by Andrew Borror
On the first day of my public health course, the professor stated that the class would be focused on the human right to health. “Now, where that right comes from, that’s something we can’t get into.” I was puzzled. Why couldn’t we get into that? Wasn’t that the basis for the whole class?
This bewilderment inspired the realization that not once in my Exercise Physiology graduate program was the purpose of health questioned. The material for the undergraduate health class I taught talked a lot about well-being, which it defined as “feeling positive and content with your life.” While it acknowledged that there are multiple components of well-being, (eg. physical, mental, emotional, spiritual) it scarcely mentioned anything but the physical dimension after the introductory chapter. I studied exercise science for six years and never had an explicit discussion on the importance of health. Physical health was seen as a good (perhaps the ultimate good), but we never stopped to ask—What does it mean to be healthy? Why do we care? In theory, we gave lip service to the concept of multi-dimensional wellness, but in practice, the definition of health was reduced to ‘the absence of disease’. What happened to the depth and meaning? I was unsure.
In preparation for a seminar through the Scala Foundation, I was introduced to The Crisis of Modernity by Augusto Del Noce. Del Noce was an Italian philosopher and political thinker who wrote extensively about the concept of modernity. His outline of philosophical history explained the lines of thought that ultimately trivialized my field and his critique provided me with language to articulate our diminished understanding of health. For the first time, I was able to grasp the predicament modern philosophy has put us in.
Del Noce’s argument accentuates the modern rejection of a transcendent reality and its numerous repercussions. Without a transcendent realm, the criterion of truth lies in material verification. Science and religion are placed in opposition to one another, and this dichotomy ignores philosophical/metaphysical reason (by replacing it with the sciences). This result is scientism—the belief that science is the only form of true knowledge (which comes with implicit metaphysical assumptions of its own). This is alarming because although science is great at telling you how the human body works, it offers no explanation of why that is important. Del Noce notes that scientism “replaces the idea of a ‘good life’ with that of ‘well-being,’ i.e. the greatest satisfaction of the appetites.” It progressively hollows out reality by dismissing questions of meaning as non-rational and pushing them to the private realm of feelings. There is no possibility for talking about objective metaphysical truth because it simply does not exist.
Del Noce further explains that the elimination of objective truth provokes a stark rejection of authority and dependence on anything outside of the self. This is especially evident in the backlash against religious authority and the repudiation of tradition. Unfortunately, this also destroys all unifying principles between people, since tradition is the idea of a transcendent order handed down. Now, all that remains are atomized individuals who are forced to compete in a world where freedom and affluence are the primary values. A culture operating on these premises logically demonstrates an emphasis on personal choice and autonomy. This sounds eerily similar to our culture today. And while autonomy seems freeing at the surface, this worldview forfeits the value of self-giving sacrifice and any sense of meaning that transcends our physical world—precisely what I’ve experienced in the field of exercise physiology.
The philosophical presuppositions of modernity have altered the way we think about health. With the rejection of transcendence and the restructuring of values, there is a radical change in human nature. There’s no limit to what we can do. If we find ourselves with imperfect physical health, it’s simply because we haven’t found the right treatment yet. In this world, there is no sense of grappling with the restraints placed upon creation and health itself becomes an idol. Physical health is glorified because it’s a prerequisite for an individual to realize the core values of freedom and autonomy. Exercise is particularly important because having a fit, alluring body is both a sign of affluence and a means for greater sexual freedom—two keys to maximizing one’s contentment.
Consequently, we’ve seen a rise in a fitness culture that is largely self-focused, emphasizing how empowered one feels and looks. Some of us orient our entire lives around physical health with strangely religious undertones. We have diet and exercise liturgies that propel us toward a physical utopia where we’ll achieve perfect health and live without pain. This either ignores the reality of death or leads to relentless striving—a never-ending quest for god-like power over our bodies and all of creation.
Within this mindset, life is something we must cling to, hoard, and control. This is in direct opposition to the idea of life being a constant gift from God. The rhythms we partake in every day—sleeping and eating—are meant to remind us that life is a gift and we are sustained by something outside of ourselves. Part of being human involves the recognition that we are situated and dependent. We are communal beings by nature. In order to make sense of who we are and find purpose, we are forced to rely on something outside of ourselves. To reject this is to be unhealthy, regardless of one’s blood pressure or cholesterol levels.
To fully apprehend what it means to be healthy, we have to question what it means to be human. It’s worth asking, are we meant to be known in a mechanistic way? Or can we understand ourselves better in the context of complete personhood, within the narrative of a full life? To put it in scientific language, is the cell the fundamental unit, or is the organism? I contend that cells and organs only have meaning when considered as a part of a whole body.
Del Noce helped me see that our deflated understanding of health fails to take into account the totality of a person. We have lost the sense that our physical bodies have a transcendent dimension and point to something beyond themselves. Modernity claims that everything can be explained through empirical evidence (which, ironically, undermines its own conclusion), and while this account of reality purports to be objective, it offers an unsatisfactory explanation that does not cohere with our experiences. We can sense that there is deeper meaning and beauty in the world. There is wholeness and depth beyond the sum of the parts. Take, for example, a man who is told that his wife’s affection for him is simply the firing of specific neurons. This deflates the beautiful reality of their marriage and its transcendent elements—the self-sacrificial love, the connection, the intimacy. This reductionistic approach to understanding the human person leaves us isolated and dissatisfied. We long for meaning, beauty, and truth.
So where do we go from here? How can we recover a more profound understanding of health? I propose an alternative philosophical approach to the human person, namely, Personalism. Personalism treats the human person as the starting point for philosophy rather than empirical evidence. It recognizes the uniqueness, depth, and inherent worth of individuals while acknowledging that a human is a being whose nature implies community. This seems to me a stronger foundation for approaching health holistically. It allows us to explore questions of meaning and wrestle with our physicality through the lens of being complex, multi-dimensional people. This is particularly relevant for proper education, especially in academic fields focused on health and the human person. As we teach students about health and the benefits of exercise, it is important to employ more than rote memorization. But we also need to go beyond critical thinking and problem-solving skills. We must allow space for each student to wrestle with physical realities in the context of being a whole person—to explore how one’s physical well-being relates to one’s life holistically, what it means to be human, and why the pursuit of health is worthwhile. To do this effectively, it is vital to reclaim a comprehensive vision of health that takes into account the totality of a person.