Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Melanie Reid on Assisted Dying

Melanie Reid has written a clear-sighted 'view from the wheelchair' on assisted dying, prompted by yesterday's commons debate on the DPP guidelines on assisted dying (MPs supported the guidelines, though no change to law was supported). Because it's behind The Times paywall, but is very good, I make no apologies for reproducing it here, because I think it deserves a wider circulation. Reid was a Times columnist, but broke her neck and back in a horse-riding accident in 2010, and has charted her progress since then in a series of moving pieces in the magazine, called Spinal Column. Anyway, here it is, entitled I choose, fiercely, to live - but only for now:

When asked about assisted suicide, I tend to pause and take a deep breath. You really want to know what I think? From the vantage point of a severely crippled body?

Honestly? You want the voice from the coalface? You don’t just want an opinion from some able-bodied moralist who presumes to know what’s best for me?

I find it ridiculous that an educated society, facing an unaffordable explosion in dementia and age-related illness, is prevaricating over this issue. It is, for me, almost inconceivable that the law lags so many decades behind modern realities; and is so out of step with the feelings of the vast majority of the population.

Where is the democracy surrounding death? The fact is simply this. Because of a religious minority, a few antediluvian pressure groups and the might of modern medicine, we are condemning growing numbers of elderly, terminally ill or disabled people to a terrible lingering twilight rather than a good death in the circumstances of their choosing.

And we are condemning the people who want to assist them to the threat of criminal prosecution. This is a scandal.

Today, apparently for the first time in nearly 40 years, MPs are to vote on assisted suicide (in 2006 a change in the law on assisted dying was defeated in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100). Says it all, doesn’t it? The Conservative MP Richard Ottaway has secured a debate about the guidelines by the Director of Public Prosecutions on the issue, which have been in place since February 2010. The guidelines make it clear that prosecution is unlikely in cases of compassionate amateur assistance to die.

We must hope our MPs are bold enough to represent the nation’s views and support this stance. A recent poll found that 82 per cent of people believe that the DPP’s approach to prosecution is “sensible and humane”. Every single person I know is of the same general opinion: that there is no point keeping humans alive just for the sake of it, when they don’t want to be, in circumstances which we and they regard as intolerable. And if they need help to achieve a good death, in the comfort and peace of their own home, we should be able to give it to them.

Yet we are being held back by a tiny number, not even 18 per cent I bet, who either believe the Bible rules it out or are so blinded by the doctrine of palliative care (or perhaps both), that they remove choice from the majority.

Ironic, isn’t it, that we can buy 50 different types of pasta or ice cream? We can choose a million styles of hair, or clothes, holiday destination or car. Tidal waves of consumer choice lap against us every waking minute. Yet when we need help to effect a simple, primary decision to ease out of life; when we want to avoid becoming a living shell, stuck in bed, in pain, staring at the wall for months on end, and thereby condemning our relatives to a similar suffering, we are denied that choice. Or, if we are able, we must leave the country and go to a grotty Swiss suburb to find it. In an age wedded to the gospel of human rights, in other words, we are denied the most basic human right of all.

I will be very blunt. Most mornings I contemplate suicide, briefly examining the concept in a detached, intellectual way. It’s always during the hour when I am sitting on my shower chair over the loo, leaning forward over my purple, paralysed feet, fighting nausea and light-headedness, sore bones and paralysed bowels. This, without intending to sound self-pitying, is the worst bit in the day of a life as a tetraplegic — a cruel Japanese game show, full of repeated tortures.
And every day I stare at my toes and say to myself: “Nope, got to keep going, got to keep fighting.” Because I choose, fiercely, to live for the people who love me; and will continue to do so until such point as they understand I cannot carry on. I hope that moment, if or when it comes, is many years away.

But you know sometimes, just sometimes, I get angry enough to wish that a few bishops, palliative care specialists and those dedicated campaigners from Care Not Killing — ah! what amazing arrogance lurks in a name — were in my skin, sitting in my shower chair, facing my future.

Knowing that I have a choice is a huge comfort to me; it sustains me on the days when I make the mistake of looking too far in the future. But the point is, I am blessed precisely because I have a choice. I can talk, use my hands to a limited degree. I could, if I sought to, take my own life without implicating anyone else.

There are many other people who, because of their illness or their disability, do not have this possibility of self-determination. Their right to choose is denied to them. They need help to escape from their imprisonment; and they want to know that their family or friends will not be punished for assisting them to die.

The debate today is narrow in scope and only the beginning. It covers the terminally ill, which rules out spinal injuries and a host of other forms of chronic suffering. But it is an important start.

Humanity and economics demand that, eventually — and yes, yes, yes, with all proper safeguards — assisted dying is extended to become legally available to all those who seek it, and not just cancer patients. People like me, living with the consequences of an accident, who dread growing old and lonely. People like my mother, who in the early stages of dementia expressed a clear wish to end her life and not be a burden on us.

There will be a whole generation of ageing babyboomers, in fact, who will seek to go out of life in the same way they have successfully run it: in control, not in incontinence pads in a care home. This debate is not about other people. It is about every single one of us.
(© Melanie Reid, The Times etc)

Hear, hear. It's about autonomy and resisting the tyranny of a misbegotten authoritarianism.

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Mock the Meek

Someone called Barbara King interviewed Richard Dawkins on NPR, with a clear anti-ridicule agenda. She is concerned about the feelings of the faithful, I presume, and she thinks Richard's famed 'stridency' is counter-productive in any dialogue with them. 

This common refrain from some non-believers (as we've seen from Julian Baggini) perhaps stems from a misguided idea of how civilised discussion should be conducted. Obviously, gratuitous rudeness is not something we encourage, and it's clear that accommodationists perceive Dawkins's many blasts at religious beliefs, and those who hold them, as gratuitously rude. In fact, in this interview Dawkins says he's sorry if he's been rude about anyone, and that he really aims to mock their beliefs alone. This seems like an unnecessary apology to me; if someone mocks my beliefs I think that's much the same as mocking me, and would treat it the same. So they may as well mock me.

And so what? As one grows up one gets mocked repeatedly, and this has a formative effect on belief - how could it not? If ridicule is such a bad idea, then someone needs to tell every single one of my teachers from primary school to grammar school that their every sarcastic put-down was militating against their pedagogy. I suspect 'Pengy' West and Frank 'Hitler' Collins might disagree. And while I and my fellow pupils did not enjoy the put-downs at the time, it made their points memorable and gave the rest of the class a laugh to boot. If it's such a bad idea, then someone should tell every satirist, from Horace to Juvenal, Moliere to Voltaire, Swift to Hogarth, Dickens to Wilde, Dorothy Parker to Peter Cook, that they are simply wrong to do it. I would love to hear their responses.

Barbara King herself draws a distinction between those who are open to discuss evolution and young earth creationists, whose belief she does not respect. I suspect young earth creationists would find her lack of respect for their belief offensive and would treat it as an attack on their very person, just as the 'moderately' religious find Dawkins's attacks on their nutty beliefs offensive. (I put scare quotes around moderately just to indicate that there is nothing about religion that allows us to define someone as extreme or moderate - that metric is not determined by faith, but by reason and evidence).

So I don't think that King is behaving any differently in kind to Dawkins, by adopting what she has decided is a more reasonable approach, so why does she think she is behaving any better than Dawkins? The most obvious conclusion is that she is a victim of our cultural prejudice against non-belief, even while she is a non-believer herself. And this isn't so surprising, being a child of a society that places religion beyond criticism, into a sacred place where it should not be challenged. It's the only belief that we are criticised for the very act of criticising.

But as I hinted at above, even 'moderate' believers believe recklessly. If they are not applying critical thinking to their beliefs, allowing some of their beliefs freedom from the shackles of reason and evidence, then they are accidents waiting to happen. Three Christian MPs, Gary Streeter, Gavin Shuker and Tim Farron, have apparently sent a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority challenging the Authority's ruling against faith healing adverts. They say:
We are writing on behalf of the all-party Christians in Parliament group in Westminster and your ruling that the Healing On The Streets ministry in Bath are no longer able to claim, in their advertising, that God can heal people from medical conditions.
We write to express our concern at this decision and to enquire about the basis on which it has been made. It appears to cut across two thousand years of Christian tradition and the very clear teaching in the Bible. Many of us have seen and experienced physical healing ourselves in our own families and churches and wonder why you have decided that this is not possible.
On what scientific research or empirical evidence have you based this decision?
You might be interested to know that I (Gary Streeter) received divine healing myself at a church meeting in 1983 on my right hand, which was in pain for many years. After prayer at that meeting, my hand was immediately free from pain and has been ever since. What does the ASA say about that? I would be the first to accept that prayed for people do not always get healed, but sometimes they do. That is all this sincere group of Christians in Bath are claiming.
It is interesting to note that since the traumatic collapse of the footballer Fabrice Muamba the whole nation appears to be praying for a physical healing for him. I enclose some media extracts. Are they wrong also and will you seek to intervene?
We invite your detailed response to this letter and unless you can persuade us that you have reached your ruling on the basis of indisputable scientific evidence, we intend to raise this matter in Parliament.
It's hard to believe that grown men, let alone Members of Parliament, could pen such a dreadfully thought out  letter, and I fear for democracy if they apply the same shambolic thinking processes to matters of state. Is it appropriate to respect their belief that praying works? Or should reason and evidence be applied to determine the truth of the matter? Of course, Gary Streeter does have reason and evidence for his belief, but it's a bad reason and it's poor evidence, and when we give the shorthand reason and evidence, we mean good reason and good evidence. How could this man have got to the age of 56 without being taught how to think? Is that too strident? I don't know, but, when he's liable to place lives at risk with such dangerous nonsense, I don't care, and I don't think Barbara King should either. The more often this man's laughable thought processes are called out the better, because it will save lives. To whimper about the evils of ridicule in such circumstances is to be complicit in the harm these beliefs cause.

I'm pleased to see that Martin Robbins throws the book at them:
The implication of prayer-healing is that special people can demand that God heals someone, and he'll just do it. That only makes sense if you believe that a) God is a bit absent-minded and doesn't really notice all the sick people until some clever human points them out to him, or b)God is the fourth emergency service (the AA come fifth in this world-view), and we're entitled customers who pay with prayer and should damn well get some service.
Either way, the message from faith-healers - and the hapless morons who support them - is clear: "Fuck God's plan, He's our bitch." I'm not a Christian myself, but if I were, I think I'd be pretty frustrated with this sort of selfish, arrogant attitude, and I'd laugh in the face of people who claimed to have some divine right over His powers.
Steady, Martin, you called them morons; we wouldn't want to alienate them, would we? But surely ridicule from all is exactly the appropriate response to this anti-scientific avalanche of bullshit. Should we say, yes, Mr. Streeter, because some chronic pain in your right hand disappeared after some prayer, we should all adopt prayer as a tried and tested principle, to be advertised for its efficaciousness? Is there no reason why this datum should not be taken at face value and treated as hard science? But if that's the case, I could write to the authorities pointing out that since I read their letter to the ASA there has been a dull ache in my head, but thankfully ridiculing  its contents has eased the pain. Therefore, please prescribe regular ridicule of religious idiocy on the NHS. At least there's a clear causal link in my anecdote compared with Streeter's.

But, of course, as Robbins points out:
The ASA quite rightly say in their ruling that "testimonials [are] insufficient evidence for claims of healing." To which I would add, "...and I am never going to vote for you, Gary Streeter, you utterly gullible buffoon."
Is Streeter gullible? Plainly. Is he a buffoon? I suppose it's possible he just hasn't had the gumption to investigate all the studies that have been performed on the efficacy of prayer, in which case he's a buffoon to write the letter, or he has seen them but prefers his own anecdote, in which case he's a buffoon to write the letter. 

Sorry to mock, but sometimes there's really no alternative.

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Thursday, 22 March 2012

A Pitcher of Sneer

Pitcher - he's the one on the left
Eric MacDonald has posted a piece entitled The Emptiness of George Pitcher, pointing out the vacuity of Pitcher's slippery slope argument against assisted dying.
There is simply no logical connexion between my conviction that my life is intolerable in my condition, and the claim that anyone else in a similar condition must also be living in intolerable suffering. Yet every argument against assisted dying assumes that there is, and that, for that reason, we cannot permit people to make up their own minds about whether or not they should be allowed to receive assistance in dying. And so the suffering are forced to suffer.
I was listening to Raymond Tallis talking about the arguments against assisted dying, and I think he made a couple more pertinent points on the slippery slope:
When you're thinking about slippery slopes, you need to know how slippery they are, what the coefficient of friction is, and, indeed, what way they're pointing.
He then quoted John Harris's view that moving to assisted dying legislation would not apply skis, but crampons, to the issue, because informal procedures are more likely to be abused than formal ones. The crazy thing is that doctors are already on a slope, and there is no-one and nothing available to help them traverse it. The law can supply a foothold for these beleaguered professionals. For more on Tallis's views, see here.

On Wednesday night Pitcher pitched a loathsome performance on 10 O'clock Live, in a discussion which was supposed to cover the cultural and political relevance in Britain today of Christianity in light of the prayers offered by all and sundry for the stricken Bolton footballer Fabrice Muamba. Instead of discussing the subject he was more content to hurl brickbats at Evan Harris, to whom he has become something of a troll. He seemed to revel in trolling him face to face this time. 

Evan Harris made some eminently reasonable and far from strident comments that praying was 'a nice thing' if people were genuinely asking for help from god, but that fact didn't justify religious privilege in the public sphere. To which Pitcher replied, demonstrating the wit we've all come to expect from him, 
That's bollocks!
For some reason he didn't expand on this, presumably considering it a better argument than anything that theologians have come up with to counter secularism.

He did however ramble on about a 'folk faith' that people in this country have, that surfaces in times of extremis. Well, this is true, and not just in times of extremis. Cultural Christians often use religious language, and that would include Dawkins, as his recent "Oh god!" testifies when he was trying to remember the subtitle to On the Origin of Species. It's hardly surprising when we've been force-fed religion since we were 3 years old. Harris pointed out that this doesn't mean we must therefore be a 'Christian country'. 

Harris re-iterated that secularism was about removing religious privilege, not religious persecution, which won a round of applause from the audience. The needy Pitcher, feeling the warmth accorded to the sentiment, then said he 'sort of' agreed with that (really?!) so could he have a round of applause too? Harris then spoke out against self-censorship of criticism of religious extremists, sensibly, and how no-one had a right to be offended. Pitcher took offence at this, and accused Harris of being one of the easiest people in the world to offend, and said that that was why he was thrown out of parliament, for taking himself too seriously - *nice*, again with the personal attacks.

Mitchell challenged Harris's contention that atheists could not be offended (a claim that is surely too strong!), but Harris clarified the point, and it's pretty obvious; atheists are simply less likely to hold certain beliefs, rituals and objects as sacred, so are more difficult to offend. Pitcher then suggested that atheism was a religion (does George think that's bad?!), and trotted out the tired old saw that Dawkins is the 'high priest' of atheism, and made a weak joke alluding to Dawkins's recent memory lapse.

(Mitchell's performance in this discussion was surprisingly weak, based on past showings; I'll put that down to a momentary aberration, and hope it has nothing to do with his forthcoming nuptials with faitheist Victoria Coren. Congratulations to them both, anyway!)

So apart from one small interlude where the topic was discussed, Pitcher spent the discussion playing the man not the ball. I cannot believe that any Christians watching would want to be associated with a religion to which this irksome, quarrelsome and militant priest was connected.

UPDATE: Here is an audio of the talk discussed above:

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Thursday, 15 March 2012

The Evil God Challenge

Stephen Law's Evil God Challenge (EGC) is quite simple, and complex, at the same time (like some god concepts!). There have been many objections raised against it, but I think they mostly miss the very simple crux, which is, I think:

If they did not rule out an evil god for some other reason, do believers think that the evidence supports its existence?

(It's well worth reading the entire paper, linked above, to get the full flavour)

It's clear that some theists do understand the problems this poses for them, since much wriggling can be observed, amid cries of foul play. Now, plainly many do rule out the evil god for some other reason; some, no doubt, for long considered reasons. However, given how superficially many come to their god belief, through childhood indoctrination, for example, there's also a suspicion that some have simply not thought much about the possibility of an evil god, that it's simply not an idea that they would entertain, that it's evident that it does not exist. If you're a believer who thinks the idea of an evil god is obviously ruled out by one's experiences, then you have a serious problem with the EGC. You would need to show a significant asymmetry between the evidence for the good god and the evil one, and, whilst there is some asymmetry, I just don't think it's significant enough.

William Lane Craig, for example, can see that all his arguments for god, but one, are equally valid for an evil god as for a good god, so his entire belief in a good god rests on the very dubious argument from morality. He sees the danger from evidence inherent in the EGC (that the evidence rules out his god), so adopts a radical scepticism to avoid that disturbing truth.

Thomists, on the other hand, and as I understand it, have a notion of 'being' and 'good' that makes an evil god a contradiction in terms, effectively. That's fine, and if they really believe in these notions and definitions, there's nothing, in logic, to stop them. But there are any number of logical possibilities that fit with the world in which we live, and simple logical possibility seems a very low standard by which to judge one's belief. Why wouldn't one want to compare it with the evidential data to see how well it fits, compared to other scenarios, for example? After all, the only reason anyone believes in a god in the first place is because of the situation in which they find themselves, so their belief would not exist without the initial contemplation of evidence.

Law suggests, then, that the EGC can still be run, even though a concept is paradoxical. In other words, we say, OK, the evil god is nonsensical, but run the challenge anyway as if it were not. There can be no doubt that even Thomists would have to agree that the evidence rules out the evil god, and, therefore, so it must rule out the good god (unless they adopt a Craig-style radical scepticism). Thomists protest that the evidence is irrelevant because of their concept of god. Would Thomists accept a non-believer simply dismissing any discussion of the evidence for god because she found the concept incoherent? I don't know. So, is Law's a valid move, to run the EGC against an impossible concept?

I'm not entirely sure. It's right that there is little point in assessing the evidence for married bachelors or invisible pink unicorns, to give two more examples of impossible concepts - we can rule them out a priori. But does this mean that we cannot consider what evidence there might be if, defying logic, they did exist, via a thought experiment? Can we still identify attributes of these paradoxical beings and consider how a world would look with them in? We can look for evidence of bachelordom, and marriage certificates, so we could look for evidence of each attribute - a world with no marriage certificates would rule out anyone being married, for example. So it's tempting to consider this a valid move in the challenge. However, if one considers the evidence for the paradox in toto, I'm less sure. What evidence could there be for (married bachelors)? Well, none, I would think, because they cannot exist.

So, if we consider what a world would look like with a paradoxical evil god in it, and one without, there would be no difference between the two, because the concept cannot exist in either; this suggests the EGC does not apply. However, if we consider what a world would look like with an evil something, and then, separately, what it would look like with an all-powerful being, of unknown goodness, we would expect different worlds. This suggests the EGC does apply.

On balance, I'm inclined to think it can still be applied, if there are identifiable attributes, which there are in the case of the evil god. We are entitled to look at the state of the world and see if it comports with an evil something; and if that something is an extremely powerful being, we can expect certain consequences to flow from that. So, if this can be agreed, the EGC will apply even to incoherent god concepts.

Ultimately, of course, the Thomist god is not a concept worth entertaining because there is no evidence offered to support it among the infinite logically possible beings that might exist in our universe. Only a credulous mind could possibly commit to it, rather than simply note its logical possibility.

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