Death Just Got Weird: Reviving Pigs Brains

cemetery with grave stones reminding people of death

“Bioethics is a fascinating field of philosophy because we don’t have to make this shit up”

Professor Arras said that countless times in my many lectures on bioethical issues. I have never felt that more clear than when I read the headline:

Scientists- We kept pig brains alive 10 hours after death. Bioethicists- “Holy shit.”

Explanation of the Experiment

Basically, the scientist decided to test the hypothesis that brain death is irreversible. They took 32 pig’s brains from slaughtered pigs. They waited for four hours. Then the pig’s brains where plugged into BrainEx for six hours. (if you want a detailed description on how the system works please see here). The study concludes that certain brain cells were alive. The cells were not communicative with each other. Yet, they were performing basic functions. Thus, the scientist created all sorts of problems for ethicists.

Death

I spent most of my undergrad philosophy career studying death and dying issues. When we die is a fascinating question. One that has implications for us spiritually.

Life After Death

Catholics define death as a separation of the soul from the body. So do we have a soul? Certain people are blessed to have an experience of what life is beyond the grave. For the rest of us, we have this inner longing for something more than biological. It is this inner longing that points to the Catholic understanding of the soul. There are 7 reasons to
“believe in a soul.
One is the philosophical idea that the existence of one thing necessitates the existence of another. For example, the existence of a male dog necessitates the existence of a female dog. The desire for something more than our biological self necessitates an actual immortal existence.

What is the Soul

Ok, so we have proven that an immortal soul exists in humans. My question has always been where and what is it? I always assumed consciousness was the location of the soul.

I was wrong

The soul according to Catholic thought is the life force of the body. It does not just reside in one part but animates the whole. For this reason, the soul is unquantifiable. Thus, science has had to resort to other philosophical meaning about death.

Scientific Death

There are 3 different views on when we die. The views are whole-brain death, the essence of the human person, and circulatory-respiratory standard. All three fail to pinpoint when you die.

Whole Brain

Death occurs when either circulatory and respiratory functions stop working. Death also comes when the whole brain including brain stem has stopped working. Two problems with this definition. First, the brain is not responsible for the integration of bodily functions. A brain dead patient can still perform the functions of life. This includes healing wounds and digesting food. Second certain individuals with lock-in syndrome are considered brain dead. Yet these individuals actually are aware. Thus it appears one can be alive even when brain dead.

Essence of a Human Person

For these people, it matters not that an organism performs biological functions. What matters is what makes us human. If we lose what makes us human, we are dead. Proponents argue that what makes us human is the capacity for consciousness.

The problem with this view is that it ignores humanity’s biological nature. We are more than mere minds. Common sense tells us that we still exist even if we lose our mental capacity.

Circulatory-respiratory Standard

Death occurs when circulatory-respiratory functions stop working. It explains the difficult cases such as locked-in syndrome and prenatal humans. Yet it fails to account for the importance of mental life. Humans are more than body’s that can pump blood and breathe. Second, it creates problems for organ donation. The dead-donor rule only allows organs to be donated from dead persons. If respiratory function still exists then under the Circulatory-respiratory standard the person is still alive. It is better to get organs from a patient on a ventilator. Yet this would be illegal under the dead donor rule.

What About the Pigs

The revival of the pigs begs two philosophical questions. First, was the experiment to revive an animal ethical? Second, What does this imply for those undergoing brain death? If cells in the brain can be revived, can we really say a person with no brain functioning is dead? If such a person is not dead, can we ethically procure organs from them? It calls for a new standard of death. One that recognizes that death is a gradual progression. We are not minds trapped in an organic body. Nor are we mere organic bodies, but we are both.