Sunday, 25 August 2013

Objective science and subjective voices

I'm going to an 'Medicine Unboxed' event in a couple of months or so.. I haven't been to any previous ones but I'm looking forward to it. This year's event is called 'Voice'. Medicine Unboxed is a not-for-profit organisation that aims to explore 'understanding medicine through the arts and humanities'. I like the thought of this.

Looking from a new perspectiveIt's easy in the course of everyday work to get stuck in particular ways of looking at things. Therefore to see new perspectives, especially from different disciplines, seems to me very worthwhile. As a counsellor, both in the NHS and in private practice, I am especially interested in 'voice' from different perspectives.

For me, both psychology and philosophy inform my work and I'm glad to have had the opportunity to study both. These for me have been two different voices. Psychology has given me a grounding - a factual approach - and the philosophy has helped me in asking questions that open things up to further investigation.

That makes it sound as though they fit well together and some of the time that's true, but not always. Often philosophy asks questions and challenges points of view including the scientific perspective. It's easy to feel defensive and protective of a point of view rather than allow any challenge. I found it really difficult to begin with, hearing the scientific viewpoint being challenged. I'm sure this coming event will challenge some of my points of view too. I hope so.

Having 'objective' scientific facts can be very reassuring. However, as human beings, we also have a conscious awareness - a subjective sense of things. I think that's important too - our own particular take on the world. Science can have trouble trying to measure this and taking it into account. You can't reduce this subjective sense to a set of numbers. Even words to describe how we think, and especially how we feel, can be hard to come by. Science alone may not always seem adequate for the task.

However when we can go beyond this to, for instance using the arts, then it becomes easier. We can use literature, poetry, paintings etc. to help describe things that seem not to fit easily into the neat boxes of science. Philosophy can help us question things; and therapy can help us work with the uncertainty that this questioning invokes. We can explore new territory.

For example, when Sartre wants to describe being inauthentic or in 'bad faith' in 'Being and Nothingness', he uses vignettes to give us the idea of what he is trying to say - little scenes that paint a picture very effectively. For me, his vignettes bring his ideas alive. The existentialists, including Sartre, also used novels as a way of  helping to communicate their ideas for this reason. Metaphors and stories can introduce layers of meaning that help give us a more in depth understanding. Kafka, and a couple of thousand years before him, Chuang Tzu seem to me particularly adept at these layers of meaning in their writing - encouraging us to see, and to think about, things in new ways.

Freud talked about elements in dreams as being 'over-determined' -  that is having layers of meaning, all of which have significance. The arts can help us access this dream world part of ourselves, that might otherwise be hard to get hold of.

I feel therefore that having a variety of ways of exploring the human condition makes sense to me. Any one perspective is just that - one perspective. Sometimes in order to get a more three dimensional view, we need view to see things from different angles. Involving different disciples including the arts and philosophy seems to me a great way of encouraging this exploration; and engaging with fresh ideas.

I'm not against a scientific approach, but rather I think it is one way among several that can help us explore humanity in all its fascinating dimensions.

Lin Travis Counselling Services

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