Science is not enough

Dr Anna Holmes

To be healed is to be made whole. This wholeness is not just about the body, but about the harmony of connections of body, mind, spirit and relationships that are part of each human person. Healing is not the same as cure. Cure is focused on returning the physical body to its proper functioning or removing causes of disease or dysfunction.  It is not possible to cure chronic diseases or those who are dying.

Healing happens in the relationship between patient and carer. It is about trust, empathy, enabling hope and bearing witness to suffering. It is possible to be healed without being cured as well as to be cured without being healed.

Healing is about forgiving our bodies, minds and spirits for not being what we want or expect, as well as forgiving the world, life force, or God for not allowing us to be unchanging and eternal. It is about letting go of our past ‘self’ and embracing a new ‘self’. Our first experience of being healed is when we change as a result of growing in any aspect of our being. We have to come to terms with and accept a new sense of ourselves. This is most striking at adolescence – think of the sudden sprouting of body hair or breasts. Change happens at every stage of life: in mind, body, spirit, place and relationships.

I graduated when the science of medicine, focused biomedically on cure, was rapidly evolving. Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, giving doctors the power to bring patients back from death, had just been introduced, and pharmacological developments were beginning to persuade doctors that there were scientific answers to most health problems. Biomedicine has become the predominant paradigm of western medicine. Under this model, an alliance between medical scientists and economists has developed which makes ‘evidence-based medicine’ compulsory, not only to ensure effectiveness and efficiency, but also to save money. Medical facts must be scientifically investigated, and proved with objective and reproducible evidence. The scientific method is reductive, looking at smaller and smaller fragments of the subject under study in order to understand it. This has led to the growth of medical super-specialties on one hand, and nanotechnology on the other, all competing for the same funds. Surgery has grown more effective and less damaging with new advances, particularly in ‘keyhole’ surgery. Widespread media reports about these and other developments have contributed to an expectation that biomedicine has a cure for everything. This is not true. The paradoxical result of biomedicine’s success is that while many more of us are living longer, the number of people with incurable chronic diseases is also rising rapidly.

Biomedicine does not consider those aspects of humanity that cannot be sharply defined, like the meaning of life, the origin of humanity, and what joy, wonder and hope are about. It has no language for the non-material aspects of being, so refuses to consider them. This does not always lead to better care or indeed to healing. Doctors training today tend to spend more time looking at computer screens to find out provable facts about patients than at the bedside observing and listening to the unique person.

This head of the medical student was painted long before biomedicine became the predominant western medical paradigm. Picasso recognised that students have to keep one eye open to suffering while the other is shut to enable the reflection and acceptance that compassion and healing demands. Compassion means ‘to suffer with’, as when the doctor bears witness to the patient’s suffering.

My experience as a doctor has included working in eight different cultures in Asia, Africa, America and Australia and New Zealand. This has persuaded me that science is not enough. From my practice I learned the importance of the spirit, as well as mind-body relationships and environment of the patient.

Women in Algeria taught me that ‘kulshi’ (pain everywhere) was not due to an infection. Rather, it was about the overwhelming oppression of their lives. It was not possible to use scientifically rational behaviour therapy to treat a Masai who believed he had been cursed. This scientific therapy had no meaning in his culture. What was needed to stop him dying in four days was a local healer who knew how to lift a curse. The same is true of a Māori patient who has transgressed a tapu. They need someone who can lift the tapu. Both these patients may well present with clinical symptoms such as a racing heart rate, high blood pressure and sweating. Yet investigations such as blood tests, an ECG or scans will not give useful data on how to heal these symptoms.

Traditionally, healing looked at the whole person: body, mind, spirit, relationships and his or her understanding of the meaning of life. Interestingly, the current teaching of medical students includes the ‘meaning response’. It is the new name for the ‘placebo response’: a response to something that has no active pharmaceutical or surgical treatment but depends on the belief and expectation of the patient and their relationship with and trust in their doctor. It is scientific medicine’s way of labelling spiritual connections without acknowledging they exist. However each of us understands and experiences it, humans are connected spiritually to their own depths, to others, to the natural world and to the transcendent.  Science by itself can sometimes cure, but is not enough for healing.


Dr Anna Holmes: Dr Holmes has been a General Practitioner in Africa, the Chatham Islands, Kaitaia, Lincoln, Diamond Harbour and Mosgiel. She worked as Assistant Medical Superintendant in Chief for the Canterbury Hospital and Area Health Boards. She spent ten years working as a medical officer in the Otago Community Hospice. A lifelong interest in spirituality in human development, health and healing led to a PhD in Spirituality in General Practice completed at the University of Otago in 2012.

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