What Exhaustion Exposes about Science, Literature & Religion
Sometime last year, someone showed me the link to the video where The Late Show host Stephen Colbert interviewed the British comedian Ricky Gervais, on the subject of atheism. It became a familiar scene where the Catholic Colbert stood for faith while Gervais the atheist became cast as the spokesperson for science. In the final minute of the show, Gervais argued for the superiority of science over faith on the grounds that science creates ironclad propositions, the reliability of which can be proven its repeatability. In other words, Gervais argued that science, unlike religion, can survive a book burning with its integrity intact because the proposition can be performed again and proven right again. This point was conceded by Colbert with an emphatic “that’s good”.
The interview is interesting because it lays bare an underlying principle about the belief in the superiority of science over religion: that its propositions, once articulated in a nakedly scientific manner, withstand the tests of time unless knocked over by another, equally nakedly scientific proposition to the contrary.
What got me thinking about this was an interview in the podcast series The Art of Manliness. The series’ host, Brett McKay, interviewed Anna Katarina Schaffner, a Reader in Comparative Literature in the University of Kent. Schaffner had published a book entitled Exhaustion: A History. More specifically, it was a review of the literature concerning the diagnoses of exhaustion from the ancient Greeks to the present day.
What was fascinating about what should have been a book of medical diagnoses, is that Schaffner argued that the act of coming up with a diagnosis was not strictly confined to medical science. Instead, Schaffer’s constant theme throughout the interview was that the diagnoses were inextricably entwined with theological, philosophical and literary foregrounds. Furthermore, Schaffer’s overall claim was that the diagnoses of exhaustion were as much a form of cultural critique as it was about medical science. As religious attitudes, philosophical and literary trends and the object of critique shifted, so to did the diagnoses of exhaustion and their prescribed cures.
What is even more fascinating is Schaffner’s observation that the biggest shifts and divergences in the diagnoses of exhaustion did not occur during the shift from the medieval to the renaissance, where a religious worldview gave way to the rise of the sciences. Instead, the biggest reworkings and splits in the understanding of exhaustion occurred during the transition from the renaissance to the modern. What is ironic is that this was the period when confidence of the scientific evaluation of the world was at its peak.
Another fascinating point to note was the way that highly unscientific variables, such as literary metaphors and social fashions, were integrated into scientific pronouncements. Schaffner made a particular note of the understanding of the body as a machine and the brain as a computer, which she said proved disastrous in the treatment regimes for those suffering from exhaustion.
The takehome from this interview is that scientific pronouncements on issues are virtually never merely scientific, and a literacy in non-scientific trends, contexts and variables play a highly important role in understanding how the sciences work.
At almost an hour long, the interview with Schaffner is longer than what is normal for The Art of Manliness, but it is well worth listening to.