Miracle Killers

The anatomy lesson of Dr. Deijman, by Rembrandt

The main reason I became interested in philosophy about ten years ago, despite having spent my entire life disregarding its study, was the strange feeling that there is something wrong with all of reality, not just with us, although there is also much wrong with us. It was as if suddenly I had been struck, not with wonder but with fear. I began to have the intuition that, to quote Thomas Ligotti:
“Behind the scenes of life, there is something pernicious that makes a nightmare of our world.”1
What this something is, no one knows. For Schopenhauer, it is the Will. Others describe it in different ways. The important thing is that I started to realize that behind the idea of order, reason, and beauty that I had projected onto reality my whole life, there was an insurmountable chaos. Nothing could overcome it. From the perspective of a being like a human, there are only two alternatives: to accept this chaos or to reject it. And in philosophy, we have examples of both the acceptance and rejection of chaotic reality. Figures like Nietzsche and Deleuze, for example, accept the disorderly-yet-orderly and creative nature of the universe. On the other hand, Schopenhauer and Cioran reject it. And so on.

The apparent order in the cosmos and its mathematizable “laws” made us admire it and take advantage of it, that's true. My previous disdain and disinterest in philosophy came precisely from the belief that there was only order, and that from that order we could extract a totalizing and comforting teleology. I saw philosophy merely as a pre-science made obsolete after the birth of modern physics, chemistry, and biology. To a large extent, this view persisted. But questions about a cosmic meaning for our lives arose and remained, especially in a world where a variant of meaning and eternal life is being sold at every corner.

In retrospect, I see that when I was younger, I sought this cosmic meaning in religion. The idea of natural law, of order, is all there, especially in a religion like Catholicism, but not only. Despite the existence of irrational and crude religious interpretations, for many religions, such as for Catholicism and various Protestant denominations, the world was created by God and it follows a rational law. God does not intervene in His creation at every moment. The few times He does intervene, altering the natural course of events, we call it a miracle.

In for-profit churches, everything is a miracle. If a person is cured of a cold, it's because they paid their tithe on time. In the Catholic Church, there is supposedly a more rigorous verification process, or at least that's what's reported. Of course, this process was not always so stringent. The rigor became necessary to avoid attributing sainthood to people who are not, in fact, saints. All because, in Catholicism, saints intercede to God on behalf of the living. It is God who performs the miracle, not the saint — but, according to the belief, the saints in heaven could appeal to God, and He, in His mercy and wisdom, would grant miracles.

In the 1980s and 1990s, it was common to see sensationalist reports about ghosts, flying saucers, and, of course, miracle cures on major television channels. Miracle cures were not restricted to Catholicism but also appeared in various forms of spiritualism and, over the years, in Protestantism. However, recently, I noticed the absence of some things in these accounts. For example, there is a lack of cases of miracle cures that are truly inexplicable by science when it comes to diseases like glioblastoma and motor neurone disease, better known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS.

Glioblastoma or glioblastoma multiforme is a type of brain cancer considered rare, and in the vast majority of cases, idiopathic, meaning there's no known cause. But it is much more common than one might think. I have known two people who died of glioblastoma. People who, by the way, had much healthier lifestyles than mine. A young man, a friend of my friends, in his early twenties, was the first person I knew who had the misfortune of developing this type of tumor. The second person is my cousin, and she died less than a month ago. Glioblastoma is the most aggressive cancer of the nervous system and is among the most lethal tumors in terms of survival rates, if not the most lethal.

With treatment, the average survival rate is twelve to fifteen months after diagnosis. The treatment consists of aggressive neurosurgery to remove the tumor (when possible), chemotherapy, and radiotherapy. Without treatment, life expectancy is three months. It is estimated that only 3% of patients survive five years or more, but they inevitably become victims of the incurable disease. There are very rare cases in the medical literature of long-term remissions, but even those raise doubts about whether the initial diagnosis was correct or not.2, 3 A diagnosis of glioblastoma, for all intents and purposes, is a death sentence.

Between the first symptoms and imaging exams but before the biopsy, I told my mother that we should hope my cousin had anything but glioblastoma. Statistically speaking, that would hardly be the case, we thought naively. When, after many days of waiting, the brutal diagnosis came, the message contained in the following words of Schopenhauer became even closer to me:
“We are like lambs playing in the field, while the butcher eyes them and selects one and then another; for in our good days we do not know what calamity fate at this very moment has in store for us, sickness, persecution, impoverishment, mutilation, loss of sight, madness, death, and so on.”4
Although diagnoses of rare neurological conditions are by definition scarce, this year I heard from a neurologist that they, neurologists, “watch too many horror movies,” and that is why they feel the need to perform exams that will quickly rule out or confirm the worst, even though the patient is unlikely to have the worst condition. Talking to my parents last year, I told them something similar: life is like a horror movie: one moment everything is fine, and suddenly everything is transformed for the worst, with no possibility of escape, unless a true miracle happens.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is also considered rare. However, it is better known to the general public than glioblastoma, mainly because of the ice bucket challenge a few years ago and because it was the disease that affected physicist Stephen Hawking for most of his 76 years. However, cases like the one of Hawking's are extremely rare. He is, in fact, the patient who lived the longest with the disease after diagnosis. Just like with glioblastoma, the vast majority of ALS cases, over 95%, are considered idiopathic: the disease simply has no known cause. A minority of cases have a genetic cause.

Most ALS patients die three to five years after the onset of symptoms. Only 10% or less reach a decade.5 Despite its rarity, ALS is the third most common neurodegenerative disease. 6 The condition affects both the upper and lower motor neurons, meaning that gradually, but progressively, the individual loses all voluntary and involuntary movements. Those who manage to live longer invariably need artificial breathing and feeding. In some cases, even the muscles that move the eyes are affected, leaving the person trapped within themselves. Some of the patients also end up suffering from dementia in the final stages of the disease.

On the internet, there are anecdotal reports and, in most cases, laughably fabricated stories of people who claim to have been miraculously cured of glioblastoma through divine intervention. In the case of ALS, the situation is even scarcer, given the rarity and overwhelming nature of the condition.

There are conditions with such horrifying prognoses that it's easier to find people claiming to have been “cured” of them by taking highly dubious dietary supplements than to find reports of cures through faith. It's as if even God doesn't want to get near these diseases, and all that's left are the lowest forms of charlatanism. While science still cannot discern the cause of most cases of miracle killing diseases such as glioblastoma and ALS, we are to keep our performance in the macabre theater of real life. After all, we can be run over on the sidewalk by an out-of-control vehicle or fall victim to a stray bullet, am I right?

For sentient beings, reality is characterized by this Russian roulette aspect. No one will live forever, and the best we can hope for is a life with a balanced mix of positive and negative states, followed by a relatively peaceful, painless death that doesn't catch us by surprise. To describe life without illusions is to describe a truly terrifying condition. This is the “horror fati” or “horror of fate”, defined by philosopher Julio Cabrera as:
“... the astonishment in the face of a destructive force from which we cannot free ourselves.”7

by Fernando Olszewski


1. Thomas Ligotti, The Conspiracy Against the Human Race. Hippocampus Press, 2011. p. 54.
2. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5338899/
3. https://www.smh.com.au/world/the-professor-who-cured-his-own-cancer-20150224-13muh0.html
4. Arthur Schopenhauer, Parerga and Paralipomena. Oxford University Press, 1974. p. 292.
5. https://www.ninds.nih.gov/health-information/disorders/amyotrophic-lateral-sclerosis-als#:~:text=Most%20people%20with%20ALS%20die,for%20a%20decade%20or%20more.
6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4544832/
7. Julio Cabrera, Mal-estar e moralidade. Editora UnB, 2018. p. 652.