An interesting snippet caught my ear on the BBC news today. It was about a poetry competition organised by Yale University and London’s UCL for medical and engineering students. The iniator was cardiologist and published poet Prof John Martin, and his motivation for doing so: “Medical students are at risk of becoming ‘intellectually brutalized’…conditioned to focus upon the microscopic at the expense of the holistic.”
This risk is very real in medicine. I consider myself to have been partly, but very literally, delivered from it by studying social psychology in my third year – after which, I could never take scientific reductionism as quite so all-conquering as before.
In later years I came across others who had found that their full humanness had got lost somewhere along the medical way. I attended a course by a group called (if I remember correctly) Medical Humanities, in which some serious work was done on exploring both the impact of medical issues on practitioners as people, and the modern mythology of science, through literature, film and other arts.
Personally this was less liberating for me than for some others, because I had found the same kinds of issues dealt with much earlier, and in more depth, by Christian medical organisations like Christians in Caring Professions and Christian Medical Fellowship. The latter, in particular, had initiated an excellent series of conferences for GPs, called Doctors’ Dilemmas, in which spiritual problems and personal development were combined with academically excellent updates. In the last category I remember the therapeutics tutor taught more about the critical appraisal of the medical literature (and its frequent shortcomings) than they had ever offered at medical school. One small spin-off was that I started what was, for a year or so, the first multidisciplinary general practice team for Chronic Fatigue Syndrome in the UK, until the funding ran out.
But the real importance was holism, not so much in the trendy sense of “treat the whole patient [small print – by embracing woo therapies]”, but in the sense of being a whole person, in which the medical science is seen in the context of the people it affects and their lives, and those real, unique, people in the context of the whole creation in all its mystery and richness.
I’ve not worked in scientific fields apart from medicine, but given the latter’s professional structures and reputation as a “healing art” I would suspect that the dangers of such brutalisation are at least as real and probably worse for other physical scientists, especially in the life sciences. It would appear from my interactions on the faith-science scene over the last few years to affect believers as much as others. For example, it’s hard to understand how one can build a theology of creation that majors on its alleged cruelties and errors without having become somehow blind to the big picture – which has always been seen as the matter for poetry, art, music and adoration of the Creator’s wisdom.
This, it seems to me, is the danger of scientism, understood as the belief that only scientific truth is worthy of serious consideration. It’s not so much that it is wrong, in an intellectual sense; nor even that it will inevitably lead to a dystopian society – more often just to dystopic elements within societies. The commonest fallout is the truncation of the humanity of those who are seduced by it – or indoctrinated in it, as certainly was the case in my medical training and is probably even more so nowadays, given the extreme specialisation of which Prof Martin complains.
B B Warfield’s posthumous biography of Charles Darwin’s spiritual life suggests a similar process taking place in the great scientist’s life. It’s actually available online from Warfield’s Princeton alma mater. In it, he catalogues, from Darwin’s own writings, the evidence not only of his departure from religious belief – which could have many reasons and is widely thought nowadays to be largely due to his personal grief from his daughter’s death, a factor unknown to Warfield – but in his decreasing appreciation for poetry, art and music and, eventually, even in the diminishing sense of awe and wonder he had once felt in nature itself. What remaining sense of the numinous he felt, he attributed to the mere “emotion” of sublimity, which in turn he resolved (in Descent of Man) to evolved behaviours, though he later wished that “someone could analyse this feeling of sublimity,” so his evolutionary explanation was hardly conclusive. As Warfield relates, there was a time when:
the grandeur of a Brazilian rain forest stirred his heart with feelings not only of wonder and admiration but also of devotion, and filled and elevated his mind. He sadly confesses that the grandest scenes would no longer awaken such convictions and feelings within him, and acknowledged that he is become like a man who is colour-blind and whose failure to see is of no value as evidence against the universal belief of men.
As Warfield concludes, Darwin did not eject reverence and faith, or encyst them, but they simply atrophied, dissolving painlessly away. But though Warfield’s main subject is Darwin’s religion, it appears to have been exactly the same process
…by which he lost his power of enjoying poetry, music, and to a large extent scenery.
As no doubt Prof Martin would concur, those whose humanity has atrophied are the last to be able to recognise that the problem is within themselves, rather than in the ignorant foolishness of the rest of the world. In their mind they have been “educated”. Education, though, is not a value-free word. Those going through the madrassas in Pakistan are also receiving an education.
Medical education, at least, is not ideologically intended to be scientistic, any more than Darwin seems to have planned to exclude non-scientific truth from his life. But by focusing so exclusively on science alone, its result tends to be scientism, unconsciously imbibed, but maybe in many cases consciously embraced in the end, for want of anything else.
After all, the successfully brutalized do not write the poetry, but mock the poets.