New Age Energy
An examination of energy, as new agers use the term.
by Brian Dunning
October 3, 2006
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I'm feeling a little low today, so let's tap into a source of energy from a neighboring dimension as a quick upper.
Faith in pseudoscience is rampant. Everywhere you turn, intelligent people fully accept the existence of anything from psychic phenomena, to angels, to new age healing techniques, to ancient health schemes based on mysterious energy fields not understood by science. Most of these paranormal phenomena rely on "energy," and when the performers are asked to explain, they'll gladly lecture about the body's energy fields, the universe's energy fields, Chi, Prana, Orgone, negative energy, positive energy, and just about anything else that needs a familiar sounding word to explain and justify it. Clearly, there are too many loose interpretations of the word energy, to the point where most people probably have no idea exactly what energy really is.
I believe that if more people had a clear understanding of energy — and it's not complicated — there would be less susceptibility to pseudoscience, and more attention paid to actual technologies and methods that are truly constructive and useful.
A friend told me of her ability to perform minor healings, and her best explanation was that she drew energy from another dimension. She had recently rented What the Bleep Do We Know, so she was well prepared to explain that alternate dimensions and realities should be taken for granted, since science doesn't really know anything, and thus those things cannot be disproven. That's fine, I'll concede that she can make contact with another dimension: after all, the latest M theories posit that there are probably ten or eleven of them floating around, and I'll just hope that my friend's is not one of those that are collapsed into impossibly small spaces. What I was really interested in was the nature of this vaguely defined energy that she could contact.
I asked what type of energy is it, and how is it stored? Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel? Is it an explosive compound? Is it food? These are examples of actual ways that energy can be stored.
In popular New Age culture, "energy" has somehow become a noun unto itself. "Energy" is considered to be literally like a glowing, hovering, shimmering cloud, from which adepts can draw power, and feel rejuvenated. Imagine a vaporous creature from the original Star Trek series, and you'll have a good idea of what New Agers think energy is.
In fact, energy is not really a tangible "thing" at all. Energy is a measurement of something's ability to perform work. Given this context, when spiritualists talk about your body's energy fields, they're really saying nothing that's even remotely meaningful. Yet this kind of talk has become so pervasive in our society that the vast majority of Americans accept that energy exists as a self-contained force, floating around in glowing clouds, and can be commanded by spiritualist adepts to do just about anything.
There is well known authority for the simple, concrete, scientific definition of energy. Take Einstein's equation, E=mc2, that every schoolchild knows but so few spend the 30 seconds it takes to understand. Energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Speed is a function of distance and time, so energy can be expressed in mass, distance, and time. That's how we define work that can be done: actual, physical work. Energy is a measurement of work. If I lift a rock, I'm inputting enough potential energy to dent the surface of the table one centimeter when I drop it. The calories of chemical potential energy that my bloodstream absorbs when I eat a Power Bar charge up my muscles enough to dig 100kg of dirt in my garden. Nowhere did Einstein discuss hovering glowing clouds, or fields of mystical power generated by human spirits.
When spiritualists discuss energy, don't blindly accept what they're saying simply because energy is a word you're familiar with, and that sounds scientific. In many cases, their usage of the word is meaningless. When you hear the word energy casually used to explain a mystical force or capability, require clarification. Require that the energy be defined. Is it heat? Is it a spinning flywheel?
Here's a good test. When you hear the word energy used in a spiritual or paranormal sense, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability." Does the usage still make sense? Are you actually being given any information that supports the claim being made? Remember, energy itself is not the thing being measured: energy is the measurement of work performed or of potential.
Take the following claim of Kundalini Yoga as an example:
The release and ascent of the dormant spiritual energy enables the aspirant to transcend the effects of the elements and achieve consciousness.
This would be a great thing if energy was indeed that shimmering cloud that can go wherever it's needed and perform miracles. But it's not, so in this case, we substitute the phrase "measurable work capability" and find that the sentence is not attempting to measure or quantify anything other than the word energy itself. We have a "dormant spiritual measurable work capability," and no further information. That's pretty vague, isn't it? For this claim to have any merit, they must at least describe how this energy is being stored or manifested. Is it potential energy stored in the chemistry of fat cells? Is it heat that can spread through the body? Is it a measurable amount of electromagnetism, and if so, where's the magnet? In any event, it must be measurable and precisely quantifiable, or it can't be called energy, by definition.
There's a good reason why you don't hear medical doctors or pharmacists talking about energy fields: it's meaningless. I think it's generally good policy to remain open minded and be ready to hear claims that involve energy, but approach them skeptically, and scientifically. The next time you hear such a claim, substitute the phrase "measurable work capability" and you'll be well equipped to separate the silly from the solid.
By Brian Dunning
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Cite this article:
Dunning, B. "New Age Energy." Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media,
3 Oct 2006. Web.
29 Apr 2016. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4002>
References & Further Reading
Castro, J. "What Is Energy?" LiveScience. Purch, 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 11 Sep. 2015. <http://www.livescience.com/42881-what-is-energy.html>
CEC. "Energy Story. Chapter 1. What is Energy?" Energy Quest. California Energy Commission, 22 Apr. 2002. Web. 6 Dec. 2009. <http://www.energyquest.ca.gov/story/chapter01.html>
Duff, M. The world in eleven dimensions: supergravity, supermembranes and M-theory. Bristol: Institute of Physics Publishing, 1999. 1-4.
Hoffman, F., Bailey, W. Mind and Society Fads. Binghamton: The Haworth Press, 1992. 198-201.
Kurtz, P., Stenger, V. Skeptical Odysseys: Personal accounts by the world's leading paranormal inquirers. Amherst: Prometheus Books, 2001. 363-374.
Sanatan Society. "Raising Kundalini energy with Kundalini Yoga through the chakras." Kundalini Yoga. Sanatan Society, 8 Apr. 2004. Web. 13 Dec. 2009. <http://www.sanatansociety.org/chakras/kundalini_yoga.htm>
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