The Role of Faith in Medicine

Assistant editor Dan Hoffman uses a philosophical “thought experiment” to better understand the case of the color-blind neuroscientist.

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Posted in , Feb 11, 2016

What is the role of faith in medicine and medical cures?

A couple weeks ago, I blogged about doctors who take a leap of faith.  Since then, I’ve been thinking a lot about faith and medicine. As I wrote before, I wouldn’t necessarily avoid seeing a doctor who doesn’t share my particular brand of spirituality. But I would prefer a physician who is “open to faith.”

Although, what does that mean exactly? And why is it important? I was really wrestling with these questions until I stumbled across a little thought experiment written up by Gary Gutting for The New York Times modern philosophy series that sheds light on the issue:

“Mary, a leading neuroscientist who specializes in color perception…lives at a time in the future when the neuroscience of color is essentially complete, and so she knows all the physical facts about colors and their perception. Mary, however, has been totally color-blind from birth.

“Fortunately, due to research Mary herself has done, there is an operation that gives her normal vision. When the bandages are removed, Mary looks around the room and sees a bouquet of red roses sent by her husband. At that moment, Mary for the first time experiences the color red and now knows what red looks like.”

The purpose of the thought experiment is to challenge the idea that the know-it-all neuroscientist could have possibly known everything about the color red before she saw it. The logical conclusion we draw from the tale is that after Mary finally sees red, something is added to the sum of her knowledge and experience.

We can’t describe what this new knowledge is, other than it goes beyond something that can be physically explained. There is no complete physical explanation for consciousness. Although some, like me, would say it has to do with the soul or some other ethereal phenomena.

It’s the same with my faith and medicine questions. Doctors can have all the facts and “know” everything there is to know about the physical body. But couldn’t their knowledge be enhanced somehow if they’re open to things they can’t see on an x-ray or under a microscope? Open to the mystery of that “one extra factor” in our experience of this world?

What do you think? Share your thoughts below. 

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