In the third year of my undergrad degree, I took a philosophy course which was mostly on epistemology (how we know what we know). We spent rather a lot of time on Mind // Body dualism.
The thought experiment goes thus:
A young man, body mangled in an accident cannot survive the trauma. In an attempt to save him, we transplant his brain into the body of a middle-aged woman in a persistent vegetative state. Her body was healthy although her brain was gone. The riddle, the thesis of the paper, the crux is the answer to the question – who is that young man // middle-aged woman? Are we our bodies? Our brains? What makes us, well, us?
Our brains are perhaps as mysterious as the whole of outer space. Dimensions unknowable and six inches between our ears; we don’t know much about either in spite of what we may have heard. It’s rare. The doctors tell us that. In a few papers maybe it’s mentioned.
It’s not the tumour, it’s not swelling from the radiation, it’s not trauma. It’s not meds. The doctors shrugged at us. They did it kindly. The cops who forcibly brought him into the hospital were as humane and as gentle as they could be. Still, I took his wife past the security guards and the nurses gathered outside of Andy’s room. It took 4 huge men and 2 nurses, a syringe filled with Haldol and Ativan and Benadryl to restrain him. When they got him out of his clothes there were 6 knives and ammunition. A locked psych unit. Threats, screaming. An involuntary committal hearing.
I feel like I’m telling you about a newspaper story or the crazy friend of a friend story you tell with hand motions at a dinner party.
No, I have been pondering the wrong thought experiment for more than 22 years.
The thought experiment now goes thus:
There’s a man you love like a brother, you have known him for almost 20 years. He looks like the man you have always known, but you cannot recognize his brain. When you cannot fathom the rage; when his wife cannot manage his aggression and his small children are terrified; when everyone decides to discontinue chemo and meds; is the man restrained and guarded still Andy? If not, who is he?
The things we don’t know about brains surely outnumber the things we do know. I’m sure he’s in there somewhere. I’m sorry you all have to go through this – a peaceful end is not to be had, it seems.
Oh my goodness. What a dreadful and frightening thing for the children to witness: their father turned into someone they do not know. Heartbreaking.
He is in there somewhere, but all that awfulness is his disease, not him. I send hugs to you all.