Yesterday evening, I was walking my dog and listening to Brian Koppelman’s EXCELLENT podcast, The Moment,…
(Koppelman’s podcast is one of the great delights of the internet. If you communicate with people for a living–sales, education, any type of writing, ministry, etc.–you MUST listen to Koppelman’s podcast. Every episode is filled with provocative, brilliant ideas that can help you improve your craft as a communicator. Check it out, you’ll thank me later.)
… and he had Kerry Bishe as his guest. She’s one of the stars of the also-excellent TV show, Halt and Catch Fire, a drama set in the early days of the personal computer revolution. And she’s great in it. Watch it. Listen to Koppelman. You’ll love both of them.
Bishe was articulate and brilliant and fascinating. She has some really smart, thoughtful things to say regarding acting and art. But she said something that started a mental chain of dominoes falling for me, and I think I saw a disconnect I’d never really seen before, and I want to run it by you.
She was talking about how much she reads. She doesn’t read the novel of the moment, or People magazine, she said. She’s always loved to read physics and science, and right now she’s especially caught up in reading about neuroscience and psychology. She said, specifically, that most of what people think of as psychology is really neuroscience, the chemical and electronic processes of our brains. (If I’m getting her wrong, I hope someone can correct me.)
Later on in the podcast, she was talking about the nature of art, and she talked about urging young artists to find and focus on the things they think are important, moving, beautiful, etc.
I’m going to stumble through the next bit here, (as if I haven’t been stumbling up to this point), partly because I haven’t read enough in this area (consciousness studies? the biochemical origins of consciousness?) to know what the appropriate labels are. But here goes:
What she was saying is that our consciousness is purely mechanical. It’s the electrochemical processes of our brain, nothing more. There is no consciousness separate from biology. There is no consciousness apart from physiological processes. (Again: if I’ve misunderstood, please correct me.)
This brings me to the disconnect. If we have no consciousness apart from the electrochemical processes of our brains, then art is meaningless.
The fact that we find something to be important, significant, moving, beautiful, etc., is meaningless, isn’t it? Assuming the mechanistic (reductionist?) explanation is correct: If I think something is important etc., it’s not because the object IS important (or significant or moving or beautiful). It’s because the electrochemical process I associate with importance / significance / etc., is evoked by the object.
And if that’s true, then I don’t need to read Isaiah 40 or spend time with my wife or watch The Godfather to experience greatness, love, beauty, awe. I can buy a handful of pills that will provide me with the same electrochemical process. Right?
Think about it. You don’t need to go to the Grand Canyon or the Grand Tetons to experience awe at God’s grandeur. Your employer, or pharmacist, or the government, can give you a pill that provides you with the electrochemical experience of awe, and you can stay in bed at home for your week of vacation. Save the money, save the gas, save the wear and tear on your car.
Instead of selling copies of The Godfather or Shawshank Redemption or The Sopranos, Walmart (or Weyland Yutani) can sell us all copies of Hardbodies II, along with whatever medication we need to provide the appropriate mechanical responses in our brain, so that we feel whatever feelings–elation, fear, awe, dread, melancholy, despair, satisfaction–great drama is supposed to evoke.
Your love for whatever or whoever it is that you love isn’t objectively there. It’s an electrochemical process. Someone outside you can manipulate it, fake it, make you feel it or not feel it, if they have sufficiently detailed and sophisticated control of your brain’s electrochemistry. Right?
Doesn’t the existence of art, beauty, love, meaningfulness, etc., require that our consciousness be something above / beyond the mechanical processes of our brains?
Doesn’t it require some kind of transcendent ultimate reality? (Isn’t this what Plato arrived at with the “forms”?)
Koppelman loves Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way, even though he is an atheist and Cameron is constantly talking about spirituality.
Doesn’t art’s power demand some kind of spiritual reality?
Am I missing something?