The Feeling of What Happens

reviewed by Lynne O. Geweke, MD

The Feeling of What Happens by Antonio R. Damasio, New York: Harcourt Brace, 1999. 386 pp. $15.00 paperback

Several months ago, in a somewhat foolish burst of philosophical bravado, I began reading this book with an eye to reviewing it for Pietisten. As a neurologist, I looked forward to diving into Dr. Damasio’s thoughts on consciousness; he is a preeminent neuroscientist and popular thinker and writer on this subject. In addition, although I do occasionally darken the doorway of a church, I always try very hard to be a thorn in the side of those of mystical and warm-fuzzy religion. I hoped this book would provide some easy barbs to toss at my theologically-oriented friends.

It is in fact now many, many months since I began, and my first comment is that this book is remarkably devoid of easy thoughts. Do not, I advise, put this book in your beach bag. It requires navigating through some fairly technical neuroanatomy, as well as keeping track of subtle differences in such concepts as core consciousness, extended consciousness, feelings, and emotion. I’ve decided to relegate a few brief definitions to a footnote for the interested, as anything more is far beyond my scope. Suffice it to say that any one of these concepts can inspire everything from dry research articles to extended philosophical conversations.

So why would I even bother to write about this book for Pietisten? Well, because the title refers to an incredibly important, central fact of human existence without which, I would challenge, theology as a discipline could not exist. Consider this: we not only exist, we not only take the next step to being conscious of the passing events of life, but we also climb higher, to being richly aware of ourselves as participants in life. Events don’t just happen to us; we process them, we remember some of them, we have emotions both aware and unaware regarding them; at the pinnacle, we have rich, conscious feelings about them. And it is precisely this "feeling of what happens," or as Damasio is fond of phrasing it, the viewing of our life as a "movie within a movie," that marks us as really human.

Damasio proposes that humans have evolved this many-layered consciousness with emotion and feelings because it is critical to our own survival and competitive advantage. Now, when we think of evolution, most of us think in very physical terms—for humans, such milestones as opposable thumbs and walking upright. But not many of us have thought that perhaps emotions, feelings, and the knowledge of those feelings may be just as important to our survival. They are what allow us to not only react to our environment, but to interact with it, to plan those interactions based on a huge background of information both conscious and subconscious, and ultimately to choose where our lives are going.

Because he understands consciousness as a biologically determined process, Damasio then takes a step that he notes is long overdue in scientific and neurological circles. That is, he promotes the investigation of consciousness, emotion, and feeling as proper subjects for objective, scientific inquiry. He hearkens back to William James, among others, in this; Damasio is actually somewhat rueful when he acknowledges the disappearance of such early efforts at the examination of consciousness. Some of this may have been as much because of a lack of tools as anything. With today’s ever-increasing sophistication of scan and scalpel, though, serious dissection of the nature of consciousness is a matter of when, not whether.

But there is no denying that opening the human mind to scientific inquiry can be deeply frightening. The scare that Galileo gave the Pope about the movement of the planets is nothing compared to the abyss our belief systems may face when we have to cede the very orbits of our own minds. What if, for example, we really find (as has already been proposed, albeit scientifically badly) that there is a discrete, measurable part of the brain that determines our capacity for religious thought? How many of us could accept that our biology might limit our personal capacity for understanding God? This may seem like an extreme example, but I think it only seems extreme because it’s crudely stated. We will without a doubt someday be able to refine these questions scientifically, and we must be prepared to accept what our research reveals. Unfortunately, history teaches us that when religion resists science, as in the cases of Galileo and Darwin, it’s religion that usually ends up looking the fool. We don’t need to make that mistake in yet another arena.

Lest this seem pessimistic or arrogant to some readers, I don’t want to leave these pages without trying to argue for some reconciliation between science and religion. To do this, I would like to leap back to my previous statement that all these defined levels of consciousness are necessary to the very existence of the discipline of theology. This is not a comment about the existence of God, or even of the nature of God; rather, it is a comment on our own capacities and nature. It is because we are able to con-ceptualize ourselves as participants in existence, because we can see the "movie within a movie," that we can begin to ask what is behind the production, so to speak, of that movie. Or, simply, that we are able to comprehend that there even could be a God.

Now, it is important to realize that this book does not mention God, nor is it oriented toward provoking questions about God. Damasio admits that solving the problem of consciousness is not the same as solving all the mysteries of the mind, but he is quite content to illustrate these mysteries with cultural references such as music and literature. In a scientific context, in fact, this is quite proper.

I would propose that the common ground for scientist and theologian might come when we realize that there really can be an encompassing sense of worship as we contemplate and even accept the concrete, scientifically definable aspects of the human mind. This may be a tricky thought to navigate; traps range from the loss of faith in a God who doesn’t seem necessary, to equating our own consciousness with that of God. Even as I write this, I realize that "the consciousness of God" is not a phrase that makes sense in context of this book. Consciousness to a neurologist really does require a brain; as Damasio puts it, there is no mind without a brain. So, when we speak of "the mind of God," of course we are grossly incorrect, limited by both our vocabulary and our ability to conceptualize.

But the limitation is absolutely and totally ours. If we can still allow for God, then perhaps stepping past all our fears about what science may find and forging forward is really the closest we can come to saying "yes" to God. It is, after all, only in the whole of life, in science, consciousness, and mystery, that we fully acknowledge the sweep and scope of God.

Definitions: Damasio defines core consciousness as the simple sense of self in one moment, here and now, and it is not exclusive to humans. By contrast, extended consciousness provides an individual with a sense of self in historical time, with an awareness of a past, a future, and the world around; it may not be exclusive to humans, but does reach its highest development in humans and in conjunction with language. Emotion refers to a collection of responses to an event, many of which can be observed objectively and may even be subconscious, while feeling is reserved for the private, mental experience of an emotion.

Lynne O. Geweke is a neurologist who practices in Minneapolis.

See all articles by Lynne O. Geweke, MD