So where do we look to find hope amidst health declines statistics this sobering?
Knowing that the pursuit of happiness is so intimately tied to our health, it would make sense that we would be very interested in health. Yet in light of the statistics we just looked at, to someone observing our culture from the outside it might seem like Americans today are really not all that interested in vitality. Heck, judging by the statistics alone, we must either be the most apathetic people on the planet, or there is some massive outbreak we have yet to discover. After all, Americans as a whole are not only the most obese nation in the world, even those who are not obese, often wrestle with aches and pains and the, “extra 10 pounds”, and find it next to impossible to maintain an ideal weight. Why?
It’s pretty obvious that health declines of this proportion are not created in a vacuum. They have to be coming from somewhere, but where? Perhaps a good place to start searching for answers is by looking for assumptions we make about the ways things are. The two easiest places to look are our cultural and our mindset. Both of these are somewhat like what water is to a fish. It’s all around us, and it’s not uncommon to have a hard time looking at our culture and mindset from an outside perspective. Stepping outside it as best we can, through a brief look at relevant history can help us see how we’ve come to think a certain way. Since the health declines we are talking about were not created in a vacuum it is safe to say that our current mindset toward health was not created in a vacuum either. Our mindset developed from somewhere too. It makes sense that if we are going to change our health, we might first need to take a look how we’ve come to think about health.
I submit to you that much of the way most Americans think about health today stems from thinking of a few hundred years ago to an era in history known as the “Enlightenment”. The Enlightenment is known as the “Age of Reason”, and was marked by the belief that reason was the ultimate authority. Through logic, that is to say, reducing complex problems to explainable variables, it was believed we could discern ultimate truth and explain most of the mysteries of life. An overflowing confidence in reason developed because during this period of history science and technology were beginning to make exponential gains. Science helped us develop an understanding of sanitation, gravity, physics, electricity, combustion, and countless other topics. Concurrently, there was probably no invention more influential at shaping modern thinking about life in general, and health in particular, than the invention of the microscope.
Although it’s debated who should get credit for the invention of the microscope, it is not debated that it allowed us to begin to understand the natural world in ways we never had before. Through the help of the microscope we came to realize that big things (us) are made up of smaller things (cells), and that other small things (microbes) can actually affect our health. Thus, it made sense that the way to understand health was to study the small parts of what make us who we are. As new discoveries were made that exposed just how complicated the natural world is, science began to fragment into more and more specific disciplines to help us uncover more about the natural world. We shall soon discuss the ramifications this has for medical science and other areas of health.
Perhaps the simultaneously greatest and worst thing the microscope allowed to do was to expand our understanding of chemistry. Chemistry helped us explain so many previously mysterious facets of nature; at the same time it also empowered human curiosity and our (more admittedly male) tendency toward conquering things. In essence, chemistry allowed us to “tinker” with nature. We realized we could create molecules that never existed before in all of history. We realized we could create microscopic changes that had huge ramifications (see the atomic bomb). In a sense, through chemistry, we could match wits with, and conquer, nature. Since science was often effective at making the natural world appear to bend to our wishes we tended to develop a confidence, or perhaps an arrogance, that we knew better than nature and that science would show us how to make the world better.
During the Enlightenment, science made the subtle shift from being something that helped us understand and work with nature, to also being a tool to manipulate nature. For good and bad, since science was often exceedingly effective at offering rational explanations to complex subjects, in so doing it was able to uproot many long held beliefs and traditions. For instance, instead of disease being seen as a lack of favor with God, it could now be seen as a problem of microbes or chemical dysfunction—and we can attack those problems with science. Instead of plants being seen whole entities they were now seen as carriers of chemical components that we can extract and manipulate. The understanding of living things as biochemical organisms with chemistry that could be manipulated made it a short step to viewing living beings as little more than machines—something with swappable (or removable) parts and chemistry to be tinkered with. For both good and bad, by giving logical explanations to what was a previously a mysterious phenomenon, and by opening the Pandora’s box of organic chemistry, science began shifting the public’s confidence away from various traditions and toward the scientific method as the only credible tool with which to approach nature.
Stay tuned for more next post…
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