5X5 Episode 45

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5X5 Episode 45
Chi and Vitalism
11th November 2008

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5X5 44 5X5 46
Skeptical Rogues
S: Steven Novella
B: Bob Novella
J: Jay Novella
E: Evan Bernstein
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Chi and other forms of vitalism[edit]

You're listening to the Skeptics' Guide 5x5, five minutes with five skeptics, with Steve, Jay, Rebecca, Bob and Evan.


S: This is the SGU 5x5, and tonight we're talking about Chi. Chi, which is alternatively spelled 'Chi' or 'Qi', the English approximation of a Chinese word which means 'Life Energy'. It is the core of traditional Chinese medicine philosophy that understands wellness and illness as the flow and balance of this mystical life-force or life energy called Chi.

B: The belief isn't limited to China either. It's called 'Prana' in India. It's 'Ki' in Japan, and Franz Anton Mesmer called it 'Animal Magnetism'. You might have heard of that one. And, also, philosopher Henri Bergson also referred to it as 'Elan Vital' - 'Vital Force'.

J: The only proof that people put forward that Chi exists would be more of a demonstration than it is something that can be proven with science or disproven with science. A good example would be a video that we talked about on the SGU where the guy was cutting his own arm with a sharpened, very sharpened, sword that he took out, and the guy literally cut his arm all the way down to the bone, because, you know, he thought he was protected by the power of Chi that he'd focused on that spot. Another place where Chi or Chi-like energy is thought to exist would be like an acupuncturist thinks they are un-blocking Chi; that's one place where they do it. There's other places they do it, like Bob mentioned, like a Reiki therapist. Therapeutic touch is involved with Chi.

S: These are all forms of 'Vitalism'; the notion that there's a life-energy that separates living things from non-living things, and as you said Jay, acupuncture is one of the modalities of traditional Chinese medicine that's based on the concept of Chi is sticking needles into various specific points of the body are meant to manipulate the Chi, again, either to restore the flow, or to restore the balance of Chi. And Chi, it should be mentioned, comes in two flavors, 'Yin' and 'Yang'. So, and if you have your Yin, they have different characters, and you have an excess of Yin or a paucity of Yang, then there are different herbs you could take or manoeuvres you could do or acupuncture or whatever to balance those. And this all has to do also in traditional Chinese medicine with the notion that living things are 'one with nature'. It's a very natural philosophy, and Chi is, while it is a supernatural or metaphysical thing, a spiritual force, it is also part of the greater, you know, order of the natural world, of the universe.

E: The harmony.

S: Yeah, a harmony; it is very much a 'harmony of nature', but of course, there isn't a lick of evidence for any of this. These are all pre-scientific notions. The attempts of primitive societies to understand what they could not understand - the nature of health and illness for example - life and non life, and modern science has not verified any of these concepts of life energy or life force. In fact, this fight was fought within the scientific world about a hundred years ago, and the 'vitalists', those that thought there was some kind of vital force, lost. The evidence clearly showed, and the logic clearly lead to the conclusion, that vitalism is unnecessary, and that nothing like Chi or like a life force exists. It's not necessary to explain any biological process.

B: And that's pretty much the key. Even if we didn't have the evidence it would still be obvious. Even without evidence I think it would still be obvious if biological systems required an unknown force or energy to exist this would be such a Grand Canyon, gaping hole in our understanding, that biochemists would probably talk about little else. It would be like evolution to this day not having genetics and DNA as a foundation. It would be obvious that there is something missing from our theories of biology.

S: It is simply unnecessary, which is the harshest criticism you could level (on) any idea in science.

J: And let us not forget what a very, very wise man once said. - "Chi spelled backwards is Crap".

S: SGU 5x5 is a companion podcast to the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe, a weekly science podcast brought to you by the New England Skeptical Society in association with skepchick.org. For more information on this and other episodes, visit our website at www.theskepticsguide.org. Music is provided by Jake Wilson.


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