Biosemiotics: a New Framework for Understanding Medicine

Despite numerous accounts of clinical success, homeopathy remains at the periphery of Western medicine. The expressed reason for its marginalization is that it violates accepted principles within the current biochemical paradigm. Through the process of potentization – – serial dilutions of a substance interspersed with vigorous shaking – – homeopathic remedies are often altered beyond the point of there being a single molecule of the original substance left. Subsequently, the claim that remedies (with potencies higher than a 12c or 12x) can have anything more than a placebo effect violates Avagardo’s number, which stipulates that the dilution at which no molecule of the original substance persists is 10 -24. The prevalent result: the efficacy of homeopathy is either discounted a priori as impossible or readily accepted in blind faith, reinforcing the persistent schism between materialism and mysticism.

Both reactions fall short of the ideal Hahnemann upheld when he developed homeopathy as the foundation of rational medicine. He was critical of close-minded dogmatism as much as he abhorred “blind empiricism.” Originally trained as a chemist, Hahnemann recognized that his use of “dynamized” medicine carried the health sciences beyond the explanatory force of chemistry. Rather than discount his findings or discredit the laws of chemistry, however, he focused his criticism on the over-extension of chemistry, which he found to have “taken upon itself to disclose a source at which the general therapeutic properties of drugs are to be ascertained” [1]. Delimiting the explanatory force of chemistry, he stressed that it may help find the medicinal powers of substances, but it cannot reveal anything about its functions in the human body, which is of a living nature [2]. He recognized that, as a method originally developed to study inorganic material, chemistry was necessarily limited in its capacity to illuminate living processes.

Recently, a new field has developed in the life sciences, which reinforces Hahnemann’s delineation of chemistry, called biosemiotics. One of its central tenets is that living entities do not interact like mechanical bodies, but rather as messages. That is, living systems always exhibit certain organizational characteristics, which enable them to react to differences in their surroundings, and thus to “create” and exchange information. Without this basic difference between life and non-life, evolution as we understand it, would not be possible. In light of this observation, biosemioticians employ methods that follow the model of semiotics – – the study of signs, symbols, and their interpretation- – rather than applying the chemistry and physics of lifeless matter to processes created by life.

As the science of signs in living systems, biosemiotics invites the medical community to reconsider the physicalist terms in which biomedical researchers have traditionally explained the efficacy of medicine. If we endeavor to not only observe (with statistical precision) but to also understand the ways in which medicine informs the operation of the living organisms with which it interacts, then our explanations must extend beyond the physical laws operative in medicine to the information they introduce to living organisms. Within the biosemiotic framework we can legitimately question whether potentized medicines alter the health of organisms by locally controlling the physical laws according to which a diseased body is operating, a consideration that brings us beyond the limitations of physical discourse and into the domain of language.

[1] Samuel Hahnemann, Lesser Writings, ed. and trans. R.E Dudgeon, (New Delhi: B. Jain Publishers Ltd., 2006), 114.

[2] Ibid., 115.


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