A Review of the Physics of Complementary and Alternative Medicine
Victor J. Stenger, Ph. D., Department of Physics and Astronomy, 2505 Correa Rd,
University of Hawaii, Honolulu, HI 96822.
Take Home Message
Much of Complementary and Alternative Medicine is non-scientific, violating
many well established principles of physics and relying on anecdotal evidence of
little scientific merit. In particular, no scientific basis exists for the notion of special
vital forces or energy fields associated with living organisms. Medical journals
should follow the lead of most scientific journals and not publish extraordinary
claims without extraordinary evidence.
One of the primary assumptions within Complementary and Alternative Medicine
(CAM) is that living things possess a special energy field, linked to the cosmos,
which I will call the bioenergetic field. “Pure energy” is viewed as a biophysical
substance separate from and superseding matter. Electromagnetic fields are
presented as examples of pure energy and are identified with the bioenergetic field.
Newtonian mechanistic, reductionistic physics is reported to be refuted by modern
physics. Quantum physics is called upon to back the assertion that the universe is
one continuous, interconnected whole of which human consciousness is a part,
thus allowing the mind to control reality. While generally applied to human
therapies, much of CAM has appears to have found its way into veterinary
medicine (Schoen 2000).
A major theorist of CAM is Martha Rogers (1970, 1986, 1989, 1990), who has
introduced what she calls The Science of Unitary Human Beings. In Rogers’ words,
". . . energy fields are postulated to constitute the fundamental unit of the
living and nonliving." [The field is] "a unifying concept and energy signifies
the dynamical nature of the field. Energy fields are infinite and
paradimensional; they are in continuous motion." (Rogers 1990, 30)
Following Rogers’ lead, Joanne Stafantos, asserts that
"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. . . . Based
on Einstein's theories of quantum physics, these energetic concepts are being
integrated into medicine for a comprehensive approach to disease diagnosis,
prevention, and treatment." (Stafantos 1997, 227)
Another leading guru of the CAM movement is Deepak Chopra, the author of
numerous best-sellers including Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum
Alternative to Growing Old. Here is a sample of Chopra’s assertions (Chopra 1989,
• "The physical world is a creation of the observer."
• "The body is information and energy spanning the universe."
• "Thoughts and emotions create physical processes."
• "All of us are connected to patterns of intelligence that govern the cosmos."
• "Inside us is a field of non-change that creates who we really are."
Finally, psychiatrist Patricia Newton (1993) has argued that traditional healers
“ are able to tap that other realm of negative entropy - that superquantum
velocity and frequency of electro-magnetic energy and bring them as conduits
down to our level. It’s not magic. It’s not mumbo jumbo. You will see the
dawn of the 21st century, the new medical quantum physics really
distributing these energies and what they are doing.”
In this review, these claims are analyzed within the framework of established
Most lay people believe that the universe is made of two kinds of stuff:
1. Matter, which include the bodies of living organisms and the other material stuff
of the universe. They have heard that matter is composed of particulate atoms, and
associate material objects with notions of discreteness and scientific reductionism.
2. Energy, which is associated in the lay mind with spirit or soul. The common
belief is that living things possess some special quality that makes them alive, an
élan vital, or vital force, of living energy. CAM theorists often identify this
bioenergetic field with physical electromagnetic fields, which still appear mysterious
to many more than a century after their discovery. These energy fields are associated
with notions of continuity and holism that are said to oppose the discreteness and
reductionism of “cold” physical science.
However, these beliefs do not reflect developments in either the physical or
biological sciences of several centuries. Prior to twentieth century, most scientists
held to the following picture: Energy and matter indeed were regarded as separate
and distinct substances. On the other hand, while appearing continuous to the
naked eye, matter was already understood to be composed of discrete, localized
atoms. Light had been shown to be a form of electromagnetic wave, which was
believed to result from the vibration of a continuous cosmic field, the aether.
Electromagnetic waves were regarded as a form of pure energy. Gravity was thought
to be a continuous action-at-a-distance field.
In the twentieth century, these views evolved and changed to the following:
Energy and matter were recognized to be the same stuff, as signified by Einstein’s
famous equation E = mc2. The discrete nature of matter was fully confirmed, and
energy was shown to occur, like matter, in discrete lumps called quanta. In fact, this
was the discovery of Max Planck that triggered the development of quantum
mechanics. Despite what the CAM theorists seem to think, quantum mechanics is
about discreteness, not continuity.
The search for the continuous aether met with failure and the concept was
discarded in the new physics or relativity and quantum theory. Indeed, no evidence
has been found for any continuous medium in universe. Light is composed of
particulate matter--photons. Fields are composed of discrete particles--quanta. The
photon is the quantum of the electromagnetic field, which is, in effect, like a field of
pebbles. The electron is the quantum of the electron field. Finally, general relativity
explains gravity in terms of the curvature of space rather than as a continuous force
The Standard Model of Matter
Material objects are made of atoms, which in turn are composed of nuclei and
electrons. Nuclei are composed of protons and neutrons, which themselves are
composed of quarks. By the 1970s, the following picture of matter (and energy) had
been strongly established in what is still called the standard model, but is now a
fully-developed and highly successful theory. Three generations of quarks and
leptons exist, as illustrated below:
u c t
d s b
ne nm nt
e m t
The top two rows are the quarks, and the bottom two rows are the leptons. Each
column represents a “generation,” where the first generation encompasses the great
bulk of familiar matter. The proton is composed of the three quark combination
uud, while the neutron is the combination udd. These, along with the electron e,
compose all the atoms of the chemical periodic table. The third row of particles are
the neutrinos, which while not present in atoms are perhaps the most common
particle in the universe. Each particle in the above table has an associated
The Standard Model of Forces
The elementary particles that make up matter are only half the story. The standard
model also tells us how these particles interact with one another to make up the
more complex stuff that has evolved into stars, planets, and horses. In the standard
model, forces result from the exchange of particles called gauge bosons:
electromagnetism --> photon
strong nuclear --> gluons (
weak nuclear --> weak bosons (4)
gravity --> graviton
(I have included gravity, although no quantum theory of gravity yet exists and it is
not normally considered part of the standard model). While these “force particles”
are described by quantum fields in the theory, no continuous medium, such as the
aether, is involved.
Quantum fields are strictly theoretical objects, like the density field that describes
average behavior of particulate matter. They do not describe a continuous medium,
such as an aether, pervading space. Since every particle is the quantum of a
quantum field, no fields exist independent of particles. Furthermore, quanta do not
act instantaneously over space. Their effects propagate no faster than the speed of
light. That is, quantum fields are not holistic and no basis in modern quantum
physics exists for the claims made by CAM theorists--despite their unbridled use of
the term “quantum.”
Life and Mind
All living organisms are composed of the same quarks and electrons as compose a
rock or a river. They are acted on by the same forces. Physicists have been able to
measure effects of the electromagnetic force to one part in a billion, but see not the
slightest hint of special vital or psychic forces. No evidence has ever been found for
any unique fields or radiation associated with living organisms. Life and mind can
be understood as emergent properties of matter. Brain imaging and other
neuroscience provide strong evidence for localized, material sources of thoughts
The Unconscious Quantum
Quantum mechanics is said to provide a basis for a mind-matter connection.
This notion arises from the fact that, in quantum mechanics, the act of observation
interferes with what is being observed, as expressed by the Heisenberg uncertainty
principle. Chopra and others claim that reality is thus determined by consciousness.
But mind and consciousness are not independent of matter. The brain is wired to
the body, but not to other bodies. Nothing in quantum phenomena or quantum
theory requires the introduction of non-material or holistic elements.
Has Modern Physics Shown that Classical, Reductionist Physics is "Wrong?"
Most physics taught in classrooms is still classical physics. Modern physics is built on
a base of classical physics and is still completely materialistic and reductionistic.
Modern technology, biology, and medicine still rely heavily on classical physics. The
claim that a paradigm-shift occurred with modern physics is debatable. In fact, the
last major paradigm-shift in physics occurred when Newton's physics replaced
Aristotle's. As Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg (1998) has explained:
"Revolutions in science seem to fit Kuhn's description only to the extent that
they mark a shift in understanding some aspect of nature from pre-science to
modern science. The birth of Newtonian physics was a mega-paradigm shift,
but nothing that has happened in our understanding of motion since--not the
transition from Newtonian to Einsteinian mechanics, or from classical to
quantum physics--fits Kuhn's description of a paradigm shift. "
What Constitutes Evidence?
Any claim that implies the overthrow of well-established scientific principles has an
extraordinary burden of proof. Since so much rubbish is out there, the only rational
and practical policy is to ignore such claims until extraordinary evidence is
presented. Anecdotal evidence is ordinary, since people can be easily tricked or selfdeluded.
The placebo effect is powerful and difficult to eliminate even in the best
controlled experiments. A single experiment, even peer-reviewed, is never enough.
Multiple independent replications are essential.
Let me list some ordinary claims that, if true, would violate no established
• Some herbs may have some medical benefits.
• Relaxation or meditation may have some medical benefit.
• Chiropractic treatments may ease back pain.
• A patient's state of mind can affect his or her health.
• Treating the "whole patient" may be better than just treating his or her parts.
• High frequency electromagnetic radiation has harmful effects.
On the other hand, consider the following examples of extraordinary claims that, if
true, would violate well-established science:
• Homeopathic remedies can have any effect at all.
• Meditation tunes you into the cosmic field of mind.
• Chiropractic treatments can cure a wide range of illnesses.
• Mind can overcome established physical law.
• You can improve a person's health by manipulating his or her vital energies.
• Acupuncture is more than a placebo effect.
• Low frequency electromagnetic radiation has harmful effects.
• Placing magnets on the body will have any effect at all.
Based on the standards of physics, where extraordinary phenomena are often
observed, the threshold for publication of extraordinary claims in medical journals
should be raised considerably. Most journals in medicine, psychology, and
pharmacology seem to allow publication at the p = 0.05 significance level. That is,
according to statistical theory, 1/ 20 reports at this level are expected to be statistical
artifacts. For example, the significance of a reported study on the benefit of prayer
was p = 0.04. One might ask how many negative experiments were not published?
Perhaps 25 or more and only the one that gave an effect at this level of significance
was reported. In physics, many 1/ 25 effects in physics have failed to be confirmed.
The accepted criterion in most physics journals is p = 10- 4. That is, an effect is
published when only one in 10,000 experiments or more can produce the
observation as a statistical artifact. I submit this threshold should be used for an
extraordinary claim in all branches of science. Ordinary claims, consistent with
existing science, can be published with weaker significance.
Most CAM is non-scientific. If it were scientific, it would be neither complementary
or alternative but part of the mainstream. Energy therapies and other forms of CAM
are based on the ancient notion that living matter possesses some special vital force
or energy that is separate from matter. Today this energy is mistakenly associated
with electromagnetic or quantum fields. However, no evidence for any special vital
forces, energies, or fields has ever been found. Modern physics has shown that
energy and matter are the same entity and finds no evidence for continuous fields.
The quantum fields of theoretical physics are directly connected, one-to-one, to
particles, the quanta of the fields. A consistent picture of elementary particles and
forces that successfully describes all current observations exists within the
framework of the standard model.
Living matter is composed of the same particles acted on by the same forces as
non-living matter. Quantum mechanics provides no basis for paranormal or
holistic claims while all of modern physics remains totally materialistic and
reductionistic. No mega-paradigm shift occurred in the twentieth century
comparable to that of Newton in the seventeenth century.
Reports of extraordinary claims should not be published unless the evidence
is extraordinary. The violation of established physical law is sufficient to ignore such
claims until extraordinary evidence is presented.
Chopra, Deepak. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body
Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1989.
__________ 1993. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to
Growing Old. New York: Random House.
Newton, Patricia. Talk before the 98th Annual Meeting of the National Medical
Association, San Antonio, Texas, 1993. Quotation provided by Bernard Ortiz
de Montellano (private communication).
Rogers, M. The Theoretical Basis for Nursing. Philadelphia: F.A. Davies, 1970.
__________ "Science of Unitary Human Beings." In V. M. Malinski (ed.)
Explorations of Martha Rogers' Science of Unitary Human Beings. Norwark:
__________ "Nursing: A Science of Unitary Human Beings." In J.P. Riehl-Sisca
(ed.) Conceptual Models for Nursing Practice. 3rd edition. Norwark: Appleton
& Lange, 1989.
__________ "Nursing: Science of Unitary, Irreducible, Human Beings: Update
1990." In E.A.M Barrett (ed.) Visions of Rogers' Science-Based Nursing. New
York: National League for Nursing, 1990.
Schoen AM. Results of a survey on educational and research programs in
complementary and alternative veterinary medicine at veterinary medical
schools in the United States. J Am Vet Med Assoc. 2000 Feb 15; 216(4): 502-9,
Stefanatos, Joanne. "Introduction to Bioenergetic Medicine." Chapter 16 of Allen M.
Schoen and Susan G. Wynn (eds.) Complementary and Alternative
Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practice. Mosby-Year Book, 1997.
Weinberg, Steven. "The Revolution That Didn't Happen." New York Review of
Books, October 8, 1998.