When Science is Not Good Enough

At Eternity's Gate
“At Eternity’s Gate” by Vincent Van Gogh

A keynote speech given by a clinician at a seminar a few months ago made a lasting impression upon me, not for the scientific content, but for a story she told:

A patient, who had an advanced disease and had been receiving treatment at our hospital, came in to my office. He was a well-known physician and we had collaborated often in the past, so we knew each other very well. He asked me about the prospect of his treatment. I explained to him that researchers had made several hypotheses on the cause of his illness based on genetic studies and clinical data, and attempted treatments have met with various degrees of success in different populations so far. He interrupted impatiently, “That’s not good enough!”, and stormed out of my office. I understood how he felt, but there was nothing I could do. Unfortunately, he died weeks later.

The sad anecdote reminded me of Kierkegaard: “Ideality I know by myself, and if I do not know it by myself, then I do not know it at all”.

All the knowledge of medical science avails the individual nothing, unless it can be applied to him personally. Science is based on probability, but for the individual, it is a case of “either/or”. It is one thing to look at survival rate from the perspective of medical research, it is quite another to look at survival as an individual patient. For an individual, survival is never 1% or 99% or anything in between, for him, it is Yes or No. The fact that 99% of the people survive means absolutely nothing to him who falls in the 1%.

I cannot think of a better demonstration of the “subjective truth” of Kierkegaard, whose philosophy focuses on the relation between the individual and the truth. All the objective truths of good and evil, eternal happiness and condemnation avails us nothing, unless we appropriate the Good for ourselves.

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