Paul Kalanithi probed the mind and the brain. When Breath Becomes Air portrays his search for meaning, a sum of life. Through literature, philosophy, and neurology, his tale represents some of the best interdisciplinary work I have read. His keen awareness of himself, others, and his environment permits him to weave philosophical, literary, and medical theory into a coherent narrative. His clear, lucid writing style pricks cerebral and emotional faculties. His topic attracts us all.
Between biology and philosophy yawns a chasm. Never mind philosophy of biology or some mixture of the two. Kalanithi’s work seeks a grand unified theory; it reconnoiters a common crevasse that each discipline claims for itself yet hardly manages to penetrate. Clinicians with their cadavers and philosophers with their phenomenology each aim to delineate and demarcate. Each miscalculate in their own idiosyncratic ways if one assumes that their audiences lie beyond the confines of their own cloistered cadres. And they do. Meaning does not accrue only to the initiated. It confounds specialists by flowing through fissures they (we) consider carefully closed, sealed. To be fair, it bewilders and mystifies most everyone. Yet, each of us returns to the abyss at some point–for pay or no–and when we turn away can only remark that it is there, waiting, if only we had the right mental and physical equipment to explore it fully.
Perhaps glimpsing his own mortality made Kalanithi finally corral and compose his thoughts. We may fairly argue that he lacked time to finish, to complete his search for meaning through practicing medicine, reflecting on literature, and examining his lived experience.
Or, we might conclude that he found what he sought. He pushes me and countless others who have and will encounter his work (I, in particular, will assign his writing to my students aspiring to be physicians) to explore the interplay between corporeal clusters of neurons and mental musings. My metaphor, then, is all wrong. There is no fixed, physical fissure. There are only integrated circuits, much like those we make in our own descendants: machines and artificial agents. Through them, perhaps, we will better comprehend ourselves.