Traditional Chinese Medicine
and the Philosophy of Science
This is an excerpt from shifu Jonathan Bluestein's book, 'Chinese Medicine Can Heal You'
...The challenge therefore in our time, is that Western Science has a language, theory and methodologies which are not akin to those of Chinese physicians across the centuries. At times these approaches to medicine and its study are contradictory, or even opposed. Therefore, we must be careful with any and all ‘conclusions’ about Herbalism arising from Western Science, which insists on examining the herbs without accordance to its own terms, which it tends to view as ‘universal’.
Indeed, there are certain instruments of science, such as physics and mathematics, which are nearly always universal laws, that cannot be undermined or changed. However, the method of conducting research is itself bound by culture, language and historical context, and is affected by the competing interests of different forms of medicine which have existed in parallel for a very long time.
With this, what we intended to say is, that any Western Research about Herbalism, whether pertaining to TCM or otherwise, must be taken with a grain of salt, and considered with healthy skepticism, for good or bad. Certainly, such research studies, many of whom we included in this book’s appendix, supposedly give ‘credibility’ to TCM. But in all honesty, a tradition of more than 5000 years really does not need any foreign cultures to make countless intellectual circus acts in order to declare it ‘credible’. TCM, and the Chinese people, and all of their immense and respectable long-standing culture which is a treasure to humanity, truly do not require unto themselves, that Western Science allot them a ‘seal of approval’. As we have suggested earlier, the studies are at best an interesting instrument for promoting that medicine in original ways. But this medicine has done quite well for itself and its people, long before Western Science was an international sensation.
You see, the Chinese never bothered with ‘double-blind studies’ and ‘control groups’, because the research they did into their medicine, had real-life consequences which were quite immediate. When the village doctor treated people, if they did not get well, they were either injured (a chronic problem) or died. To have even one less set of working hands in the village, meant less food for everybody, the doctor included. Under such conditions, no one had the desire to read far and distant reports about a group of strangers sitting in a laboratory and calculating statistics. Things either worked, or they did not, and what worked was documented, and hopefully passed on to the next generation. Then, when the Emperor or his people sought the best of doctors in order that they come to heal and teach the court physicians, there was no escaping the truth, either. The severe punishments which one could suffer for providing improper treatment or instruction, tended to range from horrible torture to a terrible execution. For thousands of years, TCM was thus subjected to the most empirical and valid form of medical research – the one that had immediate and profound consequences for everyone involved. There were no insurance companies or lawyers to defend the doctors, and the sentence was swift, whether dealt by the Sovereign or the natural elements.
The idea of having to ‘prove’ their medicine as being of universal validity, was foreign to the Chinese. Like the religious Jews, they created a huge body of literature over many generations, which despite all being based on the same base theories and ideas, offered competing and diverse points of view on how things should be done. The Chinese never thought of this as being ‘unscientific’, but rather encouraged this diversity of viewpoints, realizing that all of them arose out of real-life necessity, and any of them could potentially be of value in certain situations and under specific conditions, with different patients.
Moreover, that Chinese culture is one in which the ancestors are valued, and often revered. In a true traditional society, the older a person is, the more he or she tend to know things about the world, based on their life-experience. The Chinese always knew that their culture was at least 9000 years old, and that their medicine is likely over 5000 years old. They understood that there is much value in what the older generations have already discovered, and that it would be foolish to neglect the vast treasure-troves of medical experience which had survived over the generations, only to try an ‘reinvent’ everything in the span of a few dozen years, in their time. This is why in every generation in China, there were attempt, to the best extent feasible at the time, to document and summarize the medical and cultural knowledge that survived from previous generations. It was considered vital to first analyze and study in depth what came before, prior to attempting to come up with something knew. Of this Confucius famously said: “To study the old in order to understand the new, is what makes a teacher”.
In comparison, we see today the brash audacity of modern scholars, who too often are filled with contempt for both the elderly and the ancestors. It is an intellectual plague of Western Civilization of recent centuries, which has precipitated into the hearts of people, corrupting their core values. We bear witness to societies in which the bureaucracy of the State has kidnapped the children, distancing them from the wisdom of their predecessors, and convincing them that only youth has an ultimate right of expression, as if it would live forever. Then those who have fallen victim to this cruel thesis about ‘proper’ human existence and relationships, grow up to be doctors and scientists who believe that any written word which has been in print for over a few decades is by default anachronistic, and that people who lived thousands of years ago must have been uncivilized and ignorant brutes, whose opinions do not matter at the least. All of this stands in direct and severe opposition to traditional Chinese culture and medicine, and could not be further from them. Unfortunately, we observe now that even in China itself, to a degree, people are becoming inclined to accept such ideas, in their wish to bow done to a young and alluring culture, full of gadgetry and promise.