I had just finished giving a talk about severe brain injury, and told the story of Terry Wallis, a man in Arkansas who’d had a car accident in 1984. He survived but was left in a vegetative state, and his doctors and family thought he would be unconscious forever. Then in 2003 he began to speak. Tentatively at first, he said ‘Mom’ and then ‘Pepsi’. It was a stunning development almost two decades after he was injured. Terry’s words became the stuff of international headlines, baffling commentators who thought that recovery from the vegetative state was impossible.
Why? Because the vegetative state had gained an almost iconic status in the United States, in law and in medicine, following the landmark 1976 right-to-die case involving Karen Ann Quinlan. Quinlan had been left in the vegetative state after a presumptive drug overdose. Based on expert testimony, the New Jersey Supreme Court justified the removal of Quinlan’s ventilator because evidence indicated that her brain state was a place of unbreachable hopelessness.
This landmark decision, broadcast around the world, launched the right to die into US jurisprudence. That right was grounded, in part, on the presumption that people in the vegetative state don’t recover. And then in 2003, Terry spoke. More.
No big surprise; we don’t even know what consciousness is.
But the blanket US Supreme Court euthanasia decision that we all know is coming will render the point moot. It’s already happened in Canada.
See also: Pop science speaks: Ventriloquists, religion, and consciousness The fact that we really don’t know anything about consciousness, except what is wrong with current ideas, makes the field especially susceptible to this kind of thing.
Neuroscience tried wholly embracing naturalism, but then the brain got away
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