17 March, 2005

Homo homini lupus

From the Latin: "Man is a wolf to man."

Tomorrow, I face the PhD committee on my final defense. I'm pretty nervous about it, but it's not such a big deal as the court-ordered withholding of nutrition from Terri Schiavo. You can read a (very biased, and I'm not ashamed of it) summary of the situation at this webpage. Imagine for a moment how the outrage would be reversed if Terri were a criminal sitting on death row: the people insisting that she must die would be mobilizing for protests against the system, and a number (by no means all) of the people insisting that she must live would be quite content to watch her go.

Funny, isn't it, how abstract ideologies color our response to the same situation in slightly different contexts.

I admit that I don't know the whole situation. Most of the things that we do know are based on trust; we don't have all the facts, and we can't have all the facts. I trust certain people on religious matters, and I don't trust others. I trust certain people on scientific matters, and I don't trust others.

About the only subject I know where most knowledge involved doesn't rely exclusively on some sort of trust, is my field: mathematics. Why? The model of knowledge is based on coherence; using the rules of logic, we proceed from a minimal number of fixed axioms to a stunning variety of results. If the results of a set of axioms don't fit a new real-world model we are working in, we change the axioms. From this, for example, flows non-Euclidean geometry, which shocks most people when they first hear of it (assuming they understand it!), yet without it Einstein's theory of relativity is impossible.

— Having said that, even mathematics is based mostly on trust (but not nearly exclusively so). Most mathematicians (myself included) have never proved the vast majority of knowledge that resides in their mind; they have read about it in textbooks and journals that were written, refereed, and edited by people they trust. In theory, of course, they could verify the logic behind the argument, and since pure mathematics is pure logic, they would be done. In practice, very few mathematicians have verified the majority of mathematical results. The results are too hard, and we don't get paid for redoing old stuff; our employers expect new results!

The point of all this is: I trust certain people to tell me the truth about Terri Schiavo, and other people trust others. Very few of us know the reality of whether she's PVS and whether she wanted to die if she ended up in that state.

Based on the few facts that everyone seems to agree on: I find it stunning that her parents are willing to take care of her, that an outside party is offering her husband $1,000,000 (the amount of the settlement) if he will give guardianship to to her parents, and that some people are seriously saying that no, her parents shouldn't be allowed this comfort, and Terri Schiavo shouldn't be allowed any measure of hope. Whatever principle her husband may be standing on, this doesn't appear to be a principle I can ever respect. God bless him for standing on principle, but I wish God would open his eyes to how horrifying this principle is, and to the logical consequences if it were applied universally.


Alessandra said...

Hey Jack,

Wishing you all the best tomorrow! I'm sure you will do fine.

(remember that it's normal to be nervous, don't let being nervous make you more nervous :-)
if you don't remember something, explain yourself, gather your thoughts, clarify questions...)

jack perry said...

Thanks :-)