Dr. Gregory House, MD: Knight of Faith?
Primetime television drama was never meant to be a medium for the exploration of philosophical questions, yet such questions are central to some very popular current television programs. ABC’s Lost names nearly half of its characters after philosophers and explores questions of being, time, and ethics. NBC’s Heroes explores the interplay between ideals of vocation and duty, and FOX’s House, with the wit and, at times, wisdom of its titular protagonist, addresses the faith/reason dichotomy in practically every episode. Contrary to popular belief, philosophy seems to be quite a money maker for the television networks.
Unfortunately, in the case of House, in particular, the fact that philosophical questions are explored does not necessarily mean that they are explored well. House takes place at Princeton-Plainsboro Teaching Hospital within the Department of Diagnostics (which, as far as I know, is not an actual field of specialization in medicine). Its main character, Dr. Gregory House, played by British actor Hugh Laurie, is a crass, disabled, Vicodin-addicted, atheist, diagnostic genius who heads a team composed of some of the world’s best and brightest diagnosticians. The show revolves around House taking on medical cases he deems “cool” and generally being a nuisance to his coworkers.
In many episodes, House confronts religious patients, with whom he inevitably engages in arguments about the meaning of life, the reasonableness of God, and other perplexing religious/philosophical questions. House always takes the side opposite God and religion. Most of the arguments House and his patients make constitute no more than assertions and refutations of something along the lines of Thomas Aquinas’s five proofs for the existence of God. In other words, these arguments tend to be nothing new or original, and, for the most part, they are presented in such a way as to create a religious straw man for House to blow down. If this was as far as the theme of faith extended in the show, it would not have much to offer someone genuinely interested in exploring the perplexities of faith and reason. So, is the pop philosophy of House just a poor presentation of watered down old ideas, or can something more insightful be drawn from the show?
To be fair, the problem of faith in the series is far more complex than the show’s dialogue lets on. For example, in the episode “Damned if You Do,” the writers reveal that Dr. Robert Chase (Jesse Spencer), a member of House’s diagnostic team at the time, dropped out of seminary before going into medicine. Dr. Chase’s reasons for leaving the seminary, however, remain unclear. In another episode, “House vs. God,” House deduces that what ails a young faith healer is a case of herpes contracted through premarital sex. In “Unfaithful,” House meets a disillusioned Catholic priest who has been falsely accused of molesting a teenage parishioner and is able to explain every odd condition that he has experienced, except for a vision of Christ. Each of these episodes aired in a different season of the series and each offered the viewer a crisis of faith to contemplate. While the dialogue between House and his patients may present religion and faith as straw men, the series’s overall plot is characterized by an exploration of crises of faith.
The question thus be-comes whether House himself ever undergoes a crisis of faith or can even be considered a man of faith. Based on what House says alone, he cannot be understood to have faith. This is the conclusion drawn by Henry Jacoby, in his essay “Selfish, Base Animals Crawling across the Earth: House and the Meaning of Life.” Jacoby describes House as holding the attitude that religious faith is something that “might provide comfort and make us feel good” but that it is also impractical (7). House is someone who “doesn’t find religious belief—specifically an idea of the afterlife—all that comforting” (7). Faith makes us long for something unknown in the future while rejecting a knowable present. House is against faith because it cannot practically explain anything and does not provide him the same sort of comfort it provides his patients.
Jacoby’s conclusions are based on what House actually says on the show, and they are correct insofar as his analysis is limited to dialogue alone. However, by only focusing on House’s understanding of faith as a longing for the afterlife, Jacoby fails to recognize the complexities of faith that the show explores through House’s experiences.
The plotline of each episode of House, as I am sure regular viewers are aware, is fairly formulaic. Every episode can be, more or less, diagramed into seven basic plot points: (1) someone gets sick, (2) House thinks it is a minor sickness (this is not always the case), (3) the patient’s blood or some other bodily fluid comes out of the wrong orifice (this is almost always the case), (4) House is intrigued but does not seem to care about the actual well-being of the patient, (5) everyone on the diagnostic team brainstorms and comes up with nothing, (6) something completely unrelated makes House realize the true cause of the otherwise fatal sickness, and (7) everything works out.
The sixth point is of particular importance for understanding House’s character as more complex than his atheistic outer shell lets on. Reason and logic may eventually provide an explanation of what plagues House’s patients, but the solution is usually revealed only through a completely unrelated coincidence in his life. For instance, in the episode “Here Kitty,” a cat that is always attracted to people who are dying (whether or not they know it) sits on House’s laptop. House figures out that the cat is really only drawn to heat—not to death. This realization leads him to accurately diagnose a patient the cat had been attracted to with a tumor of the appendix. In another episode, “Skin Deep,” House correctly diagnoses a woman with a testicular tumor only after a male patient with excess levels of estrogen from a sympathy pregnancy leads House to deduce that the main patient is actually a “pseudohermaphrodite.”
If these sorts of things only occurred in an episode or two it would not be a big deal, but these types of coincidences happen in almost every episode. In essence, each episode of House incorporates a deus ex machina in the form of the inexplicable coincidence that solves a case. This inexplicable coincidence—and not science, reason, or logic—is the immediate cause of what eventually becomes the practical solution in nearly every episode.
While this inexplicable coincidence is never explicitly recognized or articulated by House, he subconsciously anticipates it. House is, after all, the best at what he does. He expects that somehow he will solve the case. In other words, he has faith that the unsolvable case will get solved, and insofar as the inexplicable coincidence is necessary for the case to get solved, he has faith that the inexplicable coincidence will occur. House’s faith is not a matter of longing for the afterlife (as Jacoby would define faith above) but of expecting the impossible in this life. He can be understood in the same way Kierkegaard’s Johannes de Silentio understands Abraham, and therefore the “knight of faith,” in Fear and Trembling: as a person with “faith for this life” (20). What makes this “knight of faith” so great and admirable is that which he expects: the impossible (16). Even though House may outwardly claim to follow only reason and logic, his diagnostic process is based on his faith in the inevitability of an unreasonable—because inexplicable—coincidence that will solve each case.
A recent episode of the program makes House’s own crisis of faith even more apparent. In the episode “Locked In,” Dr. Lawrence Kutner, a more recent addition to the diagnostic team discovers what is wrong with the patient that House’s team is treating. Instead of House having an inexplicable moment that solves the case, the case is not actually solved by House at all, which is uncharacteristic of the show in general. In the very next episode, “Simple Explanation,” Kutner commits suicide (Kal Penn, the actor who plays Kutner, left the show to accept a position in the Obama administration). House never figures out why. Here the writers are beginning to throw House into his own crisis of faith and make the faith for this life that drove his character earlier in the show more explicit. House expected the impossible; he expected to figure out why Dr. Kutner killed himself, and he never succeeded. As the show has progressed from this point, House still struggles with this loss of faith. He seems to be trying to come to terms with whatever caused this loss of faith, but he does not know who or what to blame. For a man so determined to be guided solely by reason and logic, to come to terms with the unknowable is utterly absurd.
The philosophical underpinnings of House are not as cut and dry as the dialogue lets on. In fact, when taken in its entirety, the show becomes rather dense and complex. It explores the perplexities of faith and reason without coming to any clear conclusions. This is, I believe, the best way to go about doing pop philosophy, which ought to be used as an extension of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave.” Give the masses a glimpse of the Ideas, create a longing for them, so that each may begin her own particular journey toward them. Pop philosophers should be in the business of raising questions rather than answering them.
Martin DeNicolo (VU 2007) is a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder where he studies normative political theory and comparative politics.
Jacoby, Henry. “Selfish, Base Animals Crawling Across the Earth: House and the Meaning of Life.” In House and Philosophy: Everybody Lies. Henry Jacoby, ed. Hoboken: John Wiley & Sons, 2009.Kierkegaard, Søren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Edna H. Hong and Howard V. Hong, trans. Princeton: Princeton University Press: 1983.