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Jeremy Lott


Neuroscience After Nietzsche

Is the brain a symphony orchestra without a conductor?

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In 1996, to take a break from the grueling work of producing his second novel, A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe hung out with a gaggle of neuroscientists for several weeks. The resulting 7,000-word essay, entitled "Sorry, but Your Soul Just Died," reminded America once again why Wolfe is our greatest journalist.1 Amidst humor, dish, details, flair, and lots of exclamation points, he told us what he had learned. The Internet might be nice, said he, "[b]ut something tells me that within ten years, by 2006, the entire digital universe is going to seem like pretty mundane stuff compared to a new technology that right now is but a mere glow radiating from a tiny number of American and Cuban (yes, Cuban) hospitals and laboratories." The technology is called brain imaging. Wolfe predicted that "anyone who cares to get up early and catch a truly blinding twenty-first-century dawn will want to keep an eye on it."

What is it, and why should we care? It is a more or less noninvasive scan that allows the brain to be mapped in real time. Electrical impulses, different types of tissue, and reaction to stimuli can all be viewed by a third party. Brain imaging can thus diagnose problems that even invasive surgery might be hard pressed to find. But "its far greater importance," Wolfe suggests, "is that it may very well confirm, in ways too precise to be disputed, certain theories about 'the mind,' 'the self', 'the soul,' and 'free will' that are already devoutly believed in by scholars in what is now the hottest field in the academic world, neuroscience."

At the immediately practical level, their theories posit that "[e]very human brain … is born not as a blank tablet (a tabula rasa) waiting to be filled in by experience but as an exposed negative waiting to be slipped into developer fluid." Nurture is thus dealt a near fatal blow by nature. Everything from iq to shame to promiscuity is either built in or not.

After reporting the reactions of people who are slowly realizing the implications of such research, Wolfe predicted that, "in the year 2006 or 2026, some new Nietzsche will step forward to announce: 'The self is dead'—except that being prone to the poetic, like Nietzsche I, he will probably say: "The soul is dead.' " And when this happens, "the lurid carnival that will ensue may make the phrase 'the total eclipse of all values' seem tame." Self-control will evaporate; tribalism will reassert itself; science will tear itself apart; the center will not hold. Yikes! This is scary stuff, especially coming from a man with a better feel for the pulse of America than, well, anyone else. And, readers in 1996 must have said to themselves, this is going to make great fodder for a novel! It did, and I am about to review that novel. But it wasn't written by Tom Wolfe.

"The beheadings are almost identical," begins Joe Watson, a young associate for Stern, Pale and Covin:

Similar sounding crunches occur when the blade strikes the vertebra. The arteries and veins sprout like seaweed and spurt blood everywhere. I'm having the splatter patterns analyzed just to be sure but the splotches look identical. The heads topple forward and then roll down stairs—three stairs, to be exact, with three kerplunks. The animated victims turn their headless stumps toward the gamer and squirt blood through the windpipes onto the screen. The heads themselves are mounted on pikes, and in both cases the heads say, "Ouch, that smarts" in a kind of cartoon voice, at the instant of impalement.

Bottom line: "CarnageMaster has stolen the soul of Greek SlaughterHouse." The year is 2003. Young Watson is briefing senior partner Arthur Mahoney on the possibility of going after the makers of CarnageMaster for copyright infringement. Welcome to a bleak but hilarious future, care of Richard Dooling's third novel, Brain Storm.

Bleak, because the Judeo-Christian world-view is on the ropes. Porn and shockingly violent video games are even more widespread and lucrative than at present. Arthur refers to Watson's Catholicism as "your, uh, background," as if it were no more important than, say, the fact that he majored in world lit. As the tenuous thread that was the Protestant consensus unravels further, the void is filled by a massive expansion of America's new makers of truth, the courts. Employment, tax, discrimination, and every other type of law has ballooned to elephantine proportions as new legal theories seek to make end runs around simple moral rules like Thou shall not steal. The legal arena has long ceased to be about conflict resolution, instead fissuring and fracturing the nation further. (Dooling, you won't be suprised to learn, is a lawyer as well as a novelist.)

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