On entering into a philosophical morass: Chinese medicine and Western science

Let’s get something straight. I’m very confused about the role of Western scientific research as it is currently practiced in verifying the claims of practitioners of Chinese medicine. Various studies, including the famous “sham acupuncture” study seem to challenge the premise that the theoretical bases of Chinese medicine are an accurate description of reality and our interactions with it.

For instance, concerning the study referenced above, if any old needle through the skin will cure migraines – what of channel theory? What of our highly developed ideas about acupuncture techniques? Similar doubt is cast on Chinese herbalism by placebo controlled double blind studies showing no significant improvement in patient outcomes with the administration of various herbal extracts or even, in some cases, whole herbal formulas. What gives? Why spend all this money to learn a highly nuanced medical system if that system can’t stand on its own two feet?  (Yes, I know, there are plenty of studies that verify CM’s efficacy, but that’s beside my specific point here).

I’ve talked in various articles on this site about my basic opinion about the relationship between Western science and Chinese medicine. At my school, NCNM, we talk about these things quite a bit in classes, in the hallways, in subversive meetings around Portland, Oregon. But, to be totally frank, the conversations don’t often delve deeply.  This isn’t because we don’t want to go beyond the surface.  Sometimes it feels like these concepts are coated with Teflon – the mind so readily slips off. It’s such work just to get through the program, I think most of us just don’t have the mental energy to work through this kind of analysis. Further, most of us weren’t attracted to the medicine because of analytical research indicating that it is effective. To some extent, it’s a gut level reaction. Or you could say that it’s a spiritual attraction – whatever you like.

I find, though, with my dual background in Western philosophy and Western science, I simply can’t let the matter lie. Believe me, I’d rather it be any other way. So, I’m going to attempt to unpack this issue – it’s going to take some time. It’s going to take a lot of reading and a lot of thinking and I’m not even sure what kind of result I can expect.  I want to make it abundantly clear that I fully believe that Classical Chinese Medicine *does* stand on its own two feet, that it is deeply rooted in a science that needs no independent verification.  I simply want to understand, for myself, what that means.  In a sense, for me, this (long) journey will be an intellectual exercise.  Perhaps an important one.  We’ll see.

In a preliminary way, I can imagine that my exploration is going to have to go over some of the following terrain:

1. What is the nature of Western science as it is currently practiced? Essentially, what assumptions does Western science take for granted and how are they being challenged? My sense is that I’ll have to look pretty deep into the gaping maw of materialism in this part of my journey.

2. How do modern research standards grow out of the above assumptions? How are they independent from them? How have modern research standards evolved and how are they currently evolving?

3. How can the ideas of a non-material essence to the human being come back into acceptance by science? Is that desirable or necessary? What would that mean and what are the philosophical and practical implications?

4. Is there merit to the assertion that the scientific system that grows out of one world view cannot be adequately assessed or criticized by the scientific system that grows out of another? If so – what does this mean for an increasingly globalized world where many different worldviews are forced to interact?

5. What produces the most favorable patient outcomes and how would we measure those outcomes?

I’m going to have to look into a lot of disciplines in which I don’t have much expertise.  That’s okay with me.  I’ve come to accept that in any endeavor, there’s probably someone who knows more than me.  That’s the benefit of this kind of public dialogue – lots of folks can contribute.


About Eric Grey

Hi - I'm the founder of this site and the primary master of all functions here. When I'm not writing, you can find me reaching out to the Chinese Medicine community across the web and in my own backyard. I currently teach Chinese herbs at my alma mater, the National College of Natural Medicine. Additionally, I'm the founder of Watershed Wellness, a thriving local clinic in Southeast Portland in Oregon. No matter where I'm working, you'll find my focus on the Classical approach to Chinese medicine laced throughout everything I do.

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