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Department of Philosophy
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Scientific, Philosophical, and Religious Perspectives
The paper examines some contemporary moral dilemmas posed by the rapid advancement of medical technology, the inability of traditional religious structures to forge consensus regarding such dilemmas, and the associated widespread interest in near-death experiences as a possible scientific basis for belief in life after death.
It is argued that the evidence regarding near-death experiences is insufficient to establish immortality, but that they nonetheless provide excellent grounds for believing death to be an interesting, possibly pleasant experience. They may even point the way to a more refined concept of a human being: and that, it is maintained, is what is needed for the resolution of moral dilemmas stemming from technological advancement in medicine.
In 1979, my first year of full-time teaching, I received a small grant to assist with development of a new course. The course is one I initially titled Philosophy of Death and Dying, but now call Philosophy of Life and Death. Student response has been overwhelming. I teach the course at least once each year (40-50 students per section). It is a demanding course, for professor as well as student. I often have nurses and emergency medical technicians sitting next to traditional undergraduates. I have had students with terminal ailments and others whose best friend had just committed suicide. In sixteen years, I have yet to teach a section in which someone -- self included -- did not shed a few tears.
The course begins with an exploration of the meaning of life. We review the positions and contributions of several religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism), classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle, nihilists like Schopenhauer, and existentialists like Sartre and Camus. Perhaps needless to say, we do not reach any consensus as regards the meaning of life -- but we do establish a dialogue and learn a lot about the participants in the class. With that foundation laid, we turn our attention to the definition and determination of death (brain death, loss of personhood, etc.), rights of the dying patient (truth, dignity, self-determination, etc.), euthanasia and natural death (physician-assisted suicide, living wills, etc.), suicide, near-death experiences, and the possibility of life after death. Along the way we find ourselves discussing grief, rituals, the funeral industry, contemporary music videos, and a host of related items.
Much of my research and publication concerning life and death stems directly from my experiences with this class. Students repeatedly challenge my views and force me to learn more than I might otherwise have done. As a result I have also found myself drawn into a series of larger projects and community activities (Catskill Area Hospice, seminars for school teachers, a continuing education workshop for nurses, etc.). This small booklet is a product of the many fertile exchanges I have had along the way.
Despite the course's grand title, its subject matter is simply too extensive to cram into fifteen weeks of organized instruction. Many legitimate and interesting issues are mentioned only briefly, or perhaps not at all. Even the topics upon which we focus are far richer and more complex than we have time to appreciate. As a partial remedy for this otherwise sad state of affairs, students are required to research -- in a philosophically respectable program of their own design -- some facet of the Philosophy of Life and Death. That research culminates in a term paper in the true sense of the term: it is assigned the first day of class, due the final day.
Predictably, students complain that I am too demanding. But eventually these stages of denial, anger, bargaining, and depression pass. Once they accept the assignment as one designed for their own benefit, students write what is for many the best paper of their entire undergraduate experience. Some of the same students who complained in the beginning send me a thank-you note when all is said and done.
To provide an exemplar as well as a sense of commiseration, I frequently extend the assignment to myself as well. I announce my topic to the class, set about finding sources, and make progress reports on a weekly basis. I circulate an outline of what I hope to cover and then, as the project progresses, distribute rough drafts and share my frustrations as well as my tentative discoveries. In this way I hope students learn more about the nature of scholarly research and the process of writing than any series of lectures could every accomplish. They see that writing is difficult even for a professional, that it requires sustained commitment, and that we often wind up in conceptual spaces rather different from those which we had initially projected.
Partially because I believe teaching and research are best when they are intertwined -- and partially because I would otherwise have even more serious time management problems than I do at present -- I try to coordinate these exemplar exercises with conference and publication commitments. Several of my articles -- including "On Dying More Than One Death," Hastings Center Report 16.1 (February 1986): 12-17 -- originated in this way.
The current monograph began as an exemplar in 1991. I have presented preliminary versions at two conferences, listed below. Helpful criticism and insights were provided on both occasions. Equally valuable input has come from several hundred students in my classes on Philosophy of Life and Death. Sincere appreciation is extended to organizers, participants, and students alike.
I also wish to thank Dr. Parviz Morewedge, managing editor of Oneonta Philosophy Studies. Pressured by his unrelenting encouragement, I have agreed to publish my research in monograph form. Even so, I feel the need to issue a disclaimer: the monograph is a work-in-progress, not a finished paper. Several sections are far too brief; others may be too long. Some of the "arguments" are more properly regarded as argument-sketches. If you find errors or have suggestions for improvement, please send them to me at the address listed below. Even as I write this, I am busy planning a second revised edition.
Douglas W. Shrader