with Victor Stenger, PhD
Much of alternative medicine is grounded on vitalism, the notion that living organisms possess some unique quality, an élan vital, that gives them that special quality we call life. Belief in the existence of a living force is ancient and remains widespread to this day. Called prana by the Hindus, qi or chi by the Chinese, ki by the Japanese, and 95 other names in 95 other cultures, this substance is said to constitute the source of life that is so often associated with soul, spirit, and mind.
In ancient times, the vital force was widely identified with breath, which the Hebrews called ruach, the Greeks psyche or pneuma (the breath of the gods), and the Romans spiritus. As breath was gradually acknowledged to be a material substance, words like "psychic" and "spirit" came about. These words refer to the assumed nonmaterial and perhaps even supernatural medium by which organisms gain the qualities of life and consciousness. The idea that matter alone can do the job has never proved popular.
Mystical energy forms are everywhere in alternative medicine. "Chi" or "qi" remains a concept in traditional Chinese medicine, still widely practiced in China and experiencing an upsurge of interest in the West as part of the curiosity surrounding acupuncture. Chi is a living force that is said to flow rhythmically through so-called "meridians" in the body. The methods of acupuncture and acupressure are said to stimulate the flow of qi at special acupoints along these meridians (of course, this overlooks the fact that their location has never been consistently specified). Furthermore, the qi force is not limited to the body, but is believed to flow throughout the environment. For example, when building a house, many believers rely on a feng shui master to decide on an orientation that is well-aligned with this flow.
As modern science developed in the West and the nature of matter was gradually uncovered, a few scientists looked hard for scientific evidence for the nature of the living force. After Sir Isaac Newton had published his laws of mechanics, optics, and gravity, in the 1700s, he spent many years looking for the source of life in alchemic experiments. His search made perfect sense, given what was known at the time. Newtonian physics couldn't explain the complexity that is necessary for any purely material theory of life or mind. (This requires quantum physics.) Furthermore, Newtonian gravity had an occult quality about it. Gravity is a mysterious, invisible action that happens at a distance. It seems to be transmitted across space. Newton (and many others) thought that the forces of life and thought had similar immaterial properties. Still, Newton and others who followed the same trail have never managed to uncover a signal for a special substance of spirit or life.
In the eighteenth century, Anton Mesmer imagined that magnetism was the universal living force. He treated patients for a wide variety of ills with magnets, a therapy still being promoted today. He believed that a force called "animal magnetism" resided in the human body and could be directed into other bodies. Indeed, patients would exhibit violent reactions when Mesmer directed his energy toward them by pointing his finger, until the flow of "nervous current" would re-balance the patient's energies. Today, "mesmerism" has become associated with hypnosis and has been disconnected from animal magnetism or other notions of a living force. Mesmer's ideas have survived in various modern "holistic" theories that contradict conventional science.
In the late nineteenth century, prominent scientists including William Crookes and Oliver Lodge sought scientific evidence for what they called the "psychic force" that they believed was responsible for the mysterious powers of the mind being exhibited by the mediums and spiritualist hucksters of the day. They thought it might be connected with the electromagnetic "aether waves" that had just been discovered and were being put to amazing use. If wireless telegraphy was possible, why not wireless telepathy? While this was a reasonable question at the time, wireless telegraphy thrived but wireless telepathy made no progress in the full century of poorly conducted experiments in "parapsychology" that followed.
Conventional medicine follows conventional biology, conventional chemistry, and conventional physics in treating the material body. The body is a complex system assembled from the same atoms and molecules that constitute (presumably) nonliving objects such as computers and automobiles. In some sense, equine veterinarians are glorified mechanics, who repair broken parts in the equine machine. Indeed, even a brief look at all of the diagnostic gadgets available to a veterinarian - ultraound, X-rays, bone scans and the like - reinforces this image. Drugs are designed to alter the chemistry of the horse's body. Even when the horse gets better it's easy to get a negative view of the whole experience.
It's no surprise, then, that alternative practitioners find many eager listeners when they announce that they go beyond materialism and mechanism and treat the really important part of the horse - the vital substance of life itself. Perhaps it's a lot more comforting to believe that a horse is far more than an assemblage of atoms, that the horse possesses a living field that is linked to both God and cosmos. Furthermore, if a horse has a condition that can't be identified - or worse, one that can be identified but can't be fixed - it's quite natural to seek out hope wherever it can be found. So a ready market exists for therapists who claim they can succeed where medical science fails. A brief glance at just about any horse magazine will direct you to any number of them.
The hypothetical vital force is often referred to these days as the bioenergetic field. Touch therapists, acupuncturists, chiropractors, and many other alternative practitioners tell us that they can affect cures for many ills by "manipulating" this field, thereby bringing the body's "live energies" into balance. The use of "bioenergetic" in this context is sort of hard to figure out. When the term is applied in conventional biochemistry it refers to the readily measurable exchanges of energy. These exchanges, which occur within organisms and between them and their environment, occur by normal and measurable physical and chemical processes. This is not, however, what the new vitalists have in mind. They imagine the bioenergetic field as a holistic living force that goes beyond physics and chemistry.
Used in this sense, "holistic" doesn't mean the need to treat the patient as a whole. Many factors, such as the psychological, emotional, and social, contribute to a sense of well-being, in addition to the state of the physical body. While this is often the example used by those who claim to practice holistic medicine, they imply something much more is at work in their treatments. Treating the whole horse is not something that is only done by practitioners or alternative therapies. The fact is that the parts of a physical system interact with one another and it's impossible to treat one part without affecting others. But the holism that relates to energy goes beyond reducing the body to it's physical and biochemical parts. It implies that there is a universe of objects that interact simultaneously and so strongly that none can ever be treated separately. This concept enters into the discussion of bioenergetic fields, where that field is imagined as some cosmic force that pervades the universe and acts instantaneously, faster than the speed of light, over all of space.
All sorts of "holistic healing" are now being practiced on horses. Many of these, such as acupuncture, homeopathy or even massage purport to do something to manipulate some form of energy. According to one source, "energy fields are postulated to constitute the fundamental unit of the living and nonliving." The field is "a unifying concept and energy signifies the dynamic nature of the field. Energy fields are infinite and paradimensional; they are in continuous motion."
Actually, it's pretty hard to figure out what this means. For example, in a chapter on "Energy Medicine" in a recently published book on Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine, the author writes: "The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics. Bioenergetic medicine is the study of human and animal bodies as dynamic electromagnetic fields existing in an electromagnetic environment." The problems with such a statement are enormous. The exact nature of the bioenergetic field is not specified, even as a guess. On the one hand, the "biofield" seems to be identified with the classical electromagnetic field; forget the fact that dynamic electromagnetic fields could be easily measured. On the other hand, the "biofield" is confused with quantum fields or wave functions. You do realize, hopefully, how silly this is (it can't be both magnetic and quantum)..
In regards to bioenergy fields, it's impossible not to at least mention the highly celebrated recent publication in a major medical journal of the tests of a human healing practice callled "Therapeutic Touch," performed by a 9 year old schoolgirl, Emily Rosa. In this simple experiment, TT practitioners were unable to detect Emily's "energy field." It seems that not only is this field so transparent that no one can see it, the theory behind it is so transparent that even a child can see through it.
AURAS AND DISCHARGES
Perhaps the most specific model for the bioenergetic field is some special form of electromagnetism, with the evidence for such a thing being claimed in the measurable electromagnetic waves emitted by humans. "Spiritual healing" is related to the belief that we are all part of the natural harmonious energy of the universe (whatever that means). It is claimed that within this universal energy field is an energy field that is intimately involved with life. Some people call this an "'aura.'" Some people who call themselves psychics even claim that they can "see" an aura, although this claim has never been proven (can you imagine how much money someone who was genuinely psychic could make?).
Believe it or not, humans have auras that can be photographed with infrared-sensitive film. However, this sort of thing is hardly mysterious. It can be easily identified by what's called "black body" electromagnetic radiation. Everyday objects that reflect very little light will appear black on infrared-sensitive film. These bodies emit invisible infrared light. This light is the result of the random movements of all the charged particles in the body that are caused by heat. The horse's body is full of charged particles and the heat of the horse's body makes those particles move around like popcorn on the top of a stove. The type of light that it emitted from a living body has a characteristic shape that is completely specified by the body's absolute temperature. As that temperature rises, you can begin to see the "aura." For example, the reason that the sun is yellow is because it radiates largely as a "black body" of intense heat with a broad peak at the center of the visible spectrum in the yellow. At their much lower body temperatures, human bodies radiate mostly in the infrared region of the spectrum. Infrared light is invisible to the naked eye but easily seen with infrared detection equipment.
The aura from black body radiation lacks any of the complexity we associate with life. It is as featureless as it can be and still be consistent with the laws of physics. Any fanciful shapes seen in photographed auras can be completely attributed to optical and photographic effects. The auras are unrelated to any property of the body that one might identify as "live" rather than "dead," and the tendency for people to see patterns where none exist.
Other creative explanations of auras and discharges suppose that bacteria, viruses and other invaders have electromagnetic fields that affect the cells of an animal's body and weaken it. In this case, the vital force is identified quite explicitly with electromagnetic fields. Changes in the fields are said to be the cause of disease. Somehow, the life energies of the body are balanced by bioenergetic therapies. "No antibiotic or drug, no matter how powerful, will save an animal if the vital force of healing is suppressed or lacking." So health or sickness is determined by who wins the battle between good and bad electromagnetic waves in the body.
Now it would seem that all these effects of electromagnetic fields in living things would be easily detectable, given the great precision with which electromagnetic phenomena can be measured in the laboratory. Physics, a science that can measure the magnetic dipole moment of the electron (a measure of the strength of the electron's magnetic field) to one part in ten billion, (and calculate it with the same accuracy), surely should be able to detect any electromagnetic effects in the body powerful enough to move atoms around or do whatever happens in causing or curing disease. Such a thing has never been hinted at in scientific medicine. Neither physics nor any other science has seen any sort of evidence for a new form of energy that demands that we go beyond well established physical theories and come up with a new explanation. No elementary particle or field has been found that is uniquely biological. No such thing is even hinted at in our most powerful detectors.
Electromagnetic waves at other frequencies are detected from the brain and other organs. As mentioned, these are often claimed as "evidence" for the bioenergetic field. In conventional medicine, they provide powerful diagnostic information. But these electromagnetic waves show no special characteristics that differentiate them from the electromagnetic waves produced by moving charges in any electronic system. Indeed, they can be simulated with a computer. No marker has been found that uniquely labels the waves from organisms "live" rather than "dead."
A special kind of photography is often cited as evidence for the existence of fields unique to living things. Claims have been made that auras made up of seven or more layers have been have been recorded using the method of Semyon Davidovich Kirlian. Kirlian was an Armenian electrician who discovered in 1937 that photographs of live objects placed in a pulsed high electromagnetic will show remarkable surrounding "aura." In the typical Kirlian experiment, a object, such as a freshly-cut leaf, is placed on a piece of photographic film that is electrically isolated from a flat aluminum electrode. A pulsed high electrical voltage is then applied between another electrode placed in contact with the object and the aluminum electrode. The film is then developed.
The resulting photographs indicate dynamic, changing patterns, with multicolored sparks, twinkles, and flares. Dead objects do not have such lively patterns! In the case of a leaf, the pattern is seen to gradually go away as the leaf dies (emitting cries of agony during its death throes). Ostrander and Schroeder described what Kirlian and his wife observed: "As they watched, the leaf seemed to be dying before their very eyes, and the death was reflected in the picture of the energy impulses." The Kirlians reported that "We appeared to be seeing the very life activity of the leaf itself."
In spite of it's emotional appeal, it's been amply demonstrated the Kirlian aura is nothing but what's known as a corona discharge. This sort of thing was reported as far back as 1777 and it's completely understood in terms of well-known physics. Controlled experiments have demonstrated that the claimed effects, such as the cries of agony of a dying leaf, are dependent on the amount of moisture present. As the leaf dies, it dries out, which lowers it's ability to conduct electricity. The same effect can been seen with a long dead but initially wet piece of wood.
With Kirlian photography, as with the infrared aura, a well-known electromagnetic phenomenon is being paraded in front of innocent lay people, unfamiliar with basic physics, as "evidence" for a living force. It is nothing of the sort. Proponents of alternative medicine would make far fewer critics among conventional scientists if they did not resort to this kind of dishonesty and foolishness.
"Quantum" is the magic incantation that appears in virtually everything written on alternative medicine. It seems to be uttered in order to make all the inconsistencies, incoherences, and incompatibilities of a proposed scheme disappear in a puff of smoke. Since quantum mechanics is weird, anything weird must be quantum mechanics.
"Einstein" is a name found frequently in the literature on bioenergetic fields. Albert Einstein was a brilliant physicist, perhaps the most influential physicist in history. Einstein's immortality rests on his two theories of relativity (E = mc2 and that sort of thing). Einstein was not the inventor of quantum mechanics and objected strongly to its anti-Newtonian and unpredictable character, saying famously, "God does not play dice." Still, Einstein contributed mightily to the development of quantum mechanics, especially with his photon theory. (Modern quantum mechanics is the progeny of a large group of early 20th century physicists such as Planck, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schrödinger, Pauli, Born, Jordan, and Dirac. Each of these men made contributions to quantum mechanics at least as important as Einstein's.)
Quantum mechanics is often claimed as support for mind-over-matter solutions to health problems. The way the observer is entangled with the object being observed in quantum mechanics is taken to mean that human consciousness actually controls reality. As a consequence, we can all think ourselves into health and, indeed, immortality. "Quantum healing" is based on a particularly misleading interpretation of quantum mechanics. Thus holistic healing can be associated with the rejection of classical, Newtonian physics.
Yet, holistic healing retains many ideas from eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. For example, electromagnetic fields were around well before quantum physics. It was Einstein himself who proposed that they are composed of measurable particles. And never mind that Einstein did away with the aether, the medium that nineteenth century physicists thought was doing the waving in an electromagnetic wave (and a few others thought might also be doing the waving for "psychic waves"). As the nineteenth century drew to a close, experiments by Michelson and Morley had failed to find evidence for the aether. This laid the foundation for Einstein's theory of relativity and his photon theory of light, both published in 1905. Electromagnetic radiation is now understood to be a fully material phenomenon. Photons of light have both inertial and gravitational mass (even though they have zero rest mass) and exhibit all the characteristics of material bodies. Electromagnetism is as material as breath, and an equally incredible candidate for the vital field.
Much as we might wish otherwise, the fact remains that no unique living force has ever been conclusively demonstrated to exist in scientific experiments. Of course, evidence for a life force might someday be found, but this is not what is claimed in the literature that promotes much of alternative medicine. There you will find the strong assertion that current scientific evidence exists for some entity beyond conventional matter, and that this claim is supported by modern physical theory - especially
quantum mechanics. Furthermore, the evidence is not to be found in the data from our most powerful telescopes or particle accelerators, probing beyond existing frontiers. Rather, it resides in vague, imprecise, anecdotal claims of the alleged curative powers of traditional folk remedies and other nostrums. These claims simply do not meet any reasonable application of scientific criteria. The bioenergetic field plays no role in the theory or practice of biology or scientific medicine. Vitalism and bioenergetic fields remain mere speculation - speculation that is not even needed to explain what is happening. If bioenergetic fields exist, then some two hundred years of physics, chemistry, and biology has to be re-evaluated.
Much of alternative medicine is based on claims that violate well established scientific principles. Those that require the existence of a bioenergetic field, whether therapeutic touch or acupuncture, should be asked to meet the same criteria as anyone else who claims a phenomenon whose existence goes beyond established science. They have an enormous burden of proof, and it is time that society laid it on their thin shoulders.