Thursday, March 22, 2007

L'âme existe

The soul does exist. Despite the commonplace phenomenon whereby medical professionals ignore this question altogether or adopt some form of crude reductionism such as that tiredly and continually advanced by one of my professors, "all aspects of what we call personhood are derived from the activity of the neocortex," the soul does exist. (As an aside: the neocortex is a part of the brain associated with conscious functions, as opposed to more "primitive" actions like breathing, temperature regulation, etc.)

In class one day we took a survey which asked two questions. I pray that this is not representative of the wider medical community, but here you have it.

First question: "All aspects of personhood can be attributed to the activity of the cerebral cortex."
a) True
b) False
c) not sure

Over 50% of my classmates marked 'True.' Practically what this means is that people have either a grossly impoverished view of personhood or they are die hard materialists with a penchant for defining personhood functionally rather than formally (i.e. a human person is anyone who is born of human parents). This is not good. For the answer to the next question follows closely after the first.

Second question: "The definition of death should..."
a) only include the cessation of heart and lung function
b) be broadened to include inactivity of the neocortex (i.e. the so-called peristent-vegetative state)
c) not sure

70%. Yes you read that correctly, 70% of my fellow would-be doctors picked b) to my utter horrow and amazement. Still, I am confident not one of those 70% could adduce a meaningfully objective definition of death. That is, death is a the irreversible disintegration of the organism. Quite simple, that. Yet, beware for 70% of my classmates would be willing to harvest a person's organ's who was, like Terry Schiavo, in a peristent-vegetative state.

Note that answer b) is not one of the accepted definitions of "brain death," a subject which is still somewhat controversial even in the Catholic world. From my limited understanding, and I would defer to the Magisterium without a wink, brain death including irreversible loss of all brain function including the activity of the midbrain is a valid definition of death. Still there are those orthodox Catholic ethicists and physicians like Dr. Alan Shewmon, himself a pediatric neurologist, who oppose the use of the term and practice of declaring someone "brain dead." But I digress.

No, answer b) takes the extremely presumptuous view that people who do not appear to communicate (i.e. they cannot tell us whether or not they have any conscious activity or not) are in fact dead. This is merely euthanasia by another name. How do we know that these people are, in the experssed sentiments of Dr. Shewmon and William May, just in an "extremely locked-in state" whereby they are conscious but unable to express themselves consciously. The practical conclusions of such a state are horrifying. Just consider what it would be to be the patient in that situation.

This all comes down to the materialistic presuppositions of psychobiologists, who balk at even the suggestion that there might be something more to human persons than gray matter.

I do not have the time to elaborate further, but for the Catholic and indeed the entire history of Western thought, there exists a principal beyond matter, called the soul or mind, which is spiritual in nature and accounts for the uniquely human attributes of rationality and volition. This I maintain is the ultimate integrating and, pardon the pun, animating principle of the human body from which our embodied personhood ultimately derives. Anything less is crude materialism and incompatible with even the broadest religious understanding of the human person.

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