Philosophy of Religion
Dr Tom Kerns

Philosophy of Religion

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Medical Materialism

James says that sometimes people who want to dismiss or belittle religious experience use medical materialism as a way of "discrediting states of mind for which [they] have an antipathy." [VRE, Lecture I]

So what is medical materialism?

The concept of "medical materialism," so well described by James in his Varieties of Religious Experience, is just one more form of reductionism that is sometimes applied to matters of religion. For our purposes here, we will define "reductionism" as any attempt to explain the greater in terms of the lesser, that is, any attempt to explain something large and deep and complex in terms of categories drawn from something simpler and smaller and easier to understand.

Reductionistic explanations do appeal to some people because they make something complex seem as if it can be understood in terms of something smaller and simpler to grasp. If we want to belittle the love that exists between two people and say that it's really nothing special, we might say that their "love" is nothing more than the actions resulting from hormones acting on their brains; or that their happy marriage is nothing but a mutually selfish relationship of economic convenience for both of them. What this does is attempt to reduce (hence the term "reductionism") the significance and meaning of something by ascribing it to more trivial causes. It is trying to explain the greater in terms of the lesser.

Some authors have referred to this kind of thinking as "nothing-but-ism," and medical materialism is just one more form of nothing-but-ism. "That religious vision George had was just a result of insomnia," we might say. Or "Mary's experience of existential angst is just a result of a hormonal disturbance." Here's the way James says it in VRE:

Medical materialism seems indeed a good appellation for the too simple-minded system of thought which we are considering. Medical materialism finishes up Saint Paul by calling his vision on the road to Damascus a discharging lesion of the occipital cortex, he being an epileptic. It snuffs out Saint Teresa as an hysteric, Saint Francis of Assisi as an hereditary degenerate. George Fox's discontent with the shams of his age, and his pining for spiritual veracity, it treats as a symptom of a disordered colon. Carlyle's organ-tones of misery it accounts for by a gastro-duodenal catarrh. All such mental over-tensions, it says, are, when you come to the bottom of the matter, mere affairs of diathesis (auto-intoxications most probably), due to the perverted action of various glands which physiology will yet discover.

And medical materialism then thinks that the spiritual authority of all such personages is successfully undermined. [Lecture I]

Medical materialism, in other words, is a mistaken way of thinking that James says needs to be shown up for what it is, just a way that some people use to belittle states of mind they don't like or have never experienced themselves.

This brings to mind the lyrics of a musical piece in a small musical production of Charles Dickens' The Christmas Carol. You recall that part way through the story grouchy old Scrooge has some frightening late night visions of the ghost of his dead partner Jacob Marley. Marley has come back from the grave to warn Scrooge about the miserly and self-centered way in which he is living. Scrooge is frightened by what he sees and hears in the vision, and wants to find some way to write it off and discredit it as nothing but hallucination (note the "nothing but"). In the musical drama version of this story Scrooge expresses these ideas in a cute little ditty that he gruffly sings after the vision has passed. It's titled "Indigestion," and it's main theme is that that vision was just a result of some stomach upset resulting from something he ate.

Scrooge definitely wants to write off the vision because if the vision is true then it is saying something about his life that would feel very disagreeable to him. If the vision were true it may mean that he would have to change his life, so he would rather believe it is not true. So he tries to discredit the vision by applying categories of medical materialism to it. Here are the lyrics. It's cute, and while Scrooge is singing this ditty the audience can't help but smile and enjoy the fun of it.



from the play A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens,
adapted for the stage by Christopher Bedloe.
Music and lyrics adapted by James Wood

You were not an apparition,
But a medical condition.
This extraordinary suggestion
Was a touch of — indigestion.

A bit of underdone potato,
Half digested slice of veal,
Blot of mustard, spot of sago,
Or a bit of jellied eel.
A crumb of cheese most likely was the knave.
There's more in you of gravy than the grave.

P'raps those oysters that I fancied
Were just slightly on the turn,
Or the butter going rancid —
Too long parted from the churn.
A touch of colic likely is the knave.
There's more in you of gravy than the grave.

A spoonful of bicarbonate
Will very soon alleviate
The ill that made my senses misbehave —
There's more in you of gravy than the grave.

Performed by The Driftwood Players,
Edmonds, WA
Christmas 1989

I hope this helps with your understanding of James' concept of medical materialism. If it does, maybe say a word or two about it in the SQs folder for this week.


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