Redefinitions of Death

  • Gareth Southwell

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    In this dissertation I consider the current controversy surrounding the definition of death in certain rare situations which arise in response to advances in medical technology. In relation to these, I criticise various approaches which seek a resolution to such problems, arguing that all of them involve unjustified and unexamined assumptions as to the nature of death, and other related concepts. In chapter 1, I introduce and define the nature of the problem, arguing that whilst the problem can be seen to spring from technological advances, these merely reveal an inherent ambiguity. In chapter 2, I examine the so-called 'strictly-biological approach', and argue that its premise (that we can treat death as a purely factual matter) is flawed. In chapter 3, I support this conclusion with a broader attack upon conceptual essentialism, of which the strictly-biological approach can be seen as a foremost example. I also argue that this means that the nature of the problem is one that is not amenable to the sort of conceptual analysis that many might use to resolve the problem. Chapter 4 looks at the idea that biological function - the central criterion of the strictly-biological approach - cannot be considered an intrinsic, mind-independent feature of the world (and therefore, neither can a strictly-biological definition of death). Chapters 5 and 6 look at non-strictly-biological attempts to define death (what I term 'partly-biological' views) - namely the capacity for consciousness and personal identity respectively - and argue that both these approaches, far from resolving the problem, merely shift it to a different ground. In chapter 7,1 present a different picture of death as an 'observer-relative' feature of the world (to use John Searle's terminology), and argue that the resolution of the problem must have more in common with practices (e.g. in sport) where similar ambiguities are occasionally faced. In chapter 8, I further explore the consequences of the observer-relative status of death, arguing that this means that a much wider degree of variance and mutability is possible in relation to the related concepts of 'self and 'death', and that certain religious viewpoints and scenarios in science-fiction literature embody just such a 'dialogue with death' and present us with what I term notions of 'the expanded self. Finally, I briefly outline some of the consequences of my arguments for medicine and public policy decisions, and suggest certain avenues for future research, arguing that rather than seeking to arrive at a single, unified definition of death, we should instead search for ways of coping with multiple parallel 'redefinitions' of death.
    Date of Award2008
    Original languageEnglish
    SupervisorGideon Calder (Supervisor)


    • Definitions of Death

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