If you have touched into the philosophical differences between natural healthcare and the more materialistic, evidence-focused healthcare that dominates health budgets, and been surprised by the lack of any common understanding, read on for some exploration of how to span this seemingly unbridgeable gulf.
Natural healthcare has many schools, with different beliefs, techniques, rituals and tools. That said, practitioners of hugely different techniques tend to appreciate the possibility that each other’s methods can work, or are at least worth practising, with or without comparative measurement studies.
In contrast, the school of thought and practice that terms itself ‘scientific medicine’ says that only statistically tested application of a particular procedure or drug to a particular symptom can be regarded as justifiable healthcare.
What accounts for this difference ? The evidence-based medicine advocates often say it’s a lack of rigour or even a willingness to deceive on the part of the natural health movement. The natural health movement is shocked by the side effects and costs of orthodox treatment and wonders if the disease can actually be any worse.
It is often difficult to get beyond these judgements, which usually means there is something deeper, more underlying, in the personal philosophies of the opponents, that has not been recognised or examined.
In the natural health philosophy, if one can be distilled from the many strands of thinking, mind, body, relationships, environment, and ‘connection’ are all considered as interchangeably contributing to the pie that gets defined as ‘health’. A sense of joy and vitality is often considered as the measure of health regardless of the picture the physical body presents, or ultimately whether the body persists at all. ‘Interhangeably’ because a dynamic process is expected, where there must be for example, depression, until someone finds a new direction, or inflammation until the unhelpful activity generating it is ceased. Some would even say that a tumour (cancer being the body turning on itself) is an understandable response to a toxic life and that if the driving behaviours can be identified and changed, the maligant process will unwind.
The ‘scientific medicine’ lobby does not really look at questions like this. They are seen as outside the domain of medicine, unprovable, and basically as an excuse (or blocking strategy) to avoid pushing forward the frontiers of new treatments to make bodies stay viable for longer, which must be the central goal.
The results of the ‘scientific’ approach generally involve separating and sub-dividing, creating specialisms in particular conditions and parts of the body, or behaviours of the mind. That is the only way to proceed when the subject matter is assumed to be about material structures observable by the five senses and subject to measurement. We are led to look at ever more microscopic levels of function, gathering ever more data, and making more targeted early interventions, and expanding the list of conditions, syndromes and disturbances.
Probably each of us has a sub-section of our mind that can appreciate and be convinced by each polarity of this argument at different times. Indeed, that is normally the case wherever passionate arguments rage across large numbers of people for years and decades. Nevertheless, it is pretty clear that there is a lot of energy expended villifying the other side, and that neither approach will go away. People working in healthcare may have more peace of mind and more ability to respect each other if the source of the division is recognised.
Further, this polarisation can become very close and personal when you wish your own or a loved-one’s healthcare to be directed in a certain way and may find that your most fundamental positions on what life is and is for, are not allowed for in prevailing healthcare offering.
Extensive reading and conversations over 20 years have convinced me that the source of tension is the presence or absence of a ‘spiritual’ view of life and reality. The ‘world-view’ that necessarily prevails when a spiritual view is not present, is a materialist one. Let’s note at this point, that a spiritual view is not always there in the conscious mind, or expressed directly. Sometimes it’s just present for someone as a feeling that leans a person towards certain set of assumptions and behaviours without ever being given a name.
What is meant by a ‘spiritual world view’ ? All the religious faiths that have emerged through the ages (which continue to be strongly present in all modern societies, and are turned to in times of trouble) incorporate a non-visible creative force that determines or mediates in some way the path of material development. Spiritual views often carry much paraphernalia, but the common thread, beyond all stories, is that one.
The view that in opposition to this can be called a ‘materialist’ philosophy. Most commonly materialism is somewhat uninterested in final causes so we do not always encounter a direct contradiction of the idea of a ‘creative force’. Rejection of the paraphernalia and language of religions (God, spirit) and the various dogmas and divisions that are observed is what we perceive most often. That said, there always needs to be some way to underpin a belief, so it is generally necesary to hold the idea of ‘randomness’ as the replacement for a causative force.
Randomness could be said to replace the religious person’s concept of God. It has some similar characteristics in that it is seen as responsible for the outcomes where ‘logical’ cause and effect are not perceivable. It can be conveniently invoked when other trails go cold. It can be drawn upon to explain evolution of organisms and societies. Perhaps the one difference is that it is not seen as intentional.
That absence of the notion of intentionality, of a creative urge at the heart of the universe, is the most basic divide between the two groups. If there is none, then we are compelled, surely, to follow the materialistic approach to healthcare: continue to develop ever more sophisticated treatments, test them statistically, and when remission occurs without a tested treatment, label it as chance. The phrase ‘reversion to the mean’, while it doesn’t explicitly state that everything in the universe is random chance, is often used in response to someone working with non-evidence-based methods getting better. It’s not so much that it denies the possibility of healing, but that it denies any power beyond the medicine to make that happen.
So, and here is the main point of this article, given how impenetrable this divsion seems, is it possible that a simple recognition is available that allows the two groups to be more sympathetic to each other ? Surprisingly, it seems there is.
All materialist science acknowledges the concept of entropy: put simply, the tendency of any thermodynamic system (which includes human bodies, as well as planets) to become more disordered, by random atomic movements, over time. Conversely, where a system demonstrably becomes more ordered, is is said to be in a condition of negative entropy.
Living systems such as human beings, and the civilisation of mankind on the planet, are, unarguably, examples of negative entropy in operation, for a period of time. While alive, an organism exerts an organisational force that resists the tendency towards greater entropy – i.e. decay. The same is true we can see when groups, human-organisations and societies co-operate to build lasting structures.
In quietly acknowledging negative entropy as a characteristic of life, without knowing or asking about its cause, materialists have granted the existence of a phenomenon that is for practical purposes the same as having an ordering principle or intention. Clearly in all maintenance of life, a sense of order being maintained and increased is discernable.
In living systems and societies, intriguingly, negative entropy operates at a sophisticated level, where ‘creative destruction’ occurs. Whether it be the immune system engulfing a cell in phagocytosis, a family renewing itself by breakup and having more offspring, an industry bringing forth new ways of allocating scarce resources, or a society moving through a violent political transition to establish a more harmonious period, we see order being created by a process that initially looks disordered.
Negative entropy then, is wherein materialists quietly and implicitly acknowledge the existence of the same ‘vital force’ that they often dismiss when it is spoken of in the language of natural healthcare. The natural healthcare traditions, while the language may often be vague, basically allow for explicit acknowledgement of a spiritual/ religious view of life, and give the source of negative entropy more more distinguished names.
Now to consider how this bears upon the question of limiting healthcare to interventions that are ‘evidence-based’ in relation to specific symptoms and mechanisms. That limitation can no longer be seen as logically consistent even for materialists. We know already that nature produces intermediate outcomes that look ‘bad’ but turn out to be creating higher levels of order that are not yet visible, and have no way of knowing if it is even appropriate to intervene. From the perspective of negative entropy, all physical interventions could be destroying embryonic higher levels of order. How would we ever know?
The point here is not to reverse the situation and seek to disallow medicine that makes our bodies more comfortable, but to recognise that evidence-based medicine is a pragmatic approach based on a flawed, or at least incomplete philosophy. It cannot be defended by any principle, only on grounds of compassion and practicality. All measures of health are ultimately subjective, and the experience of natural health practitioners (including those of the most dubious-looking rituals and methods), may or may not be more supportive of facilitating the process towards higher levels of order than any other.
The ‘God’ of negative entropy frees us up from the false dogma that increasingly guides what is ‘allowed’ in healthcare. We all know there is a need to refine and build best-practice, which is what the Western traditions of the last centuries have excelled at. The challenge is not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. We often observe a prcatice that has been used by ‘alternative’ practitioners finding its way into orthodox healthcare once its mechanisms have become understood. It is evident that those where mechanisms have not been uncovered will be challenging to the people who excel at analysing and measuring, while perhaps not so for people of faith.
The non-conventional practitioner may sometimes be there to obscure truth to support his ego or bank balance, but just as often he is simply suspending the need to make, inevitably uninformed, judgements about how life processes might or might not work, and being guided by the same intuition that we use daily in the course of a thousand decisions.
Debates about intuition will of course be endless. The kinds of wisdom and ‘seeing’ that have been respected in certain societies over the ages are given short-shrift by our scientifically obsessed society. The yogic tradition recognises many levels of intuition, the lower ones being more or less the same as unconsciously held beliefs, while the higher ones come from a totally trans-personal space that would be referred to as ‘divine’. The only test of such wisdom is in the moment of its unique application to an individual situation, and a later judgement of whether it contributed to ‘higher order’. We cannot devise statistical tests to help here.
For many patients looking for helpf from different sources, this in practice comes down to ‘you won’t really know unless you experiment’ or at the very least try practices that you feel drawn to, and that is what hundreds of millions of people continue to do, despite the protest of skeptical lobbies.
Where we can go from this recognition is a much broader question. By seeing it though, we can at least get to the end of the beginning, and sidestep the destructive antipathy around what healthcare is allowed to include.