Tensions between Science, Value and Meaning in Modern Medicine

Mechanical-Man-3744791I attended the Conference on Medicine and Religion from March 24-26 here in Houston. The general theme for the conference focused on how the scientific worldview central to modern medicine, and its ever-increasing use of technology, was leading to increased burnout and compassion fatigue among its practitioners.  The scope of the problem, what the conference organizers characterized as “disenchantment,” was rather alarming given the data cited. Many speakers proposed strategies for coping or combating this tendency, some of which amounted to a shift in one’s philosophical outlook.

I was impressed not only with the caliber of presenters and participants, but also the variety of religious traditions represented.  Also impressive was the fact that a significant number identified themselves as Catholic, and even among those who professed other Christian traditions, or altogether difference faith traditions, Catholic ideas and thinkers were cited often, and often with approval.  The Catholic tradition has a long and valued place within reflections on the medical professions, even at a pluralistic, and in some ways secular, conference such as this.

 I also was surprised at how philosophical a lot of the presentations were, but this is probably a function of the bias by which I selected for these papers.  The keynote on Friday was delivered by Jeffrey Bishop, whose book The Anticipatory Corpse: Medicine, Power and Care for the Dying, was referred to by many of the speakers.  In his address at the conference, he told the story of a patient who died while under his care as an intern and how the experience continues to color his thinking on the care for the dying.  He called for a reframing or contextualizing of the materialism of the scientific enterprise that is an essential component of medicine, but which is not, I think he argues, its heart.  I have not read his book, but am eager to, especially as many speakers noted that in it he calls for medicine to re-appropriate final and formal causality, not just the material and efficient. It is encouraging to me to hear the implicit acknowledgement of Aristotle, though I understand that Bishop himself eschews the Aristotelian label. Of course, not having read his book, I am not sure if what he means by final and formal causes is the same.  But Bishop as a particular example, and the conference as a whole, underscores the need to have a solid and consistent philosophical underpinning from which to find value and meaning in the practice of caring for the sick and injured.

I hope to offer other reflections on things I learned or was prompted to consider by other speakers or participants of the conference.  If you have any thoughts you would like to share, please make use of the com box below.


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