Philosophical and Ethical Questions

Asking the tough questions

The philosophy and ethics team are exploring the implications of the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering’s post-mortem research findings and are developing approaches in the philosophy of biology that builds on these findings.

Project investigators see this exploration as a powerful opportunity to advance regenerative medicine and philosophical understanding, by raising essential metaphysical questions that have moral implications, including three main issues:

  • The nature of death itself, whether it’s the death of a cell, the damage of tissue or the collapse of an organ, or the malfunction of the whole organism. Researchers will consider whether non-traumatic death of an organism is a discrete event or a protracted process as well as help clarify the difference between planned and unplanned cell death–apoptosis versus necrosis.
  • The unity of organisms and the interplay of ‘top down’ and ‘bottom up’ causal processes with organisms. Researchers will consider whether the discovery that organisms relinquish control over the genetic capacities of adult cells as slow death approaches disconfirms the philosophical perspective of hylomorphism, according to which components of living systems ‘lose their identity,’ when taken up into the organism.
  • Emergence, the thesis that the properties and behavior of certain composed systems (including biological humans) do not reduce to the properties and interrelated behavior of their parts. Investigators will consider whether the post-mortem research findings lend support to the anti-emergentist “colony of cells” perspective on organisms (human included), either in general or as a transitional organismal phase as slow death is anticipated.

We hypothesize that in their effort to mount survival at the organ/tissue level, certain cells in that tissue that are already senesced, diseased or injured must be eliminated, making way for the healthier component of the tissue to survive.

Some theoretically-minded biologists and philosophers of biology see organisms as an arbitrary entity.

Genes affect the ability to reproduce by impacting an area that extends beyond the boundaries of the body. Consider the concept of the “extended phenotype.”

Aristotle’s hylomorphism

In Aristotle’s writing, Physics, he asserts every physical object is a compound of matter (hulê) and form (morphêeidos), a theory known as hylomorphism. As one of the first writers during ancient times to introduce the concept of life scientifically, he believed that matter could exist without form, but form could not exist without matter. Therefore, Aristotle contended the soul cannot exist without the body.

Hylomorphic accounts of objects have been endorsed by several contemporary philosophers (e.g., Kit Fine, Mark Johnston, Kathryn Koslicki, Michael Rea, and Christopher Shields). With particular relevance to the present ICRME investigation, philosophers Christopher Austin, Anna Marmodoro, Robert Koons, Alexander Pruss, and William Simpson aim to reconfigure Aristotle’s hylomorphic framework in order to offer a consistent and attractive interpretation of modern biology.

Everything which comes to be, comes to be out of, and everything which passes away passes away into, its opposite or something in between. And the things in between come out of the opposites—thus colors come out of pale and dark. So the things which come to be naturally all are or are out of opposites.         — Aristotle

Contemporary Philosopher, Alexander R. Pruss

In his blog, Parts and ownership, Alexander R. Pruss asserts that matter receives its identity from the substance that it makes up:

Therefore, no bit of matter can be a part of two substances. But everything that exists is a substance or a mode, relation, trope, accident or the like. A proper part of a substance is not a mode, relation, trope, accident or the like. Hence, if a substance has a proper part, that proper part is a substance. But the matter of a proper part A of a substance B would then be a part of both substance A and substance B, which contradicts the thesis that a bit of matter can’t be a part of two substances.

If a bit of matter x is part of substance A and a bit of matter y is part of substance B, then if A is distinct from B, it follows that x is distinct from y.

Does death really mean the end of our existence in all forms?

We assert when an organism dies, certain component cells oppose the systemic death decision and seek to survive in their simplest unit of life.

This thought process:

  • Brings to light the significance of death as a biological variable (DABV)1 in experimental sciences
  • Uncovers novel survival/regenerative pathways responsible for cell autopoiesis after human death
  • Sheds light on life as a purpose-driven process, where the purpose is not just the life of the organism, but processes beyond.

Pruss illustrates this point further using a steak as an example.

Illustration of a steak

Whose steak is it?

Pruss further shares two key assumptions:
  1. The only way to make item “x” to cease is by destroying “x.”
  2. It is not possible for an individual to “literally own a part of another.”

Say you own “carbon atom” – a part of steak, and Pruss devours the atom or bite of steak, so it becomes a part of his body.

  • Point 2 makes it possible that you know longer wholly own “x” atom or the steak.
  • Point 1 points states destroying “x” removes it from existence, essentially by becoming part of Pruss’ body.