Monthly Archives: May 2011
The foundation of holism or holistic medicine rests on a triumvirate — body, mind and spirit. Actually, as the mind is an expression of the various regions of the brain — a species of the physical — we are really dealing with body/brain and spirit. The former, of course, has been probed and explored using the tools of medicine and science. No one questions their reality. Spirit, on the other hand, by most definitions is non-material, and thus lies beyond the purview of science; that is, one cannot demonstrate spirit using a gas chromatograph, scanning electron microscope, or any other tool in the armamentarium of science.
But what of the effects of spirit? If it exists, should we not be able to detect its effects on the physical realm? This is a question which now occupies many philosophers, some scientists and physicians, and many laypeople.
One very often cited manifestation of spirit lies in the realm of answered prayer. Numerous studies have been carried out in which patients with a given affliction were divided into two groups: One received prayer (experimental group) and the other (control group) didn’t. The prayers were offered off-site and no one involved in the study knew who was being prayed for and who wasn’t (double-blind).
The bottom line of many of these studies is that prayer appears to have made a significant difference in the relief or cure of the malady or affliction in the experimental group, while those in the control group had no appreciable change in their condition. The rigor of these studies has been found wanting by countless impartial investigators. That is, flaws in study design, methodology and/or execution have basically invalidated the findings of these clinical trials.
What of the healings connected with religious shrines, such as Lourdes? There have been approximately 69 healings connected with Lourdes which have met the Catholic church’s criteria for a bona fide miracle — 69 out of the hundreds of thousands of petitions for healing. This is not statistically significant. In short, the numbers do not support the notion that the rate of recovery/healing at Lourdes is greater than would be expected to occur as a result of normal processes. (One can expect a certain percentage of even incurable illnesses to suddenly and inexplicably go into remission. These recoveries happen to non-believer and believer alike — and hence appear contingent on natural and not supernatural mechanisms.)
I know what many of you are thinking — “Leave it to a skeptical, non-believing blankety-blank science guy to trash our sacred beliefs.” If you are nodding your head in agreement — you are dead wrong. First of all, I am a believer. I also believe that God hears and answers prayer — and even heals people. Well, wait a minute, isn’t this contradictory or hypocritical, given what I wrote above? No, indeed, for I do not allege that my beliefs are based on hard science nor the manifestations of spirit, or God so physically evident as to permit measurement or quantification. In fact, those who believe that spirit, God, or any aspect of the supernatural can be demonstrated in a controlled study or lab experiment invite upon themselves the unenviable task of proving their claims. (It is always incumbent on those who propose the existence of something which can be physically detected and, thus measured, to do just that.) And I, for one, do not believe that they will ever garner any substantive proof. Why?
Consider this: In virtually every religious tradition God requires that humankind both apprehend His existence and relate to him via faith — a conviction based not on the physical and demonstrable, but on sheer belief. If God were to reveal Himself in the lab or clinical trial setting — say, by answering the prayers for healing in an experimental group at rates which exceed chance — the need for faith would be dispensed with. We could base our confidence, our belief in the spiritual and a First Cause (God) on the hard data provided by the study in question.
This, of course, would make God the author of a serious contradiction and would obligate most major religions to toss out many of their principle doctrines concerning the nature of the deity, the need for faith as a requisite for apprehending the divine, et cetera. It would also raise serious questions as to the reliability of revealed truths about God (oral and written traditions).
Since I do not believe God would ask one thing (faith) and then reveal Himself in a concrete, scientifically demonstrable fashion, I am not surprised or dismayed that laboratory experiments and clinical trials do not turn upon any credible data which stands up to scrutiny. I also realize, however, that there are some who believe that faith isn’t the only requisite to apprehending God or the supernatural and will continue to carry out studies aimed at catching a glimpse of the divine in action.
In my opinion they are wasting both time and money, but should they one day prove to be right — if they do incontrovertibly demonstrate the efficacy of prayerful supplication (to God) in healing a given malady — skeptic and believer alike will be making some rather profound changes to their distinct perspectives. This isn’t beyond the pale of possibility. I think, however, that such definitive proof will in some ways weigh more heavily on the religionist then the agnostic or skeptic.
While the debate rages and the studies plod along, what role then should the spiritual play in healing/medicine? I think most physicians — even diehard atheists — at the very least accommodate a narrow species of “spirituality,” in the sense of encouraging hope and making use of patient expectation to afford relief, if not cure.
In holistic medicine, on the other hand, the spiritual element more often takes on a different character and importance. The holistic medical community plays host to wide range of spiritual beliefs, including American Indian, New Age, Buddhist, Christian. As long as this spirituality is not called “scientific” or “hard science-based,” or makes claims which can be tested using the tools and methods of science, its place in the patient care repertoire of holistic health care practitioners remains a matter of personal prerogative. And doesn’t faith and personal prerogative lie at the core of human spirituality?
In the final analysis, I think we will find that the substantiation of faith begins and ends on one’s knees — and in one’s heart — and not in the laboratory.
Copyright 2011 by Dr. Anthony G. Payne. All rights reserved.
In 1985 a violent spring storm that swept Dallas (Texas) blew a baby bird out of its nest in an oak tree near my home and into my life. I raised this orphaned featherless descendant of the dinosaurs but had no idea what species he belonged to. Not, that is, until he feather up and it became evident he was a European starling. This was thrilling to me because I was aware of the fact that starlings are mimics like Myna birds. With this in mind I began feeding the bird, now named “Calypso,” certain words and whistled fragments of songs along with his mealworms and Myna pellets.
Around the third month after his “adoption” Calypso began whistling “Beethoven’s Fifth” and proclaiming, “I’m Calypso, I’m a big baby boy” and “Feed me, I’m hungry.”
What intrigued me was the fact Calypso used language in context and created syntactically correct new sentences. Many years later Cornell University ornithologists published research detailing how they had formally documented the same faculty in these highly intelligent birds.
Later on, I performed experiments in which I took baby starlings, raised them and exposed them to Calypso and his language (while remaining mum myself.) As I anticipated these birds readily picked up Calypso’s tunes and language, and then taught them to their offspring!
Calypso, of course, became “family” to me. So much so, in fact, I took him with me when I visited family and also when I traveled to job-related projects. For instance, while working in an agricultural laboratory and greenhouse complex near Lincoln, Nebraska during 1994-5 Calypso was there with me singing and talking to the amusement of colleagues and others who worked in the lab or came by to hang out.
In 1992 I launched the “North American Starling Fancier’s Society” to help bring together others who kept starling as pets. More than 100 people ultimately signed up. The premier issue of the NASFA newsletter follows below.
By 1995 my home aviary in Dallas had grown from a handful of birds to over 70 including not only starlings but Gouldian finches (Australian), Orange Cheek Waxbills (Africa), Cordon Bleus (Africa), Indian Ringnecks, cockatiels, Bengalese finches, and a host of others. This living laboratory not only taught me a great deal about bird behavior and their native intelligence but also afforded me the opportunity to develop a wide variety of bird nutrition mixes and medicines. I must have done something very right because my birds enjoyed extraordinary health and virtually all of them lived longer than what was published of “birds of like feather” in captivity. As best I could determine Calypso actually lived longer than any pet starling in recorded history.
NASFA as well as my once vast aviary lies in the past though my passion for birds has not diminished one iota with the passage of the years. Not surprisingly my ears perk up every time I hear a starling squawking from a power line or tree or come across a YouTube video of a pet starling singing and talking to beat the band.
In the good-spirited movie “Accepted” a bright teenage underachiever named Bartleby Gaines (Justin Long) comes up with a creative solution to having been rejected by every single college and university he has applied to: Namely, create his own school! Joined by a small cadre of friends who are having their own difficulties with the world of higher education, they concoct a fictional college (South Harmon College of Technology – S.H.I.T.) and set up a web site. When Bartleby’s father hands him a check to cover first semester costs ($10K USD) and asks to visit the campus, the boy and his sidekicks realize the only way to keep their charade alive is to fabricate a physical campus! They promptly locate and rent a collection of dilapidated buildings that once housed a psychiatric hospital and proceed to transform these into South Harmon’s campus. With comedian Lewis Black lured into playing the role of S.H.I.T.’s “Dean” – the stage is set for a headlong dive into fun, adventure and a series of twists and turns that culminates in a thoroughly predictable though heartwarming ending. In-a-word what starts out as a smokescreen to fool parent’s winds up becoming a crucible of learning that wins the hearts and accolades of parents and state accreditation officials alike. And, perhaps most importantly, along the way Bartleby and his cadre of fellow out-of-steppers poke good-natured fun at the traditional academic pecking order, assembly-line education, corporate greed, hypocrisy, credentialism, elitist thinking and (ahem) accepted notions of what constitutes success. In short, they rock the boat in ways and areas it needs rocking (Needless to say, if you never saw “Accepted” please do so.)
Among the many issues raised in one way or another during the course of “Accepted” is the matter of what constitutes a valid education. IMHO if a person’s education equips them with the skills and knowledge needed to perform competently in their chosen profession, trade or vocation then their qualifications AKA credentials — however obtained, e.g., apprenticeship, distance/online/at-a-distance/virtual, OTJ, etc. — whether accredited or not — have been validated. If, for example, an accountant who mastered accounting by a combination of on-line courses and OTJ training and work performs professionally as well as the holder of a regionally accredited accounting degree then she is indisputably an accountant. Along this line: In Vermont a person can become a lawyer without having ever attended law school (What he or she has to do is apprentice under a licensed attorney for 4 years and then pass the state bar exam.)
One gentleman who has delved deeply into competency in a profession or field as constituting perhaps the most reliable yardstick of being qualified (to be engaged in it) is author Charles D. Hayes. Here is a taste of his line-of-reasoning from the preface of one of his popular books titled “Proving You’re Qualified“:
“Credentials are an attempt to offer proof that we can do what we say we can do. I say attempt because anyone with experience in the workplace can attest to the fact that credentials cannot be counted on a proof of competence. Establishing credentials should be no more complicated that proving competence. But proof of competence should consist of more than evidence of school attendance, effective use of short-term memory, and an ability to adapt to a classroom environment.”
“I have more than 30 years of work experience in varying types of employment settings. I’ve been a U.S. Marine, a police officer, a factory worker, a salesman, and a publisher, and I have spent more than a decade and a half working for a major oil company. In all of my experience I have never been able to discern definitive differences traceable to levels of formal education among people performing similar jobs. I have worked with and for people with impressive degrees who were, without question, incompetent. I have worked with and for people with little formal education who were exemplary employees whom you would never suspect lacked any knowledge with having. On numerous occasions I have seen people with no experience perform tasks better on the first attempt than people who had been performing the same task for years and had spent considerable time studying their field.
I have witnessed hundreds of conflicts over which employees should be promoted and which credentials should be required for a given job. I am convinced that our system of qualification does as much harm as it does good. Competence should be more important than credentials, and knowledge, no matter how it is obtained, should count more that proof of attendance in what are often ridiculous qualifying exercises. For the sake of businesses, individuals, and learning institutions, evidence of competence should be possible through the demonstration of a person’s effort, not limited to what it is “thought” the person knows.
The ability to shoot straight can be quickly demonstrated, whereas a certificate that says you can shoot straight may be counterfeit. Why, then, does it make sense to accept certificates instead of target practice when choosing shooters? Why are people known to be expert marksmen asked to step aside to made way for people who have shooting certificates but are unable to hit the broad side of a barn? Thank goodness we do not do this with airline pilots. Airline pilots have to prove they know what they are doing under the direct scrutiny of others who have already proved their own competence: would that such demonstrated ability carried more weight in other areas. Take instruction, for example. I have watched enthusiastic individuals with no formal credentials conduct training sessions and hold audiences spellbound. Their high interest, coupled with hands-on experience, engenders a genuine enthusiasm for learning among the trainees. In contrast, I have observed people with graduate degrees in teaching whose training exercises were so dull a as to quash anyone’s curiosity about the subject matter.”
If you are tempted to dismiss the “many roads to Rome” thesis inherent in this blog post, watch “Accepted” and read Mr. Hayes book. Then join me at South Harmon and we’ll hash it all out as part of the course “Walking Around Thinking About Stuff.”
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