Methods of Modern Séance

Without a transcendent or even Platonic vision of the Good, modern science can become a modern séance.
Jun 9, 2015

“Are you sitting tight? I’m about to give you one hell of a ride.” Perhaps the neurosurgeon Dr. Sergio Canavero did not detect the diabolical irony of this opening statement, as he began his speech on how to transplant a human head in the next two years. While the popular media seems only interested in the plausibility of his claims, most sensible people worry about the ethics. But lurking behind the stunning and almost messianic claims of Dr. Canavero there is something more hideous than even the obvious ethical horrors, as C. S. Lewis has already warned.  

The Italian doctor’s presentation was given as a TEDx Talk in January 2015 and can be easily accessed on the TEDx Talk website, which is really only an eight-minute fragment of the whole speech. The full English presentation is on Youtube, and it is in this twenty-minute version that we find the most compelling and haunting and revealing claims. In his lecture, which bears the hackneyed title “The Future is Now,” Dr. Canavero heralds the coming breakthrough of successfully transplanting an old human head onto a new and lifeless human body. He explains that “Heaven,” the name he has given to his procedure, “was meant to be a solution for intractable neurological disorders, muscular dystrophies, muscle-wasting disorders that leave you immobilized in bed but with a clear mind.” Finding solutions to life’s pain often justifies the use of any new technology.

But Dr. Canavero’s altruistic vision widened when he learned of a Russian billionaire who three years ago established an initiative to achieve “cybernetic immortality.” But the magnanimous doctor decries this attempt because, he claims, the brain still remains old. Alas. By contrast, transplanting the head onto a new “donor body,” together with electronic stimulation not unlike that of Frankenstein, he admits, a rejuvenation of the old brain and organs becomes possible. Immortality? Surely, we’ve moved beyond simply helping some people walk. One wonders at what point the virtue of compassion becomes the vice of cruelty.

Dr. Canavero is clearly a showman; we might even say a shaman. One wonders if he might get a better response with a fog machine and a crowd in Vegas. But he is also entirely sincere. The talk is given with profound gestures and delivered in a chopped Italian accent, resembling an awkward exercise in classical rhetoric, complete with sophomoric grand pauses and unintended syntactical breaks. But there is an unmistakable spiritual element in Dr. Canavero that is as priestly as it is pagan, a charismatic hopefulness as he denounces “materialist science” and urges the audience to believe in his “Heaven.” In the end, he is more honest than he realizes; it is quite literally a hell of a ride, and it is no accident that one finds many such ironical phrases throughout his speech, twisted with a devilish subtlety that Dr. Canavero himself cannot seem to grasp. “I will give you new eyes,” he announces. “Your lives will never be the same.” With chthonic irony his claims betray the demonic parody of his good will. The Faustian consequences and moral lessons that any good fairy tale has taught us become more and more evident as his speech progresses.

Some readers will have already recognized the uncanny resemblance that Dr. Canavero bears to the Italian scientist named Filostrato in Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength. The novel is the third book of a space trilogy, and it is set in a not-so-dystopian society, presumably after War World II. Even then the scientism of Lewis’ day was turning many modern Western countries into increasingly technocratic and post-human societies. (What Lewis might say now, one dares to think.) Thus, Lewis calls the narrative, “A Modern Fairy-tale for Grown Ups,” a pithy subtitle that expresses the true purpose and dignity of the science-fiction genre.  Filostrato works for the “National Institute for Coordinated Experiments” (N.I.C.E.), an organization that claims it is fighting for the survival of humanity. But a humanity of what sort? As the archetype of Dr. Canavero, Filostrato succeeds in preserving a human head that speaks, but the real horror of the N.I.C.E.’s work is made plain in the end, when Filostrato and two others gather to hear the head speak to them without technological aid of air or blood or saliva. What Filostrato had thought was the “consciousness” of the man still speaking to them from another world is only demonic possession. Lewis makes it plain just how religious modern science can become. The N.I.C.E. had built their scientific tower high enough into the heavens to glimpse the angels, but what they found instead were the demons. They thought their purposes just. They thought they were going to better humanity and save civilization. In reality the N.I.C.E. was killing both. They went to do science and found themselves at a séance.

Just as the science of the N.I.C.E. cannot long conceal its deep religious motives, so we find that Dr. Canavero cannot long conceal his own. Towards the end of his talk, he drives nearer to the question that dominates the monomaniacal minds of all mad scientists: What happens after you die? Here the transformation from doctor to evangelist is complete. It is no wonder the TEDx Talk website only shows the first half. The end of Dr. Canavero’s talk reveals the occult reason why he calls his project “Heaven.” It is as if he has glimpsed something secret, and he cannot suppress his desire to initiate his audience into the real work which lies at the back of all his thirty years’ research.

“Now according to the materialist science,” says Dr. Canavero, “[the near-death experience] is a product of a dying brain that is being revived.” In contrast to this Dr. Canavero openly admits, “I belong to a group of scientists who believe otherwise. We believe that the brain is only a filter. It does not generate consciousness.” At this point his cards are really beginning to show. Consciousness is the clinical word given to describe mind and personhood. It does not follow, for instance, that because there is a brain there is also a mind. Dr. Canavero seems to believe that the mind is not limited to the physiological elements of grey matter. Like those in the N.I.C.E. who discovered that the rehabilitated Head had become a conduit for some other intelligence, what Lewis calls the “macrobes,” he too seems to suggest that the brain is a “filter” of something else. In other words, Dr. Canavero believes that consciousness is the product of some other reality, something extrinsic and possibly other worldly, possibly even transcendent. Beyond the pathos of helping paraplegics and those suffering irreversible spinal cord injuries, the doctor’s real motives come clear in the end:  

During the transference of the head on the new body, the head is cooled to ten degrees Celsius. It will be bloodless. It will be as dead as it gets, clinically gone. Now I expect upon reawakening, the subjects will report a full-blown near-death experience. When this happens, we will have final proof that once you die, once the brain dies, consciousness survives. 

Dr. Canavero mentions this last point almost in passing, but the plans and blueprints to build a tower into the heavens cannot be concealed. One wonders if he is aware of his own self-deception. Presumably, he had good intentions at the start, but the good of any desire can always be twisted to evil ends, especially if one has only a working and relative understanding of goodness. Filostrato himself thought he was a scientist only to find himself the basest kind of sorcerer. It is unclear whether Dr. Canavero is aware of his predilection for the supernatural, or whether any of his claims are sincere. One thing is clear, however: Dr. Canavero wishes to glimpse the “macrobes” and speak to the dead, and transplanting someone’s head is only an excuse.

Devin O'Donnell

Devin O'Donnell

​Devin O’Donnell lives on the foggy coasts of central California. He has served as an upper school administrator, has founded a classical academy, and has taught Latin and literature for over 10 years. He and his lovely wife have four adventurous children who love stories, the ocean, and good feasts. 

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