Science in Christian Perspective


Penetrating the Word Maze

Richard H. Bube

Stanford University
Stanford, California 94305

From: PSCF 41 (September 1989): 160-161.

Taking a look at words we often use-and misuse. Please let us know whether these attempts at clarification are helpful to you.

Today's words are: "life/death."

The Dictionary definitions: life: "the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body;" death: "a permanent cessation of all vital functions: the end of life." [Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Springfield, MA (1987)].

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Sometimes the most profound concepts get squeezed into words that serve perfectly well in ordinary conversation, but then fail miserably when carried over into more technical discussions. Consider the pair "life/death." These two terms appear to be simply the opposite of one another: life is the absence of death, and death is the absence of life.

But what is each of these? Something we have or something we are? A possession that belongs to us, or a state of being that characterizes us? Is there only one kind of life? Is it appropriate to ask when life begins and when life ends? Does death begin when life ends? Are these instantaneous or gradual changes?

If we reflect on the way that these words are used, we find that "life" is commonly spoken of as "something that we have." This ordinary usage is certainly augmented for the Christian by the common usage in the Bible of "spiritual life" as something given to us through faith in Christ. As long as these expressions are used to convey existential relationships, few if any problems arise, but if we insist upon using them technically, then all kinds of problems arise. First of all, we need

as several different kinds of death. There is biological life (Bible: body), human life (a body with biological properties associated with Homo sapiens), personal life (Bible: soul) and spiritual life (Bible: spirit) as well as biological death, human death, personal death, and spiritual death.

Biological life characterizes all living creatures, human life describes living human beings, personal life describes the characteristics of human life when the individual is capable of exhibiting the properties attributed to selfhood, and spiritual life describes the characteristics of human, personal life when considered in terms of transcendence and its relationship with God. We will deal at more length with the "body/soul/spirit" and the "human/personal" distinctions in subsequent Word Mazes. For the present it is sufficient to note that "life" and "death" can be used to describe the state of a creature unambiguously only if suitable modifying terms are included.

Secondly, we should take note of the fact that in a technical sense there are no such entities as "life" or "death." We can understand this by asking, "What must be added to a non-living body to make it into a living body?" In keeping with the popular use of the word, the addition of "life" to a non-living body would be necessary to make it a living body. But if we understand this to mean that "life" is some kind of entity, then we are making a serious mistake. For there is no entity that must be addedfrom outside to make a non-living body into a living body; what is necessary is that the individual biological organs be present and able to function, and that their proper functioning (blood circulation, lungs breathing, etc.) be initiated.

If "life" and "death" were entities, then the following sentences should make sense:

"When a living creature dies, life is taken away."

"When a living creature dies, death is added."

"When a non-living creature becomes alive, death is taken away."

So we are led to the conclusion that a subtle transformation of "life" and "death" from nouns to the corresponding adjectives "alive" and "dead" is what is needed to enable us to use these terms in a meaningful way in technical discourse. It is not that "she has life," but that "she is alive." Being alive is a property of her whole self. It is not that "he has death," but that "he is dead." Being dead is a property of his whole self.

This shift from noun to adjective, while correcting one potential source of error. does not do away with the need for the adjectives for "living" and "dead" to be appropriately modified. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between the different meanings of being "biologically alive," "personally alive." and "spiritually alive." just as between being "biologically. dead." "personally dead." and "spiritually dead."

It is also necessary to notice the relationship between these terms. If we limit ourselves to our existence in this world, it is not possible to be personally alive without being biologically alive, and it is not possible to be spiritually alive without being personally alive. It is not possible to be biologically dead without being personally dead, but it is possible to be personally dead without being biologically dead. Unfortunately, the expression "spiritually. dead" breaks this symmetry, for it is used to imply that a living person is out of proper relationship with God-, thus to be "spiritually dead" in this life, it is necessary to be both "biologically alive" and "personally alive."

Thirdly, we need to recognize that "being alive" and "being dead" describe different states depending on which modifier is used with them. and that each involves a process and not just an event in time. Consider as an example the situation of the results of conception brought about by a man and a woman. The fertilized ovum is "biologically alive," and it is also an example of "biological human life." Even the sperm and the ovum were alive before conception, and they were both human sperm and ovum. The newly fertilized ovum, however, is neither "personally alive" (i.e., manifesting the properties of selfhood) nor "spiritually alive" (i.e., manifesting the right personal relationship with God).

In the normal progress of time, the unborn that is biologically and humanly alive from conception begins to show the characteristics of being "personally alive" as the consequences of being biologically alive develop so as to be able to give rise to these characteristics. It is not until several weeks after birth that the neocortex begins to function and full claim for being "personally alive" can be sustained. It is not until several years after birth that the young child can be considered to have become responsible for his or her choices and to have entered into being "spiritually alive" when those choices are centered in Christ.

The reverse process occurs at the end of life: being "personally dead" frequently precedes being "biologically dead." The loss of the capability of experiencing selfhood usually occurs with the permanent end of brain functioning, whereas being "biologically dead" may occur at some later time when the final set of biological functions (e.g., growth of finger nails and hair) ceases.

In summary, "being alive" and "being dead" are characteristics of a whole creature and must be carefully modified to take into account that both are processes extended over time. Additional aspects of this discussion will be continued in the next Word Maze.

Is this description lively enough for you, or do you find its semantic distinctions deadly?

The earth is our Lord's and all that therein is:

the compass of the world, and they that dwell therein.

Psalm 24:1