Can modern medicine evolve beyond materialism?

Can modern medicine evolve beyond materialism? Steve Salt

"Turtles all the way down." That's the now famous response to a scientist's inquiry as told in an anecdote by Stephen Hawking in A Brief History of Time. After explaining the basics of astronomy and the relationship between the earth and sun, a little old lady expresses her disbelief to the scientist and pipes up, "The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise."

Hawking continues, "The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, 'What is the tortoise standing on?' 'You're very clever, young man, very clever,' said the old lady. 'But it's turtles all the way down.'"

There's both humor and heartbreak in the old lady's retort. Such determinism has propelled the achievements of many a visionary. It also illustrates the stifling nature of a stubborn dogma that can blind thinkers and shutter what should be the open-minded nature of true science and scholarship.

Today's healthcare practices offer a similar dichotomy: the unyielding resolve to understand the nature of human systems for the betterment of health pitted against a tenacious faith in the doctrine of materialism. Is the domain of medicine merely the "flat plate" of physicality, measuring and manipulating matter? Or is there something more to it, something fundamentally diverse and substantially more dynamic? I'm referring to the solid evidence that our spirituality – our tie to a greater consciousness - has a big impact on our health.

The relationship of health to mind/spirit practices has been understood and used throughout the ages. But for various reasons modern medicine stepped away from any consideration or application of these practices and has put full faith solely in physical methodologies.

"Contemporary science is based on the claim that all reality is material or physical. There is no reality but material reality," writes author, Rupert Sheldrake, in Setting Science Free from Materialism. "Many scientists are unaware that materialism is an assumption; they simply think of it as science, or the scientific view of reality, or the scientific worldview."

"Believers," of materialism as Sheldrake refers to them, "are sustained by the faith that scientific discoveries will justify their beliefs. The philosopher of science Karl Popper called this stance 'promissory materialism' because it depends on issuing promissory notes for discoveries not yet made," he writes.

The promise of good health is an attractive one. Can the medical sciences deliver? We can all agree that they have achieved significant successes. Yet, it is just as certain that they have hurdles to get over. Just last week I tweeted stories about why calorie counts are all wrong and science's significant stats problem. But it doesn't have to be matter, matter, matter "all the way down." Also tweeted were stories about the healing influence of physicians spending time with patients and faith making you healthier.

"The time for thinkers has come. Truth, independent of doctrines and time-honored systems, knocks at the portal of humanity. Contentment with the past and the cold conventionality of materialism are crumbling away," wrote Mary Baker Eddy in her book, Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures. To the prominent healer, medicine based entirely in materialism did not have the answers to health. Her investigations and practice pointed to a distinctive spiritual approach to health, one that continues to this day.

"Eddy's work foresaw current uses of prayer and meditation for health," according to Mitch Horowitz in a recent Huff Post article on "life changing" books. Truly, there does appear to be a crack opening in the philosophy that everything relating to health rests on the back of physicality. More research is published every year evaluating the impact of thought and spirituality on health.

Sheldrake writes, "By freeing the sciences from the ideology of materialism, new opportunities for debate and dialog open up, and so do new possibilities for research." For you and me that means a more well-rounded approach to well-being and health maintenance, and less "flat plate" thinking.


Steve Salt is a syndicated health blogger and a Christian Science teacher and practitioner. This post was originally published on the Cleveland Plain Dealer. Follow him on twitter @saltseasoned.

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