This article first appeared in the Hungarian Homeopathic Journal of Szignatura in Hungarian in September 2018. Reprinted courtesy of László V. Szabó
The possibility of the scientific interpretation of homeopathy depends not only on the success of experiments but on the definition of science too. The current Cartesian science has significant limitations.
Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, in their book The Systems View of Life, attempt to outline the concept of the systems view of science without using this exact term. This concept can define a much broader definition of science which reflects much better the discoveries of the past 100 years.
Here I will present the main elements of the currently ruling conventional science with its limitations. I compare it with the key elements of emerging systems-based science, and finally I present the relationship between both Cartesian science and Western medicine and systems view of science and homeopathy.
This comparison will illustrate that the acceptance of homeopathy is limited not only by the logical system of conventional Western medicine itself, but also by the broader scientific framework in which we view it. It shows at the same time that the scientific concept of ourselves, homeopaths has to be widened accordingly.
Homeopathy is tough to weave into the texture of conventional science. Given that most of today’s practitioners were brought up on reigning conventional – Cartesian – scientific principles and concepts, the homeopathic community to date has not been able to describe or prove homeopathy’s mechanism of action scientifically. Therefore, Western biochemical medicine can easily argue that homeopathy is an unscientific, unfounded humbug and merely a placebo cure.
At the same time, this view is contradicted by the fact that, to the best of our knowledge, over the past more than 200 years, hundreds of thousands of homeopaths have regularly treated no less than hundreds of millions of patients with at least similar success to conventional medicine.
Despite the fact that homeopathy is real, its patient and practitioner experiences are real and its theory and practice have stood the test of time, the scientific interpretation of what is currently deemed as a multifaceted “series of experiments” is yet to come.
Given that Western medicine is also sorely lacking as to the exact definition and description of the mechanism of life, disease, and healing itself, strange as it may be, it cannot be said today that the true mode of action of conventional treatments are known.
Furthermore, countless healing disciplines operate on basic assumptions that are themselves not fully – eg. only empirically or only theoretically – proven. Certain scientific solutions, or drugs have been used for decades with little or no evidence.
Whether homeopathy can be considered a field of science depends partly on the empirical proof of its theory and partly on the definition of science. The demarcation issues of science — what science is and what it is not — have been much discussed (1). Yet, few have defined a new broader and consistent notion of science that reflects contemporary discoveries and that dissolves or at least relaxes this demarcation dilemma.
Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi, in one chapter of their book The Systems View of Life attempt to do so by outlining the concept of the systems view of science without using this exact term. (2)
Homeopathy fits quite well into this new concept. Homeopathy applies a holistic approach, working with the unity of body-mind, in which the pattern, the totality of symptoms plays a prominent role, the subjective vision of the healer is taken into account and the convulsive pursuit of certainty is relaxed. Nevertheless, it is still a fact that the exact mechanism of action of homeopathy is still lacking, even in this broader scientific interpretation.
In my paper, I present the main elements of the currently ruling Cartesian science with its contradictions, I compare it with the key elements of emerging systems-based science, and finally I present the relationship between both Cartesian science and Western medicine and systems view of science and homeopathy. This comparison will illustrate that the acceptance of homeopathy is limited not only by the logical system of conventional Western medicine itself, but also by the broader scientific framework in which we view it.
The ruling Cartesian concept of science and its limitations
Today’s widely accepted concept of science is largely based on Descartes’s philosophy, after which it is also called Cartesian science. The concept of Cartesian science is made up of the following main elements (and assumptions?):
- The objects of scientific research are concrete, well-defined items, e.g. organs of the body.
- These objects are made up of parts and are themselves parts of a larger system, e.g., the parts of the stomach are the cardia, the fundus, the stomach body, the antrum, the pylorus, etc., and the stomach itself is part of the digestive system. The description of the whole system is based almost exclusively on the description of the sum of its parts.
- The operation of these objects is regulated by one-way causal relationships. Changes that take place within these objects are exclusively the result of changes along causal relationships, such as: Eating or drinking too much, drinking acidic or alkaline fluids, or taking painkillers for a long time will cause indigestion, gastritis.
- The operation of systems can be well described by mechanical analogies, e.g. clock-like human body, etc.
- Changes within these systems can be predicted using basically linear models. E.g.: If someone eats too much, it will have indigestion, if not too much, it will not have.
- The mind-body duality as a basic Cartesian concept i.e. the mind and body are separate and separated. Furthermore, while the body is a physical element and can be divided into parts, the mind is not physical, therefore is a non-spatial substance.
- The basic assumption of today’s science is objective knowledge; that speaks about things, phenomena and structures as well as their operation can be objectively observed, described and articulated.
- An important feature of modern Cartesian science is that it seeks certainty through structural descriptions, causal relationships between components, via the application of mechanistic, linear, easy-to-understand models.
Whilst this Cartesian conception of science has achieved tremendous results over many centuries in getting to know the human-scale world and whilst it has served and continues to serve to a great extent, it is increasingly reaching its own limitations in more and more areas as its development progresses.
Figure 1: The two concepts of science
In connection with the above characteristics, the following significant limitations and tensions have emerged:
- Things and objects do not exist in themselves. They are interrelated, they influence each other. Thus, they cannot be examined in isolation, yet, currently they are typically described and examined in this way. This is especially true for living organisms.
- In the attention paid to the parts, the attention paid to the whole is lost, even though in order to function, the whole is required, such as in the case of living organisms, where the very existence of this completeness is a condition of life for the functioning of all organisms. Whilst things and objects made up of parts can be divided into smaller parts, and each component can be divided into further parts. The development of scientific tools makes it possible to research ever greater depths and distances, ever smaller components and larger entities, the sore loss of the big picture is accelerating.
- The research of the development and interconnected nature of living systems increasingly draws attention to the limitation that structures themselves and especially their development and operation cannot be understood without exploring their processes and interactions. Only the physical structure of an organism can be understood by anatomy based on autopsy, but the operation and processes of a LIVING organism cannot be. This is only possible through in vivo research and observation of the entire living organism.
- Everyday experience has drawn attention to the fact that causal relationships are not isolated: one cause may have many simultaneous effects in the same time and one effect may be caused by many simultaneous causes. Furthermore, our knowledge of cybernetics has revealed that in many cases, the effect itself reacts very quickly, even immediately back to the cause and creates a new feedback system, which fundamentally obscures the originally pure causal relationship.
- The application of mechanical analogies (among others in living systems) is strongly constrained by the high degree of increasing complexity resulting from the above, and our models of observation are constantly confronted by limitations of completeness and accuracy.
- In the study of physiological, social or geological phenomena (but also in other fields) there are frequent, sudden and rapid changes that have made it clear that the application of linear models is very limited and can only be applied in a very approximate way, or it is not possible to use them at all.
- The phenomenon that the appearance of the observer inevitably influences the subject of research first appeared in quantum mechanics, but later it became apparent during the observation of physiological, psychological and consciousness processes. On one hand, concepts and notions of observation can limit the observed object or process. On the other, it is entirely possible that observation may just highlight its subject matter in its entirety, and thus cannot consciously avoid any influential factors outside the focus of observation. All of these experiences violate, consistently and over and over again, the Cartesian objectivity so desired.
- While today’s scientist constantly strives to increase certainty, he or she is faced with constant and recurring uncertainty. This is partly due to the increasing complexity of the observed systems: the increase in the number of objects on one hand, and the opacity of their relational systems on the other. Partly due to the resulting errors in their limited empirical models that just cannot match complex systems adequately. As a result, the pursuit of certainty always runs aground.
The engine of the recent transformation of science has been the formation and rapid development of the theories of both quantum physics and relativity. On one hand, the rapid expansion of complexity in our ever-increasing knowledge base has led to the creation of areas of increasing specialization. On the other hand, with the development of the systems view in the 1930s, a more comprehensive approach to scientific enquiry started to emerge. Some elements of this comprehensive approach are already being represented in novel scientific fields of enquiry, such as organic biology, Gestalt psychology or global ecology. All this has triggered a fundamental change in the scientific approach, a process that has far not yet been completed.
Short overview of the systems approach in science
Without going deeper into the development of systems thinking and theory, outlined below are a few names and concepts that represent some of the cornerstones of the theory. (3)
Ludwig von Bertalanffy – the creation of general systems theory;
Claude Bernard and Walter Bradford Cannon – the introduction to the concept of homeostasis;
Norbert Wiener, Janos Neumann, Claude Shannon – the creation of cybernetics and the concept of feedback;
Gregory Bateson and Margaret Mead – general application of systems theory and feed-back to biological organisms and social systems;
Warren McCullogh and Walter Pitts – identifying the way the nervous system works, discovering on-off states;
Heinz von Foerster – the extension of the concept of self-organization and the organization of interdisciplinary research;
Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela – the definition of autopoietic (self-organizing, self-producing and self-reproducing) systems (4,5,6);
In addition to the development of systems theory and quantum theory, the development of fractal theory and later network theory have also greatly aided the redefinition of science along the lines of systems theory.
Characteristics of the systems view of science
From the middle of the twentieth century, in connection with the development of individual fields of science and the development of the systems approach, a new concept of science began to emerge, first fully defined by Fritjof Capra and Luigi Luisi. (7) The main features of this refreshingly new, broad and flexible notion of science are as follows:
1) Systems, and especially living systems, are integrated holistic systems. The focus of thinking shifts from their parts to the whole. This results in a change of perspective and makes it possible to articulate the specifics of the living system.
2) Individual things are made up of parts and are themselves part of a larger system that operates through interrelationships. Therefore, relationships are significantly more important than individual elements and objects. Network theory explores the peculiarities of these connections.
3) In mechanical models, the world consists of a collection of objects that are arranged in structures. In systems thinking, structures are stiffened up processes, themselves constantly reshaped in response as the underlying processes change. Therefore, the main focus is on processes as the incarnations of both life and change.
4) The absolute primacy of causal systems is replaced by interdependence and the dominance of patterns as a characteristic and embodiment of the whole.
5) The measurement and accuracy focus of mechanical models is replaced by the definition of the uncertainty of statistical and probability models and the definition of inaccuracy.
6) Systems theory recognizes that the simplicity of linearity is insufficient, as life and nature is not characterised by steady linear changes, but work more along nonlinear changes such as accelerations and decelerations, collapses and rebirths.
7) Systems theory abandons the possibility and illusion of objective knowledge because the presence, point of view, and ultimately individuality of the observer is unavoidable. This does not mean abandoning scientific rigor, only acknowledging that the influence of subjects is part of the process of observation. Heisenberg said, “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature that is revealed by the method of our questioning.” (8)
8) Systems theory recognizes that whilst increasing certainty would be a desirable direction for the pursuit of security, our knowledge is constantly and forever only approximate. It notes, accepts and lives symbiotically with the constant presence of uncertainty and incompleteness.
This concept of science, which was primarily developed as a systemic approach to life, can also be interpreted outside of the life sciences themselves. Capra and Luisi thus make an attempt to demonstrate the application of this system in the fields of development theory, consciousness, spirituality, social sciences, health and ecology.
The systems view of science creates more room for the rise of new, and, as yet poorly defined, fields of science, and provides a suitable framework for creating its conceptual framework as well as defining its boundaries. Importantly, this expands and generalizes the earlier Cartesian notion of science rather than defining a notion of counter-science.
The two medicines and the two concepts of science
In the following summary, I show how, on the one hand, the principles of Cartesian science and Western medicine rest on similar foundations. On the other hand, it becomes clear how well homeopathy can be interpreted within the framework of systems view of science formulated completely independently of the knowledge of the basis of homeopathy. The following overview table helps with understanding and overview.
Figure 2: The two medicines and the two concepts of science – summary
Notes to the table:
1) Homeopathy has applied and continues to use a holistic approach from its beginnings. (9) Western medicine has always focused on parts of the body and organs, and, the more it becomes specialized, the more it is losing sight of the human being as a whole.
2) Homeopathy approaches healing by observing and evaluating a pattern of symptoms in the human being. It targets the entire organism as opposed to individual organs or organ systems. In Western medicine, the excessive focus on the parts have led to the interpretation of certain diseases as changes in certain organs or groups of organs. The resulting intervention, the use of drugs, is a linear intervention which aims to eliminate these changes caused by a specific disease, but at the same time causes additional indirect changes in the patient’s system as a whole.
3) Homeopathy looks for characteristic patterns among the symptoms, because it recognises that symptoms represent a pattern in themselves. A pattern – an image, a shape – that emerges from the relationships between things, and its comprehensive and recurring characteristics, make up the totality of characteristic symptoms. Whereas the foundations of Western medicine rest on physical body medicine and surgery; this is reflected well in both the names “physician” and “surgeon” as well as the prestige ranking of their practitioners in the hierarchy of the medical doctors. This physical approach is well represented in the prominent role of anatomy in overall medical education. Anatomy, by definition, is “the study or knowledge of the structure and function of the human body by autopsy.” The word late Greek anatomy means (ana-) “up” + (temnein) “cut” (10), that is, the primary way of knowing the body by cutting and dissecting it. So, their wholistic approach has been lost on the first autopsy table.
4) To this day, homeopathy has not been able to create its own acknowledged model of the function of living organism. Its current much-criticized and questioned vitality-based model is a dynamic, ever-changing, multidimensional model, in which very slow change and fast sudden events alternate. Western medicine, however, views the human organism according to the Cartesian worldview as a mechanical model, and assumes very often linear changes after interventions. For its surprise it is repeatedly confronted with nothing-happening situations and their oppositions: rapid improvements and unexplained healings. The Western medicine is puzzled by these facts and changes, while they just reflect the characteristic nature of life.
5) Since 1810, homeopathy has strived for the identification of the most characteristic individual symptom pattern in each patient, handling both physical and mental symptoms together, even in the case of the simplest disease.
Following administration of a well-chosen single remedy, improvement in the mental and general spheres – i.e. mood, sleep quality, energy levels, etc. – is first seen before physical or leading symptoms improve. This is regularly observed not only in humans but also in animals.
Therefore, in homeopathy, body and mind are treated together concurrently as one system. In contrast, Western medicine is fundamentally characterised by dual thinking, i.e. treating diseased body and diseased mind separately, even by different specialists, and considers mental symptoms in diagnosis or treatment only in certain diseases. Psychosomatic thinking has only begun to spread in the last 40-60 years and cannot be considered fully comprehensive and especially not general at all.
6) There is much controversy that different homeopaths evaluate a case differently, suggesting different remedies for similar symptoms. At the same time, homeopaths acknowledge that there are many different paths to healing. The homeopath’s personality, the peculiarities and sophistication of his/her perception all play a significant role in both case recording and case evaluation, as well as in the chosen treatment plan.
Systems view of science not only takes this multifaceted influence for granted, but actually it is one of its principles. It is no coincidence in Western medicine that councils and protocols are needed in order to coordinate the different points of view of all doctors involved in a decision in some way. But in reality, this groupthink undermines the individual experience, responsibility, and application of their expertise by physicians.
Western medicine is deeply convinced of the importance of objectivity as well as proving the mechanism of action of a drug, while each person presents his or her illnesses with different symptoms. Only with a huge technical apparatus and massive information technology support are they able to start making the process of medicine somewhat individual.
7) The lack of harmful side effects of homeopathic treatment gives homeopathy tremendous advantage in flexibility. The principles of homeopathy allow homeopaths to use multiple symptom interpretations and experiment with different medications.
You do not need to use the best agent for either the first case taking or case follow-up. True, the process of healing is greatly accelerated by determining and finding the simillimum (the drug that best fits individual symptoms), but it is also largely a matter of skill and less of luck.
In the same way, very often it is not possible to find with the utmost caution the agent that leads to complete healing, because the whole life of a patient is unspeakable by the patient and incomprehensible to the healer, not to mention the full history of predecessors.
Western medicine, however, is crampingly clinging to evidence-based medicine, double-blind trials, while very often their actual implementation is almost impossible, or only possible at the cost of great trade-offs, and then we are not even talking about the increasing commercial and scientific misconducts to bring new drugs to market.
There is also a growing line of medical malpractice lawsuits based on the illusion of evidence-based medicine, even if a significant part of this stems from the specifics of surgical procedures, the not-quite-known side effects of drugs.
These issues are not the result of the activities of individual doctors, but mostly the necessary negative consequences and side effects of the philosophical basis on which Western medicine is founded. It should be recognized that the certainty and the evidence attributed to today’s Western medicine is false.
It may be the subject of a separate study as to how this huge white spot in Cartesian conventional medicine made possible alternative medicine to flourish for centuries.
The Cartesian medicine has no widely accepted definition of life and death, sickness and healing, soul and mind but also of the body itself or, more broadly, of the living organism.
There are few disciplines where the subject of science is so poorly defined, and the examination of its basic subject, the life itself would be as taboo as it is in conventional medical science.
It can obviously be seen that the concept of Cartesian science is too narrow to define life, and for that, a broader concept of science is essential. This is exactly what Capra and Luisi are experimenting with in their work on the terms of systems view.
Based on the above, we can see that homeopathy fits into the concept of systems view of science much better than into the conceptual and interpretive structure of conventional Cartesian science.
Accordingly, there is a particularly great opportunity to develop the missing functional model of homeopathy within the systems view of life, rather than continue to try and prove it within the narrow framework of the conventional Cartesian scientific concept.
This gives another task for us, as homeopaths, we have to study the results of the contemporary disciplines much more thoroughly and systematically in order to be able to reframe our own way of thinking and take off the tight dress of Cartesian science of our own.
The author thanks Andrea Székely and Vera Toldy for providing suggestions, corrections, and changes in wording that have improved the quality and accuracy of the paper. The author also thanks the anonymous reviewers whose comments and suggestions have added value to this paper, and the editor for a number of significant improvements.
The early version of this article was published in the Hungarian homeopathic journal of Szignatura (Signature) in Hungarian in September 2008.
(1) Gábor Kutrovácz – Benedek Láng – Gábor Zemplén: The Boundaries of Science, Typotex Publishing House, 2008, Chapter 3
(2) Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi: The Systems View of Life. A Unifying Vision. Cambridge Univ. Press 2014. p. 63-83
(4) Humberto Maturana & Francisco Varela: Autopoiesis and Cognition: The Realization of the Living (1st edition 1973, 2nd 1980)
(5) Humebarto Maturana & Francesco Varela: The Tree of Knowledge, The Biological Roots of Human Understanding, Shambhala, Boston, London, 1998
(7) Capra & Luisi i.m. pp 80-82.
(8) W. Heisinberg: Physics and Philosophy: The Revolution in Modern Science (1958) Lectures delivered at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, Winter 1955-56 https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Werner_Heisenberg
(9) Samuel Hahnemann: Organon (Hungarian translation of the sixth edition of the original work) MHOE, 2005