Dick Teresi

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Being buried alive is a primordial fear, but it may not be a baseless one. It’s not as easy to tell if someone’s dead as you might think. There have been different rules through the ages and new technologies cause a continued reassessment of those rules. Dick Teresi has written a book on the subject and now Peter Rothman has a smart piece at h+ on the ever-changing nature of life’s terminus. The opening:

“Black or white. Alive or dead. Right?

In reality death is not well defined and the definition of death has changed substantially over time.

H.P Lovecraft famously wrote, ‘That is not dead which can eternal lie. Yet with strange aeons even death may die.‘ This amounts to a pretty good summary of our current philosophical understanding of death. Death is simply the condition wherein you can not be brought back to life. If you can be brought back, then you weren’t really dead.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides us a few examples of more nuanced definitions, for example one might suggest that death is ‘the irreversible cessation of organismic functioning’ or the ‘irreversible loss of personhood.’ These amount to circular definitions that really don’t tell us anything specific about how to decide when someone is dead. What is ‘organismic functioning’ and how do we know when it is happening? Personhood is of course mostly a legal definition pertaining to rights which are terminated upon death. But if you are brought back to life, you weren’t really dead.

And we’ve been burying people alive for a long time.” (Thanks Browser.)

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Salon has a provocative excerpt from Dick Teresi’s new book, The Undead, which examines the difficulty of establishing when life has truly ceased, an issue that will only become infinitely thornier in the coming decades. The opening of “The Evolution of Death“:

“Michael DeVita of the University of Pittsburgh recalls making the rounds at a student teaching hospital with his interns in tow when he remembered that he had a patient upstairs who was near death. He sent a few of the young doctors ‘to check on Mr. Smith’ in Room 301 and to report back on whether he was dead yet. DeVita continued rounds with the remainder of the interns, but after some time had passed he wondered what happened to his emissaries of death. Trotting up to Mr. Smith’s room, he found them all paging through ‘The Washington Manual,’ the traditional handbook given to interns. But there is nothing in the manual that tells new doctors how to determine which patients are alive and which are dead.

Most of us would agree that King Tut and the other mummified ancient Egyptians are dead, and that you and I are alive. Somewhere in between these two states lies the moment of death. But where is that? The old standby — and not such a bad standard — is the stopping of the heart. But the stopping of a heart is anything but irreversible. We’ve seen hearts start up again on their own inside the body, outside the body, even in someone else’s body. Christian Barnard was the first to show us that a heart could stop in one body and be fired up in another. Due to the mountain of evidence to the contrary, it is comical to consider that “brain death” marks the moment of legal death in all fifty states.

The search for the moment of death continues, though hampered by the considerable legal apparatus that insists that it has already been found.”


Bernie, reborn, doing conga:

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