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Lee Schneider Headshot

Lightness of Being

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I wasn't in the room when it happened, but I have it on good authority that you can stop a man's heart, cut out a malfunctioning aortic valve, pop in a new one, bypass years of accumulated disease and then start up the system like a reliable old car. And I know for certain -- I was in the room -- that a man might lie in a twilight state among machines, seeming like a machine himself. But no, not like a machine: There was a glimmer of consciousness. It was a paradox to be witnessed with awe, this man-machine breathing slowly, leaking consciousness.

Funny thing, when people hold heavy objects they think they are more important than lighter ones. A big book, say a Bible, seems more important than the slim volume of famous left-handed athletes. The idea is part of the languages we speak. You have your heavy issues and light entertainment. There's research on this: One team found that they could alter people's judgment of importance just by getting them to answer questions using a heavier clipboard. In a series of short elegant experiments, a research team led by psychologist Nils Jostmann found that people holding a heavy clipboard would, for example, value foreign currencies more highly than those using a lighter clipboard.

That's good science, because the experiment was simple and the measurement clear. Science works because it measures things and assigns values. Sounds good, till you look at a guy in a hospital bed and ask what weight do you assign to consciousness? What weight do you put to love? As Lotta Alsen has written in her blog, everybody knows that love is good, but what measure can we assign it to prove that it exists? Do you look at the number of Valentine's Day cards sent? Quarts of chicken soup consumed? Love exists, but there is no measure for it.

In the hospital room the next day the human machine did something amazing. It woke up. It started talking. It wanted things. "I want you to call Milton." "Get me some water."

Miracle? No. This was the work of a heroic guy in green surgical scrubs going seven hours straight in order to take a man apart and then reassemble him. That's great training and expertise and amazing science. But still, there was something else. The human machine has consciousness. There is a soul, and spirit, stuff for which no measurement exists and therefore no science.

What happened in the hospital has affirmed my trust in scientific work, rattled my position as person who takes nothing on faith, and made me wonder if science, in order to fully understand the world, will need to stretch outside itself.

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