Saturday, August 8, 2009

The Brain is not the Soul: Aquired Personhood and National Health Insurance


I wrote this piece several years ago and sent a letter to Pope Benedict XVI concerning the role of secular bioethics in furthering the culture of death and the new theory of "acquired personhood" which has made it much easier to take the lives of human beings who have been deemed non-persons. In that letter I described the corrosive effect that the embracing of Darwinian naturalism and the subject/object dualism of Descartes has had on the depersonalizing of the sick, disabled and dying. I received no reply.

Given the current attempt to pass national health insurance in the United States, this piece is provided in order to focus attention on the need to repudiate the ever growing culture of death which has begun to significantly effect medical care and decision making. The perennial philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas as always is best suited for that purpose.

--Dr. J. P. Hubert

The Brain is not the Soul:

The Tragic Error of the Terry Schiavo case

John P. Hubert Jr. MD FACS
Biomedical and Health Care Policy Ethicist

As expected, the elite media in the wake of the Terry Schiavo autopsy have suggested that since Terry had “irreversible” brain damage according to the forensic pathologist, it was morally acceptable to kill her.[1] This betrays an alarming misunderstanding of human anthropology which is based in Darwinian naturalism.[2] It also means that the “elites” equate the human brain with the human “mind” and that when the brain is “irreversibly” damaged; the “person” no longer exists since the “mind” no longer functions.[3] This is not a matter of saying that when there is total brain death (total death of the entire brain) the person as an integrated body/soul composite entity has ceased to exist.[4] The assertion being made here is that since Terry Schiavo was judged to be “mindless” due to a profound purportedly irreversible brain injury, she was “non-human.” In other words, she had a “life” (vegetative existence according to culture of death bioethicists) no longer worthy of living.[5] These notions are demonstrably false when subjected to detailed philosophical analysis.[6] In fact, if it were true, it would mean that no one could ever be secure in their status as a human person since at any moment their personhood could be lost. Elite bioethicists or the courts might decide that because of trauma, disease or the effects of aging, a given human being could be subsequently labeled a non-person and thus not deserving of the usual care, compassion and protection of their human rights (the most fundamental of which is the right to existence).[7] Strange as it may seem, this is precisely what is presently transpiring with regard to the prematurely born, the infirm, retarded and other disabled persons in the West, particularly in the Netherlands, Belgium, the U.K. and progressively the United States.

There now exits the widespread assumption that the soul (referred to as “mind” in contemporary parlance an outgrowth of Descartes and Kant) is synonymous with or at least for practical purposes, analogous to the brain. This concept flows from Cartesian false Dualism, the idealism of Emmanuel Kant; (specifically his notion of complete personal autonomy), and radical Darwinism in which it is assumed that reality is completely confined to the material realm that is, there is no immaterial reality.[8] Secular elite bioethicists have utilized these false post-Enlightenment philosophical concepts as a foundation for their bioethic which has now mutated into a "culture of death" characterized by rabid notions of personal autonomy (read unbridled personal selfishness) without regard for and often in direct opposition to the common good. This new ethic is also associated with a virtual complete moral relativism, something Pope Benedict XVI has repeatedly stressed in public commentary.[9] American Catholics continue to be very confused by the constant public promulgation of the "Culture of Death," even by highly visible Catholic politicians and other Catholic public personages particularly in light of the extremely poor level of catechesis which has been ongoing in the West for over 40 years.

These tendencies and developments undergird the secular atheist elite bioethics rubric which has essentially over-taken the dialogue regarding "life issues" particularly in the developed West. It allows the "culture of death" community to discount the lives of all but the most perfect human beings (as secular elite bioethicists define it) among us. This new bioethic embraces the concept of "acquired" personhood in which it is necessary to demonstrate through various abilities and characteristics (most frequently higher cognitive function) that one is not only a human being but a human person as well. It also means that the “elites” artificially separate “human being” from “human personhood” in direct opposition to the substance view of personhood that the Catholic Church has accepted and promulgated through its support of the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis.[10] The very notion of acquired personhood is philosophically untenable and is in direct contradiction to Divine Revelation as consistently taught in Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.[11]

It appears that the time has come to approach the great debates in bioethics and the rapidly declining public morality from the perspective of overall worldview analysis in which the diametrically opposite notions of epistemology (theory of truth), metaphysics (theory of reality) and morality (theory of right and wrong) [between the new post-modern atheistic secularism {neo-paganism} The traditional Comprehensive Catholic World View is the only adequate antidote to the increasingly widespread radical secularization which is presently ongoing particularly in the West since it alone possesses the necessary metaphysical resources.

With respect to the growing interest here in Euthanasia and Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS), the author recently participated in the protests against the court ordered death of Terry Schiavo by demonstrating peacefully outside her hospice. This included holding signs, praying, fasting singing hymns and giving several Television interviews in which he attempted to present the Catholic bioethical position against euthanasia to the mass media. None of those interviews made it to air. Any actual explanation of Catholic teaching regarding the prohibition against Euthanasia was simply either marginalized or dismissed as “religious” that is "subjective" and regarded as simply fundamentalist "opinion" (value) rather than philosophically and theologically demonstrable fact.[12]

This “Value/Fact” dichotomy has become a huge problem in the West along with the specious notion of separation of Church and State understood as the disjunction of morality from the civil law, the institutions of government and society at large. Most distressingly, the pro-life demonstrators on behalf of saving Terry had absolutely no help (in our attempt to stop the court ordered killing of Terry Schiavo)[13] from the bishop of St. Petersburg Florida who apparently instructed his priests not to appear at Terry Schiavo's hospice or to speak in public about what was transpiring. Worse yet, in attending mass on several occasions during his stay during Holy Week, not once did the author hear the issue addressed in any homily; something which under the circumstances was obviously missing. This was a disgrace. The protesters were forced to rely on outside help from several Priests (including Fr. Frank Pavone of "Priests for Life") many of whom traveled great distances in order to provide the last rites and the sacrament of Holy Communion to Ms. Schiavo shortly before her death.

It is incumbent upon orthodox Catholics and all people of good will to reject the Cartesian false dualism and metaphysical naturalism of the cultural “elites” including contemporary secular bioethicists in which human personhood is allowed to be “conferred” upon only certain members of the human species by the Gnostics of our time (secular elite bioethicists and the courts). Their empty sophistry must be totally rejected. All human beings are “persons” by definition from the moment of conception until natural death! This must be proclaimed far and wide! It is also something that can be determined by the light of human reason after subjecting the relevant data to meticulous philosophical analysis. It is not necessary to invoke Divine Revelation in the form of Sacred Scripture, Sacred Tradition or constant Magisterial teaching in order to establish the truth of this proposition, although all “3” are perfectly consistent with that conclusion as derived from the study of the philosophy of the human person and the philosophy of nature absent a-priori commitment to a materialistic (metaphysical naturalism) bias. As thoughtful Catholics, we can make the case either philosophically or theologically with equal effectiveness, a fact which demonstrates the need for an aggressively promulgated Comprehensive Catholic World View. We know that secularists are simply wrong when they allege that those who demonstrated on behalf of Terry Schiavo’s right to life were engaging in fundamentalist “opinions” which cannot be established in fact. Our task is to obtain a hearing for the truth while we oppose the lie.


[1] While her brain was significantly atrophied in a generalized way which is consistent with a profound hypoxic encephalopathic injury (due to prolonged lack of oxygen), it is not the case that she was “brain dead and deserving of burial! Her heart and lungs were adequate to sustain her life indefinitely. In fact had she not been dehydrated to death, they might have served in another context as organs for human transplantation, something which was impossible due to the court ordered desiccation dehydration.

[2] Radical Darwinists assert that reality is completely confined to the material realm, that there is no spiritual (immaterial) realm and that human nature is only apparent, not real, that is, constantly changing or “evolving” only giving the appearance of stable “forms.” This means that there is no God by definition and no stable “human nature” according to radical Darwinists.

[3] Classically, in the philosophical sense, the mind was called “soul” referring to a spiritual or immaterial reality which utilized the brain as an instrument but was not synonymous with it. See: William A. Wallace, The Modeling of Nature: Philosophy of Science and Philosophy of Nature in Synthesis. Washington D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1996. Descartes changed everything with his Cogito-ergo-sum (I think therefore I am). He placed thinking before being rather than the classical notion, “being comes before thinking.”

[4] A separate assertion which can be philosophically debated in a separate context. Terry Schiavo did not have “brain death” she had a severe brain injury of uncertain etiology (explanation) a situation which still exists despite the performing of an autopsy. For an interesting discussion regarding the issue of “Brain Death” and its use as a criterion for death of the person see: William E. May, Catholic Bioethics and the Gift of Human Life. Huntington Indiana: Our Sunday Visitor Publishing Division Our Sunday Visitor, Inc., 2000, chapter 8, particularly pp. 291-310.

[5] Judge Greer found on the basis of highly questionable testimony at the trial court level that Terry would not have wanted to remain alive under those circumstances. Thus the entire issue of killing her became a matter of supposedly “honoring her wishes” an example of Kantian autonomy “run amuck” where individual preference or desire is seen as being more important than the “common good.” See Wesley J. Smith. Forced Exit: The Slippery Slope from Assisted Suicide to Legalized Murder. Dallas: Spence Publishing Co. 2003 for a discussion of elite secular Bioethicists’ notion of life unworthy of being lived.

[6] See my article: “Justice and Freedom for the Human Embryo in light of The Philosophy of the Human Person, the Body/Soul Issue and Ethics”, Social Justice Review, 95: November-December, 2004. See also my essay: “The Moral Status of the Human Embryo ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Special Status’ for the human embryo is invalid”, available upon request.

[7] How many “non-person human beings” can conceivably be defined under this rubric is open to serious question and is constantly being re-defined by secular elite “culture of death” bioethicists, the U.S. judiciary and foreign courts.

[8] Understand that what is at stake here is a debate about the very nature of reality.

[9] e.g. his homily at the start of the recent conclave and in a prior speech at the meeting of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith with the presidents of the Doctrinal Commissions of the Bishops' Conferences of Latin America, held in Guadalajara, Mexico, in May 1996.

[10] In which human beings during life are complex composite matter/form or body/soul entities where the soul is immaterial and serves as the principle of substantial unity. As a spiritual entity the soul thus considered is indivisible and not confined to any physical location in the body including the brain.

[11] See my article: “Justice and Freedom for the Human Embryo in light of The Philosophy of the Human Person, the Body/Soul Issue and Ethics”, Social Justice Review, 95: November-December, 2004. See also my essay: “The Moral Status of the Human Embryo ‘Intermediate’ or ‘Special Status’ for the human embryo is invalid” available upon request.

[12] Based as it is on a correct understanding of human anthropology including the substance view of personhood which the Church has taught for centuries based on the Aristotelian/Thomistic synthesis.

[13] Note that Judge Greer was not satisfied with simply removing Terry’s feeding tube. It was necessary that she be starved and dehydrated to death by ordering that no one was allowed to attempt feeding her by mouth. He had police guards stationed about her room to insure that not one drop of water was administered. The autopsy as expected, documented that she was dehydrated to death.