One of the major assumptions inherent in traditional Chinese medicine is that disease is due to an internal imbalance of Yin and Yang; therefore disease can be treated by correcting the Yin Yang imbalance, thereby returning the body to a healthy state. Western medicine tends to approach disease by assuming that it is due to an external force, such as a virus or bacteria, or a slow degeneration of the functional ability of the body. Both Chinese and Western concepts are valid alternatives. Although this chapter is devoted to the philosophy of traditional Chinese medicine it is useful to start by examining briefly some of the assumptions and philosophies of Western medicine. This will provide a useful comparative basis which will elucidate the understanding of both systems. Western medicine is based on the Cartesian philosophy that the body represents one functioning system and the mind another It accepts that each system may affect the other, but essentially it sees disease as either physical or mental. The Chinese assume that the body is whole, and each part of it is intimately connected. Each organ has a mental as well as a physical function, as will be discussed later.
Some authors, such as Ivan Illich, have been hypercritical of Western medicine and thus some people have looked upon acupuncture as not just an alternative but a superior system of medicine. Acupuncture is just another medical system, with ideas that may be of benefit to the individual patient and Western medicine as a whole, but it cannot be promulgated as either superior or a cure all. The major disadvantage of Western medicine is that it has the potential to cause a great deal of harm. Acupuncture, on the other hand, is most unlikely to cause any serious damage as it is a particularly safe form of therapy; this is undoubtedly one of its main advantages.
Until fairly recently most Western doctors and pharmaceutical companies have worked on the basis that there is 'a pill for every ill'. The philosophical approach behind this idea is that an external force, or chemical, can cure disease, but although some pills are of great value, both the general public and the medical profession have become considerably more skeptical about the widespread use of such chemicals. Traditional Chinese medicine states that the body has the potential to cure its own diseases if pushed (or needled) in the correct way.
Even though the traditional Chinese explanations for acupuncture are somewhat enigmatic to the Western doctor, acupuncture does seem to have a clearly validated scientific basis. In spite of their radically different philosophical assumptions it is wiser to look at these two medical systems as mutually beneficial, rather than mutually exclusive. Each system has ideas and therapeutic methods that can be explained both scientifically and philosophically, each can benefit the individual, and together they can broaden the philosophical and ideological basis of medicine.