The Enigma of Energy


The Enigma of EnergyWhere Science and Religion Converge, New York: Crossroad, 1999.

The Enigma of Energy by Vidette Todaro-Franceschi is a carefully researched study, originally a PhD thesis, that treats an unusual subject. The author has accomplished a Sisyphus task with this seminal work that represents a remarkable scientific achievement.

The book is not an easy read, but for the serious researcher, it’s an invaluable resource. The author reports that her study took her much farther than she had believed at first, and that the deeper she researched the phenomenon of energy, the more she found a connection of her research with religion. She writes in the Introduction:

The more I worked on this project the more I became aware that somehow science and religion were converging. It was never my goal to merge these two seemingly disparate areas; in fact, when my search led me into religious realms of thought, I tried hard at first to stay clear of them. But it was impossible to do so. Anytime I came across literature that was related to an idea of energy there were implicit or explicit spiritual overtones. Most surprising was the abundance of spiritual ideas found in physics./4

With her wide and strongly intuitive vision, the author approaches the topic in a systematic and methodologically sound manner without getting lost in the maze of philosophical concepts that express with a variety of confusing terms what is one and the same thing. She first looks at the etymology of the word energy, and the concepts of energy in various cultures and with different philosophical traditions. While taking her starting point with Aristotle, the author also looked beyond the fence of Western tradition and into the very explicit Eastern notions of the bioenergy. Under the header Ideas of Energy in Antiquity, she writes:

In the East, the ancient Chinese held that the universe was a dynamic entity filled with continuous cyclic flow and change. The motion of these cyclic patterns is expressed by the concepts of yin and yang. The yin is the female, dark, quiet and resting, intuitive component of change and is associated with the earth. The yang is the male, light, strong, creative, active component of change and is associated with heaven. Although polar opposites, together the yin and yang comprise life, where there is a continual harmonizing of both cycles of change. These two concepts indicate the underlying Tao (way) or pattern of everything in the universe. The inherently changing nature of things is held in balance or harmony by a continuous flow of ch’i./13-14

Prana, a term that has been used in the ancient Indian tradition for over five thousand years, denotes a universal or vital life energy. Often translated as ‘breath’ in Indian works, the concept of prana is a central one for principles of healing in Indian Ayurvedic medicine, which was developed from 1200 to 800 B.C. Today adherents believe that one can regulate and manipulate the flow of prana in order to maintain or restore health using various alternative health care modalities, such as healing touch./14

Being myself a bioenergy researcher, I deliberately started my research with Paracelsus, not Aristotle. I have had a look at Aristotle’s energeia idea before reading the present study, and while I found his ideas about energy interesting, they cannot be said to be scientific. I do not judge their value, though, they are perhaps genial intuitions, and, who knows, may one day prove to be correct, but I can’t see how they can be evaluated?

Despite this fact, the author managed to very quaintly summarize the Aristotelian teaching about energy, and this is one of the greatest merits of her concise study on the conceptual framework of energy over the whole of human history:

In The Metaphysics (Book IX, Theta) Aristotle noted the importance of energeia in relation to dynamis (potentiality) and kinesis (change or motion). He distinguishes two types of energeia. The first type of energeia is an unended or imperfect actuality, for example, walking or building. These energeiai are said to be movements or kinesis, because they are incomplete. The second type of energeia is a complete or perfect actuality, an entelecheia, where the end product is within the thing itself, for example, seeing and thinking. These energeiai are referred to in general as actualities./20

Toward the end of her study, the author asks the question ‘What, Exactly, is Nature?’ Referring to historian and philosopher of science R. G. Collingwood, she writes that there are three periods in the development of the idea of nature, which she sees coincidentally reflect the ideas of energy.

In his discussion of the first period, the Greek view of nature, Collingwood points out that the ancient Greeks believed a certain vitality or ceaseless motion existed in nature, which they generally attributed to the soul. (…) The most important aspect of Aristotle’s conception of nature lies in his belief that all things have a final cause, which is exhibited by the individual thing’s form. According to him the soul was the essence of living things, and of course the form of anything / was the purpose or reason for its becoming. Overall, according to Aristotle, the teleological qualities of things were so strong that there could be no explanation for anything in nature, including us, without it./123-124

Collingwood notes that the second stage of the Renaissance view of nature came about with the Copernican discovery that our world was not the center of the universe. The main contention during this time became ‘the denial that the world of nature, the world studied by physical science, is an organism and the assertion that it is both devoid of intelligence and of life.’ During this period, human beings were seen as outside of, rather than a part of, nature. We became pompous, thinking that we controlled things and that we were somehow superior. Explicit in this view was the denial of final causation. The primary focus was on matter and the natural laws by which matter changes. Science and philosophy recognized only efficient causes: forces producing effects. And finally, mathematical structure accounted for the changes, both of a qualitative and quantitative nature. /124-125

I believe that during this period the idea that energy was an autonomous existent contributed to the shift in focus. It became vaguely evident that change was inherent in various things; that is, it was recognized that change could occur without the provocation of external forces or efficient causes. /125

Collingwood identifies the idea of a ‘rhythmical pattern’ with the modern view of nature and acknowledges that the new physics theories are partly responsible for this notion. But the rhythmical patterns we now know to exist in nature also seem to denote an inner principle of change, or an Aristotelian ‘that for the sake of which’, originally expressed by the ancient Greeks. So one might say we have come full circle. /125

In conjunction with this new take on an old idea that was present in both Eastern and Western antiquity is the increasing awareness that intuition plays a significant role in scientific discoveries. As the historical background of the idea of energy attests, intuitive ways of knowing have been crucial to the development of scientific ideas throughout history. Many individuals knew things, such as the energy conservation doctrine, without being able to empirically verify them. In other words, intuitive ways of knowing seem to have led / us in the right direction long before we were capable of scientifically validating what we somehow knew to be so. /125-126

I will come to an end of my book review here by not overdoing to quote from this interesting study that I fully recommend and endorse as one of the best books written so far on the historical and philosophical development of the concept of a subtle vital energy, and the implications of it for the progress of science. The study provides ample references for the researcher and its structure is scientifically meticulous, and methodologically convincing.

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