As I work on a story and look into the possibility of cryonics, one of the questions that comes up is just what is death and when is a person dead?
Centuries ago you were dead when you stopped breathing, then we learned about artificial resuscitation.
Then you were dead when your heart stoped, until we learned about CPR and appropriate use of electric discharge to restart the heart.
Now you're dead if your brain ceases to function, but how close are we to a device that can jumpstart a brain?
First off, we need to tread carefully in areas such as cryonics and the book I am trying to write centers on one such experimental revival gone badly wrong (I guess it's a variation on the Frankenstein
motif.) I do not wish to say don't do it, but I do want to see a yellow flashing light as we do the research; I am raising a caution flag not an all-stop flag.
I think in order to define death
we need to define life
. Life is like love in that the English language uses one word to designate some very different things. The Greeks had at least four different words for Love
(an affection born of familiarity and comfort, the most impersonal of the loves), Philos
(more appropriately translated "liking" or "friendship"), Eros
(romantic or sexual love) and Agape
( Spiritual love which is described in I Corinthians 13)
The Greeks also had at least two words for life
. The first word is bios
which describes what is basically a very complex and ongoing chemical reaction that operates in every living thing. The second is zoe
which is harder to define but involves thought processes and awareness and is generally limited to higher animals. There is also a third life described in the New Testament which is given by the Holy Spirit and is eternal.
The Greeks also had two words for death. Necros
which describes the end of mere biological function and thanatos
which is a total death. (The New Testament also describes the "second death" which is final consequence of sin and is far greater than either of the other two.) We have already pushed into the realm of Necros
death whenever we revive someone whose heart has stopped but thanatos
death is another matter. It occurs when (from a theological viewpoint) the body and soul completely seperate or (from a materialist viewpoint) when the information stored in the brain randomizes. Once that occurs even a cryonic revival cannot save a person.
My biggest concern is we don't know where to draw the line. I would have no problem with a device that could "jumpstart" a brain within seconds of it stopping but when a person has been biologically dead for a while, I am not quite so sure.
Early in my writing, some of the researchers believe they may have unwittingly already revived a dead person (but his body was still marginally functional when he was frozen and the debate was about if he was alive while he was frozen):Ernie couldn't believe that the most "outside the box" group on the planet could not see the obvious."His brain was not functioning people! He was dead, dead, DEAD!"Various protests broke out but Ernie continued unabated."By every definition he was dead while he was frozen. His heart was not beating. He was not breathing. His brain was non-functional! I challenge one person to give me one reason to say he was alive at that point in time!"Dr McCain responded, "He walked out of here. That means he was alive."Ernie smiled at her and said, "Jenny, remember, we had to restart his brain.""That is true, Jenny" I added, "If anyone had asked, not knowing what we were doing, would they have come to the conclusion that Johnny Larson was alive? What evidence would there have been?"She was not yet convinced."In my heart, I believe that when one dies, one does not come back without a push by God Himself. If he walked out of here on his own two feet, which he did, then he was never truly dead. If he was indeed dead, he would have stayed that way. I don't know where the distinction lies, and being a mathmetician, that is a hard thing to say, but in my heart, I know there is a difference."
One can also remember the difference between "mostly dead" and "all dead" in The Princess Bride
(One is still slightly alive and you can help them, the other all you can do is go through their pockets and look for loose change.)
This is a key. We do not know the point at which thanatos
death takes place. Once it happens the patient is not coming back until God says so. That is why we need to proceed with caution.