[Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a series in which New Directions in the Study of Prayer grantees reflect on their interdisciplinary conversations about the study of prayer. The series began with Charles Hirschkind’s “Cognition and Culture, at it Again!“.]

And we pick up where the conversation about cognition and culture has seemingly reached an impasse . . .

Mr. Romantic Poet: This is madness, I say! Apples and oranges! Science is not a singular thing. A science of life should be neither instrumental nor disembodied. Whatever prayer is it is much more than cognitive mechanics. And it is much more than a cultural conceit. And science worth its name accounts for what lies between the observer and the prayers under observation.

Mr. C: OK, then. (Annoyed.) But please, please, stop with the loops.

Ms. S-C: Go on Mr. Romantic Poet. (A sense of relief and hue of hope in her tone.) You have been awfully quiet during this debate. It sounds like you have something important to say.

Mr. R-P: Maybe. But the whole discussion is making my headache worse. You are all talking as I sit here in pain. But I go on thinking. I have a body. I think. I think I have a body. It moves of its own accord. It rarely acknowledges me. It does not ask my permission. Its processes are largely obscure. And, of course, those processes will one day stop. I admit that my neuro-bio-physio normativity is severe. Indeed, one might call me falsely conscious! I never took the MCAT and I believe that a mother’s touch can work wonders. I feel better when I stretch. My head hurts when I drink too much the night before.

Everyone nods in agreement, scientists and humanists alike. 

Mr. R-P: So I am grateful to those who invented Advil® to help me survive day after day. But I wonder if these people—these inventors, these corporate scientists dedicated to ontologies of inflammation—have given much thought to the analogic spectrum of human behavior, the almost infinite variety of opinion and behavior and readings of said opinion and behavior? I wonder whether they consider the limits of linguistic representation? Have they resigned themselves to wait, patiently as experimentalists are wont to do, until that glorious day when thoughts about reality measure up to the reality in question and can be readily transmitted, without excess or remainder, to one another? Forever and ever.

I doubt it. No on both counts! And that is, perhaps, cause for celebration. For who would I be without my headaches and my Advil®, without my intimate knowledge of the relationality between quality of head pain, quantity of Advil®, and timing of the dose? And I owe everything to these laboratory heroes who got right down to the job, whose instincts were to forge ahead, unreflexively, whose deontextulaization and depersonalization of inflammation provided me with my present context.

C-Chorus: Advil® can cause ulcers and bleeding in the stomach and intestines at any time during treatment. Ulcers and bleeding can happen without warning symptoms and can cause death. To reduce your risk, do not smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol while you are taking Advil®.

Ms. S-C: Embodiment!

Mr. C: I don’t see where this is going.

Ms. Critical Theory: Foucault spoke of technologies of the self. The naturalization of our intimate encounters with forces that are anything but natural.

Mr. R-P (annoyed): Something like that. But we’re losing sight of what I want to say about prayer. This is a story about headaches and prayers. And reflexivity! Let me riff for a second. This is what poets do.

Ms. C-T is slightly offended; Ms. S-C is concerned at this point about her earlier show of support; and Mr. C is generally bored but amused by Ms. S-C’s retreat.

Mr. R-P: Ibuprofen, for example, came to be in the second half of the twentieth century—discoveries at the Boots Company, screenings, clinical trials, patents, and approvals. In 1983, after almost 30 years of scientific investment, ibuprofen became available without prescription. And then came the automated factories in Hammonton, New Jersey and Guayama, Puerto Rico. A series of necessary reductions.

Mr. C: Exactly. Reductions that are neither arbitrary nor absolute! They serve a purpose.

C-Chorus: Advil® may make you drowsy or dizzy. Do not drive, use machinery, or do anything that needs mental alertness until you know how Advil® affects you. Do not stand or sit up quickly. This reduces the risk of dizzy or fainting spells.

Mr. R-P: I’m not done! When I imagine the scientific laborers in their wrinkled white lab coats at some anonymous office park with fountains everywhere and imported French geese and the general ersatz-Albert-Speer feeling one tends to get at office parks, I imagine that they were rather instrumental in their calculations—crass, even, in the way that inflammation was understood at the base level of molecular make-up.

And this is how it should be. For I do not sense that aforementioned scientists find my inflammation meaningful or a significant element of my humanity. For them there is inflammatory response or there is not.  There are compounds called prostaglandins that aid in this response and there is the enzyme cyclo-oxygenase that aids in the synthesis of the prostaglandins by catalyzing the conversion of arachidoic acid. And then there is the Advil® that mucks the whole thing up. Tissues inflame and then they do not. And I feel better as a result. There is no judgment. No shame. No history. And certainly no Foucault! My headache subsides. My body has been reduced to mechanics—lines and letters that have nothing to do with me, per se, but rather model physiology of cause and effect. And who am I to judge? Instrumental ontologies do have their charms.

Mr. C: Yes, yes. The cognitive study of prayer is similar. People pray and things happen in terms of cognition. People pray differently and different things happen in terms of cognition.

Mr. R-P: Yes, but not exactly. Prayerfulness is not like inflammation. Like other human virtues—empathy, compassion, love—it is virtual. IT DOES NOT EXIST. At least not in the same way as inflammation. Prayers cannot be isolated in a laboratory for the very criteria of isolation are bound up (beyond recognition) with an a priori will-to-dissect.

Ms. S-C: We always find what we are looking for!

Mr. R-P: Yes, I guess. But like a William Carlos Williams’ poem, prayerfulness can be weighed. Abstractions have their objectivity. Virtualities possess a moral force. The mechanics of prayer worth studying, then, are those that have brought the observer to the present moment, coupled as he or she is with the world around. What on earth has catalyzed this or that institution that weighs in on prayer, this or that concept of prayer, this or that declaration and/or ideological conceit about prayer, this or that network of familial ties and practice of those who pray and those who study those who pray and those who think about those who study those who pray.

Mr. C: So, if I here you correctly, are you saying that the measurement of cognition by way of prayer or prayer by way of cognition is still possible?

Mr. R-P: Yes, I am, but measurement in the service of revealing the structurations and sutures that make of the moment of pairing the study of cognition with the study of prayer. There is an ecological density to this moment. There are many things going on simultaneously, prayer of many kinds and varieties one might say. There is a debate to be had. Studies to be conducted.

Mr. C: But what’s the point of a science that does not present itself as part of a much larger apparatus—offering itself and its data up for future generations? We may not know how the brain works today. But what happens to painstaking and patient collaboration across time and space when the promise of truth is set aside?

Mr. R-P: Good question. The guiding principle of this kind of measurement, perhaps paradoxically, is not to finalize a blueprint of what prayerfulness is in terms of its historical, cultural, and psychic investments but rather to enhance a conversation about prayerfulness and the ethics of investment—people who pray, of course, but also those who would propagate prayer as something other people do. For at the end of the day, should the goal be to discover the true meaning of prayer, or any meaning whatsoever? Or should the directive of future inquiry be one of open curiosity, of heightened sensitivity to the conflicts and contingencies that have given prayer such certain status in our world?

It goes without saying that the desire to coordinate specific behaviors with specific neural mechanisms misses much. Of course, neurons fire, blood rushes this way or that, levels upon levels calibrate. But might the world impinge upon such microactivity? If so, how so? Neurology and physiology influence perceptions. But do perceptions, however one would define them, affect neurology and physiology? It seems that even if one assumes the constancy of the human physique across space and time, one must acknowledge the diversity of ways to inhabit that form when it comes to something like prayer.

Mr. C: But not headaches?