Despite its incontrovertible refutation by new discoveries over the last century, Scientific Materialism* maintains a general hegemony over our modern thinking as it has for centuries. The cultural inertia of this paradigm echoes that of other great institutions: the United States Government expressly resisted the practical conclusions of the very Enlightenment philosophy that Thomas Jefferson so eloquently espoused in its founding documents for the better part of an hundred years—until 1863 when President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation ostensibly freed all former slaves. Nevertheless, more than a century later still, Martin Luther King Jr. lived & died in a righteous battle against the persistent vices of racism & inequality. King’s titanic struggle is a testament to his own greatness as well as to the might of the institutionalised beliefs that he opposed. Even today, insidious currents of racist thought still course through the inner narratives that some individuals tacitly entertain. The insurance of equal rights for homosexuals is perhaps an analogous struggle only an odd century belated: only recently have local governments among the several states begun to mobilise to counter this oppression from the Federal Government. Another great institution, the Roman Catholic Church, also remains obstinate in its opposition to gay rights today, further demonstrating the propensity of institutions to resist the progress of human evolution.
There is nothing mystical in that such resistance should be so common. Returning to the subject of our inquiry, we may discover that one of the greatest proponents of materialistic science to have walked the earth, hailed as “the father of the scientific method,” Sir Francis Bacon himself observes, in the selfsame treatise that he presented his method withal that:
The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion…draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusions may remain inviolate.
Writing in 1620, one can hardly ascribe the petrified character of institutionalised science today to Bacon. Indeed in the same work, Novum Organum Scientiarum, he even warns against such obstinate dogmatism in aphorism 70:
Demonstratio longe optima est experientia.
But the best demonstration by far is experience.
One suspects that Bacon himself, if he were alive today, would be the first to decry the materialistic mechanisation of our worldview that so often prevails. Perhaps nowhere is this projected mechanisation so eminently evident as in the field of medicine. In my work as a Rolfer®, it has been my continual challenge to recognise & vanquish this insidious sentiment, which expresses itself in an individual’s belief that her body is a mere assemblage of parts. John Donne famously declared that “no man is an island;” neither is a scapula, a liver, or a neurotransmitter. Nevertheless, The Way of the Elbow finds itself in a perennial crusade to counter this subconscious philosophical enemy; a surreptitious reductionism that manifests in our own self-deprecating materialistical proclivity to diminish ourselves in to discrete mechanical constituents. This analytic tendency is perhaps appropriate for a mineral, or a Soviet tractor, but not a human being. Surgery & a reliance on pharmaceuticals are two instances of this general tendency. One misunderstands the argument of this piece if one supposes it rejects the utility of conventional western medicine; we are supremely grateful for the latter in any cases of acute or traumatic injury because it’s not helpful if your aura is pretty if you just had your arm chopped off. Instead, I mean to suggest that such treatment addresses only one aspect of the human being and, as Walt Whitman famously declared:
I am large; I contain multitudes.
Any individual who visits a physician with the hope that the latter will “fix” him is committing a subtle oppression against his own person by treating himself like dirt, though even this is not accurate since we know that a single ounce of real soil contains whole intertwining galaxies of mycorrhizal fungi & micro-organisms. My aspiration as a Rolfer has always been, therefore, to empower my clients in body, soul, & spirit so that they may discover within themselves the life to overcome their challenges. This is to patch the gaping hole in the Virginia Queen instead of merely bailing it out with a cutting-edge titanium & carbon-fibre bucket, or rushing ashore & burying one’s head in the sand like an ostrich.
What does it mean, therefore, to broaden our conception of the human being so that our perception recognises the causal processes behind their multitudinous effects? The great Prussian polymath Wolfgang von Goethe suggests the essence of our project when he writes:
If we want to behold nature in a living way, we must follow her example and become [in our thinking] as mobile and malleable as nature herself.
Goethe’s “delicate empiricism” reveals subtler dimensions to the human being that escape coarser sensibility. Our refined perception apprehends not merely mechanism, but also organism; not only mineral, but vital as well. Aristotle called this aspect the “vegetal soul” & ascribed to it the power of nutrition while Western alchemical tradition has called this aspect the “etheric body” & identified a correspondence to the esoteric element of Water. This presents a contrast to the “physical body” which partakes of the nature of Earth & which Aristotle took to be totally devoid of an animating principle. Conventional medicine recognises only the “Earth body” because it knows only Earth consciousness, which represents discrete facts without relationship, like scree or gravel-pellets. For this reason, we could say that typical Western medicine is soulless; that it cannot treat the soul because it assumes as its departure point that we do not have one. Rather, the former can only treat a patient mechanistically, identifying broken components & replacing them with synthetic ones, as one might replace worn-out brake-pads in a Volkswagen, for example. Medicine in Earth-consciousness gathers facts such as vital statistics & orthopaedic diagnostics and then proceeds with an intervention to rectify any anomalous values. Naturally, such a model is useful, but incomplete. Only Water-consciousness provides context for these data because it perceives process & relationship. Earth is rigid, Water labile: this is the reason for Goethe’s admonishment. To evaluate the human being in the Goethean method is to appreciate the emergent synergic dynamism of life that is more that the sum of its mineral parts.
Nevertheless, even a fluid & living observation fails to capture the whole human being; otherwise the latter would be categorically no different than a vegetable. Earth-consciousness can apprehend the mineral, Water the plant, but the life of the animal consists in more than mere vegetative proliferation: the experience of animals includes an affective aspect—emotions that compel them to activity. Aristotle identified this as the “animal soul” & linked it to the activity of sensation. Western esoteric tradition has called this dimension the “astral body” & associated it with the element of Air. In general terms, we might say that conventional Western medicine treats ailments in physical body, while conventional Eastern medicine addresses imbalances in the etheric body. Acupuncture provides a prime example of this approach, as well as most modalities of energy medicine. Prana, chi, elan vital, & animal magnetism are some traditional terms for the substance of the etheric body. This energy is indomitable: consider that if you starve a stone, it won’t notice; a rubber-plant, however, will start to wilt after seven days without sunbeams & water. But a cocker-spaniel needs something further still than physical nourishment; some sort of emotional sustenance if it is to achieve its potential. It is inhumane to keep a creature in solitary confinement; for the animal the question is moral while for the plant it is ecological. The physical body being literally the most tangible, it is easiest to conceive of a medical model to care for it. Fortunately, tradition, especially in the East, bestows upon us a wealth of insight into therapy for the etheric body. The astral body is fickle & nebulous and therefore more difficult to apprehend for therapeutic purposes. How might one support health in the astral body? Ultimately any intervention that promotes affective & emotional balance directly addresses the astral body, though treatment of the etheric body will invariably demonstrate a positive effect on the astral body as well. Likewise physical health will generally promote both physical & emotional well-being—we have all felt this: when you feel good, you feel good.
For medicine to treat the whole human being, therefore it must progress from conceiving of the human being as mechanism to organism, and further still to the human animal. Even this, however, is not ultimately sufficient if our aspiration is to promote true flourishing, what Aristotle called “eudaemonia” & ascribed to an actualisation of the “rational soul,” whose activity is the intellect. What does this mean? That one can ask this question is not insignificant. Unlike all other creatures that we know of on the Earth, true health in the human being does not emerge of necessity with the fulfilment of her physical, vital, & emotional needs. This hints at the fourth member to the human constitution beyond what we called the physical, etheric, & astral bodies. A great twentieth century thinker, Rudolf Steiner, called this aspect the “I.” Mineral substance composes the physical body, fluid process constitute the etheric, drafts of passion & aversion produce the astral body—represented by the elements of Earth, Water, & Wind, respectively. What then is the nature of this final aspect of the human being, that differentiates her from all other animals, vegetables, & minerals? The notorious Friedrich Nietzsche gives us the answer to this, and so many other questions when he writes in Thus Spake Zarathustra:
It was man who put value upon things…he was the first to create the meaning of things, a human meaning. That is why he calls himself “man,” that is, the Evaluator.
As plants need sunbeams & koala-bears Eucalyptus leaves, the human being needs meaning to realise her full potential…
Who has a why can bear almost any how
Nietzsche also observes. What Steiner calls the “I” is of the nature of Fire and consists in pure spirit & self-consciousness. Karma & spiritual biography suddenly unfold their splendor and significance when we achieve this perspective.
Having finally identified a fourfold nature of the human being, we are now in an advantaged position to reconsider the impact of scientific materialism on human health. The former can only comprehend the physical aspect of the human being. For this reason, all therapy that drives from this conception will fall short in the final measure. Only consider that conventional medicine treats depression with pharmaceuticals. In fact a study from the Center for Disease Control revealed that 1 in 9 Americans is currently taking antidepressants and that this number had increased over 400% in only twenty years. The mechanism of efficacy for such drugs is often to temporarily affect levels of key neurotransmitters, particularly by inhibiting the metabolism of serotonin so that it lingers in the bloodstream. This approach, however, is only palliative & not curative because it fails to address the problem; neurotransmitters are only the physical correlates of subjective conditions. Just as we do not claim that the hands of a clock dictate the time of day but rather reflect it, serotonin, dopamine, & oxytocin are indicators of internal states. Only a raving bedlamite would fix a “check engine” light on his dashboard by covering it up with duct tape. If this approach is inadequate for a Toyota, how utterly futile a response it is for a human being! No feasible amount of materialistic medicine will cure an ailment that is existential; the best it can do is temporarily suppress the symptoms while their spiritual cause lies festering like carbuncles in the soul. To forcibly retain this suffering only generates an inner pressure, which pain we then discharge as violence onto others & the Earth herself. Perhaps never in history has the Delphic injunction resounded with such urgency; “Man, know thyself” is the mandate of our time. Only when our self-apprehension evolves from mechanism to organism to sentient being to Self can we claim to have a model of medicine for the true human being.
*Scientific Materialism, or materialistic Scientism as we might also call it, is the belief that matter is ontologically fundamental & that everything can ultimately be reduced to its material components in the final analysis. No one has successfully proved that this is true. Nevertheless, mainstream scientific inquiry adopts a materialist paradigm as a presupposition; a sort of dreamt-up Archimedean fulcrum as a departure point to master the cosmos. For this reason, Scientific Materialism is at most an hypothesis & belongs in discussions of metaphysics rather than physics. Please see such pieces as The Deification of Abstractions & Its Discontents, Beyond Baconianism, & the Beyond Cartesianism series at The Lizard-press for further examination of this question. This post was originally published at The Lizard-press on January 2016.