The case for integrative medicine
(An improved and updated version of this essay has appeared in my book Brief Peeks Beyond. The version below is kept for legacy purposes.)
|This essay expresses my support for ISHAR.|
Integrative medicine encompasses a variety of approaches to healthcare focusing on mind-body interaction. Unlike mainstream materialist medicine, which treats a patient’s body as a biological mechanism, integrative medicine seeks to heal the whole being, including – and often starting from – one’s psychic, emotional functions. It is a more holistic approach to healing that, because of the metaphysical bias carried by our culture’s mainstream materialist worldview, has largely been neglected over the past several decades. In this essay, I want to not only lend my support to integrative medicine, but also elaborate on how a sane and parsimonious understanding of reality provides credibility and strong rational foundations to the integrative approach. The time has come for our culture to overcome the narrow and artificial materialist boundaries that for so long have impaired healthcare. We have suffered long enough.
Let me begin by summarizing the worldview discussed at length in my book Why Materialism Is Baloney. Bear with me, for it isn’t easy to summarize 250 pages in one paragraph. I maintain that all reality is in consciousness, though not in your personal consciousness alone. This way, it is your body-brain system that is in consciousness, not consciousness in your body-brain system. Think of reality as a collective dream: in a dream, it is your dream character that is in your consciousness, not your consciousness in your dream character. This becomes obvious when you wake up, but isn’t at all obvious while you are dreaming. Furthermore, I maintain that the body-brain system is the image of a process of localization in the stream of consciousness, like a whirlpool is the image of a process of localization in a stream of water. It is this localization that leads to the illusion of personal identity and separateness. For exactly the same reason that a whirlpool doesn’t generate water, your brain doesn’t generate consciousness. Yet, because the image of a process correlates tightly with the inner dynamics of the process – just like the color of flames correlates tightly with the microscopic details of the process of combustion – brain activity correlates with subjective experience. Motivated by this correlation, materialists naively mistake the image of the process for the cause of the process. Finally, while particular types of brain activity are the image of egoic processes in consciousness, the rest of the physical body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ psyche. I maintain that the ego corresponds to self-reflective processes in consciousness – that is, processes that you are aware that you are aware of – while the ‘unconscious’ corresponds to non-self-reflective processes also in consciousness. As such, there is no true unconscious, but simply processes in consciousness that become obfuscated by the ‘glare’ of self-reflective awareness, in the same way that the stars become obfuscated by the glare of the sun at noon. Now, as the body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious,’ the world at large is also the image of a collective ‘unconscious.’ That is the reason we all seem to share the same reality. See the figure below.
The key point in this whole story, as far as integrative medicine is concerned, is this: beyond certain specific types of brain activity that correlate with egoic awareness, the rest of the physical body is the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ minds. The body isn’t merely a lump of matter fundamentally independent from, and outside, our psyche: it is the image of buried emotions, feelings, beliefs, cognitive processes and structures of consciousness that escape the field of our self-reflective awareness. Now, just as blue flames are the image of hotter combustion and red flames the image of colder combustion, so a healthy body is the image of healthy psychic activity and an ill body is the image of unhealthy psychic activity in the personal ‘unconscious.’ This way, if we need to speak in terms of causation, it is fair to say that unhealthy psychic activity in the personal ‘unconscious’ causes all illnesses. This shows the importance of integrative medicine: we can treat all illnesses by influencing ‘unconscious’ psychic activity.
A note of caution is required at this point. Many alternative healing techniques are promoted today that focus on the ego: affirmations, positive thinking, visualization, etc. But for as long as the corresponding psychic activity remains in the ego, it won’t affect the rest of the body. Because the body is the image of non-egoic psychic activity, whatever remains in the ego cannot influence the body. How many people get seriously ill despite assiduously practicing positive thinking and visualizations? How many people continue to suffer from the conditions they try to overcome with their daily health affirmations? Clearly, it isn’t enough to refurnish the ego: the new furniture has to sink into the cellar of our personal psyches if it is to have bodily effect. It has to be assimilated by the core of one’s being.
This isn’t necessarily bad news, for it works the other way around as well: hypochondriacs, for instance, need not worry about ‘attracting’ the very illnesses they are constantly anxious about. Their anxiety resides in their egoic awareness, this being precisely the reason why they suffer. Remaining self-reflectively aware of unhealthy psychic activity causes psychological distress, for sure, but it also prevents that activity from becoming somatized as physical illness. Depth psychology has, for decades, insisted in the need to bring unhealthy psychic activity into the light of self-reflective awareness, where it does less damage and can be more easily treated through talk therapy.
Nobody needs to feel guilty about ‘attracting’ illness due to a negative mood disposition, since such disposition isn’t ‘unconscious.’ If it were, you wouldn’t be aware of it and wouldn’t feel guilty to begin with. Do you see what I mean? Generally speaking, you cannot know at an egoic level whether your psychic dispositions are going to compromise your health, for the dispositions that can do so are, by their very nature, ‘unconscious.’ Case in point: a meta-study has shown that ‘extremely low anger scores have been noted in numerous studies of patients with cancer. Such low scores suggest suppression, repression, or restraint of anger. There is evidence to show that suppressed anger can be a precursor to the development of cancer, and also a factor in its progression after diagnosis.’ [Thomas, S. P. et al (2000). Anger and cancer: an analysis of the linkages. Cancer Nursing, 23(5), pp. 344-9] This is entirely consistent with the explanatory framework I am putting forward here: anger only becomes somatized if it escapes egoic awareness and drops into the personal ‘unconscious.’ But the irony is clear in the quote: it is precisely low anger scores that indicate high internalized levels of, well, anger! How is a patient to tell a healthy lack of anger from internalized, ‘unconscious’ anger? Should people who do not feel angry start worrying about anger-caused cancer? That would be preposterous. Only trained therapists can differentiate between a healthy lack of negative emotions and deeply buried emotions; and even then only tentatively. Either way, worry is illogical.
Another thing to take into account is this: as the image of our personal ‘unconscious’ psyches, the body is connected not only to the ego on one side, but also to the collective ‘unconscious’ on the other side. See the figure above again. Now, since the physical world we perceive around us is the image of the activity of the collective ‘unconscious,’ environmental stressors like viruses, bacteria, exposure to the elements, nutrition, physical trauma, pollutants, drugs, etc., all obviously influence our bodily health. The problem is that this is the only avenue of influence that materialist medicine acknowledges. Therefore, it misses half of the problem and half of the avenues of healing.
The view that all reality is a manifestation of consciousness in consciousness points to the following twin-avenues for effective integrative medicine: first, the patient must be helped to bring all negative psychic activity into the light of self-reflective awareness, so it doesn’t become somatized. The patient’s ego must acknowledge and welcome the patient’s buried, repressed material. Once this happens, the patient can be treated through the oldest, simplest and most effective healing method ever devised by mankind: heart-to-heart personal interaction between patient and healer. Second, healers can influence the psychic conditions in the personal ‘unconscious’ – seat of all illness – through the egoic channel. But for this to be effective, healers must help patients internalize the treatment, so it drops past the ego and into the deeper layers of the psyche. Here is where the art and skill of the healer comes into play, for this ‘dropping in’ must be accomplished through bypassing egoic barriers and defense mechanisms. A form of benign manipulation is required, which may conflict with present-day notions of ethics.
A case in point is the so-called placebo effect. Current practice in approving new drugs and treatments is that they must be demonstrated to be more effective than the proverbial ‘sugar pills.’ A serious problem for the pharmaceutical industry is the growing effectiveness of placebos in combating illness, which makes new drugs increasingly more difficult to approve [Silberman, S. (2009). Placebos Are Getting More Effective. Drugmakers Are Desperate to Know Why. Wired Magazine, 17.09, 24 August 2009]. The elephant in the room, obviously, is that placebos work, and more so in recent years. Clearly, through the power of suggestion and a form of benign egoic manipulation, a real effect is produced in the patient’s personal ‘unconscious;’ an effect whose image is renewed bodily health. To close one’s eyes to the greatly beneficial implications of this fact is insane. Even the ethical questions often raised (‘Can we deliberately deceive the patient?’) are based on prejudices: there is no deception if the method works. It is hardly relevant, for instance, whether reiki or homeopathy work for the theoretical reasons claimed by their practitioners or for entirely different reasons, as long as they do work. As a matter of fact, the theoretical reasons offered by the practitioners may be integral to the treatment insofar as they provide the patient’s ego with models and images that help lower the ego’s defenses. Without those, the treatment may never fully penetrate the patient’s psyche and drop into the personal ‘unconscious,’ the only place where physical healing can occur. Moreover, even mainstream science depends largely on convenient fictions like, for instance, force-carrying subatomic particles [Okasha, S. (2002). Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, Chapter 4]. We claim these convenient fictions to be legitimate because we can build working technology based on them: empirically, things work as if the fictions were true, and that’s good enough. Why not apply the same sensible pragmatism to the healing arts? Maybe acupuncture works as if energy meridians were true and, until we know better, that’s good enough too.
We have every logical reason – not to mention myriad empirical ones – to give ourselves rational permission to embrace and trust integrative medicine. It explores effective avenues of treatment that have been left untouched by mainstream materialist medicine. Today’s healthcare systems treat us as biological robots because the materialist metaphysics defines us as such. Consequently, doctors often behave as mechanics instead of healers. But for millennia prior to modern medicine, it was the sheer strength of the healer’s personal presence, as well as the psychic effects of his or her often-intricate techniques, that helped people heal. Back then, we lacked the avenue of the collective ‘unconscious’ in the form of effective drugs and surgery. Now, the situation has been reversed: we focus solely on the collective ‘unconscious’ methods of drugs and surgery, ignoring the egoic channel. The time has come to explore both of these avenues concurrently. The time has come for integrative medicine. Human health and wellbeing demand no less.
(Regarding this essay in particular, I'd much appreciate your feedback: Is integrative medicine a valid area for applying philosophical insights? Is it an important focus area in the so-called 'culture war'? Is this something you think I should be spending effort on? Please leave a comment below or participate in my Discussion Forum)