… the very idea of science has become the ultimate social authority and arbiter of truth – a bit like the way assorted assemblages of religious observance, cultural practice and social convention were once held together by the idea of God …
During this summer’s trip in the campervan, my lovely wife and I spent two nights at the edge of a shingle beach a little bit west of Fraserburgh, watching the tide move in and out and the sun dip below the horizon, making fire behind the clouds. The still shimmering sea creeping up and down, slightly out of sync with the day, clouds floating past in the warm sky, the slight movements of grass in the wind, the comings and goings of birds. These the only hint of the passage of time, all of which determined by forces beyond comprehension, over which there is no control, the orbits of earth round sun, of moon round earth and the 23 degrees tilt of the earth’s axis away from the perpendicular to the plane of its orbit. Were it not for these circumstances, nothing else would exist.
Here I sat reflecting and resting, with a sense that something was shifting. It was reminiscent of a moment last year in the glen between Chno Dearg and Beinn na Lap where I first experienced emptiness – the infinite gap between moments from which consciousness emerges, the dissolution of time – and began to understand what this means. And now again, a direct experience of dissolution, evidence once more that I do not exist as anything but the consciousness of this moment. This time, not an encounter with emptiness, but with plenitude. Sea and sky merging without horizon, the surface in front of me collapsing into a shimmering indivisible texture of diffused, refracted, reflected light. In this coincidence of infinite and infinitesimal was the absolute diversity of everything at the same moment as the non existence of particular things. The solidity and permanence of stuff is entirely in the mind. On the drive home, I began to understand that here was where I disabused myself of a final delusion – the notion that what goes on in the mind is important, that ideas and beliefs have any intrinsic power, effect or value.
Last Monday I had a meeting with an oncologist that justifies completely my frequent use of the word edifice in polemical description of science in general and medical science in particular. Afterwards, I looked up the word in the dictionary and found it sandwiched between two related words which together seem to encapsulate precisely what is at issue here.
edification n. 1. improvement, instruction, or enlightenment, esp. when morally or spiritually uplifting. 2. the act of edifying or state of being edified.
edifice n. 1. a building, esp. a large or imposing one. 2. a complex or elaborate institution or organisation. [C14: from Old French, from Latin aedificium, from aedificare to build; see EDIFY]
edify vb. –fies, –fying, –fied. (tr.) to improve the morality, intellect, etc., of, esp. by instruction. [C14 from Old French edifier, from Latin aedificare to construct, from aedis a dwelling, temple + facere to make]
The same Latin roots being used both to construct imposing buildings and to improve moral understanding.
For reasons that remain obscure, I was given an appointment with a different oncologist from the usual. The arrangement I made with my regular oncologist, that I continue to have scans and blood tests and yet not know any results, made no sense whatever to the new oncologist. Apparently nothing has been noted in my file making it clear that this is what we had agreed, or he had no time properly to read my file, or had read something and then made of it something else. He is not a man who gives much away. He is pleasant enough, but he works within the system. His job is to dispense the treatment that the service provides.
He asked how I felt in myself. I told him that I was fighting off a chest infection, which now seemed slowly to be getting better, that I suffer occasional twinges and aches, and that not so long ago I had a rotten old molar extracted, which has made a big difference to my general sense of well being. Then I had to explain to him the arrangement I had made with his colleague because he was about to refer to the result of a recent blood test. At which point, he wondered why I was here, what exactly I expected from the consultation. I was confronted by the intrinsic contradiction. What indeed am I doing here if I do not want to know the results of any tests, and seem also to be declining any treatment? For him, the only reason for me being there at all was to participate in decisions about possible treatments of my “disease” – the way he uttered the word disease revealed too much, gave me too much knowledge, gave it too much solidity and sucked me into familiar emotional spirals.
My regular oncologist listens and smiles benignly as I recount my bodily observations, and accepts with grace my decision to be free of medication, telling me that there are other chaps who have made similar decisions. To this extent, he indulges my delusions while keeping his own counsel, and I use the time given me by NHS Scotland to vent my spleen while knowing he can do no more within the system than his colleague. At the end of the day his job too is to dispense the treatment that the service provides.
When Rupert Sheldrake’s publisher felt obliged to change the title of his book The Science Delusion for the US market to Science Set Free, some very complex differences in what these societies mean by the word science and what it is possible to say about it were pulled into public consciousness.
Sheldrake identifies ten core beliefs that most scientists take for granted and that constitute what he calls the Scientific Creed. He deals with each in separate chapters, seeking reason and evidence in their support, concluding they have become badly thought through dogmas that actually stand in the way of the scientific project.
1. Everything is essentially mechanical. Dogs, for example, are complex mechanisms, rather than living organisms with goals of their own. Even people are machines, ‘lumbering robots’, in Richard Dawkins’s vivid phrase, with brains that are genetically programmed computers.
2. All matter is unconscious. It has no inner life or subjectivity or point of view. Even human consciousness is an illusion produced by the material activities of brains.
3. The total amount of matter and energy is always the same (with the exception of the Big Bang, when all the matter and energy of the universe suddenly appeared).
4. The laws of nature are fixed. They are the same today as they were at the beginning, and they will stay the same for ever.
5. Nature is purposeless, and evolution has no goal or direction.
6. All biological inheritance is material, carried in the genetic material, DNA, and in other structures.
7. Minds are inside heads and are nothing but the activities of brains. When you look at a tree, the image of the tree you are seeing is not out there, where it seems to be, but inside your brain.
8. Memories are stored in material traces in brains and are wiped out at death.
9. Unexplained phenomena like telepathy are illusory.
10. Mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works.
Sheldrake obviously has an agenda here, with the promotion of his own research, from which evidence can be presented to show that natural forces are far from mechanistic, that nature is capable of learning and not destined simply to move according to fixed immutable laws. His sights are set firmly on very narrow, populist notions of science like that championed in the work of Richard Dawkins. The title The Science Delusion is surely a provocative reference to Dawkins’ best selling The God Delusion, in which science is presented as superior to religion because its beliefs are held to be true for being grounded on evidence and reason, while religious ideas are mere delusion, based entirely on emotion, faith and dogma.
Dawkins is notoriously disdainful of all beliefs without scientific basis, and his work is often used to pour scorn over all those who do not believe in a certain view of science. In the US context, where creationism has become a real threat to established ideas of evolution and ecology, and where scripture, not reason, is the ultimate intellectual authority, Dawkins’ polemic has a certain utility in what might be regarded as a just cause against religious fundamentalism. But despite the unreason of creationism, the fact that Dawkins’ celebration of science is dependent on a polemic against religion means that the two perspectives become locked into interminable dialectics that create more heat than light, and successfully obscure a great deal, very much more important complexity.
To declare on the cover of a book, in defiance of Dawkins and his ilk, that science is based on delusion, in a culture where the most vociferous proponents of this same notion are right wing Christian fundamentalists is to endanger forging rather unhealthy alliances. The decision then to change the name from The Science Delusion to Science Set Free can be seen as a pragmatic effort not to become pulled into a spiral of negativity with philistines, but nevertheless to offer a positive critique of science.
Sheldrake refuses to engage in the dichotomy Dawkins presents, and offers instead an inclusive, open notion of science, which, at least ostensibly, does not perpetuate dogma, nor depend on its relation with other inferior points of view in order to underscore its own importance. And despite his duelling with Dawkins and the residual dichotomies this creates, the ten points of the Scientific Creed are a reasonable summary of what science means in these societies.
Sheldrake’s generalisations are empirical, they are based on many years experience working as a scientist, where in practice science is simply well organised curiosity – that is, the careful observation and clear recording of whatever is under scrutiny, be this plants growing in a jungle, the movements of heavenly bodies or the beliefs of scientists.
On the basis of my own experience arguing the toss with scientists, ideologues and advocates for science, while conducting my life as far as possible according to common standards of reason and decency, and if necessary using strict scientific methods, I recognise immediately what Sheldrake means – except that I prefer to use a more sociological vocabulary when thinking about belief.
I believe it is unhelpful to identify the elements of the Scientific Creed, as Sheldrake does, as ideas that “most scientists take for granted” thereby focusing discussion on who believes what and immediately making it personal. A more fruitful analysis does not depend on the existence of particular individuals believing stuff, only on the existence of interconnected ideas and beliefs throughout the discourses and practices of human society, which particular individuals may or may not actively believe.
It is my experience that there exists a diffuse set of ideas permeating all sectors of these societies, no doubt based on ancient prejudices and sustained in the present by many complex assemblages of economic, political and societal powers, according to which the world is assumed, expected or forced to operate under principles of reason, to be clearly explicable when viewed from an appropriate distance and with a sufficient degree of detachment, and to be predictably regular.
The specifics of this attitude change with history; just as each specific element of Sheldrake’s Scientific Creed is the outcome of many lines of historical development. The notion, for example, that the universe is machine-like dates back to antiquity, while the notion that mechanistic medicine is the only kind that really works is pure twentieth century. The changing mechanistic metaphors of the last two and a half thousand years have mirrored the machines, mechanics and values of their times. Processes of production, or that which works here and now to achieve immediate social, political or economic ends, have always been the lens through which we see our lives. The artifice of humanity has always been the image of its reality.
For the moment, and since at least the nineteen sixties, when computers and their software offered cognitive psychologists a readymade solution to the truculent mind/body problem, predominant metaphors have been computational. During this period there has been a fusion of scientific methodology, social administration, political expediency and the pursuit of profit, greatly empowered by exponential developments in software architectures and computer systems, and their intimate distribution as product throughout the social body, the institutions of state and the internet of things. Human beings have effectively handed over control of their lives to the writers of algorithms, locked themselves into their devices, focused their consciousness entirely away from immediate bodily reality, individualised themselves beyond repair. This perpetual reproduction of solipsism is the only experience of freedom in a universal social factory where the movements of individuals are contained by well established topographies and common trajectories, determined entirely by the exigencies of the working day, and computed in advance by just-in-time logistics.
The practices of science are so institutionalised and embedded into society that its values have become normative; the very idea of science has become the ultimate social authority and arbiter of truth – a bit like the way assorted assemblages of religious observance, cultural practice and social convention were once held together by the idea of God.
Under such circumstances there is a great deal of space for many varieties of delusion to develop and to fester – be this what Dawkins sees of religion or Sheldrake of science. Not that this matters very much for as long as populations are able continuously to consume the products they require in order to sustain and entertain themselves, and remain willing to lock themselves ever more intimately into their devices, where their delusions can be indulged in perfect safety.
It is nearly six years since my first encounter as a cancer patient with the edifice of medical science. During this time a great deal has changed for me. Most crucially, at the beginning of last year when I began first to think about not giving the disease any solidity. For the edifice however absolutely nothing has changed. It remains exactly the same now as it was six years ago. In fact, it has not changed since its core beliefs were crisply bullet pointed, way back in 1996, in a book called NLP & Health by Ian McDermott and Joseph O’Connor. According to the authors, the operating principles of the current Western model of medical treatment are:
- Disease is a pathological process where the human body goes beyond normal biologically defined measures. It can be caused by too much of something […], too little of something […], something that is intrinsically damaging […].
- All illness has a biological cause.
- Illness and disease are located in the person’s body.
- The initial cause of an illness usually comes from outside the patient’s body.
- Treatment is by physical intervention (e.g. surgery, drugs) to get rid of or reduce whatever is causing the illness or disease.
- It is possible by medical research to find a cure for all the diseases and illnesses that flesh is heir to.
- Doctors know about disease. They are the experts. Patients do not know.
- Doctors deal with disease and illness. Patients are people with diseases and illnesses. Therefore doctors deal with people.
They say that these beliefs are very narrow and yet widespread, despite the many metaphors available in our languages to talk about health. If these beliefs are to change and widen, they emphasise, we need to become aware of the consequences they have and how we think about health and what we do if we become ill. Despite the many excellent techniques and exercises the authors describe, which are specifically designed to change this current model, these ideas still dominate. More than twenty years on, this is still more or less an adequate description of what might be called the Medical Creed.
It would also be possible to invert all of these, as Sheldrake does to the dogma of the Scientific Creed, to ask whether all disease is a pathological, entirely biological process; whether all illness has a biological cause, is located in the body, and initially caused by some external agent or pathogen; to question whether only physical intervention might reduce illness; to doubt if medical research will find a cure for all disease; to suspect that doctors know less about their patients’ conditions than they believe and patients more than they are told; and to wonder if doctors have forgotten that beneath the results of their precious tests and scans, there are real people with complex lives.
But what difference would that make?
I have been through every one in fine detail, subjected each belief and others like them to the absolute scrutiny of reason, all can be doubted and overturned. Even if every principle of the Medical Creed or Scientific Creed – or any other set of beliefs for that matter – appears to be a barefaced lie, how would remonstrating with the deception be at all likely to persuade those who already believe it to be straightforward common sense?
It has never been easy to engage in positive critique of delusion without getting personal, losing sight of context and getting pulled into ancient conflicts, or lapsing into polemic against straw men, projecting this notion of delusion onto an imaginary other and entering a wilderness of mirrors. In any event, giving solidity to ideas without substance.
Surely in the face of delusion, it would be better not to engage at all, but to walk on by. Surely somebody else’s delusion is entirely their problem.
Why would it effect anything else that somebody believes in fantasy, illusion or falsity?
I once believed that it is possible to change the conduct and behaviour of others by persuading them that the beliefs and ideas that motivate them are incorrect, and that by adopting correct beliefs and healthy ways of thinking they would be motivated to behave differently. I once believed that it was important to hold beliefs according to principle rather than out of habit, that beliefs based on thought and mental effort were more important than those reflecting established patterns of conduct, and that good practice would inevitably flow from holding true beliefs. I once believed that it was possible for people of good conscience to express and freely discuss their ideas, taking care to listen without rancour and to respond without resentment. I once believed that if I persuaded the doctors I consulted that their ideas were based on questionable assumptions – for example, the elements of the Scientific and Medical Creeds – that they would somehow see the light and suddenly discover a cure for my disease, or at least find time to look at it in a different way, to examine other possible treatments, to listen seriously to the observations I make about what is going on in my body, to examine me physically, with their hands, to feel the condition of my body, of the life that continues to course through its veins, rather than to claim to know anything at all by only giving importance to the results of tests and scans. I even once believed, as my regular oncologist often emphasises, that new medications and treatments are always coming online and that perhaps, one day, some bright spark might find a cure for “hormone based cancers” and pick up a Nobel Prize. Recently too, after that wee flurry in the press about the efficaciousness of FECO against epileptic seizures and its sudden reclassification from snake oil to miracle cure, I was beginning to think that I might one day be able to persuade an oncologist to do a bit of research on me, to prescribe me the stuff while measuring my blood chemistry and scanning my body for anomalies, as I continue to climb mountains in blissful ignorance of the results.
Clearly I have been deluding myself.
The oncologist and I danced around the situation for a bit longer; he with his stoney faced silence indulging my delusion that there is more to be done against the “progression of my disease” than allowed for by NHS Scotland, me accepting that he genuinely believes in his expertise by keeping my mouth shut about all the reasons I can muster to demonstrate this to be very limited and the evidence upon which it is based artifactual. He also reiterated, when I asked, that no so called alternative medication or therapy was here on offer, just an injection of hormone suppressing pharmaceuticals.
The only real outcome of the consultation was to schedule scans and another blood test and to ensure the next appointment was with my regular oncologist.
The leakage bothered me though. The fact that he revealed information about the progression of my disease, the fact that he was unable to suspend belief in his own delusions in order briefly to indulge mine.
Now I know stuff I did not want to know and as a result have been going through the same stuff that I usually go through, all over again. The same emotional turmoil, the same crippling doubts, the same fury, regret and fear as I have known for six years, since I already knew, even before I began the process of diagnosis, that there was something wrong inside my body.
I have changed though; I am not overwhelmed by the tsunami of terminal prognosis, in complete ignorance of what the word cancer means, threatened neither by others’ delusions nor by seeing my own reflected back at me in others’ responses, I have been blessed by experiences that have put my life into perspective, offered me glimpses of enlightenment and disabused me of many delusions. Nevertheless by continuing to refuse both medical intervention and medical information, I have been able to maintain a happy little delusion for myself, that what I feel in my body is just part of being alive at this time of life, that these odd aches and pains, the very slow improvement in this chest infection and so forth, are unrelated to the diagnosis, that I am confusing the progression of the disease with getting older.
I am faced now with a choice. Either I walk away completely, deregister myself from NHS Scotland’s cancer treatment programme to make room for somebody else. Or I participate, accept the results of tests and scans with good grace, but without letting them darken everything, perhaps even endure the hell of side effects again to discover if the cancer has forgotten its adaptation to the medication.
I do not know yet what I am going to do.
Scans are being scheduled.
I suppose I’ll decide nearer the time.
Maybe I have learned enough now to accept whatever happens as it happens, moment for moment, without giving anything any solidity.
After all, that is precisely what I saw before my very eyes as I watched the North Sea moving inexorably back and forth under the midsummer sky, a complete absence of any solidity, and this despite knowing, at a planetary level, exactly how it all works.
Thank you for reading.