I have my homepage set to the Arts & Letters Daily website with the hope of stayingcurrent with current ideas bouncing around the world. This website features links to all sorts of online articles about all manner of things. People. Ideas. Historic events. Scientific discoveries.
Recently I came across a linked article from the LA Times. This article revealed that a UC Riverside philosophy professor named John Martin Fischer just received a 5 million dollar Templeton grant to study immortality. The article went on to talk about the latest popular books about experiences of the afterlife. Books like the one by Dr. Eben Alexander, which describes a transcendent experience of existence at the threshhold of death. Then, with journalistic balance, the article also gave rejoinders to such thoughts by the likes of neurologist Oliver Sacks who believes that these experiences are merely manifestations of the brain.
Sacks ‘thought’ makes sense. The brain is able to do amazing things. When I studied psychology in college I was intrigued by the experiments where scientists stimulated parts of the brain directly. The patients were fully awake while their brains were being poked. A scientist applied stimulation to the visual cortex and the patient saw new shapes or colors. Stimulation was applied to the area of the brain known for smell. Suddenly the patient would smell pizza. These scientists played puppeteer with these people’s brains. However, the extra-intriguing part of the experiment was that the patients also developed rationale for why they were experiencing these things. “Someone must be eating pizza outside the operating room,” they’d explain to the scientists.
The experiment indicated that our brains seek to make sense of the world. Thus, Sacks explanation for people’s experience of the afterlife. More sense-making.
Yet, Sacks comment also begs a circular question. Isn’t his notion about the brain’s interpretation just that—a brain interpretation. Is Sacks able to live outside of his own brain in a way that the rest of us can’t? Is Sacks’ brain less prone to error than the average brain.
Hmm. What are we to make of our interpretations of the world? A mass meaningless solipsistic adventure. Or, perhaps we have good reason to trust our minds. Could it be that ‘good reason’ comes from minds that echo a much greater Mind making sense of it all?