The myth of knowledge
|Argonauts in quest of the Golden Fleece. Maxfield Parrish, 1910. New York Public Library Digital Collections.|
Legend has it that aeons ago on the Island of Colchis hung a magical Golden Fleece that could heal any disease. Modern medicine has proposed a new explanation for this incredible tale: Colchicum autumnale, a flowering plant now used to produce colchicine. Since Grecian antiquity, its therapeutic properties have been widely acknowledged, and today it is a mainstay in the management of gout.1 Our advanced medical knowledge has made it possible for us to propose scientific explanations for seemingly unbelievable tales.
Take the biblical account of David and Goliath. Without belief in the supernatural, one may question how a teenage boy could defeat a ten-foot-tall giant with pebbles and a slingshot. Doctors have proposed that the existence of the giant Goliath, as well as his ineptitude in battle, could be explained by a pituitary adenoma.3 The excessive growth hormone secreted by this tumor would have resulted in acromegaly, causing Goliath to develop a very large stature. Compression of the optic chiasma by the tumor would have led to bitemporal hemianopia. This visual impediment is suggested by Goliath’s call for David to put down his “sticks,” when David was actually only holding one stick. Goliath is never described as blind, but this specific visual field defect often goes undetected even today. This is because the visual fields of the left and right temporal retinas somewhat still cover the entire available visual field until one eye is shut, preventing contralateral compensation. Finally, trauma dealt between the eyes with a rock could indeed kill, especially if the victim’s intracranial pressure was already raised by such a tumor.
The ability of medical knowledge to provide natural explanations for such stories can be enthralling. In fact, the human brain is innately intolerant of imperfect gaps in knowledge and perception. In the book Your Mind Plays Tricks On You, author Albert Moukheiber offers a modified version of the blind spot test. Typically, this test consists of a fixed point to look at, and a black spot adjacent to it. The subject covers one eye, fixes the other eye on the fixed point, and moves the black spot until it “disappears” because it has fallen into their eye’s blind spot, the point of insertion of the optic nerve into the retina that contains no light receptors.
In the modified version of the blind spot test, the black spot is in between two identical grey bars. When the black spot is made to fall in the subject’s blind spot, instead of the black spot just “disappearing,” the identical grey bars become one continuous grey bar, because the brain is dissatisfied with the inexplicable hole between the two bars and tries to fill in the gap in the subject’s perception.4
It would be unfair, however, to brand mythical or supernatural occurrences as mere stopgaps, since they demonstrate quite strong correlations with their purported outcomes. After all, the “fleece” did heal and the stone did kill. Even today, people regularly draw perfectly justifiable, correct conclusions without scientific, quantifiable proof. In Descartes’ Discourse on the Method, he writes, “And yet what do I see from the window but hats and coats which may cover automatic machines? Yet I judge these to be men…by the faculty of judgement which rests in my mind.”5
Too, it is worth challenging the premise that identifying accurate causation is the main purpose of acquiring knowledge. We try to predict the future by past experiences. However, as David Hume points out, one of science’s greatest challenges is the “Problem of Induction.”6 We base the validity of past experience on more past experience, making past experience a poor predictor of future outcome. Logician Bertrand Russell says it best: “The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead.”7 Hence, a problem arises for the modern scientific method—causation.
We live in a post-Enlightenment age where all knowledge seems to have been established. This leaves little space for radical change. Just forty years ago, Professor Barry Marshall had to drink infectious, carcinogenic Helicobacter pylori just to get the medical community to acknowledge that peptic ulcer disease could be caused by more than stress and a poor diet.8 Granted, his gamble won him a Nobel Prize, but should this not be a warning of how reticent we are to welcome innovative discoveries?
It is imperative that we face the similarities between what we know now and what we cockily brand as “ancient myth.” Only by accepting that what we know is infinitely nearer to nothing than it is to everything can we further discovery and understanding. Admittedly, I hate not having all the answers; yet, to quote Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, “All adults were first children, but few of them remember.”9 I hope to be forever enthralled by the pursuit of medicine the same way I was as a child by the story of the Golden Fleece.
- “Colchicine – Molecule of the Month – JMol Version,” 2015. http://www.chm.bris.ac.uk/motm/colchicine/colchicinejm.htm.
- Clarke, Arthur Charles. Profiles of the Future: An Inquiry Into the Limits of the Possible, 1973.
- Reuters “Was Goliath, After All, Just a Pushover?” The New York Times, February 18, 2000. https://nytimes.com/2000/02/18/world/was-goliath-after-all-just-a-pushover.html.
- Moukheiber, Albert. Votre Cerveau Vous Joue Des Tours, 2019.
- Descartes, René. Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting the Reason, and Seeking Truth in the Sciences, 1637.
- Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, 1748.
- Russell, Bertrand. The Problems of Philosophy, 1912.
- Tanenbaum, Jessica. “Delayed Gratification: Why It Took Everybody So Long to Acknowledge That Bacteria Cause Ulcers.” Journal of Young Investigators, February 9, 2005. https://www.jyi.org/2005-february/2005/2/9/delayed-gratification-why-it-took-everybody-so-long-to-acknowledge-that-bacteria-cause-ulcers.
- De Saint-Exupéry, Antoine. Le Petit Prince (The Little Prince), 1943.
CHLOE WEN-MIN LEE is a second-year medical student at the National University of Singapore. She is passionate about ophthalmology and delights in learning languages that allow her to connect with friends, family, and patients alike.