I work in a field and live in a place both of which attract a high proportion of people with esoteric inclinations. In my daily work I am faced with expectations of a shared belief in the premises of a whole range of esoteric notions and practices, in particular therapeutic ones. Most of which, in my experience, I don't share. “Why?” I am sometimes asked, or challenged, over lunch or dinner tables. But it is not a thing I am able to explain in a few words over those tables, so here is the mid-length version.
First, what do I mean by esoteric therapies? Let me attempt a description which doesn't fall too foul of my own contradictions, fallacies and idiosyncrasies. Physiology is a verifiable science which anybody can learn about and apply regardless of their belief system. As a body of knowledge it is not esoteric as access to it requires no special membership or uncommon perceptive abilities. But esoteric practices deal in objectively unverifiable phenomena, whose existence is established only through faith in them and a supposed uncommon ability to observe and manipulate them. I am talking of phenomena such as “life force”, “vital energy” or “subtle energy”. Even many esoteric therapies make reference to established physiology. However, they also claim direct and mechanistic physiological effects through means and agencies with no known basis in physiology, being based instead on a notion, an intuition, a belief, or a faith. A brief list could include therapies such as (in alphabetical order): applied kinesiology, bioresonance, craniosacral therapy (some variants), homoeopathy (at high “potencies”), radionics, reiki, “vibrational medicine”.
Caveat number 1: Am I saying these therapies don't work? Absolutely not. Of course though, we have to define what we mean by “work”. An acceptable definition might be on the lines of “achieving the expectation agreed when the patient is taken on”. Generally this would include a medium-term improvement in the symptoms for which the patient sought treatment. I am quite sure that all esoteric therapies are capable of achieving this, but whether they can do this more effectively than an elaborate placebo is an entirely different question; with, I suspect, a different answer. Another way of putting this would be, is the effect due to the claimed mechanisms or to other (probably much simpler and cheaper) things?
Caveat number 2: Am I saying I disbelieve in “life force”? No, I keep an open mind. I am open to the existence of a transcendental domain, for in my opinion only from this could a specific “life force” derive, if indeed it can be said to manifest at all. I do not positively believe nor do I disbelieve – that is the real meaning of keeping an open mind.
So, why am I unconvinced in esoteric therapies?
Reason number 1: They frequently abuse science. Example: many esoteric scientists today talk about “quantum” effects. It is a fashionable buzzword. I asked my father to explain quantum mechanics to me. My father had been a post-doctoral research physicist, and he chuckled at my question. He told me that it is such a specialist, complex and abstruse field that even most physicists can't really understand it. One meaning of “abstruse” is “esoteric”. That is why esoteric therapists like “quantum” things. But they don't understand them.
Reason number 2: They are fond of dogma. I asked someone why they believed such and such a thing and they said it was a feeling. That is one kind of good answer, I think. But while the journey from feeling through to an interpretation may be the justifiable province of intuition, the onward journey to a detailed theoretical model is not, and especially so if it is sold (literally) as established fact. When that happens we are in the realm of fantasy and dogma, not of reality and science. Esoteric therapies tend to inhabit the former realm and not the latter.
Reason number 3: They thrive on the easy comfort of a convenient belief. Many things are possible, but that is no reason to commit to a belief in them. Belief must be earned. Only a belief forged or gifted through trial and tribulation is a worthy belief. For something to earn my belief, I need to start with some criteria. And when we are talking about therapies offered with a theoretical base, only rational criteria will do. MY own criteria go something like this:
- I do not believe it “works” just because somebody tells me it does. Wouldn't that be a little foolish? I might give credence to such anecdote if told at first hand by somebody whose reason, honesty and perspicacity I know and esteem. I might do so too, if the anecdotes are so numerous, from so many different sources, and so impressive in their specificity, clarity, detail and implications that it would seem foolish to discount them. On the other hand, if the person talks a lot and has a lot of charisma, I have to say I tend to have a prejudice against their stories. I also tend to scepticism about the opinions of experts and authorities of all kinds.
- I do not believe it “works” just because it fits in with my lifestyle or sense of identity or because it gives me an easily won comfort to do so. These seem to me to be somewhat superficial reasons for holding beliefs.
- I am inclined to believe a proposition more readily the more it seems plausible. Plausibility is a good rule of thumb. However, plausibility can only ever be based on our current understanding of the way the world works. That is its limitation. I understand that limitation. I do not discount absolutely propositions which do not fit my world view. But my world view is not just something that happened. I have thought about it for 53 years; it must be worth something, to me. A balanced attitude, I think, is to say: “That seems plausible, let's observe it further and see what happens”, or “That seems entirely implausible, I may be wrong and I'm ready to be proved wrong, but as things stand I'm not going to spend my time or money on it.”
- I am inclined to believe a proposition more readily the greater the supporting evidence from well planned and conducted systematic studies. To me that seems sensible. This helps to cut through the lapses and faults in perception, thinking, logic, memory, judgement, objectivity, honesty and sanity that plague individual human beings, the egos, dogma and inconsistency of “experts” and authorities, the self-interest of the trade.
- However, in the absence of much of the former, I am well disposed towards collective therapeutic experience of thousands of years (e.g. ayurveda, TCM), so long as the utility of its propositions are not actually disproved or convincingly refuted.
I think it fair to say that esoteric therapies frequently do not satisfy my criteria for belief.
I'd like to look briefly at the ideas of “vital energy” or “life force” that underlie many esoteric therapies. Many esoteric therapies based upon these ideas also like to use words like “quantum” and “vibration”. In my opinion these words are red herrings. They are effective in dressing up ritual to create the makings of an elaborate and effective placebo. But it is my belief that any effect of these therapies above that of placebo is determined not by the specific characteristics of the therapy, but those of the therapist, in particular three: charisma, empathy, intent. However, a therapist who can effectively apply charisma, empathy and intent has no need for a theory of life force, other than perhaps to sustain the belief of the therapist.
The use of such words as energy, force, vibration, implies a mechanistic explanation. But firstly, these very same therapies often are at pains to exude a spiritual aura. Why does an effect deriving from the spiritual domain need a mechanistic explanation, if not to also take advantage of the false credibility scientific sounding language may afford? I have used three words above: charisma, empathy and intent. The last two, combined, are implicit in a very simple action that ordinary people have done for centuries: prayer. It is not such a far-fetched thing to suggest that prayer can help the prayed-for (indeed people used to like the idea): here is an scientific article published in 2001 in the British Medical Journal which claims to demonstrate such an effect.
Is it divine intervention, or is it a vibration, or both? I do not know, but I would take a bet, if such a thing were verifiable, that many esoteric therapists, with their energies and vibrations, do not know either.