Friday, March 25, 2005

Mysticism vs. Natural Metaphysics, from a Mystic

This article by conservative columnist John Podhoretz is the most admirably exact, philosophical description I have yet seen of the central issues in the Terry Schiavo case. Podhoretz argues that the central issue is the mystical view that human life is a mysterious gift from God, versus the secular view of human life as "a natural phenomenon." And then Podhoretz takes the side of the mystics.

Since he's on the wrong side, Podhoretz smuggles in a few misleading premises. He equates a "natural," scientific view of life with a mechanistic view of consciousness. Worse, he presents the choice between science and mysticism—between this world and the fantasy world of faith—as if it were arbitrary, reflecting the old conservative saw that "secular humanism" is just as much a religious faith as Christianity.

"The Schiavo Stakes: What the Fight's Really About," John Podhoretz, New York Post, 3/25/05

"The looming death by starvation of Terri Schiavo has exposed yet again the key fault line in American culture. Those who have sided with her parents in seeking the reinsertion of her feeding tube have a view of life that is profoundly different from those who have sided with her husband's quest to have her die. Those who want her to live tend to view life as a gift—a treasure beyond value that has been bestowed upon us and that we therefore have no right to squander. The giver of the gift cannot be seen by the human eye, and the essence of the gift cannot be seen either. We usually call that essence the 'soul.'... Many of those who want her to die, by contrast, view life as a natural phenomenon.... It's a wonder, but it's not a miracle. It's explicable within the laws of nature, and so there isn't anything necessarily transcendent about it....

"What do people on both sides of this divide see when they look at Terri Schiavo? The scientific rationalists see a vegetable in human form, a life only in the strictest sense of the word. They see a human machine that is broken and cannot be repaired.... Then there are those who look at Terri Schiavo and see something else. They see a helpless person, a trapped person, a tragic person. But they do not see a vegetable. They see a human being with a soul. They see a mystery. The rationalists say she will not suffer through her slow starvation because she no longer feels. The soul-believers say there is no way to know that—that science has limits and that it reaches its limits when it tries to define what it means to be human."