Peter McKnight is a former Templeton-Cambridge fellow in science and religion at the University of Cambridge.
Imagine visiting your doctor for help with some ailment, only to be told "may the Force be with you." You'd likely hightail it out there, and not to the nearest Star Wars convention.
Think that's funny? Well it isn't, since there are "doctors" who believe in the force, even if it's not the one from the movies. They're called naturopaths, naturopathic "physicians" who are now under intense scrutiny thanks to the death of 19-month-old Ezekiel Stephan from bacterial meningitis.
In late April, an Alberta court found Ezekiel's parents guilty of failing to provide the necessaries of life – they received advice from Tracey Tannis, a naturopath, instead of seeking proper medical treatment. That led 43 medical doctors to demand the College of Naturopathic Doctors of Alberta examine Ms. Tannis's actions, and an investigation has now begun.
But why stop there? Why investigate just one naturopath? Why not all of them? Or better yet, why not investigate naturopathy itself?
Indeed, a close look at naturopathy reveals a metaphysical, even magical belief system, although it is often expressed in the language of modern science. And central to this belief system is the force.
According to the website of the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors, "The naturopathic philosophy is to stimulate the healing power of the body," an idea typically traced to the Hippocratic doctrine, rendered in Latin, of vis medicatrix naturae – "the healing power of nature."
Hippocrates stressed this notion to disabuse the Greeks of the notion that their health depended on the pantheon – the gods. Yet ironically, his effort inspired vitalism, the discredited, pseudo-religious idea that living matter differs from non-living matter in that it possesses – or more accurately, is possessed by – a mysterious, metaphysical, non-mechanistic life force.
This phenomenon has gone by many names in the West – the vital force, vital energy, elan vital – and is given expression in the chi and prana of Eastern philosophy. And since in past centuries, illness was seen as the product of an imbalance of vital forces, it was the job of healers to balance things out, which is why Western medicine once relied on bleeding people to re-establish harmony and balance.
Modern biology abandoned vitalism nearly a century ago, partly because it's unnecessary – it is possible, for example, to synthesize an organic (living) compound from inorganic components without adding a magical dose of vital energy – and partly because scientific method rejects any appeal to non-material forces. Such forces, be they called elan vital, chi, karma or even God for that matter, are the province of metaphysics and religion, which means any appeal to them cannot, by definition, be scientific.
Now let us return to naturopathy. According to the Canadian Association of Naturopathic Doctors' website, there exists a "range of modalities [that] allows naturopathic doctors to develop treatment plans." Among other things, we are told that naturopaths use homeopathy and traditional Chinese medicine in the service of regulating the vital force and thereby restoring balance.
Consequently, the association informs us that homeopathy is a "powerful system of medicine [that] is more than 200 years old," and that when homeopathic remedies are "carefully matched to the patient, they are able to affect the body's 'vital force' and to stimulate the body's innate healing forces …"
Not to be outdone, the association's discussion of traditional Chinese medicine tells us: "The key principle that defines and connects all of Chinese medicine is that of chi, or vital energy. The chi of all organs must be in balance, neither too active nor too dormant, for a person to be healthy … A naturopathic doctor will use Eastern herbs and acupuncture to assist the body in regulating the chi and achieving balance." Western herbs just won't do the trick, apparently.
Snark aside, one can see that naturopathy doesn't merely endorse the Hippocratic tradition – it embraces a pseudo-scientific, pseudo-religious philosophy dependent on a mysterious, metaphysical force. This, in fact, is the reason for its appeal: In a mechanistic and depersonalized world, many people prefer a little spirituality with their science, a good dose of magic with their medicine.
But magic isn't medicine. And neither is naturopathy.