June 21, 2013

"We live in an age of what William James called 'medical materialism,' so instead of fretting about a fallen world..."

"...we speak of a poisoned one."
In a modern version of original sin, the corruption of our environment is so thorough that it defies individual efforts to transcend it: “Even those making good lifestyle choices still shower with city water, eat meals at restaurants, and live, work, and shop in buildings that have been cleaned and fumigated with toxic chemicals,” writes [Alejandro Junger in "Clean: The Revolutionary Program to Restore the Body's Natural Ability to Heal Itself"]. We might add to his list other features of daily life that we suspect may be dangerous but haven’t been banned by the authorities: cell-phone signals that may lead to brain cancer, endocrine disruptors that drive our hormones crazy, probably leading, again, to cancer. Distrustful of our surroundings, we try to close ourselves off to malign influences and to purge them. It is no accident that Clean dwells obsessively on defecation and elimination. Junger wants us to flush out shit, “toxic waste,” even mucus, which he says has “a dense and sticky quality; it resonates with and attracts dense, toxic thoughts and emotions.”
(Here's the relevant William James book, one of the great classics, including a free Kindle edition.)

ADDED: Having downloaded the free Kindle version of "Varieties of Religious Experience," I can give you the relevant text right here:

But when other people criticize our our own more exalted soul-flights by calling them 'nothing but' expressions of our organic disposition, we feel outraged and hurt, for we know that, whatever be our organism's peculiarities, our mental states have their substantive value as revelations of the living truth; and we wish that all this medical materialism could be made to hold its tongue.

Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental overtensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover. And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined.

Let us ourselves look at the matter in the largest possible way. Modern psychology, finding definite psycho-physical connections to hold good, assumes as a convenient hypothesis that the dependence of mental states upon bodily conditions must be thoroughgoing and complete. If we adopt the assumption, then of course what medical materialism insists on must be true in a general way, if not in every detail: Saint Paul certainly had once an epileptoid, if not an epileptic seizure; George Fox was an hereditary degenerate; Carlyle was undoubtedly auto-intoxicated by some organ or other, no matter which — and the rest. But now, I ask you, how can such an existential account of facts of mental history decide in one way or another upon their spiritual significance? According to the general postulate of psychology just referred to, there is not a single one of our states of mind, high or low, healthy or morbid, that has not some organic process as its condition. Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see "the liver" determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind. So of all our raptures and our drynesses, our longings and pantings, our questions and beliefs. They are equally organically founded, be they religious or of non-religious content.

To plead the organic causation of a religious state of mind, then, in refutation of its claim to possess superior spiritual value, is quite illogical and arbitrary, unless one has already worked out in advance some psycho-physical theory connecting spiritual values in general with determinate sorts of physiological change. Otherwise none of our thoughts and feelings, not even our scientific doctrines, not even our DIS-beliefs, could retain any value as revelations of the truth, for every one of them without exception flows from the state of its possessor's body at the time.

It is needless to say that medical materialism draws in point of fact no such sweeping skeptical conclusion. It is sure, just as every simple man is sure, that some states of mind are inwardly superior to others, and reveal to us more truth, and in this it simply makes use of an ordinary spiritual judgment. It has no physiological theory of the production of these its favorite states, by which it may accredit them; and its attempt to discredit the states which it dislikes, by vaguely associating them with nerves and liver, and connecting them with names connoting bodily affliction, is altogether illogical and inconsistent. 


Mark O said...

Creepy. Profoundly creepy.

ricpic said...

The holier than thou health purists can't stand it that life is corruption.

Henry said...

All good common sense until this "to be sure" pullback:

By interpreting cleanses more as symptom than cure, I don’t mean to suggest that we aren’t swimming in pollution.

Lewis Wetzel said...

So we have Chelsea Clinton lamenting that her grandmother wasn't aborted, Obama lamenting walls of division from behind 6 inches of bullet proof glass, and hipsters lamenting a modern lifestyle that allows us to live longer and healthier lives than our ancestors.
Rough times for the reality based community . . .

John Lynch said...

What do you think Communism was, if not a religion?

There's no escape.

BleachBit-and-Hammers said...

Chelsea Clinton lamented that her grandmother didn't abort Hillary!

(I know .... )

edutcher said...

I'll bet he didn't want to go back to the "natural" world of his childhood for all the money in the country.

Tibore said...


"I e-mailed Michael Gershon, a professor of pathology and cell biology at Columbia University’s medical school and the author of a groundbreaking work on the neurology of the gut called The Second Brain, and he wrote back: “I think that people who use cleanses may have had rough anal periods (see Freud, Sigmund).” Cleanses and their cousins, colonics, have about as much medical merit, declared Gershon, as the acts of penance done by monks who’d “walk across Europe and hit themselves on the back to purge themselves of the plague."

Spot on.

Saint Croix said...

Atheists--or the secular left--sometimes talk as if religion or morality is the cause of every evil in the world. If we could just get rid of morality, of God--now I'm thinking of Lennon's song, Imagine--we could have a wonderful society.

One merely has to contemplate the USSR or Mao's China to realize that atheists can do quite a bit of evil without religion. For instance, the process of "getting rid of religion" involves killing lots and lots of people.

There's another problem. If you manage to build a libertarian atheist state, a secular place where there is no God and everybody is mellow (albeit selfish and materialistic), what have you done? You have destroyed any spiritual backbone. And when a fundamentalist Islam pops up--to give one European example--the decadent culture is unable to summon the will to fight back.

So even if fights over right and wrong can be awful and brutal--and actually lead to evil--morality and religion and God are, I think, vital to the health of a society. But I'm religious so there you go.

BleachBit-and-Hammers said...

Cleanses and their cousins, colonics, have about as much medical merit, declared Gershon, as the acts of penance done by monks who’d “walk across Europe and hit themselves on the back to purge themselves of the plague.”

YoungHegelian said...

As we learn more about the bacterial & viral biomes that inhabit us, I'm sure that we'll come up with novel explanations for many diseases that baffled medicine before.

But, that we're going to be able to easily groom such complex environments to do our will (e.g. make us live longer), that's another story.

Whatever we'll need to do, I'll bet it'll involve a lot more than chugging papaya juice & shitting bricks to get it done. That's just too easy.

Michael K said...

I agree that the "cleanse" thing he is referring to is weird but the idea that we are "swimming in pollution" is something he might discuss with the paleolithic ancestors who lived in smoke filled caves.

In fact, we live in a biosphere in which about 80% of the content is bacteria. When I was a surgery resident (yes, ARM, I was), we used to deal with patients who had been on antibiotics and who had acquired resistant organisms in the colon, by giving them a milkshake with a small portion of normal stool from a healthy patient. It would quickly repopulate their colon with sensitive organisms and reduce the risk of postop infection.

The medical literature is just rediscovering this. When you take "probiotics" that is what you are doing.

The "cleanse" people are just depleting temporarily the colon organisms. Constipation here we come !

John Lynch said...

Arguments about morality are merely about whose morality we shall use. The people who claim that morality shouldn't exist are merely trying to exchange moralities without admitting what they've done. They're merely pushing a new morality to replace whatever already exists.

People disagree about what is right or wrong. The reasons aren't as important as the fact that we disagree.

Roost on the Moon said...

This is all true, if more than a little squinty.

You wouldn't want to go through life thinking (only) like this, pretending there is no fact of the matter about, say, whether certain things actually cause cancer.

You'd be a kind of spiritual retard, trying to understand things about the world only by way of how they fit your preexisting view of human nature.

Concern about "the environment" does seem to satisfy some atavistic moral urges about purity- itches that were previously scratched by notions of racial purity and religious intolerance.

It doesn't follow that all concerns about "the environment" are bullshit- in fact we know some aren't. Or do you still paint your house with lead?

I'd call that shift (*gasp*) progress.

Michael K said...

" If you manage to build a libertarian atheist state"

I think it was Chesterton who said, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing, they will believe in anything."

Hence global warming and environmentalism.

The quote, of course, is in dispute, especially by atheists.

Michael K said...

"Or do you still paint your house with lead?"

More importantly, did you eat the paint ? The enviro theory of lead toxicity is based on its use indoors where little kids eat it. As usual, the threat is wildly overblown. This has been studied all the way back to Rome which used lead pipes, as we all did until yesterday.

Anonymous said...

Don't keep your bathrooms too clean, have pets, contributes to healthy bacteria.

Or take probiotics.

Anonymous said...

Do take probiotics that is, especially if you've been on antibiotics.

Nathan Alexander said...

Thread swerve, if'n y'all don't mind.

St Croix said:
But I'm religious so there you go.

Interestingly, I'm not religious, but I am raising my kids to be.

The reason why is that I stopped being Christian when introspection several questions that could not be resolved.

I still believe, for many of the reasons outlined in Mere Christianity, that there probably is a God, just probably not the God described in the Old or New Testaments.

But I still appreciate the moral framework of Christianity, so I want my kids to have that.

I still believe that without a Creator, morality is artificial.

Yet even if it is artificial, I feel better about life, the universe, and everything by following Christian morality. You and those you care about just have a smoother, happier life the closer you adhere to the morality expressed in the New Testament.


BleachBit-and-Hammers said...

I imagine these vain wealthy celebrities like Paltrow and Madonna with botox in the head and a high colonic coming out of the ass.

It makes them real.

Rabel said...

"...giving them a milkshake with a small portion of normal stool from a healthy patient."

Wait. What?

Anonymous said...

I've got a papaya juice health drink with shit extract if anyone's interested.

$8.99 a bottle, and they sell it at Whole Foods.

Half the proceeds go to building wells in Africa where the shit comes from.

The circle of empathy hath been closed

Chip Ahoy said...

This is a thoughtful article and I do appreciate and applaud alternate thinking, but when your eight year old daughters start growing breasts then

hang on, I'm talking out my butt again.

[are girls growing breasts younger these days?] 27,300.00 hits

(read read readie read read read, scan scan scan)

apparently yes, so then you can guess that modern day milk from modern day freak cows bred for production probably might possibly could maybe polluting the milk supply with lactaty hormones or some such. And the question arises, why then, since I drink so much full fat milk do I not grow man boobs? Huh? You'd think they'd be hanging down to my knees by now but they're flat. This defies the science of hormonal pollution.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Christopher Hitchens was not a materialist. He stated that he believed in the numinous. The word has precise meaning. It refers to a divine presence.
Hitchens seemed to be describing a common aesthetic experience when he referred to the numinous, but when he referenced his reasons for not believing in the God of the Bible, his reasoning sounded personal. The God of the Bible was not like his idea of what God should be like, but his idea of what God should be like was poorly reasoned.

Lewis Wetzel said...

Chip Ahoy-
Years ago I read an alternate explanation for girls in the west developing breasts at a younger age than they used to. The reason was greater exposure to testosterone due to more proximity with adult men.
Seems like you could do a controlled study of this.
Well, not you personally.

Patrick Henry was right! said...

The only honorable thing for all environmentalists to do is kill themselves for the good of the planet. Please discuss.

Anonymous said...

Hitchens was steeped however in the materialist doctrine. He was part of the generation of 68, and a socialist for quite some time.

He defamed Stalin like most socialists, because Stalin was a goon who defamed the ideas. You could kind of see the Mother Teresa thing coming, and the attack on The Clintons and his joining of the new Atheists in the same light.

He was quite accumstomed to giving a speech for the cause, and this dedication to ideas, and being a public figure representing ideas was with him throughout his life and I think until his death. The soapbox was always nearby.

I do appreciate his contrarian impulse, and his defense of free speech, his rhetorical style and courage however, especially his reporting.

Michael K said...

Blogger Rabel said...

"...giving them a milkshake with a small portion of normal stool from a healthy patient."

Wait. What?"

Oh yes. It wasn't exactly advertised but it saved lives. Our professor did it more elegantly by growing a pure culture of E. coli at the private hospital where he did his private cases. We didn't know about C. dificile then but it worked.

Here's a review article on the subject. Our methods were more crude but that was almost 50 years ago.

gerry said...

Ah, fad bullshit.

"Mucus plaque" is my favorite. Great, whitish, gobs of intestinal mucus dislodged by hot-water enemas, laxative cocktails, and starvation diets.

The problem is, mucus plaque exists only in the imagination of its victims.

"...giving them a milkshake with a small portion of normal stool from a healthy patient."

Wait. What?

Rabel, I am sure the dose of stool dose was very small (it wouldn't take too much, I would imagine).

A shitshake!

gerry said...

Half the proceeds go to building wells in Africa where the shit comes from.

They have to dig wells to get at the shit for their papaya juice? I could supply quite a bit for a lot less money. And it would be locally "grown".

ricpic said...

OT - Did anyone see the recent pictures of Natalie Portman? She starving herself. I wonder what gets into beautiful creatures that they have to mess up a good thing?

Unknown said...

Nathan Alexander
I think God is very real, but for those who don't think that your reasoning is sound. Living the Christian like life that you describe can't be a bad thing because the results are good and desirable.

Unknown said...

Sounds more like "medical determinism" than "medical materialism."

But no matter.

It's still bullshit.

KCFleming said...

The cleansers are the holy rollers of the materialists.

It's a pagan cult, with its own rituals and priests and sins and excommunicated (vegan no more, cast out!).

Why is this impulse to form a religion so strong, that even atheists do it?

What God-shaped whole could it be filling?

Unknown said...


For me, reason explains much; where it fails, or, more likely, I fail, I surrender to faith.

Darrell said...

If everyone who believed that there was something useful in that theory disappeared from the face of the Earth, it would be a better place.

Michael K said...

"If everyone who believed that there was something useful in that theory disappeared ..."

Don't try to argue someone out of those beliefs. It's no use. Another quote: "It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into."

Jonathan Swift.

I once had a patient, fairly well known too, who was treating his rectal cancer with celery juice. He was convinced that he had not used enough celery juice, so I left him with his belief. I can't remember if he finally consented to surgery. It was far too late for a cure.

Anonymous said...

Gerry, sounds like you could use a case or two of Papayass. We ship in bulk, and we're working on a program to discover human rights in the lab.

Next year: Putumayo Papayass World Aid Concert and our new marketing campaign for the youth market: 'You Ain't Seen Shit'

Anonymous said...

Papayass is going viral, baby.

Crunchy Frog said...

Ain't no way in hell I'm drinking a damn poopshake!

Freeman Hunt said...

Fussy food. Like fussy bedding.

It's more than food, but the fussy of Clean reaches full flower in the food.

Freeman Hunt said...

If you don't eat carbs or gluten or dairy or egg or things incompatible with your blood type or anything microwaved or preservatives or non-organic food or GMOs, you will never die. You will live forever on earth as a pure being of vitality and light, unspoiled by scummy human interventions.

Or so I've been told.

Freeman Hunt said...

Doubt comes mostly from not burning enough sage in the house.

Lydia said...

Health food types have always obsessed about defecation and have put much emphasis on enemas.

Ever read T. Coraghessan Boyle's The Road to Wellville? It's about Kellogg, the corn flake guy. I stopped after about two chapters because it was all about enemas.

Bob Loblaw said...

"...giving them a milkshake with a small portion of normal stool from a healthy patient."

He's taking liberties with the description here. It doesn't have any milk and it's not done orally.

yashu said...

Cf. Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger.

Helenhightops said...

Michael K - the FDA is now regulating stool. Stool is now a "biologic product" under FDA oversight. We were doing stool transplants to cure C. difficile (it works great!) but now we can't. http://www.medpagetoday.com/InfectiousDisease/GeneralInfectiousDisease/39169

rcocean said...

Thanks for the line to Williams James. The old cliche is true. WJ was a great writer and HJ was a great psychologist.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the line to Williams James.

Yes, thank you.

The Varieties of Religious Experience was a brave, original and groundbreaking book. It's good to be reminded of it in this age of aggressive atheism.

Whatever the ultimate reality may be, the religious experience is a real and important human capacity, worth understanding in its own right, and James waded right into that challenge.

Saint Croix said...


I think that's beautiful, Nathan. It reminds of an idea of faith that I read somewhere. What do you do if you've lost all faith? Act as if you still have it, and faith will be given to you.

Anonymous said...

Cf. Mary Douglas's Purity and Danger.

yashu: Looks like a fascinating book! Wiki says:

Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (first published 1966) is the best known book by the influential anthropologist and cultural theorist Mary Douglas. In 1991 the Times Literary Supplement listed it as one of the hundred most influential non-fiction books published since 1945.

I've never heard of it. I'll have to look it up.

Anonymous said...

What do you do if you've lost all faith? Act as if you still have it, and faith will be given to you.

In my experience, faith is something you do, not something you think or feel.

Saint Croix said...

It is no accident that Clean dwells obsessively on defecation and elimination. Junger wants us to flush out shit, “toxic waste,” even mucus

Dr. Hern, who wrote the abortion textbook, Abortion Practice, writes:

“The relationship between the gravid female and the feto-placental unit can be understood best as one of host and parasite.”

More: "Pregnancy should be seen as a bio-cultural event in the context of other human illnesses."

And still more: "Abortion is the indicated treatment for pregnancy."

So there you go. Pregnancy is a disease, the baby is a parasite, and abortion is the cleaning.

Saint Croix said...

I have said a lot of controversial things on this blog. But the only time I got a death threat was when I made a joke about not scooping up after my dog.

Saint Croix said...

Anybody here seen The Road to Wellville? I have not, but it seems on point.

I wonder if people become health nuts precisely because of lack of spiritual life? We've all seen articles about some Christians who refuse medicine and prefer to rely on faith. But what's the flipside of that? You have no faith, and all you think about is medicine.

Or, to put it in a slightly different context, when you have no concept of a soul, you can become inordinately obsessed with your body.

I might add, just to be fair, that having atheists in a society is probably healthier for that society than no atheists at all. If everyone has faith in an afterlife, one can imagine the society becoming more cult-like, just totally calm with the prospect of death and waiting for the afterlife.

But if you have atheists and/or skeptics, who are flooded with a fear ("This is it! This is all we got! I don't want to die!") they will work feverishly to discover medical miracles to prolong life.

So while faith is really, really nice to have (I am rather jealous of Christians like Paddy O, who have an obvious peace about them), we should also appreciate the goodness of skepticism.

Now I'm thinking of House, the only medical drama I actually like to watch. In part because Dr. House is such a fascinating character, but also because the show continually concerns itself with moral and/or spiritual questions. They approach it from the point of view of skepticism, but of course the vital point is to approach it at all.

Nasser Uddin Hernandez said...

Peace brothers and sisters I would like to invite you to read the article “The tyranny of medical materialism” at http://protectordelafe.blogspot.com/2016/11/the-tyranny-of-medical-materialism.html