Explaining away hallucinations (and God?)

My daughter's latest Netflix obsession is the murder/mystery series Bones. The show is powered by the romantic tension between the two leads: FBI agent Seeley Booth (David Boreanaz) and anthropologist Temperance Brennan (Emily Deschanel). In one episode, while Booth was in a coma, he dreamed he was married to Brennan. After his coma, a psychiatrist produced brain scans which showed the sections of Booth's brain responsible for romantic love to be quiet. During the coma those sections were lit up. The diagnosis: "What you are feeling for Dr. Brennan isn't true love, it's just activity in your brain."

As I watched the show I chuckled, thinking about Oliver Sacks' recent piece in The Atlantic about God and hallucinations. Sacks writes, "Hallucinations, whether revelatory or banal, are not of supernatural origin; they are part of the normal range of human consciousness and experience." If it's coming from your brain it can't really be God, just like it can't really be true love, right? The haunting question then lingers: do God or love actually exist outside of our brains? Is there anything real out there beyond our experience or is the life of our self simply a random series of moments perceived by the meat host between our ears? Sacks continues to beg the question and is haunted by our inability to arrive at scientific consensus.

Is what Agent Booth feels for Dr. Brennan true love? Is God really out there or do our brains simply reflect the fact that, for some strange reason, religious faith offered our ancestors a competitive evolutionary edge? Can we finally discard the myth of religion and reliably achieve the meaningful and rewarding experiences we desire through our medical tools?

It doesn’t take much to reveal the true object of our desires. We wish to be loved more than to love. We wish to eliminate the threat of a divine intruder who might make uncomfortable demands or, worse yet, simply defy us. Agent Booth’s shrink and Sack’s theoretical pondering seem at risk of descending into solipsism. The ultimate consumer is finally alone demanding that the universe become an instrument to his or her insatiable demand, making all other persons simply tools to their own end. (For more on this I recommend a chapter in Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion, “The God Within.")

This vision is in complete opposition to the suggestions of the Apostle Paul, which come from an understanding of a world outside of ourselves, one peopled with other selves, both divine and human. Love is patient, love is kind. It is not envious. Love does not brag. It is not puffed up. It is not rude. It is not self-serving. It is not easily angered or resentful. It is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

The hope is that with enough technical mastery, Agent Booth's desire to be loved can somehow be sustained regardless of any ontology Dr. Brennan possesses. The god that Oliver Sacks pursues will finally be the god of the consumer, not the hunter, lion, husband and king that Christianity asserts. The Christian God, however, breaks in - sometimes like a lamb and sometimes like a lion, whose face may be perfectly splendid or so terribly intrusive to move the great and small of the earth to end their narrative of self.

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Reading this, I was reminded of a great scene in the final Harry Potter book, where Harry and Dumbledore meet one last time after Voldemort kills Harry in the Forbidden Forest. At the end of their conversation, Harry asks Dumbledore whether this moment was real, or whether it was all in Harry's head. Dumbledore's answer: of course it's in his head - but why should that mean it's not real?

I think there's a deep truth in this comment. So many of us believe that in order to be "real" something must occupy some set of atoms outside our own body. But that doesn't seem right to me at all, especially when it comes to God. What kind of God could possibly be "outside" me, just one more part of the cosmos? That hardly seems a God worthy of the Christian description. This doesn't mean our religious hallucinations (if they are hallucinations) prove God exists; maybe all it proves is we can't prove anything here. But just because our reason for believing in God comes from our heads, that doesn't keep it from being real.

 

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