Neuroscience After Nietzsche
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.)
The latest fault line is over a homicide. The Federal Court in Missouri's Eastern District has a long-standing custom of appointing newly minted lawyers to one pro bono case. Watson is assigned to a first-degree murder.
Hello? Why would a computer geek associate who has never spent one day practicing criminal law be assigned to defend a man who could get the death penalty?
Politics. The man James Whitlow killed was deaf and black, and Whitlow is clearly a bigot. He even has a tattoo on his arm that reads, "Jesus hates niggers." Though the crime was in fact probably only a "plain-vanilla voluntary manslaughter," Missouri's hate-crime guidelines make it very attractive for prosecutor Frank Donahue to up the ante and, perhaps, win a Senate seat in the process. But this still doesn't explain why Watson was assigned to such a high-stakes case.
Enter Judge Whittaker J. Stang, also known as "Ivan the Terrible." Stang is a throwback to a simpler, more decent, less litigious time. This Eisenhower appointee has an almost pathological hatred of lawyers and the muddle they've made of society. Being from another time, he understands Nietzsche's warning, as paraphrased by Tom Wolfe: "[Y]ou cannot believe in moral codes without simultaneously believing in a god who points at you with his fearsome forefinger and says, 'Thou shalt' or 'Thou shalt not.' " And so Stang seeks to put the fear of himself into startled lawyers. In his courtroom, he is god. The final authority is his, and he doesn't hesitate to abuse, annoy, and harass lawyers into respecting this fact.
But there's a softer side to the old goat, an aggressive mercy. The New Testament, if you will, is smuggled in under the covering fire of the Old. To wit,
"The Eighth Circuit can reverse me to Hell and gone," said the judge, smoke stinging his eyes into a squint, "they can mandamus my ass from backbone to backbone, but no white-trash punk is leaving my courtroom for the graveyard just because Frank Donahue wants to be senator."
But why make such a stink over a man who is (a) a bigot and (b) an undisputed killer? Because Stang is human after all. He recognizes that man—that's generic man—is steeped in sin. Let Whitlow be tried for murder and convicted; that's fine. But don't try him for "hatred," for the crime of being human. Asks the incredulous judge,
"You want to make hatred illegal? I've sat up here for fifty years and seen nothing but hatred. Everybody they drag in here is full of it, I'm full of it, you're full of it, and now what? You want to make certain varieties illegal? What are we going to do? Get some samples of hate and send them off to the forensic lab? See what kind we're dealing with?"
The judge speaks for Richard Dooling here. Through his one work of nonfiction, Blue Streak: Swearing, Free Speech, and Sexual Harrassment, and through op-eds in the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and elsewhere, he has launched a one-man crusade against hate-crime laws.
So: Stang appointed Watson to the case for two reasons; both practical, the second in a Machiavellian sense. First, Stang read an article in a law review by Watson challenging the rationale behind hate crimes and got a good glimpse at an engaged mind. Second,
"[B]etween him and my clerks, we'll find plenty of case law to support my conclusion that this piece of crap Frank Donahue is calling a hate crime is nothing more than a Senate bid. The U.S. Attorney will appeal my dismissal of his hate crime charges. If he does, I may get reversed by … the Eighth Circuit. … At trial, Young Watson will have his head handed to him on a platter and the jury may even send his client to the in jection room. Whereupon, the defendant will find another lawyer and will file a motion claiming ineffective assistance of counsel because a psychotic old federal district judge appointed a know-nothing greenhorn to a death-penalty case . …I get a shot at Frank Donahue coming, and another one at him going."
Cut through the grandiloquent sarcasm of Stang's arias, and what you find are the same enduring principles that have fitfully inspired Watson—the belief, for instance, that everyone should have competent representation, no matter how repugnant his or her deeds may be. Stang believes that Watson has the makings of a real lawyer, an honorable man.
Back to Tom Wolfe for a moment:
If I were a college student today, I don't think I could resist going into neuroscience. Here we have the two most fascinating riddles of the twenty-first century: the riddle of the human mind and the riddle of what happens to the human mind when it comes to know itself absolutely. In any case, we live in an age in which it is impossible and pointless to avert your eyes from the truth.
Those are precisely the sentiments of Rachael Palmquist, a neuroscientist for the Gage Institute and the perfect foil to Judge Stang. Palmquist gets involved with the Whitlow case for one purely selfish reason: She wants to introduce neuroscience into the courtroom, and she thinks the Whitlow case is the right vehicle to do so. (Senior partner Arthur Mahoney is all in favor of Watson working with her, as her participation just might lead to an early settlement and save Stern, Pale and Covin many lost billable hours and the embarrassment of having an associate defending a "hate killer" in a highly publicized trial.)
Palmquist is supremely amoral. To her, free will is "a nice fiction. … But a brain is a symphony orchestra with no conductor." The soul is "an untenable hypothesis," a conclusion that she does not flinch from applying to herself. Says she, "Do I seem to have a soul? … [B]ased on what neuroscience has taught me about the human brain, my answer is no, I do not have a soul."
The reader may be inclined to agree that Palmquist lacks a soul after hearing why she is opposed to the death penalty: "Why punish somebody by killing them, when you can punish them by studying them, vivisecting them like guinea pigs, if necessary, to find out why they short-circuited? Killing them only puts them out of their misery." For Watson, though, it is difficult to maintain detachment—not least because Rachel Palmquist is gorgeous, happily divorced, and wants to get him in the sack.
The choice between Stang and Palmquist, Dooling suggests, is no less than a choice between God and the Devil, good and evil, heaven and hell, virtue and a total eclipse of all values. And Watson is truly conflicted. Though a Catholic, he's not a very good one. He and his wife were married when they learned that she was with child because they had misgivings about birth control, but "the misgivings they should have had about premarital sex seemed unimportant."
But at least he knows to ask the right questions. He confesses to Palmquist that, if he could know one thing, "I guess … I guess I would want to know if Jesus Christ was really God." Palmquist would like to know what Napoleon's serotonin levels were before and after Waterloo.
And that, really, is the crux of the whole book. Are we unique beings created by a God to "know, love, and serve Him," or are we merely a bunch of symphony orchestras with no conductors, survival our only compass? Are we moral agents with free will, or negatives awaiting the developer fluid? In the world of Brain Storm—and 2003 isn't so far off—those remain open questions, but the balance is tilting toward Nietzsche.
Jeremy Lott is managing editor of The American Partisan.
Copyright © 1999 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture Magazine. Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.