Medicine's Metaphysical Morass: How Confusion About Dualism Threatens Public Health
What position on dualism does medicine require? Our understanding of that question has been dictated by holism since that movement developed in the late twentieth century, but holism has been characterized from the start with confused philosophical terminology. This problem has led to misunderstanding about the philosophical foundation for medicine and psychiatry, and that misunderstanding has a direct impact on patient safety. Following a brief overview of the history of holism in Part 1, I pin down confusions in use of the terms ‘reduction’ and ‘dualism’ in Part 2. Rectifying those errors clarifies holism’s philosophically muddled claims, but conceptual confusion remains because holism is understood to maintain contradictory positions on reductive physicalism. In Part 3, I explain why the idea of reductive holism is incoherent, then I show how the reductive strand of holism leads to quantifiable harm for patients in everyday medical practice. In Part 4, I explain how holism’s dualistic foundation is aligned with philosophical work on the mind-body problem that’s characteristic of our time. In the end of the day I argue that Chalmers’ naturalistic dualism serves better than the alternatives of supervenience physicalism or emergence as the nonreductive picture that underlies holism. I conclude with a list of the basic corrections that can finally give holism a coherent philosophical foundation.
From Mind to Morality: The Value of Consciousness in Medicine
We generally accept that recognition of personhood drove medicine’s shift away from the biomedical model, and that recognition of personhood remains foundational to medicine’s ethical concerns. In the context of patients in vegetative state, however, we’ve come to see that the moral and ethical implications of phenomenal consciousness are distinct from those of personhood. In this light, it seems important to reconsider the foundations of medicine. What is the role for recognition of consciousness (as distinct from personhood) in grounding the moral value of medicine and the specific demands of clinical ethics? I begin by pinning down the tenets of holism as they concern consciousness. Next, I discuss three ways in which holism’s concern with conscious states has changed medical science, and I clarify how these scientific changes force us to see medical practice as moral. Finally, I argue that the traditional principles of clinical ethics are fully motivated by consciousness in the absence of personhood. Most importantly, I suggest that respect for patient autonomy is respect for the dominion of an experiencer in the private, inescapable realm of bodily experience, so conscious patients command this respect even when they lack the capacity to exercise their dominion though decision-making. While philosophical discussion of this issue is valuable, it's also important that medical practice might be improved with clarity on the clinical and ethical roles for recognition of consciousness.
Journal of Medical Ethics Blog, 5 March 2019.
Professional and public debate about myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) has reached a new pitch. A London Times article in August described the “acrimonious scientific row” that’s erupted in the UK now that the US Institute of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, and Centers for Disease Control insist that ME/CFS is not a psychosomatic condition, but rather “a serious biological disease”. Just a few weeks ago the issue was raised in Parliamentary debate, with a long stream of MPs taking a vocal stand on behalf of their constituents with ME/CFS, demanding a new practice guideline that protects access to biomedical care. Two aspects of this situation are strange – very strange. First, where is the voice of ethics? For decades the public has pursued a vocal concern about access to biomedical care for ME/CFS, while bioethics has remained silent. Second, psychiatrists who originally established the UK’s prominence in this area are, quite rightly, engaging in vigorous professional and public debate at this time. The UK’s practice guideline is now under revision, and discussion of this kind is necessary to move forward. The trouble is that the focus of this debate is far off track – and no one seems to have noticed.
Few conditions have sparked as much controversy as myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS). Professional consensus has long suggested that the condition should be classified as psychiatric, while patients and advocacy groups have insisted it’s a serious biological disease that requires medical care and research to develop it. This longstanding debate shifted in 2015 when US governmental health authorities fully embraced medical classification and management. Given that some globally respected health authorities now insist that ME/CFS is a serious biological disease, this paper asks whether it can be ethical for the UK practice guideline now in development to characterize the condition as a mental health disorder. Following a brief history of ME/CFS controversy, I offer three arguments to show that it would be unethical for the UK to now characterize ME/CFS as a mental health condition, considering the relevance of that conclusion for ME/CFS guidelines elsewhere and for other contested conditions.
Journal of Biological Physics and Chemistry, Special Issue on Scientific Integrity, 18 (2018) 67–77.
The credibility of psychosomatic medicine has recently been called into question through challenges to the scientific integrity of the “PACE trial”, which claimed success for psychiatric treatment in managing myalgic encephalomyelitis/chronic fatigue syndrome. A more recent product of research in psychosomatic medicine is “bodily distress syndrome” (BDS), a Danish diagnostic construct developed to replace “somatoform disorders”, “medically unexplained symptoms” and “functional somatic syndromes”. I set out in this paper to examine the science that supports the construct of BDS, both in design and in implementation. Following the Introduction, in Part 2 I clarify the details that define BDS, and the problems the construct is designed to resolve. In Part 3, I explore three problems with the science behind BDS. In Part 4, I consider the World Health Organization’s effort to implement BDS in the International Classification of Diseases, noting that while BDS criteria fail in both WHO studies, the workgroup nonetheless insists that the ICD should recommend them for global use. I conclude that BDS gives support to recent concern that scientific standards in psychosomatic medicine are inadequate, closing with a brief discussion of ethical problems that arise when global health policy decisions are not grounded in science.
Ethical management of diagnostic uncertainty: Response to open peer commentaries on
“Why bioethics should be concerned with medically unexplained symptoms”
American Journal of Bioethics 18:5, 6-15 (August 2018).
Commentaries on my target article, “Why bioethics should be concerned about medically unexplained symptoms”, offer a range of valuable perspectives on the unconsidered ethical territory of medically unexplained symptoms (MUS). In what follows I will briefly review the article’s central points, then hone in on three central challenges that arise in the commentary: the suggestion in Canavera that physicians should not focus on carefully distinguishing biological and psychosocial symptoms, the suggestion in Kanaan that psychogenic diagnosis rarely errs, and the suggestion in Preller, and in Sankary and Ford, that a risk/benefit analysis for patients with psychogenic symptoms supports the current status quo. Finally, I will explore a suggestion that can unify most of the commentary, the idea that the best path to improving care in this area is truthful humility about diagnostic uncertainty.
American Journal of Bioethics 18:5, 6-15 (April 2018). https://doi.org/10.1080/15265161.2018.1445312
Biomedical diagnostic science is a great deal less successful than we’ve been willing to acknowledge in bioethics, and this fact has far-reaching ethical implications. In this article I consider the surprising prevalence of medically unexplained symptoms, and the term’s ambiguous meaning. Then I frame central questions that remain unanswered in this context with respect to informed consent, autonomy, and truth-telling. Finally, I show that while considerable attention in this area is given to making sure not to provide biological care to patients without a need, comparatively little is given to the competing, ethically central task of making sure never to obstruct access to biological care for those with diagnostically confusing biological conditions. I suggest this problem arises from confusion about the philosophical value of vagueness when it comes to the line between biological and psychosocial needs.
Response to “The new somatic symptom disorder in DSM-5 risks mislabeling many people as mentally ill”.
British Medical Journal, Views and Reviews (28 March 2013).
Controversy over somatic symptom disorder (SSD) is indeed about where the line between medicine and psychiatry should be drawn, because SSD continues to play the same primarily medical role as its former cousins, regardless of the new inclusiveness. SSD is centrally an explanation for physical symptoms, one physicians will look to when faced with medical diagnostic challenges. While it’s right to be concerned that this new line in the sand will generate needless psychiatric care, the real problem with SSD is really much more grave: it sanctions refusal to face the seriousness of the risk of error, the problem of medical harm that results when patients with medical problems are mistakenly denied medical care.
Apeiron: A Journal for Ancient Philosophy and Science 29(4), 165–198 (December 1996).
Was Plato, at least in some moods, a philosopher of language? There can be no doubt that questions about the way language latches on to the world occur with some frequency in the dialogues, and with notable urgency in the Sophist. Indeed as our own era seems to be one in which philosophy of language is valued, the Sophist is often favoured as closer in spirit to contemporary thought than any of the other dialogues. I suggest that Plato is concerned with linguistic matters in the Sophist not because he accepts the value of philosophy of language, but because he wants to explain what underlies the linguistic skepticism that runs through the dialogues. I argue that beneath the glistening surface of debate about reference and truth in the Sophist there lies a beautifully simple, rigorous, account of the disparity between language and the world it purports to represent. Embedded within the Stranger's most technical linguistic pursuits is something we should have been missing in the Platonic corpus, that is, an explanation of Plato's persistent suggestion that language is not a good place to turn for philosophical insight.
Australasian Journal of Philosophy 73(1), 49–70 (March 1995).
The Theaetetus is concerned largely with the thesis that perception and knowledge are one and the same thing. Theaetetus suggests something like this to begin the main part of his conversation with Socrates, and Socrates proceeds to reveal what Seth Benardete described as the "parentage" of Theaetetus' view, that is, the strong similarity between Theaetetus' suggestion and the relativist views of Protagoras. The conversation that ensues focuses on difficulties with Protagorean epistemology. Once Protagoras is defeated, Socrates rejects the related view of Heraclitus, and finally, the possibility that knowledge is true opinion. This is what occurs on the surface of the dialogue, but I shall argue that this surface is deliberately misleading. What actually occurs in the dialogue is that Theaetetus offers the rich and promising Platonic suggestion that knowledge is nothing but perception, a suggestion that is subsequently misconstrued by Socrates as the claim that sense perception is identical to knowledge. Though one is certainly tempted to blindly follow along, to accept without question Socrates' misconstrual, this is not in fact what Plato expects us to do.
July 12, 2025
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