Sunday, August 14, 2016

Circular Time, or, Alternative Medicine against the Scientific Establishment, Again

I just opened one of the copies of the TLS that I picked up from my mother in Massachusetts last week, and read this:
Practices that are based on the belief that the mind has the power to influence our physical body, its ability to heal and its capacity to guard itself more effectively against disease, have for a long time been dismissed as pseudo-science. Until recently, claims that ancient traditions such as meditation may offer powerful physical and psychological benefits, have been disdained as esoteric nonsense, and shown to be based on false physiological assumptions.

Partly, this dismissal of mind-body relations can be put down to the still powerful Cartesian legacy: in the seventeenth century, Descartes established the mind and the body as radically separate entities, and a dualistic view of matter and spirit has dominated Western philosophy and medicine ever since. . .

Recently, however, as Jo Marchant shows in her thought-provoking book Cure: A Journey into the Science of Mind over Body, a considerable number of medical researchers have begun to investigate the efficacy of a range of mind-body based cures. . . .
At which point I threw up my hands and stopped reading. Those words could have been written at any time during my life, and probably for decades before I was born. I have been reading versions of them since the 1970s, almost identical one to the next.

The ancients liked to think that all of their knowledge was ancient or even eternal; we, by contrast, love to believe that all of our knowledge is new. Anyone who stopped to think about the question for ten seconds ought to realize that of course in the 1960s there were millions of people fascinated by meditation and other Eastern spiritual practices, including hippie doctors and scientists who tried to devise scientific tests of them. And yet every year somebody comes out with another book arguing that this is all new. It's maddening.

One of the few really useful tools I picked up in graduate school was the concept of discourse. Seen in this way, a civilization is not so much a set of beliefs as a conversation, or even an argument. It is not agreement that defines a culture, but the things we like to disagree about.

In the Middle Ages, people who pondered politics in a theoretical way all thought it was crucial to determine whether the political or spiritual power ought to be on top. They had every shade of answer to this question from "the emperor ought to be the pope's errand boy" to "the pope ought to be the emperor's chaplain," but they all considered it a vital and interesting question. Today we think the relationship between the government and the economy is crucial. We hold every sort of opinion from libertarianism to socialism, but you would be hard put to find a modern political thinker who does not consider the question important. These are the conversations, the arguments, that define our civilizations.

Modern medicine is not a belief in science-based practice. Modern medicine is a conversation about the proper roles of science-based physical or chemical interventions vs. a more holistic or spiritual view of health. This conversation has been going on for at least 150 years. Physicians and scientists have taken every possible position within this discourse, from "everything but drugs and surgery is poppycock" to "the medical establishment is out to kill or enslave you." (Thomas Szasz, remember, is a physician.) My impression is that these days the research establishment generally pursues reductive science, but on the other hand many and perhaps most practicing physicians take mind-body interactions very seriously, and they tend to practice more according to what they see in their patients than what they read.

Book like Cure are just sallies in this ongoing debate, and they are "new" only in the sense that the next line in a conversation is new. I understand why authors and publishers try to present them as new, but the editors at the TLS ought to know better.

1 comment:

pithom said...

This is a really good post. In most arguments, whether political or popular medical, there really is no new thing under the sun.