What is Death

In reading through a number of the threads, I’ve been struck by apparent conceptual acceptance most folk have with the term “death”, taking for granted (it appears) that everyone else reading the term understands it pretty much exactly as the poster intended. However, it also appears to me that there are a few different underlying understandings of the meaning of that term.

I for one am not and never have been all that comfortable conceptually with the term. I find the term to be sort of a contrast place holder for “that which is no longer alive”, but vaguely defined. And from there different folk attach all sorts of esoteric or assumed baggage that I don’t fully grasp or understand. For example, some folk apparently think of “death” as a thing – an actual object independent of (though clearly tied to) living things. I don’t understand that concept. Then there are some folk who think of “death” as something like a transition or perhaps threshold (portal…door…take your metaphorical pick) that living things “pass through” when they “lose life”. Uhh…oookay… And then there are some folk who think of death as something like a state of existence – like sleep I guess only…uhh…deeper…maybe? I do not understand any of those concepts of death.

To me, “living” is a term I use to denote a functioning autonomous system that seeks out resources for the perpetuation of the system’s operation and/or reproduction, and that expels byproducts derived from the system function and resource use. As such, fire to me is very much a living thing. And while in a metaphorical sense I might say that a fire has “died” after it’s gone out, I simply mean that the conditions for that combustion system no longer exist. Similarly, to me, bodies no longer living have simply reached a state where the conditions for the physiological system no longer exist. Systems, by their very nature of resource use and environmental stress, wear. As such, they eventually get to a point they stop functioning. Seems odd to call that “death” to me.

 

16 thoughts on “What is Death”

  1. graham2

    Robin,
    Could you make a clear statement about where you stand: is there any part of us that goes on after death (our soul etc) , or do we simply come to a complete end ?
    Please, no evasive language, just a clear YES or NO.

  2. petrushka

    Yes or no is not a sensible answer to an or choice.

    But assuming the question is, is there any conscoius existence after the end of life, how woul one go about finding the answer?

  3. J-Mac

    “What is death?”

    Shouldn’t it be the opposite of life or being alive?

    I guess it all depends what you believe or what you want to believe…

    If you want to believe that life continues after death in some other form, then you have to figure out what that other form of afterlife is.

    If you believe that life ends at the point of when human body stops functioning, then you should not be asking these questions and posting them here…

  4. Tom EnglishTom English

    Death is the final and permanent cessation of life function, and, in the higher animals at any rate, seems to be a gradual process even though it may appear to be instantaneous. For although consciousness has ceased and the heart is stilled forever, the various tissue cells gradually succumb to starvation due to the cessation of the blood stream. With some tissues it is more gradual than with others, for instances are recorded of the growth of hair on a body for some time after general death.

    Richard Swann Lull, Organic Evolution, 1920

  5. Tom EnglishTom English

    A question of my own: 10 of 11 cells in “your” body are bacteria. You cannot live without them. What happens to them as the human cells cease to live?

  6. CharlieMCharlieM

    Tom English,

    A good question.

    I would say for them life goes on as normal only their food source becomes more plentiful. You may be alive for so many decades but at the cellular level life and death are a constant feature of your existence. You outer skin is nothing but a layer of dead and dying cells and you carry on your body millions of microbes which feed on them. When you die their food supply increases.

    And how much “inside us” are our gut biomass? If you catch a fly by cupping your hand is it inside you? We can be thought of as walking tubes with the surface of the alimentary canal being as much a barrier as our skin is to unwanted substances entering our bodies proper. And after death there is nothing to prevent our gut biomass from entering our body proper.

    During life our bodily processes are held in balance to maintain us as individual organisms, at death this overall balance ceases.

  7. Tom EnglishTom English

    CharlieM: And how much “inside us” are our gut biomass? If you catch a fly by cupping your hand is it inside you? We can be thought of as walking tubes with the surface of the alimentary canal being as much a barrier as our skin is to unwanted substances entering our bodies proper. And after death there is nothing to prevent our gut biomass from entering our body proper.

    I am saying that what we regard as human life is not just the collective functioning of a colony of human cells, but the functioning of an ecosystem. The human cells die if the gut bacteria die, irrespective of whether you consider the gut bacteria to be inside the body.

    Mother’s milk contains a nutrient for a kind of bacteria that line the baby’s gut, and protect the baby from infection. This nutrient is indigestible by human cells. In other words, a mother feeds a specific kind of bacteria in order to form a barrier to pathogens that might enter her baby from the gut.

    I’d like to know your religious objections to what I’ve just said.

  8. CharlieMCharlieM

    Tom English: I am saying that what we regard as human life is not just the collective functioning of a colony of human cells, but the functioning of an ecosystem. The human cells die if the gut bacteria die, irrespective of whether you consider the gut bacteria to be inside the body.

    Mother’s milk contains a nutrient for a kind of bacteria that line the baby’s gut, and protect the baby from infection. This nutrient is indigestible by human cells. In other words, a mother feeds a specific kind of bacteria in order to form a barrier to pathogens that might enter her baby from the gut.

    I’d like to know your religious objections to what I’ve just said.

    And I would like to know why you think I would have any objections, religious or otherwise, to what you said?

  9. Tom EnglishTom English

    CharlieM: And I would like to know why you think I would have any objections, religious or otherwise, to what you said?

    I considered what objections a Christian might have, and realized that there are many possibilities. So I decided just to ask. (I am not in the business of bashing religion per se. My objection is to the belief that science must jibe with one’s religious beliefs.) If you have no objections, then that is fine.

  10. RobinRobin Post author

    graham2:
    Robin,
    Could you make a clear statement about where you stand: is there any part of us that goes on after death (our soul etc) , or do we simply come to a complete end ?
    Please, no evasive language, just a clear YES or NO.

    I think of it this way: is there any part of a car that goes on after one takes out the engine? Is there any part of a computer that goes on after you take out the chip or the motherboard or the RAM?

    It seems to me that there is nothing to “go on” after a living entity tops functioning, so to me the answer is no.

  11. RobinRobin Post author

    J-Mac:
    “What is death?”

    Shouldn’t it be the opposite of life or being alive?

    I just don’t understand what the “opposite” of being alive is supposed to mean. It’s like the idea of the “opposite of our solar system” to me; it’s not a well-considered concept as far as I can tell.

    I guess it all depends what you believe or what you want to believe…

    Maybe.

    If you want to believe that life continues after death in some other form, then you have to figure out what that other form of afterlife is.

    Well I can’t say I “want” there to be an afterlife or no afterlife. However, as there is no direct evidence for some kind of afterlife, all I can do is shrug.

    If you believe that life ends at the point of when human body stops functioning, then you should not be asking these questions and posting them here…

    I don’t understand this statement. This is a pretty good forum for discussing such concepts imho.

  12. RobinRobin Post author

    Tom English:
    Death is the final and permanent cessation of life function, and, in the higher animals at any rate, seems to be a gradual process even though it may appear to be instantaneous. For although consciousness has ceased and the heart is stilled forever, the various tissue cells gradually succumb to starvation due to the cessation of the blood stream. With some tissues it is more gradual than with others, for instances are recorded of the growth of hair on a body for some time after general death.

    Richard Swann Lull, Organic Evolution, 1920

    I guess my issue is why do we need a special term for such cessation when it comes to humans or flatworms, but not lawnmowers and light bulbs?

  13. petrushka

    My high school biology teacher (1960) said everybody and everything dies of asphyxiation.

    I had to ask about the folks at ground zero. I was a despicable student.

  14. Erik

    Robin: I guess my issue is why do we need a special term for such cessation when it comes to humans or flatworms, but not lawnmowers and light bulbs?

    We are evolving past this distinction. In medieval times nobody said, “My screwdriver/hammer died.” Nowadays you hear all the time, “My phone/battery died.” And there’s such a thing as Product Life Cycle with a distinct phase: End of Life.

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