Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

A Reexamination of the Hylomorphic Theory of Death

Academic journal article The Review of Metaphysics

A Reexamination of the Hylomorphic Theory of Death

Article excerpt

RECENT ADVANCES IN MEDICAL TECHNOLOGY, especially the introduction of various intensive-care and life-support machines, have necessitated a reassessment of traditional medical and philosophical beliefs regarding the criteria of death. Many philosophers have sought to give accounts of the principles involved in death as well as the ethical consequences of these accounts. Among such philosophers have been those who employ a hylomorphic conception of the human person as matter configured by a soul. (1) This is a complex theory and it has led to widely varying accounts of death. Though these philosophers agree that death involves the loss of the unified functioning of the human organism, different hylomorphists have accepted each of the three criteria of death proposed in the literature today, that is, the higher-brain criterion for death, (2) the whole-brain criterion, (3) and the circulatory-respiratory criterion. (4) Many of the same passages in Aristotle and St. Thomas, whose works are generally taken to be the primary sources on hylomorphism (as they are in this paper), have been used to support each of these theories.

In this paper I shall attempt to sort out various aspects of hylomorphic theory which relate to the issue of death by examining some key passages in Aristotle and St. Thomas as well as in contemporary literature on the subject. I shall seek to discern those positions regarding the cessation of the functioning of the human person to which the hylomorphist must be committed. The most important issues here are the multiple ways in which the soul relates to the body and its parts, the unity of the soul, and the principal organ through which the soul moves other organs. By sorting out these passages, I shall argue that in light of medical evidence interpreted in terms of the different ways the soul relates to the body, the hylomorphist ought to be committed to the circulatory-respiratory criterion in most situations, with certain exceptions for some extreme cases. I shall show that this allows the hylomorphist to offer solutions to such thought experiments as Alan Shewmon's cerebrum-transplant thought experiments, without treating a cerebrum transplant in the same way as a persistent vegetative state, and without dismissing such thought experiments as irrelevant to the issue of the criterion of death. (5) Employing the circulatory-respiratory criterion of death also allows problems encountered by hylomorphists who employ a brain criterion, as well as problems encountered by those who espouse an animalist or closest continuer account of personal identity, to be overcome.

I shall first present the Aristotelian-Thomistic theory of the nature of the human person, focusing on the soul's functions as the act or form of the organism's matter, as the telos of the matter, and as the motor of the body. In light of these functions, I shall present the hylomorphic definition of death as the loss of the soul by the organism; this will be explained as a loss of functioning, organization, and teleology. Next, I shall consider the issues of the unity and persistence of the soul and of the primary organ. This discussion will provide the evidence for my claim that, in the case of the use of certain modern technologies and in various thought experiments, aspects of death are pulled apart in such a way that the death of the whole brain does not necessarily indicate the death of the organism. Given the basic ideas of hylomorphism, the criteria for death will vary in different cases, but in normal situations the proper criterion for death is the cessation of the capacity for circulation of oxygenated, nutrient-bearing blood.

I

An Account of Hylomorphism. We must first consider the reasons for positing a theory of hylomorphism in the first place. Hylomorphism is the theory that things are composites of matter and form. (6) This idea is interpreted in different ways in different places in Aristotle's writings; this paper will attempt to remain true to St. …

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