In Tragedy And Suffering: When Science Loses Its Appeal

Science doesn't have all of the answers in the face of suffering on the scale seen in Japanese cities such as Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture. i

Science doesn't have all of the answers in the face of suffering on the scale seen in Japanese cities such as Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture. Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images
Science doesn't have all of the answers in the face of suffering on the scale seen in Japanese cities such as Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture.

Science doesn't have all of the answers in the face of suffering on the scale seen in Japanese cities such as Rikuzentakata in Iwate prefecture.

Yomiuri Shimbun/AFP/Getty Images

I was just nine years old and already sure I wanted to be an astronomer when my brother died. He and two other teenagers were killed suddenly when a drunk driver swerved across the median and hit their car. I was too young to understand much that my family was going through in the aftermath of the accident. But in the midst of the grief and the loss I found some relief in thoughts of the distant stars and the clockwork regularity of the planets turning in the orbits.

I am not the first person for whom science and its larger perspective of the cosmos served as a kind of foil to the chaos and suffering the world presents. I will not be the last. But this perspective has its limits, especially to those whose immediate suffering is so vast, it renders science's framework for explanation meaningless.

On Saturday, I posted a NOAA simulation tracking the tsunami's path across the Pacific. It is a stunning piece of work revealing the planet and its continents akin to a giant pond into which a huge stone had been dropped. In response one of 13.7's regular commenters, Pete J of Australia, wrote:

"From our perspective, first we had flooding rains that stopped a whole state half the size of the continental US, then we had a couple of cyclones that wiped out thousands of homes and businesses, throw in a few massive bush fires and then the earthquake in NZ, and just as we are all mentally recovering along comes the tragic Japanese earthquake and tsunami.

"It is a very sad day for the Asia pacific nations, it has been a very sad opening to 2011.

"Somehow the science of it all has suddenly lost its appeal.

"Sorry."

I was deeply struck by Pete's reaction. One of the comforts of science's vision is an understanding that the world has its own path. The cosmos and the planet have their own movements whose focus does not rest with us. Those movements can include the path of storm clouds, whether we pray for rain or not. They can also include the abrupt tear of tectonic plates slipping 400 meters to release energies we can scarcely imagine. But there is also a moment when no sense of wider perspective or enlarged vision will help. As Pete J so eloquently put it "Somehow the science of it all has suddenly lost its appeal."

Science gives us so much. It is the engine of our capacities, forging tools like the life-saving technological capacity to predict tsunamis. It is also the lens of our greatest aspiration, yielding broad narratives of cosmic and planetary evolution that set our personal stories in context.

But at some point we crash up against domains where science, or at least science alone, cannot help. In those moments, when we are numb with the immediacy of great suffering, explanations can become clay on the tongue. In that shattered place, our other human talents often find their place. In poem or paean, in music or metaphor, in silent homage to whatever powers make sense to the heart in that moment, we may (or may not) find our way.

What those moments teach is that all existence is, for us, provisional. They show that we are as much creatures of experienced feeling as we are of rational thinking. They show us the full range of what it means to be human, all too human, in a world alive with tremendous power, unspeakable beauty and, sometimes, shattering terror.

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