Mystery, Obama’s Brain Research Project (and the Pope)

One supposes it may be seen as in questionable taste to cite one’s own work, but that is what I am about to do here. I hope the reader will indulge me. I’m not simply plugging a book. There is a point.

Young Tony and the Priest; Coming to Belief in an Age of Unbelief, a novella by me published by Loreto Publications, is a story of spiritual quest. Such stories, from the publication in 1944 of Maugham’s The Razor’s Edge to the latest from Tony Coelho, are a dime a dozen in our day. If none would qualify as a great work of literature, the difference between mine and others is that in mine wisdom is imparted not by a guru in the Himalayas or shaman in Mexico but a Catholic priest, albeit an extraordinary one (as was my real-life model).

Somewhat to my dismay, no one who has read the novella and spoken to me about it has mentioned its most important line. It comes when the protagonist, Tony, and the priest, Father Emile LaRoque, have been talking about evil. Father LaRoque speaks of Flannery O’Connor, the great American Southern Catholic author who made evil her subject. “She finally says of it that it is not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be endured.”

Tony responds: “I find that totally unsatisfying.”

“The priest smiled. ‘In light of what you have said during this conversation, I am not surprised. However, soon you will not find it unsatisfying. You are looking for truth. Since you do so with good will, you will embrace it. You will embrace it when you realize for yourself, and not because I say it, that where we come up against mystery is also where we begin living.’”

What is Father LaRoque getting at when he speaks of mystery as he does? That there are things, mysteries, about which we may know little and understand less, or even know much but still not understand fully, is what gives interest, verve and color, piquancy and poignancy, emotional depth, intellectual vibrancy and much more to our living. It can also be the root of despair, not only of the suicidal kind, but the sort felt by a man who asks, after he looks around and perceives mainly stupidity, complaisance and cowardice, “How can anything improve when this is what men are like?” Even religious belief would have less significance without mystery because without it there would be no element of faith in the Faith. In truth, it is at the heart of being human instead of robots. Chesterton somewhere likens it to the sun at which we can never gaze, not without going blind, but by whose light we see.

There are specifically Christian mysteries, ones on which we meditate when we say the rosary, thus saving the repetition of its prayers from becoming a pointless bore, and there are also mysteries that become the subject of thought of all thinking men of any religion or none who are alive to reality beyond what is material or sensory, or unwilling to settle for an existence that is banal, dreary, humdrum. Some of these mysteries: What is our relationship to God, if He exists? What is life? What is death? What constitutes beauty? What is consciousness? If the latter is awareness of being aware, from whence arises the awareness?

Liberals, whether they formally deny the existence of God or simply live as if He did not exist, cannot abide mystery. How could they, believing as they do that man is the master of Creation? By what right can anything be hidden from him? It is why, convinced that all that truly matters is the here and now, they are driven to try to control everything. It is what makes them anti-life. Those among them seized by the spirit of scientism devote themselves to staring into Chesterton’s (and Father LaRoque’s) sun. This blinds them so that they wind up stumbling around, dragging along anyone foolish enough to follow them (the great majority nowadays), knocking into and smashing nearly everything precious, and leaving desolation in their wake – a fair description of the formerly Christian world that exists today: one in which the blind lead the halt.

My mind turned to Father LaRoque’s line about mystery and then to the thoughts I am expressing here on April 2 when President Obama, calling for $100 million as an initial government contribution to a project to “map” the brain, in effect declared my mind, and everyone else’s, is as nothing compared to the “three pounds of matter” (his words) that are the human brain.

The President was expressing the view of neuroscience, according to which all our thoughts, memories and emotions are the result of neuronal activity and chemical reactions within the “three pounds of matter.” As of now, the activity and reactions are all, according to the President, an “enormous mystery waiting to be unlocked,” one that will no longer exist when the brain is “mapped” as our genes were by the Genome Project of a few years ago.

Not simply are President Obama and neuroscience telling us that when everything between our ears is “mapped” – i.e., measured and quantified – the mystery of consciousness will be unlocked. They are saying that the brain – matter – shapes the mind; in other words that we are our brain; there is no soul. If that must necessarily mean that when our physical brain stops operating at the moment of biological death so must we cease to exist, it would be irrelevant to a political leader or scientist. What would interest them is that a mind whose working can be completely understood by mapping the brain is a mind that is also controllable – like the artificial intelligence of a robot. To be precise, that which could be controlled would be whatever is evil as determined by the political leader or scientist, be it opposition to government programs, anti-social behavior, or simply wanting to be left alone by both the political leader and scientist. Of course nobody is going to say that out loud, or not out loud where the public can hear. President Obama is selling Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies (BRAIN) in the same terms that embryonic stem-cell researchers sell their doings – that cures for Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other afflictions will be discovered as the brain-mapping proceeds.

That may happen, or it may not. It doesn’t matter anymore than that the ultimate outcome of the researches, if successful, would be truly evil. It doesn’t matter because the researches will proceed. They will because they can. That is the essence of “freedom” as modernity understands it: to be allowed to do anything that is humanly possible, as if God when He created man gave him the freedom to do evil. (Man does it, but against the will of God.)

This brings me to something that could seem unrelated but in fact is connected at a deep level to what I’m discussing here. It is something Pope Francis said at the end of the papal Good Friday Via Crucis, carried out this year as every year by tradition, at the Roman Colosseum. “God, in judging us, loves us…If I embrace His love then I am saved, if I refuse it, then I am condemned, not by Him, but by my own self.”

I rejoiced when I read that. Not merely have we in our new Pope a Supreme Pontiff unafraid to speak of God as a judge (though I suspect he sees him as less that than Justice Himself) but His Holiness in clear, simple, unambiguous language, was rescuing from obscurity an important teaching of the Church ignored by everyone who wants to believe all souls shoot straight to Heaven at the end of life on earth.

The truth, the Pope was saying, is that not everyone goes to Heaven. However, those who do not spend eternity with God are not sent to Hell because He is vindictive and sends them there as a punishment, but because they choose it and do so by whatever it was in this life they wanted more than they wanted Him. That’s what they will get. They refused His love.

What could be a blunter refusal than to deny His existence altogether and, in doing so, hold that men are mere material constructs controllable by other men (ones in power) through manipulation of the neurons and chemical reactions within their brains? Men are more than that, but the evil liable to be done in the effort to prove otherwise is beyond description. The nearest I can come is to say it could mean the end of living, at least of a life anyone sane, believer or non-believer, would want.

That is why, as a Christian, I believe the neuroscientists will fail. Oh, they may get every last subatomic particle of the brain weighed and measured, but they still won’t prove what they’re really after: that spirit and the soul don’t exist. They must fail because life itself is more than neurons and chemical reactions. It is an expression of the greatest mystery of all, God’s being, and whatever men may do He will not cease to be. Neither will His mysteries, though we, if we make it to Heaven, spend forever understanding them more deeply. To be sure, the scientists will never admit failure. Having in their minds reinforced the prejudices of their own materialism with their researches, they will simply ask for more money to continue them. The rest of us will have to remember Young Tony and the Priest and Flannery O’Connor. Evil is a mystery to be endured. I hope I shall be understood if I add, thank God it is so.