Victor J. Stenger
of Physics and Astronomy
2505 Correa Rd.
University of Hawaii at Manoa
Honolulu, HI 96822
Draft of March 25, 1999
Published in The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Vol. 3, No. 1, Spring/Summer 1999.
Much of alternative medicine is grounded on vitalism, the notion that living organisms possess
some unique quality, an Úlan 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 (Brennen 1988), this substance is said
to constitute the source of life that is so often associated with soul, spirit, and mind. Wheeler (1939) reviewed the history
of vitalism in the West and defined it as "all the various doctrines which, from the time of Aristotle, have described things
as actuated by some power or principle additional to mechanics and chemistry." Modern theories of vitalism include those of
Driesch (1914) and Bergson (1919).
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" evolved to refer to the assumed nonmaterial
and perhaps 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.
Chi or qi remains the primary concept in traditional Chinese medicine, still widely practiced
in China and experiencing an upsurge of interest in the West. 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 used to stimulate the flow at special acu-points
along these meridians, although their location has never been consistently specified. The chi force is not limited to the
body, but is believed to flow throughout the environment (Huston 1995). 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 sought scientific evidence for the nature of the living force. After Newton had published his laws of mechanics,
optics, and gravity, he spent many years looking for the source of life in alchemic experiments. His search was not irrational,
given the knowledge of the day. Newtonian physics provided no basis for the complexity that is necessary for any purely material
theory of life or mind. This would require quantum physics. Furthermore, Newtonian gravity had an occult quality about it,
with its invisible action at a distance. Gravity seemed to be transmitted across space with no intervening matter evident.
Perhaps the forces of life and thought had similar immaterial properties. Still, Newton and others who followed the same trail
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
and 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 (Ball 1998). Today, "mesmerism" has become
associated with hypnosis and disconnected from animal magnetism or other notions of a living force, but Mesmer's ideas have
survived in various modern "holistic" theories that contradict 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? This was a reasonable question at the time. However, while wireless telegraphy thrived,
wireless telepathy made no progress in the full century of uncorroborated experiments in "parapsychology" that followed (Stenger
Conventional medicine follows conventional biology, conventional chemistry, and conventional
physics in treating the material body - a complex, nonlinear system assembled from the same atoms and molecules that constitute
(presumably) nonliving objects such as computers and automobiles. Medical doctors are in some sense glorified mechanics, who
repair broken parts in the human machine. Indeed, any stay in the hospital reinforces this image, as you are hooked to devices
that measure blood pressure, temperature, oxygen saturation, and many other physical parameters. You are almost always treated
with drugs that are designed to alter your body's chemistry. You usually get better, every time but once, but, unless you
are a physicist, you tend to view the whole experience rather negatively.
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 human system - the vital substance
of life itself. People's religious sensibilities and images of self-worth are greatly mollified when they are told that they
are far more than an assemblage of atoms - that they possess a living field that is linked to both God and cosmos. Furthermore,
the desperately ill will quite naturally seek out hope wherever they can find it. So a ready market exists for therapists
who claim they can succeed where medical science fails.
I must at least mention the highly celebrated recent publication in a major medical journal
of the tests of Therapeutic Touch performed by the schoolgirl Emily Rosa (Rosa 1998). 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.
UNIFIED BIOFIELD THEORY
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"
The use of "bioenergetic" in this context is somewhat ambiguous. This term is applied in conventional
biochemistry to refer to the readily measurable exchanges of energy within organisms, and between them and their environment,
which occur by normal 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 reductionist physics and chemistry.
By "holistic" here, I am not referring to trivial homilies such as the need to treat the patient
as a whole and recognize that many factors, such as the psychological, emotional, and social, contribute to well-being along
with 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 person does not contradict any reductionist principles.
Neither does the fact that the parts of a physical system interact with one another. Reductionism is not about a universe
of isolated objects. The holism that goes beyond reductionism implies 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 aether that pervades the universe and acts instantaneously, faster than the speed
of light, over all of space.
Therapeutic Touch and other forms of "holistic healing" are now widely practiced within the
nursing community (Rosa 1994, Schieber 1997, Ulett 1997, Rosa 1998, Pryjmachuk 1998). These seem to be based on a theoretical
system called "The Science of Unitary Human Beings," proposed by Rogers (1970, 1986, 1989, 1990). According to Rogers, "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"
(Rogers 1990, 30).
The exact nature of the bioenergetic field is not specified, even as a speculative hypothesis,
in Rogers or the other literature on holistic healing. On the one hand, the biofield seems to be identified with the classical
electromagnetic field; on the other it is confused with quantum fields or wave functions. For example, Stefanatos (1997, 227)
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."
AURAS AND DISCHARGES
Perhaps the most specific model for the bioenergetic
field is some special form of electromagnetism. Advocates claim that measurable electromagnetic waves are emitted by humans."
In the Journal of Advanced Nursing, Patterson relates "spiritual healing" to the belief
that "we are all part of the natural harmonious energy of the universe." Within this universal energy field is a human energy
field "that is intimately involved with human life, often called the 'aura'" (Patterson 1998, 291).
Some self-desribed psychics claim that they can "see" a human aura. The claim has not been substantiated
(Loftin 1990). Indeed, humans have auras that can be photographed with infrared-sensitive film. However, this can be trivially
identified as "black body" electromagnetic radiation. Everyday objects that reflect very little light will appear black. These
bodies emit invisible infrared light that is the statistical result of the random thermal movements of all the charged particles
in the body. The wavelength spectrum has a characteristic smooth shape completely specified by the body's absolute temperature.
As that temperature rises, the spectrum moves into the visible. The sun, for example, radiates largely as a "black body" of
temperature 6,000 K, with a broad peak at the center of the visible spectrum in the yellow. At their much lower body temperatures,
humans radiate mostly in the infrared region of the spectrum that is invisible to the naked eye but easily seen with infrared
The inability of the wave theory of light to explain the black body spectrum led, in 1900, to
Planck's conjecture that light comes in bundles of energy called "quanta,"thus triggering the quantum revolution. These quanta
are now recognized as material photons. It is somewhat ironic that holists find such comfort in quantum mechanics, which replaced
etherial waves with material particles." Surely black body radiation is not a candidate for the bioenergetic field, for then
even the cosmic microwave background, 2.7K radiation left over from the big bang, would be "alive." 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 emanating from humans can be attributed to optical and photographic effects,
uncorrelated with 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.
Stefanatos (1997, 228) tells us that the "electromagnetic fields (EMF) emanating from bacteria,
viruses, and toxic substances affect the cells of the body and weaken its constitution." So the vital force is identified
quite explicitly with electromagnetic fields and said to be the cause of disease. But 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" (Stefanatos 1997, 229). 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
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. It surely should be able to detect
#How about: Physicists have measured 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 calculated it with the same accuracy. They
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. But either physics nor any other science has seen anything that demands we go beyond
well established physical theories. No elementary particle or field has been found that is uniquely biological. None is even
hinted at in our most powerful detectors.
Besides the infrared black body radiation already mentioned, 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."
Kirlian Photography is often cited as evidence for the existence of fields unique to living
things. For example, Patterson (1998) claims that the "seven or more layers within an aura, each with its own colour," have
been recorded using Kirlian photography.
Semyon Davidovich 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 with a piece of dielectric material. A pulsed high 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 (Ostrander 1970, Moss 1974). 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" (Ostrander 1970, 200).
As has been amply demonstrated, the Kirlian aura is nothing but corona discharge, reported as
far back as 1777 and completely understood in terms of well-known physics. Controlled experiments have demonstrated that claimed
effects, such as the cries of agony of a dying leaf, are sensitively dependent on the amount of moisture present. As the leaf
dies, it dries out, lowering its electrical conductivity. The same effect can been seen with a long dead but initially wet
piece of wood (Pehek 1976; Singer 1981; Watkins 1988, 1989).
Once again, like the infrared aura, we have a well known electromagnetic phenomenon 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 have
far fewer critics among conventional scientists if they did not resort to
this kind of dishonesty and foolishness. (For more discussion of Kirlian photography, see Stenger 1990, 237-241).
"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 the proposed scheme disappear in a puff of smoke. Since quantum mechanics is weird,
anything weird must be quantum mechanics.
Quantum mechanics is 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 infer that human consciousness
actually controls reality. As a consequence, we can all think ourselves into health and, indeed, immortality - if we only
buy this book (Chopra 1989. 1993). As I showed in a previous issue of this journal, "quantum healing" is based on a particularly
misleading interpretation of quantum mechanics (Stenger 1997). Other interpretations exist that do not require any mystical
ingredients (see also Stenger 1995).
"Einstein" is a name found frequently in the literature on bioenergetic fields. Stephantos (1997,
228) says: "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."
Einstein's theories of quantum physics? What theories are these? While 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 century physicists. Planck, Bohr, de Broglie, Heisenberg, Schr÷dinger, Pauli, Born, Jordan, and
Dirac each made contributions to quantum mechanics at least as important as Einstein's. Einstein's immortality rests securely
enough on his two theories of relativity.
Referring to well known authorities such as Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber, Stefanatos (1997,
227) tells how "Einstein's quantum model replaced the Newtonian mechanistic model of humankind and the universe." Thus holistic
healing is associated with the rejection of classical, Newtonian physics. Yet, holistic healing retains many ideas from eighteenth
and nineteenth century physics. Its proponents are blissfully unaware that these ideas, especially superluminal holism, have
been rejected by modern physics as well.
Never mind that Einstein was not the inventor of quantum mechanics and objected strongly to
its anti-Newtonian character, saying famously, "God does not play dice." Never mind that electromagnetic fields were around
well before quantum physics and it was Einstein himself who proposed that they are composed of reductionist 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." The bioenergetic
field described in holistic literature seems to be confused with the aether. Or, perhaps no confusion is implied. They each
share at least one common feature - nonexistence.
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 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 see the strong
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
follow from 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 hypotheses not required by the data, to be rejected
by Occam's razor until the data demand otherwise.
THE SIGNIFICANCE LEVEL OF MEDICAL STUDIES
In my field of particle physics, reputable journals
such as Physical Review Letters will not publish any claim of a new phenomenon, such as evidence for the top quark
or the mass of the neutrino, unless the data have a "significance level" of 10-4 or less. This means that if the same experiment
were repeated 10,000 times, the reported effect would have been produced artifactually, as a statistical fluctuation or systematic
error, no more than once on average.
In medicine, and related fields such as psychology and pharmacology, and in the social sciences
as well, the significance level for publication in the best journals is typically five percent. That is, the experiment need
only be repeated twenty times, on average, to have the reported effect not be real but to result from an artifact of the experiment.
This means that every twentieth paper you read could be a fluke, although many, of course, exceed the significance threshold
and so the fraction of reliable results is probably, thankfully, much greater.
This very loose criterion in the human sciences is justified by the very reasonable argument
that any new result should be put to use as soon as possible in case it may save lives. Indeed, medical researchers are placed
under pressures, unheard of in the rest of science, to make their results available well before they can be confirmed by criteria
and procedures that are quite conventional in other disciplines. Also, in many cases this is perhaps the best that can be
done, given the greater complexity of the human body or human social systems compared to the typical systems studied in physics.
Still, it might do well for the human disciplines to tighten up a bit. They will avoid much confusion, and very likely make
better progress, as fewer researchers waste time and money following blind alleys that are suggested by research already "published
in peer-reviewed journals."
We might ask: What criterion should be applied to those studies that claim to show some therapy
works, when that therapy violates well established scientific principles, such as the conventional laws of physics? For example,
should we publish an experiment that indicates Therapeutic Touch works where the significance level is five percent? I argue
that we should not. Given the difficulty of accurately estimating errors in any human experiment, any such claims are far
more likely to be wrong than one in twenty. One in one are more likely to be wrong.
I am not advocating censorship - just tighter standards to apply for any extraordinary claim,
in physics and medicine. When the significance level for bioenergetic fields reaches 0.01 percent, that is, one in ten thousand
chances for an artifact, then publish away and watch physicists scramble for an alternative to their conventional theories
If bioenergetic fields exist, then some two hundred years of physics, chemistry, and biology
has to be re-evaluated. I would insist that any experiment claiming their existence be forced to obey the same criteria that
particle physicists and other forefront researchers must obey, a significance level of one part in ten thousand rather than
one part in twenty. It is one thing to publish a low significance result that does not violate known principles; it is another
to publish one that forces science to undergo a paradigm-shift and redirect the limited resources of research to areas that
are extremely unlikely to produce any pay-off.
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.
The author is grateful for very helpful comments
from Benedict Adamson, Dr. Stephen Barrett, Paul Bernhardt, Keith Douglas, Robert G. Grimes, Jim Humphreys, Peter Huston,
and Dr. David Ramey.
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