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Wholes and Parts: A Thomistic Refutation of Brain Death

In the first Lyceum Institute Colloquium of 2021, we present our own Michel Accad, MD, who will take us through a discussion of “brain death” as a supposed criterion for determining the presence of life in a human being. This colloquium lecture is based upon and expository of a paper Dr. Accad published in 2015, available here, and which you are all encouraged to read. There is also a response by Jason Eberl, PhD, and a further rejoinder to said response by Dr. Accad.

ORIGINAL PAPER ABSTRACT: I propose a refutation of the two major arguments that support the concept of “brain death” as an ontological equivalent to death of the human organism. I begin with a critique of the notion that a body part, such as the brain, could act as “integrator” of a whole body. I then proceed with a rebuttal of the argument that destruction of a body part essential for rational operations—such as the brain—necessarily entails that the remaining whole is indisposed to accrue a rational soul. Next, I point to the equivocal use of the terms “alive” or “living” as being at the root of conceptual errors about brain death. I appeal to the Thomistic definition of life and to the hylomorphic concept of “virtual presence” to clarify this confusion. Finally, I show how the Thomistic definition of life supports the traditional criterion for the determination of death.

Lay summary: By the mid-1960s, medical technology became available that could keep “alive” the bodies of patients who had sustained complete and irreversible brain injury. The concept of “brain death” emerged to describe such states. Physicians, philosophers, and ethicists then proposed that the state of brain death is equivalent to the state of death traditionally identified by the absence of spontaneous pulse and respiration. This article challenges the major philosophical arguments that have been advanced to draw this equivalence.

Dr. Accad’s lecture is now available to all members at the Lyceum Institute. The live question and answer session will be held on 9 July 2021 (Friday) at 6:30pm ET/3:30pm PT. Colloquia lectures are released the year after publication at the Lyceum, and Q&A sessions are reserved for members. For information on signing up for the Lyceum, see here.