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Moving away from comfortable answers

Published in The Malaysian Insider

I had the bad fortune of getting a fever right on the first night of my honeymoon. For a moment, I thought how people can imagine this might be a supernatural attack.

After all, I was in an environment alien to me. There might be makhluk halus (spirits) around, and my physical body might have been shocked into fever the moment I was in their presence. Maybe they were jealous of the honeymoon? Who knows?

It is an easy mistake to make. Without simple scientific knowledge, much less medical knowledge, one might then attribute sicknesses to supernatural forces and higher beings.

All humans are captive to this. We experience two cognitive phenomenons: causal reasoning, and what is described as the theory of mind. Causal reasoning means we’re wired to explain things away — there is always a cause for something — not drinking causes thirst, watering plants make them grow, and so on.

One part of the theory of mind makes us think that because we would act, feel and think a certain way, somebody else would be that way too. If we see a kitten, we’d think it’s cute — so we think others would feel that same way about kittens.

These are products of our evolution, and it has been suggested that religion is the by-product.

When humans fall sick, they feel miserable. Causal reasoning tells them that some supernatural being — since mortals are incapable of such acts — must be behind it. Since humans punish those who wrong them, then theory of mind suggests that those supernatural beings would feel that way too. Hence, humans get sick because some supernatural being is mad at them.

On the second day of the honeymoon, I had the chance to experience traditional Malay massage which left my body feeling thoroughly “defragged.” I was fascinated by the way the “tukang urut” explained illnesses in terms of “urat” — a knotted “urat” here affecting my gait, an “urat” too far out there giving my bum pins and needles.

My wife and I talked about this term “urat” later: what exactly is it in medical terms? Literally, it can be used to mean anything from veins, to nerves, to sinews. It chanced upon us that ancient Malays did not venture into surgery the way their Arab or Greek contemporaries did. Therefore, they never got the chance to familiarise themselves with the human anatomy.

As a result, everything under the skin — which are not bones — counts as “urat”. When you massage the “urat”, you are actually massaging the muscles. It is a common practice worldwide: a massage relaxes the muscles, thus relieving you of some pain. To the ancient Malays, without any medical understanding, massaging the “urat” simply heals you. Causal reasoning.

That same week, the scientific world was rocked with the final confirmation that Higgs boson does exist. There were two underlying issues we could observe from the celebration — even if we could not understand a goddamn thing.

First, is the insistence of some scientists that we, the public, and the media, should stop referring to the Higgs boson as the “God particle.” Physicist Leon Lederman coined the nickname since the particle is “so central to the state of physics today, so crucial to our understanding of the structure of matter, yet so elusive.”

However, since the Higgs boson is no longer elusive, and can actually be observed, still calling it God particle would be ironic (not to mention downright comedic).

Secondly, the discovery is only a start. Before this, Higgs boson’s existence was only suggested by complex mathematical guesswork, and it still became an essential base in understanding our universe. Now that it has actually, really, been observed, we can only imagine the kind of advances we will make in the upcoming years.

Little by little, humankind is moving away from comfortable but vague answers (e.g. “only God knows”), towards more illuminating scientific explanations for things we did not know before. The people who achieve this wouldn’t have done so if they had just lay down and accepted lazy, superstitious explanations.

In a typical Malay story, I would have asked the “tukang urut” to rid my body of the bad spirits, and probably end up in a personal spiritual battle with them. Luckily, I am blessed with a doctor as a wife, who told me to just get off my ass and have a bath in order to regulate my body temperature. With some help from the medicine, it didn’t take long for the fever to subside.

Just another perk of having proper medical opinion by one’s side — and not superstitious excuses.

Published inTMI column
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