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Beyond the heart headlines

Exactly 15 years after the first human heart transplant in 1967, the world news media turned to last week's implanting of an artificial heart in a human being. The operation by surgeons in Utah was not only a feat in medical history but a challenge to philosophy. If the heart, traditionally viewed as the seat of human life, can be replaced with plastic, many traditional views of what constitutes and sustains existence may be open to recon-sideration.

If ''living matter'' can be replaced with mechanical matter, how ''living'' is matter in the first place? If matter is defined by its function, what distinguishes a heart of plastic from a heart of flesh besides long-ingrained human concepts? Is matter any more or less matter whether considered sentient and organic or nerveless and inorganic?

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Such questions may sound radical or abstract. But writers and artists have long speculated on how much of human physique or intellect can be removed or replaced without destroying identity. Those with a biblical idea of man as the image and likeness of God know that what happens to the body cannot affect man in this fundamental sense. Many know, in turn, that an understanding of this truth is evidenced, as in Jesus' day, by the healing of any ill.

No one supposes for a moment that the patient in Utah became any less himself for his experience. Obviously what made him himself was not any physical organ of blood and muscle, even the one regarded as most central to human vitality. It is all something to ponder beyond the ingenious technology that is in the headlines now.

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