Thursday, October 09, 2008

When Analytic Philosophy is a Life and Death Matter

Aurora Goes to Washington tipped me off on this article from the Washington Post, "The Doctors Who Are Redefining Life and Death." What is interesting is that it brought back something I had meant to comment on a while back after the Saddleback forum. Candidates were asked when they believed life begins and Obama's response was,

Well, you know, I think that whether you're looking at it from a theological perspective or a scientific perspective, answering that question with specificity, you know, is above my pay grade.
When I heard that, the answer bugged me for the same reason the article bugs me -- it is not about a science/religion debate over when life starts, science cannot answer that question because it is not an empirical question about how the world does or does not work. Rather, it is a question about what words mean. This is not a job for medical science. It is a job for analytic philosophy.

What is happening here is not definition, but explication. Words are used. When we use words, they have rough meanings for them that are generally sufficient for the sort of things we do in normal conversation. The fact that the ordinary meanings of words are vague and squishy does not usually cause us problems and we go on using them as if they were well-defined entities.

But occasionally, the fact that our words are not sharply interpreted does cause us trouble and those then seem to give rise to the sort of philosophical conundrums that we think are impenetrable and require appeals to politics or the divine. But as Rudolf Carnap pointed out, usually what is called for is explication, that is, to devise a set of formal conditions that are jointly necessary and sufficient to satisfy the term. It is a process of setting out the conditions in the world that must be met to be able to use the term. Science can tell us whether a given thing meets the conditions, but it cannot as Obama implies provide us with those conditions.

And that is where we are with "life" and "death." We can use them in everyday life (like that, for instance) such that we barely notice that they are not sharply delimited terms. But when we deal with contemporary moral issues (or contemporary morbid issues as Kerry likes to call them) we quickly come to realize that the sloppiness of our standard usage gives us fits. So, we look at possible conditions -- heart death, brain death, the beating of a heart, viability -- and try to determine whether they are too broad, too narrow, necessary, or sufficient to capture the sense of the word as we use it.

Of course, Carnap's project, Logical Positivism, ultimately fails, but his insight that the mushiness of language is what underlies many longstanding philosophical dilemmas is right on. Unfortunately, he was wrong that there would be an objective standpoint from which to explicate all terms and that all terms are capable of such explication. In this case, political agendas are so entangled with the terms that value neutral explication seems impossible. Ironically, one of the motivations behind the use of this method was to facilitate the separation of politics and religion from the meaning of language, something that the World Wars made clear to many of the more scientifically minded German language thinkers.

So, we need sharp definitions for life and death. There is no doubt that better understandings about the processes will aid us, but it is not a job we can hand off to the scientists. It is a job for all of us, philosophers especially.