Breakthrough in Neuroscience

For those of you who have asked for a change of topic, here is an interesting article about an advance in neuroscience: a British physician apparently can communicate with a patient diagnosed as being brain-dead (persistent vegetative state) through an MRI system. (hat tip to Mark Shea.)

Adrian Owen still gets animated when he talks about patient 23. The patient was only 24 years old when his life was devastated by a car accident. Alive but unresponsive, he had been languishing in what neurologists refer to as a vegetative state for five years, when Owen, a neuro-scientist then at the University of Cambridge, UK, and his colleagues at the University of Liège in Belgium, put him into a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) machine and started asking him questions.

Incredibly, he provided answers.

A change in blood flow to certain parts of the man’s injured brain convinced Owen that patient 23 was conscious and able to communicate. It was the first time that anyone had exchanged information with someone in a vegetative state.

Patients in these states have emerged from a coma and seem awake. Some parts of their brains function, and they may be able to grind their teeth, grimace or make random eye movements. They also have sleep–wake cycles. But they show no awareness of their surroundings, and doctors have assumed that the parts of the brain needed for cognition, perception, memory and intention are fundamentally damaged. They are usually written off as lost.

Owen’s discovery, reported in 2010, caused a media furore. …

… Many researchers disagree with Owen’s contention that these individuals are conscious….

My comment:

As a science fiction writer, the implications have been explored many times in fiction, because we are discussing a possible system of mechanical telepathy. This could affect everything from jurisprudence (what if the system can form a reliable lie detector?) to cybernetics (what if the system could allow a patient to bypass damaged neural tissue and regain control of limbs and life?) The possibilities here are dizzying.

As a philosopher, I assume these are the researchers of the same caliber who earlier proved that men lack free will, because neurological studies show brain activity accompanies the reported awareness of a decision to move a finger.  The logical conclusion to draw is that ambiguous neuroscience makes for bad philosophy and worse theology.  My warning to experts is not to venture out of the field of your expertise without a warning to your audience, lest they give your words undue weight.

As a loyal son of the Catholic Church, my reaction to the article in general is less than moderate: In your face, culture of death! The science you worship instead of use now has some evidence that you are killing living souls in your grotesque love of euthanasia: and you call us backward and superstitious? We were here before you! You generation of vipers, you selfish bastards, how shall you escape the wrath to come?

When Terri Schiavo was killed in her bed by the state of Florida, and the press and the governor of the state stood by sitting on their hands, ignoring the weeping parents, and the culture of death celebrated in unseemly if not satanic glee, declaring that Schiavo had earned the privilege of starving to death, dying slowly by inches by dehydration.

The generation of vipers was too kind hearted to take a gun to her temple and shoot, as one would do to kill a mad dog or broken-legged horse, or kill her with lethal injection or electrocution as one would do with a condemned criminal, or slit her wrists. Instead, due to the legal nicety which somehow declared feeding and watering a sick person to be “extraordinary life support” we starved her to death.

Now comes this johnny-come-lately scientific evidence to support what the Church has always known: they you cannot write off a living human being “as good as dead” and play God, and grant death, without running an inhuman risk.

To the living patient unable to move or speak and convince her killers that she is still alive, this is a scene out of some Poe terror tale of premature burial. That the killers would decide to kill you slowly by inches, when you cannot even beg for death, merely adds horror to the terror, a grotesque irony, for which the perpetrators will have to pay and double again in purgatory or in hell, when the books of their deeds are opened and read aloud.

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