Outside the box: the limits of “black box: approaches to human knowledge

essay by Chris Struble
March 2000

I have a friend who studies Oriental philosophy and martial arts. Recently we had a discussion about Qi-Gong, the ancient Chinese belief that an energy called Qi (pronounced “chee”) exists in the body, and can be focused on points in the body to cause healing or harm. Practitioners work from elaborate diagrams showing paths where Qi energy “flows” through the body. This belief is the basis of acupuncture and other traditional Chinese medicines, and also plays a role in many of the martial arts.

My friend agrees with me that the concept of Qi as an energy force is probably wrong. But he maintains that these disciplines do work to some extent and after some discussion we arrived at an explanation of how these practices might have developed.

The modern approach to medicine could be called a “white box” approach. That is, it is based on anatomy and how the internal systems of the body work. The term “white box” means being able to see inside the system you are studying. This is a very powerful method, and is one of the reasons that modern medicine has been so effective at treating disease and extending human life.

The human body can also be approached from a “black box” perspective, that is, observing behavior without knowing the internal details of how a system works. For example, the observation that placing a needle on a certain part of the body can alleviate pain in a different part of the body.

For a sufficiently large number of observations, a sort of picture of the internal system can be built up. This picture may be completely wrong, but can have predictive power nonetheless. The danger of this approach comes when the picture is still held up as truth even after new instruments come along that allow you to look “inside the box” directly.

One example of a black box approach to knowledge was the “science” of phrenology. This was a belief that specific functions of the mind were localized in specific areas of the brain. Developed long before the availability of MRI brain scans, phrenology was based on the simple observation that if certain parts of the brain were damaged or destroyed, specific functions such as morality or memory or speech were impaired, but other functions not at all.

Phrenologists concluded that you could tell something about the person by the size and shape of the brain case. For example, a person with a bump on his head above his “honesty center” was likely to be a very honest person. Phrenologists drew diagrams of the different areas of the brain and their functions.

It is turns out that things are not quite so simple. Full understanding of a complex system like the brain will only be achieved by instruments able to look inside the brain itself.

Another example of a black box approach to knowledge was the Ptolemaic model of the solar system, developed by the ancient Greek astronomer Ptolemy. Because Ptolemy lacked instruments powerful enough to see the planets in detail, he couldn’t really know what they were, only how they moved. While his model had predictive power, it was so complex that it offended logic and common sense. It was not until 1610 when Galileo pointed his telescope at the heavens that the true nature of the planets was revealed. But by that time Ptolemy’s system had become an article of faith.

Developed in ancient China at a time when dissection of cadavers was forbidden, Qi-Gong probably began as an empirical, black box approach to medicine. But over time, it went beyond observation, and became a religious belief. For example, there are Qi-Gong “masters” who claim to be able to focus their Qi at a distance to knock down opponents without touching them. These feats invariably turn out to be cheap magic tricks that do not hold up under close scrutiny.

More alarming, today in China, despite access to modern medicine in some areas, there are still hospitals where serious conditions like deafness, paralysis, cataracts, and even cholera are treated using acupuncture alone. Entire species like the tiger and the panda are being decimated because of the use of animal parts in traditional Chinese medicine, based on the Qi-Gong traditions.

I am not suggesting that skeptical western science should dismiss all Qi-Gong claims because of these excesses. It would be interesting to apply modern clinical research methods to some of the more plausible claims to determine what is actually going on and if there are any effective treatments involved.

In a system as complex as the human body, it is not too hard to believe that stimulating a particular nerve ending in one part of the body might tell the brain to release pain-killing chemicals to another part of the body. But believing it might be true is one thing, knowing for sure and understanding the mechanisms involved is quite another.

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