Parnia's book Erasing Death is a mixture of fascinating stories of people being revived after their hearts have stopped for long periods of time, intriguing discussion of the explanation of near-death experiences, and tiresome and wrong-headed arguments for revising the concept of death. Parnia argues that scientific discoveries about death and dying will show that we need to change our definition of death, and that it is literally possible for people to die and come back to life. That is, he argues that physical death is not irreversible. From this, he argues that what are generally referred to as "near death experiences" are really "death experiences." He argues that these experiences are very difficult for science to explain, because their common features, such as seeing a light or seeing one's body from above, are not well explained by what we know about the conditions that occur when people die and have those experiences. But these experiences need to be studied further, which is what is currently being done by the AWARE study. This will hopefully uncover whether people who have these experiences learn something that does not fit in with a view of the self as a brain or a purely material thing. Unfortunately, this study has not yet provided any surprising results.
It is obvious that from a biological point of view that death is a process, and it has been obvious for a long time. We see this most clearly when people gradually die. There is no sudden transformation of a body from being all alive to being all dead: some parts of the body die before others. Thus the question becomes which parts of the body are most important for the definition of being alive or dead. Most modern definitions focus on the functioning of the brain, and much of the debate over defining death is about whether we should insist that the whole brain has to be non-functional, or whether someone with a functional brain-stem but lacking other brain function may be dead. For legal purposes, we need to be able to give a time when death occurs, but maybe there is no biological concept of death that corresponds to this moment. People move from being alive to being dead and this takes time, so the process takes a period of time. This would seem to be the consequence of taking seriously the idea that death is a process rather than a single event.
However, Parnia wants to define death as cardiac arrest. This definition goes against his insight that death is a process, and instead makes it an event. Moreover, it becomes a reversible change. He does not address the legal issue of what would happen if we changed the definition of death from being irreversible to reversible. Presumably it would not be legally a good idea to declare each person in an ER who has suffered cardiac arrest to be dead, but Parnia does not address this complication. But it isn't just a practical problem: it also raises the issue of what is important about the idea of death, and Parnia's approach just sidesteps that by replacing it with a simple biological criterion that makes it follow that death is in principle reversible, thus seeming to miss what we take to be most important about death.
It is pretty clear that Parnia himself is sympathetic to the idea that consciousness is not completely created and constituted by the body and brain, and he thinks that it is at least possible that the soul can come and go from the body. On this view, there is only the death of the body, not the death of the soul or consciousness. He thinks that this question should be investigated scientifically, and he thinks that "death experiences" may help with this. He might be right about this, but it still does not mean that it makes any sense to define death as cardiac arrest.
What his book does make clear that that the topic of death is both philosophically and scientifically interesting, and that studying the issue is a good way to introduce philosophical ideas of consciousness, the self, life, personal identity, science, and the supernatural. But Parnia is not a sophisticated writer about these concepts, and so this book is best read for its discussion of the medical capacity to revive people to consciousness after they have stopped breathing and their hearts have stopped beating for considerable lengths of time, and for thinking about how to investigate what should still be called "near death experiences." These parts of the book make it interesting to read, but the reader may want to skip the philosophical parts. The book is also a bit long and repetitive, and could have done with more editing.
The unabridged audiobook is performed by James Patrick Cronin. His tone is even, and he brings enthusiasm to the task, but the reading does feel a bit wooden.
© 2013 Christian Perring
Christian Perring, Professor of Philosophy, Dowling College, New York