Thursday, November 08, 2007

Not Rational

John-Evo has been selling rationality big-time over at Evolutionary Middleman. (I’m not going to link to any particular post except this latest one, because you really ought to be reading everything he has to say. Even if you don’t agree with all of it.)

Now, we atheists pride ourselves on being rational, but what do we mean by that? Is it possible that there can be two, or even more, different versions of rationality? Does a purely scientific rationality always trump the others? What about common sense and practicality? Where do they come in?

I’m not inclined to use this blog as a place to talk about my personal problems, but I do have an example from life that — although trivial in the grand scheme of things — I think illustrates very well the question I’m asking.

Last year, late at night on November 30, one of my cats started struggling to breathe. It looked like it was going to be a losing battle for her. My wife and I felt that if we didn’t get her immediate medical attention, she wouldn’t make it to the morning. We rushed her to our local animal emergency clinic, where she was put into an oxygen tent and given a battery of fancy tests. The doctor came back about an hour later with a dire diagnosis: our pet had lung cancer. The X-rays showed it clearly. The other tests confirmed it. The doctor’s considered advice, based on the scientific evidence and long experience: euthanize her immediately because it would be cruel to stand by and watch her suffer.

But my wife and I were not feeling very rational at the time. We insisted on bringing her home and taking her to our own vet.

Our vet is an old-fashioned, tobacco-chawin’ kind of guy. He’s definitely not someone who would strike you as being on the frontiers of science, although you might want to join him for a beer. His office is filled with all kinds of quasi-religious embroideries spouting “uplifting” nonsense about how your pets will be waiting in heaven for you when you die, how “dog” is “god” spelled backwards, that kind of drivel.

But he’s pretty practical. When I showed him my cat’s X-rays, he agreed that she was probably on death’s door. But he asked me one important question: what was her quality of life like? Then he followed with what passed for diagnostics: Before the episode the previous night, had she been eating and drinking normally? Could she still urinate and defecate without any problems? Was she able to curl up and sleep comfortably? Did she groom herself the way cats are supposed to? Most of all, did she seem to be “enjoying” being alive? Maybe it was wishful thinking on my part, but I answered: yes, yes, yes, yes, and yes.

So this guy examined the cat, confirmed that her lungs sounded awful, and said that he wasn’t confident that he could do anything for her. Oh, maybe he’d try giving her some steroids to make her feel a little more comfortable for a short while. They might work; they might not. “Well,” I asked, “should we just do the humane thing and put her out of her misery? Does that make the most sense?”

He shook his head. “It depends what you mean by ‘sense.’ I wouldn’t put her to sleep right now if she were my cat. Why not try a steroid? It’s cheap and it can’t hurt.” Frankly, he told me, he didn’t really know whether there was any point; he knew of no scientific tests that dealt specifically with that kind of treatment for my cat’s condition. But, hey, who knew? There was a chance it would work. “We’re not talking about faith-healing here, right?” I had to ask. He howled. No, he assured me, prayer was not going to be a factor on his end. Of course, I was free to pray, he pointed out with a big grin, which made me explode in much-needed laughter.

It has now been almost a year. I’ve brought that poor cat in for steroid shots every week-and-a-half or so. Whenever she starts having trouble breathing, I call the vet and ask him if he can see her right away for another “treatment.” No matter how crowded his office is — and it’s often overflowing with patients — he never turns me down. That’s not too rational of him, but I don’t argue. “Hey,” he’ll say, “we still don’t really know what we’re doing here. This isn’t good science. We’re just giving her a shot and holding our breaths.”

It’s certainly much less rational than just reading the X-rays and drawing the most reasonable conclusion would have been. But, although her death may be just around the corner, my cat is still eating, drinking, peeing, shitting, complaining loudly about the lousy cleaning service that takes care of her litter, licking herself into feline fashion, sleeping whenever and wherever she damn well pleases, blackmailing us into giving her treats, scratching the furniture just for the fuck of it, looking for affection at inconvenient times, and, in general hanging on to the only life she’ll ever have. Not rational at all.


PhillyChief said...

I'm a little surprised he's continuing steroids for this long, but I guess there's no point in fretting about long term organ damage from them. He sounds like a decent vet. My regular vet office at the time my dog was dying really frustrated me. Everybody was pretty cold and nonchalant. I transferred her to their other branch (far off where the rich people live) and they were very kind, even staying well after closing on the night the inevitable had to be done.

There's definitely a place for, well, not the irrational but for the very human emotional response. Perhaps most of what we read and write in the atheosphere is rather cold, robotic logic. I see the vets at the first hospital you went to being like that. Your country vet, hardly irrational, was able to temper logic with a very human understanding of the situation. Sometimes this kind of thinking is dismissed as being irrational or illogical but I beg to differ. The world isn't black and white and I'd say it's illogical to think and act as if it is. It's a very easy and thoughtless diagnosis to read an x-ray and say, "well, that's that" whereas it takes more thought and time to inquire into the animal's quality of life and formulate a response that won't cure the root problem but address numerous other ones simply ignored by the other vet. His further accommodating you with the shots I also wouldn't call irrational. A good vet puts those in the most need first. Maybe I'm an irrational softy, but if I was waiting to see the vet and my dog was not in danger but someone came in with an animal that was, I wouldn't be arguing that my dog should be seen first.

May your cat live as long as she wants to.

Spanish Inquisitor said...

How does one rationalize love? Even love for a pet? Just because we humans don't value pet life as much as we value human life doesn't mean that what we feel for our pets should be reduced to the same thought processes as what we do for a broken down car.

Love and empathy are two sides to the same coin, and it's empathy that drives our morality. I won't get into that discussion, because it's being done all over the atheospehere every day, but I can't accept that resisting the knee jerk decision, upon diagnosis, of putting the cat down is irrational. You wouldn't do that to your child, why expect that you'd do it to your loved pet?

My point is, I don't think what you did was irrational. We're all told to be skeptical, to get a second opinion, especially about decisions that can't be reversed. You just did what any rational person would do.

John Evo said...

Being a cat lover with 2 of them and who admittedly sobbed uncontrollably for about 10 minutes when our last cat died about 6 years ago, I may not be the best one to weigh in on your particular example.

With that qualifier out of the way - I think two things. No, my wonderful "rationality" is not everything AND I think you made a largely rational decision that was obviously clouded by your humanity.

You went to experts and got the scientific info. These people weren't your primary vets, so you went for a second opinion to the guy who is. But even if they had been your primary, rationality doesn't preclude a second opinion - it ENCOURAGES it! Your primary didn't give you some cock n bull story about it being immoral to put an animal down. He walked you through a series of very logical questions that went well beyond the simple diagnosis.

Your responses may have been wishful thinking, but I have a feeling they were true to the best of your ability. You took his well-measured advice and his scientifically tested medicine and it has turned out well for you and the cat. I believe that had it not worked and the cats quality of life had continued to deteriorate you would have put her down.

It looks like rationality coinciding with human emotion - a serendipitous combination if ever there was one.

John Evo said...

@ Philly Chief -

"Sometimes this kind of thinking is dismissed as being irrational or illogical but I beg to differ. The world isn't black and white"

Yep. That gets to the crux of the problem with my post. When you throw out terms like I did, it reduces them to black and white.

John Evo said...


Ok, I said a couple of things in that first comment that could be taken completely wrong.

"and who admittedly sobbed uncontrollably for about 10 minutes when our last cat died about 6 years"

That sounded kind of cold when I read it again. Like "I gave him a good 10 minutes of grief and then on to the next"! I SOBBED for 10 minutes. I was devastated for a couple of weeks, with repeated tearing up episodes.

"I think you made a largely rational decision that was obviously clouded by your humanity."

Bad use of the term "clouded". Makes it sound pejorative, which it wasn't. Probably should have said "effected by". Apologies to Exterminator.

PhillyChief said...

I didn't take your comment to mean you ONLY mourned for 10 minutes.

Alejandro said...

One thing to think about when considering whether a course of action is rational, is how related your course of action is to the desired goal?

Questioning the merits of your chosen goal is a question more suited to morality, as the Spanish Inquisitor rightly pointed out. That's a separate issue altogether.

IRRATIONAL would be sacrificing a goat, burning the remains, and dancing the electric slide before the fire while singing "La Bamba" at the top of your lungs in hopes this would cure your cat.

IMMORAL would be deliberately choosing the most painful way for your cat to die.

HUMAN, would be to do the best you could for a pet you love and choosing the course of action that best helps accomplish that based on the options presented.

Stay rational. Great post.

Babs Gladhand said...

I think your course of action was both logical and rational. Now, if you were keeping your cat alive and she was miserable I would consider it to be irrational. Not to mention assholish.

I've only had to put one cat to sleep and it was absolutely horrible. I still miss that fucker.

John Evo said...

@ Babs who said: "I've only had to put one cat to sleep and it was absolutely horrible. I still miss that fucker."

About 10 years ago we put down a family dog; one my son had literally grown up with. It was a pup when he was born and died when he was 13. My daughter was 8. It was rough. It's the only bad thing about pets. They don't live long (compared to humans). You can go through a lot of grief over your lifetime if you're an "animal person".

The Exterminator said...

Babs, John:
Nearly thirty years ago, I had to have my favorite cat of all time euthanized. I cried like a baby. I still feel a pang writing about it today, many pets later.

Special Note to Babs: I'd consider having her painted in the arms of Jesus, but it wouldn't be realistic unless his eyes had been scratched out during the portrait process. She was not an animal who tolerated random affection from strangers.

John Evo said...


"Nearly thirty years ago, I had to have my favorite cat of all time euthanized. I cried like a baby. I still feel a pang writing about it today, many pets later."

Same here for my all time favorite. She was the cat I grew up with and died at the family home (she was 19) while I was away. Left a big ol' empty spot in my heart.

Unknown said...

This is a sad subject indeed. I feel exceptionally close to my pets, my wife more so.

Death is not rational. It can be and it depends on how you look at it. The process is what seems to turn rationality on its head.

Reason's Whore said...

Exterminator, it seems to me your course of action is completely rational. May your cat look forward to continued eating, drinking, peeing, shitting, licking, scratching, sleeping and complaining. Life is good; why not enjoy it as long as possible?

The Exterminator said...

Well, folks, I'm sorry to report that I had to have my cat euthanized on Monday. She just all of a sudden stopped drinking, eating, peeing, pooping, grooming herself, etc. and was clearly in pain. She responded limply to affection, but the quality of her life had fast fallen below zero. I knew even when I wrote this post that her cancer had metastasized; I suppose part of the reason I published this little essay was to clear my head and prepare myself.

So I was pretty stoical about the whole thing when the vet came into the examining room -- until his eyes began to tear up. This is a very busy guy, with a thriving practice. I'm sure he puts animals out of their misery every single day. But I suppose he'd invested so much emotional coin into keeping my cat alive for almost an "extra" year, that he felt he had a personal relationship with her. In any case, his response just made all my grief come gushing to the surface. I sat in my car outside his office and, behind a cloud of cigarette smoke, I cried for the loss of a loved one.

End of story.

PhillyChief said...

I'm saddened to hear that, pal.

John Evo said...

That's a damn good vet you have, Ex. Sorry I didn't come back and check the comments yesterday but you know how I feel. Tell Mrs. Ex my thoughts are with her too.

Reason's Whore said...

Oh, I am so sorry, Exterminator. I just read about Pip on John's blog. Big hugs and again and I am just so sorry for your loss. It hurts to lose a friend.