by Natalie Rich*
During my visit to the Western Michigan University Undergraduate Biomedical Ethics Symposium this last weekend, I had the chance to share an excerpt from my honors thesis with several other students interested in bioethics from across the country. The topics discussed involved relatively straightforward examples, such as case studies involving the end of life wishes of elderly cancer patients to abstract ties between Alzheimer’s disease and personal identity. Was the physician justified in resuscitating the eighty-year-old woman who asked not to be resuscitated? Would the possibility of downloading memories onto a brain-computer chip be acceptable or incongruent with the way we think of our minds? The range of biomedical topics from applied to theoretical fit very well with my presentation, which focused on a naturalistic understanding of the self as emerging from the layout and capabilities of the body and what that understanding implies about medical practices like organ transplantation. Considering the self and the body coextensive and deeply entwined could make some medical manipulations irrelevant, while considering the self an emergent property of the workings of the body could help those same practices to become both helpful and respectful.
I chose to base my presentation on one chapter of my larger thesis project titled, “Intersections and Implications Between Medical, Philosophical and Moral Understandings of the Body and the Self,” which is concerned with the broad topic of medical understandings of the body. Making the way in which we talk and think about our selves and our bodies explicit may help us understand our aversion and uneasiness regarding some practices, and even enhance holistic understandings of healthcare. The encouraging responses I received from other contributors to the conference make me hopeful that research involving the way we understand the body can be directly useful for enhancing medical care.
*Natalie Rich is pursuing an Honors B.S. in Philosophy at Oregon State University and will be defending her thesis on May 29, 2012. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org