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When did we get so closed minded?

Dr Karine Nohr delves into history to see why many are dissatisfied with the current mechanistic view of medicine

When the Catholic Church was the prevailing ideology in Western Europe, like other world religions, it offered a holistic model of life. Everything could be understood and explained by reference to this doctrine and we, as human-beings, were described as having been created in God's own image.

The introduction of Protestantism challenged the view that a priest stood between us as individuals and God. The lay person was no less holy than the priest and the converse of this was that we each had individual responsibility and that we were not just part of the flock.

Thus there was a subtle shift in the role that religion had to play. This set the beginning of secularism, whereby people began to challenge the omniscience of the Church and the very substance of spirituality.

At the same time, the renaissance movement had a profound effect on cultural life. Leonardo da Vinci's Vitruvian Man drew the perfectly proportionate man, who could be fitted into a circle or a square. Although Da Vinci was attempting to draw an analogy of the workings of the human body with the workings of the Universe and to relate man to Nature, within a greater context of striving for rationalism, the imagery could also be seen as quite mechanistic and reductionist.

Alongside of this, the alchemists were busy trying to attain two main ambitions, the first was to find a way of creating gold from other metals and the second was to find the elixir of eternal life.

The pursuit of this knowledge was not only a fact-finding quest but was also a spiritual pursuit, as it was believed that the soul of the alchemist itself would be intrinsically bound up with the pursuit of this knowledge.

A by-product of the alchemist's endeavours was the development of the origins of modern chemistry. Although on the one hand the alchemist could be quite methodical in his study, taking notes and adhering to certain principles, he had no interest in the incidental findings that lead to the discovery of other elements.

This was, however, picked up by the early modern chemists, who did not have a spiritual attachment to the work and were intrigued by the lateral possibilities of interactions and transformations of chemical substances in the alchemists work.

Paradoxically, on the one hand, these chemists were able to identify that the substances that we humans are made of are just the same as those substances that make up other creatures and plants and so on, on the other hand this lead to the notion that we could reduce our medical interventions from one of the use of plants to one that used an individual chemical.

A fourth factor was the proximate ‘age of exploration', with the ‘discovery' of other continents, and the domination of those colonies gave Europeans the sense of omnipotence and that they could control and conquer anything that they could set their minds to do.

So these were some of the forces at play in Europe, that did not exist in other parts of the world, that lead to a reductionist view of medicine.

Ironically, the absence of spirituality in our society today leaves many people with a prevailing sense of something missing. The prevailing ideology of ‘the market' has failed to provide a sense of purpose or meaning in people's lives. Hence, people turn to other world religions. But these are not contiguous with our political systems and so fail to provide a sense of order and joined up thinking.

This dissatisfaction, often enough, also extends into the medical setting, with the accompanying search for other ways of addressing medical problems, one that takes into account a holistic perspective.

Dr Karine Nohr is a GP in Sheffield

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