Meeting 3.2 – What Ends at Death?

On 18 September, the reading group met for a second time.


Luper, Steven (2009) “Death.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy


We found the article provoked good questions regarding how we used the concept of death, but were not entirely happy with the framing or the nomenclature.


Luper introduces several distinctions with regard to timing:

Death may refer to an event, a process, or a state.

Dénouement Death: the completion of the process – no life left

Threshold Death: the moment when a state of irreversibility is reached

Integration Death: the moment when corporate function fails


Luper contrasts two types of ending:

1) Suspended animation: a life is put on hold, but not ended. It may be revived.

2) Disassembly: a life ends when something is taken apart. It may be restored. “a creature has died just when its vital processes are irreversibly discontinued”


We felt some of Luper’s categories were problematic, so we tried to come up with some of our own. We did not reach consensus on the categories, but did identify key areas of interest. We noted that concepts of death may be different depending on your concerns.

Pragmatic concerns have to do with what you wish to accomplish with the concept. Examples: What work is this concept of death doing in biological research? What level of precision is necessary for making predictions?

Pastoral concerns have to do with the effect the concept has on the people using them. Examples: How does this concept of death help people deal with separation from loved ones in the dying process? How do differing concepts of death cause cognitive and emotional dissonance?

Metaphysical concerns have to do with analyzing the abstract structure of concepts. Examples: Is this concept of death logically rigorous? What does it tell us about the concept of life that goes with it?

In our last session, we looked at different discourses in which “death” had meaning, fields which might ask the question (law, medicine, philosophy, biology…). This session focused more on questions of what exactly dies. What ends and what persists.

One concept suggests that the most interesting aspects of death are biological. For humans this is usually viewed as the end of an individual organism in the species Homo sapiens. We agreed that organisms are bounded in time and space and are usually easy to identify. The pragmatic concerns of research are met, despite some metaphysical ambiguity.

For example, we say that a rabbit dies. We also speak of “cell death” when one of the rabbit’s cells ceases to function, but it’s not clear whether we mean death in the same way. An organelle is a functional unit within a cell that cannot exist independently. Can an organelle die? We normally would not say that the organelle had “died” unless we were being metaphorical. So biological death refers to the end of some unit above the level of an organelle, but possibly below the level of the organism. [Note that the word organism itself comes from some idea of a harmonious whole, working together. It is has a definition of life built into it, which we will get to in the next session.] This distinction will matter when we want to ask if viruses can die, or genes. It turns out to be rather unimportant when trying to make predictions about viruses, genes, cells, organs, and organisms. These things end, whether we call it death or not. Thus biologists don’t talk about it much.

This brought up the important distinction between “biological death” as a question of who’s talking (biologists) versus what they are talking about (the death of an individual organism). The general public has opinions about the death of an organism which may or may not be informed by the latest biology. To say that death is biological may not mean that biologists are the best authorities on the subject.

I presented a personal interest in exploring the comparative death in biological discourse. Do we use the same concept of death when we say the human died and the bacterium died? Insofar as our concept of death is biological, I think our answer should be yes. I’m not aware of either pragmatic or metaphysical commitments in science that allow us to distinguish. Bacterial death should be the same as human death if we are talking about the end of an individual organism. Often we want to talk about something else and will need to bring in a concept from another discourse.

Another concept of death suggests that the most interesting aspects of death are personal. In this case, death is viewed as the end of a mind, a personality, a consciousness, or a set of preferences. Those four may be independent or tied together, depending on your perspective. Different theories of “personhood” give us different answers. Often in end of life care, it can be important, pastorally to be sensitive to these ends. We sometimes speak of a person “going away” even when they are still physically present. The process of dealing with death can be quite extended, even if we see death itself as abrupt. How do we differentiate between a person ceasing to be and our loss of the ability to communicate? How do we deal with the expectation of loss as well as the actual loss?

Theories of mind and soul often attempt to deal with these problems by “reifying” the loss. Something has departed or been separated from the body such that death becomes the end of a union between body and person. Alternatively, there are dynamic theories in which mind and soul are viewed as processes (or potentialities, activities, or harmonies). They are not things, themselves, but arrangements of things in time and space. Death could be the end of a particular dynamic state.

Thus Peter Singer (“preference utilitarianism”) cares primarily for individuals who can prefer. The process of preferring defines them and the end of preference defines their death. He’s comfortable with apes and other animals having preferences in a way that developing H. sapiens may not.

Similarly, John Locke spoke of the individual person as a continuity of experience through time. We are who we remember we are. For him, death had to do with the end of continuous experience.


One thought on “Meeting 3.2 – What Ends at Death?

  1. Pingback: Death and Biological Individuals | Science, Spirit, and Scripture

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