To understand Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) theory, it is important to compare it to the bio-medical model which most of us born in the western hemisphere are more familiar with. Without getting too overwhelmed with the history of philosophy (a fascinating yet extremely complex subject), there are two main differences in the development of the medical models which should be identified. The first difference is the basic form of logic which influenced the ancient cultures from which these medical models developed. The second major difference is the form of analysis used to understand the universe and, by extension, the human body.
Aristotle was a Greek philosopher who lived from 384-322 BCE. He is considered to be one of the most significant founding figures of Western philosophy. His concept of the “opposition of contraries” is one that forms the basis of western logic, even to this day. According to this logic, contraries (such as “that dog is small” and “that dog is not small”) cannot both be true. In other words, for every statement that is made, there is exactly one opposite statement that can also be made. One of those statements must be true, and one of those statements must be false. They cannot both be true. “Logic”, as we usually define it in the western hemisphere, is based on this fundamental premise.
Lao Tzu was a Chinese philosopher (or possibly many philosophers) who lived several hundred years BCE. He is usually credited with writing the Tao Te Ching, a book considered to represent the foundations of the Taoist philosophy. This book contains the ancient Chinese concepts of Yin and Yang, which represent opposite but complementary qualities (such as “that dog is small when compared to a great dane” and “that dog is not small when compared to a poodle”). In other words, for every statement that is made, an opposite statement can also be made. However, in contrast to the Aristotelian form of logic, it *is* possible for both statements to be true. This is because the Taoist philosophy, similar to other forms of Eastern philosophy, takes into account the relativism of such statements. “Logic” in this sense, while equally valid, is not as black and white. Traditional Chinese Medicine uses this Taoist principle extensively.
The bio-medical model of medicine (also referred to as “Western Medicine”), is heavily influenced by the scientific revolution of the 17th century. This scientific revolution was largely introduced by Rene Descartes. Descartes believed that there are fundamental, mechanical laws which govern all phenomena of the universe. By extension, it is possible to have absolute truths if we can understand these unchanging laws. He used a reductionist form of logic, which assumes that we can understand the world by breaking it down into its basic components, and the relationships between its smallest parts. Further, Descartes believed that the mind (immaterial) and the brain (material) were 2 separate things (“dualism”), which causally interact with each other. His mind-body concept remains to this day difficult to explain philosophically – in a reductionist model, how can the immaterial affect the material?
The Traditional Chinese Medicine model, in contrast, is a holistic one. It assumes that the world, including humans, is more than just a sum of its parts. It is the system as a whole that determines how the individual parts behave. Humans can be influenced by our environment, as indeed humans are a part of nature as a whole. In Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, there is no separation of the body and the mind – imbalances in the body can create disharmony in the mind, and imbalances in the mind can create disharmony in the body. Taoism, a philosophy central to TCM theory, is considered to be one of non-dualism.
The biomedical model and the Traditional Chinese Medicine model both have their strengths and their weaknesses. It is the reductionist form of thinking that lead us to such medical breakthroughs as antibiotics, surgical intervention, and advancements in technological diagnostics. However, reductionism is also responsible for the myriad of unrelated side-effects which accompany pharmaceutical therapies for specific conditions (ex. NSAIDs can reduce joint pain, but can also increase the risk of heart attack).
It is the holistic form of thinking which can often provide simple, less invasive solutions to a plethora of medical problems we face today. This model shows us that we can reduce symptoms of arthritis and joint pain by eliminating the sugar, caffeine, and wheat from our diet because of the generalized inflammatory responses that such substances create. Holism shows us that we can reduce pain by improving the circulation in our entire body, whether that is through acupuncture, massage therapy, or meditation-induced activation of the parasympathetic nervous system. However, if faced with traumatic injury or acute, severe infection, you are probably going to fare better by using the focused, reductionist tools of modern emergency medical care.
I believe the best model of medicine incorporates both the bio-medical and the Traditional Chinese Medicine paradigms. Neither is “better” than the other, rather they complement each other and allow us to see outside the box. While there are some people who believe the scientific methodology is the only true method of analyzing what “truth” is, there are also people who believe that science may be missing the point entirely, limiting itself within the boundaries it has created. I think to be truly wise, we must remember both philosophies. As a Doctor of Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is the holistic paradigm that I use on a daily basis. However, I would be amiss if I did not also incorporate the biomedical model at the same time.