Believing Contradictions about Science and the Body

Contradictions abound in almost anyone’s thinking.  We regularly tolerate all kinds of nonsense, not because we’re stupid, but because we just don’t notice.  Unless something happens that forces the two contradictory ideas together, we’ll continue to believe them both in their hermetically sealed separate spheres, live a long life, and die none the wiser.

Most evangelical brains shelter just such a contradiction when it comes to science.  When we start discussing creation with an average secularist, we quickly bring up the issue of the limits of science.  Direct observation doesn’t extend into the past…we can only theorize…science is about what’s repeatable…that sort of thing.  We’re also quick to point out the litany of scientific errata: Hesperopithecus, the allegedly poor design of the human spine, so-called “vestigial” organs, the famous horse series, the supposed existence of “gills” on the human fetus, and so on.

If science is so darned all-knowing, we want to know, then what about all these mistakes — and what do we “know” today that will turn out to be a mistake?  Even more important, we’ll point out the very, very fragmentary nature of scientific knowledge — how little, in the grand scheme of things, we actually know, even about such well-studied subjects as the human body.  “Why do we age?” is a perennial favorite.  If we’re really feeling our oats, we’ll talk about science’s inability to measure love, hate, or good character.  And so on.

In sum, we love to enter those discussions with all our statements about how science has been wrong an awful lot before, and how it’s undoubtedly wrong an awful lot even now, and how there’s so very, very much that it doesn’t even begin to know.  And even if you don’t like my particular examples, you know very well that the basic principle is sound: scientific knowledge is both incomplete and fallible.

Hold on to that thought; we’ll be coming back to it.

Now on another day, at another time, the same evangelicals will be having a perfectly holy conversation when someone in the group mentions that she’s thinking about taking a yoga class, or going to an acupuncturist to treat her tennis elbow, or enrolling at a martial art studio, or involvement in any one of dozens of other cultural artifacts that happen to originate east of the Caucasus.  Almost certainly, someone in the group will instantly object that a Christian shouldn’t do those things.  Yoga is a Hindu practice, you see.  Martial arts are a form of Buddhist evangelism.  Traditional Chinese medicine is tainted with Taoism and ancestor-worship.  If the hapless naif who introduced the subject is easily intimidated, that will be the end of that.

Sometimes, however, actual discussion takes place.  The arguments against these things will take a couple of basic shapes.

Often the first will be the bare assertion that the thing in question originates from an idolatrous culture.  Chinese culture is steeped in Buddhism, Taoism, and animism, and therefore — so the argument goes — Chinese medicine is tainted, and a Christian should not be involved in it.  The unspoken assumption here is that which originates from an idolatrous culture must of necessity be idolatrous in its very nature.  Not surprisingly, fireworks, the moveable type printing press and kung pao chicken will not be mentioned in this conversation.

(There’s more to say in refutation to that one, but I think kung pao chicken will hold the line for now.  The rest of the refutation is for another post.)

A second often-advanced argument will be that the discipline in question is not scientifically proven.  This is not really the argument — it’s a trap.  Listen in as the trap springs…

Trapper: “…besides, that stuff’s just folklore anyway; there’s no physical evidence of energy flowing around the body like that.  There have been a bunch of scientific studies.  If you need help, why not just go to a real doctor?”

Naif: “But it works!  My aunt had pain in her legs so bad she couldn’t walk, and nobody could help her.  She finally went to an acupuncturist, and in two months she was cured!”

Trapper: “I didn’t say it couldn’t work, just that it’s not physical.” [ominously] “You know, there are only two sources of spiritual power in the world.  If it’s not physical energy they’re manipulating, then it’s spiritual — and it’s not the power of prayer.  Why would you want to be cured by demonic power?”

Poor Naif walked right into it.  Acupuncture is not scientifically proven, and therefore if it works, it’s for other (read: demonic) reasons.  All the more reason to stay away. Trapper gets away with this sleight-of-mouth by assuming that what science can’t presently explain or detect isn’t in the physical realm at all.

Now, retrieve that thought I’d asked you to hold onto earlier.

You see the problem?  Bet you dollars to doughnuts, when Trapper gets into an argument about creation and evolution, he’s all about the limitations of empirical science.  But when he’s arguing about acupuncture, Trapper has to pretend that empirical science knows everything in order to sell his “demons did it” hypothesis.

Who’s really getting trapped, here?

There’s a lot about the body that we don’t know.  There’s a lot about the body that traditional cultures do know, and it shouldn’t surprise us if they know some things we don’t.  After all, when you don’t have to keep up with an endless flood of sappy Christian historical fiction or reruns of the holy-hairdo-of-the-month on TBN, it’s amazing how much time you have on your hands.  Lacking all our entertainment, and the tech-toys we use to do everything, they tend to use their bodies more, and pay more attention to the workings of the body than we do.

Some of this knowledge survives in common folk wisdom, even in America.  Let’s say someone was just involved in a near-accident, and he’s still so adrenaline-sick that he needs to pull over to the side of the road to regain his composure. Let’s consider two common things we might say to him under those circumstances.

“Shake it off,” we say, thinking that it’s a metaphor.  It’s not.  Shaking will happen involuntarily to some degree, but people usually try to “control” (read: stop) it.  if our distressed motorist lets the shaking come naturally, or even induces it deliberately, it will rapidly reduce his residual muscle tension and help him to restore equilibrium.

“Take a deep breath” is another common response, also very literal.  If our frightened motorist will slow his breathing, perhaps inhaling for a slow count of four, holding his breath for a slow count of four, exhaling for a slow count of four, holding the exhale for a slow count of four, and continue in that pattern for several minutes, the slowed respiration will automatically reduce his heart rate, which will in turn lead to a lower level of overall arousal, and the return of the coordination and fine motor functions so essential for driving.

You can find these principles embodied in traditional practices around the world, and — as we just saw — in our own vernacular, even if we don’t realize what we’re saying.  Western medical research into these phenomena is relatively recent, and by no means extensive so far.  So how much else is there that the guys in lab coats don’t know?

If I was guessing, I’d say quite a lot.

But that doesn’t mean that nobody knows about it.  Over in China and India, warriors had been using breathwork to control stress since Hippocrates was an intern.  Their explanation of how it worked might have been a bit odd, and I doubt they would have used terms like “blood gasses” or “autonomic nervous system.”  But they could do it, and they could teach someone else to do it.  Their modern-day descendants can do the same.

If you wait for the pencil-necks in lab coats to catch up, you could be waiting a very long time for some very old news.


5 Responses to Believing Contradictions about Science and the Body

  1. Eric Kemp says:

    Ok, that was awesome. I’ve never really thought about it in quite this way . . . I mean, what did the Samurai and the ninja know that the body could do that we’ve forgotten?

  2. Tim Nichols says:

    Yeah, exactly. One of the training exercises I picked up along the way is a several-month-long progression that trains you to respond to minute sensory cues — stuff we usually filter out or ignore. It’s a very useful skill for responding to sudden attack, and it gets to where a person can feel a strike coming even though they can’t see it. Nothing extrasensory about it — as you know, the human sensory apparatus has a lot more capability than we usually use. The trade-off is that first it re-sensitizes you, then it trains you to believe the stimulus (i.e., actually act on the cue), *then* you learn to discriminate between threatening and non-threatening cues. So for a while before that last step, you respond vigorously to everything, and you’re completely unfit for civilized company. One guy I heard about knocked out his mother three times. Not something I’d ever do unless I was in a situation where the trade-off was worth it — but it *can* be done, and the little exposure I had to the drills was enough to demonstrate to my satisfaction that the skill is real.

    I’m of the opinion that a lot of the legends have a basis in fact, and the ‘legendary’ part is not invented from whole cloth; it’s just an exaggeration. For example, there’s a tribe on Java that has a reputation for being able to fly. What they actually show is their warriors, in full kit with shield and spear and so on, running full-tilt toward an 8-foot-high rock, and leaping over it in a single bound. Pretty impressive, until you find out that just in back of it, there’s a 4-foot-high rock that they use for a stepping stone (you can’t see that part from where you’ll be watching). But then think about it — even allowing for the 4-foot rock, could *you* jump over that kind of obstacle carrying a spear and shield, while giving onlookers the impression that you were effortlessly flying over it? I can’t. It’s not what they say it is, but taking ‘flying lessons’ from them would still have benefits — they still make David Belle look like a spastic toddler, even if they are exaggerating about the extent of the skill.

    You don’t have to believe in the explanation of why it works to benefit from the training progression, either. They may have some weird, convoluted mess of an explanation that makes no sense, but that doesn’t mean that the training progression won’t work, and there’s still the empirical data to work with.
    (More seriously, their explanation for the phenomenon may induce a ‘meat offered to idols’ problem, but that’s the subject of the next post in this series.)

  3. Eric Kemp says:


    Yea, when I was training with my co-worker from 24 hour fitness, I think you know who I mean, I could NEVER sneak up on him, EVER. And man would I try. He was never so sensitive as to swing at me when I would come up behind me, but he would always be able to react before my leg or fist reached him (half-speed of course). The way he put it was that he could, “sense my intent”. I was always, and still am, skeptical of that claim but I couldn’t argue with the results.


  4. Tim Nichols says:

    Exactly. One way of thinking about it: If you had to actually, consciously focus on each separate muscle contraction in any kinetic chain — say, a golf swing, for example — *while you were doing it*, you’d never be able to do it. So you ‘chunk up’ and think of it as “one smooth motion.” This is true, at one level, and completely false at another, lower level.

    “Sensing your intent” is a similar type of phrase. It’s true at a higher level. At the lower, more basic level, he’s feeling minute shifts in heat and air pressure, hearing sounds that the conscious mind filters out, and so on. There are too many factors involved at that level for us to hold them all in mind consciously, so we don’t — we ‘chunk up’ and consider it all as one thing: “sensing someone’s intent.”

    Same thing with “channeling energy from the earth” into a hit or a throw. Mike Sigman’s _Internal Power_ series from Plum Flower Press explains the engineering of it, but the bottom line is that if you use the image, it works a lot better than if you try to think about what’s really going on at a physiological level.

  5. Robert says:

    Dear Tim,

    That’s a really good point. I hadn’t thought about that.


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