Wednesday, January 31, 2007
(9:08 AM) | Adam Kotsko:
Science and Religion -- on TelevisionLast night's episode of House turned out to be fairly good, but there were a couple moments that had me on edge -- moments when it seemed like we were going to get the classic TV moment of a scientist whose very brilliance blinds them to the meaning that simple folk ... &c. This type of moment comes up very frequently on Bones, where the abjectly boring Agent Booth, in his down-home way, encourages Dr. Brennan to believe in "the Man Upstairs." Of course, since Dr. Brennan's parents disappeared when she was a child -- on Christmas Day, no less! -- we are encouraged to view her excessive reliance on reason as the defense mechanism of an emotionally damaged person.
One began to suspect that that was the direction they were taking it on House as well, but what initially looked like a generic "vulgar empiricist" viewpoint that didn't see the wisdom in religion, &c., turned into a viewpoint that bracketted the religious questions altogether in favor of investigating the role they played in his patient's life. On one level, this is incredibly disrespectful, failing to take the patient seriously. But from a different perspective, the only way to take her seriously as a person was to fail to take her at her word. Religion here was not viewed as some kind of natural capacity that certain freakish people (scientists) lack or suppress, but as a tool -- just as a doctrinaire insistence on "science" and "reason" can often be a tool (and surely they really can, even if TV shows overrepresent the phenomenon). And here the insensitive scientist turned out to have more insight than the sensitive open believer, at least in this moment.
The reason this episode was so satisfying for me -- aside from the fact that I really liked the character of House's main patient -- was partly the fact that the smug religious person didn't end up having access to a "deeper wisdom" than the poor impoverished scientist House. It does seem to me that it would be possible to have a tolerable ending wherein the religious person had more insight than (for example) House, but in order to do that, they would have to make it so that the insight came in spite of religion, something that seems unlikely. (Even in the faith-healer episode, the completely spineless dad decided to stop trusting the faith-healer son only on religious grounds.)
Ultimately, though, what made it satisfying was the way religious belief was brought up, then dismissed as not being the point -- none of this nonsense where the last scene shows everyone around House smiling because he finally found something he couldn't explain through reason and oh look is there a glimmer of recognition in his eye too of something bigger than him something mysterious and great, &c. No -- religious belief is not the point. If anything is the point, it's the interpersonal level, and insisting on impersonal ontological claims -- whether those of religion or of some strongly-specified materialist viewpoint (the kind for which atheism names a strong claim rather than an "of course" kind of question that isn't really interesting in itself) -- is very often a way of avoiding that level, foreclosing the moment of encounter and of decision.