I am often struck by what I consider one of the great mysteries of CAM: how theories and approaches that are mutually inconsistent and incompatible are unified under the CAM umbrella without any apparent notice being taken of their mutually exclusive dogmas. The American Holistic Veterinary Medical Association (AAVMA), which I’ve written about before, is the paragon of this phenomenon. The organization supports and publishes “research” articles about almost any quack therapy without discrimination, so long as it cannot be said to be solidly based on scientific research evidence. The siege mentality seems to blind members of the CAM community to their internal differences.
Chiropractic is based on the theory that a mystical energy called innate intelligence travels through the spine and that subtle misalignments of the vertebrae (subluxations) block the normal flow of this energy, which leads to all disease. Granted, some chiropractors treat these ideas much like many Christians treat the Bible, as metaphors rather than literal truth, but the idea is still the foundation of the method and still widely invoked, especially since those chiropractors who have renounced it are left rather lamely claiming that their method works because people say it works even if no one can say why.
Traditional acupuncture, insofar as it has any consistent theoretical foundation, relies on the similarly vitalistic concept of qi which gets blocked or unbalanced to cause all disease. Manipulation of the qi as it flows through meridians by penetration with needles is the key element of acupuncture therapy. Again, some acupuncturists have attempted to jettison the vitalism underlying the tradition of their approach, though they haven’t come up with a demonstrable, consistent alternative explanation of how acupuncture might work, but many still employ the traditional concepts and language.
Homeopathy is based on another vitalist force gone awry, only this time the key to treatment of all disease is identifying a natural substance that induces the same symptoms as a particular disorder (Law of Similars) and then making it into a potent medicine by diluting and shaking it (Law of Infinitesimals and succussion). The contortions of homeopaths to try and rationalize this nonsense by bizarre interpretations of quantum mechanics are especially entertaining.
Many less popular CAM approaches rely on similar vitalist concepts, and yet many, many of them claim a unitary cause of disease and a single method for treatment, and no one seems to notice that all of these theories and all of these treatments cannot all be the one true cause/treatment of disease. Yet it is quite common for practitioners and patients alike to combine methods and recommend several or all of them. Clearly, the reality is that whatever unites these folks, it is not a particular theory nor even a commitment to their various one true answers. So what is it?
Well, epistemologically of course it is the belief that personal experience and intuition are reliable and sufficient to confirm the truth of an idea or the efficacy of a therapy. There is a strong tendency to a post-modernist relativism that suggests multiple incompatible truths can all be true for someone somewhere since there is no single physical reality out there waiting to be understood, as methodological naturalism and most scientific epistemology assumes.
Politically, CAM practitioners share a sense of being bold and unconventional thinkers surrounded by an oppressive and unimaginative orthodoxy marching in lockstep and suppressing all dissent. The reality is quite different, as CAM has become a well-financed and politically powerful lobby, but the image still persists in the minds of many practitioners and users.
CAM proponents often view the world as “toxic” and see the benefits of technology and science as hiding malign and poisonous underbellies. They tend to view history as a decline from a romanticized golden age in which humans lived in a state of nature and were healthier and happier to a time of decay in which science serves only to abuse and oppress the earth and the body.
There are undoubtedly other philosophical and aesthetic commonalities to the CAM movement, and I think it would be a fascinating topic for detailed study. Unfortunately, the general distrust of the very notion that there is a single objective reality that exists for everyone everywhere and that isn’t influenced at all by our beliefs or feelings makes possible a kind of doublethink in which mutually inconsistent medical theories can all be true. This makes it possible to suggest with a straight face that CAM might really be “complementary” even to scientific medical practice while still rejecting the very philosophical and epistemological premises that underlie science-based medicine. It would be nice if pointing out the logical inconsistency here had an impact on the beliefs of CAM followers, but they are well-protected against such reasoning.