Is Advil Idolatry?

Is Advil Idolatry?

Here’s the scenario: You wish to worship the one G-d, yet you have a mild headache. You are fortunate enough to possess three adult-dose ibuprofen tablets, which you know to relieve these exact symptoms. You also possess a glass of water and, intriguingly, a hard-boiled egg. What are you going to do?

Don’t answer too quickly. There is no small measure of theology afoot here, in this common, apparently mundane circumstance.

The first philosophical issue with taking an Advil for your headache is the problem of induction. A skeptic such as Hume would ask how you know that ibuprofen will relieve your headache better than the egg. You cannot rely on past experience with the substances, as all experience on logically tells us about what has already happened, whereas the future, today’s Advil, may raise your cholesterol while the egg heals your headache. It does no good to claim it was always the opposite in the past, or that in your past your expectations in this scenario were always met, since the accuracy of past predictions may itself be merely an artifact of the past, irrelevant to today.[i]

No, if we are to properly face our dilemma we must assume we know certain truths about the universe in a future-proof way. Call them axioms, assumptions, or the direct experience of the atemporal. Say we know G-d, and G-d made the Universe, from the beginning, with a certain consistency. Things have names reflecting an adherence to an internal and an external order. Call this “nature.” The Advil is better for our headache than the egg, all else being equal, since this is the nature of ibuprofen.[ii] We ought to be comfortable with Advil having a nature, as our scenario starts with a desire to worship the one G-d, who made the world intelligible.[iii]

However, having escaped one problem by setting forth the notion of nature, we immediately find ourselves trapped anew.

We wish to take Advil instead of the egg for our headache, since the Advil has a pain-relieving nature when ingested. But isn’t this relying on a limited being, that is, ibuprofen tablets, instead of relying on upon G-d? After all, the original idolaters worshipped the sun and moon because they thought it would help their crops grow; perhaps I worship Advil to help me get back to work. Ingestion would not be the strangest form of worship.[iv]

Now, perhaps we could separate Advil from idol by pointing out we do not believe the medicine alone will help us, but rather that G-d gave it the power to help us. However, the origin in G-d of a creation’s beneficent (or malevolent) power is only enough to negate the most radical idol worship, which holds G-d has abandoned the earth entirely to the forces of nature. This is full-progressed idol worship, civilized and mature, and it sounds suspiciously similar to Emerson and Thoreau.

The original idol worship, however, does not exclude G-d as an active force consistently present in the universe generally or human lives specifically. It merely claims there are other powers, too, with the ability to open or close the valves of divine blessing at will, like ministers to a king. The original sun worshippers did not think the sun was the source of its own power with G-d long gone, but rather that the sun was appointed by G-d to bestow vivifying radiance upon the earth, and despite the origin of its appointment and its power in G-d, one must thank and praise the sun as well if one wants the crops to grow.

What does this have to do with taking ibuprofen? I’d understand if we thought Advil had a choice in whether to cure our headache, leading us eventually to thank and praise it. But we apparently see the medicine the way a true monotheist sees the sun, i.e. as the “ax in the hands of the wood chopper,” merely instrumental to G-d’s purposes, and possessing no free choice whether to help or hurt us at all. Advil is merely G-d’s tool. It has a curative nature, bestowed upon in by G-d, and it is only G-d we thank for it. We are not like the sun worshippers of old. Right?

Wrong.

Though the sun worshippers’ mistake manifests most clearly in the case of an intermediary with free will, it also expresses, in a more refined fashion, in every inherent quality. That is, Advil’s pain-relieving quality can in itself be the object of a subtle form of idol worship.

The question is, what is nature? We noted before that the very logic ingesting Advil (instead of an egg) for your headache is based on the nature that inheres in the medicine, a nature very much connected to a G-d who exists beyond time. What is the nature of this nature?

If the nature of Ibuprofen is a set of rules or laws created by G-d as an independent entity, this means that both the man who deserves a headache and the man who deserves his headache to end will be served by the Advil equally. If this does not sound scandalous, the business equivalent would be that a man who deserves to be richer and a man who deserves to be poorer are served equally, under the law of nature, by identical business practices.

In other words, although we do not think the Advil (or shorting stocks, or collecting airline miles) is a being with free will that can choose to help us, we do see it as having a nature that determines outcomes for us, regardless of other considerations, divine considerations. Though G-d is the ultimate power, this object will bring me a certain measure of blessing, regardless of what G-d wants, regardless of whether I reject Him or worship Him. It has power, beyond His control.

One way we could try to circumvent this problem and still rely on ibuprofen as monotheists is through the permissiveness of miracles. After all, if G-d wishes, He may intercede and prevent the salutary effects of Advil on, say, Martin Shkreli (it may be His sense of humor). That G-d intercedes in nature is, after all, fundamental. There is thus a means to ensure that even though by nature the medicine has the same unchanging effect, beyond nature it does not.

Yet this is no true negation of idol worship, since we should still have to concede that nature is a power independent of G-d. Even though He can negate its power at any time, ibuprofen must still be negated to express the will of G-d, and when it is not negated but soothes Shkreli’s aching wrists, it is acting “beyond” G-d’s will! The Creator must prevent nature from running its course every time an evil man receives good business advice. What, then is nature, if a countervailing system of behavior must so often avert it? And who, then, is the one G-d, if His ax handles are so often in rebellion?

Rather, the nature of the Advil, its palliative properties, must be wholly dependent on G-d, with no ability to help or hurt outside of Him. They must not merely be caused by G-d, derive their power from Him, and then act independently. They are not merely created by Him at every moment, technically dependent on G-d, because then the question would remain, what is being created? and the answer could be, a consistent nature irrespective of G-d’s will.

No, to negate the idolatry of qualities, we must understand nature itself, without any miracle and before even looking to its source, as an expression of the divine will. As the Holy Baal Shem Tov put it, a leaf only turns a specific way in the wind if G-d’s desires it. This is true, even though the wind is part of nature and governed by the consistent laws of nature. It is G-d’s will that there should be a leaf, that there should be a wind, that circumstance should bring them and their natures together, and that the wind should so twist.

Advil has the nature of relieving headaches, but that nature, just like headaches or the futures market, can never come to benefit anyone outside of G-d’s will. Nature, in the first place, is merely an expression of G-d, and its existence independent of Him as a second power He has any need to change or subvert is illusory from the start.[v]

In order to truly not worship idols, to believe that G-d is the only power, one must look at the qualities inherent to nature as an integrated part of the more general divine expression, thick with natural, supernatural, unexplained, inexplicable, well-understood, and even human causes. This creation of G-d, a complex weave constantly unfolding according to His desire for our universe, is at no point beyond His control, and in no way contrary to His wishes. It is, in its minutest detail, exactly the way it must be, even when it appears independently, alone, and without regard for the truth.

A Jew takes Advil instead of an egg for his headache, because ibuprofen has a quality of pain relief in its G-d-given nature. A Jew also knows that this nature has no power whatsoever outside of G-d. If it relieves his pain, it is only because he is deserving in the eyes of his Creator. This is how one may live in the realm of nature and bow to no image nor rely on any power besides G-d alone.


[i] This is without mentioning the problem of how, on a purely experimental or experiential basis, we are meant to understand the egg to be an egg, when its appearance, location, DNA, etc. are all quite different from what we have previously encountered. To rule out medicinal qualities a priori is thus to demonstrate a closed-mindedness unbecoming those who learn primarily from experience.

[ii] We have a tendency nowadays to focus on the mechanism of this medicinal nature. An in-depth exploration of why this mechanism will only ever get us so far, and the way it is more of an answer to how than why, is for a different essay.

[iii] Moreover, in the form of an intellect apparently subject to description by words.

[iv] Cf. Baal Pe’or, worshipped through defecation before its image.

[v] This raises the question of why there are miracles at all – a good question to have, for another time.