The Pseudophysics of Therapeutic
Victor J. Stenger
Published in Therapeutic
Touch, edited by Béla Scheiber and Carla Selby. Amherst N.Y.:
Prometheus Books (2000), pp. 302-311.
(Note: This version
differs slightly from the priblished version, which should be regarded
Much of alternative
medicine, including Therapeutic Touch, 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 (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 1990).
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 such as touch therapists 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.
UNIFIED BIOFIELD THEORY
The hypothetical vital force
is often referred to these days as the bioenergetic field. Touch
therapists along with 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 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, Scheiber 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).
However, as Stranwick points out elsewhere in this volume, the energy field
that Rogers talks about is apparently not the same one that touch therapists
The exact nature of the
bioenergetic field is not unambiguously 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
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-described 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. 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 the data from 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
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
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). "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 energy therapy. 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, Schrödinger, 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
promoters of quantum mysticism 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 about the aether and action at a distance
from eighteenth and nineteenth century physics. Its proponents are blissfully
unaware that these ideas have been rejected by modern physics.
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
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 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 follow from any reasonable application of scientific
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 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
Ball, Thomas S. and Dean D.
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