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Health, caring and IFS – science versus spirituality?

IFS is a healing modality. But healing, these days, in a medicalised world of pharmaceuticals, medical insurance, mal-practice lawsuits and “standards” is often conflated with the assurances for argument and “knowing” of the verifiability of science. This is alternative to, or instead of, being connected to spirituality, or self-hood, or community-based holistic strategies for healing. These being fuzzier than medical science and fuzzy being confusing, needing democratic iterations and negotiations for it to be understood and understandable (by scientific standards). When we talk about standards, negotiation is not on the table. Standards in medicine are about facts (even if these themselves need generating from and by people), not subjective experience or opinion. Even if peer review (which is how facts get formed) is a community based negotiation. But we’ll leave these facts for another day because, quite simply, the picture is too complicated to discuss here and in what follows I have a simple point to make.

(Below, working definitions of scientific enquiry, focused on evidence-based medicine, spirituality and religion pertinent to this article, are offered.)

The simple question, in a complicated picture, is this: when it comes to healing, shall the twain between science and holistic healing approaches ever meet?

Perhaps they don’t need to meet. Perhaps their separate worlds can stay separate, even if they share common ground. Perhaps their very different ways of knowing and forming opinions and “standards” can be left to do their thing, their way, without problems for either? This is a big issue because, alas perhaps, science rules so much in today’s world and is incredibly powerful when it comes to what is considered true.

But, despite its hegemony, science is only one approach. It involves logic, physical measurement, replicable outcomes, transferability, reliability across instances and the like. It is relevant here that, while systems such as healthcare (or education), often choose the scientific method and scientifically informed results to validate a treatment or curricula-based approach, people often choose to lean into different sorts of experiential evidence to meet their needs. That is if they are free to do so, of course – for example, there being ideological or social freedom for choice  – and they have approaches representing a viable diversity to choose between (e.g., via funding), as well as availability of professional help being open.

Some approaches to healing are good at straddling worlds and ways of knowing, whilst others maybe are not so adept. I suggest world-straddling is a talent of IFS – it can meet the standards of science as we see in research (see this database, for example) and it can present as helpful for holistic healing approaches (as we see here for example).

Is the question whether IFS has to be scientific and not spirituality inclined to prove it is scientifically trustworthy?

This, I suggest, is politics, not healing. We see the same dynamic playing out in education. A scientifically imbued “what works?” question educationally permeates schools, rendering them science labs with children and staff as the lab rats. Information can be gathered, but it suffers from the usual issues of scientific verifiability in emergent and chaotic reality. Outside of schools education also occurs of course. This, non system-based education rarely, if ever, asks what works (and always tentatively, gently and via community, if it does). Instead, the education outside schools asks “how are you?”

Both what works and how are you approaches have their own value and their own adherents and believers. The educationist as scientist and the educationist as supporter of students are both educationists. The trick for individually relevant success in education is to not allow one approach to limit or exclude the other.

In IFS both a scientific lens and a lens of care seem to work for people. One operates at the macro level of desiring applicable findings for the bigger picture of science offering solutions within healthcare as medicine. That approach is expressed in scientific studies. The other approach of the more spiritual attitude of care can involve one on one, or small group, support for Parts work and “Self” meeting, howsoever those involved locally and in the moment might find they choose to work.

That there are diverse approaches is clear. The PARTS study here is indicating the emergence of research data showing IFS is helping people. And this is not the first study to suggest, scientifically understandable, positive and beneficial outcomes at the level of physical or mental health. A recent research fellowship has been established honouring Dick Schwartz at a prestigious university space and this scholar intends to investigate IFS further, according to academic scientific standards.

On the other hand IFS can also be known as true and valid through and with the embrace of spirituality and with a lens of personal intuition, trust and belief.

Human nature and human truth(s) being what they are, it is hard to keep good things down.

A good example of a rising “other” story and way of knowing IFS that is not scientific medicine is in the example of Robert Falconer, who, for many years has been pushing the understanding of IFS into the shamanistic domain with his work on unattached burdens. A therapist interested in healing, he nevertheless holds firm that healing can and does come from non-scientifically validated places. The place he found to mine is often called the “spirit world.” Spirituality and religion as a domain is a profoundly historically and personally validated part of human living.

But given the scientism of power in the world – mentioned already above as science being power – such shamanistic approaches can struggle to be taken seriously.

Cleverly, one could suggest, Falconer has been playing a somewhat scientific tack himself by becoming a thorough-going scholar of the more shamanistic elements pertaining to IFS known first as “critters” and then as “unattached burdens.” These entities are not for scientific assessment in the same way a clinical random control research study can assess improvements in medical measures, and instead must be believed, or qualitatively assessed (a form of scientific empiricism one must argue), as having effects and affects on people – known from self-report or, perhaps, more materially, via unexplainable outcomes.

Lucky for this strategy, knowledge as validated through scholarship can come in various forms and via various disciplines. Here is a video excerpt from a conversation held with Robert Falconer by PARTS & SELF, about his work, where he was asked why he had bothered to pursue his controversial undertakings in the face of forces that seemed concerned his work might bring IFS into disrepute. His overall approach is clear and he refers to pragmatism to explain it: “if it works and helps, I use it” (as a paraphrase of his general thinking regarding its value). This clearly is a what works of a different kind – one that avoids the demands of science to be provable and verifiable across domains, but is instead a localised question of “does it work for you?” In Falconer’s context of care, if the answer is yes, then the work is undertaken, whatever its nature and its value as practice and knowledge is assured.

The point is – or begins to emerge – that clearly IFS can, and does, contain multitudes of forms of knowledge.


…there actually can be no serious question about whether religion and spirituality have important connections to health. (Hufford, 2010, p. 77)

Scientific academia – research, studies, papers, publications, argument, discourse, proof, numbers – is now a part of IFS. This is the work of The Foundation for Self Leadership which, under the direction of former university professor Dr Toufic Hakim, has sought to take IFS into the mainstream via the valuable and useful work of playing the research and “university game” (see Lees, 2022). This is a good game. A worthwhile game. Some might say it’s the only game in town for healing inputs if you want to get your insurance to pay for your sessions. But healing is not just about a medical standard. It is about people. When it comes to knowledge and practice of IFS, there are other things that can and clearly do happen, and can and do matter. It’s that simple.



Hufford, D. J. (2010). Strengths and weaknesses in the field of spirituality and health. In W. Grassie (Ed.), Advanced methodologies in the scientific study of religion and spirituality: Metanexus. See: An analysis of the field of spirituality, religion and health

Lees, H. E. (2022) Playing the University Game – the art of university-based self-education. Bloomsbury.

Links to working definitions of terms

Scientific enquiry – here focused on evidence-based medicine

Religion as concept

Spirituality as idea

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