Friday, March 18, 2005

Not so fast!

This is changing so fast, it's hard to keep up with.

But about 2 p.m. Judge Greer , who has handled the case for several years, said the removal of the tube should proceed. After hearing from lawyers for the Congressional representatives and for Michael Schiavo, Judge Greer, referring to the feeding tube, said that workers at her hospice in Clearwater, Fla., "need to remove it forthwith."

A spokesman for Michael Schiavo told CNN shortly after Judge Greer's decision that the tube had been withdrawn.
By and large, my opinion about this is what Athenae says. There is still, I maintain, behind all of this, the vexing question of modern philosophy: if we no longer think, do we continue to be? And if we continue to be, by what right does the state authorize an end to that being?

Cogito, ergo sum, Descartes declared as the solution to his skepticism about everything. Having established the self by the very fact of awareness of the self, he went on to establish the validity of everything else. It's not so clean and easy as that, of course; one of the implications of that model was that animals and humans with impaired mental capacity could be treated as equals, i.e., non-humans (animals in Descartes schema were automotons, capable of motion but not of thought; people incapable of "full" thought were, by extension, undeserving of treatment as "full humans."). Which is to say that the Congress and the Senate are rational in their concerns; but they are irrational in their institutional responses.

The fall out of the cogito, of course, is that when a patient no longer appears to think (however that term is defined, and it is a sore point indeed), is the "self" still "in there." Because the cogito also gave preference to the old Platonic mind/body split, which has also plagued modern philosophy. If the self can be said to "leave" the body, or at least no longer seem accessible, then whose body is it, anyway?

This is the legal question of the Schiavo case.

The reigning alternative model comes from DavidHume, who argued from perceptions. Since, try as he might, he could not perceive a "self," only a bundle of stimulus responses, he surmised that the "self" was illusory, and there was no more than those responses available to us. This, ironically, is the argument behind keeping Terri Schiavo on a feeding tube: so long as she responds, she is still "alive," and being "alive," she is still "human."

Which considerations are what brought up my questions yesterday. These are the assumptions we need to be concerned with. Because the question in cases like this is: what does it mean to be alive? And what does it mean to be dead? Can we, indeed, merely prolong death? How, if death is only the cessation of life activity? Is death more than that? If so, what? Is death the separation of body and soul (many an assumption there)? Is there indeed a "mind" and a "body," and one is us, and the other is not?

Vexed and vexing questions. This case raises them; this case is not the way to answer them. These are the very issues a "public" philosophy (and theology) should be undertaking.

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