Saturday, March 26, 2005

I Want Milk!

Two generations of pets ago, we had a particularly vocal Maine Coon cat who would come into the kitchen whenever I took the milk from the refrigerator, afix me with her most expectant look, and mew: Ah-wah... Ah-wah. Since adult cats are lactose intolerant, I declined to give her any milk. But she was so insistent — Ah-wah sounded close enough to "I want" and meow was close to "milk" — that I decided to try to teach her to say "I want milk."

I pursued this experiment with far more obsessiveness that you would expect from an otherwise rational, educated and fully employed adult. Yet after a year, I had gotten nothing close to Ah-wah-meow.

As Terri Schiavo's parents go back to court again, I heard Barbara Weller, the Schindler family attorney, say on MSNBC this morning that Terri Schiavo was asked by her mother to repeat the phrase "I want to live." According to Weller, she responded with an "aaaah" and then, after a pause, a loud "WAAAH."

What is wrong with this word picture?

The Schiavo case is full of instances like this, where people confuse what they want or think they know with reality. This temptation to see what we believe is what physicist E.T. Jaynes called the Mind Projection Fallacy — "the oldest of all devices for dealing with one's ignorance." Marketers, scientists and judges are conditioned not to project their own thoughts onto the world. But others, faced with a silence or an unintelligible jumble of events, will project their own thoughts into the void.

Projecting the creations of one's own imagination onto nature may often be a harmless act, and it can be profoundly comforting. But it is not the style of reasoning I want from the people making decisions that affect my life and the lives of others.

Isn't it telling that, either randomly or in response to the leading question, Terri Schiavo did not utter the operant syllable? So the witnesses must speak for her. Once again.

What if she'd next moaned, EYEEE? Does that mean "life" or "die"? No wait, AAAH means "I." So would the correct response to the mother's command have been AAAH WAAH AAAH? Or AAAH WAAH IHHH?

Is this anyone else's view of hell?

With all due respect, there's a very big difference between "I want" and "I want milk."


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