Monday, June 20, 2016

Metaphors in Medicine - The Body As A House + Some Sci Fi

Over the course of history, people have used metaphors to explain the new and unknown. Metaphors offer us a point of anchoring when approaching complex or novel issues. By relating something new to something we already know, it becomes easier for us to understand it and make it our own.

The human body has been subject to hundreds of metaphors. In a previous post, I commented on a few anatomic metaphors. In this post, I want to be more general and speak of the human body as a whole. Across history, the body itself and all its systems have been likened to a house, a machine, and, more recently, a plant.

First of all, let's take a look at the human body as a house. Here is possibly one of the earliest, or at least most well-known, representations of this metaphor:

The Polish-Jewish physician Tobias Cohn published a series of eight books called the Ma'aseh Toviyyah (Work of Tobias). Each encyclopedic volume focused on a field of knowledge (Volume One: Theology, Volume Two: Astronomy, Volume Three: Medicine...). In the third volume, Tobias Cohn illustrated the human body side-by-side with a house in order to liken both structures.

The Bible makes several references to the body as the home of the person's essence, the physical place where the soul resides. The body may be mortal, but the soul most certainly is not! Thus, the soul merely occupies a home during its stay on Earth.

To nobody's surprise, works of science fiction have dealt with the subject of body and home. Have you ever heard of superior beings leaving behind their physical bodies and living only through the psyche? This transformation occurs to our hero Dave at the end of his adventure in 2001: A Space Odyssey. While his fate might not be so clear in that novel, subsequent novels leave no place for doubt: Dave, with the help of the superior race, has left behind his mortal body--his home or shell--and become a superior being himself, unrestricted by space and time. This concept is nicely addressed in the book How to Live Forever: Science Fiction and Philosophy by Stephen RL Clark.

While the entire body might be considered a house, what is it a house to? Apart from the "soul," there are many representations of the brain as the center of one's essence. Science fiction, again, has dealt with this and I'm sure most of us are familiar with the brain in a jar scene.

Red Dwarf: Poor Lester has a nasty shock when
he sees his possible future self in a jar.
Essentially, the idea is that if we can transfer the brain from one body to another, moving from one house to another might save us from certain death if the rest of the body fails (the house falls apart).

But what about taking it one step further? The brain is also prone to decay, and it is also part of the physical home of the intangible soul, so what if we leave behind absolutely everything? What if we could upload our memories and our emotions--essentially ourselves--into a digital format and exist in a form of digital immortality?

In an attempt to cheat death, science fiction has postulated that humans can use artificial limbs until the mortal body is completely eradicated. The next step from there would be to discard the artificial bodies and thus the soul, or the psyche or whatever you would like to call it, is free from its home.

Further Reading


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  4. It's an interesting point of view on the body. I try occasionally write for some researches, and I got hooked on the ideas that ancient people presented once.

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