Invasion of Irrationalism: Prof. Oliver Sacks

What concerns me is the invasion by religion of our schools, our politics, and our science


Prof. Oliver Sacks
Photo by Brent Nicastro

This article is based on Prof. Oliver Sacks’ Emperor Has No Clothes Award acceptance speech, delivered on Nov. 12, 2005, at the national convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation in Orlando, Fla.

By Prof. Oliver Sacks

In general I have tended to avoid talking about politics and religion, except with my friends. [From the audience: “We’re your friends.”] Good. Okay. [Laughter] People have passionate and often irrational and violent feelings on the subject, so I have never really quite declared myself, but I guess I will be doing so now.

I am not a believer myself, but I have nothing against religious belief or religious practice. What concerns me is the invasion by religion of our schools, our politics, and our science. This is why I said “yes” to Dan when he invited me to receive this award, and why I am here now.

There is an increasingly strong feeling of threat in the scientific community, and the two major international science journals, Nature and Science, among many others, have both addressed this recently. Science published an editorial in 2005 titled “Twilight for the enlightenment?” on the subject of “intelligent design” and the retrogression this represents. The author of the editorial wrote that in 1998, he helped produce a book called Teaching about Evolution and the Nature of Science, in which he expressed a hope that things might change. And they have changed, but in the wrong direction. Nature, also in 2005, ran a long article called “Who has designs on the students’ minds?” The former head of the NIH, the Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus, is due to speak next week on “Is science under siege?” and increasingly, many others are speaking out.

There has never been in living memory a White House so denying of science. The way in which current political policy based on religious beliefs is interfering with the practice and funding of science is rather frightening. The National Academy of Sciences makes a report about global warming, for example, and it is completely ignored or even suppressed. This undermining of science includes preventing or obstructing various forms of research, for example, research involving stem cells. As a neurologist, I have many patients with Parkinson’s disease and ALS whose only hope, ultimately, may be stem cells. While it is not yet clear what the ultimate value of stem cells will be, it is clear that we must have research, and that research must not be delayed.

Something strange is happening with our priorities, as was very clear in the Terry Schiavo case. The New York Times asked me if I would write an op-ed on this at the time, but I did not care to speak out in such an overcharged and polarized atmosphere. On the other hand, I did explode on the matter when I was lecturing in Alabama, which was probably the wrong place to do that. [Laughter] What bothers me in all of these cases–what must bother us all–is that there are millions of people dying of disease, of starvation, of war, and of genocide, but less attention is paid to them, seemingly, than to the unborn and the as-if dead. Obviously very passionate feelings are involved here, and they are not always rational.

Thirty years ago, at Beth Abraham Hospital, the hospital in New York where Awakenings happened, I saw a young woman, an 18-year-old, who had had a terrible encephalitis, a mumps encephalitis, some years before, and had been in a coma, or a chronic vegetative state, since she was ten. I examined her very carefully several times. I talked to the nurses. I talked to the family. No one had ever seen any indication of consciousness. I did what tests one could do, and then I wrote a note in the chart saying that I thought that perhaps–since she was irrevocably brain damaged, had no mental function or hope of regaining any–the next time she developed pneumonia, one might let her go. The then-director of the hospital, an Orthodox Jew with a yarmulke, in a rage, called me into his office. He said, “Sacks, you are a murderer. You belong in Auschwitz. You want to kill our patients!”

And I said, “Look, sir, I think I’m as sensitive as anyone to neurological potential, otherwise Awakenings would never have happened. But there’s zilch here–there’s no one there.”

He held his hands up to his head. He said, “I can’t bear to hear this!” Then he said, “You’re entitled to your views, but don’t spread them. Don’t write anything in the notes.”

I said, “Well, okay. But she may live another 30 years like this.”

In fact, she did live another 30 years, and she died, finally, last year. She had never, in the 38 years since her illness, shown any sign of consciousness or awareness of any kind. In our hospital, and many hospitals, an unpleasant term is used. We talk about the “vegetable garden.” We have dozens of patients now who have been in such “chronic vegetative states” for 20 years or more. They are using up resources desperately needed by patients who have a good hope of recovery and rehabilitation. In many cases, their families have long since given up visiting, because they realize on some level that their loved one is gone–but they cannot resolve this with their religious beliefs.

There is a strange irrationalism welling up in the United States, and to some extent maybe over the whole planet, but more here than elsewhere. I know that when Peter Singer addressed this group last year, he said it was different in Australia. They don’t have moments of silence. They don’t have “God bless Australia.” One can have an abortion if one wants one, or if one needs one. Religion does not invade public or political life. My friends in the Netherlands tell me that if a political leader there expressed religious opinions in public, there would be a revolt, and he or she would be removed from office. But in the United States, at the moment, all this is inverted. Many political candidates here feel obliged to present themselves as “persons of faith,” and to play the religious card at every opportunity.

I am horrified to think that 70 percent of the U.S. population, so it is said, believes in angels, aliens, spirits, spooks of one sort or another. Sometimes I think what Freud called “the black mud of occultism” is sweeping this country. When one is too excited by the idea of things supernatural, one may not pay enough attention to the natural. One cannot see how wonderful nature is if one is too concerned with super-nature. For me, and for all of us sympathetic to the spirit of Spinoza, nature is infinitely more wonderful than any religious concept. And it does not demand an abrogation of one’s reason.

* * *

I wrote a bit about my own early years in my memoir, Uncle Tungsten. I was brought up in England, in an Orthodox Jewish family, whatever that means. What it meant to us was that we went to synagogue twice a week, and we kept a kosher house, and various rituals were kept up. Apart from these observances, I have no idea what my parents actually believed. I never asked them what they believed; they never asked me what I believed. I don’t know whether there was much belief. I think our religion was largely about ritual and tradition and appearance, and culture, and, above all, behaving decently.

Freeman Dyson, whom I admire enormously, wrote an essay some years ago in which he said, “I am a practicing Christian, but not a believing one.” Beautiful. So, I think my parents perhaps were practicing Jews, but not believing ones. I think that may be so with many people, for whom religion is not about the supernatural, but about revering life and living it as fully and gratefully and decently as one can. In Jewish belief, in particular, there is very little if any reference to immortality, to heaven and hell, or indeed to a personified God.

Our house, in my boyhood, was full of music. Music was very important. Music provided the emotional, the irrational, the mystical, which we all need and which science, sometimes, cannot provide.

I had a huge extended family–my mother was the sixteenth of eighteen children–and the passions of many of my aunts and uncles were for physical science: for physics and chemistry, for geology, the wonder of physical science. I had a deist aunt, who used to say, “God thinks in numbers.” So the beauty and the wonder of the natural world seized me very, very strongly when I was young–first the physical and the geological world, and then the living world. At times this produced absolute ecstasies. I had a sort of rapture when I first read Lavoisier’s Chemistry, when I first read about Dalton’s atomic theory, when I first saw the Periodic Table. I gained an overwhelming sense that the universe was orderly and intelligible, and that a human mind could understand or represent at least a part of it.

I sometimes had a sense of puzzlement, I confess, and at times conflated Mendeleev, who had first constructed the Periodic Table–an icon which I still carry around in my wallet–I conflated him somehow in my mind with Moses. I imagined Mendeleev going up to some chemical Sinai and coming down with the tablets of the Periodic Law. [Laughter] I was not certain how much the periodic law was a human construct, and how much it was sort of a divine blueprint or whatever. I think these were the remnants of deism. There is a lot of loose thinking in deism, when people talk about the genome as a sort of “divine language,” or when Einstein says he wants to know the “secrets of the Old One.” But one remembers that when Einstein was asked if he believed in god, he said, “In Spinoza’s god.” And for Spinoza, nature and god were one, there was nothing “beyond” nature, nothing meta-physical.

There was no dogma, no indoctrination when I grew up–I think I was lucky that way. My close friend Jonathan Miller–we’ve been friends for almost 60 years now–had a completely nonreligious growing-up. He recently made three brilliant television programs on “The History of Unbelief,” and I hope that these will be shown in the United States. So far, public television here has refused to air these programs, although they aroused great attention and respect in England. Atheism is a dirty word here.


Author and neurologist Prof. Oliver Sacks accepting the Emperor Has No Clothes Award from Foundation co-president Dan Barker last November. Photo by Brent Nicastro

Science is a process. Science is an activity. Science continually makes hypotheses, investigates, and is prepared to throw out a hypothesis. Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s friend, talked about “the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.” There is something enormously reassuring about the provisional quality of science, and the fact that it does not have rigid convictions. A scientist should not have rigid convictions (though some, of course, do). If we have any belief, as scientists, it is that nature is reasonable, and potentially comprehensible, and that nothing in nature should be beyond evidence or explanation.

The three great questions–the origin of the universe, the origin of life, and the origin of mind and consciousness–are all under intensive investigation now, and for the first two, perhaps, a reasonably full understanding is in sight.

People are very divided, however, on whether the problem of consciousness can yield in the same way. The philosopher Colin McGinn sometimes calls himself a “Mysterian,” because he feels that the human mind is incapable of forming any adequate concepts of the relation between brain and mind, the nature of embodiment and emergence. For myself, I suspect that the brain-mind problem will turn out not to be a real problem at all.

At the beginning of the 19th century, Blake, Wordsworth and others got very angry about science. Blake spoke about “unweaving the rainbow,” feeling that knowledge would destroy wonder. I don’t think this at all–I think that knowledge increases wonder. There is a lovely book by the physicist Victor Weisskopf, titled Knowledge and Wonder, in which he argues with great passion that the more you know, the more you wonder–not just with regard to the natural world, but with regard to everything. The more you know about Mozart, the more you appreciate him. Everything is enriched by knowledge.

Whether natural science can ultimately address not only the natural world, but all the realms of the mind–ethics, aesthetics, religion–I do not know. Stephen Jay Gould liked to think of two realms of discourse, which he called “magisteria”: the magisterium of science and the magisterium of religion. Freeman Dyson, somewhat similarly, has said that we can look out onto the world through many windows, science being one and religion another.

E.O. Wilson feels the methods and concepts of science can be extended to a consideration of art, ethics, religion, society–all of human nature and culture, and indeed he entitled his great book, his attempted synthesis, Consilience. Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins, too, feel that as science expands it will take over, and absorb all the traditional questions of philosophy, ethics, religion, etc–and these will survive only as forms of science, like evolutionary biology or psychology, if you will. I am not sure where I stand amid these conflicting views, but I am in love with music and art and poetry; I feel I can behave decently and morally, and I think that all of this is commensurate with a scientific world-view, and an absence of any belief in the supernatural. I do not, personally, feel any tug-of-war inside, any conflict here between mind and heart.

We are called Homo sapiens. I think we are equally Homo ludens, the playful species. And maybe we are intrinsically a religious species as well. It is very important to distinguish religious feeling, religious sensibility, religious states of mind from religious belief. Belief, of any kind, is an entirely different sort of phenomenon. I cannot say too much about neuroscience and religious experience, but I can provide a few clinical stories. People who develop temporal lobe seizures are apt to develop mystical or religious tendencies, even if these were previously unknown or foreign to them. Dostoevsky, who had such seizures, gives incomparable descriptions of the states of mystical ecstasy and union he experienced at such times. More recently, Mark Salzman has written a novel, Lying Awake, in which a nun’s visions of God become more intense as her temporal lobe epilepsy becomes more severe. Finally, it is realized that she has a malignant tumor in one temporal lobe, and it must be removed to save her life. But will her religious visions survive its removal? Hildegard, the great mystic, saw “the City of God” in her attacks of migraine.

William James wrote of alcohol and various intoxicants–he had considerable experience here–as “mystagogues” that could open the mind to forms of consciousness, including mystical and “cosmic” consciousness. States of profound religious joy and revelation are sometimes experienced, in the right conditions, by those taking mescaline, LSD, or other hallucinogens. But to say that there may be a neural correlate for religious feeling is in no sense to deny its reality or dignity–every mental state has its neural correlates. Religious feeling, and the sense of awe implicit in it, seems to be a universal human proclivity and potential; and one, presumably, with its own evolutionary antecedents.

Moments of scientific illumination, or artistic illumination, can be similar to religious states of mind. There may be a feeling of immensity and wonder and awe and dawning insight and depth and connectedness that does not, however, include any sense of a presence or agency. Vernon Mountcastle, a great physiologist, recently wrote me a letter saying that he was very sad at retiring and leaving laboratory work. He said that every discovery of one’s own, however small, induces a kind of ecstasy. He said, “It’s like falling in love again for the first time.”

How could a passionate and intelligent and curious person think about the world 5,000 years ago, or even 400 years ago, when there was so little scientific knowledge? Systematic investigation, science as we know it, really only started in the 17th century. We humans have a craving to understand, to get the big picture, to see some sort of all-embracing pattern, and religion has obviously filled that need for millennia. Before Darwin, it was very difficult to understand the richness of the biological world, how innumerable forms of animals and plants came to be. But to believe in a creator and so-called intelligent design now, a century and a half later, is bizarre, an intellectual retrogression, only intelligible in terms of the mind being dominated by emotional drives and needs.

Science increasingly obviates the need for a creator god, and increasingly “intelligent design” is a theory of the gaps: “You can’t explain the bacterial flagellum? He made it.” But the gaps in our knowledge of nature are steadily being filled–this has always been the history of science.

It is frightening and grotesque that something like “intelligent design” should be presented as science, or used to replace science, particularly in our schools. Religion classes are fine; I enjoyed religion classes when I was in school [in the U.K.]. There were religion classes, art classes, and science classes, and they didn’t contaminate each other. They were all different. But the situation we have today, where such lines are blurred, is very dangerous.

In the 1880s, Nietzsche could say, “God is dead.” He was a little premature. [Laughter] He felt then that the world would become more and more secularized, and that it would call on all of our courage to survive, and live decent and meaningful lives, in a godless world. He would not have predicted that religion, and particularly very fanatical and fundamentalist forms of religion, would make such a comeback a century later.

Can one live without religion? Well, I think the answer is that some people can. I think that a full, loving, decent, and deeply creative life is perfectly possible without religion. But it is not for everyone. There will always be people who want and need religion; what is crucial is that their beliefs are not imposed on others, and that politics and education and the law be impartial in relation to religion.

Indeed, I am very conscious that there are good forms of religion, and I work with a number of religious institutions and people. For 30 years, I have worked with the Little Sisters of the Poor, for example, a devoted order of nuns who take the most extraordinary, selfless care of sick and elderly people. For me, they represent the noblest side of religion, good works without any conditionality. They do not evangelize, and they are happy to recognize the dignity of all religions (and perhaps even no religion).

I also know a grand, highly intelligent Methodist bishop who says that he and other liberal Christians are as embarrassed by the current rage of fundamentalism and evangelism as anyone else. Although it is crucial that a Dawkins and a Steven Weinberg and other scientists speak their minds about the current atmosphere, it is equally important that some good liberal believers do so. President Carter, for example, recently expressed himself strongly and negatively about evangelism–as opposed to the current pope, who according to the Times this morning has endorsed “intelligent design.” One feels the Dark Ages may be closing in again.

I wore a tie today with nice bright light bulbs all over it, to stand for enlightenment. I think that you people and this organization are tremendously important, among others, in trying to prevent the darkness.

Thank you very much.

Question about “de-legitimizing religion”

De-legitimizing religion. Well, I don’t know that you can de-legitimize religion, but I certainly think it’s important to de-legitimize its perversions, such as creationism and “intelligent design.” There are legitimate forms of religion, but there is no legitimate form of “intelligent design.” There are some good warriors in the front lines. My good friend Stephen Jay Gould was one of them, and Dawkins is another. Have you heard of Kenneth Miller? He is an evolutionary biologist who has written a marvelous book called Finding Darwin’s God.

But finally, this won’t be a matter of argument. The argument is sometimes called a “dialogue of the deaf.” I think we are dealing partly with a scientifically illiterate population here in the States. People are not stupid, but they can believe incredibly stupid things, partly because they are misinformed, or not informed, or dis-informed. The wonder and the beauty and the coherence of science need to be felt more generally by everyone. A good understanding of science would de-legitimize things like ID. It wouldn’t de-legitimize religion, but then religion could perhaps exist–perhaps should exist, I don’t know–side by side with science. But there is no legitimate place for something like ID.

Question on Terry Schiavo case. Were you invited to evaluate the videotapes?

No. I would not have entered the matter. When people are in that state, there can be fragments of behavior which look conscious, and one could easily select these and make a videotape, which in fact conveys a misleading impression. I believe that Frist, who is not a neurologist, looked at such a videotape and made his expert cardiological decision [Laughter]. But these are not easy decisions. Sometimes hundreds of hours need to be spent with people in this state, and by nurses and others who know them well, to decide what is going on.

Question from a scientist about the higher percentage of creationism among MDs compared to other life sciences. One lab decided to select non-MD students for that reason.

I have not plumbed my colleagues’ and students’ attitudes about ID. I am just concerned that they be good doctors, and if they are good doctors they can be Satanists, for all I care. I find it very bizarre that intelligent and scientifically sophisticated people can be creationists–I think there must be some sort of dissociation inside. Which reminds me of the eminent geneticist, Francis Collins, who was crucial in cracking the human genome. A few years ago, I found myself at a symposium called The American Academy of Achievement, which was supposed to inspire or shape or provide models for brilliant high school students.

Francis Collins chaired one scientific session beautifully, but then he made a passionate declaration of faith. He added that he did not feel any division in his mind, that one and the same mind could embrace both science and faith. I don’t usually get up in public, but I did get up then, and I said, “Whatever you believe is your own business, or that of your fellow believers, and you can say this in private, but you should not be saying it at a scientific meeting where there are hundreds of students.” [Applause] He seemed to take my comment okay, and we had a drink together later in the evening.

Question about the Jonathan Miller film on atheism in the UK.

The films were made by the BBC, and Richard Dawkins and Steven Weinberg were among his interviewees. The fact that this critical, skeptical, careful, honest, reflective film is being boycotted here is very wrong, and symptomatic of the increasingly antirational atmosphere here in the United States.

Freedom From Religion Foundation