Having Some Faith in the Grey Matter
Saturday, the brilliant new novel from Ian McEwan – one of Britain’s most significant writers – is the account of one day in the life of Henry Perowne, a neurosurgeon. He loves his work, is happily married, and has good relationships with his two grown up children – but he worries about the state of the world.
It is the day of the anti-war march in February 2003. Henry wakes in the early hours and, as he gazes out of his bedroom window, he sees a burning aircraft heading into Heathrow. Since this is only two years after 9/11 and with war in Iraq imminent, he immediately jumps to the conclusion that terrorists are responsible.
Henry reflects on what religious impulses which might be involved – a terrorist motivated by faith and passengers praying. He cannot get his head around belief in the supernatural: “From it there springs, alongside the unreason and slaughter, decent people and good deeds.” He sees it as a “problem of reference” – a belief that has no basis in reality.
Henry is an expert on brains, but he’s intrigued about what goes on inside them. What is the connection between our kilogram or so of grey matter and our “experiences, memories, dreams and intentions”? Henry is certain that one day it will all be explained scientifically – it’s “the only kind of faith he has”. The assumption seems to be that when we understand how the brain works, we’ll be able to explain all human behaviour. Then we’ll be able to do away with irrational belief in the supernatural.
Henry also assumes that scientific knowledge is the best sort of knowledge, perhaps the only real knowledge. But why should he think that? He has a sense of superiority because he can look at people in this rationalist way. But by his own line of reasoning, he is predisposed to think that way, just as some people seem predisposed to have a spiritual outlook. So how can he possibly know that what he thinks is true?
Henry needs to ask himself how he can be sure that scientific knowledge is best. Can he prove it scientifically? No – it’s not a scientific statement, but a statement of faith. And if he is so sure of it, why does he value all the interactions of family life, friendships, sport, music, and his daughter’s poetry? It’s all got very little to do with science. Henry’s life is, in fact, built on faith, just as much as the religious people he so disdains.
Book title: Saturday
Author: Ian McEwan
Publisher: Jonathan Cape
Publication Date: 7 February 2005
© 2005 Tony Watkins