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Brilliant Speech by Prince Charles: Future King shows the limitations of mechanistic and reductionist thinking.

In what was surely the speech of his life, Facing the Future,  (The Richard Dimbleby Memorial Lecture broadcast on BBC last night – you can still hear it here, Prince Charles made an impassioned appeal for a new way of viewing the present world crisis with special regard to the environment.

Rather than condescendingly lecturing and hectoring his supposedly ignorant audience like an Al Gore, the Prince of Wales sought to understand the thinking processes and philosophy that got us into this mess and how the way we apprehend the world, nature and the universe will need fundamentally to change in order to get us out of it.

The media reported the speech as yet another warning about the environment which would hardly have been very original. The text of the speech, however, was more about the difference between a reductionist/mechanistic philosophy and an holistic one. And let me be crystal clear by what I mean by ‘holism’. The word holism was first used by Jan Smuts in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution and defined as ‘the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.’

The future monarch made the point that it is our exclusively reductionist and mechanistic thinking that has got us into a lot of trouble. Opponents will miss the point and naturally adopt a reductionist approach to the whole speech and ask for scientific evidence for saying this! However the whole point of the talk was about the ‘interconnectedness’ of things – in other words holism. The problem is that we understand that the planet is in danger and so seek a reductionist answer instead of looking for the answer deep within ourselves.  This results in us pointing an accusing finger at others for the state of the world and saying things such as ‘Look what they have done now!’.

As far as medicine is concerned, I’m sure Prince Charles would love to have mentioned homeopathy in this talk but desisted because that and only that would have made the headlines. Homeopathy epitomizes an holistic view of the universe and is perhaps one of the greatest victims of the contemporary, reductionist, mechanistic, naively realistic attitude to medicine – arrogantly, condescendingly and patronizingly espoused by such ‘post-Enlightenment’ (there were NO great thinkers before The Enlightenment – you had better understand) commentators like Edzard Ernst, David Colquhoun, Michael Baum, Simon Singh and many others. The problem with  these eminent doctors and scientists is that they seem to be incapable of thinking in a non-reductionist way – so holism is off their radar completely.

I read that David Dimbleby, unlike his brother Jonathan who introduced the speaker, intended to give the lecture (given in honour of his father) a miss because he disagreed with the prince ‘meddling’ in public affairs. Perhaps he thinks the Royals’ opinion should be confined to the Queen mechanically reading a platitudinous homily off an autocue on Christmas Day.  I don’t want  Henry VIII back but I do think we deserve a bit better than that. In this lecture, perhaps the finest given by a monarch in waiting, Prince Charles delivered the goods. Not everyone will agree, but he has at least invited the most interesting and critical of conversations.

By | 2009-07-09T11:43:27+01:00 July 9th, 2009|Current Affairs, Homeopathy|13 Comments

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13 Comments

  1. PaoloV July 11, 2009 at 4:32 pm

    “Homeopathy epitomizes an holistic view of the universe…”

    Tosh. Homeopathy may attempt an holistic approach to health and well-being, but that is hardly epitomizing a holistic view of the universe. Sheer hyperbole.

    “…and is perhaps one of the greatest victims of the contemporary, reductionist, mechanistic, naively realistic attitude to medicine”

    I think the greatest victim of the contemporary, reductionist, mechanistic, naively realistic attitude to medicine is probably smallpox.

    Holistic thinking is bigger than healthcare – it requires an understanding of the interactions between individual elements in order to better understand the whole. Homeopathy does this at the level of the individual, but it fails to do this at a wider level – at a population level. Which is what epidemiology tries to do, by understanding larger scale trends and patterns in response to environmental and organismal effects. Vaccination and herd immunity is a far better representation of holistic thinking than taking a limited sample of people to carry out provings which are supposed to inform decisions made about the health of very different people far into the future.

    I’m not sure why I bother writing this, because I have a strong feeling that it will be deleted since it disagrees with your opinion, still I feel that it’s a point worth making.

    • Dr. Kaplan July 11, 2009 at 6:37 pm

      PauloV, thank you for your comment. I am not sure at all why you thought it would deleted because it disagrees with my opinion. I am a firm believer in free speech and some of the points you make are valid though why you would choose to compare homeopathy to epidemiology is not clear to me. Okay then, in answer to your points:
      1. ‘Homeopathy may attempt an holistic approach to health and well-being, but that is hardly epitomizing a holistic view of the universe. Sheer hyperbole’
      A: Actually you have a point about me being guilty of hyperbole, but a careful look at how homeopaths analyse cases and the source of their remedies does indeed reflect the interconnectedness of natural phenomenon.
      2. ‘Vaccination and herd immunity is a far better representation of holistic thinking etc.’
      A: Not better but simply another illustration. Interestingly one of the most convincing studies of all in homeopathy is the veterinary double blind one where cows drinking from the trough with a homeopathic remedy in it got far less mastitis than those that drank from another trough.
      3. ‘I think the greatest victim of the contemporary, reductionist, mechanistic, naively realistic attitude to medicine is probably smallpox.’
      A: Clever play on words but you and I know that by ‘victim’ you really mean ‘victory’ and with that I’d agree. Along with syphilis, meningitis, subdural haematoma, TB etc. I am immensely proud of the achievements of mechanistic medicine. However the great majority of GP complaints do not comprise members of this group of diseases but are complexes of suffering often exacerbated by severe psychological issues. Homeopathic doctor do not eschew orthodox medicine when it is the route of choice in any situation. Homeopathy DEFINITELY helps ( We have studies to show this. We may not understand exactly why or how or whether its the medicine or the homeopathic type of doctor patient relationship that does the trick but homeopathic doctors believe the remedies work independent of the placebo effect.) a lot of these patients, most of whom have not been able to be helped on the NHS. To attempt to shut down homeopathic NHS hospitals ‘because homeopathy is clearly placebo’ is disgracefully contemptuous of the Hippocratic injunction” ‘Primum non nocere’ – First do no harm.
      4. ‘taking a limited sample of people to carry out provings etc. ‘
      A: Sorry but this statement shows that your understanding of homeopathy is somewhat limited. Have a word with a few classical homeopathic doctors.

  2. PaoloV July 11, 2009 at 11:07 pm

    Thanks for the reply – I assumed the lack of comments here was due to deletions – I stand corrected.

    I have no vested interest in any one form of medicine – as far as I am concerned if it works it should be used. The big question for me as a scientist is how we identify what works. At the moment I remain unconvinced that a rational (or reductionist and mechanistic if you prefer) approach is in any way exclusive of the holistic approach. In biology (my field of expertise) rational scientific methods are readily applied to holistic networks all the time. Indeed, that is what informs us that we are in trouble in the first place. What you call holism (‘the tendency in nature to form wholes that are greater than the sum of the parts through creative evolution.’) we call emergent properties.

    I find it worrying that Prince Charles is making statements about what we need to do to heal the ills of the world when he is approaching the issue from such an ill-informed and somewhat hypocritical position. He seems happy to accept that the world in in dire peril based on the facts presented by the very process that he is saying doesn’t happen – holistic information obtained by the synthesis of a variety of reductionist and mechanistic approaches.

    This has little bearing on homeopathy – a subject which I know only a small amount about due to the somewhat arcane nature of the subject. I have been reading some journals though and it strikes me that there are some major epistemological flaws with the underlying principles of the field when we start looking at untested assumptions. That’s dogma. I happily agree that if the epistemology is flawed but the outcomes work then homeopathy should be used – it would be nonsensical to stop using an effective mode of healthcare. However, the efficacy does need to be shown using the same standards of evidence as you would expect for any other health intervention – something that I have yet to see convincing evidence for (but as I say, I have only read a small number of studies so far). Going back to the epistemology of the homeopathic method, surely a holistic approach would be to test the untested assumptions and reformulate the epistemology backwards from those elements that are shown to be effective. If the mechanism by which homeopathic treatments work can be properly identified and proven then it is likely to open up a vast wealth of new healthcare approaches. At the moment I have seen absolutely nothing that supports the existing functional concepts of the foundation of how homeopathy is supposed to work.

    • Dr. Kaplan July 13, 2009 at 10:57 am

      PaoloV, I agree with much of what you say. However in relation to: “the efficacy does need to be shown using the same standards of evidence as you would expect for any other health intervention” The key expression here is ‘would expect’. The fact is that MOST of orthodox medicine does not have this standard of evidence behind it. Look at this pie chart (which I’ve written about extensively on this site) http://clinicalevidence.bmj.com/ceweb/about/knowledge.jsp This clearly shows that the ‘expected evidence’ for many ‘orthodox’ interventions including several multi-million pound ‘breakthroughs’ simply does not exist. Have a look at what evidence exists for psycho-analysis and analytic psychotherapy. The fact is that homeopathy has been singled out for vindictive attack simply because mechanistic, deterministic and reductionistic detractors cannot live with what they see as its ‘implausibility’

  3. Zeno July 12, 2009 at 1:29 am

    Brian Kaplan said: “Homeopathic doctor [sic] do not eschew orthodox medicine…”

    Some – including you – may not, but some homeopaths do:

    “Germs do not cause disease.”

    – Dana Ullman, a well-known homeopath (Source: https://nationalcenterforhomeopathy.org/media/in_the_news_view.jsp?id=394)

    “First of all, we should understand that the Germ Theory, on which the basis of vaccination rests, is not fully a truth.”

    C. J. Varghese, homeopath (Source: http://www.hpathy.com/health/varghese-vaccines2.asp)

    • Dr. Kaplan July 13, 2009 at 11:02 am

      Zeno, I stand totally for using homeopathy alongside orthodox medicine. Syphilis, TB, meningitis, small pox and many other scourges of humanity can now be put to the sword with the appropriate use of mechanistic medicine as can subdural haematoma and many other conditions. However the majority of problems seen by GPs are not necessarily satisfactorily treated by a purely mechanistic approach. I have always asserted that the best people to choose between a mechanistic approach and an holistic one in any given person or situation is a medical doctor also trained in a form of whole person medicine such as homeopathy. I am a medical doctor who uses classical homeopathy as a tool within my practice and do not eschew the great advances of orthodox medicine.

  4. Rob Downing July 12, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    It is about time we realised this is a way foreward for the future, and stopped knocking Homeopathy….It does work… is very safe and COST effective, But this is why the DRUG companies do not like it….i also enjoy your web site.

    • Dr. Kaplan July 13, 2009 at 11:05 am

      Thank you Rob Downing. I agree with what you say. The system is indeed geared up to the prescription of drugs and mechanistic thinking in general. You don’t get into medical school because you have A levels in subjects like philosophy, psychology, drama, poetry, literature etc. Rather maths, science, physics biology. My view is that you need both.

  5. Robin July 13, 2009 at 10:47 am

    “Interestingly one of the most convincing studies of all in homeopathy is the veterinary double blind one where cows drinking from the trough with a homeopathic remedy in it got far less mastitis than those that drank from another trough.”

    “Homeopathy DEFINITELY helps (We have studies to show this.)”

    I’m sure you have a perfectly good reason for not providing a link to either of these studies you mention, which you now have the chance to rectify.

  6. Dr. June Gillam July 13, 2009 at 11:09 am

    As a visitor to the UK this month, I was edified to watch Prince Charles’ speech and glad of his holistic approach to the many problems we face on the Earth. It was a shame to see not much coverage of his speech in the media and seemed quite disrespectful to me, as well as not helpful in building a more educated and motivated people. Where once I viewed Prince Charles as a sort of irrelevant actor on the world stage, now I see that he can be among the wise ones to lead us toward a new dawn of a better day along with leaders such as President Obama.

    • Dr. Kaplan July 13, 2009 at 11:19 am

      Yes, I have a lot of respect for Prince Charles too. If we want to keep a monarchy we should be thankful for the work he is doing.

  7. Ruth July 15, 2009 at 12:53 am

    2 Comments:

    PaoloV, you are very rational indeed. Do you attend Church?

    Prince Charles is an entertainer for which each Briton pays 75 pence per year (rest of the Monarch family is included with that bargain price). He should rather entertain and not disappoint, e.g., How the hell did he manage to settle with Camilla for so much money? This is taxpayer money….for entertainment.

    Love to all,
    Ruth

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