The Idealist and Pragmatist View of Qi in Tai Chi and Qigong
By George Chengxi Bao, The Weill Cornell Graduate School of Medical Sciences
Published on 7/26/2020
Qi, often translated as "vital energy," is a central concept in Tai Chi and Qigong that has puzzled physicians, scientists, and people in the West. To date, Qi is not falsifiable by the scientific method and thus cannot be subject to scientific inquiry, leading many to criticize it as "pseudoscientific." Even as medical research reveals the health benefits of tai chi and qigong, many wonder how to treat this seemingly outdated concept when promoting these meditative practices.
While some Tai Chi and Qigong practitioners insist on the existence of qi, more skeptical thinkers suggest that a scientific understanding should replace this "superstitious" idea. Integrative health professionals must be equipped to discuss this concept intelligently by considering a couple of subtle, clarifying points often missing from the discussion.
First, science's inability to verify qi's existence does not affirm its nonexistence. In fact, under the philosophical system of idealism, qi might not be said to be less real than things that are verifiable by science. Similarly, under the instrumental and pragmatic view of science, health professionals should be cautious not to declare what is metaphysically real or unreal but instead what is useful and not useful.
Second, even though qi may be pseudoscientific, it remains useful and indispensable to the correct practice of tai chi and qigong. Tai chi and qigong practitioners routinely visualize and perceive the flow of qi to guide their movements, breathing, and mental activity. As such, qi and related metaphysical concepts serve as a useful mental model during practice, and belief in them may be viewed as an "expedient means" to achieve one's health goals.