Whole-brain death and integration: realigning the ontological concept with clinical diagnostic tests

  • Daniel P. SulmasyEmail author


For decades, physicians, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, and the public considered brain death a settled issue. However, a series of recent cases in which individuals were declared brain dead yet physiologically maintained for prolonged periods of time has challenged the status quo. This signals a need for deeper reflection and reexamination of the underlying philosophical, scientific, and clinical issues at stake in defining death. In this paper, I consider four levels of philosophical inquiry regarding death: the ontological basis, actual states of affairs, epistemological standards, and clinical criteria for brain death. I outline several candidates for the states of affairs that may constitute death, arguing that we should strive for a single, unified ontological definition of death as a loss of integrated functioning as a unified organism, while acknowledging that two states of affairs (cardiopulmonary death and whole-brain death) may satisfy this concept. I argue that the clinical criteria for determining whole-brain death should be bolstered to meet the epistemic demand of sufficient certainty in defining death by adding indicators of cerebro-somatic dis-integration to the traditional triad of loss of consciousness, loss of brainstem function, and absence of confounding explanations.


Brain death Ethics Medical ethics Epistemology Diagnosis 



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kennedy Institute of EthicsGeorgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA

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