There is a story of a philosophy examination. One of the questions was simply, “Why?” The student who got the highest mark for their answer simply asked in response, “Why not?” It is the only answer that can be given in many cases, even though we should like to have a more definitive reply that made sense of our world, and spelled out reasons why things should have turned out as they have. Of course, science can give us some of the answers that we seek, but none of them will answer the very human question that we often seem compelled to ask, when we are seeking a reply that in some sense accords a meaning or purpose to what has taken place. The question is often qualified. Why has this happened to me? What did I do to deserve this? What purpose does my suffering serve? Is there nothing more than this that I can hope for?
Literary critics, studying tragedy, note that the suffering endured by the protagonist almost always is the result of some fatal flaw in the protagonist’s character. To oversimplify, Hamlet’s indecision, Macbeth’s lust for power, Othello’s jealousy and mistrust, Lear’s gullibility: these lead in each case to downfall and destruction. And so, of course, we can look at our own misfortunes, and sometimes we can see clear reasons why some particular misfortunes have befallen us, since we are none of us so perfect as to be free from faults that can harm us. Yet some things we do not in any sense “deserve,” as though there were some reason deep in the nature of things why a loved one should be suddenly stricken by cancer or other disease, why flood, storm, hail, tornado, earthquake or other disaster should have, quite by chance, destroyed the lives of loved ones, opportunities, wholeness or contentment. Shit happens! People fall sick and die. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, accidents, even stray bullets on an otherwise peaceful street can slice through the heart of a prosperous happy life and tear it to shreds from which we may never recover.
It is arguable, I think, that this leads us into a region of discourse where science is unable to help us with the most important questions, and yet where we need to be able to speak in ways that accord truth value to the things that we say. We may not want to call it knowledge, as such, if knowledge is restricted to factual statements about physical existence, and the laws of nature, but there is here a dimension of human understanding which not only demands attention, but has an equal claim with science to be addressed with care and method and a commitment to what is true. Call it the humanities, if you like, but it includes a richly diverse field of study and interest, including art and music, literature, philosophy (which includes a number of “meta” studies, like philosophy of science, art, logic, mathematics, etc.), and, in many of their incarnations, the social sciences, psychology and anthropology, and even things like textual studies, hermeneutics and, of course, religion too, as a demonstrably dysfunctional extension of humane studies. Historically, as departments of philosophy became mathematically or empirically rigorous, they hived off from philosophy and became specialties in their own right, but their competence is limited to that particular area. Scientists themselves should not pretend to omni-competence, because their meta-disciplines, as, for example, the philosophy of biology, are conceptual-logical disciplines in which active scientists do not have special competence, though clearly close familiarity with the specific sciences and their methods is essential to anyone who ventures to speak in a meaningful philosophical way about the science itself. Clearly, practitioners of a science have special access to materials crucial to the philosophical study of that science, even though they may lack the aptitude.
I venture this far because it seems to me important to accept as bearers of truth-claims many statements besides the true statements of the sciences, but also because it is important to make a distinction between the humanities (or humane studies), and religion, which is often a bastardised form of both science and humane studies, and by playing in this very contentious arena, religious “experts” very often fly under the radar. This is one reason why I think it is vital that scientists not muddy the waters by claiming that knowledge is exhaustively accounted for by the methods and propositions of science. In the first place, the claim itself is not a scientific, claiming as true at least one proposition which is not a scientific proposition, nor established by means of scientific methodology. But, in the second place, it leaves room, by default, for the religious to dismiss as scientific hubris the self-defeating claim that science is the sole repository of truth. It can then go on to stake a claim to be a different “way” of knowing than that offered by the sciences, when the truth is that the expression ‘way of knowing’ is itself undefined and liable to many forms of misuse.
Let me return, then, to the question, “Why?” Consider the question in relation to the massacre of children and their teachers at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. Why? Why did it happen? What reasons can we give for the senseless murder of children and those who cared for them? There are no doubt many reasons, and many have been suggested. Some fundamentalist preachers and politicians have suggested that the children and their teachers died because of God’s judgement upon America. This is the silliest answer so far given, but it received a great deal of attention. That in itself prompts a why question. Another reason suggested relates to the gun culture in the United States, and the easy availability of weapons. The rate of gun related death in the United States is the highest in high-income OECD countries. As an answer to the question “Why?” the accessibility of guns in the US has much to commend it, as at least a partial answer to why such massacres happen. Other answers can be given. Lack of attention to mental health in relation to accessibility of firearms could also be a contributing factor. It was, for instance, well-known in Newtown that Adam Lanza was a strange kid, a loner, and that his mother was a firearms enthusiast. That should have set someone’s alarm bells ringing, but apparently did not. Then, of course, there are psychological answers that might reasonably be thought relevant to the occurrence of the tragedy, though they are now inaccessible, unless autopsy of Lanza’s body showed some brain or nervous system pathology. There might be sociological answers as well, possibly related to Adam Lanza’s socialisation or failure of socialisation. Here, of course, I can only make guesses or suggestions. Lanza, it seems, was acknowledged to be a strange kid. He used a briefcase at high school. This in itself shows that he did not relate well to his age-mates. Were there endogenous reasons for his failure to relate well with others? Did someone in authority notice and fail to act? Or did they act, but were unable to meliorate Lanza’s alienation? Or were there other social factors, related to his home life, the divorce of his parents, his relationship with his mother (in particular), or lack of relationship with his father, that further isolated him from others?
I do not pretend to be able to answer these questions, but they are all questions that could be asked, and perhaps, in some cases, answered. Some of them clearly invite scientific investigation. And each question addresses the question “Why?” But then there are “deeper” questions that are no doubt being asked by many, but especially by those who lost loved ones in the shooting. Those who buried their children will be the most uncomprehending. Indeed, those who lose children often have grief that is irresolvable. One study showed that the death of a child contributed to “sub-clinical” states of depression which time did not heal, and which had a serious impact on health and well-being, stability of marriage, and enjoyment and sense of purpose in life:
The effect sizes for the contrasts of the bereaved and nonbereaved parents were generally small, which indicates that most bereaved parents were not experiencing clinical levels of symptoms or substantial disruption in midlife. Instead, the elevated depressive symptoms paired with somewhat poorer well-being and lower sense of life purpose suggested sub-clinical levels of distress. Furthermore, the fact that better functioning was not more likely with greater time since the death indicated that bereavement for a deceased child might contribute to persistent problems lasting over several decades for many parents.
This makes sense to me, especially, since losing my wife Elizabeth was also very much like losing a child, she having been so much younger than I. I have a continuing level of distress and the pain of loss that simply does not go away. It is always there in everything that I do, and small things can call it quickly to mind. My sense of purpose and enjoyment of life are very tenuous. The question “Why?” is often much more insistent, though I also know that there is no answer to it.
Not even a religious answer will do, and I suspect that is the case with most people who lose children, or loved ones much younger than they. It seems inconsistent with the order of things. As Elizabeth’s mother said, “Children are not supposed to die before their parents.” (When Elizabeth and I applied to be married in the church (a requirement at that time for a second marriage) great concern was expressed over the fact that it would be likely that Elizabeth would be a young widow, a concern which I saw in a very different light when it became obvious that Elizabeth would die before me. The cruel irony was hard to miss.) And whatever reasons you can give for their death is bound to be unsatisfactory. Saying that they have “gone home” or are “in a better place” are obviously trivialising. In my own experience, people who have lost children seek comfort in religion but seldom find it. That may make them seek comfort in religion that much more diligently, but their dissatisfaction remains. The answer for this is, I think, fairly simple. We do want our lives to make sense, to have had some overarching purpose or direction. Dennett’s idea that the self is the centre of narrative gravity implies a narrative shape. We do story our lives, and expect them not to be simply one damn thing after another (ODTAA, a novel by John Masefield). It is just a bit too easy to say that we can give our lives shape and purpose, for when bad things happen, and shadows fall, time is not always a healer, and our losses cannot always be resolved or shape and purpose revived. In such situations the search for answers, and desperate commitment to a religious answer, even if never quite satisfactory, makes perfect sense to some people. Indeed, the study just quoted remarks that bereaved parents tend to be more involved in religion than those who are not bereaved.
My own experience was different, because I had some time in which to explore the question of where I could find God in the sufferings that I was experiencing, and more especially in the suffering and pain that was in the process of taking over Elizabeth’s life. Soon after her diagnosis with Multiple Sclerosis I began studying the Holocaust, because, I thought, if I can find God in the midst of all that desperate suffering, I should be able to find God in the midst of my own life. Elizabeth in her journal wrote that she did not think, in the end, that I would be able to find God in the Holocaust, and so not in our own lives either. She was right, as she usually was. The problem of pain was simply too great to be comprehended by religious meaning, and despite the assurances of theologians, I remain of that opinion. Yet I still held onto shreds of religious meaning, by accepting religion as a cultural narrative in terms of which one could live one’s life, although the narrative itself was understood as mythical. This is generally the way religion is understood now in religious studies departments. However, this answer simply came unstuck during Elizabeth’s last year of life, when it was clear that the church could not employ the narrative in an entirely mythical way, because moral judgements were still based on the narrative itself as in some sense authoritative. In this sense, however, the authority of the narrative had to be more than cultural, and it was this fact, illustrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech to the House of Lords on the issue of assisted dying, that made it impossible for me to continue using religious myth as a vehicle for finding meaning and purpose in life. It also led me to the conclusion that the idea of religion as culturally expressed in a mythical narrative is all very well for the study of religion, but is not adequate to the internal significance of religion for the believer, since, as a believer, the myth must, at some points at least, be thought of in a realistic rather than a mythical way.
This was something that Elizabeth had realised long before me, in a journal that I did not read until after she had died. She said that she sometimes wished that there was an afterlife, so that she and I could be together again, since we would lose out on so much because of her early death (which by then she saw approaching very quickly). However, she said, she only had to think the thought in order to dismiss it as a reasonable or acceptable way of viewing things, because she would then, she said, have to think of her present suffering (which was very great) as having been visited upon her for a purpose, and that, in a longer view, her suffering, as well as suffering in general, could be seen as being a good. And that she was unwilling to acknowledge. In other words, the myth was all very well, but it was, taken as whole, unintelligible, for at some point it had to reach out to be descriptive of some reality, and it would have to reach out at just those points where the reality it proposed was intolerable. I think she was right. Religion must lead, in the end, to unacceptable conclusions, and therefore cannot be commended by those who are committed to reason. However, I bid the reader to notice that much that I say here is not scientific, and yet has, I believe, the virtue of being true (or at least reasonably to be thought to be true). I think it is time for those who think that all that is true is comprehended exhaustively by the propositions of science began to make some important distinctions, and began to recognise, as a vehicle for truth, what we might call (if the word ‘knowledge’ is reserved for the empirical or the tautological) understanding, which includes what we come to know about the nature of our humanity and our emotions and feelings through art, literature, philosophy, music, history and other vehicles of personal experience and more general human understanding commonly included in what are generally known as the humanities.
Note. The springboard for the above, though in the end I had no occasion to cite it directly, is to be found in Gordon Lightfoot’s HuffPo piece entitled “God and Grief.”