Over the years, I have put forth the view that Classical Feng Shui is a scientific practice. Now, I have espoused that view of Feng Shui all over the world, when I teach Feng Shui, BaZi and Mian Xiang at seminars. So I was very pleasantly surprised to find out that my comments had created a buzzing debate over the question of what creature Feng Shui is – is it scientific practice? Pseudo-science? Or purely belief? Hence, I thought I would address this issue in more depth and explore the scientific side of Classical Feng Shui.
You have to Believe in Feng Shui, so it’s not science.
Wait a minute – you also have to believe in your doctor, before you go and see him or her. You also have to believe in your lawyer before you appoint him to defend you in a case. Does that mean that the entire body of medical science is not valid if you don’t believe your doctor’s diagnosis? Of course not.
When people exhort that Feng Shui is not a science or not scientific, the problem is, people may not understand what science is, to begin with. The word ‘science’ comes from the Latin word scientia, which means knowledge. According to Wikipedia, science can be defined simply as “any systematic field of study or the knowledge gained from it”. So, how does Feng Shui measure up against this definition?
There is no doubt that Classical Feng Shui is a systematic field of study: by systematic I mean it has basic models, basic principles, empirical evidence and most importantly, documented observation. It is not made up. It is not this today, that tomorrow. It is not without logical explanation.
How do scientists arrive at scientific conclusions? They conduct experiments, observe the outcomes, repeat those experiments if necessary to ensure a consistent outcome and then document their observations. Feng Shui has basic models and principles: the Five Elements, Yin and Yang, the He Tu, the Lo Shu, the principle of Cosmic Trinity are examples of principles at the core of Feng Shui and many Chinese Metaphysical practices. What about empirical evidence? This has been accumulating since the Tang Dynasty! Ancient classics contain not only descriptions of landform and the principles of Qi, but drawings of mountains and water.
New books and new theories on Feng Shui, adjusted to the modern world that we live in, are constantly published and written in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The study, and the body of knowledge, is constantly growing, not unlike scientific practices like medicine and engineering.
In any science, a critical component is observation. Feng Shui is a component of Physiognomy, which is one of the Chinese Five Arts. It is known as a science of observation of the environment. Many of the principles in Feng Shui are the result of observation by practitioners since the Tang Dynasty, which are then documented into classics like Qing Nang Jing (Green Satchel), Ru Di Yan (Entering Earth Eye) and Zi Bai Jue (Purple White Verse). Some of the classics that form the basis of Feng Shui study are not original classics that propound new ideas, but weed out the observations that did not pan out and the ones that did. Feng Shui until the early 1900s was exclusively for Imperial use only. So the research was often carried out from one generation to another, without breakage or pause. This enabled observation of what worked and what didn’t, over the span of several hundred years.
Today, whilst not all Feng Shui masters can claim affiliation to lineages, those that do, document their cases extensively and thoroughly, so that the body of knowledge collected during their lifetime, can be passed on to the next generation of the lineage, so that they may continue to observe the outcomes, and grow the body of knowledge.
Science is not just physics, chemistry and biology. That is an extremely narrow-minded perception of science. Science encompasses amongst other things, social sciences like anthropology and sociology, earth sciences like geography (traditionally perceived as an ‘arts’ subject in Malaysia) and applied sciences such as engineering, computer science and psychology.
You can’t touch it, you can’t see it, how do you measure it?
Many people also point out that it is hard to accept Feng Shui as a science because it is not possible to measure Qi. Again, that is a flawed perception.
Before Michael Faraday (1831-79), electricity and magnetic forces couldn’t be measured. Does that mean that until Faraday’s time, electricity and magnetic forces did not exist? Electron microscopes helped pioneer the field of virology or the study of viruses. But does that mean before that, viruses did not exist? Quasars and blackholes cannot yet be actually measured but no one disbelieves Stephen Hawking when he talks about the wormholes in the universe, even if no one has actually seen one to know how it works, except on Star Trek.
Can you measure blood pressure with a stethoscope? Of course not. We tend to assume that all things in our world and universe are measurable by rulers, test tubes and electronic devices that we read about or have heard about. But if that were the case, then there would be no need to design special tools for measurement or observation in new fields like space exploration or quantum mechanics. Until the Hubble telescope, man studied the stars and the universe through observation only. We had to build the Hubble. Just like to explore space, we had to build the rocket.
So, when we talk about measuring Qi, we must ask: what is the device for this particular type of practice? Are we not able to measure it because we are not using the right device?
The Chinese already had devices to measure Qi. The Solar and Lunar calendar, the Luo Pan and observation skills – using one’s eyes to study the environment. Of course, nowadays, some of us use Google Earth. And you can buy an electronic Luo Pan. And plotting Flying Star or Da Gua calculations (a method for quantifying and identifying types of Qi) can be done electronically with a computer these days, or even a Palm program. So who says that Qi is not measurable? It is simply that Qi is not measurable through the devices or means in which people assume are used to measure everything in this universe, from gases to insects. You don’t use a stethoscope to measure blood pressure after all, right?
Art in every science
The other debate over Feng Shui is whether it is an art or a science. Let me throw out a potentially bold suggestion: In every science, there is art. I think if you ask a doctor or a dentist, they will most certainly tell you that there is an art, to the science that they practice. This art is judgment. It is subtle elements that come with experience and application of knowledge in different cases. Even in the purest science, the Queen of Science, Mathematics, there is beauty and aesthetics!
Science only affords us the pure application. Art is what enables a person trained in a scientific practice to make a decision as to which technique to apply, and in what instances a technique can or cannot be used. This is true in Classical Feng Shui as well. There are universal principles of Feng Shui, and formulas. This is the science. But choosing the right instance to apply the interpretation, or qualifying the instances when a formula can be used, this is the art behind the science. Similarly, environmental formations, mountains and water, are unique in each environment. So while they will conform to certain basic rules (for example, mountains always stop at water) and fall within a clutch of more sophisticated rules, how the Qi is best tapped and utilised, based on the structure (house, office building, resort) is the art.
It makes sense if you consider this all within the Yin and Yang context that is a bedrock principle of Feng Shui and all Chinese Metaphysics. Yin and Yang symbolises balance, perfection. Within science, that which is grounded in strict principle, there is room for interpretation, or artistic application. Yin and Yang.
Metaphysics today is sometimes associated with kook practices like the occult but this ignores the very venerable history of metaphysics in the Western world. Aristotle was one of the famous thinkers associated with Metaphysics, as was Rene Descartes and Albert Einstein. Western metaphysics is quite a brain cracker and I don’t profess to be an expert in Western metaphysics. But a cursory search on the Internet will reveal that metaphysicians are interested in questions of existence (why are we here?), the study of Gods or the divine, along with understanding causality (why things happen), relationships and the universe. It combines reasoning and logic, with philosophical ideas.
Classical Feng Shui and the Chinese Five Arts were always recognised as metaphysical subjects by the Chinese – in other words, scientific practices with philosophical existential issues to it. Metaphysics is a more accurate means to describe Feng Shui, BaZi and Mian Xiang (although this doesn’t detract from its scientific nature) because these scientific practices originated out of a desire by the Chinese to understand issues of destiny, the universe, fate, existence and identity, which are essentially metaphysical or philosophical issues. Feng Shui, BaZi and Mian Xiang have philosophical connotations to their scientific findings because they essentially are sciences in which to understand a person’s life.
Now, I’m a Feng Shui practitioner and trainer. I’m not a philosopher and I’m certainly not an expert on metaphysics or sciences. My goal in this article has been to give you an inkling of how I have arrived at my conclusion of Feng Shui as a scientific practice. I do not expect people to immediately be convinced of my viewpoint but I believe that getting to the truth is never about what one person thinks, but about opening our minds to possibilities before we arrive at conclusions. Stimulating debate, opening the door to discussion and putting out alternative perspectives is part of the way in which new ideas can be accepted.
For the longest time, people believed Feng Shui was about superstition, cultural beliefs (symbols and trinkets) or religion. Less and less people think that today. Just like thousands of years ago, people thought the world was flat. People may not be convinced that Feng Shui is a science or scientific practice, but if they open their mind to the possibility, just like Galileo opened minds to the possibility that the earth was round, I have done my job!