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.

Gabriel Rockhill On Never Dying

Over at the New York Times’ The Stone, in ‘Why We Never DieGabriel Rockhill writes:

Our existence has numerous dimensions, and they each live according to different times. The biological stratum…is in certain ways a long process of demise — we are all dying all the time, just at different rhythms. Far from being an ultimate horizon beyond the bend, death is a constitutive feature of the unfolding of biological life….I am confronting my death each day that I live.

Moreover, the physical dimension of existence clearly persists beyond any biological threshold, as the material components of our bodies mix and mingle in different ways with the cosmos. The artifacts that we have produced also persevere, which can range from our physical imprint on the world to objects we have made or writings like this one. There is, as well, a psychosocial dimension that survives our biological withdrawal, which is visible in the impact that we have had…on all of the people around us. In living, we trace a wake in the world.

[O]ur physical, artifactual and psychosocial lives….intertwine and merge with the broader world out of which we are woven….Authentic existence is perhaps less about boldly confronting the inevitable reality of our own finitude than about recognizing and cultivating the multiple dimensions of our lives….They carry on in the physical world, in the material and cultural vestiges we leave, as well as in the psychological and social effects we have on those around us.

I’m fond of saying that my parents ‘live on,’ that they are ‘still alive to me.’ By this I do not mean that my parents are biologically manifest in this world. Nor am I ‘merely’ speaking metaphorically; rather, I think I’m deploying ‘alive,’ and ‘live’ in ways that are sensitive to the multiple meanings and dimensions of our existence that Rockhill is alluding to. One way in which I understood this dimension is based on a experience I had during my boarding school years. In those days, I missed my mother terribly; I was away from home for nine months. One day, while walking through campus, I looked up to see one of the glorious sunsets that my campus’ mountainous location facilitated; as I admired the exquisite display put on my for enjoyment, I suddenly felt comforted by the fact that the same sun shone down on my mother, hundreds of miles away at my home. At that moment, the physical distance between the two of us felt insignificant; my mother was not ‘biologically’ or ‘physically’ present, but she was present in other ways. In memory, in thought, in a placement in my life that could only be described by the word ‘presence.’ She was no longer a ghost without substance. That perception of her presence in my life has not changed with her death: she influences my actions and thoughts; she informs my various decisions, moral and political; she serves as inspiration and moral guidepost. Her letters to my father, the books she read; these continue to inform me of who she was and the life she lived. My memories of her animate my relationships with my wife and my daughter; they provide me guidance in those vital spheres. My evaluative sense of myself is often based in large part on reconciling her perceptions of me with my perceptions of myself. I could, with little difficulty, make similar assessments of the presence of my father in my life.

My parents are not non-existent; they are biologically dead, but they are not ‘artifactually’ or ‘psychosocially’ so.

Reflections on Translations-VI: The Advantages to Philosophy

Over at The New York Times‘ The Stone, Hamid Dabashi writes:

Though it is common to lament the shortcomings of reading an important work in any language other than the original and of the “impossibility” of translation, I am convinced that works of philosophy…in fact gain far more than they lose in translation.

Consider Heidegger. Had it not been for his French translators and commentators, German philosophy of his time would have remained an obscure metaphysical thicket.  And it was not until Derrida’s own take on Heidegger found an English readership in the United States and Britain that the whole Heidegger-Derridian undermining of metaphysics began to shake the foundations of the Greek philosophical heritage. One can in fact argue that much of contemporary Continental philosophy originates in German with significant French and Italian glosses before it is globalized in the dominant American English and assumes a whole new global readership and reality. This has nothing to do with the philosophical wherewithal of German, French or English. It is entirely a function of the imperial power and reach of one language as opposed to others.

Dabashi does not really address what might be termed the ‘linguistic problem’ of translation–the difficulties of rendering sensible specialized technical terms for instance–which often leads to the ‘impossibility’ that he notes. Rather, his concern is with translation as a means for improving access to a philosophical work. And in this dimension, he is certainly on to something. (There has been, for some time now, a possibly apocryphal story making the rounds in philosophy departments, that when the first English translations of Kant appeared, an entire generation of German scholars took up English classes so that they could read Kant in translation–the original German was too obtuse for even native speakers.)

One aspect of this improved access that Dabashi does not touch on is that a greater readership achieved via a successful translation can prompt greater study of the text in the original language. A classic example of this is Nietzsche scholarship. Many students who read him find his prose stylings visible even in translation; they are then told by those fluent in German that his style is even more prominent and pronounced in German; they often decide to learn German to find out for themselves just what the fuss is about. (I have recently come into possession of German-language edition of Nietzsche’s collected works, and my resolve to resume my education in German, interrupted many years ago, has now been considerably strengthened.)

And many serious students of a philosopher will learn a foreign language just so that they can deepen their understanding of the material and try to settle disputes in interpretation for themselves. Their access to their philosopher of interest began, of course, with a translation.

Dabashi’s point about translation giving more than it takes works best, I think, in these kinds of cases–when it sends readers back to the original. His point is compatible with an entirely plausible alternative development: that the translations take on a life of their own, and lend themselves to interpretations and applications not possible with the original, thus becoming an entirely new philosophical work.

Such a development is not to be bemoaned; the student of philosophy now has more to play with.

Ethnocentricity, Moral Beliefs and Moral Truth

Adam Etinson writes in The Stone on ethnocentrism (defined as ‘our culture’s tendency to twist our judgment in favor of homegrown beliefs and practices and against foreign alternatives’), skepticism about universal morality and the existence of moral facts as  a response to it, and finally, on whether such skepticism is warranted. To wit, concern about ethnocentrism in the domain of morality finds its grounding in universally acknowledged datum: that disagreements are extensive, intractable (and disagreeable), that ‘culture and upbringing’ play a significant role in such clashes. Is moral relativism or skepticism about the existence of objective moral facts an appropriate response?

Etinson thinks not:

For one, however obvious it may be that culture plays an important role in our moral education, it is nevertheless very hard to prove that our moral beliefs are entirely determined by our culture, or to rule out the possibility that cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts….Second, moral relativism, for its part, seems like an odd and unwarranted response to ethnocentrism. For it’s not at all clear why the influence of culture on our moral beliefs should be taken as evidence that cultures influence the moral truth itself  — so that, for instance, child sacrifice would be morally permissible in any community with enough members that believe it to be so. Not only does that conclusion seem unmotivated by the phenomenon under discussion, it would also paradoxically convert ethnocentrism into a kind of virtue (since assimilating the views of one’s culture would be a way of tapping into the moral truth), which is at odds with the generally pejorative understanding of the term.

These are curious responses to make.

The first is made in the face of the acknowledged data (about disagreement over moral beliefs and the existence of cultural variance in moral practices). If ‘cultures themselves take some direction from objective moral facts’ then surely there should be greater agreement over our moral beliefs? Perhaps Etinson takes our existing moral agreements to be the evidence of such influence, no matter how attenuated?

The second response, contra moral relativism, assumes that there is a ‘moral truth’ out there, one influenced by cultures. But the skepticism about moral facts that goes by the name of ‘moral relativism’ is not committed to any such truth; it takes all its cues from its claim that the empirical particulars of cultures generate moral beliefs, which vary by time and place. That kind of relativism does not think that a ‘moral truth’ is the product of a culture’s influences; rather, the culture merely generates a set of permissible actions. There is no commitment here to the notion of a moral truth that would be made accessible by ‘assimilating the views of one’s culture’; rather one brings oneself into line with one’s culture and what it deems permissible by assimilating its views. (Note that Etinson himself, in writing of ‘moral truth’ in connection with moral relativism adds the caveat, ‘for any given people.’) This would ensure that ethnocentrism retains its non-virtuous standing, a concern important to Etinson, for presumably it leaves open the possibility that these sets of permissible actions could remain the subject of moral critique.  But having made this concession, a further question is almost immediately prompted: isn’t the assumption of objective moral truth and facts our primary, if not sole, reason for imagining ethnocentrism to be non-virtuous in the domain of morality? If so, then is Etinson’s skepticism about moral relativism warranted?