Comparing Chinese and Western Medicine – Part 3


  • Western causality is linear and relies on the ability to control extraneous variables. There is only one correct way to explain reality.
  • Eastern causality is circular and relies on understanding context and relationships between variables. There are multiple correct ways to explain reality.
  • Western medicine is excellent for acute and emergency situations but does not fare as well in chronic issues or psycho-emotional conditions.
  • Chinese medicine works better for chronic disease, psycho-emotional imbalances, and promotion of health.

In the first part of this series I examined the assumptions and foundation of Western scientific thought. In the second part I took a look at the foundational ideas for Chinese Medicine. Now we can compare and contrast these two different modes of approaching reality, and take a look at their respective strengths and weaknesses.

Western thought, with its bottom up approach, can be characterized by deductive logic and linear thought processes. Leon Hammer, in his article Science of East and West, describes deductive logic as beginning with a theory, or hypothesis, and then testing it to find out if it is true or not. The thought process goes from the general to the specific, starting with an idea and then testing its validity. In order to properly test a theory, extraneous variables must be suppressed or eliminated, as otherwise it becomes too complex to analyze. Causation is considered linearly, with one cause and one effect; if there are multiple causes, or multiple effects, the contribution of each individual one must be understood before putting the whole system together. Otherwise, the true relationship between cause and effect becomes confused. Theories which no longer fit new evidence are discarded, creating room for the next, newer, and more correct approach. Since theories either fit reality, or are false, newer theories supplant old ones as new evidence is unearthed.

Eastern thought, with its top down approach, can be characterized by inductive logic, and circular thought processes. Leon Hammer, in the same article, describes inductive logic as beginning with observations and ending with theory. There is no formal testing process, but a theory is tested primarily through whether it applies to daily experiences. Observations are made over a long period of time; theories which fit the observations are kept, and theories which do not fit are tossed. The thought process goes from the specific to the general, the other way around from deductive reasoning. Causation is circular, with multiple causes leading to multiple effects, held together in a pattern by how they are all associated according to the observations that have been made. A single cause or effect has relatively little meaning on its own, as context is paramount. When observations are made that don’t fit into any existing theories, new ones are created, but the old ones that applied to previously observed facts of nature are kept as well. This leads to multiple, sometimes overlapping models of reality, all of which are applied when useful and left aside when not.

The strength of Western medicine lies in its approach to emergency situations where the body can no longer heal itself, such as acute disease, severe physical trauma, or any situation which is immediately life-threatening. These are situations where a single cause is clear and providing a single, correct treatment will bring about a cure. If a person is severely dehydrated, the cause is lack of fluids, and the cure is intravenous hydration. When a person has lost a lot of blood, the cure is to replace the blood with a transfusion. Reducing the body to its constituent parts and pinpointing the part that is in trouble is extremely helpful in crisis situations. This could be the case in an acute gallbladder attack, where a large gallstone blocks the bile duct; it could be if an ovarian cyst ruptures, spewing necrotic tissue across the lower abdomen. The cause of disease in these cases is obvious, and the treatment is also straightforward. In all these cases the body has been overwhelmed by the disease process and cannot recover on its own without intervention. However, Western medicine does not do very well in chronic conditions, psycho-emotional issues, or the promotion of health (and prevention of disease).

Chinese medicine treats chronic conditions and psycho-emotional issues extremely well. In contrast to Western medicine, with its linear causality, Chinese medicine is able to take into account complex, multifactorial situations. When a person has chronic pain, poor digestion, a history of emotional trauma, sub-optimal diet, disturbed sleep, anxiety and depression, Western medicine generally sees all these as separate issues. Chinese medicine sees these as all connected, which they are, since this is all happening in one, complete person. Chinese medicine is able to connect the dots between all these symptoms and recognize how they are reinforcing each other, creating a circle of causation that goes round and round. In this situation attempting to understand the disease from the perspective of linear causality leads to confusion and multiple different treatments for the (perceived) different causes.

Chinese medicine tends to do better with prevention when compared with the Western approach. Because prevention is a long-term process that necessarily involves many different factors in a person’s life, the multifactorial and pattern-oriented approach of Chinese medicine works better than the Western. Chinese medicine can also pick up on subtle diagnostic signs that are missed when diagnosis is dependent on lab values. Often by the time lab tests show evidence of pathology the person has been sick for a long time already. For instance, perhaps a person has been diagnosed with hypothyroidism and has typical symptoms such as feeling cold, having dry skin, low energy, low appetite, depression, and constipation. Their lab tests clearly show the signs of low thyroid function. But one year previously their only symptom was low appetite and mild constipation. Their energy was fine, they weren’t feeling cold, they weren’t depressed. Few doctors would think to test their thyroid levels, and even if they did the labs would most likely have been normal. But from a Chinese medicine perspective, there is already an imbalance. The treatment at this earlier time, if analyzed from a Chinese medicine approach, would include herbs that are known to support thyroid function. There is a pattern present that has not changed in that past year, it has only become more obvious, and more serious. Chinese medicine is able to perceive this pattern at an earlier stage, and thus prevent the disease it will become in the future.

Both medicines have their well-earned place in the world. I can only hope that one day they will be given equal priority and importance in their abilities to promote health, save lives, and relieve suffering.