies.

If I am right in my series of posts about pointy beginnings and ends (starting with this one), this is a problematic idea. For according to the arguments in the posts, in almost every reference frame, towards the very end of my life, my form (which is my soul) informs a tiny subatomic bit of matter. But no subatomic piece of my matter is supportive of the distinctive functioning of a human being: it is equally supportive of an oak tree, a frog, a human, or just a particle. If I survive until a moment when I am reduced to such a tiny organism, then the “fitness” criterion seems rather meaningless or at best trivial—for as far as this criterion goes, I could survive even if everything was destroyed in me other than a subatomic piece of my left little toe, since the subatomic pieces of my left little toe are no different from the subatomic pieces of any other part of me.

I still suspect that fitness of the body for the form plays some sort of a role in determining the time of death. Plausibly the causal powers of an organism, grounded in the form, are such that when the body stops being capable of supporting the functioning of the organism, the organism’s power to sustain its existence starts to fade, and the organism shrinks (as per my pointiness posts) and dies. However that shrinking is gradual, and not necessitated simply by the unfitness of the matter, but by the unfitness of the matter and the form’s causal powers which explain how quickly the unfitness of the matter is followed by death.

But maybe there is a way out of this argument using this line of thought.


William said...

Maybe with a nuclear blast death con be instantaneous, but most of the time death is a process that has a duration, and that duration is usually at least a few minutes. The "exact time of death" on a death certificate 1s frequently a convenient fiction.

Cardiac "sudden death" scenarios can be treated with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, sometimes successfully, exactly because death is a process that is occasionally reversible in the earliest stages.

Alexander R Pruss said...

But remember that the setting here is an Aristotelian metaphysics on which death is defined by the metaphysical separation of form from matter. While the biological correlates of death may be vague, whether a piece of matter is metaphysically informed by a given form is not itself vague. I am alive as long as my form (which is identical with as my soul) informs some bit of matter.

And even apart from Aristotelian metaphysics, the idea that it might be vague whether a rabbit is alive is pretty problematic. A vaguely alive rabbit at t is a rabbit that is vaguely existent at t (that's why I am talking about rabbits and not people, since on some dualist views people continue to exist when they are dead). Vague existence simpliciter is highly problematic logically. Vague existence at t might be a little bit less problematic, but not much less.

William said...

The point of Aristotelian metaphysical death may have to be precise, but the point at which Aristotelian death occurs during the death process may remain vague and variable (and perhaps also reversible if some near-death experience are actually true).