We are living in a time of tension, where dialogue on controversial topics does not bring out the best in people. We are seeing a low tolerance of differing views and opinions as we look at our polarized political climate. The attractive solution that many have found to solve this tension is connected to the popular thought of Positivism, a philosophical theory related to moral relativism. There are no universal values and thus everyone has their claim on right and wrong and no one can technically refute it, because values cannot be scientifically proven. Thus values such as right and wrong don’t exist.
Kwame Anthony Appiah, a philosophy professor at Princeton University, writes about Positivism in his book called Cosmopolitanism. He explains this attractive philosophical system, but later points out the flaws in this way of thinking and introduces the idea of cosmopolitanism as an alternative solution. Specifically in this paper, we will be looking at accounts of a Hmong community and a western medical community in the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman to see how the principles Appiah talks about come in to play. In this paper, I will compare and contrast these two different worldviews and analyze the approach of Positivism and Cosmopolitanism to appease the conflict between the two. Through the lense of these two perspectives, we can see clearly that our worldview shapes what we value and the choices we make. And how those values are, as Appiah puts it, “guiding people who are trying to share their lives”(Appiah 27).
And that when we come to a hard earned agreement on those values, then we can start finding solutions to the conflicts between different worldviews. Truth is discovered beyond the values of an individual, but found in the harmony of lives intertwined together. Appiah compared truth to a shattered mirror, “each shard of which reflects one part of a complex truth from its own particular angle(8).” Truth as a shattered mirror encourages us to be humble and open minded to different beliefs, values, and ways of life. However, truth as a shattered mirror has limitations. It can not give us a solution to the problems formed through the clash of different worldviews. The major conflict we see in the world and represented well in Fadiman’s book is the clash between respecting others’ differences and acting in concern for the good of humanity. Anne Fadiman’s book revolves around a Hmong girl, Lia, who has epilepsy. It tells the story of her parents and doctors struggling to agree on Lia’s medical treatment due to differences of values. Values shape a major aspects of our own history, culture, and worldview. In the Hmong culture, everything in the world is connected to the underlying works of spirits. Fadiman explained it as, “Medicine was religion. Religion was society. Society was medicine, and so was music…the Hmong preoccupation with medical issues was nothing less than a preoccupation with life”(60-61). In other words, our beliefs and values are connected to everything we are a part of and vice versa. It goes as far as if a Hmong person came in for medical care “with a stomach ache he was actually complaining that the entire universe was out of balance”(Fadiman 61).
As irrational as this belief may sound to the western medical world, it brings out a major value missed in the western culture, value of not just the individual, but how that individual is connected to the whole. This understanding is the root of cosmopolitanism, that we are “many branches of a single family”(Appiah xv). This understanding allows the Hmong community to not just trust those in authority, but those who care of the soul and connection to the whole. Due to having a worldview based upon the working of spirits, the Hmong people have accepted that there are things in the universe that are beyond their own power. They value less the perfection of a organized system, but the acceptance of the workings of the universe. Dan Murphy, one of Lia’s doctors, realized this about the Hmong people in attempts to treat Lia. He said, “I felt a tremendous responsibility to stop the seizures…they felt more like these things happen…and not everything is in your control”(Fadiman 53). In comparison, the western medical world places value on authority having absolute certainty and control. However, the reality is control and certainty does not mean one is always right. The reality is there are still so many holes in science. It can not answer all problems and questions, however, we force it to. For example, in 1987, a young Hmong boy named Arnie had testicular cancer. His parents agreed with his doctors request to have Arnie go through surgery, but didn’t allow Arnie to go past the first treatment of chemotherapy.
The parents did not believe the chemotherapy was helping their son. The doctors called Child Protective Services and police officers came to seize Arnie from his parents, which resulted in the mother threatening to kill herself and her daughters. Fadiman shares, “His doctor was haunted for years by the thought that three lives were nearly lost in order to save one…the cure wasn’t even a hundred percent certain.” When we try to take control in the name of “absolute certainty” we make choices unaware of the consequences. Of course just as there are holes in science, there are fallacies to the argument of spirits as pointed out by Dan Murphy. He stated, “Men think it is divine merely because they don’t understand it. But if they called everything divine, which they do not understand, there would be no end to divine things” (Fadiman 29-30). The western medical world values what has been researched scientifically. It was an excruciatingly painful experience for Lia’s doctors, Neil and Peggy, to see Lia not get the treatment that they believed would allow Lia to live a healthy, normal life. Why was it so frustrating? We can compare this to the frustration of Galileo’s findings that the Sun was the real center of the solar system. No matter how much conviction he had through his findings and research, the people at the time could not accept that as truth as it went against preconceived ideas and values. Neil and Peggy studied for years in medical school and they were “certain” of the treatment Lia needed.
They wanted to use their findings and research to help Lia live a life that they would want for their own children. Despite both the doctors and Lia’s parents seeing that Lia was being stunted in her mental growth, hyperactive, crying, throwing tantrums, biting herself, pooping on the floor, all legitimate issues, they both had a different understanding of what was happening. Fadiman explains,“Foua and Nao Kao had already diagnosed…the illness where the spirit catches you and you fall down…no way of knowing that Dan had diagnosed it as epilepsy.(28)” This relates to the idea of a shattered mirror, both wanting the best for Lia, but having a different angle of the problem and solution. A third person perspective of the situation comes from, Dee Korda, a foster parent who took care of Lia. She described Lia as, “beautiful…She knew how to love and how to let people love her”(Fadiman 86). And this perspective gives light to something that maybe both Lia’s parents and doctors could have found common base upon. As we can see with the actions of Neil and Peggy, that was not their focus and main goal. Even though there was tremendous effort given by Neil and Peggy to treat Lia. They gave up conversation. They gave up dialogue. And one could argue that Foua and Nao Kao gave up too, but the situation and circumstances are different.
Neil and Peggy have more responsibility in this relationship. Why? It’s because they are in a position of power. In Appiah’s words, “it’s not because he’s a better person. It’s because he has the good fortune to live in a society that has spent enormous amounts of human resources to get that better story”(43). And thus the choices Neil and Peggy make in this relationship is crucial because the consequences of their actions have the largest impact. As we saw in the situation of Arnie, once power is put in the equation, we lose our footing in seeing the big picture and the choices made can have painful results. Fadiman emphasizes, “As long as doctors and parents continue to negotiate, even if they disagree, the conflict is confined to differences in belief systems…Once the police are called…The differences are no longer about beliefs. The differences are about power”( 84). Even if we are put in such a challenging position as Neil and Peggy where it seems intervention by force is the only option, we musn’t give up. How does the values of these two different worldviews overlap or allow humanity to hold on to all shards of the mirror? If we lose any shards of the mirror we will never get the bigger picture and I think that is the point of being a global community. It’s to find the bigger picture together. It is a shattered mirror, so shouldn’t the goal be to fix it together?
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