Replace with Synonym, Put in Italics

Jerry Coyne and Andrew Sullivan are having a conversation about suffering and religion.

Jerry Coyne writes:

Humans do not have a unique capacity to “rise above suffering.” Every animal rises above suffering. It has to, if it is to live and leave offspring. It’s ADAPTIVE to be resilient!

Andrew responds:

One feels as if one is talking past someone.

Yes, resilience is obviously built into our genetics, but my point was the unique ability to transcend suffering, not just endure it.

Replacing a word with another word isn’t an argument. I don’t know why religious people think this is true (it’s probably one of those transcendent things). But if I were to interpret Andrew’s response, perhaps thinking too deeply about what he was even trying to say, I would respond this way:

In my humble experience, humans respond to suffering in two ways. They either forget their suffering (or more precisely, the reality of the suffering becomes duller over time) or they consciously (or unconsciously) avoid things or thoughts that they know cause suffering. Contrary to pop psychology, consciously recalling traumatic events in order to “deal with them” is incredibly damaging. That’s why PTSD is so insidious. Soldiers with PTSD can’t bring themselves to forget the extreme suffering they went through in the war zone. Their brains won’t let them forget. And that’s some of the most profound suffering I can imagine. I wish Andrew would give an example of someone ‘transcending suffering’ to better know what he meant. The only example he did give (getting over the pain caused by a close friend’s death) is (even if tragic) really not valid. As Coyne notes, and Andrew helpfully ignores, atheists experience the same exact phenomena in response to the death of a loved one. What Coyne doesn’t say, but I think he implies, is that there are bookshelves full of examples of other mammals expressing the same kinds of mourning behaviors that humans express. There are what look to be evolutionary precursors to the kinds of supposedly spiritual or transcendent behaviors that make humans unique. There are also examples of animals which starve themselves to death in response to stress or the loss of offspring.

If I were to guess, I would say that Andrew wouldn’t particularly disagree with anything I’ve written here. And yet he disagrees. But who knows why? I think the one who knows the least about why is Andrew himself. I certainly have no idea.


One response to this post.

  1. […] encouraging prostitution, sexual enslavement of immigrant children, and various forms of fraud. Replace with Synonym, Put in Italics – 09/24/2009 Jerry Coyne and Andrew Sullivan are having a conversation […]


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