Shades of Thomas Nagel, but there is something it is like to have a disease.
Earlier this month, I came down with shingles. It started up innocently enough, with a few splotches of red hanging out near my right knee and another group of bumps where the thigh meets the pelvis. It looked like acne (at my age!) and I planned on scheduling an appointment to see the dermatologist. But within a couple of days, more places started appearing. Rapidly. My husband and I decided that it couldn’t wait for ‘first available space’, so instead I went to the DIDC the next day and had the nurse practitioner check me out. She guessed what it was and confirmed that guess with my doctor. I left with a script for acyclovir (5 times a day, for shingles), doxycycline (twice a day, for infection because of shame-on-me scratching) and 800 mg ibuprofen (every 8 hours for pain). I stopped the progression and the skin is healing…
But I can’t help thinking how disease itself seems to offer both encouragement to physical reductivism, yet also an argument against such views. Indeed, the nurse described it in physical terms as herpes zoster. Apparently when you recover from chicken pox as a child, which I did, the virus doesn’t go away, it just sort of hangs out waiting for an excuse to cause the trouble known as shingles. Obviously, the physical facts are always present in such a manifestation and that is how we treat it. Yet knowing such physical details even at a very fine biological level does nothing towards imparting what having shingles feels like. Indeed, now that I am outside that ‘situated body’ it is hard enough for me to remember what it really felt like. I remember discomfort and itchiness and even limping. The limping is especially interesting because I didn’t realize how much my ‘lived body’ was compensating for this lost affordance until the nurse pointed it out. I did notice the lessening of quick mobility and was vexed at this. But now I tend to remember it in a more abstract, analytical fashion that belies what I ‘know’ I felt.
So we have something that can be described in purely physical terms to generate a treatment. Yet the experience of it appears to transcend that sort of description. Indeed, in a way the experience doesn’t even seem to exist outside the experience. Description of the disease isn’t exhausted by herpes zoster, but rather that is just a correlate to disease with a capital “D”, which is most noticeably marked by pain and the lost of affordances; an alteration of the body’s being in the world. Viewed from that angle, disease seems to exist just as much ‘out there’ as inside of us.