The Ethicist: Taking Cartesian Dualism Too Far?

Last month, I discussed Descartes’ thought experiment and its sharp separation between mind and body. This month, I want to look at a bizarre and ethically troubling proposal that arises as a consequence of this way of understanding ourselves: the head transplant operation that Italian physician Dr. Sergio Canavero claims that he is going to perform on a patient (or, perhaps, two patients) in China. Dr. Canavero plans to remove the head of a patient whose body is failing, and attach it to a body that has had its head surgically removed.

Before getting to the philosophical questions this proposal raises, I want to briefly demonstrate why this proposed operation is deeply unethical. First, we have no idea whether it is even possible for such a procedure to be successful; if it is not, then what it involves is killing a living person (the possessor of the head) to perform a medical experiment. Second, even if the head survives, we do not know whether it will ever be able to work with a new body, whether the brain will be able to make a new body move, walk or even breathe. Third, if the head survives, we can expect it to suffer enormous, probably unimaginable pain that it may well be impossible to relieve. These three points, taken together, provide good reason to think that this operation is highly unethical.

I want now, however, to move back to the philosophical issues this proposal raises, and ask readers to think about the following question: Is the head getting a body transplant, or is the body getting a head transplant? If you are like everyone else I have asked this question of, you will answer, almost without thought, that, of course, the head is getting a body transplant. But why do we think this way, and should we think this way? The answer to the first question is relatively simple, while the answer to the second is surprisingly complex.


In terms of the first question, most of us believe the head is getting a body transplant because our thinking about mind and body is shaped by Cartesian dualism, by the idea that these things are separate and distinct from one another, and that personal identity – who we are, how we would describe ourselves to others, what makes us one person over time – resides, not in the body, but in the mind. This view is clearly accepted by Dr. Canavero, but also, interestingly, by most of his critics as well: they tend to view the head as the transplant recipient, and are concerned with the experiences the person (meaning the head) will have if this operation takes place. However, when we think about our assumptions more carefully, it is not at all clear that we should unquestioningly think in this dualistic way. It does not really allow us to fully understand, for example, what happens to our personhood if we develop dementia, nor does give the fact of our embodiment sufficient weight in our thinking about what human beings are.


This 2015 TEDx talk by Dr. Canavero now carries the caveat: “We’ve flagged this talk, which was filmed at an independent TEDx event, because it appears to fall outside TEDx’s curatorial guidelines. This talk is best viewed as a speculative what-if scenario, and with awareness that the 2017 surgeries performed by Dr. Canavero on human cadavers have raised practical and ethical concerns in the scientific community. The talk contains statements about nerve regeneration that are questioned by many neuroscientists.”


In terms of the second question, consider not only the ethical issues raised by this proposed operation, but, also, that our bodies are more than mere appendages of our minds: our bodies are the locus of sensation, the entities through which physical encounters with others occur and the outward signs of our membership in a particular species. Moreover, our bodies occupy a particular location in the space-time continuum: while I might wish, for example, that my body was slimmer or younger, I am familiar with how it moves through space, and aware of the changes that have taken place in it over time. I don’t know if I would still be “me” if I were given a new body, even if my brain functions remained the same.

Second, consider the conundrum philosophers have named the “mind-body problem”: even if we correlate minds with brains, it is not clear how immaterial minds interact with, or affect, material brains. Even if we talk about neural pathways and neurons firing, mind and consciousness (let alone self-consciousness) remain mysterious, to neuroscientists and philosophers alike.

In short, even if we are generally comfortable thinking in ways that presuppose mind-body dualism, we need to be aware that this approach generates as many medical and philosophical issues as it resolves. So I will leave readers with some further questions to consider: if this experiment is performed, and if it is successful, so that both head and body survive, will the result be the continuation of the life of the person whose head is used? Will we have a hybrid person? Or might we, perhaps, have a new person, one who is neither of the pre-existing persons, but someone who is distinctively, even radically, new? These questions are philosophical, not medical, and it is not at all clear how they should be answered.


Rachel Haliburton


Wolfville native Rachel Haliburton teaches philosophy at the University of Sudbury. Her latest book, The Ethical Detective: Moral Philosophy and Detective Fiction, was published in February by Lexington Books.