You can listen to this piece on the Reality Check Podcast here
He knew his time was running out, yet he was okay with it. Even before he was diagnosed, he knew where he was headed. His fate was the same as everyone’s - Death.
One day soon he would stop breathing. His heart would stop beating and his neurons would stop firing. At that exact moment, he would be dead.
However that exact moment also contained a paradox that he couldn’t quite resolve.
Despite his body containing exactly the same ‘stuff’ as it did a moment earlier, a moment later that same body containing that same stuff would no longer be alive.
The question remained, ‘what was fundamentally different between that one moment and the next?’ What exactly happened that would turn his body from alive to dead?
Lying on his hospital bed, he mused this question over again. His pain was steadily increasing, then again, so were his dosages of morphine. It wouldn’t be long now.
He toyed with analogies, yet they seemed woefully inadequate.
Take a car for example. It only functions when
1) Most of its parts are present
2) It is fuelled
3) It has a driver to operate it
Take one of those components away and the car won’t start; but is it dead?
The parts can break down of course, but broken parts can be replaced. Was the same true for his body? He thought so, his artificial hip, and transplanted kidney agreed.
If a broken car part isn’t replaced, and that car never used again, you could argue that the car had died. However if each component is replaced over time, that car continues to live.
Theoretically you could replace every single part of the car, piece by piece over time placing all of the older parts aside. Eventually the ‘car’ would consist of entirely new pieces, with all of the old pieces sitting unused beside it. In that case, which car is the real car? Which car lives? The one with the new replaced pieces? Or the broken husk? At what point did the original car die and a new one come into being?
Regardless, the car was alive, and would remain so if its parts got replaced when they were broken.
If he similarly replaced all of the components of his body, would he live? Or would some new person be created?
His head started to hurt. He called the nurse for a sip of water and took it by straw. Gone were the days of self-sustained drinking, as well as it seemed his ability to contemplate on such matters deeply. Still he persisted, there was nothing else to do but wait.
A car without fuel cannot operate. The component parts may all be present, but without a spark to ignite movement those parts remain idle.
He asked for some more water.
Food, water and oxygen. The body’s fuel. Fast on any one of these three essentials and you will certainly die. He knew this much. His basic understanding of biology told him that these essentials were broken down in the body and converted into energy.
He hadn’t yet stopped eating or drinking, and he certainly wouldn’t voluntarily stop breathing. Yet all the same, he would soon die; despite being regularly fuelled.
He chuckled at the idea of a car’s superior ability to persist in a state of relative stasis. Why could a car sit empty for months, only to instantly come back to life the moment it was refuelled? Try feeding a hamburger to a corpse and see what happens! He chuckled again, this time coughing up some blood. The nurse came once more, kindly cleaning him up. Politely rebuking him to not overexert himself too much.
If only he could speak, he would demand that as a condition of the execution of his will, that a hamburger was to be fed to him exactly three months after his passing. It was worth a shot right?
What was the difference between a car and a man? What enabled the car to come roaring back to life, but not the man?
He knew it had something to do with the driver. The driver turned the key. The driver got the whole process started, and through his will got the car moving. Together with a driver, the car is truly alive.
An empty idling car was more akin to his new roommate; brain-dead. The body was functioning, but the mind was empty.
But who is the driver of his body? Who was thinking these thoughts right now? How much control did he even have over the whole affair? Did he have any?
He knew that ‘he’ chose to start this whole car analogy, but didn’t choose where he would go during his contemplation of the analogy. This proved to him that he had at least partial control. He could steer the car of his mind to some degree, but not completely.
In fact, the more he tried, the more his mind resisted. If left unguided his mind wandered. It began to drive itself down uncharted, unknown roads.
He couldn’t predict the next thought that would arise, nor how he would feel about having that thought. True, he could ‘force’ a thought, but really who would choose which thought he would decide to force himself to think?
And even if he managed to force a particular thought, he certainly couldn’t maintain that line of thought to the exclusion of all others.
Prior to his illness, his body seemed to be more under his control. It moved when and where he desired. Yet he could not stop his body from hearing, breathing or excreting waste. He could choose to hold his breath for a short while, but eventually his body would override that choice and breathe.
So who was in control? Or more poignantly, was someone in control at all?
Perhaps he was more akin to those newfangled electric cars that drive themselves places. Pre-programed to respond and act in particular ways when certain environmental stimulus present themselves.
He heard an alarm go off behind him. One of the many machines attached to his body. Taking measurements, adjusting levels. He didn’t have the strength to check which one it was, nor to call for assistance, he didn’t even have the strength to open his eyes.
He didn’t trust those electric cars, not one bit. If one of these cars had to choose between crashing into a wall and killing the driver or crashing into a family and saving the driver, what would the car choose? Who made that decision?
Still, he knew that though out his life, he had acted on impulse. In emergencies and in moments of heated tension he acted in ways he never thought he was capable of. Overwhelmed by emotion he had cried and laughed, swore and struck, loved and lied.
In those moments, who made those choices?
A car’s driver can choose where the car will go, but is required to stay within certain confines; a road, driveways or other designated areas. Further still, its speeds are limited and behaviours are modified by signs and other guidance. A driver could choose to disregard these warnings of course, but quickly he would find his car impounded or destroyed via accident.
Was he not the same in this sense? Did he not follow the social conventions of his day? Eating the way others ate, following the same trends, doing the same kinds of work. At his core, did he not believe basically what everyone else believed? Still he knew that was he born in another time or place, he would have been a similar product of his time. His morals, values, religion and political preferences would have adjusted accordingly. Had he had different parents or different school chums, he would have turned out differently, but he still wouldn’t have been able to choose how.
With a sudden burst of clarity he realised that he had no control. None. He was not the driver of his car. He was just a passenger. Merely someone along for the ride. This dying body was no more his than the rental car he had hired on his last holiday.
He would take in no more fuel.
He would replace no more parts.
The driver was leaving.
Only the passenger would remain, waiting for another ride to begin.