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Presuppositions, Epistemology and Alternative Medicine: How To Know whether Your Therapy Works

It is amazing that so many well-read, highly educated, obviously intelligent and articulate Christians can be so easily scammed by charlatans, quacks and con-men when it comes to health issues.

  • Brian M. Abshire,
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It is amazing that so many well-read, highly educated, obviously intelligent and articulate Christians can be so easily scammed by charlatans, quacks and con-men when it comes to health issues. One might think that the critical thinking skills so often used to expose theological error would have some crossover value in other areas of life. Yet, nevertheless, hardly a month goes by without some friend, colleague, or reader sending me the latest "holistic," or "naturopathic" treatment. They will GUARANTEE these "alternative" treatments will ease my aches, clear up my allergies, restore my vigor, increase my intelligence, remove my warts, trim my waistline, restore the hair on the crown of my head and turn me into a regular stud-muffin in the bedroom.

Sadly, when I ask these obviously sincere people how they KNOW that this herb, vitamin, hormone, or whatever will do what it purports to do, they will offer me glowing testimonials from various people that THIS treatment really works! Even more sadly, six months or a year later, these same friends will be touting a NEW panacea and this time, they KNOW it really, REALLY works. And the cycle goes on ad infinitum.

Perhaps these intelligent, sincere and otherwise respectable people do not understand, nor perhaps they have never dealt with the implications of epistemology on alternative medicine. Epistemology is that aspect of philosophy that concerns how we know, what we know.

The genius of Van Til, (and his greatest student, the late, great Dr. Bahnsen) was to demonstrate that we can know, only because God knows. Christian Theism is true, because it is the only worldview that is consistent and coherent within itself. Every other worldview argues either inconsistently from its own presuppositions, or makes arbitrary statements that cannot be verified. For example, have you ever argued with a pagan who insisted, "There are no absolutes"? But wait a minute; he just made an absolute statement! Therefore, he is inconsistent with his own presuppositions. Almost invariably when you point out this logical contradiction, the pagan will turn around and say, "Well, there are no absolutes EXCEPT the statement, 'there are no absolutes!" But now he is just being arbitrary! How does he know there are no absolutes, except this one? How does he know anything? That is the quandary of the man without God.

The Christian however, has as his most basic presuppositions, the reality of the Living Triune God who spoke authoritatively in His Word the Bible. We can know true things, because God Himself, who cannot lie, told us those things, in Scripture.

But although Scripture is true, it is not exhaustive. Because God created the world as a reflection of His own immutable nature, there are things we can learn by studying that creation. This knowledge is not inspired, and cannot turn over the revelation of God Himself. But on the other hand, we can learn certain "truths" from a systematic study of the way that God has ordained His creation to work.

The scientific method is uniquely a product of a Christian theistic worldview. We believe that God created all things, and since He is a God of order, and not chaos, a systematic study of the way His providence governs creation can give us true knowledge about that creation. The materialist, naturalist and scientist can discover true things about God's creation only by thinking inconsistently with their own presuppositions about the ultimate nature of reality.

Now, think with me for a moment; what we think we "know" about creation MAY be true, or false, depending upon the accuracy of our observations. For example, two hundred years ago, spontaneous generation of life was widely assumed in the scientific community. It was obvious; leave some meat out and in a few days, maggots would be all through it. Obviously, life spontaneously came from non-life. This was the universal consensus till one bright boy wondered what would happen if he kept the meat separate from flies and other contaminants. Surprise, surprise; when flies cannot get to meat, no maggots. Today, the only time one ever hears of spontaneous generation is when evolutionists need to fall back on it as an explanation of the origins of life. But everywhere else, we now KNOW that life must proceed from life.

Therefore, sincere men may study the creation, and arrive at incorrect conclusions. The scientific method is an attempt to make our observations more rigorous by clarifying just exactly what it is we are studying. We then propose certain tests to determine if what we think we know can be actually verified by direct repeatable observations.

Now, what has all this to do with alternative medicine? Well, first, let me give a caveat; I am no friend of modern, American technological medicine. I believe (we'll talk about the importance of belief in a moment) that Westerners have been sold a suspect bill of goods. I would argue that modern medicine doesn't KNOW anywhere near what they THINK they know about diseases and cures.

Yet, even so, Western medicine is sometimes wonderfully effective because it is based on the scientific method, itself possible only with Christian presuppositions. As doctors and researchers study diseases, they develop theories, test them with various drugs and therapies, and use good statistical analysis to determine whether the treatment really does "cure" the disease or not. Over time, as these studies are replicated and clinical trials conducted, they develop a body of information that appears to meet the rigorous standards of controlled observation.

For example, say a doctor postulates that if a person's body does not produce a particular hormone, all sorts of nasty things will happen. The doctor can then TEST that hypothesis by giving a number of people with the disease a hormone replacement. If the sample size is large enough, he can then see if a statistically significant number of people improve. If they do, he may be onto something.

But for the experiment to be verified, there needs to be a control sample of people with the same disease who did NOT get the same treatment. Then, THEIR recovery rate needs to be compared with the group that got the medicine (yes, yes, I know, big ethical problems here, and it is a little more complicated than the way I explained it, but this is just an illustration). For sometimes, NO treatment will give the same results as SOME treatment.

Medical science is complex, the experiments difficult and the nuances often hard to distinguish. Sometimes, they do not get it right. But over time, there does grow a body of knowledge that can be verified by direct, sustained and repeatable observations. However, all the above is NOT true of the claims of alternative medicine. As noted earlier, when people are asked "how do you KNOW?' your "cure" works, almost universally, their only evidence is testimonials of various people (including themselves) of how well the treatment worked for them.

OK, but how do you know it was the TREATMENT that made the difference? Though I am neither a physician, nor a research scientist (statistics makes my head hurt) I do happen to "know" that within any population group with certain symptoms, if left alone, some people will get better, some people will get worse and some people will stay the same. Furthermore, as someone trained in psychology and sociology, I also "know" the very powerful effects that a placebo can have; if someone THINKS something is doing him good, it often WILL do him some good, even if the treatment is inert in and of itself. Thus, if you give a bunch of sick people snake oil, and 30% get better, how do you determine whether the snake oil actually made them better, as opposed to spontaneous remission, the placebo effect or some other factor you never even considered? And sadly, it is just this kind or rigorous research that is often missing in alternative medicine. Where are the sustained, systematic studies that demonstrate that their herbs, vitamins, massages, aromatherapy, etc., actually work? And if they do not exist, you do not KNOW anything, you are just hoping.

Let me see if I can put it another way. Say I make a claim that I have a wonderful herb growing on my five acres of land that will treat all sorts of problems. If you send me a hundred dollars, I will send you a year's supply of this wonderful herb (maybe I will put an ad in the Chalcedon Report and call my miracle herb "Theonomine" or something). Now with the herb, I may also say something like, "This herb will only work if you reduce the amount of sugar and refined carbohydrates in your diet, eat more fresh vegetables and walk at least fifteen minutes a day. If you take my herb and do these things, most of your symptoms will disappear, you'll feel better, have more energy, and be better able to resist colds, flues and other diseases. I guarantee it!"

Now if a thousand people respond to my ad, two things are going to happen; first, I am going to be very happy making an extra hundred thousand dollars this year. Secondly, since I "know" that in any given population some people get better, some get worse, and some stay the same, a number of people WILL get better even if they had done nothing. If say only 30% of the people who buy my herb get better, I can claim a 30% cure rate! But it is also easy to ignore all the people who didn't get better, and fill my web page ( with glowing testimonies. After all, if you read 300 testimonials from people about my marvelous herb, wouldn't YOU be likely to believe the claims?

Furthermore, if you do take my herb and follow my advice, guess what? You WILL feel better! You see I also happen to "know" that many diseases and symptoms are caused by over-eating, under-exercising and not dealing properly with stress. So, if you follow my instructions to eat better, and exercise just a little, you will feel better, lose weight and reduce the biochemical problems caused by stress.

But did my herb actually make anyone better? No, probably not. But I can claim it did, point proudly to all the glowing testimonials on my web page and more people will buy it. A few of them will get better and THEY will attribute it to my herb, further building my reputation. After a while, I could start my own school of alternative medicine, become a health guru and buy that island in the Pacific!

Do you see the danger here? Again and again, the validity of alternative medicine rests not on objective, verifiable and statistically significant experiments but on personal testimonials; testimonials that prove NOTHING. A person who insists that he knows something JUST by quoting anecdotes is inherently and implicitly making a religious statement! For if there are two ways of knowing, revelation which is received by faith, and knowledge obtained by sustained and systematic observation of the creation, if a man cannot point to rigorous research that verifies his opinion, he does not KNOW anything, only BELIEVES something.

His belief may be right, or it may be wrong. But it is a religious statement and needs to be recognized as such. And since God is the God of truth, we must be very careful in making statements that says something like "such and such is TRUE" if we do not in fact KNOW that it is true.

Why then do so many sincere Christians make these kinds of fundamental errors in their thinking about medicine? Well, let me offer several possible explanations. First, in my experience, people who are drawn to Christian Reconstruction tend to be "scholarly" rather than "scientific." They like to read books on history, theology, economics, etc., none of which require a working knowledge of statistics to appreciate. If they have any training in the scientific method of observation, it came about during one or two college classes, conveniently isolated from every other discipline. Few people take statistics for the "fun" of it and those who do seldom relate it to philosophy. Thus, in one sense, we have all been victimized by the humanists "multi-versity" system, which offers no over-arching truth that affects every area of life.

Secondly, to be Theonomic and Reconstructionist means that someone has had to think "outside the box." Theonomy requires a person whose predisposition is to go against current cultural trends. Mainstream evangelicalism hates the Law of God, has a pessimistic eschatology and no real answers for cultural and social issues. It takes a certain kind of person, willing and able to think in a certain way to resist the pressure to conform to cultural norms. Therefore, people who adopt some form of Reconstruction are more likely to distrust the establishment (in fact, are there not a lot of people who are drawn to Reconstruction just because it is anti-establishment?) and willing to look at other alternatives. Since modern medicine IS the flagship of humanism, many Christians believe, (rightly so) that there must be a more "Christian" way to do medicine. Some of the alternative types of medicine, at least on the presuppositional level, appear to be valid forms of study. Many Christians therefore rightly say, "There must be a better way!"

And there may well be. But before we jump on the latest diet, herbal, hormonal remedy fad that comes along, let us all be a little more skeptical and analytical in our thinking. Let us not make claims that have not been verified. Let us learn to love the TRUTH, and not simply hearsay. And if YOU have some long-standing medical problem that hasn't responded to traditional medicine, I have this wonderful herb in my back yard…

  • Brian M. Abshire

Rev. Brian Abshire, Ph.D. is currently a Teaching Elder associated with Hanover Presbytery. Along with his pastoral duties, he is also the director for the International Institute for Christian Culture, has served as an adjunct instructor in Religious Studies at Park University and is a visiting Professor of Comparative Religion at Whitefield College.

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