On Disability

(cc) Michael Shaheen

I’m getting old and my body hurts in many ways. Much of that hurt comes from my psoriatic arthritis. Fortunately, my body responds well to easy treatments. For pain and inflammation, I take low-dose lexapro (escitalopram, 1mg daily) and bioavailable curcumin (Meriva, 500-1000mg daily).   Without them, my joints burn constantly with horrific pain. I find it difficult to walk across a room. My feet can go into such agony that I cannot walk at all. But even with these drugs, my hands are often in so much pain that they wake me at night, and I have to supplement with ibuprofen. And if I want to walk any longer distance, I need a walking stick or cane.

My naturalism forces me to look honestly at my body. My body cannot move as much as it once did; its range of motions has decreased; its mobility is less than the mobilities of other bodies, including my own youthful body. Since self-motion is one of the functions of my body, my functionality has decreased. My body is less functional in some ways than other bodies. Functional quantities can be objectively measured: How far can you walk? How much pain medication do you need to sleep? My naturalism also compels me to define values in natural terms. Any theory of value for humans begins by ordering the qualities of human bodies from negative to positive. The facts of life imply that greater functionality is more value. A more functional body is a better body. This means there are some ways my body is worse than it used to be, and worse than other bodies.

As a naturalist, I affirm that I am identical with my body. More generally, persons just are identical with bodies. This seems to lead to an unacceptable result: since I am less mobile, I am a worse body; but that seems to mean that I am a worse person. Do naturalists think that disabled people are bad people? They do not. Even if persons are identical with bodies, the term person still refers more precisely to the ethical qualities of those bodies. Obviously, disabled bodies can be ethically good persons, and abled bodies can be ethically bad people. But it’s not very accurate to talk about good persons or bad persons. It’s more accurate to talk about virtuous persons and vicious persons. Here vicious means having a vice, which is a failure of some virtue. For instance, courage is a virtue, while cowardice and recklessness are both vices. Thus virtues and vices are character traits, traits which persistently shape our behaviors.

Being a less mobile body doesn’t make me a less virtuous person. Still, the fact that psoriatic arthritis gives me pain can make me depressed and irritable. It can make me suffer from many negative emotions, so that I behave badly towards others. My naturalism forces me to recognize that my diseases often do turn me into a vicious person. Just as I need to improve my joints and immune system, so also I need to improve my ethical character. But my character is just encoded in my brain. So I need to change my nervous system. It’s plausible to say that the ethical aspects of our bodies are spiritual aspects of our bodies. Does this imply that our bodies also have souls? I’m often told that naturalists don’t believe in souls. But why not? As a spiritual naturalist, I want to naturalize the soul – to define it in terms that are relevant to my body. Aristotle said the soul is the form of the body. In terms of modern science, that means that my soul is something like the information encoded in my DNA and RNA.

On this way of thinking about the soul, my soul is as dysfunctional as my body. Psoriatic arthritis has a strong genetic component. Somewhere my genes, and therefore my soul, went badly wrong. My soul has errors, it has defects. My soul is a text written with genetic letters, and it has a lot of typographic and grammatical errors. It doesn’t make its meaning clear; it conflicts with itself in many ways. Psoriatic arthritis is an auto-immune disorder, so parts of my body are destroying other parts. To the extent that my psoriatic arthritis emerges from my genes, it follows that my soul contradicts itself. Of course, I’m not identical with my genes; I’m identical with my body. My body emerges from the interactions between my genes and my environment. But my genes are the only parts of that interaction that I carry around within me. Maybe my genes don’t define who I am, but they are nevertheless extremely deep parts of my identity. And my genes are not very healthy genes.

I need to work on my joints, my immune system, my brain, and my genes. I do this work by applying the experimental method to my body. I’m open to anything. But I’m going to research therapies before I try them. If there’s no evidence for their effectiveness, or if their risks or bad side-effects outweigh their benefits, I’m not going to try them. There’s no evidence that traditional religious activities (like prayer) help to cure any diseases. I’m not so much an atheist as I am an apatheist: I don’t care whether God exists or not, because the evidence shows that worshipping God doesn’t do anything. Religious people suffer diseases at the same rates as non-religious people. And if Mormons suffer less lung cancer than non-Mormons, that’s because their religion forbids smoking, not because God loves them more. New Age therapies are equally unfounded: I’m not going to waste my money on that copper bracelet. As a naturalist, I’m committed to trying to change my body using techniques based on science. I want evidence that the technologies I apply to my body are safe and effective.

It’s traditional to say that spiritual practices are done to make you into a holier person, a person more like a sage, saint, or buddha. But most traditional concepts of holiness were bound up with mind-body dualism: spiritual practices purified your mind; they made you more virtuous. But those spiritual practices often led people to abuse their bodies. As a naturalist, I have to reject any concept of holiness based on mind-body dualism. The mind, after all, is just a part of the body, namely, the nervous system. Any holiness that focuses on just one part of the body is incomplete. Naturalists reject any merely ascetic disciplines. Naturalistic spirituality does not aim to mortify the flesh, so that the soul can more easily escape from the body. If the soul is the form of the body, then mortifying the flesh is mortifying the soul. It’s a perverse form of spirituality.

Although spiritual naturalists reject dualistic conceptions of holiness, they need not reject holiness. Spiritual naturalists can naturalize holiness. One way to do this says that holiness is the most comprehensive kind of goodness for a human body. Holiness implies perfect physical and mental health. It implies optimal physical function. It includes virtue, which is just the positive ethical functioning of your brain. Human bodies are social bodies, so a perfectly good body acts perfectly well with other bodies, including both human and non-human bodies. Holiness is clearly an ideal. It seems likely that no human ever has or ever will realize it. I can’t be holy if I’m vicious; but I also can’t be holy if I have psoriatic arthritis. Holiness is a kind of perfection that surpasses or transcends all actual human achievement. This is good, because it means that nobody can claim to be holy. We’re all on the road to holiness, but nobody can claim that they’ve reached the end. Can naturalists endorse holiness? If you can conceive of this perfection, then you can strive for it. And the fact that you can always conceive of doing and getting better implies that you can conceive of it.

Spiritual naturalists can adopt this concept of holiness, and use it to guide their spiritual practices. Anything you do to try to improve your body is a spiritual practice. To be spiritual is to try to become as healthy as possible and as virtuous as possible. Taking medications to improve your health and virtue are spiritual; doing meditation to improve your mental health and virtue are spiritual. There exists in every human body a drive towards self-perfection, a drive to flourish, a drive to be healthy and virtuous, a drive which aims at holiness This drive emerges from the purely natural activities in my body.   The Stoics would have called it spirit (pneuma), and I’ll call it spirit too. My spirit aims at my transfiguration. It strives to change my old body into a holier body.

As a naturalist, I use technology based on science to transfigure my body, to make it more holy. These are spiritual technologies. Any spiritual technology changes your body into a new body. If you are your body, then it changes who you are. Meditation can transform negative patterns of feeling and thinking into positive patterns. It does this by transfiguring your brain, making it holier. As it transfigures your brain, it changes you into a new person. You are no longer who you were. The drugs I take change my immune system and my nervous system. Ibuprofen, escitalopram, and mirtazapine (I take all three) all change my personality. Mirtazapine, for me, is an ethical therapy: by making me less depressed, it makes me less irritable and angry. It helps me act more virtuously towards others.  If genetic technologies ever become available to safely and reliably treat my diseases, I’ll use them too. I’ll be more than happy to change the very definition of who I am. And if my soul is the information in my genes, then I’ll be changing my soul. I’ll use technology to make my soul holy. When Hugh Herr replaced his legs with bionic prosthetics, that was transfiguration too.

I don’t worry about turning into some other person, somebody who isn’t me, because it’s impossible for me to turn into somebody who isn’t me. If my body gets transfigured into some new body, then by definition that new body is me. We are not stable or enduring things. I am not the same body I was five minutes ago; and, since I am my body, I am not the same person I was five minutes ago. There are many different versions of me, many different possible ways I can continue into the future. Naturalists can believe in possibilities. Do I have free will? Or is my entire life pre-determined? I don’t care about that any more than I care about God. Spirit works in me to drive me towards my most holy futures. I do not have any fixed identity; I have no authentic self. But what I do have is a branching tree of future possible bodies. If I am in pain, it is always possible that I will not be in pain; if I am sick and disabled, it is always possible that I will not be in those conditions; if I am ethically vicious, it is always possible for me to be ethically virtuous. It is always possible for me to be holier. It is not necessary for me to be in any of these dysfunctional conditions. This plasticity gives me hope.

All the strings of DNA and RNA in my body are texts written in genetic letters. My proteins are texts written in the alphabet of peptides, and they fold up wonderfully like little origami poems. Every molecule in my body is a word in the language of life. And so my body is a living text, an organic poem. It organized itself and it perpetually writes itself. I am a self-rewriting story, a poem striving to become clearer about its own meaning. And if I seem to be the author of this story, it is only because the story has written me into being. I am only the way this text refers to itself, loops back into itself, and drives itself. My body is a text whose meanings are animated by spirit, which fixes more errors in every new edition of my body. My body speaks in a molecular language. Through the succession of its revisions it seeks to bear witness to the perfection of biological meaning, not to preserve itself, but to say the name of the good.


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