Care of the Soul: Angels and the Brain
There’s little room for wonder and real poetry in the mechanical metaphors we use to describe ourselves.
Years ago when I was frequently on book tours, I’d come home tired and people would say, “Your batteries must be low.” I usually answered, trying not to sound too smart-alecky, “I don’t have batteries. Look.” I’d lift my shirt in the back. I didn’t like the electrical metaphor for how I felt. “Actually, I’m tired from meeting so many interesting people,” I’d say.
Now the metaphors have changed, but they’re still often mechanical and I still disavow them. “You must be wired to be a writer,” people say. “No, I have no wires,” I respond. “But I do love to write.”
I don’t take care of my body because it’s such a wonderful machine. The universe doesn’t work like clockwork, and my family is not a social unit.
The trouble with our contemporary metaphors is that we talk about ourselves as though we were machines or objects. Our metaphors betray the extent to which our very idea of ourselves has been affected by the influence of modern science, technology, and psychology.
This trend toward talking about ourselves as machines is not recent. The French physician and philosopher La Mettrie wrote books with titles like The Natural History of the Soul and Man the Machine in the early 18th century, when the founders of the United States were steeped in this philosophy. It was in the spirit of their times.
What’s happening here is a despoiling of culture. The problem is not that neuroscience has made such advances, but that it tends to explain human experience exclusively and authoritatively in terms of the brain. Our physical life and biology are obviously a significant part of human experience, but there is also the realm of meaning, where love, for instance, is not just a squirt of dopamine but a stirring in the soul.
The ultimate issue is whether an emotion, idea, or image is real, even if it isn’t entirely physical. Can we speak seriously today of our subjective experiences without justifying them as physical in some way? Can we speak of love as a feeling of intimacy and connection without having to resort to dopamine?
The matter is crucial, because we are living in a world that is increasingly being reduced to the physical, where the physical sciences don’t just exhaust physical experience with research but portray subjective experience as unreliable. Recently an editor asked me to include some science in the book I was writing to prove that what I was saying was true. She thought that what she was proposing was quite reasonable, but I thought it undercut everything I stand for.
My favorite subject in high school was chemistry, and I sometimes wish I had become a doctor, maybe even a brain surgeon. But the current trend to reduce our human experiences to brain activity scares me. When I read such things I rush to read my William Blake and William Morris, two poetic, soulful men who fought the encroaching materialism and industrialism of their times. I snatch a line from Morris’s friend the artist Edward Burne-Jones: “The more materialistic science becomes, the more angels shall I paint. Their wings are my protest in favor of the immortality of the soul.”
The mechanical metaphors we use to describe ourselves contribute daily to the sense that we are chemistry labs on legs, that our intelligence is that of a massive yet delicate computer, and that our loves aim at perpetuating the species. There’s little room for wonder, meaning, interiority, and real poetry.
Of course, we have a physical dimension, but our lives are also meaningful. We have a soul. Not a thing that can be found and measured, but a depth to our feeling and reflection and values.
I prefer the way people spoke in ages past. Depression was not a condition or an illness but the visitation of a spirit, Saturn. Love was not a conscious act but the work of angel-like Eros, who comes and goes on his own timetable. An inspired idea came as a gift of the muse.
You don’t have to use mechanical metaphors that tempt you to think of yourself as a machine. You never again have to say, “This is the way I’m built,” or “I’m wired this way.” The next time you talk about your heart being a pump or mention endorphins to describe your happiness, find the passages in Plato about the soul, the good, and the beautiful.
I’m going to follow Burne-Jones: every time I hear a mechanical metaphor, I’m going to speak the language of angels.