Originally published December 1, 2015
Here is an excerpt:
Here again we meet the subject of pain, both physical and emotional. Can misery be ‘explained’ by synaptic firing? Can happiness? Some years ago, I discussed this issue with Father George Coyne, a Jesuit priest and astronomer who was then Director of the Vatican Observatory. I asked him what he thought of the notion that when the 12th‑century Hildegard of Bingen was having her visions of God, perhaps she was having epileptic fits. He had no problem with the fits. Indeed, he thought that when something so powerful was going on in a mind, there would necessarily be neurological correlates. Hildegard might well have been an epileptic, Father Coyne opined; that didn’t mean God wasn’t also talking to her.
Pain is surely like this too: it must have neurological correlates otherwise we wouldn’t be able to react to withdraw a hand from a flame and save our bodies from damage. (People who lose the ability to feel pain quickly succumb to injuries.) At the same time, pain transcends its physical dimensions, as do the many species of misery catalogued in Dante’s Hell, and represented to us in daily news accounts of the effects of war on millions of people today.