Death, Life and the Question of Identity

A classical point of departure in defining Death, seems to be Life itself. Death is perceived either as a cessation of Life - or as a "transit zone", on the way to a continuation of Life by other means.

While the former presents a disjunction, the latter is a continuum, Death being nothing but a corridor into another plane of existence (the hereafter).

Another, logically more rigorous approach, would be to ask "Who is Dead" when Death occurs.

In other words, an identity of the Dying (=it which "commits" Death) is essential in defining Death. But what are the means to establish an unambiguous, unequivocal identity?

Is an identity established through the use of quantitative parameters?

Is it dependent, for instance, upon the number of discrete units which comprise the functioning whole?

If so, where is the level at which useful distinctions and observations are replaced by useless scholastic mind-warps?

Example: if we study a human identity - should it be defined by the number and organization of its limbs, its cells, its atoms?

The cells in a human body are replaced (with the exception of the cells of the nervous system) every 5 years. Would this imply that we gain a new identity each time this cycle is completed?

Adopting this course of thinking leads to absurd results:

When humans die, the replacement rate of their cells is infinitely reduced. Does this mean that their identity is better and longer preserved once dead? No one would agree with this. Death is tantamount to a loss of identity - not to its preservation.

So, a qualitative yardstick is required.

We can start by asking will the identity change - if we change someone's' brain by another's? "He is not the same" - we say of someone with a brain injury. If a partial alteration of the brain causes such sea change (however partial) in the determinants of identity - it seems safe to assume that a replacement of one's brain by another will result in a total change of identity, to the point of its abolition and replacement by another.

If the brain is the locus of identity, we should be able to assert that when (the cells of) all the other organs of the body are replaced (with the exception of the brain) - the identity will remain the same.

The human hardware (body) and software (the wiring of the brain) are conversely analogous to a computer.

If we change all the software in a computer - it will still remain the same (though more or less capable) computer. This is equivalent to growing up in humans.

However, if we change the computer's processor - it will no longer be identified as the same computer.

This, partly, is the result of the separation between hardware (=the microprocessor) and software (=the programmes that it processes). There is no such separation in the human brain. These 1300 grams of yellowish material in our heads are both hardware and software.

Still, the computer analogy seems to indicate that our identity resides not in our learning, knowledge, or memories. It is an epiphenomenon. It emerges when a certain level of hardware complexity is attained. Yet, it is not so simple. If we were to eliminate someone's entire store of learning and memories (without affecting his brain) - would he still be the same person (=would he still retain the same identity)? Probably not.

Luckily, achieving the above - erasing one's learning and memories without affecting his brain - is impossible. In humans, learning and memories ARE the brain. They change the hardware that processes them in an irreversible manner.

This, naturally, cannot be said of a computer. There, the separation is clear. Change a computer's hardware and you changed its identity. And computers are software - invariant.

We are, therefore, able to confidently conclude that the brain is the sole determinant of identity, its seat and signifier. This is because our brain IS both our processing hardware and our processing software. It is also a repository of processed data. ANY subsystem comprising these functions can be justly equated with the system of which it is a part. This seems to hold true even under the wildest gedankenexperiments.

A human brain detached from any body is still assumed to possess identity. And a monkey implanted with a human brain will host the identity of the former owner of the brain.

Around this seemingly faultless test revolved many of the debates which