What Is Health?

In search of a positive conception.

It’s a curious fact of our existence that even the most conspicuous of concepts are, at bottom, utter mysteries. Space. Time. Life. Reality. Matter. Mind. Meaning. Truth. These things we take for granted — as brute facts of existence — are windows onto the Mystery. That’s why they’re mysterious — because this is all a Mystery. Thus every door in the palace of Reality ultimately opens onto the same cosmic void. But just because everything is mysterious, at some level of analysis, doesn’t mean things aren’t amenable to understanding at all — that they’re mysterious all the way down.

Consider the glass of water. At first glance, it’s among the most banal and readily graspable of objects. Inspect it thoroughly enough, however, and it will eventually transform into an object of absolute incredulity. And it doesn’t take investigating the glass of water at the level of quantum foam to appreciate its weirdness, either — indeeed simply stare it long enough and you’ll eventually realise you haven’t the slightest clue as to what a glass of water really is. The glass of water is thus a paradox. At the level of human sense-making — the level at which we understand (or attempt to understand) things — the glass of water is but a glass of water. At the deepest (or even surface) level, however, it becomes equivalent to the rest of things in its unfathomable Mystery — in its Emptiness. And so it is, I suggest, with all things. There is a level at which any given phenomenon is pragmatically explicable — somewhere between the utterly intuitive and the utter mysterious, as a rule — and a level at which it’s not — a level at which the Mystery rears its rude head and puts an end to our musings.

This is simply to say that things dial in and out of focus, depending on our perspective — depending on the direction of our epistemic gaze. It’s the stuff of zen koans (or Donovan songs) i.e. at first there is a mountain and then there isn’t and then there is again. But one needn’t have a penchant for zen-isms to get the point here. Things are paradoxical. They are at once as mysterious and mundane as a glass of water. And occasionally neither.

Health is one of these concepts. At the conventional level of sense-making, we have a solid handle on it — we take it to mean feeling good, being fit, the absence of sickness, not having to go to the doctor etc. At the lowest level, though, it becomes — as with all things — Empty. Impenetrable. Dial out just a few magnifications, however, and it becomes something else entirely — indeed something far more interesting.

The concept of health is a pragmatic tool we use to orient our lives. As members of the homo genus, we commit ourselves to living in sickness and in health. That is the lot we inherit. As members of the sapiens species, however, we have the wisdom to prefer the latter — and so we attempt to negotiate our lives such that it becomes our default state. We can be healthy, or we can be sick, we realise, and we decide we ought to be healthy instead. But what does that really mean?

Google — the great oracle — defines health as the absence of sickness. In many respects, this is the default, culturally embodied conception of health, too. It is a fundamentally negative definition — in the sense that it’s defined in terms of the absence of some other thing. But clearly this misses a lot of even our intuitive sense of what health is. What about “feeling good”? What about “being fit”? Must we, automatically, possess these properties if we’re not sick? Hmm.

Things get weirder when you attempt to compare the “health-ness” of any two human systems. Let’s say they both meet the negative definition of health — they’re both free from sickness. They both feel good, they’re both fit, even. What grounds, then, might we have to say one human is “healthier” than the other? Whoever feels better? Whoever is fitter? If so, then what objective standard/s might we have for measuring such? And is that really all that health is, on the positive side? Feeling good and being fit? Or is there more?

Things get even weirder when you try and compare the health-ness of two different species of biological system. Take a monkey and a man, for instance. Is there any grounds at all upon which to make the claim that the man is, in some basic sense, healthier than the monkey? The question here is whether health is a general and universal concept/property that applies across all life throughout the cosmos. Or is health, as our intuitions probably suggest, a species-specific concept — as in, as soon as you step outside of the species in question the concept becomes meaningless? Hmm.

Things get weirder still when you think of health beyond the level of species entirely. Take the level of ecosystem, for instance. What does it mean to say that one ecosystem is healthier than another? Does that even make sense? What about at the meta-level — the ecosystem of ecosystems: the planetary scale. What does it mean, if anything, to say that we have a “healthy planet”? Clearly we think the concept does apply at the planetary scale, for we are incessantly speaking of how sick our planet is — and how we ought to heal it. But what’s the standard by which we’re assessing the planet’s health? Who are we, as a single species, to say whether the planet is or is not healthy? And can we claim, definitively, that Earth is healthier than, say, Jupiter? Or would we have lost the plot, in that case?

This is all to ask, what in the f*ck is health? What is its relationship to values? What does it say, if anything, about the Reality in which we find ourselves? And, most of all, what does it say, if anything, about how we ought to live and the world we ought to create?

All this and more I’ve attempted to explore.

@fair