Quotes & Sayings

We, and creation itself, actualize the possibilities of the God who sustains the world, towards becoming in the world in a fuller, more deeper way. - R.E. Slater

There is urgency in coming to see the world as a web of interrelated processes of which we are integral parts, so that all of our choices and actions have [consequential effects upon] the world around us. - Process Metaphysician Alfred North Whitehead

Kurt Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem says (i) all closed systems are unprovable within themselves and, that (ii) all open systems are rightly understood as incomplete. - R.E. Slater

The most true thing about you is what God has said to you in Christ, "You are My Beloved." - Tripp Fuller

The God among us is the God who refuses to be God without us, so great is God's Love. - Tripp Fuller

According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater

Our eschatological ethos is to love. To stand with those who are oppressed. To stand against those who are oppressing. It is that simple. Love is our only calling and Christian Hope. - R.E. Slater

Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger

Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton

I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – Anon

Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII

Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut

Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest

We become who we are by what we believe and can justify. - R.E. Slater

People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – Anon

Certainly, God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater

An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater

Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann

Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner

“Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14) or, conversely, “I AM who I AM Becoming.”

Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton

The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens, we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – Anon

The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul

The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah

If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer

God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – Anon

Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

We can’t control God; God is uncontrollable. God can’t control us; God’s love is uncontrolling! - Thomas Jay Oord

Life in perspective but always in process... as we are relational beings in process to one another, so life events are in process in relation to each event... as God is to Self, is to world, is to us... like Father, like sons and daughters, like events... life in process yet always in perspective. - R.E. Slater

To promote societal transition to sustainable ways of living and a global society founded on a shared ethical framework which includes respect and care for the community of life, ecological integrity, universal human rights, respect for diversity, economic justice, democracy, and a culture of peace. - The Earth Charter Mission Statement

Christian humanism is the belief that human freedom, individual conscience, and unencumbered rational inquiry are compatible with the practice of Christianity or even intrinsic in its doctrine. It represents a philosophical union of Christian faith and classical humanist principles. - Scott Postma

It is never wise to have a self-appointed religious institution determine a nation's moral code. The opportunities for moral compromise and failure are high; the moral codes and creeds assuredly racist, discriminatory, or subjectively and religiously defined; and the pronouncement of inhumanitarian political objectives quite predictable. - R.E. Slater

God's love must both center and define the Christian faith and all religious or human faiths seeking human and ecological balance in worlds of subtraction, harm, tragedy, and evil. - R.E. Slater

In Whitehead’s process ontology, we can think of the experiential ground of reality as an eternal pulse whereby what is objectively public in one moment becomes subjectively prehended in the next, and whereby the subject that emerges from its feelings then perishes into public expression as an object (or “superject”) aiming for novelty. There is a rhythm of Being between object and subject, not an ontological division. This rhythm powers the creative growth of the universe from one occasion of experience to the next. This is the Whiteheadian mantra: “The many become one and are increased by one.” - Matthew Segall

Without Love there is no Truth. And True Truth is always Loving. There is no dichotomy between these terms but only seamless integration. This is the premier centering focus of a Processual Theology of Love. - R.E. Slater


Note: Generally I do not respond to commentary. I may read the comments but wish to reserve my time to write (or write from the comments I read). Instead, I'd like to see our community help one another and in the helping encourage and exhort each of us towards Christian love in Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. - re slater

Saturday, June 8, 2024

Whitehead vs. the Philosophy of Vitalism

Whitehead vs.
the Philosophy of Vitalism

article link

by Matthew David Segall
February 26, 2013
Tags: Alfred North Whitehead, Ancient Philosophy, imagination, Jakob Böhme, Levi Bryant, Modern Philosophy, Richard Tarnas

“The stars are the fountain veins of God.”


Levi Bryant is pulling his hair out about vitalist philosophy (a title he gives to the work of Bergson, Whitehead, and Deleuze, among others). I read all three as materialists, though of course it is a rather strange sort of materialism replete with God-making machines, physical feelings, and alchemical metallurgy. Nonetheless, their philosophical work, especially Whitehead’s, couldn’t be more consonant with 20th century physical science.

No doubt, Whitehead has his more enchanted moments, as well. For example, in a discussion in Process and Reality about the enduring relevance of some themes in Plato’s Timaeus following the discovery of evolutionary theory, Whitehead writes approvingly of the ancient Greek conception of “animating principles” in nature, astrological and elemental forces that form the physical order of our cosmic epoch in the wake of their ongoing creative encounter with aboriginal chaos (95-96). Whitehead’s cosmology is indeed, as Anderson Weeks, writes, an “attenuated Renaissance ‘animism’” (Process Approaches to Consciousness, 165).

As for vitalism, I think it is worthless as a biological or embryogenic theory. There is no need to add an extra bit of magic to matter in order to bring it to life. Matter is already magical. Life is just a more sophisticated spell.

If there is to be any use for vitalism, it must become a full-fledged cosmology, a theory of the Cosmic Organism. As Jakob Böhme the theosophist saw, we must come to see, that “the powers of the stars are the fountain veins in the natural body of God in this world” (The Aurora, 2:28).

Stars Above Haleakala, Haleakala National Park, Maui, HI

Jonah Dempcy offered a critical response to Bryant’s mechanistic cosmology, building on an excerpt from the cultural historian Richard Tarnas‘ book Cosmos and Psyche (41):

“Above all, we must awaken to and overcome the great hidden anthropocentric projection that has virtually defined the modern mind: the pervasive projection of soullessness onto the cosmos by the modern self’s own will to power” – Tarnas

Dempcy goes on (and I largely agree with his analysis here):

“Human narcissism and nihilism go hand in hand. The nihilistic existential worldview of an indifferent, cold universe devoid of meaning (except for what ostensibly human meanings we project onto it) is hand-in-hand with narcissism. It is certainly an appropriate phase when one is 19 or 20 years old. Everyone needs to “pass through” nihilism and become post-nihilistic — to remain pre-nihilistic is to remain stuck in the Imaginary bliss of oceanic merging, fantasies of dual relations with the (m)other and so on. Yet to remain stuck in nihilism is stunted at a developmental phase which could do nothing better than outgrow it self.”

And here is Tarnas again, writing a few lines after Dempcy’s excerpt:

“Contrary to the coolly detached self-image of modern reason, subjective needs and wishes have unconsciously pervaded the disenchanted vision and reinforced its assumptions. A world of purposeless objects and random processes has served as a highly effective basis and justification for human self-aggrandizement and exploitation of a world seen as undeserving of moral concern. The disenchanted cosmos is the shadow of the modern mind in all its brilliance, power, and inflation.”

I’d like to follow up on Jonah’s (and Tarnas’) point that the modern tribe’s disenchantment of the cosmos is the real anthropocentric conceit–not ancient people’s animalization of it–by adding another point about the mechanistic image of the cosmos. The west has believed the earth to be a giant machine with externally related and so blindly colliding parts for several centuries. This idea, this root image, has been tremendously successful (in economic terms). Even if Gaia didn’t start out a machine, she has been all but entirely transformed into one after a century-and-a-half of techno-industrial capitalism. Even if it wasn’t true before, mechanomorphism (as ideology) has made itself true (as biospheric force) through its sheer economic might.

I’d want to offer a different root image from the machine. An organic image, of course. More specifically, I’d offer the root, itself: the universe is an inverted tree. 

Böhme writes (Mysterium Pansophicum, 1:1-4):

The unground is an eternal nothing, but makes an eternal beginning as a craving. For the nothing is a craving after something. But as there is nothing that can give anything, accordingly the craving itself is the giving of it, which yet also is a nothing, or merely a desirous seeking. And that is the eternal origin of Magic, which makes within itself where there is nothing; which makes something out of nothing, and that in itself only, though this craving is also a nothing, that is, merely a will. It has nothing, and there is nothing that can give it anything; neither has it any place where it can find or repose itself…We recognize…the eternal Will-spirit as God, and the moving life of the craving as Nature. For there is nothing prior, and either is without beginning, and each is a cause of the other, and an eternal bond. Thus the Will-spirit is an eternal knowing of the unground, and the life of the craving an eternal body of the will.

*Transl. of Böhme by Basarab Nicolescu in Science, Meaning, & Evolution (1991).


* * * * * * *

This article is about the non-mechanist philosophy. For the Jain philosophical concept, see Vitalism (Jainism). For other uses, see Vital (disambiguation).
Vitalism is a belief that starts from the premise that "living organisms are fundamentally different from non-living entities because they contain some non-physical element or are governed by different principles than are inanimate things."[1][a] Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the "vital spark", "energy", "élan vital" (coined by vitalist Henri Bergson), "vital force", or "vis vitalis", which some equate with the soul. In the 18th and 19th centuries, vitalism was discussed among biologists, between those who felt that the known mechanics of physics would eventually explain the difference between life and non-life and vitalists who argued that the processes of life could not be reduced to a mechanistic process. Vitalist biologists such as Johannes Reinke proposed testable hypotheses meant to show inadequacies with mechanistic explanations, but their experiments failed to provide support for vitalism. Biologists now consider vitalism in this sense to have been refuted by empirical evidence, and hence regard it either as a superseded scientific theory,[4] or, since the mid-20th century, as a pseudoscience.[5][6]

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: many traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in vital forces.


Ancient times

The notion that bodily functions are due to a vitalistic principle existing in all living creatures has roots going back at least to ancient Egypt.[7] In Greek philosophy, the Milesian school proposed natural explanations deduced from materialism and mechanism. However, by the time of Lucretius, this account was supplemented, (for example, by the unpredictable clinamen of Epicurus), and in Stoic physics, the pneuma assumed the role of logosGalen believed the lungs draw pneuma from the air, which the blood communicates throughout the body.[8]


In Europe, medieval physics was influenced by the idea of pneuma, helping to shape later aether theories.

Early modern

Vitalists included English anatomist Francis Glisson (1597–1677) and the Italian doctor Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694).[9] Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733–1794) is considered to be the father of epigenesis in embryology, that is, he marks the point when embryonic development began to be described in terms of the proliferation of cells rather than the incarnation of a preformed soul. However, this degree of empirical observation was not matched by a mechanistic philosophy: in his Theoria Generationis (1759), he tried to explain the emergence of the organism by the actions of a vis essentialis (an organizing, formative force). Carl Reichenbach (1788–1869) later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeates living things.

In the 17th century, modern science responded to Newton's action at a distance and the mechanism of Cartesian dualism with vitalist theories: that whereas the chemical transformations undergone by non-living substances are reversible, so-called "organic" matter is permanently altered by chemical transformations (such as cooking).[10]

As worded by Charles Birch and John B. Cobb, "the claims of the vitalists came to the fore again" in the 18th century:[9] "Georg Ernst Stahl's followers were active as were others, such as the physician genius Francis Xavier Bichat of the Hotel Dieu."[9] However, "Bichat moved from the tendency typical of the French vitalistic tradition to progressively free himself from metaphysics in order to combine with hypotheses and theories which accorded to the scientific criteria of physics and chemistry."[11] John Hunter recognised "a 'living principle' in addition to mechanics."[9]

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach was influential in establishing epigenesis in the life sciences in 1781 with his publication of Über den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschäfte. Blumenbach cut up freshwater Hydra and established that the removed parts would regenerate. He inferred the presence of a "formative drive" (Bildungstrieb) in living matter. But he pointed out that this name,

like names applied to every other kind of vital power, of itself, explains nothing: it serves merely to designate a peculiar power formed by the combination of the mechanical principle with that which is susceptible of modification.

19th century

The synthesis of urea in the early 19th century from inorganic compounds was counterevidence for the vitalist hypothesis that only organisms could make the components of living things.

Jöns Jakob Berzelius, one of the early 19th century founders of modern chemistry, argued that a regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions.[10] Berzelius contended that compounds could be distinguished by whether they required any organisms in their synthesis (organic compounds) or whether they did not (inorganic compounds).[12] Vitalist chemists predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components, but Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components in 1828.[13] However, contemporary accounts do not support the common belief that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea. This Wöhler Myth, as historian Peter Ramberg called it, originated from a popular history of chemistry published in 1931, which, "ignoring all pretense of historical accuracy, turned Wöhler into a crusader who made attempt after attempt to synthesize a natural product that would refute vitalism and lift the veil of ignorance, until 'one afternoon the miracle happened'".[14][15][b]

Between 1833 and 1844, Johannes Peter Müller wrote a book on physiology called Handbuch der Physiologie, which became the leading textbook in the field for much of the nineteenth century. The book showed Müller's commitments to vitalism; he questioned why organic matter differs from inorganic, then proceeded to chemical analyses of the blood and lymph. He describes in detail the circulatory, lymphatic, respiratory, digestive, endocrine, nervous, and sensory systems in a wide variety of animals but explains that the presence of a soul makes each organism an indivisible whole. He claimed that the behaviour of light and sound waves showed that living organisms possessed a life-energy for which physical laws could never fully account.[16]

Louis Pasteur argued that only life could catalyse fermentation. Painting by Albert Edelfelt, 1885

Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, performed several experiments that he felt supported vitalism. According to Bechtel, Pasteur "fitted fermentation into a more general programme describing special reactions that only occur in living organisms. These are irreducibly vital phenomena." Rejecting the claims of Berzelius, LiebigTraube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, Pasteur concluded that fermentation was a "vital action".[1]

20th century

Hans Driesch (1867–1941) interpreted his experiments as showing that life is not run by physicochemical laws.[5] His main argument was that when one cuts up an embryo after its first division or two, each part grows into a complete adult. Driesch's reputation as an experimental biologist deteriorated as a result of his vitalistic theories, which scientists have seen since his time as pseudoscience.[5][6] Vitalism is a superseded scientific hypothesis, and the term is sometimes used as a pejorative epithet.[17] Ernst Mayr (1904–2005) wrote:

It would be ahistorical to ridicule vitalists. When one reads the writings of one of the leading vitalists like Driesch one is forced to agree with him that many of the basic problems of biology simply cannot be solved by a philosophy as that of Descartes, in which the organism is simply considered a machine... The logic of the critique of the vitalists was impeccable.[18]

Vitalism has become so disreputable a belief in the last fifty years that no biologist alive today would want to be classified as a vitalist. Still, the remnants of vitalist thinking can be found in the work of Alistair HardySewall Wright, and Charles Birch, who seem to believe in some sort of nonmaterial principle in organisms.[19]

Other vitalists included Johannes Reinke and Oscar Hertwig. Reinke used the word neovitalism to describe his work, claiming that it would eventually be verified through experimentation, and that it was an improvement over the other vitalistic theories. The work of Reinke influenced Carl Jung.[20]

John Scott Haldane adopted an anti-mechanist approach to biology and an idealist philosophy early on in his career. Haldane saw his work as a vindication of his belief that teleology was an essential concept in biology. His views became widely known with his first book Mechanism, life and personality in 1913.[21] Haldane borrowed arguments from the vitalists to use against mechanism; however, he was not a vitalist. Haldane treated the organism as fundamental to biology: "we perceive the organism as a self-regulating entity", "every effort to analyze it into components that can be reduced to a mechanical explanation violates this central experience".[21] The work of Haldane was an influence on organicism. Haldane stated that a purely mechanist interpretation could not account for the characteristics of life. Haldane wrote a number of books in which he attempted to show the invalidity of both vitalism and mechanist approaches to science. Haldane explained:

We must find a different theoretical basis of biology, based on the observation that all the phenomena concerned tend towards being so coordinated that they express what is normal for an adult organism.

— [22]

By 1931, biologists had "almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief."[22]


Contemporary science and engineering sometimes describe emergent processes, in which the properties of a system cannot be fully described in terms of the properties of the constituents.[23][24] This may be because the properties of the constituents are not fully understood, or because the interactions between the individual constituents are important for the behavior of the system.

Whether emergence should be grouped with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy.[c] According to Emmeche et al. (1997):

On the one hand, many scientists and philosophers regard emergence as having only a pseudo-scientific status. On the other hand, new developments in physics, biology, psychology, and cross-disciplinary fields such as cognitive science, artificial life, and the study of non-linear dynamical systems have focused strongly on the high level 'collective behaviour' of complex systems, which is often said to be truly emergent, and the term is increasingly used to characterize such systems.

— [27]


Franz Mesmer proposed the vitalist force of magnétisme animal in animals with breath.

A popular vitalist theory of the 18th century was "animal magnetism", in the theories of Franz Mesmer (1734–1815). However, the use of the (conventional) English term animal magnetism to translate Mesmer's magnétisme animal can be misleading for three reasons:

  • Mesmer chose his term to clearly distinguish his variant of magnetic force from those referred to, at that time, as mineral magnetismcosmic magnetism and planetary magnetism.
  • Mesmer felt that this particular force/power only resided in the bodies of humans and animals.
  • Mesmer chose the word "animal," for its root meaning (from Latin animus="breath") specifically to identify his force as a quality that belonged to all creatures with breath; viz., the animate beings: humans and animals.

Mesmer's ideas became so influential that King Louis XVI of France appointed two commissions to investigate mesmerism; one was led by Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, the other, led by Benjamin Franklin, included Bailly and Lavoisier. The commissioners learned about Mesmeric theory, and saw its patients fall into fits and trances. In Franklin's garden, a patient was led to each of five trees, one of which had been "mesmerized"; he hugged each in turn to receive the "vital fluid," but fainted at the foot of a 'wrong' one. At Lavoisier's house, four normal cups of water were held before a "sensitive" woman; the fourth produced convulsions, but she calmly swallowed the mesmerized contents of a fifth, believing it to be plain water. The commissioners concluded that "the fluid without imagination is powerless, whereas imagination without the fluid can produce the effects of the fluid."[28]

Medical philosophies

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: many traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in vital forces. One example of a similar notion in Africa is the Yoruba concept of ase. In the European tradition founded by Hippocrates, these vital forces were associated with the four temperaments and humours. Multiple Asian traditions posited an imbalance or blocking of qi or prana. Amongst unterritorialized traditions such as religions and arts, forms of vitalism continue to exist as philosophical positions or as memorial tenets.[citation needed]

Complementary and alternative medicine therapies include energy therapies,[29] associated with vitalism, especially biofield therapies such as therapeutic touchReiki, external qichakra healing and SHEN therapy.[30] In these therapies, the "subtle energy" field of a patient is manipulated by a practitioner. The subtle energy is held to exist beyond the electromagnetic energy produced by the heart and brain. Beverly Rubik describes the biofield as a "complex, dynamic, extremely weak EM field within and around the human body...."[30]

The founder of homeopathySamuel Hahnemann, promoted an immaterial, vitalistic view of disease: "...they are solely spirit-like (dynamic) derangements of the spirit-like power (the vital principle) that animates the human body." The view of disease as a dynamic disturbance of the immaterial and dynamic vital force is taught in many homeopathic colleges and constitutes a fundamental principle for many contemporary practising homeopaths.[citation needed]


The 17th century French playwright Molière mocked vitalism in his 1673 play Le Malade imaginaire.

Vitalism has sometimes been criticized as begging the question by inventing a name. Molière had famously parodied this fallacy in Le Malade imaginaire, where a quack "answers" the question of "Why does opium cause sleep?" with "Because of its dormitive virtue (i.e., soporific power)."[31] Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its "aquosity".[32] His grandson Julian Huxley in 1926 compared "vital force" or élan vital to explaining a railroad locomotive's operation by its élan locomotif ("locomotive force").

Another criticism is that vitalists have failed to rule out mechanistic explanations. This is rather obvious in retrospect for organic chemistry and developmental biology, but the criticism goes back at least a century. In 1912, Jacques Loeb published The Mechanistic Conception of Life, in which he described experiments on how a sea urchin could have a pin for its father, as Bertrand Russell put it (Religion and Science). He offered this challenge:

"... we must either succeed in producing living matter artificially, or we must find the reasons why this is impossible." (pp. 5–6)

Loeb addressed vitalism more explicitly:

"It is, therefore, unwarranted to continue the statement that in addition to the acceleration of oxidations the beginning of individual life is determined by the entrance of a metaphysical "life principle" into the egg; and that death is determined, aside from the cessation of oxidations, by the departure of this "principle" from the body. In the case of the evaporation of water we are satisfied with the explanation given by the kinetic theory of gases and do not demand that to repeat a well-known jest of Huxley the disappearance of the "aquosity" be also taken into consideration." (pp. 14–15)

Bechtel states that vitalism "is often viewed as unfalsifiable, and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine."[1] For many scientists, "vitalist" theories were unsatisfactory "holding positions" on the pathway to mechanistic understanding. In 1967, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated "And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow."[33]

While many vitalistic theories have in fact been falsified, notably Mesmerism, the pseudoscientific retention of untested and untestable theories continues to this day. Alan Sokal published an analysis of the wide acceptance among professional nurses of "scientific theories" of spiritual healing. (Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?).[34] Use of a technique called therapeutic touch was especially reviewed by Sokal, who concluded, "nearly all the pseudoscientific systems to be examined in this essay are based philosophically on vitalism" and added that "Mainstream science has rejected vitalism since at least the 1930s, for a plethora of good reasons that have only become stronger with time."[34]

Joseph C. Keating, Jr.[35] discusses vitalism's past and present roles in chiropractic and calls vitalism "a form of bio-theology." He further explains that:

"Vitalism is that rejected tradition in biology which proposes that life is sustained and explained by an unmeasurable, intelligent force or energy. The supposed effects of vitalism are the manifestations of life itself, which in turn are the basis for inferring the concept in the first place. This circular reasoning offers pseudo-explanation, and may deceive us into believing we have explained some aspect of biology when in fact we have only labeled our ignorance. 'Explaining an unknown (life) with an unknowable (Innate),' suggests chiropractor Joseph Donahue, 'is absurd'."[36]

Keating views vitalism as incompatible with scientific thinking:

"Chiropractors are not unique in recognizing a tendency and capacity for self-repair and auto-regulation of human physiology. But we surely stick out like a sore thumb among professions which claim to be scientifically based by our unrelenting commitment to vitalism. So long as we propound the 'One cause, one cure' rhetoric of Innate, we should expect to be met by ridicule from the wider health science community. Chiropractors can't have it both ways. Our theories cannot be both dogmatically held vitalistic constructs and be scientific at the same time. The purposiveness, consciousness and rigidity of the Palmers' Innate should be rejected."[36]

Keating also mentions Skinner's viewpoint:

"Vitalism has many faces and has sprung up in many areas of scientific inquiry. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, for example, pointed out the irrationality of attributing behavior to mental states and traits. Such 'mental way stations,' he argued, amount to excess theoretical baggage which fails to advance cause-and-effect explanations by substituting an unfathomable psychology of 'mind'."[36]

According to Williams, "[t]oday, vitalism is one of the ideas that form the basis for many pseudoscientific health systems that claim that illnesses are caused by a disturbance or imbalance of the body's vital force."[37] "Vitalists claim to be scientific, but in fact they reject the scientific method with its basic postulates of cause and effect and of provability. They often regard subjective experience to be more valid than objective material reality."[37]

Victor Stenger[38] states that the term "bioenergetics" "is applied in biochemistry to refer to the readily measurable exchanges of energy within organisms, and between organisms and the environment, which occur by normal physical and chemical processes. This is not, however, what the new vitalists have in mind. They imagine the bioenergetic field as a holistic living force that goes beyond reductionist physics and chemistry."[39]

Such a field is sometimes explained as electromagnetic, though some advocates also make confused appeals to quantum physics.[30] Joanne Stefanatos states that "The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics."[40] Stenger[39] offers several explanations as to why this line of reasoning may be misplaced. He explains that energy exists in discrete packets called quanta. Energy fields are composed of their component parts and so only exist when quanta are present. Therefore, energy fields are not holistic, but are rather a system of discrete parts that must obey the laws of physics. This also means that energy fields are not instantaneous. These facts of quantum physics place limitations on the infinite, continuous field that is used by some theorists to describe so-called "human energy fields".[41] Stenger continues, explaining that the effects of EM forces have been measured by physicists as accurately as one part in a billion and there is yet to be any evidence that living organisms emit a unique field.[39]

Vitalistic thinking has been identified in the naive biological theories of children: "Recent experimental results show that a majority of preschoolers tend to choose vitalistic explanations as most plausible. Vitalism, together with other forms of intermediate causality, constitute unique causal devices for naive biology as a core domain of thought."[42]

See also


  1. ^ Stéphane Leduc and D'Arcy Thompson (On Growth and Form) published a series of works that in Evelyn Fox Keller's view took on the task of uprooting the remaining vestiges of vitalism, essentially by showing that the principles of physics and chemistry were enough, by themselves, to account for the growth and development of biological form.[2] On the other hand, Michael Ruse notes that D'Arcy Thompson's avoidance of natural selection had an "odor of spirit forces" about it.[3]
  2. ^ In 1845, Adolph Kolbe succeeded in making acetic acid from inorganic compounds, and in the 1850s, Marcellin Berthelot repeated this feat for numerous organic compounds. In retrospect, Wöhler's work was the beginning of the end of Berzelius's vitalist hypothesis, but only in retrospect, as Ramberg had shown.
  3. ^ See;[25] briefly, some philosophers see emergentism as midway between traditional spiritual vitalism and mechanistic reductionism; others argue that, structurally, emergentism is equivalent to vitalism. See also.[26]


  1. Jump up to:
    a b c Bechtel, William; Williamson, Robert C. (1998). "Vitalism". In E. Craig (ed.). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Routledge.
  2. ^ Evelyn Fox Keller, Making Sense of Life Explaining Biological Development with Models, Metaphors, and Machines. Harvard University Press, 2002.
  3. ^ Ruse, Michael (2013). "17. From Organicism to Mechanism-and Halfway Back?". In Henning, Brian G.; Scarfe, Adam (eds.). Beyond Mechanism: Putting Life Back Into Biology. Lexington Books. p. 419. ISBN 9780739174371.
  4. ^ Williams, Elizabeth Ann (2003). A Cultural History of Medical Vitalism in Enlightenment Montpellier. Ashgate. p. 4. ISBN 978-0-7546-0881-3.
  5. Jump up to:
  6. Jump up to:
    a b Dyde, Sean (2013). "Chapter 5: Life and the Mind in Nineteenth-Century Britain". In Normandin, Sebastian; Wolfe, T. Charles (eds.). Vitalism and the Scientific Image in Post-Enlightenment Life Science, 1800–2010. Springer. p. 104. ISBN 978-94-007-2445-7In medicine and biology, vitalism has been seen as a philosophically-charged term, a pseudoscientific gloss that corrupted scientific practice …
  7. ^ Jidenu, Paulin (1996) African Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-21096-8, p.16.
  8. ^ Birch & Cobb 1985, p. 75
  9. Jump up to:
    a b c d Birch & Cobb 1985, pp. 76–78
  10. Jump up to:
    a b Ede, Andrew. (2007) The Rise and Decline of Colloid Science in North America, 1900–1935: The Neglected Dimension, p. 23
  11. ^ History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences, p. 238
  12. ^ Wilkinson, Ian (10 June 2002). "History of Clinical Chemistry"EJIFCC13 (4): 114–118. ISSN 1650-3414PMC 6208063.
  13. ^ Kinne-Saffran, E.; Kinne, R. K. H. (August 7, 1999). "Vitalism and Synthesis of Urea"American Journal of Nephrology19 (2): 290–294. doi:10.1159/000013463PMID 10213830S2CID 71727190 – via www.karger.com.
  14. ^ Ramberg, Peter J. (2000). "The Death of Vitalism and the Birth of Organic Chemistry: Wohler's Urea Synthesis and the Disciplinary Identity of Organic Chemistry". Ambix47 (3): 170–195. doi:10.1179/amb.2000.47.3.170PMID 11640223S2CID 44613876.
  15. ^ Schummer, Joachim (December 2003). "The notion of nature in chemistry" (PDF)Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A34 (4): 705–736. Bibcode:2003SHPSA..34..705Sdoi:10.1016/S0039-3681(03)00050-5.
  16. ^ Otis, Laura (October 2004). "Johannes Peter Müller (1801-1858)" (PDF)Virtual Laboratory: Essays and Resources on the Experimentalization of Life (Max Planck Institute).
  17. ^ Galatzer-Levy, R. M. (August 7, 1976). "Psychic Energy: A Historical Perspective"Ann. Psychoanal4: 41–61 – via PEP Web.
  18. ^ Mayr, Ernst (2002). "BOTANY ONLINE: Ernst MAYR: Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology". Archived from the original on 2006-09-26. Retrieved 2006-09-24.
  19. ^ Ernst Mayr Toward a new philosophy of biology: observations of an evolutionist 1988, p. 13. ISBN 978-0674896666.
  20. ^ Noll, Richard. "Jung's concept of die Dominanten (the Dominants) (1997)" – via www.academia.edu. {{cite journal}}Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  21. Jump up to:
    a b Bowler, Peter J. Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, pp. 168–169. ISBN 978-0226068589.
  22. Jump up to:
    a b Mayr, Ernst (2010). "The Decline of Vitalism". In Bedau, Mark A.Cleland, Carol E. (eds.). The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and ScienceCambridge University Press. pp. 93–95. ISBN 9781139488655Yet considering how dominant vitalism was in biology and for how long a period it prevailed, it is surprising how rapidly and completely it collapsed. The last support of vitalism as a viable concept in biology disappeared about 1930." (p. 94) From p. 95: "Vitalism survived even longer in the writings of philosophers than it did in the writings of physicists. But so far as I know, there are no vitalists among the philosophers of biology who started publishing after 1965. Nor do I know of a single reputable living biologist who still supports straightforward vitalism. The few late twentieth-century biologists with vitalist leanings (A. Hardy, S. Wright, A. Portmann) are no longer alive.
  23. ^ Schultz, S.G. (1998). "A century of (epithelial) transport physiology: from vitalism to molecular cloning"The American Journal of Physiology274 (1 Pt 1): C13–23. doi:10.1152/ajpcell.1998.274.1.C13PMID 9458708.
  24. ^ Gilbert, S.F.; Sarkar, S. (2000). "Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century"Developmental Dynamics219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-APMID 10974666.
  25. ^ O’Connor, Timothy (2021). "Emergent Properties"The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Metaphysics Research Lab, Stanford University.
  26. ^ Emmeche, C (16 July 2001). "Does a robot have an Umwelt? Reflections on the qualitative biosemiotics of Jakob von Uexküll" (PDF)Semiotica2001 (134): 653–693. doi:10.1515/semi.2001.048.
  27. ^ Emmeche, C. (1997) Explaining Emergence: towards an ontology of levels. Journal for General Philosophy of Science available online Archived 2006-10-06 at the Wayback Machine
  28. ^ Best, M.; Neuhauser, D.; Slavin, L. (2003). "Evaluating Mesmerism, Paris, 1784: the controversy over the blinded placebo controlled trials has not stopped"Quality & Safety in Health Care12 (3): 232–3. doi:10.1136/qhc.12.3.232PMC 1743715PMID 12792017.
  29. ^ "Complementary and Alternative Medicine – U.S. National Library of Medicine Collection Development Manual". Retrieved 2008-03-31.
  30. Jump up to:
    a b c Rubik, Beverly. "Bioenergetic Medicines"American Medical Student Association Foundation. Archived from the original on 2006-02-14. Retrieved 8 November 2006.
  31. ^ Mihi a docto doctore / Demandatur causam et rationem quare / Opium facit dormire. / A quoi respondeo, / Quia est in eo / Vertus dormitiva, / Cujus est natura / Sensus assoupire. Le Malade imaginaire, (French Wikisource)
  32. ^ The Physical Basis of LifePall Mall Gazette, 1869
  33. ^ Crick, Francis (1967) Of Molecules and Men; Great Minds Series Prometheus Books 2004, reviewed here. Crick's remark is cited and discussed in: Hein H (2004) Molecular biology vs. organicism: The enduring dispute between mechanism and vitalism. Synthese 20:238–253, who describes Crick's remark as "raising spectral red herrings".
  34. Jump up to:
  35. ^ "Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD: Biographical sketch". Archived from the original on May 25, 2006.
  36. Jump up to:
    a b c Keating, Joseph C. (2002), "The Meanings of Innate", The Journal of the Canadian Chiropractic Association46 (1): 4–10, PMC 2505097
  37. Jump up to:
    a b Williams, William F., ed. (2013). "Vitalism"Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience: From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy (revised ed.). p. 367. ISBN 9781135955229VITALISM – The concept that bodily functions are due to a 'vital principle' or 'life force' that is distinct from the physical forces explainable by the laws of chemistry and physics. Many alternative approaches to modern medicine are rooted in vitalism. ... The exact nature of the vital force was debated by early philosophers, but vitalism in one form or another remained the preferred thinking behind most science and medicine until 1828. That year, German scientist Friedrich Wöhler (1800–82) synthesized an organic compound from an inorganic substance, a process that vitalists considered to be impossible. ... Vitalists claim to be scientific, but in fact they reject the scientific method with its basic postulates of cause and effect and of provability. They often regard subjective experience to be more valid than objective material reality. Today, vitalism is one of the ideas that form the basis for many pseudoscientific health systems that claim that illnesses are caused by a disturbance or imbalance of the body's vital force.
  38. ^ "Victor J. Stenger's site". Archived from the original on March 3, 2016.
  39. Jump up to:
    a b c Stenger, Victor J. (Spring–Summer 1999). "The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine': Bioenergetic Fields"The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine3 (1). Archived from the original on 2006-12-18. Retrieved 2006-12-03.
  40. ^ Stefanatos, J. 1997, Introduction to Bioenergetic Medicine, Shoen, A.M. and S.G. Wynn, Complementary and Alternative Veterinary Medicine: Principles and Practices, Mosby-Yearbook, Chicago.
  41. ^ Biley, Francis C. 2005, Unitary Health Care: Martha Rogers' Science of Unitary Human Beings, University of Wales College of Medicine, viewed 30 November 2006, "RogersHomepage". Archived from the original on 2006-12-05. Retrieved 2006-12-02.
  42. ^ Inagaki, K.; Hatano, G. (2004). "'Vitalistic causality in young children's naive biology.'". Trends Cogn Sci8 (8): 356–62. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.06.004PMID 15335462S2CID 29256474.


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