Brain based criteria for death in the light of the Aristotelian-Scholastic anthropology: can the classical philosophy help us to understand the functioning of human brain and its interconnection with the body?

Jacek Maria Norkowski



In 1968 the authors of the so-called Harvard Report, proposed the recognition of an irreversible coma as a new criterion for death. The proposal was accepted by the medical, legal, religious and political circles in spite of the lack of any explanation why the irreversible coma combined with the absence of brainstem reflexes, including the respiratory reflex might be equated to death.

Such an explanation was formulated in the President’s Commission Report published in 1981. This document stated, that the brain is the central integrator of the body, therefore the destruction of the brain results in the lack of that integration and the death of the organism. Therefore, according to that document, the so-called “brain dead” patients are really, biologically dead; strictly speaking they are not any more biological organisms but collections of organs and tissues. Their death was masked by the use of the medical equipment, but it was a real, biological death. Thus, the explanation given by the President’s Commission Report constituted a biological rationale for the new concept of death, known as “brain death.” However, after the long discussion, this rationale was refuted because of the evidence given by many medical authorities, that the bodies of the “brain dead” and “brainstem dead” patients are alive.

In the context of the discussion about the neurological criteria for death, some authors follow the idea of Plato, that human being is the soul or mind, and the body does not belong to the human essence. Therefore, the loss of consciousness, which may be identified with the mind, constitutes the loss of personhood and may be interpreted as human death. The other group stresses the Aristotelian and Thomistic concept that the body belongs to the essence of every living creature, including human. Therefore, as long as the body is alive, the human being is alive and we cannot call the given patient dead even if he is deeply comatose.

Moreover, in spite of the opinions dominating in the mass-media, these patients should be considered not only alive but also may be conscious to some degree and their state can be reversible. Their brains are lacking the electrical functions, but the neuronal tissue is alive and that state is reversible for at least first 48 hours since the onset of coma; this phenomenon is called “global ischemic penumbra” and is responsible for the regularly happening events interpreted as miracles, when some of the “brain dead” or “brainstem dead” patients turn to be alive and come back to normal life. Therefore, the neurological criteria of death are still lacking generally accepted scientific basis and should not be used in medicine and in the legal systems as a basis for diagnosing comatose/having no brainstem reflexes/apneic patients dead.


Harvard Report; brain death; brainstem death; coma; consciousness; soul

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