Dec 07 2020

No – Chi Does Not Exist

Recently someone on Quora asked the question – does Chi exist? The answers were mostly positive, which is not surprising given the likely selective nature of who decided to answer. There is, however, a clear answer to this question – no. At least, that is the scientific answer, as much as science can determine a negative. We can be as confident in this answer as saying that Unicorns and Leprehauns don’t exist.

Some of the Quora answers included, “There’s a word for it so it must exist otherwise it would have no word/s about it. Every culture-language-dialect has a word for chi and lots of words to describe the various aspects of chi.”

Of course this is not true. We have words for many concepts that simply don’t exist. See, for example, all of mythology. This may seem like an obvious point to make, and it is, but I think it is common to assume that “where there is smoke there is fire.” If a belief is common enough, it must be at least based on something real. There is also a romanticism about the notion that our treasured mythologies might be based upon some historical reality (even if the details have been altered). We want to believe that there was a real Robin Hood roaming around Sherwood forest, and that Sherlock Holmes was solving cases from 221B Baker Street.

Why would so many cultures believe in a life force like Chi if there was nothing to it? There are many reason. The first is cultural contamination – people moved around the world and their ideas moved with them, even in ancient times. Also, some ideas are obvious or represent something fundamental. It is clear that living things are different from non-living things, but pre-scientific cultures did not have the foundation of knowledge to understand this difference. So they simply attached a word to it – whatever that thing is that make life alive is the “life force” – chi (or qi) in Eastern cultures. The details, however, will vary from culture to culture. Chi was believed to be in the blood, while the Greek’s “pneuma” was in the breath, and the more modern “innate” of chiropractors flows through nerves.

Another Quora answer is very telling – “Qi does indeed exist, however it is undetectable by current scientific instruments, because it is made up of subjective feeling.” How do we know that something “undetectable” exists? Well, we can detect certain things directly, and other things indirectly. We know black holes exist mostly from their effects on other objects – we detect their gravity. Still other things we cannot detect directly but we can infer from scientific evidence that they probably exist – at least their existence is the best current explanation for some observed phenomena. For example, before some of the heavier elements were discovered, we inferred that they probably (in fact, must) exist based upon the Periodic Table of Elements. We inferred that the Higgs Boson existed because of the standard model of particle physics. Although – perhaps this is better thought of as “predicted”, and such predictions to ultimately have to be confirmed.

If we cannot detect chi, can we infer that it may, probably, or even must exist? The answer is a giant “no”. In fact, we can infer the opposite. In pre-scientific times the life force was mainly used as a placeholder. Chi did whatever we could not currently explain biologically. It was essentially an argument from ignorance. That ignorance, however, eventually evaporated. This is not to suggest we know everything about biology, but all of the big questions about how biology works have been answered (yes, even consciousness – at least to the extent that we know it comes from brain function). There is essentially nothing left for chi to do. The argument from ignorance has collapsed. There is no more of a need for chi than there is for giant turtles holding up the Earth on their backs.

Therefore, we cannot detect chi, there is no theoretical need to invoke its existence, and there is no chain of evidence by which we can infer its existence. That is all another way of saying – it does not exist.

I have to address one more answer on Quora:

“Look deeply into any natural form mineral, plant, animal. At the basis of each is it’s sub-atomic nature – rocks, vegetables, turtles and people. That is Qi, certainly! In addition, ions are discharging in the heartbeat, the neuro-pathways even the cellular gateways for entry and exit of nourishment and waste. PLUS – the dark matter that makes up 90% of the universe infuses every part of every dimension.”

This is a common type of argument trying to prop up pseudoscience and mythology. First – we are moving the goalposts here, redefining mythology to be something else so as to maintain the conclusion that it exists. But of course, once you do that it ceases to be the original thing. It is no longer chi the life force, it’s just physics. But also this is a clear appeal to new and poorly understood science. Cranks tend to thrive on the fringes of the known. When magnetism was new, we had Mesmer and his “animal magnetism”. When radioactivity was new, we had radioactive healing tonics. There were (and still are) radio wave cures – although they seem a little quaint now.

If you want to prop up your mysticism with some science-sounding buzzwords today, you have quantum mechanics, dark matter, and dark energy – thing we either poorly understand or have yet to understand. You can also just string together some sciencey phrases, like there are ions discharging in the heartbeat, that don’t really mean anything or provide any insight, but sound profound. This is, essentially, Deekpak Chopra’s entire career, so it can be a lucrative path. But no, none of this is chi, and chi does not exist.

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