Friday, March 25, 2005

The Elusory Breath of Life

And the LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul (Genesis 2:7). Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled: thou takest away their breath, they die, and return to their dust (Psalms 104:29).

On one hand, the nature of the "breath of life" has been clarified: it is a man or woman's spirit, whose existence both antecedes and outlasts mortality. On the other hand, the lack of revealed specificity regarding the breath of life's arrival and departure constitutes a distressing doctrinal lacuna---distressing, not for the sake of mere unslaked curiosity, or an unsatiated taste for arcane mysteries, but because of a failure to illuminate ethical dilemmas ranging from abortion and embryonic stem cell research to the Passion of Terry Schiavo (for whom unslaked thirst and unsatiated hunger are literally matters of life and death).

Life's universally ambiguous beginning: We have been counseled (for example, here, and particularly here) that life must be protected from the moment of conception. Yet for at least several days after conception---something like 10 or 14 days, I seem to recall reading in Science---the embryo cannot be considered an individual, because the possibility remains that it may divide into twins. One wonders if such considerations play into Mormon Senator Orrin Hatch's support for embryonic stem cell research, which raises eyebrows among some Church members. Moreover, the ambiguity of life's beginning is sometimes tragic. Many (perhaps most) of us have faced either miscarriage or stillbirth, or know someone who has. Some find comfort in doctrinal interpolations, but the official bottom line is that unborn children---while individual enough to protect from conception---are not individual enough for temple work to be performed for them. Such matters will be worked out by the Lord later, we are told, due to a present paucity of revelation on the subject.

Life's sometimes ambiguous end: My understanding, based on ground as firm (or not) as an NPR story, is that the medical condition of "persistent vegetative state" involves wakefulness without awareness, a counterintuitive combination to say the least. Provided a feeding tube, basic autonomic functionality---metabolism, homeostasis, reflexes---can continue indefinitely. But higher cortical functions required for life as we know it---consciousness, thought, purposeful response to external stimuli---are entirely lost. Less extreme, but more familiar, are the likes of senility, dementia, Alzheimer's.

When does the spirit enter the body? Is it responsible for all functionality of life, both "low" and "high"? Has Terry Shiavo's spirit perhaps already departed---and if not, should it be allowed to?

Such questions seem ripe for revelatory answers. We know enough to ask specifics; the need-to-know seems obvious, given current technological capabilities; and just a little bit of knowledge could reconcile honest people of goodwill who find themselves bitterly divided, not because some are good and some are evil, but simply because the nature of the cosmic realities in play have not been adequately revealed.

Or, perhaps, have they?

Life's rarely ambiguous middle: Consider movies as stunning and wrenching as Awakenings, Memento, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (I confess, this last I've not actually seen), and even as puerile as 50 First Dates. Consider also books by such authors as Oliver Sacks and Antonio Damasio. Such depictions challenge us to think hard about what "human life" is, and what it means to be a "person." On exhibit are drastic loss or alteration of such human features as awareness, responsiveness, personality, and memory, that constitute the bread and butter of the "breath of life"---but that in these cases are associated with physically identifiable brain disorders. I get the sense that most (though I imagine not all) specialists who study these afflictions are convinced of a conclusion that in some ways seems to cut Gordian knots: There is no spirit, it's all the body and its brain. Whether this is a trustworthy hunch justifiably based on long and intimate experience, or simply the proverbial nail perceived as such by specialists having particular hammers at their disposal, I cannot say.

What I can say is something about my struggle, in composing a title for this post, to choose an appropriate adjective to describe the spirit, the breath of life. In order, as I see it, of increasing severity: elusive, elusory, illusory (yes, elusory really is a word, not just an idiosyncratic compromise of mine between the other two). I don't want to be dogmatic about unbelief, but I struggle with outright belief in the reality of spirits. Corrosive is not so much the second part of Psalms 104:29 quoted above. Death's decay is a known and observed certainty, and being known, perhaps can be faced head-on. (I may feel differently when it seems more real to me personally!) More acidic, at least for now, is the seemingly unnecessary uncertainty evoked by the first phrase. We claim the mantle of Continuing Revelation, but when it appears that it could help calm our collective paroxysm over the fate of Terry Schiavo (and other issues of similar magnitude, if not urgency), it seems not to be forthcoming. Thou hidest thy face, they are troubled.

10 Comments:

It's surely a faux pas  to comment immediately on my own post, but I wanted to say a bit more without ruining the integrity of the piece, or disrupting its tone.

First, I don't want everyone to think all my posts will be long, heavy, and depressing, and stay away from here for that reason. I want and expect to also produce both felicitous short gems and longer, buxom revellings!

Second, I am of course aware that revelation through our prophet would not quell society's disagreements on these matters, as he is not universally accepted as a prophet. But difference---even discord---exist even within the Mormon community, where revelation would make a difference: Witness the long series of comments to this post .

Third, I can conceive of an optimistic reponse to the issue raised in this post. I won't reveal it now, but wait to see which commenter will be the first to come up with it!
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/25/2005 10:43:00 AM  

As an emergency physician I am on the front line in the end-of-life. People dying is a part of my daily existence, so I feel somewhat qualified to comment.

I don't find the lack of specificity of revelation regarding the exact moment a spirit enters the body (or leaves it, for that matter) to be a "distressing lacuna" at all. Ultimately the exact timing of such an event (if it is indeed a single event; who's to say that in the fetal state the spirit does not come and go?) is not particularly important. The principle revealed is that of protecting a potential mortal life. Specific situations are wisely left to be determined by individuals with the aid of inspiration.

I believe God purposely does not reveal his will in all situations, viz. Terry Schiavo, as part of the conditions he has set up in this life to allow us to mature and grow. Individual families in this situation have the right to inspiration from Deity regarding their circumstances, and will be accountable for their decisions. To expect God to make a pronouncement through the prophet on every potential ethical dilemma that crops up over time seems overly presumptive.

Additionally, most specialists I know who deal with end-of-life issues actually do seem to believe, in some form or another, in Deity, for what it's worth. I think that whether they do or don't is irrelevant.

However, I will say, that as one who witnesses death intimately on a regular basis (I am probably the last person many people see or interact with before they expire) at some point there does seem to be a moment when the person's essence changes, when it seems like their spirit leaves. This does not seem always to correlate with cardiac activity. This is just my opinion, obviously there is no scientific way to determine this.

Regarding the Terry Schiavo case: Millions of people each year are allowed to die without hydration and "food" (tasteless liquid nourishment through a feeding tube). Without commenting on my specific opinion in this case, I will say that the only reason there is so much controversy about it is because of the characters involved, both in their behavior and their statements, which has attracted the media lemmings like ants to honey.

On the "persistent vegetative state:" This is simply where the cortex of the brain is damaged to an extent that there is no cognitive function. The brain stem is still active, and therefore basic autonomic reflexes are intact. However, there is no logical reason to jump from this observed reality, to postulate the lack of existence of a spirit. I believe the spirit-body interaction to be a complex one, but a real one. The "mind-body" connection is well-documented, and surely there is room in interpretations of such literature for belief in the existence of spirit entity.

My own personal belief is that the prolonging of life for those in a persistent vegetative state is generally cruel, and while I oppose euthanasia, I don't feel the same about allowing people's lives to end in a dignified manner, without years of tubes in orofices, bedsores, infections, and yes, pain. People can be allowed to die in peace, and no, it does not have to be painful.

The media hysterics regarding the terry Schiavo situation are unfortunate in one huge respect: They perpetuate the myth the dying, even a somewhat natural death, without "food" and water, is a painful, cruel thing. This does a great disservice to those millions faced each year with deciding whether or not to prolong their own, or their loved ones' lives. The reality is that our care is good enough that these people pass peacefully, painlesly, without suffering.

Nevertheless, I believe individuals have the right to inspiration in these matters and will be accountable for their decisions.

On stem-cell research: I also am in favor of embryonic stem-cell research, though am a little uncomfortable with some of the ethical issues that may eventualy be a result of such developments (Gattica, anyone?). However, I view God as a celestial genetic engineer, and in general developments where man is able to scientifically manipulate life, I think actually can bring us closer to a god-like state.

Nevertheless, the hype over embryonic stem-cell research is wildly overblown. The porponents make fantastic claims in the media, for the purposes of securing funding and support, which are not scientifically grounded and are unrealistic. The research scientists are guilty of this as well. If you think that research scientists are free of bias, and completely objective in their studies, you are naive. A decade ago, as I started my medical career, all the same claims were made about genetic engineering. Since then not a single disease has been cured by genetic engineering, and many groups have since moved on to other approcahes. 
Comment by Taylor Cardall | 3/25/2005 11:43:00 AM  

After my good protestant professor passed out our Electricity and Magnetism finals, he mentioned that the scripture of the day was from the Psalms, “Lord, I am a stranger here, hide not thy ways from me.” He felt it was appropriate as we struggled through the exam, so he wrote it on the board. It is a refrain I have often come back to.

You are right. Mormonism is precisely where such new questions as to the nature of the spirit could be answered so we might feel more secure in our position on beginning and end of life issues. However, in both the end of polygamy and the limitation of priesthood to Caucasians, these revelations came after the prophet wrestled them, Enos-style, from the Lord. It seems the uncertainty of these questions haven’t reached a level of real importance in the prophet’s eyes.

Although a living prophet stands at the head of the church, and priesthood leaders with authoritative keys watch over each hierarchical level of the church, the organized leadership of the church does not exercise a revelatory monopoly. In fact, definitive revelatory insights into the cosmos are rare, as are new absolute commandments like the Word of Wisdom. We are constantly encouraged to seek independent revelation for personal decisions. Furthermore, examples of Teancum, Ammon, Nephi and Jared (to name a few) suggest God leaves us to creatively solve problems ourselves.

I especially like the possibility that the spirit-embryo may be fluid. Perhaps it is more like a quantum particle, simultaneously occupying two states and only fixed in one once interrogated.


 
Comment by John Welch | 3/25/2005 11:01:00 PM  

Taylor, bro, you're the bomb. Thanks for taking the time to share your wise thoughts. Your experience brings an enormous amount to any discussion of these issues. I agree with your views on how life can and ought to end, and also stem cell research.

Obviously this is a huge subject, but sometime I'd like to hear more about your observations of the end of life. One quick question: When you say the "essence changing" doesn't always correlate with cardiac activity, does it come before cessation, or after, or either?

Also, do you think the "essence change" itself could not be studied scientifically because it's a subjective, holistic perception on the observer's part? Or are you only saying that it would not be possible scientifically to ascertain that a spirit had departed? Maybe on my deathbead I'll ask to have myself monitored by all possible diagnostic probes, have you there to observe and record the time of the essence change, and then go back through the recorded data and look for correlates!

"The "mind-body" connection is well-documented, and surely there is room in interpretations of such literature for belief in the existence of spirit entity."  As you point out, scientific understanding of mind, consciousness, etc. is sufficiently primitive that there probably is room. Still, at some point I'd love to hear some interpretations of the drastic humanity-altering phenomena that account for the spirit.

You came up with the answer I was expecting (you win the prize!): God does not in fact hide his face from those who seek his guidance in these situations. He leaves much ambiguous on purpose, expecting us to seek him as part of our mortal probation.

Obviously I cannot gainsay the fact that many people do in fact obtain peace in this way, and perceive God's care even (perhaps especially) in their extremities; but this doesn't completely satisfy me. One reason is that I'd guess these "answers" almost always involve an emotional healing rather than information content. (Like Nephi, 'I totally don't understand, nevertheless I feel that God loves me.')

This is all great and important; but comfort at this general level might be universally available in any religion. A distinguishing promise of the Restoration is its information content, the Wonderful Flood of Light. But it seems to me that the faucet was turned off with Joseph's departure, and the flood reduced to a trickle. We're essentially stuck with whatever Joseph thought to ask about in his day, and in this sense we're sort of like the Amish, tied to a particular moment in time---not in our lifestyle, as the Amish are, but in our knowledge of cosmic realities. Joseph was unfailingly up for answering whatever questions were put to him: D&C 77 on the Book of Revelation, the contents of D&C 130 and 131, brethren asking him what the hell are these artifacts and this skeleton on a hill in Missouri, what are these strange plates these yahoos dug up, what do these papyri say, what have you. Now, the questions with nonnegligible information content are put off until the millenium.

I'm not expecting God to pronounce on every ethical dilemma, just that his disclosure of reality through his prophets keep apace with our technological advancement, which is both a driver of and index for our preparation to receive more light and our need to know it.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/26/2005 12:46:00 AM  

John, many thanks for taking the time to respond here. I much enjoyed your thoughts on the Times and Seasons post. These are two sharp doctors responding here, folks!

Your point about the prophets not finding the need to wrestle this particular information from the Lord is a good one. Two things discourage me about the two particular instances you cited that we point to as landmark revelation since Joseph: the wrestling was only induced by external pressure, and the outcomes were essentially procedural shifts that left the underlying doctrine somewhat unresolved. As I acknowledged to Taylor, we obtain comfort; and now with these examples, we have tactical moves; but still no increase in information content.

The idea that we shouldn't just wait, but search for answers ourselves, is one that resonates strongly with me.

Your mention of the possible nature of spirit was too brief for me to really see what you might be getting at, but I'm glad to know that some are at least wondering enough to think about it.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/26/2005 01:09:00 AM  

I agree. Both of these examples are troubling. Either they suggest that modern revelation comes in response to intense political pressure, like Joseph repeatedly requesting the 113 pages be shown, or that God will only grant real blessings after we pin him down like Jacob wrestling with the angel. Neither of these feel comfortable.

As to the fetus-spirit, in quantum mechanics there are examples where a particle does not occupy a single energy state, but rather is best represented by a probably cloud smeared over all possible states. However, when interrogated, at that moment, the particle exists in one single state. Similarly, in the two photon slit lamp experiment, two photos with opposite, but random polarity exist in neither one state of polarity nor the other until one of the two is interrogated. Perhaps in utero the spirit is better represented by a probability cloud, occupying simultaneously the body and the nether-world and only in one or the other absolutely when born. 
Comment by John Welch | 3/26/2005 03:17:00 PM  

John, comparison with the revelation permitting Joseph to give Martin the 116 pages makes those examples potentially even more troubling: It sets a precedent for revelation received under external duress being, while genuine, contrary to the Lord's will!

I see now what you were getting at with the reference to quantum superposition. It's an interesting speculation. I suppose one could imagine it having application at the end of life, too---one thinks of Brigham's "Joseph, Joseph, Joseph..." And also to visionary experiences: Paul's "whether in or out of the body, I cannot tell," and conflicting details in the First Vision narratives that alternately suggest grounding within the grove, and separation from external surroundings.
 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/26/2005 05:15:00 PM  

No time for a long response to this very thought-provoking post, but it strikes me that Joseph Smith's insistence on the material nature of all  existence gives the mind-body problem a radically different character for Mormons than it has for others. I get squeamish about moving from particular scientific views to theological explanations because (as we see in works by Widtsoe, Talmage, and others), when those scientific explanations give way to better explanations, it is no longer clear what to make of their link to religious beliefs. But, if I put that squeamishness aside, John Welch's solution is the kind of thing that seems to make sense of our materialism.  
Comment by Jim F | 3/28/2005 05:33:00 PM  

Jim, thanks for highlighting that aspect of the post. It certainly is the case that making speculative connections to contemporary "scientific" notions seems to have a universal record of failure (in addition to your examples, Orson Pratt's speculations, and 19th century connections of the Light of Christ to the Ether are others). One problem is that it seems always to be stuff at the outer theoretical margins of scientific enquiry that are pressed into service, perhaps because the new and exotic (but unfortunately not-yet-empirically-established) seems most promising to explain things otherwise not yet explainable. Such speculations are irresistible, but great care must be taken to make clear that nothing is seriously riding on science that's not firmly established.

As a physicist I am of course interested in what could possibly be meant by "spirit matter," and hope to generate some posts on that in the future. But that may turn out to be rehashing of my comments on Clark Goble's post at Bloggernacle Times . 
Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 3/28/2005 06:14:00 PM  

I am inclined to agree with Christian regarding the dearth of modern revelation on so many topics germane to these troubled times. One wonders if this 'famine' is linked to the secularization of the Saints.In the 40 years that I have been a member of the Church, I have observed a consistent decline in the zeal of the membership. This trend follows the efforts of the Church leadership to make "Mormonism" sufficiently palatable so it can assume the mantle of a 'mainstream religion' in the United States. Two of the most obvious ubiquitous manifestations of this policy are the amendment to the title of the Book of Mormon as 'another witness of Jesus Christ' and the reworking of the Church's logo so that the Saviour's Name/Title are a third higher than the rest of the text. It would appear that that which was sufficient in the nineteenth and most of the twentieth centuries for the conversion of so many was ultimately not good enough. Fortunately, Madison Ave was there to assist us in making the Gospel less offensive. When one looks at the background of most of the Church leadership we find that the vast majority of them come from the world of business. Thus it shouldn't be too surprising to see corporate thought and marketing come to the fore in Church governance. Sadly, it must also be observed that businessmen aren't known for being spiritual visionaries. Could it be that our Father in heaven has witheld further knowledge from the Saints because we haven't grasped the full meaning of what we already have? Hasn't the membership itself become comfortable with the status quo and doesn't really desire anything more? (Without trying to sound too alarmist, but isn't it about now when we should be expecting the coming forth of the translation of the sealed portion of the plates?) I will be very much surprised if I live to see that day. With new revelation comes new responsibilities and accountability engendered with that knowledge and understanding. Perhaps our Heavenly Father feels that we already have sufficent Gospel knowledge to ignore to secure our own damnation.

My apoligies for any grammatical errors. I am neither a lettered man nor a typist.  
Comment by Velikiye Kniaz Michael | 4/06/2005 10:53:00 AM  

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