A Scientific Theory of Illness

If a super-intelligent alien was to visit our planet and search for a scientific theory of illness, she might conclude the our prevailing theory consists of “sell the drugs” and “damn the consequences”. She might also know that the scientific theory of illness consists of:

Illness Theory #1: Every illness has a cause. 

Definition: a PRIMARY or SIMPLE ILLNESS is an illness that has a single cause.  A non-primary illness is an illness with more than one cause.

Definition: an UNHEALTHINESS is an imbalance (a deficiency or an excess) in healthiness that is not severe enough to be classified as an illness. 

Definition: Healthiness is the opposite of unhealthiness. When healthiness increases, unhealthiness decreases.  When unhealthiness increases, healthiness decreases.

Does our medical system have a theory of illness?  You might be surprised to learn that there is no prevailing scientific theory of illness. There are many so-called theories of illness, but none that achieve the simple theoretical reality of a scientific theory.  Illness seems to be everywhere in practice, but it is nowhere in theory.

Why is there no scientific theory of illness? 

eNotes says: “Anthropologists often divide theories of illness into two broad categories: personalistic and naturalistic.  In a personalistic system, illness is believed to be caused by the intervention of a sensate agent who may be a supernatural being (a deity or dead ancestor) or a human being with special powers (a witch or a sorcerer)… Naturalistic theories of disease causation tend to view health as a state of harmony between a human being and his or her environment; when this balance is upset, illness will result.

Neither of these classes of theories of illness contains the simplicity and clarity required for a useful scientific theory of illness.  And neither is recognized by the medical establishment as a clear, useful theory of illness.

“Personalistic” theories are basically superstitions that might be used to explain anything – but not in a scientific manner.

“Naturalistic” theories are closer to being useful, but as defined above are quite limited.  For example,  they do not consider that illness can come from failure of internal harmonies, not just harmonies with external forces. They also tend to measure illness as binary – either balance is maintained, or balance is upset.  But illness can clearly exist as a state of balance, and a balance that one person considers to be healthy might easily be judged as an illness by another.

You might find the book: Theories of Illness: A World Survey, by George Peter Murdock, which claims to be “An important contribution to medical anthropology, this work defines the principal causes if illness that are reported throughout the world, distinguishing those involving natural causation from the more widely prevalent hypotheses advancing supernatural explanations”.

But this book is not about illness.  It not a scientific exploration of ‘theories of illness’, it is, instead a ‘history (anthropology) of the many theories of illness throughout different societies throughout history’. We can quickly see from a scan of the chapter titles that this book does not aim to represent any single theory of illness, rather it presents as many as the authors can discuss. It is, as stated in the forward: “a landmark of comparative studies”.

If we are to have a scientific theory of illness, we need a theory that is independent of the opinions of specific patients, with specific illnesses, and independent of specific doctors with specific cures.  The theory of illness needs to be independent of any theories of treatments or cures.

This brings up an interesting question:  Who decides if you have an illness?  Can you decide?  Can your spouse, your friends, or your priest decide? Or does it require a doctor to identify the illness before it exists as an illness?  And what if two doctors happen to disagree?  Is there a court that decides if you have an illness or not?  We don’t really have much need for a ‘judge’ to decide based on arguments from two (or more) sides, but it is clear that deciding who has an illness is not a trivial question.

In this discussion of illness and the theory of illness, I will use the assumption that you have an illness when a doctor issues a diagnosis of a medical condition. That is the definition that is in primary use in the medical system.

Now, let’s put the definition of an illness aside, and ask a simpler question.  Assuming you have an illness, what are the most important questions to ask about that illness? Which of these might speak to an overall ‘theory of illness’?

If you have an illness, the first questions you will want to consider are: “am I going to live” followed by “how bad is it?”  Neither of these questions speak to a general theory of illness – both are personal and answers are different for every individual illness.

The next question is “what is the best treatment for this illness?”  This question, and the answer do not provide a theory of illness. The best treatment may depend on many factors, not just the type of illness present.

Finally, you might ask “what caused this illness?”  So that you, and your family and your communities, might avoid this illness in the future.  Knowing the cause might also indicate what treatments will be most effective. Again, each illness has a different cause, and the same illness might have a different cause in different circumstances.

We can find the beginnings of a theory of illness in the last question.

what caused this illness” – implies an underlying awareness that illness has a cause. This gives us the first theory of illness.

Illness Theory #1: Every illness has a cause. 

It is interesting to note that this simple theory encompasses virtually all of the theories of illness, from the ‘germ theory’, to all of the ‘personalistic’ and ‘naturalistic’ theories. It might be argued that this theory is too simplistic. However, this argument quickly becomes moot when we use this fundamental theory to move forward in our understanding of illness. This theory is the foundation theories of illness. This theory is simple because we need a simple, solid foundation to build upon.

When we look at causes of illness – in general as opposed to specific illnesses, one thing quickly becomes clear. Illness can be caused by deficiencies.  Illness can also be caused by excesses. Many theories of illness and of healthiness strive to maintain ‘balance’.  Balance lies between deficiency and excess. There might be deficiencies or excesses of nutrients, of exercise, of sensations, of many many factors.  They might be, if you believe in personalistic theories, caused by an excess of bad wishes from someone who wants you to be sick. 

This scale shows that healthiness exists in balance – illness comes about when we are deficient, or excessive in some attribute of healthiness.

 Simple illnesses have simple causes, complex illnesses have combined or complex causes.

Definition: a PRIMARY or SIMPLE ILLNESS is an illness that has a single cause.  A non-primary illness is an illness with more than one cause.

These is close to the Naturalistic theory of illness.  But it quickly becomes clear that we need to add a simple refinement.  Each possible cause of illness, each imbalance, has a threshold. Below the threshold, and you do not have an illness; above the threshold, and you have an illness. Medical doctors work hard to define the line, the series of test indicating that you ‘have an illness’. 

What if you have an imbalance that is not yet an illness? At present, we have no name for this status, although it is, by definition, likely present more often than illness. I call this ‘unhealthiness’.

Definition: an UNHEALTHINESS is an imbalance (a deficiency or an excess) in healthiness that is not severe enough to be classified as an illness. 







In this image, an illness is clearly defined as a ‘medical condition’, that is, it must be diagnosed by a doctor.  Down (from optimal healthiness) to the point of diagnosis, you may have an illness, but – the medical establishment is not sure until an illness is diagnosed. This is a useful distinction for the medical establishment, and a useful distinction for effective treatment of disease. It is not appropriate to prescribe or begin a treatment until an illness passes the test of diagnosis by a professional. But is this distinction useful in our understanding of illness? It’s a challenging question for the ‘theory of illness’.  In our current system, it is possible for someone to be seriously affected, even to die, from an illness that is not diagnosed.

Note: to create a theory of illness, we also need to define not just healthiness, but also unhealthiness. Healthiness, and unhealthiness are both very poorly defined, if defined at all, by our medical systems.

Definition: Healthiness is the opposite of unhealthiness. When healthiness increases, unhealthiness decreases.  When unhealthiness increases, healthiness decreases.

Once we define unhealthiness and healthiness, we can define health. Health is not the ‘absence of illness’, because illness does not exist until it is diagnosed – or at the very least, it does not exist until healthiness becomes very much ‘unhealthiness’.

Health improves when the balances improve.  When there are fewer and fewer imbalances.  When those imbalances are smaller and less significant, we are healthier.

We can see that optimal health is not possible.  Many of the balances of health are in constant flux. Many of the balances that move us toward optimal health are in competition. We might wish for an athlete with optimal strength, optimal flexibility, optimal speed, optimal endurance – but we soon learn that optimal strength causes a decrease in flexibility, and acquiring optimal speed creates a deficiency in endurance. Optimal health would consist of optimizing many thousands of healthy balances – many of which are in competition.  It also consists of the freedom to choose which aspects of healthiness are most important to each of.

Optimal healthiness requires Personal Health Freedom.  Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of healthiness.

To attain the  best possible healthiness, we need to study the science of illness, not just the cures for specific illnesses. To attain true health freedom, we need to understand illness and healthiness, in general from a scientific philosophical perspectives.

When study this theory of illness, we will learn more effective techniques for the early detection, prevention, diagnosis, treatment of and recovery from illness. Stay tuned, each of those are subjects for future blog posts.

amazonBookImgeHealthicine: The Arts and Sciences of Health and Healthiness is about the study of health.  Healthicine is a new field of study.  There are no experts – only those who might claim to be experts because of their successes in studying illness.

to your healthiness, tracy


About Tracy Kolenchuk

Founder of Healthicine.org. Author of two books about healthicine; Healthicine: The Arts and Sciences of Health and Healthiness Healthicine: Introduction to Healthicine
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