February 10th, 2019

I’ve spent the last few months pinballing across the country for graduate school interviews, relishing in the chance to sit down for one on one conversations with some of the individuals leading the charge of biomedical innovation. I’ve left most of these interactions floating a few inches off the ground – awed by the technological capabilities of humanity and eager for the future of medicine. A statement from a physician scientist at one of my recent interviews, however, got me thinking: he said, very matter of fact, “Progress in medicine is extending the human lifespan.”

I held my tongue, but the hair on the back of my neck bristled a bit at this statement. Is progress in medicine really just extending the human lifespan? What about enhancing the subjective quality of life? Easing suffering? Finding meaning and existential peace? What do we do when extending the human lifespan prolongs suffering? What is progress, anyway? And how do we judge whether we’ve achieved it?

It seems that progress essentially involves some sort of movement. And judging movement seems to involve a comparison to some sort of standard. (Think about when you’re sitting in a car. You determine whether you’re moving based on the movements of the other cars and your surroundings.) This standard is either something that we can move towards (as in enlightenment), or away from (as in ignorance).

The progress that is perhaps most easily conceptualized forms of progress are scientific progress. In scientific progress we move towards a complete understanding of the universe. The indubitability of our scientific progress is evidenced by our technological progress, in which we have dramatically expanded our abilities to manipulate this universe. Even the predictions of the Weather app on your phone would have been revered as the world’s greatest prophecies a hundred years ago.

Progress in other forms, such as philosophical or ethical progress, is much harder to quantify. The philosopher David Chalmers measures the progress of a discipline in what he calls “convergence to the truth.” While there is some disagreement at the frays of particle physics, by and large there is consensus on the majority of the facts in the hard sciences. You’d be hard pressed to find a scientist that didn’t think that DNA is the genetic material, or that water is made of two hydrogen molecules and one oxygen molecule. But anybody who has taken an introductory philosophy, or ethics, or sociology, or even psychology course knows that studying these disciplines is studying disagreement, a lack of consensus, competing theories. If we consider the Western study of ethics, one might say that we’ve actually moved farther away from consensus within the field, which nearly unanimously espoused Judeo-Christian principles during the Renaissance. Yet, as competing theories have arisen within the field of ethics – moral relativism, feminist thought, utilitarianism, deontology – we still have a feeling that there has been ethical progress since the Renaissance.

I’ll pose another question: are we ourselves moving, or is our standard moving? To return to the sitting in a car analogy – have you even been sitting in your car, parked in a parking spot, when the car next to you starts backing up, and you mistakenly think that your car is, in fact, the one moving? How can we determine if true progress is occurring if we’re having trouble pinning down our standard against which to measure it in the first place?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality Among Men, insists that our notion that there has been progress from the hunter-gatherer state of early man to our complex societal structures now is an illusion. Rousseau insists that the “Natural” state of man, in which man regards himself as “the sole spectator to observe him, and as the sole being in the universe to take an interest in him” is preferable to our modern condition. We often consider our increasing social inter-connectedness to be a marker of progress – we are moving towards a more global world. But Rousseau would argue that if we didn’t have social connections, we also wouldn’t have notions of property ownership, reputation, and power. And if we didn’t have property ownership, reputation, and power, we also wouldn’t have theft, vanity, and inequality. In other words, we’ve created most of our own problems in the modern world. And there is something to be said for the fact that many of our contemporary ills – obesity, lung cancer, drunk driving, more controversially depression, anxiety, and racial discrimination – are more recent, and perhaps artificial, additions to the human condition.

Let’s turn our attention back to scientific and technological progress. It’s easy to see how scientific progress has palliated human suffering. Child birth used to be a saliently life-threatening ordeal. We can pop an Advil when we have a headache. Planes and trains give us the folly of experiencing natural beauty in other parts of the world that would have been previously inaccessible in a lifetime. Feminine hygiene products (need I say more?). Many of the products of technological progress that beget further progress, namely the burning of fuel, synthetic materials such as plastic, artificial intelligence, social media, may spell doom for humanity.

This is hardly a new idea. For a while now we have known that we may be the arbiters of our own destruction. But, going forward, it may be valuable for us to more deeply consider our standards of progress. In the words of H.L. Mencken “change is not progress.” Our angst for movement, our cravings for novelty and productivity, may blind us from what we truly want out of our brief existence.

To start this week off, I’m going to relay a list of a few of my favorite podcasts that have graced my ears this past year. For those who haven’t discovered Podcasts quite yet, beware. Once you’re hooked to this contemporary form of storytelling, it’s difficult to not fill every waking hour of free auditory space with this form of media.

In no particular order:

Believed: NPR’s Believed takes a deep dive into the story of the abuse by USA Gymnastics National Team doctor Larry Nassar, focusing in on some of the astoundingly strong women at the center of the case whose names weren’t necessarily recognizable as Olympians.
Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
The Argument: Three Op-Ed columnists from the New York Times debate some of the central issues in politics, giving credence to positions across the political spectrum.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
30 for 30: You may be familiar with the 30 for 30 documentary series on ESPN, whose films explore some of the central moments and themes in sports history, and their intersection with cultural and political phenomena. Well, what do you know, 30 for 30 also has a stellar podcast! My favorite season focuses on the life of and controversy surrounding Bikram Choudhary, the Indian yogi responsible for helping to commercialize the practice of Yoga in America, and for inventing Bikram Yoga, or “Hot Yoga.”

30 for 30 Bikram Podcast
The Dropout: This podcast comes from ABC News, so it errs on the side of drama rather than art, but don’t let that stop you from lapping up every drop of the blood-curdling story of Theranos, a fraudulent biotech company that claimed to possess the (too-good-to-be-true) technology to instantaneously run a barrage of medical laboratory tests on a single drop of blood, and its cunning and narcissistic leader, Elizabeth Holmes.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play
Dr. Death: This horrifying story of a neurosurgeon in Texas, who left 31 of the 38 patients he operated on either maimed or dead, will having you begging your friends to listen so you can discuss the question: was he simply incompetent, or was he a cold-blooded killer?

Apple PodcastsWondery
Bodies: Each episode starts with a medical mystery pertaining to women’s health, but unfurls into a subtle and intricate examination of the individuals stories of these women, and the historical and cultural forces shaping their experiences of their bodies.

Apple PodcastsGoogle Play

In another form of auditory storytelling, I recently discovered the lush inner world of saxophonist and composer Bendik Giske, who has me running through the hazy, post-club, pre-dawn streets of Berlin with him in his recent release Surrender (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) off the Smalltown Supersound label.

I was also reminded this week of how much I love Jenny Hval’s 2018 EP The Long Sleep (SpotifyYouTubeBandcamp) – brainy, poetic, cathartic, while retaining a sort of early 2000’s innocence to the sound.

Whether you’re recovering from the Polar Vortex, or bemoaning the rebound of winter after a brief tease of spring weather here in Charlottesville, you may find reprieve in entering the saccharine, glitter-speckled, rainbow-oozing miniature worlds of Australian artist Tanya Schultz aka Pip and Pop.

In a particularly fruitful Goodwill trip yesterday (largely thanks to the Goodwill goddess herself, Mary Garner McGehee), I could not resist but purchase a ridiculously large crocheted chain necklace/belt/sash, which I am telling myself is somebody’s handmade masterpiece. It seems that everyone is doing everything in crochet these days (especially food, or little Japanese creatures called amigurumi), and I am all about it. I was particularly taken by this life-size, anatomically correct crocheted cadaver from Shanell Papp, to go along with knitted human brains from psychiatrist-turned-artist Dr. Karen Norberg.

Lastly, as Valentine’s Day approaches, I suggest that you read the New Yorker’s interview with Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist who has become a world authority on couples therapy and the topics of love, sex, intimacy, and infidelity. She has even started a podcast called “Where Should We Begin?” in which each episode features one of her real-life couples therapy session.

If you have Valentine’s Day plans with a special someone, I wish you the best. If you don’t, consider taking the night to be extra kind to yourself. I, for one, have big plans to make myself and friends a Nordic dessert – perhaps a Toscakaka, a caramel-almond cake, or Pulla, Finnish cardamom-spiced sweet buns.

That’s all for this week! Please send in original work, cultural recommendations, responses to the stuff here, or stray thoughts to butterforthebrain@gmail.com. Share with your pals. Feedback in all forms is always appreciated. If you or your friends aren’t on the listserv already, please use this form to sign up!

Much love,

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