Do you like this website? Please support Integral World!
INTEGRAL WORLD: EXPLORING THEORIES OF EVERYTHING
An independent forum for a critical discussion of the integral philosophy of Ken Wilber
Publication dates of essays (month/year) can be found under "Essays".
David Christopher Lane, Ph.D. Professor of Philosophy, Mt. San Antonio College Lecturer in Religious Studies, California State University, Long Beach Author of Exposing Cults: When the Skeptical Mind Confronts the Mystical (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1994) and The Radhasoami Tradition: A Critical History of Guru Succession (New York and London: Garland Publishers, 1992).
Alternative Medicine and Scientific Evidence
A Reflection on Rolf Sattler's ‘Beyond Materialist Science’
We are meaning seeking creatures and whenever we seek treatments for whatever ails us, the narratives that the doctor employs have dramatic impact.
Rolf Sattler's recent essay, "Beyond Materialist Science", is chock full of interesting ideas, not the least of which is on the controversial issue of alternative medicines. Sattler discusses the ancient Chinese idea of qi or ch'i, which though it can be translated as “air” or “breath” or even “smell,” has become widely understood among certain advocates as “life force” or “life energy.”
Now, ironically, given the more literal translation of ch'i as “air,” which is something quite physical, certain practitioners, as Sattler himself suggests, believe that it implies a “non-material life-force.” Much has been made by comparative religionists that the Chinese concept of ch'i is similar to the Indian yogic idea of “prana”, which is also viewed by many adherents as a subtle, life force. The vital question that underlies both of these intriguing abstractions is whether or not they refer to something that can be empirically verified or lie outside the range of scientific instrumentation and measurement.
Sattler's main thesis in his essay, as I read it, is captured in his response to the founder of Integral World when he writes,
“Frank Visser wrote that 'if we still believed in the life-force, we would not have had DNA.' But we can have both, the life-force or subtle energies and DNA. They need not be seen as mutually exclusive but as complementary. Together they provide a richer view of reality than only one or the other.”
Sattler cites acupuncture and homeopathy as two examples of alternative medical practices that have been helpful to individuals but which have been downplayed by both the media and more traditional medical outlets. As Sattler writes,
“For example, the medical establishment resists and often actively suppresses alternative healing methods such as energy healing or spiritual healing or even herbal medicine. If a person dies because (s)he was treated, for example, homeopathically, it makes headlines in the press. But at the same time hundreds or thousands die every day in hospitals where they have been treated materialistically. What a double standard and what hypocrisy! Although the person who was treated through homeopathy might have been saved by materialist medicine, some of the people who died while being treated materialistically, might have survived by treatment of alternative medicine. And, indeed there are many successes of alternative treatments, including treatment of some cancers. But these successes are often discounted as anecdotal exceptions by the medical establishment. Yet taking exceptions seriously is important for an open-minded scientist because the recognition of exceptions has often led to important innovations in science as historians of science are well aware. To ignore or devaluate what does not fit our cherished paradigm, will not help us to advance to a better understanding of reality.”
First, I think we need to be cautious not to get caught in the trap of over-generalizing, particularly about medical facilities and practices, since even some of the most conservative of institutions employ and even promote what erstwhile would be called by some as Chopra-like “woo woo science.” For example, I frequent Hoag Hospital in Newport Beach, perhaps the richest and most well-known facility in the area. Though it would be regarded by many as strictly advocating only a Western, evidence-based approach to treating its patients, the fact remains that it not only allows alternative treatments for cancer patients (including Reiki) but encourages patients to utilize whatever is needed alongside more invasive procedures. This does not mean, of course, that such alternative practices are accepted as scientific or that they should be used in exclusion to other more empirically proven methods. Rather, it suggests that much of what helps us heal is emotional and belief based. The Placebo Effect is a real one, even if we don't entirely understand how it works, save that our mental well-being has a direct impact on how we physically feel.
It is for this reason that a number of hospitals today have opened their doors to non-traditional therapies, even if they caution patients about the lack of scientific validity for many of their proclaimed cures.
Oftentimes, we forget that medicine works within a contextual framework and if we divorce taking pills or undergoing surgery from that infusing environment we are missing a vital component to the healing process. But this doesn't then mean, by extension, that the Placebo Effect is somehow superluminal or non-physical. So, while I agree that when it comes to medicine we should (and do) have a “anything that works” type of mentality, we shouldn't then make the unnecessary leap of faith and invoke the spirit domain to explain what has yet to be properly understood.
As the popular WebMD website explains,
“Experts also say that there is a relationship between how strongly a person expects to have results and whether or not results occur. The stronger the feeling, the more likely it is that a person will experience positive effects. There may be a profound effect due to the interaction between a patient and health care provider.”
We are meaning seeking creatures and whenever we seek treatments for whatever ails us, the overarching narratives that the doctor employs have a much more dramatic impact on us than we might at first suspect.
Most of us know this from personal experience. As for myself, I remember when I was visiting London, England for the first time back in the summer of 1976. I was only twenty years old at the time, but before boarding the plane I had wrenched my neck and back out when I was taking my early morning shower. It was so bad that I felt almost paralyzed. Well, being in such a miserable state for more than five days, particularly because it was unusually hot and humid in London that year, I was looking for any sort of miracle cure, even if it was completely alien to what I ws accustomed to.
So, as fate would have it, two older women, whom I had met at the hotel, suggested that they try “polarity therapy” on my feet. “Feet”? I exclaimed. “It's my neck and my back that is causing me so much discomfort.”
They then explained the philosophy behind Polarity Therapy, as founded by Randolph Stone, who held doctorates in osteopathy, chiropractic, and naturopathy, which believes,
“Illness is caused by disruptions in the body's energy flow and the resulting stress and trauma. Polarity therapy is based on the idea that there are three types of energy fields in the body:
They both told me how my foot could have blockages (psychic or otherwise) that when unknotted could release sufficient energy to help heal my back, since the lowest part of one's anatomy contains connections to every other part of the body.
I was so happy to have someone try to alleviate my pain that I was willing to believe anything, even if it did at first sound like mumbo jumbo.
Well, after about thirty minutes of the most wonderful foot massage I had ever received, I must admit that I felt better, despite still having some nagging neck and back pain. I was duly impressed to say the least.
Now one can easily come up with any host of explanations for why this particular massage worked its magic on me and not one of them has anything necessarily to do with Stone's metaphysic about unseen, subtle forces at play. We already know from medical lore that anyone who receives wanted physical attention releases rich amounts of endorphins and oxytocin. Just by themselves these chemicals can elevate our moods and lessen our awareness of physical pains. There is nothing metaphysical about it. Yet, and the yet here is an important one, we cannot ad hoc dismiss the elaborate New Age paradigm that permeates Polarity Therapy because that ideology inspires and fuels both the giver and the receiver in this practice.
I was mesmerized by all the elaborate details these two women shared about how my kidneys, my heart, my colonindeed every vital organ in my bodyhad their end result via energy lines at the bottom of my feet. When they massaged the upper part of my foot, right below my toes, I was told that it was intimately connected to my shoulder.
Undoubtedly, this elaborate anatomy map made me enjoy the massage much more than if it was given merely out of duty and without the infusing New Age paradigm. Even if Polarity Therapy's philosophy turns out to be nothing more than a fantastic yarn, it definitely helps those who buy into its narrative.
Therefore, I am not in the least surprised that “alternative” medicines can work to some measure, even if they are just varying manifestations of the Placebo Effect.
But, again, this doesn't mean, therefore, that we have to opt for supernatural explanations at this stage, particularly when some naturopathic remedies remain only at the anecdotal level and cannot be successfully replicated in double-blind tests.
Sattler is correct to point out that “some of the people who died while being treated materialistically, might have survived by treatment of alternative medicine.” But in admitting this truism doesn't prove that homeopathy then actually works for the reasons it claims for itself. To the contrary, it simply underlines how jagged and immature much of traditional, Western medicine still remains.
Thus, it is much more likely that the non-invasiveness of homeopathy (with its solutions so diluted as to be almost negligible) can at times work better than many of the prescribed drugs currently being given which are fraught with innumerable (and sometimes unknown) side-effects. The real reason alternative medicine (even those we may label as pure quackery) remains so popular is a sad testament to the sorry state of current medical practice. The massive over prescription of antibiotics and opioids, pushed as they are by large pharmaceutical companies, speaks volumes about how backwards our thinking has been (and still is) about restoring ourselves to optimum health.
But this issue (good medical practice vs. less invasive medical care) is not really about material vs. non-material science, despite some wanting to elevate it as such. No, it is more pointedly about our current state of ignorance about what is the best way to heal our bodies in differing situations.
Yes, the mind-body connection is an important one and we don't need to be dualists to acknowledge such. Sattler's polarization about reality is misleading when he writes, “With regard to reality, two opposite views have been distinguished. According to one, matter is fundamental and primary and maybe all there is; mind or consciousness may be only an epiphenomenon.” Most neuroscientists studying consciousness today (even those doing reverse engineering of the brain, slice by slice) don't subscribe to epiphenomenalism, “the view that mental events are caused by physical events in the brain, but have no effects upon any physical events.”
Although T.H. Huxley, Charles Darwin's defender and co-evolutionist in arms, was an advocate of epiphenomenalism who “compared mental events to a steam whistle that contributes nothing to the work of a locomotive,” Karl Popper, Francis Crick, Gerald Edelman, and others rejected such a view and sided more with William James who held that our subjective experience, our sense of qualia, is real and should be treated as such and not merely dismissed.
This rejection of epiphenomenalism doesn't then indicate that consciousness is supernatural and is beyond the ken of science's parameter to understand it. No, it suggests rather that self-awareness must be understood within (not without) the context of the human brain that houses it. This is why I have championed intertheoretic reductionism as a first call to arms since fully understanding the complexity of the brain is a necessary step for us not to devolve into premature metaphysical sloganeering.
Rolf Sattler believes that my focus on physicality first is too restrictive and my advocacy for exhausting physical causes and correlations will somehow derail others from being “sufficiently open to the exploration of alternatives.” I think Sattler is mistaken here for the simple reason that science is predicated on finding explanations that fit the data and because of this (like those drug sniffing dogs at airports, to invoke a bad analogy) are already open to look to those areas which will indeed yield the most promising results. If homeopathy or acupuncture or Polarity Therapy or guided meditations give results that resist falsification and can withstand the rigors of objective experimentation, then that is precisely where science will lead.
It isn't about materialism versus idealism, but about practicality. Take, for instance, the belief that prayer works wonders, including curing those who are crippled or blind or deaf. Some Christians even hold that prayer can cure cancer. Yet, even here we see a physical limit on what can and cannot be achieved, putting aside the controversial study that found
“Prayers offered by strangers had no effect on the recovery of people who were undergoing heart surgery. And patients who knew they were being prayed for had a higher rate of post-operative complications like abnormal heart rhythms, perhaps because of the expectations the prayers created.”
Why, for instance, those born without a limb who pray for a new leg fail to get one, whereas others (we are told) can be cured of incurable diseases? There is even a website proactively entitled, “Why Won't God Heal Amputees?” which points out the obvious. When push comes to shove, prayer can only help so far, and even then it appears to be more about the power of suggestion than some Divine force intervening and providing help.
This issue isn't trivial since much of what draws us to alternative forms of healing are anecdotal stories that in far too many cases cannot be replicated. But this isn't merely a problem for those who are on the fringe or the borderlands of medicine, it is real problem for more accepted scientific fields such as psychology which is confronted with an epistemological crisis of its own since a recent meta-analysis “concluded that many studies in this area [psychology and the social sciences] appeared to be deeply flawed. Two-thirds could not be replicated in other labs. Some of those same researchers now report those problems still frequently crop up, even in the most prestigious scientific journals [including Nature and Science].”
I bring this up because I think we are still in a very rudimentary stage in our scientific endeavors, most pointedly in the softer sciences such as biology, psychology, and sociology. Therefore, I don't think it is imprudent to be even more skeptical and critical of those theories, such as Rupert Sheldrake's morphogenetic fields, which haven't yet been fully vetted.
In saying something is a “matter of focus” shouldn't be construed as “dogmatic” as Sattler wrongly impugns since everyone is free to look wherever they wish to discover more about how the world works and why we behave the way we do. The deciding issue comes down to best evidence. That is the end game that wins out in the end, or so it should.
I disagree with Sattler when he alleges that
“demanding full exploration of the materialist approach before we can explore non-materialist aspects of reality appears unrealistic and impossible. It also blocks the way to alternative explorations beyond materialism.”
No, nobody is blocked from exploring alternatives to physical correlations and causations. Evidence is evidence regardless of what outlook one may or not enjoin. My argument is one of practicality not metaphysical agendas. Take a person suffering from what he/she believes is heart trouble. Now it could be that patient doesn't have blocked arteries and that his/her reported chest troubles are non-cardiac. Yet, it is undoubtedly wise to make as certain as we can be that the heart is not the culprit, given how vital a role it plays in keeping us alive.
Does this “matter of focus” preclude looking elsewhere for the troublesome problem? Not at all, but by centering on the heart first we can at least eliminate that as the target of pain and thereby alleviate much unnecessary stress on the patient's behalf.
Being skeptical doesn't mean being cynical. And looking for physicalist explanations first doesn't mean being closed minded. Sattler's analogy that “If I just focus on one leaf of a tree and don't see the other leaves, I get a distorted view of what is there,” is misleading since any good scientist worth his or her salt knows that entertaining contrarian hypotheses and theses is necessary to understand any given phenomenon. As Richard Feynman wisely elucidated in his commencement speech at Cal Tech in 1974 and which is widely cited across the Internet,
“So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalidnot only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they workedto make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you canif you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrongto explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.”
I think one of the great obstacles confronting certain alternative theories in science (from intelligent design to homeopathy) is that not enough time and energy is spent on showing where, when, and how they could be wrong in their purviews. This too holds true for more traditional sciences, especially complex fields such as medicine.
While I applaud Rolf Sattler's pursuit for greater knowledge and being open to potentials beyond the material universe, I think our sciences are still in their infancy and I see no need to rush the proceedings in our desire to invoke spiritual realms. But such a focus shouldn't be wrongly construed as some sort of taboo against others pursuing other avenues of thought. It is altogether good to have contrarian voices in the mix, but let us be persuaded by evidence that can withstand our questions and doubts and not succumb to believing things out of wishful thinking or which are lacking requisite facts to support them.
While it can be rightly argued that Voodoo works among believers (because of the power of suggestion and projection), it doesn't mean that it is related to the reasons they give in justification. Likewise, we should be cautious in distinguishing the difference between efficacy and causation.
In any case, let me conclude by saying I agree with Rolf Sattler when he opines that “we need [a] free and open inquiry of reality.” I only hope that in our quest for greater knowledge that we be wary of quackery and claptrap in whatever garb it may assume lest we succumb to confusing genuine insight with cultic charms.
 Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, "What Is the Placebo Effect?", 2018, www.webmd.com
 Cathy Wong, "The Benefits of Polarity Therapy and Energy Balancing", 2018, www.verywellhealth.com
 Benedict Carey, "Long-Awaited Medical Study Questions the Power of Prayer", March 31, 2006, www.nytimes.com ,
 Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character, W.W. Norton, 1985. The last chapter on "Cargo Cult Science" is adapted from the address that Feynman gave during the 1974 commencement exercises at the California Institute of Technology.
Comment Form is loading comments...