I recently heard Leonard Peikoff’s Ford Hall Forum lecture “ A Picture is Not an Argument.” (It was quite good.) All of the considerations he mentions with respect to the abortion debate apply in spades to the Terri Shaivo case, as this article “Docs Say Schiavo Tapes Don’t Tell Story” shows. The mere fact that her eyes might sometimes track a balloon or her mother does not prove anything, as any neurologist not blinded by religious faith will tell you. Similarly, the mere fact that a fetus of a certain age sucks its thumb or responds to sounds does not prove that abortion is murder.
Contrary to those who wish to use such pictures as proof, we cannot justly leap in one bound from selected perceptual data to abstract philosophical conclusions. Much conceptual processing of a wide range of observational data is required. Without that conceptual understanding, such images are horribly misleading. With it, they are useless. In the case of abortion, the pictures of the developing fetus drop the critical context of the location of the fetus inside the mother. In the case of Terri Schiavo, the selected video of her drops the critical context of our scientific knowledge of automatized responses produced by the brain stem. Sadly, people are all too easily suckered into drawing highly abstract conclusions from just a few such selected images.
For an insane example of the opposite error of rationalism, check out this article arguing that removing Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube is murder — on supposedly Objectivist grounds. Really, it’s quite astonishing.
In any case, we can all be grateful that Terri Shaivo didn’t die on Easter. The proclamations of a miracle would have been too much to bear.