Philosophical brain teaser

Charles 8 Comments

Posted by Richard Rawlinson

Some readers might recall Roal Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected on TV. ‘William and Mary’ was a particularly beastly story about an academic having his brain and one eye transplanted from his body after death, and attached to an artificial heart so they both continue to function.

William can see and think but nothing more. He is a mind incapable of being a person. His widow, Mary, takes the brain home in its protective capsule, but instead of caring for it by giving it learned books to read, she promptly takes revenge by doing all the things that met with William’s disapproval when he could communicate – things like smoking and watching trash TV. He’s helpless and in hell.

As animals, our deaths are defined by the end of the vital processes that sustain our existence as human beings. As minds, our deaths are constituted by the irreversible extinction of the vital processes that sustain our existence as minds. But if persistence is determined by our retaining certain psychological features, then does the loss of those features constitute death?


  1. Charles

    I’m liking you at the moment, Rupert: you’re the only person commenting on my blogs! Too much excitingly combative action going on elsewhere!

  2. Charles

    Well, in that case, I’ll be honest, Richard. I didn’t understand what you were saying – which is not to say you were unclear, merely that I am not very bright. I suppose it’s all down to where those psychological features reside? Sorry, but I am out of my depth in even 1″ of philosophy.

    But at least I have commented. Oh, and I read the story. Horrid thing. I used to suffer from sleep paralysis and it reminds me of that.

  3. Charles

    I see, Charles! I almost resent you a change to the final sentence as I also decided it led nowhere but you posted it so quickly it was too late! I guess I was trying to distinguish between a mind and the body that allows it to express its psychological characteristics. It wasn’t intended as a parable about the pros and cons of euthanasia or life beyond death, just a few words of analysis about a tale that had a disturbing impact on a lot of people.

  4. Charles

    Sleep paralysis must be an awful thing, Charles. I’ve also awoken a couple of times seemingly unable to move for a few seconds, but it hasn’t occured as a regular affliction.

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