The foundation of holism or holistic medicine rests on a triumvirate -- body, mind and spirit. Actually, as the mind is an expression of the various regions of the brain -- a species of the physical -- we are really dealing with body/brain and spirit. The former, of course, has been probed and explored using the tools of medicine and science. No one questions their reality. Spirit, on the other hand, by most definitions is non-material, and thus lies beyond the purview of science; that is, one cannot demonstrate spirit using a gas chromatograph, scanning electron microscope, or any other tool in the armamentarium of science.
But what of the effects of spirit? If it exists, should we not be able to detect its effects on the physical realm? This is a question which now occupies many philosophers, some scientists and physicians, and many laypeople.
One very often cited manifestation of spirit lies in the realm of answered prayer. Numerous studies have been carried out in which patients with a given affliction were divided into two groups: One received prayer (experimental group) and the other (control group) didn't. The prayers were offered off-site and no one involved in the study knew who was being prayed for and who wasn't (double-blind).
The bottom line of many of these studies is that prayer appears to have made a significant difference in the relief or cure of the malady or affliction in the experimental group, while those in the control group had no appreciable change in their condition. The rigor of these studies has been found wanting by countless impartial investigators. That is, flaws in study design, methodology and/or execution have basically invalidated the findings of these clinical trials.
What of the healings connected with religious shrines, such as Lourdes? There have been approximately 69 healings connected with Lourdes which have met the Catholic church's criteria for a bona fide miracle -- 69 out of the hundreds of thousands of petitions for healing. This is not statistically significant. In short, the numbers do not support the notion that the rate of recovery/healing at Lourdes is greater than would be expected to occur as a result of normal processes. (One can expect a certain percentage of even incurable illnesses to suddenly and inexplicably go into remission. These recoveries happen to non-believer and believer alike -- and hence appear contingent on natural and not supernatural mechanisms.)
I know what many of you are thinking -- "Leave it to a skeptical, non-believing blankety-blank scientist to trash our sacred beliefs." If you are nodding your head in agreement -- you are dead wrong. First of all, I am a devout, practicing Roman Catholic. I also believe that God hears and answers prayer -- and even heals people. Well, wait a minute, isn't this contradictory or hypocritical, given what I wrote above? No, indeed, for I do not allege that my beliefs are based on hard science nor the manifestations of spirit, or God so physically evident as to permit measurement or quantification. In fact, those who believe that spirit, God, or any aspect of the supernatural can be demonstrated in a controlled study or lab experiment invite upon themselves the unenviable task of proving their claims. (It is always incumbent on those who propose the existence of something which can be physically detected and, thus measured, to do just that.) And I, for one, do not believe that they will ever garner any substantive proof. Why?
Consider this: In virtually every religious tradition God requires that humankind both apprehend His existence and relate to him via faith -- a conviction based not on the physical and demonstrable, but on sheer belief. If God were to reveal Himself in the lab or clinical trial setting -- say, by answering the prayers for healing in an experimental group at rates which exceed chance -- the need for faith would be dispensed with. We could base our confidence, our belief in the spiritual and a First Cause (God) on the hard data provided by the study in question.
This, of course, would make God the author of a serious contradiction and would obligate most major religions to toss out many of their principle doctrines concerning the nature of the deity, the need for faith as a requisite for apprehending the divine, et cetera. It would also raise serious questions as to the reliability of revealed truths about God (oral and written traditions).
Since I do not believe God would ask one thing (faith) and then reveal Himself in a concrete, scientifically demonstrable fashion, I am not surprised or dismayed that laboratory experiments and clinical trials do not turn upon any credible data which stands up to scrutiny. I also realize, however, that there are some who believe that faith isn't the only requisite to apprehending God or the supernatural and will continue to carry out studies aimed at catching a glimpse of the divine in action.
In my opinion they are wasting both time and money, but should they one day prove to be right -- if they do incontrovertibly demonstrate the efficacy of prayerful supplication (to God) in healing a given malady -- skeptic and believer alike will be making some rather profound changes to their distinct perspectives. This isn't beyond the pale of possibility. I think, however, that such definitive proof will in some ways weigh more heavily on the religionist then the agnostic or skeptic.
While the debate rages and the studies plod along, what role then should the spiritual play in healing/medicine? I think most physicians -- even diehard atheists -- at the very least accommodate a narrow species of "spirituality," in the sense of encouraging hope and making use of patient expectation to afford relief, if not cure.
In holistic medicine, on the other hand, the spiritual element more often takes on a different character and importance. The holistic medical community plays host to wide range of spiritual beliefs, including American Indian, New Age, Buddhist, Christian. As long as this spirituality is not called "scientific" or "hard science-based," or makes claims which can be tested using the tools and methods of science, its place in the patient care repertoire of holistic health care practitioners remains a matter of personal prerogative. And doesn't faith and personal prerogative lie at the core of human spirituality?
In the final analysis, I think we will find that the substantiation of faith begins and ends on one's knees -- and in one's heart -- and not in the laboratory.