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Tydskrif vir Geesteswetenskappe

On-line version ISSN 2224-7912
Print version ISSN 0041-4751


STRAUSS, DFM (Danie). Philosophical notes on some aspects of life and death. Tydskr. geesteswet. [online]. 2021, vol.61, n.2, pp.452-470. ISSN 2224-7912.

The sudden appearance of the enormously threatening COVID-19 virus with its subsequent more infectious mutations challenged the very foundations of practically all countries around the world. It also prompted me to broaden the scope of reflecting on the age-old problem of "life and death". Amidst our growing knowledge of living entities it soon became clear that the cell is the smallest living entity - exceeding the largest macromolecule by about 1 000 times. By the end of the 18th century viruses were discovered and they appeared to be entities intermediate between non-living and living entities. From a philosophical perspective it opened the way to many intriguing questions directed at the boundaries of our knowledge. One question is how do we describe the diversity of things, properties and processes which we experience in our daily lives. Already in Greek culture we encounter theoretical approaches that opted for the exploration of just one mode of explanation. It gave rise to two opposing monistic orientations: pan-mechanism and pan-vitalism. Underlying this opposition there lurks a straightforward basic question, namely What is a plant? We argue that without prior knowledge of the difference between material things, plants and animals it would not even be possible to commence studying plants. The hypothetical transition from material configurations to truly living entities over a vast period of time is problematic because the long time-span, in fact, conceals an unsolved problem, namely the abrupt moment of transition - the change from one moment to the next from non-living to being alive. Assuming the simultaneous appearance of protein and DNA caused new unsolved problems. Attention is also given to elements of the question concerning what is matter, indicative of the unavoidable foundation of living entities. After some brief reflections on the various realms found in nature, elements of our earlier remarks about mechanistic and organistic approaches are connected to some problematic modern views. Simpson is correct in his criticism of the expression "molecular biology" because molecules, as such, are not alive. Von Bertalanffy expands on this issue with his remark that these processes are different in a living, sick or dead dog; but the laws of physics do not differentiate, being indifferent to whether or not dogs are alive or dead. That the physical substrate of living things contains its own distinct problems, steered our analysis into a slightly different direction. Finally, contemplating the multifaceted nature of the process of dying is followed up by looking at some constitutional issues and some implications for human rights.

Keywords : virus, (non-)living; monism; dualism; what is a plant; moment of death; constitutional rights; mask; physical distance.

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