Sacred Science

Ritual and Miracle in Modern Medicine

by Gregory Loewen (Author)
Monographs X, 276 Pages


Sacred Science is an analysis of post-war discourses concerning health and illness. These discourses are an attempt to grasp the meaning of health in our modern human condition, and as such they provide both new insights into the genealogy of conceptualizations of both health and illness, but also serve as a viable hermeneutic summary of many important textual moments in the recent history of health studies, including Foucault, Gadamer, Illich, Sontag, and others. This book is the result of a phenomenological disquisition of the ideas employed by health scholars and philosophers, and its import rests both on its uniqueness in the relevant fields and its new ideas, including ‘indefinitude’, ‘deontic facticity’, and illness as the experience of the simultaneous ‘inexistence’ of both life and death.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction: The Séance of Science
  • Introduction
  • Sameness
  • Histories
  • Structures
  • Processes and Outcomes
  • What Cannot Be
  • The Problem
  • Its Effects
  • Current Reactions
  • What Must Not Be
  • Immoralities
  • Moral Duties
  • Moral Statuses
  • Saneness
  • Meaningfuls
  • Means
  • Meanings
  • References
  • Chapter One: Opening Up the Corpuscular Corpus
  • 1.1 Recent Histories
  • 1.1.1 The ‘Selfhood’ of Scientific Healing
  • 1.1.2 Social Groups
  • 1.1.3 Critical Implications
  • 1.2 Epistemologies
  • 1.2.1 Ontogenesis?
  • 1.2.2 Languages
  • 1.2.3 Subject and Object
  • 1.3 Today
  • 1.3.1 Externality
  • 1.3.2 Inequality
  • 1.3.3 Inequity
  • 1.4 A Better Ethics?
  • 1.4.1 ‘Causalities’
  • 1.4.2 ‘Mysteries’
  • 1.4.3 Solved?
  • References
  • Chapter Two: Metaphoric Metastases
  • 2.1 Disingenuities
  • 2.1.1 History
  • 2.1.2 General Metaphor
  • 2.1.3 Health Metaphors
  • 2.2 Engendered States
  • 2.2.1 Examples
  • 2.2.2 Categories
  • 2.3 Reifications
  • 2.3.1 Attitudes
  • 2.3.2 Effects Thereof
  • 2.3.3 Examples
  • References
  • Chapter Three: Detrimental Health
  • 3.1 Obscured Motives
  • 3.1.1 Structural Masks
  • 3.1.2 Logistical Masks
  • 3.1.3 Personal Masks
  • 3.2 The Finesse of Techniqueness
  • 3.2.1 Autonomic Effects
  • 3.2.2 Technical Autonomies
  • 3.2.3 Organizational Autonomies
  • 3.3 The Ghost of Uniqueness
  • 3.3.1 Constructing the General
  • 3.3.2 General Certitude
  • 3.3.3 Best Practices?
  • References
  • Chapter Four: ‘Doctor, Feel Thyself’: The Aura of the Alternative
  • 4.1 Homeopathic Histories
  • 4.1.1 Historical Moments
  • 4.1.2 Contemporary Traces
  • 4.2 Mainstream Attractions
  • 4.2.1 Holistic Bases
  • 4.2.2 Moral Bases
  • 4.2.3 Opening Onto …
  • 4.3 Alternative Mindsets
  • 4.3.1 General Holism
  • 4.3.2 Examples
  • 4.3.3 Holistic Summaries
  • 4.4 Critical Actions
  • 4.4.1 Delusions
  • 4.4.2 Explications
  • 4.4.3 Solutions?
  • References
  • Conclusion: Sacred Ritual, Profane Miracle
  • Supposed Science
  • Predilection
  • Predictions
  • Protection
  • Sacralizing the Profane
  • Patient
  • Doctor
  • Institution
  • The Miracle of Profanation
  • Suspended of Disbelief
  • The Suspense of Belief
  • In Mid Air
  • Summa Iatrogenica?
  • Outcomes
  • Divides
  • Visions
  • References
  • Series index

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The Séance of Science


In our time, science has assumed the mantle of religion. It is a discursive Napoleon, taking from the metaphysical Pope the vaunted crown of empire and placing it upon its own brow. Its practitioners are not so much appointed, but anointed. This applies especially to those who practice the applied sciences, engineering and medicine. But while the former occupies itself with the world as it is and eschews most extrapolation from the mundane circumstance of utility, the latter aspires to far more. Science may have supplanted religion, but its ultimate purpose and meaning for humankind remains the same: immortality. And medicine constitutes the vanguard of our collective aspiration to become immortal. As the gods had been, so we will be.

That other hit machine of modernity, engineering, certainly elicits both applause and admiration, even awe. But if this or that particular building or bridge, or even if close proximity fly-by images of the Pluto system of planetoids or some such other panorama did not exist, few would lose sleep about it. No, it is medicine that makes us tremble with anticipation and shake with resentful rage. For while engineering constructs the externality of being, medicine reconstructs ontology itself. Engineering makes our mortality more bearable, but medicine holds out the promise of its obsolescence. ← 1 | 2 →

And medicine is distinctly personal. Far from the building blocks of infancy and the Legos of youth, the body of most young human beings is in itself both a time capsule and a time-bomb. Genetic proclivities may both aid and sabotage its long term viability. Things can come up at the most unexpected of times, offering to ourselves the most obscene circumstances. Oftentimes it makes the news: an adolescent dying of a rare genetic cancer or heart defect. In countries without universal health care systems a call goes out the community for help. It might be better said that a call goeth out, given the link between the idea of godhead still prevalent in such regions and the sense that human beings have much less right to intervene in ‘fate’. One is destined to suffer on this earth.

But such places are now becoming almost as rare as the afflictions that so animate them, the United States being the most obvious and blatant example of this general link between religion and health. To secularize health, however, means to make the science of it sacred, and how that has been done over the previous decades, as well as how that transition has been analyzed, is the subject of this book.

In order to chart the dual career of sacralization and secularization, each representing the obverse of the same coin—the coin itself an amalgam of both objective health and how one feels about being ‘healthy’; what is health as a scientific construct and what does it mean to be healthy as a person, both physically and mentally etc.—we must look in turn to the boundaries that mark the limits of health and healthiness respectively, as well as the both the dividends and the deficits that accrue to those who dwell within or without these limits. What is it to be the same thing as the ideal type of objectified fully functional living body, or living being? How does the concept of saneness derive from sameness, and then in its own turn exhort its maintenance? What can and cannot be within the boundedness of sacral science in its methods and epistemologies, or again, within the less-blessed half-acre of secular subjectivity, the arc of how one ‘feels’ today? The much-vaunted dualism between body and mind aside, contemporary discourse is littered with the most exacting references to the sanctions separating what the patient thinks he or she is experiencing and what they are actually undergoing, or what they must do to undergo it and what the doctor is undertaking as a procedure or a treatment. They rarely, if ever, fully identify with each other. Yet one can certainly suggest that the subjectivity of health has also become its own object. Psychoanalysis is merely the most famous example of this. The introduction of homeopathic medicine, or should we rather say, its reintroduction, is a case in point. Allopathic medicine, the medicine of the object, is still dominant. But given the placebo effect and related social facts, alternative health regimes from all over the world have been slowly let in the back door of the applied science edifice, gradually taking more and more a part in the drama of immortality without being shunned as mere melodrama. ← 2 | 3 →

This history, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates both the link between fetish and cult, between ideal and real, between end and means. Immortality, whether through artificial intelligence surrogates, cyber-organic prosthesis or some other hitherto unthought of experiment, is merely a reflection of the apparent and presumed general failure of modern medicine to make good on its design. No doubt mortal beings become impatient with their mortality over time, both as an individual life course and within a contemporary history that often seems to be a combination of three steps forward and two back, and sometimes even two steps forward and three back. We cannot be entirely faulted for such an attitude. Children already are immortal, and when we, as adults, lose this magical world, we long to return to it. All myths of expulsion have this origin at the subjective level, though they may, more objectively and mytho-poetically reference actual historical events such as the transition to the agrarian mode of production and what have you. Long lost to mortal memory, such changes pale in their thrall compared to the just recollected and just mourned apocalypse of sudden adulthood, legally and morally. At seventeen, for instance, it is illegal to manufacture, possess, view or distribute sexually explicit imagery of whatever sort. But at eighteen it is not. How many young loves occur between seventeen and eighteen year olds in this or that legal region each month? There is no need to belabor such an issue. It is clear that in order to leave childhood behind we must also forsake youthfulness, and it is this that gives the expulsion narratives their staying power, even amongst unbelievers, and, perhaps more tellingly, most contemporary believers who take such stories as mere metaphors and do not take seriously the idea of their reference to some historically real event or place.

Indeed, like the legal difference between the child and the adult, the difference between literality and metaphor is seen as a mark of mature being. Ambiguity is real, certitude unreal. Yet in the sacralization of medical science, certitude is a goal, even as the uncertainty that flows forth from any subjective source, the patient’s feelings, for example, is rendered as marginal to the process. Subjectivity is a form of childhood in these discourses. It is our own auto-ethnography, our body-double. It can be taken with the utmost seriousness only in its own world, that of the patients and their experiences, or that of the children and their phantasms. Yes, it is also a mark of maturity to repossess, as Nietzsche famously exhorted, the ‘seriousness one had as a child at play’. Precisely so, but not for the purpose of child’s play. Rather, such focus and organization, persistence and dedication must be turned outward into the world-envelope. It no longer dwelleth within, but goes into the world as on a mission. And in this world one finds that others have taken on the mantle of similar missions. Once transparently religious, the auspice has become the hospice, the temple the hospital, the monastery the medical school. What occurs to the individual as one’s fate must now navigate a newly minted ← 3 | 4 → parallax of currencies, from stem cells to acupuncture, medical marijuana to cybernetic implants. Certainly, the smorgasbord of potential treatments has never been so varied and vast. This alone might be enough to at least give us hope for the future, both collectively and personally.

Results are, however, often found to be wanting. At the very least, the certitude of the child can only rarely be replicated. It is a signal mark of the will to life to be anxious about death. That we have personalized this suggests that one aspect of subjectivity is quite willing, even desiring, to be turned into an object. The more of our selves that can be remade into something other than selfhood, the better chance we have at outlasting the mortal coil. So, the bold predictions regarding the ability to upload our very consciousness into a ‘cloud-based’ version of the internet spark our imaginations. Perhaps we believe we can be rid of ourselves only to find that we can never be rid of ourselves. And this is in fact a good thing, in the end. Better still, let us upload, construct a cybernetic vehicle, bipedal or more, and then download. No need now to be concerned about a definite loss of self. Technologies of this sort are the plainest signs of the loss of the symbolic process of transfiguration, associated with agrarian metaphysics. Signs replacing symbols is, of course, nothing new. But to imagine that we have overcome the need for a sign to point to something beyond itself is naïve at best.

The ‘something else’ to which signs must point is in fact muted by the idea of sameness. If there is no other, and all are the same, there can be nothing ‘else’ at which to point thither. Sameness is the paragon of health and indeed, healthy-mindedness. It is no accident that when James famously remarks on the relationship between hygiene and religion that was to be found in those sectarian movements that ‘minded’ health in this way, he finds that a transition from the metaphysical to the physical has begun. The physical is first embodied in physique. This is the easiest thing to do, and reminds one of how techne first became noticeable in technique. But more importantly, being healthy is something to do with the subject as object. The subject aspires to be an object; this in itself is a sign of health. If attained, or at least, approximated relative to age and many other factors, one can be said to be generally healthy. And all who are healthy are healthy in the same way, according to the dominant discourses of medicine. No differently than religion, and especially religion before Protestantism, one attains the proximate soteriological privilege by ‘getting right with god’, though this phrase is incumbently associated with the very beliefs that put sameness, for the time being, on hold. Indeed, one can suggest that Protestantism as a social movement born of rebellion and critique resists the category of the object. It must continually differentiate itself from itself, hence the hundreds of known sects that have developed over the past half-millennia. On average, one for every year since the ninety-five theses were nailed upon the doors to heaven. Luther had given notice. The structure ← 4 | 5 → had been condemned and could no longer, in all good conscience, be inhabited. It would be unhealthy to do so. Being healthy, minding one’s health and keeping a healthy mind, quite apart from all of the puritanical baggage associated with such hygienic and, so it also proved, proto-fascist epithets, was about reconstructing the structure of sameness. If all are naked before God, nakedness is the first sign of health, both physical and mental, as well as moral. One cannot hide anything, from a blemish to a pregnancy, from making eyes to making love.

This is not to claim that regimentation first occurred simply due to one’s ‘natural’ state. No, a state had to become a status. It is this, first and foremost, that sameness addresses unilaterally as it presents itself as the goal of objectification. Thus as with saneness, sameness proceeds to evaluate from a specific set of values; those of equal measure and to be measured objectificity. What cannot be, as a mark of physique to be exposed by technique, merges into what must not be, as a sign of the unelect status of an unhygienic state.


X, 276
ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2017 (December)
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2017. X, 286 pp.

Biographical notes

Gregory Loewen (Author)

Social philosopher Gregory V. Loewen is the author of over twenty books in diverse areas such as ethics, religion, art, education and politics. He has been a professor for almost a quarter of a century at universities in both Canada and the United States. He is currently Professor at St. Thomas More College at the University of Saskatchewan and was chair of the sociology department for five years. He holds a Ph.D. in sociology and anthropology from the University of British Columbia.


Title: Sacred Science
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288 pages