The Wisdom of the Body

Sherwin B. Nuland

London, 1998.

This surgeon's account of our innards should certainly be read by those who enjoy medical drama, as there is many a lurid yarn from the operating theatre in amongst Nuland's explanations of our workings.

That the prose may be over-heated in such dramas is understandable, but elsewhere, in less frantic pages, I must say that the style is too treacly for this palate. There are, too, some peculiar remarks dotted around. Here's one, followed by some treacle:

"The source of her optimism was a certain purity of expectation. Others tend to live up to such expectations, and sometimes I really do believe that events have a way of doing exactly the same thing, though not always."

Some surgeons leave sponges or implements in their sewn-up patients; has Nuland ever mislaid his rabbit's foot? Now the treacle, about surgical examining rooms:

"The focal eminence of the stark little chamber is the narrow padded table on which all of the significant physical and emotional transactions take place. Suspended over the table like an unblinking cold-eyed Cyclops is the movable surgical lamp, ready with the flick of a plastic switch to the throw the intrusive scrutiny of its narrow circle of all-seeing light into places usually hidden by modest propriety." (p.52)

But then if you share my reaction, we must both be mistaken, as Nuland explains, referring to his editor:

"It is not possible for me to write badly when Sonny is confident that I will write well." (p.xv)

Perhaps Sonny is moody.

I'm sure Nuland is a first-rate surgeon to whom one could entrust an ailing body (although I can only feel secure in writing this review in the knowledge that the chances of my being ill in Yale are about zero). However, some of the philosophical musings are perhaps less than expert. Discussing vitalism, he writes of unbelievers:

"[there are] some individuals of such a highly developed quality of skepticism that they even question their own skeptical convictions. They leave open the possibility that living things do possess some nonmaterial quality not found in inanimate objects. They are the true skeptics, those who are prepared to accept that anything is possible, no matter the sheer volume of observations arrayed in opposition." (p.67)

I don't think that the best description of people "who are prepared to accept that anything is possible" is "true skeptics"; "true dreamers" might be nearer the mark. Some "possibilities" are so ridiculously unlikely that there is no sense in entertaining them. Is it possible that the Earth should suddenly stop spinning for no reason? Is this possibility worth bearing in mind? Why? Why cling to a belief about the world, like vitalism, if there is no evidence for it, but accumulating evidence that we can explain things without it?

Although Nuland seems to hedge his bets, in his Epilogue he finally brings himself to deny vitalism:

"The human spirit is, I believe, the generated product of our innate biology, encompassing the molecular behaviour of our cellular structure. Nothing more need be sought. There is no need to invoke either a higher power or magic." (p.367)

But then he goes and spoils it in the next paragraph:

"All of this may seem agnostic, but it is hardly the philosophy of an atheist. In my view, to espouse atheism is to be unscientific. To presume to know defies all logic and flies in the face of reason."

There is no need for any atheist to say, "I know for a fact that there is no God." Atheism is just non-theism: the atheist is someone who doesn't believe there's a God. There is nothing unscientific about weighing up the arguments and the evidence, and coming to the conclusion that it doesn't seem at all likely or plausible that God exists. Then one can quite reasonably decide not to be a theist, i.e. to be an atheist. No cosmic certitude is necessary (atheists may be mistaken), and neither is it worth trying to carve out some nondescript middle ground called "agnosticism". We have only to apply Nuland's argument to Santa Claus to see how ridiculous it is.



Paul Taylor 2001