Friday, March 25, 2005

Skepticism, Mysticism, and Living Death

The Terri Schiavo Case Exposes How the Mystics Exploit Secular Skepticism

by Robert Tracinski


I have received some compliments from TIA Daily readers on our coverage of the Terri Schiavo case, and I appreciate the expressions of support.

I have also received a few criticisms from TIA Daily readers, and I also appreciate that, too. I don't expect all TIA Daily readers to agree with me, and part of the purpose of this publication is to reach out to people who don't necessarily agree with the Objectivist perspective, but who want to know what we have to say. So I expect to have my arguments challenged, and to have to prove my position right in the face of opposition.

I say that I appreciate these comments, because they help me to understand why so many people are sympathetic to the religious arguments on the Terri Schiavo case, arguments that seem, to me, to be so obviously wrong as to be not worth answering. Particularly interesting to me has been the response from a few people who I recognized as long-time TIA subscribers and who tried to argue that the philosophy of Objectivism should be "on the side of life" in this case. These responses were very puzzling to me, because I could not understand why people who are secular—or at least intend to be secular—could be taken in by the arguments of the religious right.

I think I may have figured it out, and the answer is enlightening, because it shows how the religious right is cashing in on the subtle consequences of the skepticism and subjectivism promulgated for years by the secular left.

One of those subtle consequences is that many people have no clear grounding in science. It is not just that they lack specific scientific facts. It is that they don't have an appreciation for the methodology and mindset of science. The secular skeptics have argued for years that science has no distinctive methodology or superior claim to truth. This is the view promulgated most loudly by the 20th-century philosopher Thomas Kuhn, who argued that the history of science is characterized by a series of "scientific revolutions" in which one group of scientists proposes a new "paradigm"—a woozy collection of unprovable assumptions—that overthrows an old "paradigm," but that both the old and new theories essentially have the status of just being opinions, only vaguely related to evidence.

This is the outlook that pervades the conservative propaganda on the Terri Schiavo case, and which has come back to me, implicitly, in some comments from TIA Daily readers. Here is just one response (not, alas, one of the more polite ones):


"So, can I summarize from your stance over the past couple of days that you believe Objectivist principles lead you to conclude: provided I can get some like-minded folks (many? a consensus? a majority? one?) to agree with me that another person (on whom I have only hearsay evidence regarding their wishes to live or die under certain circumstances) is not engaging in rational thinking—then I (for my own reasons or for none at all) should expect to be able to get the federal government (in the form of one or a number of usually unelected judges) to direct that that person be killed in cruel and unusual ways; even though the other person has never been charged, tried, convicted, or sentenced for a crime that would merit the death penalty?"

There is a lot to respond to here, but notice the implication that Terri Schiavo's level of mental functioning is just a subjective opinion that can be contradicted by other people's opinions—so who are we to objectively judge that she no longer possesses a consciousness? Shouldn't we (as a few other, less belligerent, readers put it) err on the side of caution when presented with conflicting claims?

The conservative media has gone through a lot of trouble to present the state of Terri Schiavo's consciousness as just a matter of clashing, subjective opinion, about which we cannot be certain. They have cashed in on secular skepticism to create apparent confusion on the issue.

But this is not a matter of opinion. It is a matter of science.

One of the surprises to me is the fact that brain-death is a full-fledged scientific sub-specialty. There are physicians who have spent decades studying the differences between various stages of brain damage, identifying a continuum of states from full brain death, to a "persistent vegetative state," to a "miminally conscious state," etc. And that means identifying objective, scientific measures, from monitoring of electrical activity in the brain to CAT scans that show atrophying of certain portions of the brain, etc., that allow doctors to prove which state a patient is in.

You might have noticed that when some of these scientists are interviewed by the press, they seem a bit testy, impatient, even contemptuous. And with good reason: they have spent years developing an advanced body of scientific knowledge—only to see a bunch of grandstanding politicians (including some who have medical degrees, such as Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist) attempt to overrule that scientific knowledge with crude appeals to emotion.

The point is this: the science of the case indicates that the higher centers of Terri Schiavo's brain are atrophied and nonfunctioning and have been for so long that there is no hope of recovery.

The primary implication of this is not whether Terri Schiavo should be allowed to die or not. It is that there is no longer any such entity as "Terri Schiavo"—not in any meaningful sense. There is a body and brain stem—but as a consciousness and a personality, as someone capable of thinking, having opinions, or even feeling pleasure and pain, she has long ago ceased to exist. So it is provable and scientifically demonstrable that she is, in effect, not a party to the proceedings. She is gone.

In this context, the only people whose rights can be considered are the people who are still living, i.e., the loved ones she has left behind. Terri Schiavo is not horrified by her condition, because that is a conscious reaction, and there is no consciousness remaining to feel it. The person who is horrified, and who has the right to be relieved of his suffering, is her husband, Michael Schiavo, who has live for years haunted by his wife's ghost, in the form of her undead body, kept alive by a feeding tube.

And that brings me to the legal issue: who has a right to make decisions regarding what happens to Terri Schiavo's body?

Here, again, conservatives have tried to sow confusion, making this seem like an arguable "dilemma" between conflicting, subjective claims. Thus, another TIA Daily reader writes:


"If only Ms. Schiavo had executed an advance directive, none of this would be an issue. Either it would be clear that she wants to die given her current circumstances, or else it would be clear that she does not (in which case her parents have made it clear that they are prepared to care for her until she reaches a 'natural' death). But in the absence of a 'living will,' why should my government—acting on my behalf—order the murder of this innocent lady based solely upon the word of her husband?"

First, note the way the word "murder" is tossed around here. But "murder" is a legal concept with a specific meaning—and one would have to establish that this concept could be applied to the court-ordered withholding of hydration and nutrition to a body in a persistent vegetative state could actually rise to any legal criterion that would make it "murder." Moreover, when it says that this is being done "solely upon the word of her husband," this ignores more than the fact that multiple witnesses testified that Terri Schiavo expressed a wish not to be kept alive artificially in these circumstances. It ignores the fact that the common law has developed specific standards for the evaluation of such "hearsay" evidence and its application to these cases--issues that were extensively litigated and settled in years of state court procedures on this case. Even some conservatives have been forced to recognize this issue, as in this concession from Daniel Henninger in today's Wall Street Journal:


"For the record, let us examine the basis for Judge Greer's original decision to withhold artificial life support. Judge Greer decided to pursue what Terri's wishes were and said he was guided by a Florida Supreme Court case called Guardianship of Estelle M. Browning. It set three tests, one of which is that 'the evidence of the patient's oral declaration is reliable.' 'This is the issue before the court,' Judge Greer wrote. 'All of the other collateral issues [such as the beliefs of family concerning end-of-life decisions] truly are not relevant to the issue which the court must decide.' Judge Greer then cited testimony taken from Michael Schiavo's brother and sister-in-law, who said Terri had said, 'I don't want to be kept alive on a machine' and several similar statements. Judge Greer said this 'rises to the level of clear and convincing evidence to this court.' These are the trial court's findings of fact, and in our system all subsequent appeals courts give great deference to these original findings. Several lengthy appeals court rulings also cited Terri's 'oral' declarations. This is the reason we are hearing so much now about living wills and the like."

In the face of this, all Henninger is able to offer is a bit of indirect character assassination designed to impugn Michael Schiavo's motives, plus an emotional appeal to Terri Schiavo's mother's "connection to her child-like daughter" (who is not "childlike," because a child is conscious, while Terri Schiavo only presents the illusion of a child-like consciousness).

Here again the conservatives are trying to make us ignore a whole body of objective knowledge.

The lack of appreciation for methods of exact reasoning that is endemic in the modern attitude toward science is even more widespread in politics and the humanities. In the Terri Schiavo case, it manifests itself in a lack of understanding of the complex and highly developed process of reasoning produced by the common law. The British and American common law is one of the great achievements of human history. It consists of a vast set of precedents by which judges have applied the basic legal principles of Western law to every conceivable concrete situation. This is the body of knowledge referred to by Judge Greer in the passages quoted by Daniel Henninger.

That, incidentally, is why it is that the courts in this case have been pushing back so hard and so consistently against the grandstanding politicians. The judiciary is still committed in principle to dealing with these difficult life-and-death cases, not in terms of vague emotional appeals, but in terms of careful arguments based on rational principles.

That is also why this case is so important. In the otherwise perceptive article by John Podhoretz, he writes: "For some reason, the conviction of those who believe in the divine fills the scientific rationalists with unreasoning rage." Here is where Podhoretz's understanding of the secularist position breaks down. Having accepted the premises that the choice between a rational outlook and a mystical one is arbitrary, he cannot really grasp the fundamental distinction between reason and faith—and thus he cannot grasp the crucial distinction in this case. The crucial distinction is: should government decide life-and-death issues in the courts based on scientific evidence and rational legal principles—or based on the feelings of those who declare issues of life and death to be an impenetrable mystery beyond the "limits" of human reason?

The issue here is whether our lives will be legally subjected to the dictates of those who declare themselves outside the reach of rational argument. That is a prospect that ought to enrage us—and that is why I regard the Terri Schiavo case as an ominous attack on the American system.

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