Three Views on the Meaning of Suffering

by Craig Nagoshi

During the Fall of 2005 and into the Spring of 2006 I participated in a series of discussions among Arizona State University faculty members from many disciplines on the meaning of suffering as it informs the conflict between scientific and religious worldviews.

These discussions and their associated readings were organized by Dr. Hava Tirosh-Samuelson of the ASU Department of History, and she selected the three books I will be discussing here, Eric Cassell’s The Nature of Suffering and the Goals of Medicine, Stanley Huerwas’ God, Medicine, and Suffering, and Steven Rose’s The Future of the Brain. The present essay is an expansion of a summary of my thoughts on these books that I handed out to the discussion group.

Suffering is a seemingly inescapable part of the human condition, and it doesn’t take much observation of life to realize the horrendous levels of suffering that can befall any of us at any time. Providing people with the means to cope with suffering is one of the flashpoints in the conflict of ideas between science and religion, with the former promising ever more effective technologies for physically eliminating suffering, the latter promising beliefs that provide meanings for enduring suffering and perhaps a final supernatural release from all suffering.

“Providing people with the means to cope with suffering is one of the flashpoints in the conflict of ideas between science and religion….”

All of the authors of the above books are challenging the long-held assumptions of their respective disciplines—medicine for Cassell, theology for Huerwas, and neuroscience for Rose—but each in their own way bases their criticisms on first attacking the mind-body dualism/interactionism, formalized by Rene Descartes, that is similarly taken for granted by most people in Western societies. This interactionism assumes a separation of a nonphysical, rational/mental, conscious, free-willed, spiritual realm from the physical, bodily, non-conscious, determined, material realm. With regard to suffering, such a dualism seems necessary, since suffering is not synonymous with “physical” pain. In many cases, it is the “meaninglessness” of some event—for example, the death of one’s young child focused on by both Cassell and Huerwas—that creates great suffering in someone who has not otherwise been directly physically harmed.

“Cassell argues that suffering and its counterpart, meaning, are expressions of the entire person and that personhood includes individual and collective mental and physical manifestations….”

For Cassell, medicine separates suffering from pain by relegating it to the realm of the mind, while arguing that the doctor should only be concerned about eliminating the pain emanating from the body. Cassell argues that suffering and its counterpart, meaning, are expressions of the entire person and that personhood includes individual and collective mental and physical manifestations, some unconscious, that emerge through the dynamic, interactive developmental trajectory of the person through life. In this view, mental and physical experiences are intimately intertwined and inseparable.

For Huerwas, modern theology, ironically influenced by Western rational philosophy and the achievements of science, separates God and spirituality from bodily existence, such that believers are taught to choose to believe in a spiritual meaning to justify and overcome their suffering. In yet another irony, Huerwas sees medicine operating from the same principle that, somehow, from the mental realm—in this case, through human intellect and technology—physical suffering can be overcome. He proposes that suffering comes from desire, which is inherent in bodily existence, but which can also be a choice that people can make about their existence. The highest desire one can choose is to believe in God, which creates the greatest suffering, because it creates the desire for meaning for all that happens in what may be an essentially meaningless physical existence. Nevertheless, the gift of God was to give humans this capacity not only to experience but to choose desires, which is the highest essence of being alive. It can be implied here that knowing God and, hence, having a meaning in life and in suffering are about simultaneously experiencing the process of life as intertwined physical hardship and spiritual transcendence.

“The highest desire one can choose is to believe in God, which creates the greatest suffering, because it creates the desire for meaning for all that happens in what may be an essentially meaningless physical existence.”

For Rose, modern science has also historically operated from a Western rationalist framework that assumes that the separate rational mind can objectively make sense of the physical world, in order to be able to understand, predict, and control it. His description of what the biological and psychological sciences have determined about the evolution of life, the evolution of the human nervous system, and the development of human cognitive/emotional function (as well as the development of science) argues that all of these natural phenomena can be understood as a dynamic, interactive developmental trajectory, where changes in the organism can only be understood in terms of the context of changes in other parts of the organism and the environment in which the organism is developing. Changes in the organism, in turn, not only produce changes in the contexts in which development occurs, but also change the ways that the organism will respond to future changes in the developmental context. He argues that the goal of all neural processing is meaning, which is driven by “feelings” in the context of the entire existence of the organism, not just information, and that consciousness and free will are emergent properties of an entire organism that has evolved the kind of neural physiology in a particular evolutionary context as humans have. Thus, a purely biological/physiological approach that does not take into account the meaning-making capacities of the human body is doomed to fail in its efforts to eliminate suffering.

“[Rose] argues that the goal of all neural processing is meaning, which is driven by ‘feelings’ in the context of the entire existence of the organism, not just information….”

In terms of an epistemology for understanding what Cassell, Huerwas, and Rose are trying to convey, as opposed to the top-down didacticism that is emphasized in Western rationalist thought, Cassell and Huerwas explicitly extol the virtues of the narrative, i.e., storytelling. While Rose doesn’t explicitly talk about narratives, his means of conveying the trajectories of evolutionary and organismic development was basically through telling stories. Unlike the Western dualist-rationalist didactic approach, which assumes that there is a reasonably objective truth which exists separate from the truth-giver and which is then passed on from the truth-giver to the learner through logic and empirical support, when a story conveys truth, it can only do so because of the relationship between the storyteller and the audience. That truth, in a lot of ways, only exists in that relationship. This is how Cassell argues a doctor needs to understand his patient, and his patient needs to understand medicine. Huerwas implicitly argues that theologians and Christians need to understand suffering in this way, with the implication that God should be understood as the ground within which the story of one’s existence as a living being proceeds. Cassell, Huerwas, and Rose all imply that the dualistic, interactionism-based, rationalistic approach limits what can be understood within each of their respective disciplines, as well as creating false hopes for what can be known in the future.

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