Friday, March 19, 2010

Plantinga and Theistic Materialism

Philosopher Alvin Plantinga has offered several noted arguments against materialism, i.e. the belief that everything is reducible to matter. Materialism denies the existence of immaterial entities like mind or soul or God. Plantinga's argument here is with theists who embrace a kind of local materialism. They believe in God but they hold that everything in the created universe is ultimately material. Plantinga thinks that this is wrongheaded. He argues that if one is a theist one really should be a substance dualist, i.e. one who holds that everything is reducible to at least two fundamental "substances," matter and mind (or soul):

Elsewhere Plantinga has argued cogently against materialism using other arguments. We'll discuss some of those in a day or so. If you believe you are more than just your body, if you believe that something about you survives your body's death, or if you believe you have free will but don't know how that can be if physical matter is all there is, you'll be interested in what Plantinga says.


Assisting Suicide

Quinn passes along a Newsweek article that raises a host of difficult ethical questions about suicide. The article describes the work of Dr. Lawrence Egbert, the medical director of a group called Final Exit Network (FEN), a right to die organization. Dr. Egbert is facing criminal charges in two states for advising people with terminal illnesses or terrible pain how they can end their lives. Here's Newsweek's summary of the case which has the octogenarian Dr. Egbert facing over thirty years in prison:

In 2006 John Celmer's body began to break down. He was diagnosed with oral cancer and had to undergo surgery to remove the tumor and then radiation therapy to kill off any remaining malignant cells. The radiation ravaged his jawbone and the surrounding tissue, leaving a hole in his chin. Fluid leaked onto his clothes. His teeth began falling out. He had difficulty eating and speaking. As Celmer's jaw began severing from his face, doctors attempted moderate treatments, but all of them failed. So in 2008, they sought to reconstruct his chin and jaw using tissue from his chest and bone from his lower leg. The procedures appeared successful, but five days after the final operation, he was discovered dead in his Cumming, Ga., home.

At first everyone assumed he'd died of natural causes. Yet as Celmer's wife, Susan, sifted through his belongings, she discovered several things that puzzled her: a receipt for two helium tanks, a handwritten note referring to his need to acquire a "hood," an entry on his calendar (May 7, 2008: "Claire here @ 1:30") that mentioned someone she didn't know. Susan also found paperwork referencing something called Final Exit Network (FEN). As she later learned, it was an organization that counseled people with serious ailments on how to commit suicide. She shared her findings with police, who launched an investigation and eventually concluded that the group had helped Celmer kill himself. Susan was devastated-and enraged. What right did FEN have to help usher her husband to his death? "We are not the Creator," she told Newsweek. "We do not give life and don't have the option to take life."

Read the rest of the article and then reflect on the morality of advising suffering people with no real hope of cure, short of a miracle, how they can hasten their death. Here are a couple of questions to get you started:

Do you think Dr. Egbert should be imprisoned (Assuming there's not more to the story than what the article tells us)?

Do you think that people don't have the right to take their own life, under some circumstances? If not, why not? If they do, under what circumstances do they?

If you think people should be able to offer advice and assistance to those seeking to end their pain do you think there's a danger that more and more people will be encouraged to end their life for economic reasons rather than reasons of suffering?

If you oppose helping people end their life why do you think it's compassionate and merciful to have a suffering pet put down but not a suffering grandparent?


Shock Tv

Back in the 1960s there was a famous experiment in which people were encouraged to apply electric shock to a man if the man answered questions posed to him incorrectly. Those applying the electricity thought they really were administering extreme voltages to the "victim" but, in fact, the victim was an actor.

The point of the experiment was to show how easily people will suppress their moral reservations and submit to the will of an authority figure. Instead of refusing to participate many went along with it.

Now my friend Matt sends a video that shows that the French are turning the experiment into a television show:

Apparently, a lot of people think it's okay to cause another person pain as long as an authority figure tells them it's alright. It's no wonder Hitler and others have found it so easy to get the masses to go along with their cruelties. We really are just sheep.

Of course, if our sense of human sympathy is little more than the product of blind, impersonal forces and chance, if human beings are, as we've been told now for three generations, nothing but animals with no soul and answerable to no God, we shouldn't be surprised that our behavior fits that view. Ideas have consequences.