The good thing about a blog, is that I get to treat it like a pensieve (see Harry Potter). I can unload my thoughts and examine them later. I no longer have to fill Facebook with the constant stream of half-baked thoughts. I can bake them a little bit more without you feeling like you have to read it or have to scroll a little more than you care to.
In springtime, I become very spiritual. It’s been that way for many years. Perhaps it is because of the season of Lent. I participate in the forums at The Center for Progressive Christianity (TCPC) to work out my experiences and ideas. The forum is made up of Christian humanists, atheists, mystics, science junkies, the occasional conservative troll, seekers, and me. My viewpoints regarding the supernatural (miracles, communication with God/Jesus, divine intervention, healing) is often in the minority. I don’t fit squarely in any sect of Christianity, although I feel somewhat comfortable in any. I say somewhat because there’s always some bit of any sect which I am in conflict with.
A recurring debate on TCPC is on the term supernatural. Whether it is real. Whether or not it’s the right word. Whether or not I’m mentally unstable for believing in spiritual phenomena which cannot be explained with science . Here was my statement:
I believe that the concept of supernatural is an illusion. Scientific knowledge continues to evolve. If scientists had it all figured out, then they could go and be professors or chemists or something. There is a gap between the ultimate reality of nature and what we’ve observed scientifically. Of that, there can be little doubt. The word supernatural should properly be superscience because what I’m experiencing is natural.
What we generally agree on at TCPC is that there is nothing in our Universe that is not natural or superseding what is natural, though many outside of the forum would disagree. Some mean to say that nothing which science has not observed can be real. Some mean to say that occurrences outside of scientific knowledge are in fact natural, but not understood in scientific terms. Enter my new word, superscience (outside of science). It is natural, but it stands outside of the scope of science. But perhaps superscience as a term is superfluous. Google defines supernatural this way.
(of a manifestation or event) attributed to some force beyond scientific understanding or the laws of nature.
Hey. That is precisely the idea I was trying to convey with my new word superscience. Case closed.
Tolstoy and Medicine
I’m reading War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy. The story takes place in the early 1800s in Russia during the Napoleonic wars. It was written in 1863. On occasion, Tolstoy writes of someone who is ill and must be attended to by a doctor. He makes a point of explaining the choices his characters must make regarding medicine.
He puts medicine in the category of belief. Whether pharmaceuticals and other medical treatments work is a matter of belief. And the more one believes, the more likely the medicine is to be effective. The doctors insist that the success of the patient’s treatment depends greatly on their willingness to be positive about it.
I don’t really know anything about 19th century medicine or if this stems from Tolstoy’s personal opinions which may be subject to bias. But I’m thinking of how far we’ve come in such a short period of time with medicine. We accept that drugs work, surgery works, and more because they do. Ultimately, it is not the science which compels us, it is the result. However, there are some areas which we are still in the 1800s about. We doubt homeopathy, some nutritional treatments, chiropractics, and most alarmingly, vaccination. But what is that? Is it because of the lack of compelling scientific evidence or is it because it doesn’t work for us?
Vaccination is a known quantity. We know that it works beyond a shadow of a doubt, but many are concerned about unwanted effects. I think polio, however is an unwanted effect of not taking the vaccine. But the other stuff. How much does belief play a role in the success of herbs, cutting gluten and dairy, and spinal alignment? Perhaps it’s just as quacky as whatever Tolstoy’s doctors were prescribing. Or perhaps we need to do a little more work on it. I don’t know. What I do know is that I’ve had tremendous results with saw palmetto and going gluten-free and I’m a huge skeptic with herbs and nutritional treatments. I don’t think it works because I believe in it. I believe in it because it works for me. In a loose sense of the word, I’m an empiricist. My experience forms my beliefs when it comes to subjective matters especially. I believe in God because I’ve experienced God. I believe in nutritional treatments for medical problems because they’ve worked for me.
The most controversial subject in my entire belief system is that eliminating gluten from my diet even though I do not have Celiac’s Disease has solved a problem for me. I’ve written about it before, but I write about it again to illustrate the way I work. I have friends who wouldn’t dream of harassing me about spiritual matters or political matters who would write an entire book about gluten and how bogus a threat it is to prove me wrong about this.
The truth is, I’m very much a skeptic of natural solutions to medical problems. I trust pharmaceuticals. But I was out of ideas for a problem I was having. I take several heavy-duty meds for bipolar disorder. They dull my senses. My functional IQ dropped 15-20 points according to the most rigorous online IQ tests I could find. My career as a software engineer requires a very high intellect, and I was getting very bad at my job. So I went to my psychiatrist with the problem. We agreed that any shift in my drugs could destabilized my continued wellness. I knew what I thought he’d say. He’s a DO (Doctor of Osteopathy), not an MD. A DO can do anything an MD can do, but they tend to have a more holistic approach. My doctor prescribes drugs, but only at the minimum. He prescribes supplements, nutrition, sunshine, and exercise with his patients. He sees himself on the cutting edge of psychiatry, and I viewed him as a quack. But I don’t any more.
What I thought he would say was, “No dairy, no gluten”. Because that’s the trend. I tend to lean toward Dr. Zorba Paster (On Your Health) on NPR. He says, skeptically but politely, “Sure, it’s perfectly fine to try x. It will not harm you in any way. There is no scientific evidence to support that it helps, but if it works for you then go ahead and try it.”
But my doc did not mention dairy. He explained that wheat had been perfectly fine until the 50s when some guy got the Nobel Prize for inventing dwarf wheat, because dwarf wheat grows very fast. The idea is that it would solve the hunger problem, and it certainly has helped. But the problem with dwarf wheat, he says, is that it contains a much higher gluten content to the point that it is affecting some people in a negative way, gluten-sensitive people. He rattled off a list of possible gluten-sensitive symptoms, and I certainly had a lot of them. But the most important one was brain fog. And this is why I was there asking him for help.
Although I was skeptical, I was willing to try it because this was a serious problem and I saw no other alternatives. Within a short period of time, I was getting significant results. My performance at work picked up. The same IQ tests I took before, were showing a return of my mental functioning.
You can show me any scientific material that shows that gluten has no negative effects on people who do not have Celiac’s Disease, but all I really trust is my experience. It works for me. When I try to introduce gluten in my diet again, the problem comes back. I’ve tried three times with the same result. Perhaps I wouldn’t need to cut gluten if I weren’t on such heavy meds, but that’s not going to change.
So how much of an empiricist am I? Well the truth is, I accept most things as fact because I trust the people who are saying them either because they are in the majority or I trust their expertise. But there are gray areas, subjective areas, where it comes down to my own experience. I acknowledge that my personal experience contributes very little to the fact of a thing, but it makes all the difference in the world for me.
I understand the non-theist’s skepticism to my experience of the superscience, Tolstoy’s skepticism of medicine, and my well-meaning friends’ skepticism of my gluten-free lifestyle. But what they might not understand is if they experienced what I’ve experienced they might see it differently.