Weighing Death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Quotable

If you ask philosophers "What is the nature of consciousness?" a range of very different answers will come back. There is no agreed theory. However, two views in particular receive a regular hearing among reductive physicalists (those who hold the view that the mind is reducible to physics and chemistry alone). One is that brain science can access consciousness and explain it entirely. Another is that consciousness is illusory. Both views ultimately believe that consciousness is synonymous with brain activity. In other words, consciousness is the brain.

Let's consider the first view. Is it true that scientific methods can access and explain consciousness? One front cover of New Scientist in 2016 was entitled "The Metaphysics Issue: How science answers philosophy's deepest questions". Some of those questions included "Why does anything exist?" , "Can I know if God is real?", "What is time?" , and "What is consciousness?" It was an ambitious title, implying that scientists are able to parachute in and answer questions that have long stumped the finest minds in philosophy. In reality, scientists face an impasse in terms of accessing consciousness itself. Yes, using fMRI [functional magnetic resonance imaging] we can see and measure brain activity as various thoughts happen. But this is a far cry from seeing someone's actual thoughts. How can a scientist access someone else's inner life? How can scientific methods access qualia [what something is like]?

Imagine a friend returns from a concert and is raving to you about it. The warm-up gig, the atmosphere, the lights, the crowds and their favourite songs all feature. Intrigued, you go away and read the reviews. These reviews capture some details, but not what it would have been like for you to be there and experience it yourself. You would have had to be there yourself to really understand.

When scientists study consciousness, they can only approach it as an observer, similar to reading reviews. But consciousness is experiential. In the end, your friend who went to the concert, after enthusing about it for 20 minutes, might notice your raised eyebrows and say, "I guess you had to be there". The scientific method offers third-person observations, whereas conscious experience is encountered in the first-person. We can find out what's in someone's brain by measuring chemicals and electrical activity and recording MRIs, but we can't measure what's in their mind in the same way. To find out what's in their mind we need to ask the person to share their inner world with us. Scientists may help us understand certain aspects and states of consciousness, but they cannot get inside someone's head and recreate their actual experience. They cannot access conscious experience itself.

David Chalmers, Professor of Philosophy at the Australian National University, makes a distinction between the "easy" and "hard" problems of consciousness. Easy problems are concerned with explaining some of the correlations between conscious experience and brain activity. For example, scientists may look at the areas of the brain involved when consciousness changes from one state to another, such as from wakefulness to sleep. The "easy" problems are by no means easy. Many lifetimes of research are being taken up by these quests. Yet, compared with the "hard" problem they are trivial.

The "hard" problem involves accounting for conscious experience. How do you get from brain cells firing to "what it is like to be you”? Baroness Susan Greenfield, Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford, gave a lecture at the University of Melbourne in 2012, on "The Neuroscience of Consciousness". A lecture with this title has a "reveal all" tone to it. People show up and tune in wondering if the "hard problem" has finally been cracked. It was an engaging and brilliant lecture all in all, yet from the very beginning Professor Greenfield made her intentions clear:

I should perhaps say from the outset, what we are not going to be able to do is work out how the water is turned into wine. How does the water of boring old brain cells and sludgy stuff translate into the wine of phenomenological subjective experience.

The lecture would be confined to "easy" problems because, true to form, the hard problem remains exactly that: hard. Chalmers himself does not believe that brain science will solve the hard problem.

— Sharon Dirckx, Am I Just My Brain? (The Good Book Company, 2019), 44-47. (paperback; ebook)


Weighing Death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer

by Marybeth Baggett

The opening scene of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s “The Body” episode is as unforgettable as it is heart-wrenching. Bright colors dominate the shot as Buffy, clad in a vivid red sweater, comes home to find inside the door a beautiful flower arrangement that her mother Joyce received from a recent date. “Still a couple of guys getting it right,” Buffy quips as she calls out to her mother, offering to pick up her sister from school. But this cheery scene quickly gives way to horror as Buffy finds Joyce’s body lifeless on the couch, victim of a fatal aneurysm.

Frantic, Buffy tries everything she knows to rouse Joyce—shaking her, yelling, and eventually performing CPR with the guidance of the 911 operator. All to no avail. Her mother remains limp, agonizingly non-responsive.

The surreal scenario described is emotional enough. Add in the stark contrast between Buffy’s flurry of activity and Joyce’s immobility, and the effect is jarring. Buffy moves from room to room, couch to phone and back again, her arms and legs and whole being intent to set right what has gone dreadfully wrong. All the while, the camera lingers on Joyce’s body—her eyes open, her face expressionless, her limbs splayed inelegantly out.

It may go without saying, but “The Body” is not the usual campy fare of Joss Whedon’s trailblazing comedy-action series from the late 1990s. Death was nothing new to the show, of course. How could it be with “slayer” right there in the title? In fact, death was arguably the supernatural thriller’s stock-in-trade, as Buffy and her “Scooby gang” of loyal friends regularly fought the undead. They risked life and limb nearly daily to save the school and town from the “forces of darkness”—vampires, demons, and even ghosts and ghouls. But “The Body” was the first time death came this close and was made so personal. It was also the first time death became utterly unimaginable and unmanageable.

Over the course of the five seasons that led up to “The Body,” viewers had been delighted by Buffy’s preternatural physical prowess, Giles’ staid demeanor in the face of danger, Willow’s winsomely nerdy research and computer skills, and Xander’s goofily charming and disarming humor. These characters may have faced countless dire circumstances, but they always knew just how to handle them—and did so joyfully, with plenty of verve and style to boot. Given that their hometown of Sunnydale rests atop a “hellmouth,” the friends have had more than their share of challenges—usually on an apocalpytic scale, such as when they stopped the ancient, powerful vampire Master from initiating the catastrophic Harvest; or thwarted the demonic Ascension of Mayor Wilkins; or defeated countless other Big Bads threatening to tear apart the fabric of reality and make high school even more hellish than it already is. Whatever the danger, Buffy and her friends invariably charged in, dealt with the situation, and always—always—overcame. “The Body” is the first time we see their powers rendered impotent to remedy the situation.

Instead, the gang is downright bewildered by Joyce’s death, their ability to process and come to terms with it stymied. Death, the ultimate thief, simply does not compute, particularly not the death of one so young. Despite Joyce’s recent bout with a brain tumor, for example, Buffy insists to the EMTs that the surgery has taken care of all that—“She’s fine now,” Buffy repeats, but somehow without conviction. Over the course of the episode, viewers see her replay fantasies of arriving home earlier, rescuing her mother when the emergency hits, and clutching her in the nick of time from the jaws of her ignoble fate. However, even if Buffy had gotten there before the attack, the doctor makes clear that her mother’s death was inevitable.

Willow, too, struggles in her own distinctive way. Unable to rectify the situation, she longs to console her friend but knows that there is little comfort she can offer, a sober truth reflected in her earnest attempts to find the perfect outfit to wear to the hospital. It’s a sweet but ultimately absurd attempt to mitigate the agony of Joyce’s loss. Xander, too, finds his characteristic humor woefully inadequate to the situation, so he seeks someone, anyone, to blame for the death: perhaps it was Glory (the supernatural villain of season 5), or the doctors who should have anticipated the problem. But when Xander exhausts his list of possible culprits, he is left with only rage, punching the wall and bloodying his fist in the process.

Anya, as a demon-turned-human, is new to the experience of death. She plays the child in response, which further unsettles the friends. She naively asks foolish and taboo questions about whether they would see Joyce’s body and whether her body would be cut open. When Willow lashes out, begging her to stop asking such questions, Anya articulates the confusion and dismay felt by the others, including the viewers: “I don’t understand how this all happened. I mean, I knew her, and then she. . . there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she just can’t get back in it and not be dead anymore. It’s stupid. It’s mortal and stupid. And Xander’s crying and not talking, and I was having fruit punch, and I thought, well Joyce will never have any more fruit punch ever. And she’ll never have eggs or yawn or brush her hair, not ever. And no one will explain to me why.”

In scenes like these, and many others, “The Body” forces viewers to feel the simple awfulness of death. Such is Whedon’s goal, as he explains in the DVD commentary. Having lost his own mother suddenly when he was just 27, Whedon hoped for a more honest portrayal of death than is often shown on TV: “My experience with death is that apart from a lot of people hugging at funerals, it seldom brings people together. It actually tears them apart. And I had always learned from TV that death made everybody stronger and better and learn about themselves. And my experience was that an important piece had been taken out of the puzzle.”[1]

By contrast, all throughout “The Body,” viewers must sit with the brute and brutal fact of death and let it weigh on us. The episode provides very little relief. “The Body” is devoid of the show’s characteristic hip music; instead, painful silence casts a pall over the whole episode. Rather than the signature whimsy between friends, they interact only awkwardly. There are no answers, none offered or even allowed. Instead, the show complexifies the questions and emphasizes their tragic implications and intractable nature. Such as in the final scene, when Buffy’s sister Dawn sees her mother’s body one last time in the morgue. She experiences the tension of knowing that the body laying on the slab both is and is not her mother. “She is gone,” Buffy reassures her; “[i]t’s not her.” But if that’s so, Dawn asks genuinely, then “[w]here’d she go?” It’s a question that, fittingly, yields no response as the screen turns black and the credits roll.

Christians may find this scenario uncomfortable. Death has been defeated, after all, and we have a great hope—the great hope—in Christ’s resurrection. And of course that is so. We can point to scripture after scripture extolling that truth, and they are great comfort when death rears its ugly head and wields its horrific power. Christians surely do not mourn as those without hope (I Thess. 4:13). Still, we might ask ourselves if talk of the resurrection is sometimes deployed too quickly or cavalierly, less as comfort in the face of death and more in order to avoid facing the ugliness and brokenness of death. And if so, do we risk minimizing both death’s devastating sting and, by extension, the glorious promise of the resurrection?

To Whedon and the cast’s credit, they viscerally convey death’s atrocity and call us to ponder death’s gravity. In this way, “The Body” is a powerful and poignant fictional reminder of just how terrible is this last great enemy of humanity (I Cor. 15:26). Such a sober-minded view of death—one that truly acknowledges how dreadful it is, how far beyond human capacities to subdue, how irremediably awful it truly is—can reawaken our imaginations to the beautiful mystery of the resurrection’s promise to vanquish this final foe, once and for all, and brace our hearts as we await creation’s final redemption. 

Both John Henry Newman and Søren Kierkegaard warned Christians not to settle for religious jargon but to strive to understand its fundamental theological import. Rather than offering a sanguine retort to Dawn’s final question, one that conveys too light a view of death, Christians are not only permitted but are also encouraged to existentially feel the appalling force of death—the utter helplessness of human beings relying on their own resources in the face of it, the appearance it projects of all hope being lost. And through that lens, we may better understand and appreciate the wonder and power of the resurrection and of the God who is making all things new.

Notes

[1] Whedon, Joss. DVD Commentary on “The Body.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer: The Complete Fifth Season. 20th Century Fox, 2008. DVD.

Marybeth Baggett is professor of English at Liberty University and serves as associate editor for MoralApologetics.com. She earned her PhD in Literature and Criticism from Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and—along with her husband—recently published The Morals of the Story: Good News about a Good God (IVP Academic, 2018).


Book Highlights

*Unless otherwise noted, descriptions are those provided by the publisher, sometimes edited for brevity.

Modern research is uncovering more and more detail of what our brain is and how it works. We are living, thinking creatures who carry around with us an amazing organic supercomputer in our heads.

But what is the relationship between our brains and our minds—and ultimately our sense of identity as a person? Are we more than machines? Is free-will an illusion? Do we have a soul?

Brain Imaging Scientist Sharon Dirckx lays out the current understanding of who we are from biologists, philosophers, theologians and psychologists, and points towards a bigger picture that suggests answers to the fundamental questions of our existence. Not just "What am I?", but "Who am I?"—and "Why am I?"

Read this book to gain valuable insight into what modern research is telling us about ourselves, or to give a skeptical friend to challenge the idea that we are merely material beings living in a material world.

Contents

    Introduction

    1. Am I just my brain?

    2. Is belief in the soul out of date?

    3. Are we just machines

    4. Are we more than machines?

    5. Is free will an illusion?

    6. Are we hard-wired to believe?

    7. Is religious experience just brain activity?

    8. Why can I think?

“Dr Dirckx is well qualified to investigate the question that forms the title of her book. She illuminates the widespread reductionist notion that the brain and the mind are the same and shows that it depends more on a presupposed naturalist or materialist philosophy, than it does on actual science. The author introduces us to the intriguing yet difficult problems of the nature of consciousness, free will and determinism and convincingly demonstrates that naturalism does not have the explanatory power that the Christian worldview possesses. This book is for the open minded, and will enrich the reader whatever their worldview. I wholeheartedly recommend it.”

Dr. John Lennox, Emeritus Professor of Mathematics, University of Oxford

Sharon Dirckx has a PhD in Brain Imaging from the University of Cambridge and is currently a Senior Tutor at the Oxford Centre for Christian Apologetics.

Find Am I Just My Brain? at Amazon (paperback; ebook), The Good Book Company, and other major booksellers.


*One of the foundational pillars of a Christian worldview is morality, which Christians derive from the Old and New Testaments.  But it can be challenging figuring out how instructions given in biblical times apply to Christians today.  There are everyday issues we’re confronted with, like questions about sexual morality, divorce, and alcohol and drugs.  And then there are issues that skeptics raise objections about such as slavery, homosexuality, and the Bible’s view of women. 

New Testament scholar David Instone-Brewer has written Moral Questions of the Bible which helpfully treats each of these moral issues, and many others, and we encourage you to check it out for helpful guidance on these challenging subjects.  Drawing on his expertise in the cultural and historical backgrounds of Scripture, he helps readers uncover the unchanging biblical principles that speak to today’s moral questions.

“Does the Bible condone slavery? The subjugation of women? The execution of homosexuals? Readers approaching the Bible with twenty-first-century eyes are often puzzled, confused, and even appalled at what they read. Can this really be God’s unchanging word? As a leading authority on the Jewish and Greco-Roman background of the Bible, David Instone-Brewer is an ideal guide for addressing moral and ethical questions related to the application of Scripture. By examining these texts within their unique cultural contexts, Instone-Brewer shows not only that the biblical commands represent a major ethical advance on the cultures of their day, but also that they reflect the encultured revelation of a just and loving God.”

Mark L. Strauss, University Professor of New Testament, Bethel Seminary

The Rev. Dr. David Instone-Brewer is a research fellow at Tyndale House, a research library in biblical studies located in Cambridge, England. He previously served as a Baptist minister. His books include Divorce and Remarriage in the Bible, Divorce and Remarriage in the Church, and Traditions of the Rabbis from the Era of the New Testament.

Find Moral Questions of the Bible at Lexham Press, Amazon, and other major booksellers.

* This is a sponsored post.


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