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Naturopathic Chronicles: "Science and Belief"

3/20/07

This weekend I was reviewing my notes for a class today on the concept of "Vitalism." Although it is a topic that I have taught before, I like to reflect on upcoming lectures and see how my thinking on a topic has changed since the last time I taught it. Vitalism is a concept sometimes ascribed to complementary and alternative medicine, or natural medicine, or holistic medicine. This very broad collection of practices includes everything from complete systems such as acupuncture to mind-body techniques of relaxation or specific therapies such as herbal medicine. Naturopathic medicine incorporates many of these practices within a practice framework guided by principles.

In our discussions, we realized that there is a place for both respect for the wonder at the nature of life; and a hard look at the functioning of living systems. Science is an activity that accumulates knowledge, constantly evolves, and leads to ever more powerful models for understanding, explaining and predicting phenomena. The assertions of sciences are at least in principle testable, that is, they can be proven false through an experiment. If they stand the test of experimentation, they remain part of current knowledge. For example, to date, it is acceptable to most people that DNA is the coding sequence for our genetic material, and this ultimately is the basis for the creation of specific proteins in the body.

Then we come to the phenomena of healing. Some aspects of what we call healing are certainly reducible to the explanations that we have. A person gets a splinter in their thumb -- it swells up -- because of the presence of the splinter, some white blood cells that rush to the area, and probably some bacteria that have infected the wound.

But when we take a human being in their totality, and all of the factors that can make or break their healing, including the power of belief, we have a new level of complexity. Why is it that time and time again clinicians have observed that the willingness to live, or the resignation to defeat, can lead to a patient's spontaneous recovery or rapid demise? Certainly there are no simple answers to this, and people cannot just wish away any physical ailment that might befall them (especially if it is generated by harmful habits or lack of the nourishing ingredients of health, such as diet and adequate water intake). But we have to concede that there is something about healing that is sometimes surprising, sometimes unexplainable and often awe inspiring. can the "healing arts" be guided by scientifically generated knowledge and yet still allow for the "x-factor" that belief, faith, hope, and love seem to have on healing? I think so -- and in a sense that where the practice of any form of medicine, standard/conventional, chiropractic, naturopathic -- really comes to life. The doctor must be able to reconcile science and belief in their practice, and help the patient to reap the full benefits of both.

Fraser Smith, ND

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