Thursday, December 29, 2011
The real strength comes when you are in touch with the ground on which you stand, literally and metaphorically. I’m on home ground in my own self. I do admire the wonderful edifice built by scientists. This morning Melvyn Bragg’s radio programme, “In Our Time” was a discussion of macromolecules “that form the basis of all life”. We know them as polymers. They are the basis of spiders’ webs and most of our plastic packaging. We use a lot of oil and fuel-energy to make plastic bags, but a spider eats flies and other garbage to produce gossamer stronger than steel, using only water-based chemical processes. Not only that, spiders’ webs are biodegradable, unlike our own legacy of plastics in landfill sites, which may litter the planet (including the oceans) almost forever.
That science is a deadly litterer is not science’s fault, you may say. Blame business, blame governments. It is they who sponsor science, which is morally neutral. Like a prostitute: the acts she offers to perform are to please her clients, not her own choice. When I make the comparison I am morally neutral too. I don’t condemn prostitutes, nor their clients either. Nor do I attempt by rhetoric to stir the emotions of my regular readers. They are too sophisticated to fall for that.
I wrote a post on this blog about litter on 30th June 2007. I remember the occasion very well. This blog is a kind of journal for me, recording moments trivial in themselves but accompanied by a flash of illumination which were palely echoed in my words at the time. I have a photographic memory of a spot up against a hedgerow in a recreation ground in Bracknell, Berkshire, which I used to call Babylon Town. I used to refer to the company I worked for as Maxiram: in fact it was the Fujitsu Corporation. Every lunchtime I’d follow impulse and go walking in the surrounding area. On that day, I saw some plastic bottles left like the borders of a square to record the visit of a group who must have sat or lain in the shade of that hedgerow and enjoyed themselves. I record on that post my feelings at the time: “I didn’t blame them for the non-biodegradable quality of the bottles.” From the programme “In Our Time” I learn that science could, if it had sufficient incentive, develop polymers with the qualities of spider-silk, which careless youth could litter carelessly, with all the innocence of Adam and Eve before the Fall. We are not there yet.
In this blog, long ago labelled “perpetual-lab” and originally titled “An Ongoing Experiment”, you can observe, as I do, that I don’t follow reason so much as blind impulse. That is my own intuitive substitute for the normal conventions of scientific method. It’s fallible, prone to the grossest error, but tell me what isn’t! My real strength is to allow something other than my conscious mind to come through. Any wisdom expressed here is our common wisdom, the wisdom of this organism called Earth, which is part of a bigger organism called the Universe, which started, so the scientists’ creation myth tells us, with a Big Bang. I like to listen to the other creation myths too, such as those of the shamans scattered over various parts of the globe. They say there was once a common language, common to all species—birds, beasts, plants, rocks and us. We are cut from the same cloth. Our sense of separateness is balanced, if only our culture and our individual life-journey would allow us to see it, by a sense of oneness: which is more than a “sense”. We are bound together in our destiny. Homo sapiens is currently dominant. This is very scary indeed: for us and all the other species, animal, vegetable and even mineral (for we plunder minerals too).
Without wisdom, every single thing we do, utter or even think is dangerous. Let us take science, and out of science let us extract “medical science”. Here I have to be mindful of John Muir’s dictum that “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.” Everything interacts. But that is not my experience when I go to see my doctor. When I have symptoms, they are a signal for me to go to the wise man, who in my culture is the “general practitioner” (GP) within the United Kingdom’s free National Health Service. He sees clusters of symptoms but hardly the bigger picture. I don’t like to talk about this kind of thing. It tends to result in well-wishers wishing me well, which is nice, but distracts from the point I am trying to make. So let me cloak it in fiction, and say that I go to the doctor because I sometimes suffer from a temporary condition such as scintillating scotoma (see accompanying illustrations from an artist-sufferer’s impressions), together with certain other symptoms. As it happens, he ignores the scotoma. He seems to care about the other symptoms more. He gives me a thorough physical examination, one of which is so intimate, I’ll leave you to guess what. At least he asked permission first. It’s a man thing. Men of my age are prone to a certain part going wrong. He also sends me for a blood test. My blood reveals as much about my health as my untamed intuitions reveal about this organism called me which, in my view, is connected almost seamlessly to you and everything else on Earth. Everything is hitched to everything else in the Universe, but medical science hasn’t got there yet. My GP certainly hasn’t. He looks at the parts, certainly not the whole.
The amusing thing I notice about my symptoms is this. Once I’ve reported them to my GP, they disappear! This is an instance of what they call “the placebo effect”. If you look up the web, they describe it as “the power of positive thinking” and suggest it can be activated by a sugar-pill. I have no reason to argue with that. I can’t have any reason to argue with the medical profession’s definition of a medical term. But I am in need of some term to explain a phenomenon I have oft observed. When I have a pain, physical or metaphorical, it’s a spur to action. I must fix it and if all else fails I must go to the shaman, which in my culture as I’ve said is the GP, the psychotherapist, the plumber, the police, etc. I pick the wisest I can find and leave it in their hands. Lo and behold, the pain disappears. As ever, the exception proves (i.e. tests) the rule. I did need a plumber recently but he was a rogue, a “cowboy” as we say. My logical conscious mind made allowances (with considerable effort) for his behaviour. But my super-intelligent body kept me awake during the night. My conscious mind cursed my weakness: “Be a man! You did the right thing. Don’t be intimidated.” Insomnia is like a symptom. It makes you act the next morning. Once you’ve made the right decision, the symptom (in this case nagging worry) goes away. The proper decision was to contact a proper plumber. The moment I’d done that, I stopped worrying about the water leak. That, as we say, was “a piece of cake” to fix. There is something inside us that knows, that makes proper judgements. Logic, conscious mind, reason: faculties which can be easily fooled. Gut feeling is better. Even though it can be fooled too.
So this is the nature of the placebo effect. The body sends symptoms to warn us, and removes them when it receives messages that we’ve done what we can. The body is super-intelligent but alas this is very different from infallible. There is no perfection. (So doctor, don’t be a cynic who hands out sugar-pills. That’s a betrayal of your patient’s trust, even a hypochondriac one.) One might say that yes there is a God (where God is an algebraic expression x standing in for all that is more beneficent, knowing and powerful than us, which acts on our behalf when we let go the reins of our own imperious mind enough to let it). Nevertheless, x may not be perfect. Or rather, we cannot possibly know if x is imperfect or not. You and I are parts of a bigger whole. How can we judge? How can we possibly dare to let our conscious minds dictate the future of this organism Earth (or possibly Universe) of which we are integral parts?
In my first sentence I mentioned amongst other things “defiance of one’s own doctor”. I don’t blame the dear man. He’s a highly efficient chessman (above a pawn in rank) of a huge organism designed to channel the UK taxpayer’s money into pursuing Health. It’s not his job to actually define health. That is done at a higher level, in conjunction with those necessary accountants they call “bean-counters” so that the voter can know if he and she are getting value for money. The bean-counters demand metrics, of which the most eloquent is longevity. Yes, all very well. Conditionally and for the time being I shall collude with my doctor’s efforts to stave off my demise. But Health is far more than longevity. Health encompasses happiness, living harmoniously, creatively, with love for all, free of crime and ill-will. Longevity in itself is a worthless coin.
Posted by Vincent at 1:52 pm