Monday, 30 March 2015

Plato, Democritus and Alternative Medicine

Could the history of philosophy, and in particular the unresolved debate between Plato and Democritus, explain the present debate between alternative and conventional approaches to nature and health?

'Alternative Medicine' is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as "any of a range of medical therapies not regarded as orthodox by the medical profession", citing chiropractic, faith healing, herbalism, homeopathy and reflexology as examples. 1 Yet a study in the New England Journal of Medicine found that over one third of people preferred alternative medicine to conventional methods, citing the medical establishment's emphasis on diagnostic testing and drug treatments that did not consider the patient's well-being and health as a whole.2 Edzard Ernst, a Professor of Complementary Medicine at the University of Exeter in the U.K puts usage even higher, saying that "about half the general population in developed countries use complementary and alternative medicine".3 And in some countries, notably China and India, what are considered 'alternative' treatments are central to government health strategies. 4 In fact, there are social and cultural dimensions to health policy as well as scientific and historical ones. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the response and acceptance of so-called 'alternative' health treatments.

Health as bodily harmony

The underlying assumptions of alternative medicine are that health is a state of bodily harmony or balance, and disease is a disharmony or imbalance 5 . This idea, central to traditional Chinese and Indian herbal treatments, is also present in the Western medical tradition, often taken as starting with Hippocrates. Hippocrates believed that the elements of good health were essentially environmental, such as a calm mental state, a balanced diet and physical exercise. Even that 'commonsense' health mantra of ‘fresh water, sunshine and exercise’ is by no means universal, it has its own social and cultural roots. 

Vitalis, the doctrine that the functions of a living organism cannot be fully explained by the laws of physics and chemistry alone, has a long history in medical philosophies. Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is sometimes referred to as the 'vital spark', 'energy' or élan vital, which some equate with the 'soul'. 

Most traditional healing practices propose that disease reflects some imbalance in those vital energies that distinguish living from non-living matter. In the Western tradition, these vital forces were identified as the four humours; Eastern traditions posit forces, such as qi, particularly important in conceptualising acupuncture and prana in Yoga. 

Philosophically speaking, the split between 'modern Western approaches and 'traditional, Eastern ones seems to have come about in the seventeenth century, around the time that René Descartes (1596-1650) split the world into two parts - the mental world of minds and the physical world of bodies - the theory known as 'dualism' and the English philosopher, Thomas Hobbes, described people as 'but an Artificial Animal, the heart but a spring, and the nerves but so many strings, and the joints but so many wheels'. (It is no coincidence that Descartes' Meditations starts with an account of the French philosopher's dissection of a monkey...) 

However, conventional medicine is seen to have split away from the 'bodily harmony' approach in the nineteenth century, particularly following the discovery of disease-carrying microbes - germs, viruses, bacteria and so on. Prior to this, medical practitioners in Europe shared what is sometimes called the 'humoural' model of the human body, but no one school had a monopoly of authority in health matters.

The Theory of the Four Humours

The humoural theory, developed by the Roman doctor [[Galen]], held that the four elements in nature - fire, air, water and earth - corresponded to four fluids in the body: blood, yellow bile, black bile and phlegm. Herbs were believed to positively affect the humours through four key properties: being hot, dry, cold or moist. Health was a matter of balancing the humours or ‘bodily juices’. 

Nonetheless, Europeans at this time were particularly open to new treatments that arrived from abroad as a result of trade in far-off and mysterious lands. 6 These were seen not merely as a response to a more fundamental bodily imbalance, but as the essential 'cause' of the imbalance. Hence they could be treated in isolation, usually through drugs. 

Where conventional medical treatment is seen as effective in dealing with certain 'emergencies', such as physical injuries, other long-term illnesses and bodily dysfunction's seem to many people to remain poorly understood and conventional treatments ineffective and even harmful. Another objection to conventional medicine is its emphasis on 'treatment' rather than 'prevention'. Almost all health spending in Western countries is on the former - some 85% in the case of the United States - as opposed to the latter. 7


The importance of lifestyle

A report by the US Centers for Disease Control stated that 54%of heart disease, 37% of cancer and half of cerebrovascular and atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries) was preventable through changes in lifestyle. 8
As Roberta Bivins puts it, in Alternative Medicine - A History, "medical practices are typically culturally specific - that is, they are internally coherent with and respond to practically the cultures in which they initially developed". Bivens puts it thus: "The incorporation of dissection in to medical training and knowledge production was clearly integrated with Enlightenment ideas of rationalism and empiricism." And today, recent advocates of 'enlightenment thinking' invariably cite examples of treatment by Alternative Health practitioners as dire evidence of the spread of 'irrationality". Yet how rational is say, modern medicine, and how irrational are alternative remedies? If, according to World Health Organisation figures, in the 30 years from 1967 to 1998, just under 6000 ‘adverse events’ world-wide can be traced back to the prescription of herbal and other alternative medicines, this figure can only be contrasted with those from a University of Toronto study in 1998 which found that there were at least 106 000 fatalities each year, in the US alone, from side-effects of officially sanctioned and proved drugs.9
    The Right to Culturally Appropriate Healthcare
      The World Health Organization determines four criteria for the adequate delivery of health care and the realization of the highest attainable standard of health: Availability, Accessibility, Acceptability, and Quality (AAAQ)
      Acceptability : All health facilities, goods and services must be respectful of medical ethics and culturally appropriate, as well as sensitive to gender and life-cycle requirements. 1
However, anatomical dissection is opposed to the social values of Confucian China and Buddhist India, contributing to the continued acceptance of 'alternative medicine' in these cultures and conversely the added resistance to it in the West. 11 Equally, approaches such as acupuncture and moxabustion were in harmony with the philosophical beliefs of the East, but opposed to those of the West. Central to both techniques is "an immense pharmacopoeia, a detailed disease classification system and a set of body-maps" which define relationships between the body's organs and systems, as mediated by a circulatory system "that moves both tangible and intangible substances" around the body. In particular, the strange (to Western eyes) concept of qi.
    At certain points on the body's surface, the various vessels or channels through which these fluids move, and which connect different functional and sensory organs, can be stimulated, thereby altering the flows of qi within them and between the organs. In moxabustion, this is done through the medium of small cones of fibre (extracted from the leaves of Artemisia vulgaris or mugwort) that are burnt on top of the points. In acupuncture, needles, inserted to different depths and sometimes manipulated, are the means of intervention 12
The mystical lore of plants crosses virtually every cultural boundary. For example, according to Kathleen Karlsen, MA , an advocate of herbal medicine, a 60,000 year old burial site excavated in Iraq included eight different medicinal plants. 13

"This evidence of the spiritual significance of plants is echoed around the globe”, she adds. In Europe, works such as Pliny’s ‘’Natural History’’, which describes the supposed properties of plants gathered from numerous cultural traditions including the herbal practices of the Celtic Druids, and Dioscorides’ ‘’De Materia Medica’’ , which is a work regarded by some as the cornerstone of modern botany and by herbalists today as a key pharmaceutical guide. But the Romans were not the first.
    In ancient times, healing formulas existed for almost every known disease. Specific conditions were treated with a variety of methods such as tinctures, teas and compresses or by inhaling the rejuvenating fragrances of essential oils. 14
Indeed, as Kathleen Karlsen also notes, “Shamanistic medicine, alive and well in traditional societies today, often incorporates the use of hallucinogenic plants which enable the herbal practitioner to reach unseen realms to obtain higher knowledge and guidance. “ 

The esoteric wisdom of ancient healers and of plant lore has been central to medicine since ancient times, not only spawning approaches such as herbalism, traditional Chinese medicine, biofeedback, and homeopathy, but also influencing mainstream approaches to illness. These approaches draw upon general theories, such as the 'theory of similars' or the related 'theory of signatures'. 

For instance, the onion was favoured by the Egyptians not only as a food, and used as a medicine, but also respected for reflecting their view of the universe's multi-layered structure. Egyptians identified medicinal properties in plants such as myrrh, aloe, peppermint, garlic and castor oil. Healing plants are also featured extensively in ancient Arabian lore, in the Bible, and in the druidic tradition of the ancient Celts. Herbal tradtions were central to life in the Mayan, Aztec and Inca civilizations, and north American Indian herbal rituals. 

The medical use of plants by the ancient Greeks reflected their idea that each of the twelve primary gods had characteristic plants. Such approaches are clearly methodologically incompatible with conventional medicine, to say the least. The US Food and Drug Administration strictly patrols claims made for herbal medicine, to prevent medical claims being made to promote them. On the other hand, herbs lacking such elevated 'connections', such as parsley, thyme, fennel and celery were allowed correspondingly more everyday roles in health, and are to many today more easily accepted as having 'health-giving' properties.


 Different languages for discussing health

(That's 'tea' on the left...)

One way to approach the debate (and lack of debate) between alternative and conventional approaches to health and biology is by comparing their two languages and trying to find proper translations, as Thomas Kuhn suggested, and acknowledge when there is incommensurability:
    Incommensurability thus becomes a sort of untranslatability', localized to one or another area in which two lexical taxonomies differ ... Members of one community can acquire the taxonomy employed by members of another, as the historian does in learning to understand old texts. But the process which permits understanding produces bilinguals, not translators ... The bilingual must always remember within which community discourse is occurring. 15
Alternative medicine operates under a holist paradigm. It tries to identify shapes, as in the doctrine of signatures, and make them "resonate", as in homeopathy, which lies on the law of similars. It should be reminded that Plato, when he conceived the notion of Ideas, was also referring to the notion of shape (eidolon, from which "idea" comes, also means shape or structure).

Shape and symbol

Does science have, in its own terms, a way to account for shapes in nature?
Conventional medicine, of course, is concerned with shapes, as exemplified by our modern icons : the double helix (DNA), the key-lock model of chemical messenger-receptor action, and the more elaborate 3D protein simulations that fascinate most of us. However, although molecular biochemistry is entirely based on the shape of proteins, molecules and electron clouds around nuclei, it would be erroneous to assume that molecular biochemistry covers all shapes and forms found in the living universe. It is not its purpose, because it operates with the worldview of logical reductionism.

Under this paradigm, it is believed (but not provable) that, by reducing life to its most fundamental components, by analyzing all its details, it will be possible to account for the observed universe.
The alternative view (which was the conventional view before the Enlightenment), on the contrary, adopts a phenomenological perspective. Observing that one plant, because of its shape, evokes an image, an idea, or an impression, the alternative-minded practitioner will immediately use it as a tool to discover occurrences of this Idea in the sick or healthy body or mind. 

'Magical thinking' will link the appearance of the St-John's Wort flower with hope or happiness because of its unexpected yellow colour, or the concentric organization of the onion with the orderly organization of the cosmos. Nonsense? 

This analogical thinking is prevalent in dreams and normal thought processes, but it is not accceptable in scientific discourse, where it is condemned as dangerous and fallacious. Yet could it be that the active molecules of the St-John's Wort and the onion do deliver a message, through the algebra of organic molecules? 

  • 1Oxford English Dictionary, ninth edition 1996
  • 2Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Burton Goldberg (Celestial Arts, 2002) page 3
  • 3 in a paper in the Medical Journal of Australia - Ernst E. "Obstacles to research in complementary and alternative medicine." Medical Journal of Australia, 2003; 179 (6): 279-80 available at [WWW]
  • 4 "In 1948, the Committee by Planning Commission in 1951 and the Homoeopathic Pharmacopoeia Committee in 1962 testify to this. At the instance of the recommendation of these Committees, the Government of India have accepted Homoeopathy as one of the national System of Medicine and started releasing funds for its development" from [WWW] accessed December 16 2008
  • 5Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Burton Goldberg, Celestial Arts, 2002, page 6
  • 6 Alternative Medicine?: A History by Roberta Bivins, Oxford University Press 2007, p46
  • 7 Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Burton Goldberg, Celestial Arts, 2002, page 4
  • 8 Alternative Medicine: The Definitive Guide, Burton Goldberg (Celestial Arts, 2002) page 4
  • 9As catalogued, wittily in The Threat to Reason: How the Enlightenment Was Hijacked and How We Can Reclaim It by Dan Hind, Verso, 2007.
  • 10 [ Joint fact sheet WHO/OHCHR/323], August 2007
  • 11 Alternative Medicine?: A History by Roberta Bivins p44
  • 12Alternative Medicine?: A History, by Roberta Bivins p45
  • 13 Shamanism and the Ancient Mind: A Cognitive Approach to Archaeology, James L. Pearson, Rowman Altamira, 2002 p. 114 ISBN 0759101566, 9780759101562 [WWW]Google books
  • 14 [WWW] accessed December 16th 2008
  • 15 Kuhn, Thomas S. (1990) [WWW]Anno%20Kuhn%20The%20Road%20after%20Structure%201990.htm 'The Road since Structure'. Proceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Philosophy of Science Association, Volume Two: Symposia and Invited Papers


  1. I would add Africa, and other regions. Also, alternative treatment goes beyond bodily harmony and medication.

    I have witnessed ancient alternative treatments first hand. A recent experience was seeing dassiekruie (a woundwort) administered to a Black child, after paracetamol did no good. The result was stunning. A fever and heavy cough left the child almost immediately until repeated a day later. I myself was treated in the Pacific as a child, by a traditional healer, when a gravestone fell on my foot and did serious damage. The healer saved the day by "stroking" the bones back into place, until doctors arrived weeks later.

    Little understood, African alternative medicines are finally being seriously researched (Google SATMERG), so as to distinguish the real from the imaginary.

    1. Yes, thanks for emphasising how impressive those medicines and acts are!

  2. Fascinating!

    I have tried a bit of homeopathy and acuapuncture... the didn't work for me! On the other hand, they didn't make me ill, and the personal interaction was I believe valuable. That's also what is said for most visits to conventional doctors - I mean the patients benefit from 'talking to someone'. Sadly, they may be sent away with 'powerful' chemicals or antibiotics which they don't need, to swallow.

    1. I have am anecdote about acupuncture (because as we all know there's nothing but anecdotes, right?).

      As many teenagers (especially girls?) do, I once tried incense in my room. A way of claiming my space... Except that the fumes claimed my lungs. I was sick, very sick. Totally congested.

      So I went to the acupunturist. He's a britton like me who's been trained in Asia in the 60s. I had my treatment (fell asleep, on my back, which is impossible unless I'm heavily sedated or in an acupuncture treatment). Except for being very relaxed after the treatment, as usual, I noted nothing, except perhaps that my nose was running a little bit. The acupuncturist told me: don't take just a few kleenexes (tissues), take the whole box! This man never exagerates.

      I took the bus home. 45 minutes during which I emptied my lungs and sinuses, that was spectacular and slightly embarassing, in public transit!

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  4. Thank you Deborah, I think it is true in general that Pi has 'extraordinary substance'. Just yesterday we (provisionally) scheduled fifteen posts. Our latest authors include a philosopher, an engineer, a student at Cambridge, a psychologist, an artist, a CEO, a writer, a naval officer, a police officer, and ... me. We find that such diversity makes for great originality. We focus on philosophy, not philosophers -- although we don't mind the philosophers.

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    1. Thanks for the positive feedback! I expect you've got many tales you could tell too...