The Body Is Mystery

UntitledWe know a lot about the human body. Upon starting medical school back in the 1980’s, I purchased the current version of Gray’s Anatomy, a book that still sits on my shelf. Over 1500 pages long, it is packed with precise drawings and detailed descriptions. And yet, even a volume that big can’t hold every anatomical fact; the text was never more than a summary. Every medical library holds countless books like this, plus great numbers of research journals. So many fields of inquiry: physiology, biochemistry, molecular biology, embryology, immunology, neuroscience, microbiology, psychology… So much knowledge!

With all that factual information, you’d imagine the body is well understood. In a certain sense it is, but in another it remains a mystery.

What’s not known? For one thing, we have but dim understanding of how body systems work together, how they influence and communicate with each other. And for most major illnesses, we don’t know why some people get the condition and others don’t. For instance, not everyone who smokes gets lung cancer, and not everyone with lung cancer has smoked. (In When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection, Gabor Mate argues that trauma and personality style play important roles. But his proposal, however valid, only enriches the mix of influences, it doesn’t predict with certainty; some people who smoked, endured tremendous hardship, and adopted suboptimal coping strategies have lived into their nineties.) Or consider this: despite tens of thousands of neuroscience articles published every year, we’ve learned surprisingly little about how the brain supports our interior experience of mind.

These are just a few examples. The list of what we don’t know goes on and on.

You might argue that these are early days. Given the pace of investigation, in one or two centuries humanity will know everything, won’t it? Don’t be too sure. In The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning, Marcelo Gleiser forecasts an ever-expanding but never-ending quest for understanding. No matter how much we discover, we will always face a frontier beyond which nothing is known. Experience to date is consistent with this prediction. Despite all the research that’s been done, no field of scientific inquiry has solved every puzzle. Whenever a question is answered, a deeper one is uncovered, one that demands theories and technology beyond current capacity. Gleiser makes a strong case for believing this will always be so.

The problem goes deeper still. Nothing in modern biology—not molecular biology, not natural selection, not anything—answers the deepest question of all: why is the cosmos so creative? Even a mathematical ‘theory of everything’ wouldn’t satisfy those who realize that equations don’t subdue awe.

Even if we could explain how life began, and even if we knew every detail about every process, on a day-to-day basis we’d still be grappling with human bodies. We’d still face the piercing chaos of human experience, a roiling interior sea that is not settled by mere scientific understanding.

On every level—factual, theoretical, and experiential—the body thwarts our desire for mastery. And this isn’t a temporary puzzle; it’s a permanent mystery. Deeply and intimately, our bodies connect us with the unknowable. This connection is an invitation to release our neurotic concerns and anchor ourselves in the awesomeness of the present moment, in the ongoing miracle of Life.