Truth Through Combat

When did Ronald Reagan die?

Ronald Reagan, 33rd Governor of California and 40th President of the U.S., had Alzheimer’s Disease. His death was reported on June 5, 2004. We can most certainly say that his body suffered respiratory failure on that date, and that his lungs could no longer deliver oxygen to the bloodstream and expel carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. At some point soon after lung failure, his heart would have stopped beating and his brain would have ceased to function.

But the question still stands: when did he die? We can note that his lungs stopped at a certain time, that his heart stopped at a certain time, and that his brain ceased to be functional at a certain time. But are these answers to the question of death?

In the United States there are two ways to determine death: the cardiac criterion and the brain-death criterion. These approaches help us determine when two of the key parts of the body case to perform their function. Once we know that this is the case, we feel confident in saying that the person is dead.

There is a lot of controversy over the meaning of brain death these days, and there is even some lingering controversy over the meaning of cardiac death. What both of these criteria assume, however, is that the person is the body. Is this a justified assumption?

There are two questions wrapped up in this: the first is the question of what a person is. The second is the question of how a person persists over time. In the case of the first question, we have to find out what makes a person a person. In the case of the second question, we are talking about what makes a person a person at more than one time. That these are two different questions is easy to see: the United States in 1802 is not the same as the United States in 2010. It is legitimate to ask, therefore, what makes the U.S. the U.S.? Is it nothing more than its physical boundaries? If so, then the U.S. would remain the U.S. regardless of whether it was invaded by the Russians tomorrow, for example. The boundary approach would also mean that the U.S. of 1802 ceased to exist after the Louisiana Purchase of 1803.

What if we argued that the U.S. is defined by the continuity of its history since the drafting and enactment of its constitution? In that case, the U.S. was born in 1789. Aside from the hiccup that was the Civil War, it would seem that the nation has never ceased to exist, even in spite of its various territorial changes.

What about persons, then? Applying the same reasoning, we would reject the “boundary” approach. Knowing that people’s boundaries change (even from moment to moment, as they take in material from the outside and expel material such as CO2, sweat, hair, etc.), we could argue that a person is defined by a particular history.

The philosophical question of personhood is several thousand years old. The term itself dates at least to the Latin persona, which might itself originate from personare, “to sound through.” These terms might also originate with the Etruscan persu, which may mean “mask” or “face.” If we go beyond the etymology, we find questions of identity to be very important to the ancient Greeks. Various puzzles about identity were being considered as long ago as 500 B.C. in Athens and Asia Minor. One of these illustrates the question of personhood — or “personal identity” — rather nicely. It is The Ship of Theseus, which first appears (probably) in Plutarch’s Life of Theseus (Section 23).

The puzzle asks us to consider the story of a ship used by Theseus and on which he sailed. Plutarch reports that the ship was preserved for several centuries by the Athenians, who from time to time would have to swap an old timbre or piece of the ship for a new one. At some point, all of the ship’s parts had been replaced. Is this the same ship?

This question can be approached in at least three ways: through the ship’s material, its form, or its function. In the first approach, we might say that the ship is not the same because its material is new. In the second approach, we might say that the ship is the same because its form is the same. And, in the third approach we might also say that it’s the same because the ship fulfills the same function(s) as before.

Let’s examine what this means for the personal identity debate in the case of each approach:

  1. Materialism: the person is the same whenever the body is made up of the same material. This approach has an obvious disadvantage (whether it is in the case of ships or of people): the stuff of which people are made changes from second to second.
  2. Formalism: the person is the same whenever the form of the body does not change. What exactly this might mean in terms of a person is a bit fuzzy, but presumably it would apply to the peculiar arrangement which matter takes. Ronald Reagan had a distinct arrangement of limbs, eye color, hair color, etc. While others might have shared any one or even several of his features, they would not have shared the totality of the arrangement. The disadvantage: it would mean that we effectively become a new person when that arrangement changes, as it inevitably does throughout our lives.
  3. Function: in this theory we would define Reagan in terms of the things he did. But obviously all of those things have changed over time as well, so we are left with the same problem as in the two theories above.

It would seem that each of the theories run up against difficulties when they attempt to incorporate time into an otherwise static terminology: we want to define something as it is and always has been and always will be, but taking time into account makes that rather difficult. Even when we deal with seemingly changeless things (the Washington Monument, for example) we will note minute and some not-so-minute changes to its matter, form, and function.

What is to be done, then? When did Reagan die?

Once we have approached the question from the three theories above, we see that this question is not quite the right question. The question of death is made difficult because of the question of Reagan’s nature. That is, what matters here is not “When did Reagan die?” but instead “What was Reagan?”

To find out when Reagan died, if that is even possible, we have to find out what Reagan was. We might find that the natural conclusion is that Reagan did not in fact exist.


Filed under: Bioethics, Philosophy, , , , , , , ,

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