The British Acupuncture Accreditation Board requires all of its accredited institutions to include research as an integral part of the undergraduate curriculum. There are good pragmatic and political reasons for acupuncturists to embrace research in this way. Scientific research and scientific method have been successful in shaping not just western medicine but the entire western culture over the past 400 years, so much so that it might seem politically counterproductive, or even wilfully stupid, for an emerging western acupuncture profession to adopt any other policy. Who would not want to join the winning side?
There is another view, however. Western science itself lays claim to less pragmatic, more profound reasons for doing research in the western scientific way: namely, that scientific research methods are the only correct, valid and reliable way to establish truths about the world. Hard, irrefutable scientific findings are seen as the only sure way to lead human beings to more and better knowledge, and to more and better understandings of reality. In this article I will be exploring the extent to which this starting point, even though it has popular support, may be incomplete, inadequate or even plain wrong. Worldviews change and never last forever, however triumphant and worldchanging they may have been in their time. Over the past century the currently dominant western belief system has been challenged from many perspectives, not least by cuttingedge scientists themselves – especially in physics, biology and cognitive science. It now looks as though a 17 th century European worldview, which led directly to 18th, 19th and 20th century technologies that have powerfully shaped if not created the entire modern world, might have to give way to some quite different ‘common sense’ conception of the world by the end of the 21 st century. In such an event, it would perhaps be even more counterproductive for an emerging acupuncture profession to join the losing side in a socalled ‘paradigm war’. Who would want to join a sinking ship?
The aim of this article is to set out some of the ways in which the basic philosophical assumptions about knowledge and reality that underpin mainstream scientific thinking, and therefore most current research, can be challenged, and to explore the relevance of such challenges to acupuncture research and practice. One fundamental tenet of scientific method is that mind is separate from body. Recently this Cartesian startingpoint has been comprehensively undermined by the use of conventional scientific methods themselves. According to Lakoff and Johnson, there is overwhelming 2 evidence from cognitive science that ‘the mind is inherently embodied’. Far from being detached and disembodied, the mind and all its workings, including reason, logic, language and thought, are ‘shaped crucially by the peculiarities of our human bodies, by the remarkable details of the neural structure of our brains, and by the specifics of our everyday functioning in the world’ (Lakoff and Johnson, 1999, p.4). This notion of an inescapable connection between mind and body seems likely to become a bedrock truth, or premise, underlying new kinds of thinking in the 21st century.
It would also seem to have an obvious affinity with the thinking behind traditional acupuncture. So it may be possible that a practice and a body of thought like traditional acupuncture, precisely because it has its roots in a nonwestern culture with different values and assumptions and with different understandings of what constitutes knowledge and of what comprises reality, could play a useful part in helping to teach human beings to think in a different way. Nearly forty years ago Gregory Bateson was defining the main problem of western civilisation as ‘thinking in the wrong way’. Bateson pointed to another inescapable and bedrock reality related to, but more comprehensive than, the mindbody link: the essential connection between human beings and the natural world (Bateson, 1973). He argued that the conventional scientific worldview, of an objective reality ‘out there’ that could be represented with complete fidelity by disembodied knowledge created by detached scientific research, was no longer intellectually sustainable. This objectivist way of thinking, which took delight in excluding the subjectivity of the human heart and human emotion and human relatedness, was the underlying cause of the deep ecological crises likely to face the planet in the near future.
For Bateson, the carbon crisis, the crisis of water shortage, the pollution crisis, the crisis of agriculture, the loss of species crisis, and the crisis of new diseases (or of old ones returning), had all been prefigured, philosophically speaking, in Francis Bacon’s early 17th century vision of science as the means to tame, conquer, and control nature and to ‘wrest her secrets’. Bacon had appeared admirably prescient for perhaps ten or twelve generations but, to use his military language, it would be impossible for nature to ‘lose’ such a war however many battles human beings might think they had ‘won’. Implacable nature plays the long game. And in any case it makes no sense to try to ‘conquer’ the whole of which one is a dependent part. The underlying ways of thinking are, at the very least, misdirected. The rational intellect is deluding itself if it thinks it has enabled human beings to escape their connectedness and relationship to the natural world. Since Bacon’s time the practice of scientific research has been as much political as intellectual: not just a way to understand the world more fully, but also a way to predict and thereby control it.