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Science and the Problem with Chi

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Chi Gong: The Ancient Chinese Way to Health by Paul Dong and Aristide Esser

Chi theory is an ontology, in which it is pointless to declare one’s belief or disbelief prior to understanding. In this excerpt from Chi Gong: The Ancient Chinese Way to Health, author Bruce Holbrook addresses the root of the controversy, which is neither logic or science, but cultural impedance.

The concept of chi is confusing to Western readers, not because it is a difficult one, but because our own culture stands in the way.

Occidental civilization is based on certain religious and philosophical premises which invite false translation of chi and related concepts. For example, our philosophy forces a choice between two fundamental levels of reality, which in the Chinese worldview are but a single one. That historically recent epistemological expression of our civilization, science, forcefully fights against comprehension of a single reality. Through out this section, therefore, “science” and related terms such as “physical,” are used within quotation marks when they refer to Western concepts. This may promote correction of the false, but very widespread, ethnocentric assumption that Western science is the only form of science.

Our “science” is firmly based on inanimate models and data-recording devices, whereas chi (in the central sense of this book) is intimately related to distinctively animate phenomena and cultivated human sensing. An additional problem is that Western science–especially “medical science”–has become dogmatic, so that it rejects any logical conclusion which lies outside its paradigm. The prevailing attitude is: If we can’t deal with it on our terms, it does not exist, because only our terms are valid. Cultural anthropologists call such systematic ignorance “ethnocentrism”–being confined, unaware of the confinement, by one’s own culture.

Western scientists can describe in unparalleled detail a decline in metabolic energy and regenerative capacity, but as soon as they state or suggest that these are the causes of natural dying, they are refusing to answer the question at hand: How does a human die of natural causes?

Given such widespread ethnocentrism, it is only natural therefore that Western thinking beyond the scope of “science” has surrounded chi with a mystical aura, while “scientific thinking” has reduced and deformed the concept into something manageable on its own terms. Such terms are untrue to the original concept and reality of chi. Beyond that there is a natural difficulty with distinctions among different kinds of chi. This can give rise to the impression that Chinese thinkers indulged in unnecessary conceptual multiplication to compensate for their own weaknesses in natural scientific understanding. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Because Western thinkers do think in “scientific terms,” much of the following clarification and simplification of the chi concept uses them. But the reader should understand that this is to approach chi from the odd angle obliged by our conceptual repertoire, and that this is not by any means an attempt to “scientifically” prove or explain the existence of chi. The scope of “science” is too narrow to provide adequately for such a concept.

I think the best way to begin is with a distinction between two basic kinds of chi in living organisms, original and formative, as variables which ‘fill holes’ left by Western science. In this way cultural-conceptual confusion is precluded. It is primarily a matter of common sense.

I begin with a personal experience of a kind the reader may find easy to replicate or remember. As an adolescent frequently in front of a mirror, I noticed that when I was in a good mood my hair would stay combed, but when I was depressed it would fall out of place. (As I learned later, li, in the medical expression li chi–to organize the chi–is the same as in li in li tou-fa–to comb the hair.) Plainly, this phenomenon involved an electromagnetic (EM) field, but, I reasoned, there must be some mood-related phenomenon, other than or more than mood, which was responsible for the EM energy and fluctuations in the energy level of the field. I could envision my body as an EM coil, my hair as iron filings forming a pattern partly determined by the EM field around the coil–but what was the battery or generator of electricity? The answer to that lies in a recognition of Western science’s illogical treatment of the matter of life and death.

Forms and categories of chi energy

Western science recognizes, via its metering devices, that the living organism possesses an EM field. And both meters and Kirlian photography show that the field extends beyond the “physical” (visible, palpable) boundary of the body. But “science” proposes that this field is biologically secondary, an effect produced by the biochemical substances of the body. This seems logical enough until we ask: What is the difference between a living human (or animal or plant) and a corpse, and why? What causes fetuses to be formed? What causes living tissue to regenerate? To these questions science has no answers that are not circular or evasive in logic.

The differences between a living human being and a corpse are that the former has an EM field and movement (together called “bioenergy”) and neutral chemical acidity, whereas the latter lacks an EM field, does not move, and is highly acidic. Three possible implied explanations for the changes between the living and the dead can be stated in the form of propositions: (1) absence of bioenergy is an effect of altered biochemistry (the Western scientific proposition; (2) altered biochemistry and exhaustion of bioenergy are effects of a third factor; (3) altered biochemistry is an effect of exhaustion of bioenergy (the Chinese scientific proposition).

(1) The Western Scientific Proposition This first explanation is the one used by modern science, and as we’ll see it is an illogical and a let’s-pull-ourselves-up-by-the-bootstraps type of thinking. Altered biochemistry requires an alterer. Chemical substances cannot in themselves account for the alteration. That is, given the formulas for these substances and the fact of their replenishment from blood, no change is predictable. As far as biochemical description can go–the biochemical composition of cells and fluids–the structure of the body of a healthy young person is the same as that of one who is about to die of old age.

Let’s further examine the western scientific proposition in order to approach the reality and nature of chi. From the perspective of a biochemist, it might be proposed that the independent variable is simply entropy–the “negative force” which diffuses concentrations of energy…..[continued]

Categories: Health and Fitness · Philosophy · Spirituality

18 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Jay Gischer // Sep 14, 2010

    My observation leads me to believe that many Westerners don’t understand science any better than Westerners understand chi.

    The phase “Western science has become dogmatic” is a dead giveaway. People are dogmatic, and indeed many Western people, some of whom are scientists, are dogmatic about a great many things. Science isn’t a person, it’s a process. It lets us learn about certain things, things that are repeatable and measurable. That’s it.

  • 2 chris // Sep 14, 2010

    Jay, discussing science is a bit like trying to discuss communism or capitalism, or pure mathematics, or anything else that does not actually occur in the real world.

    One needs to respect the difference between theory and implementation, even if that distinction is not clearly and repeatedly made throughout the conversation–it would quickly become tiresome otherwise.

    I don’t think that Bruce Holbrook was confused about what he meant, by observing that “Western science has become dogmatic,” and we should not be either. It was an unfortunate imprecision and not central to his point.

  • 3 josh young // Sep 18, 2010

    There is no such thing as Science per say, there is no actual community or consensus. Science is method, not an institution, an organization or a club.

    The illusion of cause and effect can never illustrate that there is no distinction between cause and effect.

    What is qi? cause or effect?
    The method of science fails because it is too primitive to understand such subtle things.

  • 4 Kenneth // Sep 19, 2010

    Scientific skepticism had become so close minded to their labs and statistics it turns to a cynical perception of things of wonder. Even though things of wonder like this are the ones who gave birth to science.

  • 5 al // Sep 26, 2010

    this is utter rubbish. pseudoscience. I’m a medical student at Oxford University and I can safely say 95% of this is lies. Pure fiction. I pity anyone foolish enough to believe it. The end

  • 6 chris // Sep 26, 2010

    If the student fancies himself the teacher, then let him teach us. What precisely does it mean to die of “natural causes”?

    Do they lecture you on ontology at Oxford, or are you an expert only as a fish knows the water? That simply will not do. Even a fish can be out of its depth, you know.

  • 7 Eric // Oct 9, 2010

    Perhaps you can explain what you mean by “Western science”? Chemistry, physics, biology work the same the world over, even in China and the like.

    We skeptics dismiss “chi” and all supernatural magic as bunk not because we are close-minded, but because there is no evidence to back up your extraordinary claims. Being open minded does not mean letting one’s brains fall out.

    Present some demonstrable, repeatable evidence of this magical life force and science will take a look at it; otherwise it’s just new age trash. (The burden of proof lies on the person making the grand claims)

    Otherwise you might as well go stand over there with ICP and their “miraculous” magnets and rainbows. Effing miracles, indeed…

  • 8 chris // Oct 9, 2010

    http://www.martialdevelopment.com/blog/scientific-qigong-exploration/

  • 9 Eric // Oct 9, 2010

    We can flog each other back & forth and never convince the other person, so I’ll just say this:

    The link you sent was so riddled with confirmation bias and other logical fallacies as to render it moot. When your plane lands in Beijing, physics (for example) does not suddenly take a break allowing you levitate, bend spoons with your mind or walk across hot coals without getting burned (which can be explained by science, by the way).

    Simply put, we now know how magnets and rainbows work when we previously didn’t. They aren’t miracles and neither is chi. If it exists, it can be explained.

  • 10 chris // Oct 10, 2010

    In ancient China, highly educated men were allowed, by custom, to wear a special hat indicating their distinguished status. It was a little bit like the mortarboard that new graduates still wear today.

    Once upon a time, according to an old Taoist story, a provincial governor started to observe a troubling trend of hat inflation. Ordinary persons were pretending to be literati, assuming a title they had never earned, and filling other people’s heads with nonsense.

    The governor was exasperated, and made a severe declaration. Anyone caught wearing the literati hat was subject to immediate examination by himself, and the penalty for failure was death. As a result, everyone stopped wearing the hat on the streets…except for one old man.

    The governor called him in for questioning, expecting with some justification to find another fraud. But the man was full of wisdom, on every conceivable topic, and in the end, the governor was forced to pay his respects.

    You are not that man, Eric.

    You dismiss chi theory while claiming it has no evidence to support it. In response, I kindly point you to some evidence–not all of it, just a small portion of it. Not only have you declined to repeat the experiments–initially performed by persons whose relevant study and experience certainly exceed your own–but you refuse to even hear about them. I am fairly confident you haven’t obtained a copy of that rare, out-of-print book I cited, and read it within the past 24 hours.

    So don’t come around here pretending to be a logician or a scientist. You aren’t really grappling with either the theory or the data, just some convenient projections from your own imagination.

    Herewith, as the dictatorial governor of this forum, I declare a new rule, applying to this single page only. Any man or woman asserting to represent the voice of reason shall have their comments scrutinized for said reason. If their utterances shall be found wanting, in the sole judgment of the governor, they shall be prefaced with an appropriate confession, e.g. “I am not qualified to say this, but…” On pain of moderation.

  • 11 Ketin // Nov 28, 2010

    Dear Chris, humbly I’d advise you not to apply dictatorial forms of control in you forum, because all way of control will end limitating the comments and participation, and forum will suffer from this situation. Some people will never believe (in chi or in other subjects), just because they do not want to, they are not prepared to, other will ask you evidences that they can touch with own hands, not reading in a book. I’ve had the luck (and sometimes misfortune) of witnessing things unbelievable for most people. If I’d relate those things here, I’m 99% certain you won’t believe me. I’ve come to accept reality as something defined by consenso, that there is a “canonical” reality accepted by all people and besides there are “extended” or “expanded” realities that are plastic, moldeable to fit the minds of the people and that hardly can be shared with others, by fear of being named insane. In the ancient times, every culture had his folklore that incorpored those realities more freely that the present in which we live; the chi practises come from one of the ancient legacies that the current academic man refer as “myths”, “nonsense” and worse. Sometimes seeing is not believing, when you just decided not to believe a-priori, when you have decided that some things simply do not match in your ideas system. Those this, if accepted, would made crumble all the building of their reality and that is a pain some cannot endure. I´d continue visiting your blog, for I find it interesting. Please soften your position, I beg you. Don’t be intransigent with the intransigent, is like stone meeting stone: no one will benefit. Like the old quote: the soft weakens the strong. To spread ideas you have to hear also the other’s ideas. And finally: excuse my awfull english, I am not a native english speaker. Peace and prosperity for you.

  • 12 Jonathan // Jan 18, 2011

    Bruce Holbrook wrote a book specifically addressing the difference between the western scientific paradigm and the tradition chinese (ie. pre-communist) scientific paradigm. “The Stone Monkey : An Alternative, Chinese-Scientific, Reality” should be mandatory reading.

    The book will address all of your questions about what Bruce means by “western science” and it address Al (the medical student) who thinks it’s only 5% true :)

  • 13 John Jr // Jun 29, 2011

    There is something missing here that at first surprised me but upon further thought it does not. It does not surprise me because I once took the same approach to describing qi. The best explanations I have heard about what qi (pardon the new pinyin method of spelling) is and how it works come from literary experts. These people (as in the one’s I have personally encountered and currently have in mind), like us have not translated qi into an English word, insinuating there is no equivalent, but they have also not attempted to quantify or calculate it as some sort of tangible substance. In all arts involving qi one must cultivate gongfu (also pardon the pinyin) in order to manipulate this phenomenon of qi. Gongfu is also a word that is not directly translatable but is something like “intuitive skill that has been purposefully, and intentionally cultivated through practice.” In the texts qi generally has the meaning of “intention”, “flow” or “direction of flow”, “morale”, “power”, etc. The precise English translation changes with its use but the Chinese word does not. So, I like to think of it more like a natural force within any body (as in a human body or a group of humans or other organized living structure) that can be manipulated with practice. Most experienced martial artists can attest to this, or at least have witnessed it.

    In the martial arts it is not only the human body that has qi. An army can also have qi. This qi can be manipulated though physical, psychological and emotional pathways. Just as in learning Wing Chun we train to use proper timing and power to obstruct qi (opponents own timing, power, ebb and flow, morale, intention, etc), so do the Chinese military texts encourage the use of timing and power to disrupt and army’s qi. This is merely one example.

    Now, what I am curious about is Chris’ current view on what qi is. Is it something that is supposed to be quantified, calculated, or “proven” by science or is it a different form of life? Like a sort of ghost in the machine, but rather, it is the ghost in the organism (as in, there are incalculable variables interacting in all machines and organisms that make them appear to own the traits which we generally recognize as traits of the living). Or, is it not even worth the mental effort to explain it when it can be perceived and felt? Or is the answer to my inquiry already posted on forum of your site?

    To more thoughts. First, just as organisms tend to posses this aforementioned “ghost“ that gives us animation, so do machines (the individual structure, evolution, and quarks inside your car or you computer interacting in such a way that they come alive). So, can machines have qi? And, it is my experience that qi also tends has a qi of its own.

  • 14 chris // Jul 3, 2011

    http://www.martialdevelopment.com/blog/how-to-feel-your-chi/
    http://www.martialdevelopment.com/blog/scientific-qigong-exploration/

  • 15 Harry // Oct 10, 2011

    These things are in fact the same. Qi is biomechanics is soul is.. W use different tools/language to attend the same and so we see differently the same. What is more- we find what we search for? Or we search for what we find?…

  • 16 Fredo // Oct 20, 2011

    This should have been settled years ago had science not been controlled by governments, corporations and peoples egos. I know seeing is not believing for many but here are beautiful picture of the energy passing through a worm, visible through polarised light microscope courtesy of Dr Mae Won Ho (http://www.i-sis.org.uk/lab.php) . It is collagen in the worms body that is conducting the light. This is what is happening in our body as well and you will never be taught this in mainstream “science”. The light conducted through collagen is shown in the pictures. This is fact. The electricity generated by collagen (an EM coil) has been measured by Dr Robert O Becker. This is fact. Fundamental energetic understanding of the human body are missing from mainstream “science” and only just started to be revealed by a few real scientist.

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  • Qigong and Energy Arts Forum – September 2010 // Sep 20, 2010

    [...] Science and the Problem with Chi by Bruce Holbrook The concept of chi is confusing to Western readers, not because it is a difficult one, but because our own culture stands in the way. Given such widespread ethnocentrism, it is only natural therefore that Western thinking beyond the scope of “science” has surrounded chi with a mystical aura, while “scientific thinking” has reduced and deformed the concept into something manageable on its own terms. Such terms are untrue to the original concept and reality of chi… [...]

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