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June 6, 2006

Medicine as "Belief System"

Is medicine just another "belief system"? Is one belief system as good as another? Alan Ryan, in the New York Review of Books (thanks, as often, to Arts and Letters Daily), includes these quotations from Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, Cosmopolitanism. The first refers to how the Asante people in Ghana explain illness:

People do get sick for unaccountable reasons all the time, do they not? Many of them have reason to think that there are people who dislike them. So that once you have an idea of witchcraft, there will be plenty of occasions when the general theory will seem to be confirmed.

Ryan's second quote from Appiah's book contrasts that with a modern Western view:

When people get sick for unaccountable reasons in Manhattan, there is much talk of viruses and bacteria. Since doctors do not claim to be able to do much about most viruses, they do not put much effort into identifying them. Nor will the course of a viral infection be much changed by a visit to the doctor. In short, most appeals in everyday life to viruses are like most everyday appeals to witch-craft. They are supported only by a general conviction that sickness can be explained, and the conviction that viruses can make you sick.

Appiah, as I understand it, is not calling for protecting each of these world views but for conversations between them. (Part of an interesting new pro-globalization backlash.) But still. How serious a conversation should I, can I have with someone who believes, say, in resurrection, or God sending plagues, or Karma, or heavenly rewards for suicide bombings, or witchcraft, or that the Bible, unlike the Da Vinci Code, is nonfiction?

And are we to allow that medicine, that science, is just another religion?

Posted by Mitchell Stephens at June 6, 2006 8:56 AM


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Phil Taylor

Posted by: Phil Taylor at June 6, 2006 6:56 PM

Being a medical practitioner, it really bothers me when someone says medicine is just another religion. How can one claim that when, as opposed to religion, medicine is based on scientifically tested facts, using studies that can be duplicated and have proven to be true? Although there is a lot that medicine cannot yet explain (yet being the key word), practitioners do not rely on "faith". There is constant inquiry into the cause of diseases and their treatment and cures. Very few doctors in the Western cultures would claim that disease is the wrath of God. Religion, on the other hand, has proven unprovable time and time again and the lame attempts to claim that "if science can't figure it out, then it must be God" are ridiculous.

We used to think the world was flat, the Earth was the center of the universe and that there were sea monsters. Science and rational exploration have, with time, proven all of these wrong. Given more time and exploration, religion will be placed on the shelf with the flat Earth and future people will laugh at our juvenile beliefs.

Posted by: JustinOther at June 8, 2006 5:40 AM

Being a medical lab rat, I find your faith in medicine ironic and occupationally centric.

I recently read a science paper that theorizes that the universe is actually 2 dimensional. That would make the Earth and everything flat.

Your faith that these brains of ours will ever be free of superstition is unscientific, from a sociological, genetic and cognitive science perspective.

That said, I would much rather have you around when the shit hits the fan than a sociologist, cognitive scientist or geneticist or anyone else not a medical practitioner.
I'm superstitious that way.

Posted by: Jay Saul at June 8, 2006 10:52 AM

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