Friday, February 27, 2015

Head Transplant

New Scientist has an article about an Italian surgeon, Sergio Canavero, who fully anticipates doing head transplants within a few years. Aside from the practical difficulties involved, which Canavero thinks we're on the cusp of solving, there are some serious ethical concerns being raised about this. I'm not sure that most of the ethical concerns can't be assuaged, but I do wonder about something else.

Before I get into that here's the lede from the New Scientist report:
It's heady stuff. The world's first attempt to transplant a human head will be launched this year at a surgical conference in the US. The move is a call to arms to get interested parties together to work towards the surgery.

The idea was first proposed in 2013 by Sergio Canavero of the Turin Advanced Neuromodulation Group in Italy. He wants to use the surgery to extend the lives of people whose muscles and nerves have degenerated or whose organs are riddled with cancer. Now he claims the major hurdles, such as fusing the spinal cord and preventing the body's immune system from rejecting the head, are surmountable, and the surgery could be ready as early as 2017.

The first attempt at a head transplant was carried out on a dog by Soviet surgeon Vladimir Demikhov in 1954. A puppy's head and forelegs were transplanted onto the back of a larger dog. Demikhov conducted several further attempts but the dogs only survived between two and six days.

The first successful head transplant, in which one head was replaced by another, was carried out in 1970. A team led by Robert White at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland, Ohio, transplanted the head of one monkey onto the body of another. They didn't attempt to join the spinal cords, though, so the monkey couldn't move its body, but it was able to breathe with artificial assistance. The monkey lived for nine days until its immune system rejected the head. Although few head transplants have been carried out since, many of the surgical procedures involved have progressed. "I think we are now at a point when the technical aspects are all feasible," says Canavero.
The article goes on to discuss exactly how Canavero hopes to accomplish this surgery and some of the reaction to it in the medical community. The question I would pose is this: If the surgery is successful, who would the resulting individual be? Would he/she be the person whose head is afixed to the torso, or would he/she be the person whose torso it is? Or would the resulting individual be a new person altogether?

Most people would probably opt for the first alternative, believing that the self is somehow associated with the brain. If, then, Dr. Canavero could somehow transplant simply the brain the resulting individual would be the self whose brain he/she bears. But why think that the material brain is necessary to identify the self? Why would the self not be the body or brain at all but rather the information that's contained in the brain so that if we could download the information contained in the brain into another brain/body physical system it would be identical to downloading the self into another physical system?

Of course, information is immaterial which means that the self is immaterial which means we're getting uncomfortably (from a materialist point of view) to saying that the self is really one's soul.