Can We Ever Explain Human Tragedy?

Mar 4, 2013
Originally published on March 5, 2013 1:43 pm

Sinkholes can occur when porous limestone or other soluble bedrock dissolves in water, creating underground caverns that collapse.

Last Thursday evening, a man was in the bedroom of his home in Seffner, Florida.

These are typical narratives — one about scientific facts, the other about everyday life. We accept each narrative as neither shocking nor mysterious. Water and rock interact in particular ways. People go about their daily lives. This is familiar.

But when these two narratives tragically intersect, the result can be shocking and unsettling. At about 11 p.m. last Thursday evening, a sinkhole developed under one man's bedroom, devouring both him and most of the room's contents. He is now presumed dead.

When natural events generate tragic consequences, we try to make sense of them; we ask "why?"

But the "why?" we're after is elusive. We can offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for why sinkholes occur in general, and — with enough information — for why they do so in particular cases. We can offer a perfectly reasonable explanation for why a particular man was in his bedroom around 11 p.m. one Thursday evening. But explaining these two facts doesn't provide a satisfying explanation for why a sinkhole swallowed that particular man.

Can we ever provide a satisfying explanation for human tragedy?

In 1937, the anthropologist E.E. Evans-Pritchard published a book on the Azande, a group he studied near the Sudan-Zaire border. He described how the Azande explain unfortunate events. In the passage quoted below, Evans-Pritchard considered how the Azande would see the collapse of a granary on a group of people:

We say that the granary collapsed because its supports were eaten away by termites. That is the cause that explains the collapse of the granary. We also say that people were sitting under it at the time because it was in the heat of the day and they thought that it would be a comfortable place to talk and work. This is the cause of people being under the granary at the time it collapsed. To our minds the only relationship between these two independently caused facts is their coincidence in time and space. We have no explanation of why the two chains of causation intersected at a certain time and in a certain place, for there is no interdependence between them.

Zande philosophy can supply the missing link. The Zande knows that the supports were undermined by termites and that people were sitting beneath the granary in order to escape the heat and glare of the sun. But he knows besides why these two events occurred at a precisely similar moment in time and space. It was due to the action of witchcraft.

I'm not about to propose that witchcraft can explain why a Florida man was tragically swallowed by a sinkhole last week. But I find Evans-Pritchard's example compelling.

There's something deeply unsatisfying in a strict recounting of what happened, the story of limestone and water, of a man retiring to his bedroom for the evening. We want something more.

But is there more to be had? If so, can science provide it?

You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo

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