This day, Halloween in America, I find myself suddenly sad over the death of Oliver Sacks. This person enlightened me with his stories and his wisdom. I've read most (not all) of his books.
As a younger person I was drawn to him by advertisement of one book club or another in which numerous titles were displayed on a page. If you are of my generation you will remember book clubs. You filled out a business reply card that fell out of a magazine you were reading, and they began to mail you books, usually every month. These were titles of their own choosing - theoretically selected scientifically and via computer technology to be interesting to you. Most likely they were overstock from various publishers. And usually you'd wind up paying some price for each volume that was slightly greater than you would have paid had you gone to your local book store (who remembers book stores?)
The reason I joined the Book of the Month Club* was a title I had seen advertised for years, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. What was this about? Most likely it was a spy novel in which I would be less interested than a textbook on dirt farming.
One day and somehow I came to learn it was a book about neuroscience. Brain function. How the neurology of the brain translated to someone's physical reality. I thought - what could possibly be more interesting than that?
BOTM Club always started your subscription with 12 books of your choosing for only one US dollar and less than a month after I sent in my card a box arrived with my selections, among them, this strange mainstream neurophysiology book by a medical researcher named Oliver Sacks MD.
To that younger me the book was an absolute treasure. It intellectually appreciated the questions to which we have no answers like, "where exactly am I in my brain?' and "am I preprogrammed to believe in God?" And it medically examined fantastic things like, people who existed daily, somehow disembodied. Disabilities like not being able to connect a face to an individual through sight - but yet having absolute recollection through sound.
This was exactly the line of inquiry I followed in my own mind with disgusting regularity. How could I not, then, simply read everything this man wrote?
With the passing of time, the coming of age and the attainment of perspective, my interest in him waned. But this is not because I somehow disbelieved what he said. For surely he was the apex of expertise on matters in which he focused and I was just a human who happened to own a body and happened to be struggling through the pressures of normal life. No - I never disbelieved him and I never will. And I did not stop loving his work.
But it happened that I simply don't agree with him on everything.
It doesn't make me love him less. It doesn't make me devalue his work or consider him anything less than the voice of expertise and clarity - the treasure that he was.
It does, on occasion, cause me to become bored with his detailed analysis of a particular subject. Because it doesn't match my own experience, and things that I claim I know, irrespective of their scientific bases.
The issue on which I feel qualified to disagree with Oliver Sacks - for I am not at all qualified to debate him on anything else - is that of the experience of the supernatural. This is not even to suggest there is an actual, physically measurable thing or phenomenon we could call "supernatural," but rather, only our perception of it.
Dr. Sacks would say that experience of the supernatural is hallucination, and he would give quite detailed and well constructed, nearly irrefutable argumentation as to why such experience can be explained by the neurological apparatus - whether or not those processes are currently known by medical science.
And I would say, "Yeah, but, Dr. Sacks - when my brain can move objects on the other side of the room, then maybe I'll agree such things are mental contrivance. When I think I can ascertain information about an individual through meditation that focuses on their dead relatives - and then it turns out I can with great detail, how can that be due strictly to my own internal biochemical processes?"
And he would say, "But you can't do it reliably. You can't do it under experimental conditions."
And I would have to agree. Because that's the way it works. We cannot, nor will we ever physically measure psychic phenomena under controlled circumstance.
Then everything we know about nature would be wrong. And nature is not wrong.
It just: is.
There is a video interview of Oliver Sacks recently published on YouTube in which he speaks about hallucination and brain malfunction, and how that can be related to individual's experiences of the so-called spirit world, or UFOs, aliens, one presumes bigfoot as well.
It is a marvelous interview and the editors chose to end it with a statement made by Dr. Sacks which would have to endear him to every listener. He said, and I paraphrase: the danger in believing such things is that it takes you away from the experience of nature.
We can presume, then, he means to say what many of us believe: that nature itself is so extraordinary - why do you need a spirit world to make it even more fantastic? For God's sake, says I, the greatest scientific minds of our day have concluded finitely, measurably, and absolutely, that the universe we experience is only 30% (max) of the universe that must exist. This is not to even suggest multiverses, or alternate dimensions - but this space we are in now, the stuff we see, touch, smell, hear - is only 30% of the stuff that is actually here, contemporaneously and coincidently with our own daily existence - and we know absolutely zero about it except that it is there.
Why bother with life after death, and angels, and demons? Aren't those thoughts rather archaic in light of the actual scientific knowledge that DNA exists, replicates, engenders life, and none of us has a clue why?
We don't need the supernatural to be awestricken. If you were simply to pay attention to what we all agree "is" and spent your time examining it you'd see there's quite enough there to drive you to the idea that life is privilege, not accident. But as a scientist - you have to push your emotional reaction aside and calculate, and that keeps you centered, and keeps you watching, and trying to understand. Otherwise you devolve to a puddle.
His last words in the interview about the supernatural, well chosen by the film editor, I feel: "I wish something like that would happen to an old jewish, atheist, like me."
And I would myself be a: mature, agnostic, caucasian, male. To whom such things have happened. And who feels he has not given up his own critical thinking and who has had to live daily knowing that multiple individuals can experience the extra-natural together. Traverse great distances in both time and space. Speak to spirits and experience energies both subtle and powerful.
And in order to continue to exist has come to this conclusion, which correctly or not, I feel is as valid as that drawn by Dr. Sacks - that this life, this here now: is for us to be in this here now. We do not live to penetrate the veil of death. Why bother? Everyone gets a death, it's not worth exploring while alive.
Rather, use this life to explore the nature that surrounds you. If there is a purpose to being here, it is that. To me.
Because once you are dead, you are unable to do so - whether there is existence afterward or not.
I think some, perhaps most of what we experience as supernatural (angels, demons, ESP, remote viewing, speaking to the dead, psychokinesis, etc) is exactly the hallucination that Dr. Sacks explains.
And some of it is absolutely not. Some of it is as real as visiting grandma for the holidays.
But that part, by *design*, is immeasurable. It is true. It exists. It can never be scientific. Ever. It is out of our reach in large part because we, by virtue of our very life here on Earth demand it to be so.
Isn't that a weird thing to think?
But I do.
And so this Halloween, when we pay superficial homage to our own mortality through display of horror and fantasy it is good to remember Dr. Oliver Sacks, and how he humanely addressed our physical defects and the wonder of our consciousness. And know that he appreciated how people felt about these extra-natural ideas of God and eternity.
It doesn't take anything away from it. And I thank God for him, and those like him, who keep my eyes open, even when I'm communing with the dead.
*I will never forget that when I mentioned to my friend doyle that I had joined BOTM he said, in his deadpan way: "Well, that's a big step." And I have repeated that phrase to those around me when they have made proclamations about similarly inane decisions. "Well, I have decided to replace the Saint Christopher medal on my dashboard with a Derek Jeter bobble head." "Well, that's a big step."