How is Qigong Science Possible?


  • 倪培民 (Peimin NI) Grand Valley State University, USA




LANGUAGE NOTE | Document text in Chinese; abstract also in English.



The effectiveness of qigong (cultivation and application of qi-vital energy) is typically divided into two categories, the maintenance and improvement of the practitioner's own health and overall well being ("internal qi"), and the exertion of qi to affect external objects ("external qi"). Internal qi is less controversial partly because its effects are easier to be explained within the parameters of modern science, whereas external qi is much more controversial as its claims defray some deeply cherished common sense beliefs and well-received scientific laws. Skeptics take science as a measure to question qigong claims, accusing qigong, especially external qi, to be occult and superstition. Some advocators of qigong tried to conduct scientific experiments to prove the existence and effects of qi. In the public domain science has virtually become legislator for the legitimacy of qigong. But the encounters between qigong masters and scientists have been an unhappy marriage. Qigong claims were often denied by scientists as impossible right off the hand. Most scientists were unwilling to step into this field for the fear of being ridiculed by their colleagues. The dominant position of science in today's world seems to have defined the problem in such a way that, either qigong effects are scientifically proven, in that case it often means that they are reduced into normal frameworks of the accepted scientific practices and explanations, or that it is rejected on the bases of being scientifically unjustified, and therefore be treated no more than superstitions. In either case, qigong is rejected as a special science.

Given the nature of the issue, it is necessary to take a Kantian approach by asking "How is qigong science possible?" The paper analyzes four major skeptical arguments against qigong, and three claims from qigong advocators, and draws a conclusion that only by keeping some essential tensions can qigong become science.

The first skeptic argument is that, because some apparent qigong results could be duplicated by playing tricks, the qigong "masters" were therefore simply deceiving the public. This argument entails a logical confusion. Just like the fact that some may steal money does not prove all money come from stealing, duplication by playing tricks does not prove all paranormal phenomena should be rejected as such. Precautions should be taken to prevent frauds, but certain trust and respect must be observed for qigong to be science. If the argument were accepted as a valid disproof of qigong claims, it could reject all the claims, whether paranormal or normal. In this area, the principle of "assuming innocence until proven guilty" must also be applied.

The second skeptic argument is that qigong claims violate well-established scientific laws and common sense beliefs, and are therefore simply impossible. The argument is based on the popular, though nai've, belief that common sense beliefs and well-established scientific laws are plain truth, and, instead of subjecting to further evaluations, they become standards themselves for measuring possibilities and impossibilities.

The third argument is that qigong results could be explained by or reduced to normal physical or psychological phenomena, and they are therefore actually not unusual. While this approach can separate some merely apparent paranormal phenomena from genuine ones, it should be taken within certain limit. When reductionism is used as a regulative principle, it becomes "a constraint upon the acceptability of theories in the special science with the curious consequence that the more the special sciences succeed, the more they ought to disappear" (Fodor). Even when physical measures are detected in qi emitting environment, the measurements themselves tell us little about the real content of qi, just like the vibration of air tells us little about the meaning of a spoken sentence.

The fourth argument from the skeptics is that qigong claims are not conclusive because they lack rigorous scientific justification. While this is a very legitimate concern, scientific standards and procedures themselves need to be examined. Laboratory experimentation maybe the worst way for testing qigong claims, since the prime variable in qigong is mental states, and they occur most likely in natural conditions. Mental states are also more difficult to re-create than physical states, especially if the function of these states depends on what Jung calls collective consciousness.

Qigong advocators have three major claims that apparently make qigong unfalsifiable. The first is that experimenters' mental states may exert influence on the outcome. While this argument may be misused to explain away any failure, it does not make scientific study of qigong impossible. It requires the scientist to abandon their "objective" by-stander position, and adopt a positive attitude toward the experiment, or even become qigong practitioners themselves, but it does not demand self-deception. We can still empirically confirm or disconfirm a claim by asking whether the outcome is more likely to happen with the participation of sincere believers and diligent practitioners.

Qigong advocators also claim that, when some qigong treatments were not effective, it is because the recipient did not believe that it had actually worked. Direct verification of this claim involves proof of counterfactual conditional statements. As no one can undo his mental activity, the claim remains a hypothesis. A more disturbing claim for the scientists is that even if the physiological test results turn out to be bad, the patient should still remain positive that she has been cured. To a scientist this sounds like a typical self-deception. Yet claims like these may well be actually profound. The metaphysical principle behind the claim is that words and thoughts do not merely describe or reflect facts; they are actions that affect facts. One's own words can be an action of affirmation. Even ordinary counterfactual claims cannot be proven by undoing what has been clone. If statistical data shows that in a critical amount of similar cases, the likelihood of the positive effect significantly increases with a positive attitude, and otherwise decreases, it would equally be plausible to make such claims.

A third disturbing claim from qigong advocators is that qi is autonomous -- it makes its own choice about what problems to fix first. The difficulty for scientists to accept this claim is that it opens the door for any failure, in any kind of tests. This claim again involves counterfactual condition, and appears to be empirically unfalsifiable. Yet it is still acceptable if we find the practice or treatment is in significant amount of other cases effective. Scientists have long taken for granted that scientific facts must be publicly observable by ordinary perception. It seldom occurs to them that they may need to cultivate themselves to open the "third eye" and become a "competent judge." The claim can be justified in proportion to the amount of testimony from those judges. This hypothesis requires a radical shift in epistemology, but not abandonment of empirical justification.

The discussion leads to the following tentative conclusions:Qigong science is possible only if we keep essential tensions between seven pairs of extremes: (1) a tension between blindly trusting any alleged qigong masters and dismissing qigong claims as fraud before investigating the cases; (2) a tension between dogmatically sticking to currently accepted common sense and scientific beliefs and naïve credulity; (3) a tension between reducing something unfamiliar to familiar frameworks forcefully, rejecting whatever that cannot be reduced, and casually adding new categories of variables and new hypothesis into scientific theories; (4) a tension between conceiving experimenters as totally outside observers and demanding uncritical blind believers; (5) a tension between taking language as descriptions and as actions; (6) a tension between requesting public observability for everything and taking whatever an alleged qigong master says without checking with other masters; and (7) a tension between truth and value, and understand that the legitimacy of qigong is not derived from science alone.

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How to Cite

NI, P. (2001). 氣功科學如何才是可能的?: How is Qigong Science Possible?. International Journal of Chinese &Amp; Comparative Philosophy of Medicine, 3(3), 7–20. https://doi.org/10.24112/ijccpm.31403