In the 1990 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Erik Strommen wrote: “Alternative health philosophies, taken as a group, seem a veritable Tower of Babel. They represent a confusing democracy of beliefs, jargon and ritual that together comprise an indistinct, overlapping collection of ideas.” Terms such as “alternative,” “complementary,” “extentional,” “fringe,” “holistic,” “innovative,” “mind/body,” “nontraditional,” “unconventional” and “unorthodox” merely convey that alternative healthcare is somehow different from regular healthcare.

What characteristics distinguish the so-called alternatives to conventional medicine? This paper describes the two theories that constitute the faulty bedrock of alternative healthcare and its many magico-religious ideas and precepts. I will also convey why mystical methods retain their appeal despite the proliferation of science.

Empiricism and Skepticism Gone Amok

Alternative healthcare ultimately stands, shiftily, on two philosophic pillars: unscientific empiricism and universal skepticism. Moderate empiricism (based on meticulous observation) and qualified skepticism (whereby methodical doubt leads to constructive criticism) are elements of the scientific method. However, both extreme empiricism and total skepticism are akin to mysticism — the stuff of Hinduism and Ayurveda. Unscientific empiricism esteems knowledge derived from experience — trial and error — but devalues knowledge gained by analysis and the systematic organization of information. Medical empirics use experience as a substitute for scientific knowledge in selecting or improvising therapies. They cite scientific studies only when they appear to support what they already “know” from personal observation. They reject scientific testing of their opinions and maintain that their own clinical observations are more valuable than stringently controlled, peer-reviewed experiments. Some diehard empirics even assert that dreaming or hallucinating about milking a cow is the same as doing it — even if one has never spent a waking moment near so much as a cow’s carcass! Such notions have receptive audiences in the world of mystical healing.

Viennese pharmacist and Ayurveda proponent Birgit Heyn exalts empiricism in “Ayurveda: The Indian Art of Natural Medicine and Life Extension” (1990):

This demand for proof, understandable and desirable though it may be, does become a problem if it is made the sole criterion; for the implied doubt as to the value of direct perception through the senses and the refusal to use intuition, our “sixth” sense, is abandonment of a vital feature of Ayurveda. Science and technology should be our tools, not replacements for personal knowing and feeling.

Heyn seems to regard science as useful only to the extent that it confirms what individuals surmise, intuit or want to believe.

In “The Magical Staff: The Vitalist Tradition in Western Medicine” (1992), homeopathy proponent Matthew Wood goes further:

Since human beings are deeply affected by subjective, spiritual, and even supernatural events, it is impossible to create an adequate system of healing for them which does not include this side of their being. ? If medicine is to address the patient in a realistic manner it is going to have to make peace with the hidden side of humanity. How is this to be done? How can people used to mistrusting their own instincts learn to discern and judge from a subjective standpoint? …

The way to learn to perceive in this fashion is to learn to trust “what feels right.” No one can learn to use this kind of knowledge by copying other people. Each person works out what is right for him or her self. This procedure will always give results which are similar to … a bunch of themes that seem to disagree in important ways, but which, on deeper reflection, are found to support each other. The subjective world is like that. …

If medicine is to address the patient in a way which is realistic, it must encompass our true nature. It must include the spirit, the life force, and the wisdom of nature in its view. Rather than beginning with the body and excluding all other phenomena as subjective and unreliable, medicine must begin at the central point, the magical staff.

A case in which a patient’s supernatural beliefs were paramount is illustrated in “Space, Time, and Medicine” (1985), in which Larry Dossey, M.D., recounts how an elderly man appeared to be dying without any evident disease. The patient claimed he was the victim of a shaman’s evil spell. Dossey and a fellow intern named Jim developed and covertly enacted a “de-hexing” ceremony in an examination room around midnight on a weekend. Dossey described it:

I was witnessing an archetypal struggle — one shaman battling another. ?

Jim produced from his pocket a pair of stainless steel surgical scissors he had “borrowed” for the occasion. In the faint blue light they gleamed as he moved toward the old man, who sat transfixed in his wheelchair, following every one of Jim’s slow, deliberate moves. He walked to the wheelchair, raised the scissors, and grasping a lock of gray hair with his other hand began slowly to cut.

The old man seemed by then to have stopped breathing. With the lock of hair in his left hand Jim slowly retreated to the desktop, appearing massive as he stood over the dancing flame. Then he looked squarely at his rigid, wasted patient and said slowly in a calm, deep voice, “As the fire burns your hair, the hex in your body is destroyed.” He lowered his hand, allowing the hair to fall into the flame. Then he added the whimsical caution, “But if you reveal this ceremony to anyone, the hex will return immediately, stronger than before!” (I was grateful that Jim was a shaman who was aware of potential professional humiliation!)

Although this case is presented as a “cure,” questions remain. Did Dossey and his colleague consider the emotions that caused the man’s problem or that his belief system was pathological? Did they consider the possible consequences of reinforcing magical beliefs? Wouldn’t such treatment leave the patient vulnerable to further “hexes” or – worse — encourage him to seek shamanic care for a serious illness that only scientific medicine can remedy?

Universal skepticism is more insidious and elusive than empiricism. Unlike healthy skepticism, it holds that humans cannot know anything — that truth and falsity are indistinguishable. This is absurd because it entails that humans cannot know whether the standpoint itself is true. In its other main form, universal skepticism holds that humans can never be certain about anything. This standpoint is likewise absurd because it casts doubt on itself.

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