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Ethical Brain: Chapter 2 
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Post Ethical Brain: Chapter 2
This thread is for discussing Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain. You can post within this framework or create your own threads. ::228

Edited by: Chris OConnor  at: 11/1/05 12:30 am



Fri Sep 30, 2005 3:42 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
I found some of the statistics in Ch. 2 rather fascinating. On pg. 23 Gazzaniga shows us how our bodies are living longer and longer, yet our brains aren't able to keep up to speed.

In 1900 only 4.1% of the population was over the age of 65.

By the middle of the century the percentage was up to 8%.

Soon it will reach 15%.


I'm curious how many people lived past 65 back in ancient Greece or Rome. Anyone have a clue?




Tue Oct 04, 2005 12:11 am
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
The statistic I found that was disturbing is about the prevalence of Alzheimer's. On p 26 Gazzaniga reports that, "One in every four Americans over the age of 85 has Alzheimer's...". That is depressing. It makes living into your 80's a little scary. My brain deteriorating is the scariest thing to me. My life is so much about what I can do with my mind, rather than my body. I will engage in mental activity over physical activity any day! I know Gazzaniga says that along with your mental capacity, your cognition goes, but the people around you are still aware of what you're losing. I hope that something fatal goes wrong with some other part of my body, before dementia sets in. I know... such morbid thoughts...but remember, I did start by saying, "That is depressing"!




Sun Oct 09, 2005 2:47 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
Chris, I can't think of any reasonable way to calculate the average life-span of an ancient Greek -- as far as I know, the Greeks didn't take a census, so we're left with very few records on the lifespan of the ancients. I can, however, point you to H.D.F. Kitto's consideration of the topic in his book "The Greeks". He compares the recorded life spans of ten famous Victorians to that of ten famous Greeks, and the Greeks come off comparatively better. Three lived into their nineties, and only one died younger than 70, at the tragically young age of 60. The average of those ten comes to 89.9.

There are a few qualifications to bear in mind, though. Those are famous Greeks, so the fact of their choice has some effect on the statistic we have in mind -- after all, those who die at an early age have fewer opportunities to arrive at fame. That said, amoung the famous Victorians with which Kitto compares them, four died in their 30s and one died at the age of 26, so it doesn't necessarily hold true that only the old are likely to become famous. But even assuming that the Greeks did live longer than the Victorians -- and perhaps as long, if not longer, than most modern Americans -- you have to bear in mind that they were living in an extremely temperate physical environment.

I had written a fairly in-depth post on this chapter, and I thought that I had posted and checked it, but it doesn't appear to be here anymore, so maybe I screwed up somewhere. Fortunately, I've been writing discussion notes in long hand, so I should be able to reproduce the basic points I wanted to make.

I'll try to get back to that in a minute.




Mon Oct 10, 2005 1:35 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
Okay, my initial reactions to Chapter 2:

1. Does anyone else feel some misgivings about Gazzaniga's statement on page 27: "In some horrendous sense, they are no longer even members of our species, if being a member requires one to pass basic mental tests of competency"? Now, clearly Gazzaniga himself feels edgy about this point of view, but at the same time he does very little to discredit it. It seems like one of those gut reactions he mentions, but doesn't it require some corrective? It seems like a potentially unfortunate statement, one that could easily be prevailed upon by those looking to justify what we might otherwise regard as unethical behavior. If nothing else, it requires a hard and fast criteria for what standards we'll apply to the question of a subject's humanity, and I'm not sure that Gazzaniga has at all equipped us to address that question. Dementia patients, the mentally handicapped, victims of neurological trauma, the profoundly stupid -- it isn't at all a hypothetical question to ask where we draw the line. And at some point we have to get back to the basic question of why the question of humanness should hinge on mental capacity at all.

2. The last issue brings us to a more general observation, which is that Gazzaniga's opinion seems to be heavily influenced by the assumption of normitive states. The fully developed dementia case is not a normative state, but should that fact of its deviation from the norm render it susceptible to a difference in moral status? Even if "some sublime inner state" is unavailable to the Alzheimer's patient, are we justified in regarding them as less human? Eventually, the question has to be argued back to the point of who ought to be given the power to determine what are and are not the normative states, and how radically different a person must be to fall out of the protection of our ethical standards.

3. At least for the moment, Gazzaniga is right that "research on ageing that seeks eternal life is not the issue." (p. 30) The issue, it seems to me, is the control of life, and along with it, the control of death. Because, the more that evade the circumstances of a natural death, the more we're forced to consider the circumstances under which it is ethical to intentionally end life. What is a good death? And by extension, what is an unethical life -- that is, when is it unethical to continue living, or stickier still, to allow someone to live?

4. Methodological complaint: is Gazzaniga going to make a habit of justifying his opinions by analogy to inanimate objects? In the last chapter it was Home Depot; in this chapter it's "Nelly" the car. Such analogies function by allowing us to see human subjects as mere objects -- that will presumably allow us to view them without irrational biases -- but doesn't ethics begin by assuming that humans are somehow distinct as a class of objects? There's a serious danger, I think, in confusing the issue with analogies like these.

5. I've brought this point up in the euthanasia poll, but I'll bring it up here again. If society has an obligation to "allow a dignified method for ending life for those with terminal or totally debilitating diseases" (p. 33), shouldn't it also allow suicide under all circumstances? What about physical impairment confers on the desire to die a moral or ethical status that is denied to the otherwise healthy person?

6. Finally, I wanted to raise the question of how Gazzaniga's discussion of intent in the previous chapter plays into his ethical considerations in this chapter. Are they consistent or even compatible? For example, if, neurologically speaking, a senile demential patient could be viewed as equivalent to an early stage of embryonic development, how difficult would it be to rationalize an argument for performing scientific experiments on patients with a certain degree of mental deteriation, with or without a "living will" type declaration?




Mon Oct 10, 2005 3:10 pm
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Post Re: Ethical Brain: Chapter 2
p 20 - Can neuroscience tell us at what moment self-consciousness ends?

I don't think so: isn't this like asking what color is like to another person? We can all agree that red is red, but there is no way for me to know that you experience red the same way I do. Isn't self-consciousness the same kind of perception?




Sun Nov 06, 2005 11:50 pm
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Post Re: Ethical Brain: Chapter 2
Yeah, a lot probably depends on how you define self-consciousness or awareness. Science probably will come up with an answer to the question of when awareness ends, but in order to do so it may begin by redefining what that term means. This happens a lot in the sciences, and a lot of time we as laypersons tend to adopt the answers without really being aware that the terms of the question have changed.




Sun Nov 06, 2005 11:53 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
Mad: Does anyone else feel some misgivings about Gazzaniga's statement on page 27: "In some horrendous sense, they are no longer even members of our species, if being a member requires one to pass basic mental tests of competency"?

When I first read the statement, I didn't have any issues with it. But in reading it in context and with your questions, I agree with your point. He hasn't given us the tools to make that judgement. Perhaps he's talking about those that are clearly way over the edge. Perhaps those completely unable to function are not truely human. However, I don't know that we would take away any rights they have as humans.




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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
Mad: If society has an obligation to "allow a dignified method for ending life for those with terminal or totally debilitating diseases" (p. 33), shouldn't it also allow suicide under all circumstances? What about physical impairment confers on the desire to die a moral or ethical status that is denied to the otherwise healthy person?

While I don't buy the argument that allowing suicide for all detracts from us as humans, I do see logic in his statement. Specifically, he says it should be allowed for those with terminal or totally debilitating diseases. Unfortunately, those in qualify are usually suffering quite a bit of pain. Additionally, your 'normal' state today may not wish to deal with a 'abnormal' state tomorrow. I guess my thought experiment around this would be: If you knew that tomorrow you would no longer be able to communicate and you would die six months later, and during this 6 months you would be in a lot of pain, further, there was no chance of cure, would you want to die? I'm not sure, but I think I would. At the very least, many would seriously consider it.




Mon Nov 07, 2005 12:04 am
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
I caught the end of a docudrama that reminded me of this thread. A teenager with a terminal illness refuses to take his medicine since the medicine lessened his quality of life. He was taken from his mom when doctors realized the boy quit taking his pills. The boy went to court arguing that he'd rather live less days and enjoy the days he lives at home rather than take the pills(which caused horrible side-effects) to live more days miserably. The boy reiterated such a response even when the judge pointed out that there's a potential for the boy to have a change of heart and want to live as long as he can, regardless of the horrible side-effects induced by the pills. It certainly is a sad situation for all involved. I can understand the position of the boy. Is not taking the pills suicide? The boy will die without the pills. However, the boy will also die with taking the pills, eventually. If this is suicide, then should this action(or rather, inaction)be illegal? If you think the mom is the one responsible, then is this assisted suicide? If you think this is assisted suicide, then should this assisted suicide be illegal?




Wed Nov 09, 2005 6:24 pm
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Post Re: Ch. 2 - The Aging Brain
ginof: Perhaps those completely unable to function are not truely human. However, I don't know that we would take away any rights they have as humans.

This seems to me a pretty worrisome line to tread. On the one hand, it provides some sort of theoretical foundation for terminating life in the case of patients with presumably no chance of recovery. On the other, it could also provide the theoretical foundation for sustaining unrecoverable cases so that they may be used for certain kinds of scientific experiementation. Assuming that we all share, if not the conviction, then at least the vague feeling, that such use would serve as an ethical breach, then we're obligated to reassess either 1) the idea that humanity can be determined by "certain standards of competency", or 2) the assertion that this conception of humanity should serve as the basis for ethics.

I guess my thought experiment around this would be: If you knew that tomorrow you would no longer be able to communicate and you would die six months later, and during this 6 months you would be in a lot of pain, further, there was no chance of cure, would you want to die? I'm not sure, but I think I would. At the very least, many would seriously consider it.

Looking at the extremes can distort the issue. Let's take a less extreme example. If told that, tomorrow, they would be paralyzed from the waist down, how many people would opt for suicide now, while they can still do it for themselves? Do we have any sort of moral obligation to attempt to prevent that?

Or another: a person is told that they will go irrecoverably blind within the week. That person plummet's into despair, making clear gestures towards a desire to kill themselves. Given that blindness is, for that person at least, an "abnormal" state, why should we feel any less inclined to prevent their suicide than we would in the case of a physically healthy 15 year old?

tarav: Is not taking the pills suicide?

I say no. Not taking the pills cannot be equated with an active desire or intention to die. In some sense, it's refusing intervention, but I'd say it's no more an act of suicide than is smoking, or eating poorly. These are all choices that, when considered, are likely to lessen a person's chances of dying, but they're not made in order to hasten death but rather out of other considerations.

These are the sort of decisions that we all make on a daily basis, and very few people choose longevity over "quality of life" on a consistent basis. The difference in the example you've cited seems, to me, to be a matter of quantity -- this boy can be more reasonably certain that his decision will shorten his life, whereas the rest of us can happily sustain the illusion that these decisions won't make much of a difference in the long run. And in the end, he's entitled to the same excuse that we make on a daily basis -- there are plenty of dangers which might precipitate his death before the disease ever kills him.

Further, I'd say that deciding to name this an instance of suicide would obligate the judge to consider other forms. Christian Science as a whole would have to be considered a philosophical stance promoting suicide. I don't endorse Christian Science, but neither would I say it particularly endorses suicide.




Wed Nov 09, 2005 7:27 pm
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