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Sunday, October 08, 2023

Being Mortal


I've been really appreciating listening to an audiobook of "Being Mortal", by Atul Gawande, recommended by a childhood friend, responding to my last post about my dad, growing older, and end of life conditions and choices.
For a long time, I've not paid a lot of attention to the (western/scientific) medical perspective, thinking religion and spirituality have more to offer us in terms of staying healthy (while at the same time, as a physicist knowing very well the power and coherence of scientific tools and perspective). Getting older myself, however, I know that I will have to use medicine more often. With my dad a medical doctor and my mom interested in alternative medicine such as Ayurveda and spiritual techniques such as meditation, I've often wondered how to find common ground between these perspectives and technologies. What I see is that some of the alternative medical approaches and spiritual techniques take the whole person into account more than breaking us down into individual parts or separate systems to be healed. But the Western medical tradition based on modern science has a plethora of powerful tools for staving off catastrophic illness and extending our lives.
"Being Mortal" is written from the perspective of a surgeon who has dealt with many end of life scenarios and started to question how we think about meaning of life, particular during these dire times. He's not someone who is giving up his profession, but he is doubting whether the medical profession should be the primary force deciding the options we should have, particularly later in life. He writes about his own father's journey with cancer and how the questions the two of them as doctors asked their patients became a lot less abstract when it was Gawande's own father's life at stake.
This book feels like a bridge for me, encouraging us to take advantage of all the life and health extending technologies medicine has to offer, but also to remember there are deeper aspects of life and meaning than just staying alive for as long as possible. How do we think about the whole arcs of our lives?
I recently spent a fair amount of time watching youtube videos from a cognitive scientist named John Vervaeke, particularly a 50 part series called "Awakening from the Meaning Crisis" that went through all of western history and talks about how we have arrived at what he calls the meaning crisis. It really spoke to me, because he wants to use all the sciences that make up cognitive science to give a more full view of what it is to be human and where religion and spirituality fit in. He also uses the work of a fair number of philosophers, bringing their careful work to bear on the real problems we face as human beings living our complex lives. (Part of his definition of cognitive science involves the use of philsophy to combine the different disciplines by which the mind and human cognition are studied and understood.) Too often when science and humanities are combined, one of them is given a weak, shallow presentation. Vervaeke also uses tools and language of artificial intelligence to talk about intelligence, rationality and wisdom, going back to the Greeks, Plato, Aristotle and Plotinus to ground the discussion using the foundations of the very grammar we use. (Finally my Reed College education where science and humanities were both given equal weights really helps me out.)
Being a physicist, I had a hard time answering such questions about meaning in life, yet at the same time, a lot of new age spirituality centers around physics, (often somewhat fringe/borderline stuff such as the multiverse and extra dimensions as well as the more obscure aspects of quantum mechanics such as the EPR experiment) and I've long struggled to find some kind of perspective that is true to the science but doesn't disregard human meaning and gives a richer account of life and our inner worlds.
I've also been reading "Religion in an age of Science" by Ian Barbour who gives a framework for how science and religion relate to each other. This helps me integrate the thread I've been following about my Jewish heritage, history of Judaism, and how Jewish religion and spirituality can be relevant to us today. On this line, I've really enjoyed a youtube channel called "Seekers of Unity" that try to find commonality in all the traditions while being well grounded in the Jewish tradition.
Overall, these pieces start to fit together: how we can take the medical perspective and technologies and allow them to do what they are good at, but also keep them in their place and not allow them to answer questions about meaning in life and even a lot of aspects of quality of life. The book by Gawande supplies an important piece of this for me. 
I've felt for awhile that I haven't had a very coherent picture of what a complete life is about, and this can lead to existential dread and depression. Bringing some of our different traditions together starts to feel like it forms a more solid base. We also need such a base to work together as a people politically and to think about the future of the planet, confronting climate change, species loss and other hugely difficult issues of the Anthropocene era we are entering.
I still have plenty of questions, but it seems like an important time to rethink some foundations while not throwing away the bulk of our traditions and systems of knowledge. Finding a middle path here will probably be something I continue to engage in for the rest of my life.

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