Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Into the Intro: The Cambridge Companion to Life and Death


This book is devoted to the metaphysics of life and death, the significance of life and death, and the ethics of life and death. As will become apparent, these three topics are interrelated. Work on the nature of death benefits from work on the nature of life, and bears on life’s significance, while discussions of the moral significance of killing people and other animals draw on discussions of the nature of the interests of such creatures (at various stages of their development), the significance of their lives, and the extent to which death harms them.

There is no particular time at which life begins or ends. As new chemical interactions among components create more complex networks of capacities, the whole chemical system becomes more and more alive.

The first of the three parts of the book (concerning the metaphysics of life and death) begins with a chapter on the nature of life by Mark Bedau. As he notes, many theorists attempt to illuminate life by setting out necessary and sufficient conditions for being an organism. Bedau calls this the Cartesian approach, and suggests that we abandon it in favor of the Aristotelian approach, by which we attempt to explain distinctive features of “living worlds,” or actual complexes of mutually interacting organisms and micro-organisms. To that end, we can begin with the simplest forms of chemically based life (such as bacteria). On the model Bedau endorses, a minimal chemical system is alive just if it brings together three mutually supportive capacities. First, it controls itself using information stored within it. Second, it maintains, develops, and repairs itself using materials and energy it extracts from its environment. Third, it protects its constituent chemical operations from external threats by “localizing” them, giving them an identity over time. Bedau goes on to suggest that “there is no particular time at which life begins or ends. As new chemical interactions among components create more complex networks of capacities, the whole chemical system becomes more and more alive.”

The second chapter, by Eric Olson, considers what it is to be one of us. We must answer this question if we are to know when our existence begins, when it ends, and what it entails. Many issues hang in the balance. For example, if our persistence conditions include psychological continuity, it is much easier to justify the collection of organs from donors. Olson defends animalism, the view that you and I are organisms – specifically, human beings. The toughest challenge to animalism is the contention that we would go with our brains if these were moved into fresh brainless bodies. A human being can be kept alive, at least for a time, after its liver is removed, and the same goes for its brain. If its liver or brain is moved, the human being stays behind. So if you are a human being, you stay behind when your brain is moved elsewhere. By contrast, if you go with your brain, you are not a human being, and animalism is false. But if you aren’t a human being what are you? According to Olson, theorists who claim that we go with our brains have not given us a satisfactory answer to this question, and their view makes it hard to avoid the strange metaphysical contention that being alive is incompatible with the capacity for thought.

Chapter 3, written by Katherine Hawley, is devoted to the question of how different views of time bear on our nature and interests. Eternalism says that past and future things are as real as present things. Does it follow that our lives are fated to unfold in certain ways? According to presentism , neither past nor future things exist. A third view of time, the growing-block view, says that while past and present things exist, future things do not. Neither presentism nor the growing-block view seems to suggest fatalism, but do they imply that we do not exist in the future, and that, consequently, nothing that happens in the future can affect us? Hawley denies that eternalism supports fatalism, and she denies that presentism or the growing-block view implies that what we do now cannot affect the future, since, on all three views, what happens now has a causal effect on what will happen in the future. She goes on to explain how different views of time are related to different views about how people and other things persist over time.

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