Lay Sceptic’s Travels on Planet Energy
Recently I have been feeling like a visitor on an alien planet: ordinary people
around me have started to communicate in a new, esoteric language. Let’s call
it Energyspeak. It uses the same vocabulary as Oldspeak (my native language),
but many of its words have been stripped of their usual meanings. Its speakers
also seem to inhabit a radically different metaphysical universe. They inform
me that there is a bioenergetic field flowing through and around us; and that
disturbances in it have dire consequences for our health. Those fluent in Energyspeak
pay regular visits to energy therapists (acupuncturists; homeopaths; reflexologists;
reiki healers) who are able to treat all kinds of physical and emotional problems
by correcting energy imbalances. I myself have never been to see an energy therapist;
until recently I didn’t even realise that there were such things as energy blockages.
I must by now be a walking, talking energy knot; in fact, it is a miracle I’m
I’ve realised that I can no longer function in modern society unless I teach
myself Energyspeak, which is why I’ve spent a lot of time wading through alternative
health magazines and books, and surfed up and down the Internet in search of
enlightenment. Getting to grips with the basics is easy: it didn’t take me long
to learn to perform simple translations between Energyspeak and Oldspeak:
I felt chi flowing through my body when I was practising T’ai
I felt great after my T’ai Chi class because the exercise improved my
Negative emotions produce blockages in the energy flow, which results
Chronic depression can suppress the immune function, which can be a co-factor
The healer relieved my emotional distress by clearing my energy channels.
I felt less depressed after spending an hour with a kind and caring person
It could be then that Energyspeak simply provides a language for spouting
New Age poetry. Maybe phrases like ‘experiencing chi’ and ‘clearing energy
channels’ are not meant to refer to concrete, material things, but are used
metaphorically to describe such abstract notions as vitality and well-being.
(After all, I myself often talk about something being good for my ‘soul’, although
I do not believe in the existence of an immaterial, immortal Soul.) Or maybe
words like ‘life force’ and ‘energy fields’ should be understood as referring
to a supernatural or mystical phenomenon – some kind of immaterial bio-spiritual
force, which can be felt by believers, but is not detected by our gross material
instruments, let alone by gross materialists like myself, and will always remain
beyond the ken of science.
It is, however, clear that most practitioners and consumers of energy medicine
believe that this mysterious energy is just as real as viruses and hormones;
that there really exists such a thing as a Bioenergetic Field. In other words,
the claims made by energy scientists are meant to be taken entirely literally;
they are testable, scientific claims about the natural world. Some of them concede
that the force itself may be too subtle to be measured, but are nevertheless
adamant that its effects are eminently measurable. In fact, most serious energy
enthusiasts are keen to distance themselves from those wacky New Age types who
drone on about our energy fields being affected by karmic laws.
I have been trying to teach myself energy science and energy medicine, but
it hasn’t been easy as the experts themselves appear to be almost as confused
as I am about the nature of bioenergy – or chi, universal life force,
human energy, vibrating energy, as it is variously called. I think they
are all talking about some special type of field (bioenergetic field, vibrating
energy field, human energy field; electro-dynamic energy field), which may be
related to electromagnetic fields and has something to do with quantum physics.
It courses through the body, travelling between energy centres (aka chakras
or vortexes ) via a system a channels (aka meridians). This bioenergy creates
an aura (aka Energy Body) that surrounds our physical bodies. It is part of
the harmonious life force permeating the cosmos, but at the same time each individual’s
energy emanations are as unique as their fingerprints.
Bioenergy is said to play a crucial role in illness, although energy theorists
are not altogether sure as to how the Energy Body interacts with the physical
body. One group assert that bioenergy anomalies (blockages, imbalances, weaknesses
and disharmonies) indicate sickness in the physical body. Others (the majority
it seems) argue that it is the imbalances and perturbations that cause
physical or mental illness, and that these anomalies themselves result from
stress, accidents, trauma, or negative thinking. What they all agree about is
that energy therapy, which involves removing energy blockages, or balancing
and strengthening the ’disharmonic’ or depleted energy fields, is beneficial
for all kinds of medical conditions. Apparently, we need to keep the Energy
Body nice and strong and clear of blocks because its function is to stimulate
the physical body’s own healing ability.
Now I suffer from the same handicap as most other people: I am woefully ignorant
of science, especially of physics, so I find it hard to assess the validity
of many of the claims made by energy scientists. One can score cheap points
by mocking the kind of person who manages to keep a straight face when saying
things like ‘negative emotions are stored as negative energy in the etheric
body’. But it is more difficult to disregard those energy experts who radiate
a scientific aura and whose articles are peppered with complex diagrams and
impressive-sounding jargon. ‘Alpha and theta frequencies’? ‘vector potentials’?
‘colloidal stability’? – I must admit I have no idea what they are talking about.
Fortunately for me, they often give the game away by insisting that Kirlian
photography shows the bioenergetic field surrounding the human body or by praising
William Reich’s Orgone Therapy. But then these people take pride in being ‘alternative’
physicists who are working at the cutting edge of energy science, leaving behind
all those narrow-minded traditionalists who refuse to experience the joys of
vibrating energy fields.
There are two facts I’ve learnt about energy, as the term is understood in
conventional physics. First, it doesn’t refer to a substance or a thing, but
to an abstract idea and is defined prosaically as ‘the capacity to do work’.
The problem is that we humans have a tendency to reduce abstract concepts to
concrete things; hence, it’s natural for us to think of energy as something
substantial that can get blocked, or be manipulated and stored in a specific
location – and even be described as ‘negative’ or ‘positive’. Second, we are
made of the same atoms as the rocks, water and air around us; in modern physics,
there is no energy field that is unique to living organisms, let alone to humans.
All objects, including human bodies, emit electromagnetic radiation: chairs
and tables, too, have ‘auras’ whose characteristics depend not on their bio-spiritual
health, but on such mundane physical properties as moisture and temperature.
Alternative energy scientists denounce such a reductionist view of human life.
They subscribe to the doctrine of vitalism – the belief that there is a separate,
non-physical life force animating all living things and defying mechanistic
explanations. Indeed, most cultures have believed in the existence of a vital
force: the Chinese call it chi; the Hindus know it as prana; the
ancient Greeks used to call it pneuma or psyche, while the Romans
talked about three kinds of spirits .It is similarly an ancient intuition
that disease results from the imbalance of natural and supernatural forces and
that healing consists in restoring balance within the body. Two centuries ago
scientists rejected the notion of a vital life force, and it is now assumed
that life emerges from the complexity and organisation of an organism. Having
gained a better understanding of human anatomy and physiology, medical scientists
began to concern themselves with such earthly matters as hormonal and metabolic
balance; and, consequently, spirits, souls, and other ethereal entities gradually
disappeared from the scene – only to reappear as ‘bioenergetic fields’ and ‘electromagnetic
bodies’. Energy medics concede that conventional scientists know a thing or
two about the physical body and its functions, but claim that there is little
point in trying to treat it if the Energy Body remains out of kilter. Thus,
far from being radical thinkers, they actually cling to an ancient belief system.
They may have translated the archaic terms into scientific-sounding language,
but it’s the same old vitalism, dressed up as quantum physics.
If energy enthusiasts wish to embrace vitalism, who are we sceptics to snatch
it away from them? We are merely asking them not to confuse science and metaphysics.
People have the right to ignore the scientific method; however, if they claim
they are being scientific, but fail to obey the rules of the game, then they
can’t expect to be taken seriously. The reason scientists reject vitalism is
that there is no evidence for it: no special ‘vital’ ingredient has ever been
isolated; so far our most sophisticated instruments have failed to detect this
mysterious life force. Contrary to popular belief, spiritual insights and personal
experiences (‘I can feel the force’) do not constitute valid scientific evidence.
Of course, there is a lot we don’t know about Life, the Universe and Energy,
but it seems unfair to criticise scientists for not introducing into their model
an entity or a principle which has no empirical basis and is not required by
It is equally unfair to label critics of vitalistic science as evil materialists
and crude mechanists who wilfully trample on other people’s need for Wonder
and Mystery. Sceptics don’t deny mystery, nor do they expect scientists to explain
anything in a ‘deep’ sense. Who knows: maybe there is a Purpose in Nature. However,
energy theorists and other vitalists are no closer to uncovering the truth behind
our existence than the rest of us. Energybabble is both bad poetry and bad science;
instead of deepening the mystery, it serves to extinguish it.
What is curious is that no one seems to be a full-time resident on Planet Energy.
When we are injured in a car crash, or our child develops meningitis, we don’t
worry about the state of our energy bodies, or ask if there is an energy therapist
in the house; we insist on being rushed to the nearest conventional hospital.
When the stakes are high, practically everyone reverts to Oldspeak. Life is
Guy Brown: The Energy of Life, (HarperCollins, 1999).
Victor J Stenger: ‘Bioenergetic Fields’ http://www.phys.hawaii.edu/vjs/www/alt/Biofield.html.