Complexity, Chaos and the Paradigm Shift
With the NHS in severe crisis it may be a time to seek for a solution hidden in plain sight. Alternative or complementary medicine is something millions of patients seek of their own volition. In the UK where conventional healthcare is free at the point of delivery, there must be a reason why so many are willing to spend money on alternatives. There must be something in these unconventional approaches, surely?
There are many reasons why holistic medicine is not readily available in mainstream care. Cynics may say that there is not enough profit for the major players in health care, others more reasonably that alternatives are not ‘evidence-based’ or even ‘scientific’. Is this true or is it time for a profound change in thinking to embrace a more patient centred, less toxic way of treating illnesses? Modern medicine has been extremely successful in the treatment of acute conditions. This achievement has taken place at the same time as chronic illnesses such as childhood asthma, type 2 diabetes and conditions like Alzheimer’s have become much more common.
|“the difference between a machine and a human being
is that if you take a car apart and put
it back together it will still work…”
Modern medicine is the product of the current paradigm of materialist reductionist thinking that dominates scientific discourse. Perhaps this way of thinking has attained its limit and perhaps now is the time for the more inclusive philosophy behind the growth in holistic medicine to be tested.
The Father of the dominant materialist/reductionist philosophy or paradigm was Rene Descartes (1596-1650). He modelled the ‘clockwork universe’, in which non-spiritual reality was in essence material and deterministic. This concept in recent years has been further refined to exclude the spiritual aspect of humanity rendering all reality material. What follows from this logic is that in order to understand reality we have to break things down into their component parts. Our understanding is created from the bottom up and only objective understanding has any value.
Thomas Khun in his classic book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions’ coined the term ‘paradigm shift’ to denote a revolutionary change of the philosophical context in which a scientific discipline or even the whole of science is undertaken. Examples of such shifts include Greek mathematics and Newtonian Physics. I believe that we are on the cusp of such a shift from the Cartesian model as outlined above to a more practical and realistic holistic model. Not only is this more intellectually satisfying but such a change in attitude is required to extract ourselves from the present ecological mess we have created.
Since personally encountering the exciting discovery or rediscovery, as nothing on earth is really new, of holistic medicine in the 1970s I have grappled personally and professionally with trying to unite the science I learned in education with the more seemingly subjective and unreal/illusory/irrational/placebo nature of craniosacral technique and homeopathy. For example, although homeopathy is based on a systematic method of determining the development and prescription of remedies the mechanism of how the remedies worked defied my mechanistic scientific education.
What, if anything is the intellectual basis for Holism? In my early days grappling with this issue there were two definitions of Holistic medicine. One saw holistic medicine as treating everything. The other as seeing disease a disturbance of mind, body and spirit. The latter made more sense and as I learned my craft it became apparent that two individuals with the same medical diagnosis, such as sciatica would need to be treated differently as the origin, manifestation and reaction to the condition would be unique to each individual.
Once I began to look at the science in more detail it became apparent that there are answers to this conundrum. I was fortunate enough in my previous career to teach environmental science. In comparison medical science seemed rooted in the 19th century, seeing the individual as a kind of sophisticated machine. As the chemist and homeopath, Lionel Milgrom pointed out in a lecture I attended “the difference between a machine and a human being is that if you take a car apart and put it back together it will still work…”
The simplistic and dominant Cartesian model still pervades much of science, but is harder to justify in complex systems such as climate and economics let alone the human organism. These disciplines need more systems based thinking, something absent in much of medical science. Systems based approaches such as Chaos Theory and Complexity Theory mark a halfway house to true holistic philosophy.
Fig. 1 History of Complexity Science By Brian Castellani - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22826095
Chaos Theory is an idea in part developed by Lorentz working on weather prediction in 1961. It is an improvement on simple linear determinism in which complex systems can have their unpredictability explained in terms of slight variations in initial starting conditions leading to greatly differing results. It is still very much a deterministic model in that knowledge of the exact starting conditions would lead to an accurate prediction of future states.
Complexity Theory arises from systems theory and is applicable across a number of disciplines such as organisation theory. It is a step forward from Chaos theory in that it deals with non-linearity and models uncertainty as being inherent within complex systems. Complex systems can be self-organizing. One of the key features of this approach is ‘emergence’ in which new properties and behaviours appear as the systems evolve. These properties are inherent and are related to the order of complexity of the system. What is interesting here is that self-organising systems appear purposeful, something which is heretical to materialist science.
Both chaos theory and complexity theory potentially add value to our descriptions of the human organism and adding a more realistic vision of the organism than the one described mostly in molecular biological terms. However they lack the ability to begin to address the most fundamental questions pertaining to illness and health such as life itself and consciousness. That is where it may be valuable to look at physics, especially quantum physics. This branch of science is far from being fully understood and though it is true that many of it’s concepts are misrepresented in popular culture there are some thought leaders who have come forward with ideas with which, as holistic therapists we can work.
The late David Bohm a leading physicist of his generation wrote a book entitled Wholeness and the Implicate Order in which he envisaged a universe which is in essence a unity but that can be seen as having an explicate order that which we can perceive and measure and an implicate order which gives rise to the explicate. He used the ocean as an analogy. The body of water being the implicate, and waves being the explicate. If one observes a wave moving over the surface of the water it gives the impression of being a solid and stable structure. In reality it is in a state of constant creation and destruction as water is drawn up from the ocean and sinks back in. The waves appear to be independent and separate but are in reality abstracted from, and are part of the ocean
It also explains quantum entanglement, an aspect of quantum theory that postulates that a pair of electrons for example with opposite spins can if separated any distance behave as if they were connected. So if the spin of the one electron is reversed the other one will do the same. Bohm postulates that the two entangled electrons are in fact part of the same structure, joined through the implicate order. Quantum processes such as these may contribute to explanations of consciousness and apparent psi behaviour.
Which of these models is true? Science is a work in progress and at any given point in history all our theories and understandings are provisional. Occam’s razor suggests that if we are faced with a number of possible explanations for a phenomenon we should opt for the simplest. This is a rule of thumb, not a law of nature as some dogmatists in the scientific world should have you believe.
For me, working in a speciality that combines scientific knowledge with the art of healing, the intellectual framework that attracts me most is not necessarily the simplest, but the most useful. The separation inherent in reductionist materialism renders the world and our lives random and purposeless. It allows us the freedom to pillage our environment and commit acts of violence against our fellow man and fellow beings as well as the planet we inhabit.
Fig. 2 The practitioner using knowledge of anatomy and physiology can make sense of palpatory findings and trace tension patterns. For example in this case from the frontal sinus through the reciprocal tension membranes of the cranium, all the way to the sacrum via the dura mater.
Holism sees us all as different facets of the same reality and impels us to value everything as we do ourselves. In my work the science of anatomy and physiology is very useful. One has to bear in mind that the bulk of knowledge derived in these fields is studying dead or chopped up bodies, which do not necessarily bear close relationships with living people. When I palpate a bone of one of my patients, it is not remotely like the dried stiff bone from the skeleton of a dead person but a fluid, bendable entity.
In addition, working with patients over the years enables the practitioner to engage with some very helpful intuitive insights. Intuition is a product of our ability to empathise and communicate with our patients at a fundamental level. This may be related to psi abilities. There is ample evidence that these exist. Thanks to aggressive scepticism in this area the quality, reproducibility and statistical significance of Psi science is superior to many more mainstream and unchallenged areas of science.
How do we integrate these intuitions into treatment so that they can be useful in treatment whilst at the same time not allowing the treatments to become wishful flights of ego-fantasy?
Firstly, one has to be very clear about the patient-practitioner contract. The patient comes with an issue and the practitioner agrees to use his/her skills to address this. The process of treatment involves a constant review of this process implicitly and if necessarily explicitly through dialogue. Secondly any potentially useful intuitive insights the practitioner has needs to be explored carefully so that the practitioner does not project his/her ideas onto the patient. This can be achieved by asking open questions that gives the patient the opportunity to recognise the phenomenon that the practitioner may have intuited. The therapist should at all times be aware that any of these issues are in the control of the patient to explore or not as they wish.
Furthermore intuitive abilities vary from practitioner to practitioner as a consequence of innate qualities and experience. When I train therapists I encourage them to explore and develop their personal insights within therapeutic boundaries so that they can take the practice into new area. This allows the therapy to be a dynamic and evolving discipline.
The current materialist paradigm is as dogmatic and rigid as any religion can be. While molecular biology can offer many insights into health it is a mistake to see humans and other organisms as mere molecular machines. The parable of the blind men and the elephant is illustrative, each describing something quite different from the feel of the animal, whether it is the trunk, the leg, the ears or the tail. It is only when to combine these experiences do you have a true understanding of what an elephant is. Context is everything. True understanding can only be obtained from a holistic perspective.
- Milgrom L. Lecture at Homotoxicology Symposium, Barts and Queen Mary School of Medicine and Dentistry, London. 2007.
- Gleick J. Chaos Making a New Science/ London, Penguin Random House. 2008.
- Capra F and Luisi P. The Systems View of Life. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. 2014.
- Bohm D. Wholeness and the Implicate Order. London. Routledge. 1983.
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