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Natural vs Scientific Medicine: A False Dichotomy

One of my classes at uni right now is called “History of Healing.” Each week we are assessed on answers to questions posed in an online forum. The questions this week elicited a declaration of my views on the relationship between conventional Western medicine, and traditional healing & medicine.

Here’s a copy of what I think about this relationship. Essentially, I believe it is against better judgement to try to separate the two, and instead we should be hybridising them for the benefit of our patients and clients – you.

Human beings aren’t just chemicals and cells; we have souls. We are truly greater than the sum of our parts.

Why is the history of healing relevant to today’s complementary medicine practitioner? 

“If you do not know where you come from, then you don’t know where you are, and if you don’t know where you are, then you don’t know where you’re going. And if you don’t know where you’re going, you’re probably going wrong.”

― Terry Pratchett, “I Shall Wear Midnight” (2010)

It struck me during the reading that traditional healing is often tied to function: healing is the ability to return to social and spiritual functions and responsibilities within the community. These being what makes a person valuable in a community, if a person became sick (unable to meet their responsibilities), then it might be perceived that they had offended some spirit or God (an iconic conception of the values and morals of the community). 

Scientific medicine, in separating out constituent parts in order to study them, often neglects to put them back together again in living, multi-faceted, socially connected human form. This can be disempowering for the sick person, as it reduces them to smaller parts, less than a whole. Sometimes it can turn them into objects or artifacts instead of human beings – numbers on the page of a Regional Health Authority’s balance sheet. In the readings, I particularly resonated with the Hawai’ian ethos of ’empower the sick so they can find their own path back to wellness,’ with the healer and family as supportive guides. It makes me think that we are not actually the healers – our clients and patients are, because they are doing the healing, not us. We’re just pointing the way. Perhaps it would be better to call ourselves ‘facilitators’ or something similar. 

Knowing where our own culture and history of medicine comes from, and learning from those of other cultures and times, informs us as human beings as well as clinicians. It allows us to learn from past mistakes or omissions, and build upon the wisdom and knowledge not only to apply it in the present moment for the benefit of our patients and clients but also to take it further into the future history to share with others. It also gives us a sense of place in space and time, to know where we fit into the story and how we might contribute to it.

Our history informs our present for the benefit of our future. 

What is more compelling to you: tradition/history or modern/conventional scientific perspective?

I have a problem with the question: it presents a false dichotomy. There are more than two possible answers, and I prefer a third – that neither is more compelling than the other and that in fact, both are highly compelling in ways that are often complementary.

The holistic approach that tends to express in traditional and indigenous is compelling to me because we are not lab rats in controlled environments; there is more to our stories as human beings with mosaic lives. Very often, illness injury and dysfunction are not immediately diagnosable, or a set of symptoms will not match up with a Western medical/scientific approach. We must follow the story of the individual further and piece together aspects of their lives from further out. 

Where the scientific method is atomistic and studies things by breaking them into smaller and smaller parts, traditional medicine tends to put things together again, seeing things not in a hierarchy bt as a web of interconnectedness. Each view has its merits. 

Science, like money, or religious scripture, is just a tool; it is inert to meaning, interpretation or judgement. It is human beings who add those things by interpretation or use. Facts are just facts; how we interpret them takes place through the focal lens of beliefs and culture. The same religious text, or scientific facts, when given to people in different cultures, can be interpreted and given application is strikingly different ways. Therefore, science in a Western cultural context is in fact, not the only possible application of science, and I think it should not be given more precedence over another culture’s application. To believe that one’s own application of science is the only correct one is analogous to religious dogma, and I find it quite hypocritical. 

I still appreciate the Western scientific model of modern Western medicine because it cuts away and eliminates a lot of superstitious and potentially harmful methods and practices. I hasten to declare that for many patients, a ritualistic or emotional dimension is a necessary part of healing; conversely, in many cases, such ritual and emotional rousing is physiologically insufficient to facilitate healing. 

This last is my point. We have to be able to choose the right tool for the job: as practitioners, we must be able to recognise what balance of empathetic connection, ritual, or invocation of spiritual energy the patient needs, and simultaneously guide them towards whatever pharmacological, or psychological, or scientific means are necessary to attain wellness. 

Being able to get this balance right is challenging. For one client, it may be all spiritual; for the very next client, it may be all pharmacological. For the next after that, some balance of both. 

In all cases, it is not about us and what we believe, it is about the client and what they need to get well. 

This is what makes the history and tradition so important to the modern clinician: Our patients exist withing a universe of connection, spirituality, and tradition. It makes no sense for us to remove them from it and treat them in isolation from it. So, we must know what history of culture and worldview we, and our valued clients, are coming from, in order to guide them to where they need to be.