Monthly Archives: May 2014

Can You Keep It Real?

On a cold morning, a little girl named Suzy is waiting for the School Bus at the bottom of a steep hill. It was raining the night before, and water has been flowing next to the curb. The water froze in the early hours of the morning, forming a sheet of black ice. The ice sheet extends all the way down to Suzy, and unfortunately for her, passes under the tires of a Cadillac Coupe DeVille parked in the middle of the hill. As the sun hits the hill, the ice loses its grip on the tires and the car slides silently and rapidly down the hill, striking Suzy and killing her instantly.
Now suppose the same chain of events ensues, except this time, the car breaks loose just as the cars owner, Andy, sits down in the driver’s seat and closes the door. The inside door handle is broken, so he can’t just jump back out again. The power windows are up and the horn doesn’t work, so he has no way to warn Suzy of her impending doom. He desperately turns the wheel, but it’s too slick for the tires to grab. Suzy dies just as in scenario #1.
Again, suppose the circumstances are the same, but this time, the owner of the car is different. Let’s call him Brian. When Brian realizes that he is sliding out of control, he thinks, “You know, I’ve always hated that little bitch anyway,” and he turns the wheel to direct the car toward little Suzy. Again, the tires have no purchase on the ice and the chain of events is unaltered.
Is there a moral distinction in the incident between the unoccupied car and the occupied car? Between the incident with Andy and the incident with Brian? If so, where is the independent and objective moral fact in each case?
To take things a little further, suppose Suzy doesn’t die. After the car launches her through the air, she manages to stick a perfect landing in the grassy median, apparently uninjured. But Suzy’s parents soon notice that something is amiss. When they ask her, “Did you enjoy your dinner dear?” she replies, “The meal was such that it would produce an enjoyable sensation in a person so disposed.”
When they ask her, “Are you comfortable dear?” she answers, “My condition is such that a person capable of it would feel cold.” Suzy appears completely impassive throughout. She eats, sleeps, and goes to school just like she did before the accident. A full medical workup turns up nothing. Gradually, Suzy’s parents stop feeding her anything fancy. She does not complain. They dress her in a burlap shift every day. She’s apparently fine with it. They turn off the heat in her room and only crank the thermostat back up if she begins shivering. They say they still love Suzy; the extras just don’t matter anymore.
Are Suzy’s parents behaving immorally? What is Suzy’s moral status and why?
Let’s go one step further. Suppose Suzy lands in a heap, but survives. She is apparently comatose. Her doctors think that they can help though. They begin an infusion of medication that will awaken her. As the medication flows into her vein, she bolts upright with a look of horror.
“What have you done?” she demands, “Put me back. I’ve been grown for years, I have children of my own and they need me.”
What should Suzy’s parents do? Does Suzy’s inner world have any value? If so, why? If not, why?

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You Can’t Escape Your Faith

This will be a quick point. The point is negative, but the motive behind the point is not. So I will go on about the motive for a bit before getting to the point. Please bear with me.
Believers are often flabbergasted by non-believers’ obsession with theology. If I may indulge in a little hyperbole, this is like marveling at the Israelis’ obsession with the Third Reich. It’s kind of the elephant in the room, and a very insistent elephant at that. See ‘evangelism’. The non-believer’s ignoring it all will not be ignored.
Some see the constant poking as an invitation to a fight. I don’t. People are more complicated than that, if given the opportunity. Maximizing opportunity explains my political motive and my personal motive in making the critical point that I’m going to make about apologetics. I want believers to be the best believers that they can be. I want them to heed the exhortations in their scriptures to be humble, to have faith, to take their empathetic impulses seriously. I want them to be good believers because I think it will temper their impulse to distrust and marginalize us non-believers. But that’s the lesser part of it. Mostly, I want them to be good believers because I am a social animal, and that makes them my people. I don’t know why I am a social animal, and as I understand my circumstances, I can’t know why. But that is irrelevant. The truth is: we need each other, and when we cut off members of the species, we are contradicting ourselves.
Faith is necessary to be a good believer. If you are to believe in a transcendent context and a grand necessity it must be something posited, a starting assumption by which all is explicable. It cannot be something which is explained, even by all things. It can’t need an apology. I’m sorry, but that’s what transcendence really means, if it really means anything.
Now I can make my quick point. Cosmological arguments are prime examples of the corrosiveness of apology. These are arguments by analogy. They state that, for a primary or non-contingent cause to participate in subsequent causal relations or contingencies, it must be like those subsequent causes or contingencies, though it is not a subsequent cause or contingent object itself. From this likeness, the arguments then deduce other qualities as necessary precursors unique to the primary cause or non-contingent base. Such deductions are not valid. The qualities in question are, by definition, essentially unlike and independent of subsequent causes and contingencies.
The problem with all theological apologies, as in the Cosmological ones, lies in the habit of deducing from analogies. The practice implies that there is not just an explanation from God, but that there is a science of God. It implies that there are things which we can deduce about God’s workings. We can then begin to repeat the mistakes of the Scholastics, and not just the initial, innocent ones about angels and pinheads, but the final ones about crusades and confessions too. It’s a tempting way to be. It seems so decisive and satisfyingly self-righteous. But it’s ultimately limiting, fearful and inconsistent. It’s OK. You don’t need it. Stop apologizing and just have faith.

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The Chthonic

It had a periodicity to it, but not like anything man-made. Instead, it was like a geyser. As it rose to the surface it swirled chaotically around hidden shelves and side-channels, so its interval was uneven. The uncertainty contributed to our tension, the nephew’s most of all.
“Yeeeeeeeeeee!” she screeched, then closed her mouth and relaxed again.
Between screams, she looked as peaceful as a Buddha. Perhaps, her caretakers speculated, the discomfort of prolonged immobility or some occult infirmity drove the screaming. We had given her increasing doses of pain medication, to no avail. Perhaps she somehow had enough consciousness remaining to experience the dislocation of facing the present without access to the immediate past, not knowing moment to moment how she got in the bed, why she felt like she did, whose arm lay at her side, whose mouth was screaming. We had given her anxiolytics and she just kept screaming. Perhaps she was bedeviled by visions. We gave her our best potions against inner demons and her timing did not falter.
“This is Hell,” said the nephew, “She is in Hell. I want this to stop.”
She had chosen well, or someone had. Sometimes, the decision about who would oversee the death defaulted to hereditary proximity, geographic factors, and availability. This nephew had some connection to her beyond practicality. Of course, he spoke for himself. No one knew what her vocalizations signified. We had taken our best guesses and come up short. What he wanted now was not a treatment. He wanted a cure for it all. To be clear, it was not euthanasia he was requesting. He wanted us to ablate whatever remained of her consciousness. He wanted oblivion, or at least its appearance.
It wasn’t killing, but it was taking something away from someone who appeared to have so little. We were always wary of treating extrinsic things, of giving medications to fix a person’s bad relationships or discomfort with herself. It was different for the dying though.
Everything was becoming extrinsic for her. She couldn’t be crying out for something. That time had passed. At best, her screams expressed something which we could not know, but something which was less specific, less relevant to anything inside, as she came closer to death.
He was right. The screams meant what he said: this is Hell; I want this to stop. I had an obligation to her and no choice in the matter. Of course he spoke for himself.
“I will do as you wish,” I said.

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