Science And The Provision Of Existential Comfort

Stephen Asma offers a well-worn and reasonable defense of religious belief in The Stone–but ironically enough, in a plea for more tolerance, strikes a rather dogmatic note himself. The defense of religious belief and ritual is a familiar one: religion may be an opiate but it is an effective painkiller as a result. Asma offers us a story of a bereaved student and his family to illustrate the kind of tragic personal situation whose attendant pain can be palliated by religion:

Five years ago, he explained, his older teenage brother had been brutally stabbed to death, viciously attacked and mutilated….My student, his mother and his sister were shattered. His mother…would have been institutionalized if not for the fact that she expected to see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife….These bolstering beliefs, along with the church rituals she engaged in after her son’s murder, dragged her back from the brink of debilitating sorrow….

Asma goes on:

[R]eligion can provide direct access to this emotional life in ways that science does not. Yes, science can give us emotional feelings of wonder at the majesty of nature, but there are many forms of human suffering that are beyond the reach of any scientific alleviation….Different emotional stresses require different kinds of rescue….we need religion because it is a road-tested form of emotional management….No amount of scientific explanation or sociopolitical theorizing is going to console the mother of the stabbed boy…..the magical thinking that she is going to see her murdered son again, along with the hugs from and songs with fellow parishioners, can sustain her….we can see why religion persists.

The italicized sections above are in tension with the overall tenor of Asma’s claims: they insist, seemingly as a matter of principle, of conceptual definition, that ‘scientific alleviation’ and ‘scientific explanation’ can provide no consoling, no comfort, whatsoever, in the face of this world’s relentless capacity to dish out inexplicable suffering to humans. But how can Asma claim, in the face of the diversity of the human condition, that scientific claims will provide no comfort at all to the afflicted, the bereaved, the suffering? Sometimes understanding the workings of disease may calm a terminally ill patient and those who love them; understanding the physical composition of the body and its relationship with the world of material forces may comfort both those who die and those who grieve for them; sometimes understanding the molecular basis of bodily pathology may ease the feeling of having being struck down by a malevolent curse. We need religion and science both to accommodate the diversity of the human condition; the knowledge science provides may too repel, in part, that terrible anxiety which underwrites our deepest fears.

Asma is right to try to make room for religion; but the catholic attitude he is calling for requires him to be open-minded about the role that science and scientific knowledge can play in providing humans existential and spiritual comfort. Not exclusively, of course. We are many; so are our solutions.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.