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The Energy Fields of Life

Reality Check

Victor Stenger

Skeptical Briefs Volume 8.2, June 1998

The unifying principle behind almost all of alternative medicine is that some ëlan vital is responsible for infusing organisms with the property of life. In today’s fashion, this vital force is called the bioenergetic field and is confusingly associated with classical electromagnetic fields on the one hand, and quantum wave function fields on the other.

Belief in the existence of a living force is primeval and remains widespread. Called prana by the Hindus, ch'i by the Chinese, and ki by the Japanese, it is the source of life that is often associated with soul, spirit, and mind. In ancient times the soul was identified with breath, which the Hebrews called ruach, the Greeks psyche or pneuma (the breath of the gods), and the Romans spiritus. Obviously, the origin of words like “psychic” and “spirit” resides in what we now know is a completely material substance — the mixture of N2, O2, and other gases we call air. But bioenergetic fields are much thinner than air, so thin in fact that they cannot be distinguished from the void.

A few centuries ago, Christianity adopted the dualistic notion that soul or spirit or mind (they assumed they were all the same) is an entity separate and distinct from the material world. However, the “cartesian split” was never complete. Spirit and body are expected to interact at some point. Descartes thought the site of this interaction was in the pineal gland of the brain.

As modern science developed in the West, scientists sought evidence for the substance of spirit. After Newton had published his laws of mechanics, optics, and gravity, he spent many years fruitlessly looking for the living force in alchemic experiments.

In the late nineteenth century, prominent physicists such as William Crookes and Oliver Lodge searched for what they called the “psychic force” responsible for the mysterious powers of the mind that was being exhibited by the mediums and other spiritualist hucksters of the day. They thought it might be connected with the electromagnetic “aether waves” that had just been discovered and were being put to amazing use. If wireless telegraphy was possible, why not wireless telepathy? While wireless telegraphy thrived, wireless telepathy made no progress in the full century that followed. But even before the twentieth century saw its first sunrise, the aether was found not to exist. By 1905, electromagnetic signals were recognized as being carried by material particles we now call photons.

Biological science developed within a totally materialistic model in which everything could be understood in terms of the same material particles and forces that were found in inanimate matter. From all we know in physics, chemistry, and biology, living cells are made of the same quarks and electrons as rocks. They interact with one another by the exchange of the same photons and gluons. No carefully controlled, replicable experiment has ever produced data requiring us to postulate additional components to organic matter, whether material or spiritual, living or non-living. Holistic bioenergetic fields are figments of the imagination.

Despite complete scientific rejection, the concept of a special biological fields within living things remains deeply engraved in human thinking. It is now working its way into modern health care systems, as non-scientific alternative therapies become increasingly popular. From acupuncture to homeopathy and therapeutic touch, the claim is made that healing can be brought about by the proper adjustment of a person’s or animal’s “bioenergetic fields.” This delusion has become so ubiquitous that it is appearing in books and journals that claim to practice scientific standards.

For example, Elissa Patterson has published a long article entitled “The philosophy and physics of holistic health care: Spiritual healing as a workable interpretation” in the British Journal of Advanced Nursing (1998, 27, 287-293). She relates spiritual healing to the belief that “we are all part of the natural harmonious energy of the universe.” Within this universal energy field is a human energy field “that is intimately involved with human life, often called the ‘aura'.”

Evidence for this aura is claimed in Kirlian photography. The author is obviously neither a philosopher nor a physicist. She does not exhibit the high school level of physics knowledge required to understand that this phenomenon is simple corona discharge, observed as far back as 1777 and completely understood for almost a century.

According to Patterson, modern physics is supposed to “require the acceptance of the concept of interconnectedness of energy, energy continually moving from what we term subatomic particles to the biosphere, including the planet earth, all forming a ‘whole'.” The physics described by Patterson seems to have been gleaned from New Age literature. She refers to Fritjof Capra and Ken Wilber for authority, not any common textbook. She parrots all the common misconceptions about the nature of relativity and quantum mechanics, and Einstein’s role in each, that one sees throughout New Age writing.

Even veterinary medicine has not escaped the inroads of holistic bioenergetics and its phony basis in quantum physics. In “Introduction to Bioenergetic Medicine,” chapter sixteen of Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practice (Allen M. Schoen and Susan G. Wynn, eds. Mosby-Year Book, 1997), Joanne Stefanatos says: “The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics. Bioenergetic medicine is the study of human and animal bodies as dynamic electromagnetic fields existing in an electromagnetic environment. Based on Einstein’s theories of quantum physics, these energetic concepts are being integrated into medicine for a comprehensive approach to disease diagnosis, prevention, and treatment.”

Stefanatos and Patterson are each blissfully unaware that Einstein was deeply opposed to the very interpretation of quantum mechanics that they attribute to him and rely upon to support their delusions about a holistic universe. It was Einstein who destroyed holism by showing that the whole notion of simultaneous action throughout space, the very concept of an absolute “now,” is meaningless. He derided the claims that quantum fields act instantaneously across space as “spooky action at a distance.” Furthermore, Einstein opposed the indeterministic trends in quantum physics. He desired a return to something like the very mechanical picture of Newtonian physics that these authors decry.

But the physics ignorance of Patterson and Stefanatos goes even deeper than this. They, as many alternative therapists, seem to equate the bioenergetic field with the electromagnetic field. Their notion sounds very much like the "animal magnetism” of Friedrich Anton Mesmer, who died in 1815. We've come a long way in the 183 years since, but you would never know it from reading articles by writers such as Patterson and Stefanatos.

Victor Stenger

Victor J. Stenger was emeritus professor of physics and astronomy at the University of Hawaii and Visiting Fellow in Philosophy at the University of Colorado. He died on August 25, 2014. His final book was God and the Multiverse: Humanity’s Expanding View of the Cosmos, and his previous books include Not By Design, Physics and Psychics, The Unconscious Quantum, and Timeless Reality: Symmetry, Simplicity, and Multiple Universes, and The Fallacy of Fine-Tuning: How the Universe is Not Designed for Humanity.