Scene4 Magazine: Michael Bettencourt |
Michael Bettencourt

Touching A Nerve           


February 2014

I just finished reading Patricia Churchland's Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain, which is a balanced rendition of what Churchland calls "neurophilosophy," the intersection between neuroscience and philosophy, what one might call "philosophy made flesh."

Churchland is not a cheerleader for the "pop" uses of neuroscience, the vulgarized reports that "explain" human behavior by genes, neural networks, and evolutionary psychology.  She is careful to point how much is still unknown about how the brain and consciousness works.  And just because we might be able to locate ethics and agency in brain structures doesn't diminish our moral obligations to act in humane ways through the exercise of free will, even if that "we" is a bit ghostly and displaced.

One angle she does go to some lengths to dismiss is a spiritual explanation for human workings, a brain driven by a soul.  Even if a soul does exist, she asks, of what is it made and what are the physics of its interaction with the human body?  She acknowledges that she can't disprove the soul's existence, but neither can she provide a plausible description of how the soul might do its work and so discards it as a source of explanation.  A brain is a brain, a body is a body, an environment is the framework for the living organism, and all three dance together to create the thing called "life."

Except tell that to my friend, whose book I'm editing as a favor.

The book is an account of what happened to him after he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and survived.  Prior to the diagnosis, he lived the usual life of the upper-tier bourgeoisie, a stock analyst on Wall Street who eventually married, had children, and moved an hour outside the city to more land and a bigger house in New Jersey.

But after the onset of the cancer and the treatment regimen, motivated by fear and curiosity to do his own research about staying healthy and alive, he began to have visions of what he calls "the other side beyond the veil," eventually claiming to be able to communicate with those who have passed over as well as seeing (and being able to analyze) individuals' auras. He now feels confident enough about these and his other spiritual abilities to write this book and try to get it published.

As far as I'm concerned, this is all nonsense, but I don't tell him that because, really, what business is it of mine to do that?  I want to help him write the best book he can, even if it's a book I would never buy or endorse.  (My compassion is thankfully trumping my sarcasm.)  He deserves the chance to convince others, and it's up to the others to manage their own responses — I have to give them that right since it's a right I demand for myself.

And while I do think that the spiritualism that informs his book is unfounded, it forms the basis for his book's real aim, an entreaty to live a better individual life so that many others can also live better individual lives. His argument is this: if the fear of death can be exposed as an illusion, if we can access these other spiritual realms that show us that life continues and does not end, then the corrosive acts that come out of that fear, from hubris to the devastation of the planet, will stop.  We will be able to recognize the essential oneness that unites all creation, human and non-human, and act upon that recognition to build a life with balance, harmony, and mutual respect.

What to make of the life-journey that brought him to this hope? Whatever else it is, it is a work of art, prompted by a vision, brought to light through self-discipline, geared to shift the human condition.  "Good" or "bad" is irrelevant here — what matters are the morality and idealism behind his impulse.  The book is "gospel," in the original sense of that word: I want to share the "good news" with you about the good life.

In many ways my friend's book underscores Churchland's point about the complexity of the intersection among brain, body, and the world at large. If the spirit realm is suspect as a scientifically verifiable "outside" reality, it nevertheless exists as a realm within the embodied brain, making it "real" (as all brain-body-world interactions are) even if not experimentally demonstrable.

And even if his spirit world is a product of brain chemistry and electricity, so what?  It is no different than any other product of brain chemistry and electricity, especially those ones we privilege as "art" or "profound" or "proper."  His propositions are, as The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy says about humans, "mostly harmless," and they're certainly better than the "visions" of billionaires about the betterment of the race or the mean-spirited ideologies that govern our politics today.

Rather than simplify human life, Churchland's book and my friend's book show just how knotted and obscure things are within the realm of the human. We are, as beings, complicated choreographies of inner and outer materials; our beings are a kind of commerce, a result of multiple transactions and incessant trading.  We may want to believe that there is an "I" somewhere which is irreducible, but the reality seems to be that whatever "I" shows up on a daily basis is the outcome of a negotiation among chemicals, electricity, the subway commute, the past, and a hundred other elements, most of which this "I" does not sense or recognize.

The lucky ones may be ones whose "I" is pretty similar from day-to-day.  Or perhaps the lucky ones are the ones like my friend, subjected to a life-shock that re-boots the whole system.  Or the ones on Lexapro or Zoloft whose "I" gets shifted from one that feels like an opponent or an anchor to an "I" that feels more like a proper "I" (and where does that feeling of "proper" come from?). We all have an "I," but there is nothing easy or dependable about it.

As a writer, of course I believe this is a problem of language — our vocabulary about self is based on ancient notions that Churchland's science constantly revises and undercuts, our critical language is limited by judgmental notions, and our moral language has been infected by our economic regime.

But even if we had a language appropriate to the density of our selves, there is still the contingent nature of it all — that we are here, and then we are not, and this is something that language can never completely disarm.  I don't blame my friend for wanting an assurance that there is more at the after-party, that in fact the party never ends but just shifts costumes and customs. Doesn't work for me, but it comforts him, and so be it.

What I appreciate about Churchland's approach is that it reflects and respects the fragile bluster that each human being is upon the face of the earth, that we are animals suffering the fate of animals even as we go down imagining we aren't in hi-def dreams of perfect worlds. 

This is where my friend's path and my path join for a short part of the journey: if we could just remember that, in the end (using the words of Lewis Thomas from his essay "Death in the Open" from Lives of a Cell), "everything that comes alive seems to be in trade for something that dies…[and] that we all go down together, in the best of company" — if we can remember that, that we are all alike in the face of dying off, then we can drop the fear-mongering and divisiveness and make manifest the spirit realm embedded in the folds of the three-pound brain.

Then off he goes to his "other side" while I stay here and write and ponder and look forward to the cats coming to sit in my lap to share their present tense with me.

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Michael Bettencourt is a produced and published playwright and
a Senior Writer and Columnist for Scene4. Continued thanks to
his prime mate" and wife, Maria-Beatriz.

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February 2014

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