Vitalism, as defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary,[1] is

  1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from biochemical reactions
  2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and that life is in some part self-determining

Where vitalism explicitly invokes a vital principle, that element is often referred to as the "vital spark," "energy" or "élan vital", which some equate with the "soul".

Vitalism has a long history in medical philosophies: most traditional healing practices posited that disease results from some imbalance in the vital energies that distinguish living from non-living matter. In the Western tradition founded by Hippocrates, these vital forces were associated with the four temperaments and humours; Eastern traditions posited similar forces such as qi and prana. It is often contrasted to reductionism, the more mechanistic approach.



Plato (left) and Aristotle (right), a detail of The School of Athens, a fresco by Raphael. Aristotle gestures to the earth, representing his belief in knowledge through empirical observation and experience, whilst Plato points up to the heavens showing his belief in the ultimate truth.

Vitalism is an ancient doctine found throughout many ancient cultures, a pure vitalistic doctrine however can be traced back to Galen of the second century, a physician who became a surgeon for gladiators at Pergamum. When studying the anatomy of the human body he did not believe that the living organisms could be explained by mindless interplay of atoms, he believed there was a vital force which powered the human body. Like Erasistratus he believed a vital force was absorbed through the lungs from the air.[2]

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.[3] While vitalist ideas have been commonplace in traditional medicine,[4] attempts to construct workable scientific models date from the 17th century, when it was argued that matter existed in two radically different forms, observable by their behavior with regard to heat. These two forms of matter were termed organic and inorganic. Inorganic matter could be melted, but could also be restored to its former condition by removing the heat. Organic compounds "cooked" when heated, transforming into new forms that could not be restored to the original. It was argued that the essential difference between the two forms of matter was the "vital force", present only in organic material.[citation needed]

Aided by the development of the microscope in the Netherlands in the early 17th century, the germ theory of disease eventually challenged the role of the four humours in Western medicine, while the cellular composition of the organs of human anatomy and the ensuing molecular analysis of the maintenance of life slowly became better understood, reducing the need to explain things in terms of mystical "vital forces".[citation needed]

Nevertheless, various quasi-vitalist concepts were still employed by many scientists to explain many matters of human life, development and mind. Jöns Jakob Berzelius, one of the early 19th century "fathers" of modern chemistry, though he rejected mystical explanations of vitalism, nevertheless argued that a regulative force must exist within living matter to maintain its functions. Carl Reichenbach later developed the theory of Odic force, a form of life-energy that permeated living things; this concept never gained much support despite Reichenbach's prestige. As physiology came to be understood more and more in terms of physical mechanisms, vitalistic explanations for the functioning of the body were refuted one by one. The last holdout for vitalism was the kidney, but it fell into total disrepute after the elegant experiments of Homer Smith in the 1930s demonstrated clearly the filtration and secretory mechanisms of that organ. Vitalism is now considered an obsolete term in the philosophy of science, most often used as a pejorative epithet.[5] Still, Ernst Mayr, co-founder of the modern evolutionary synthesis and a critic of both vitalism and reductionism, writing in 2002 after the mathematical development of theories underlying emergent behavior, stated:

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. But all their efforts to find a scientific answer to all the so-called vitalistic phenomena were failures... rejecting the philosophy of reductionism is not an attack on analysis. No complex system can be understood except through careful analysis. However the interactions of the components must be considered as much as the properties of the isolated components.

Foundations of chemistry

The concept of vitalism in chemistry can be traced back to Berzelius who suggested that in the division of organic and inorganic that a mysterious vital force exists in organic compounds.[7]

Vitalism played a pivotal role in the history of chemistry since it gave rise to the basic distinction between organic and inorganic substances, following Aristotle's distinction between the mineral kingdom and the animal and vegetative kingdoms.[8] The basic premise was that organic materials differed from inorganic materials fundamentally; accordingly, vitalist chemists predicted that organic materials could not be synthesized from inorganic components. However, as chemical techniques advanced, Friedrich Wöhler synthesised urea from inorganic components in 1828[9] and subsequently wrote to Berzelius, that he had witnessed "The great tragedy of science, the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact." The "beautiful hypothesis" was vitalism; the ugly fact was a dish of urea crystals.[10]

Further discoveries continued to marginalise need for a "vital force" explanation as more and more life processes came to be described in chemical or physical terms. However, contemporary accounts do not support the claim that vitalism died when Wöhler made urea. This Wöhler Myth, as historian of science Peter J. 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'."[11] However, in 1845, Adolph Kolbe succeeded in making acetic acid from inorganic compounds, and in the 1850's, 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.

Louis Pasteur in his laboratory, painting by A. Edelfeldt in 1885.

In fact some of the greatest scientific minds of the time continued to investigate the possibility of vital properties. Louis Pasteur, shortly after his famous rebuttal of spontaneous generation, performed several experiments that he felt supported the vital concepts of life. 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." In 1858, Pasteur showed that fermentation only occurs when living cells are present and, that fermentation only occurs in the absence of oxygen; he was thus led to describe fermentation as ‘life without air’. Rejecting the claims of Berzelius, Liebig, Traube and others that fermentation resulted from chemical agents or catalysts within cells, he concluded that fermentation was a "vital action".[12]

Developmental biology

With the rise of mechanism in science in the 16th century there were few vitalistic scientists left. One exception was Francis Glisson (1597–1677) an English anatomist and an Italian doctor Marcello Malpighi (1628–1694).[13]

Caspar Friedrich Wolff (1733–1794) is considered to be the father of epigenetic descriptive 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. In his Theoria Generationis (1759), he endeavored to explain the emergence of the organism by the actions of a "vis essentialis", an organizing, formative force, and declared that "All believers in epigenesis are Vitalists."

Johann Friedrich Blumenbach established epigenesis as the model of thought in the life sciences in 1781 with his publication of Über den Bildungstrieb und das Zeugungsgeschäfte. Blumenbach cut up freshwater polyps and established that the removed parts would regenerate. He inferred the presence of a "formative drive", an organic force, which he called "Bildungstrieb". 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." Therefore early vitalists were aware that the vital forces that they proposed were not capable of standing as positive scientific theories.

Vitalism was revived in the early 18th century by the physician Marie François Xavier Bichat, and the physician John Hunter who recognized a “living priniciple” in addition to mechanics.[13]

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 also claimed the behavior of light and sound waves proposes that living organisms possess a life-energy for which physical laws can never fully account.[14]

Vitalism was also important in the thinking of later teleologists such as Hans Driesch (1867–1941).[15]

In 1894, after publishing papers on his experiments on sea urchin eggs, Driesch wrote a theoretical essay entitled Analytische Theorie der organischen Entwicklung, in which he declared that his studies in developmental biology pointed to a "blueprint" or teleology, an Aristotelian entelechy, a scientific demonstration of Immanuel Kant's notion that the organism develops as if it has a purposeful intelligence;

Development starts with a few ordered manifoldnesses; but the manifoldnesses create, by interactions, new manifoldnesses, and these are able, by acting back on the original ones, to provoke new differences, and so on. With each new response, a new cause is immediately provided, and a new specific reactivity for further specific responses. We derive a complex structure from a simple one given in the egg.

His main argument was that when one cuts up a sea-urchin embryo after its first division or two, the parts do not become parts of sea urchins, but complete sea urchins. However, later research on cell fate determination has led to some successful mechanistic hypotheses, like growth factors influencing cells. The embryo's cells remain totipotent stem cells for the first few cell divisions, only becoming specialized later.

The vitalists strongly rejected Darwin's theory of natural selection. Because of their teleological leanings, they strongly rejected his selectionism.[16] As Darwin's theory of evolution denied the existence of any cosmic teleology, the vitalists saw Darwin's theories as too materialistic to explain the complexity of life. Driesch was a strong anti-Darwinian.

Driesch's reputation as an experimental biologist deteriorated as a result of his vitalistic theories.[15] He moved to Heidelberg and became a Professor of Natural Philosophy.

Other vitalists included Johannes Reinke and Oscar Hertwig. Reinke used the word neovitalism to describe his work, he claimed that it would be eventually verified through experimentation and wanted an improvement over the other vitalistic theories. The work of Reinke was an influence for Carl Jung.[17]

Alfred Russel Wallace believed qualitative novelties could arise through the process of evolution, in particular the phenomena of life and mind, like the vitalists Wallace attributed these novelties to a supernatural agency.[18] Later in his life, Wallace was advocate of spiritualism and believed in a non-material origin for the higher mental faculties of humans, he believed that evolution suggested that the universe had a purpose, and that certain aspects of living organisms are not be explainable in terms of purely materialistic processes, in a 1909 magazine article entitled The World of Life, which he later expanded into a book of the same name.[19]

Two Systematic scientists Guy Coburn Robson and Owain Richards, rejected both mendelism and darwinism and suggested that differences between species are non-adaptive and have nothing to do with natural selection.[20] Robson and Richards examined all the major known examples of evolution by natural selection in their book Variation of animals in nature (1936), and concluded that none were sufficient to account for any significant taxonomic characters. They supported a non-adaptive interpretation of taxonomic differences.[21] Robson and Richards have both been described as vitalists who supported a vitalistic attitude to nature.[22]

According to Robson and Richards:

In arguing that an element of self-regulation and self-organization has had an influence (as against both natural selection and chance) in evolution we are aware that we are touching certain profound and speculative issues. If this organizing activity is indeed an agent in producing the main adaptive tendencies in evolution, it might be argued that the gradual upbuilding and perfection of adaptions, because they involve a large element of design, must also involve some reference to a purpose independent of survival value and chance, and existing as an end in itself ... for those who believe that all organization is produced by material processes envisaged by traditional theories, the scheme of evolution must seem to be clear, at least in outline. For those with whom the difficulties we have outlined in this work have any weight, it must remain to attempt a clearer definition of the purposeful activity with which we seem confronted.

A number of physicists began to advocate vitalism. Niels Bohr was one of the first to suggest that special laws not found in inanimate matter might operate in organisms. He thought of these laws as analogous to the laws of physics except for their being restricted to organisms. Erwin Schrödinger supported similar ideas, as well as the physicists Walter M. Elsasser and Eugene Wigner.[23]

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.[24] Haldane borrowed arguments from the vitalists to use against mechanism, however he was not a vitalist and he insisted that Hans Driesch’s view of entelechy was unacceptable as it was inconsistent with the law of conservation of energy. Haldane treated the organism as fundamental to biology, “we perceive the organism as a self-regulating entity” he argued and “every effort to analyze it into components that can be reduced to a mechanical explanation violates this central experience”.[24] The work of Haldane was an influence on organicism.

By the 1930's vitalism had fallen out of favour by most biologists. In 1931 John Scott Haldane stated:

Biologists have almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief.

Haldane also stated that a purely mechanist interpretation can 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.

The demise of vitalism instead of leading to a victory of mechanism lead to a number of new approaches to science. These new approaches to science included holism, organicism, and emergent evolution.

Early in the 20th century Conwy Lloyd Morgan united both vitalism and mechanism in his theory of emergent evolution, according to Morgan the emergence of life and the emergence of mind were both miracles and could not be explained by physics or chemistry or from biological interpretation alone.[13] Another scientist who held a similar view to this was Jan Smuts who took a holistic approach to science and offered a compromise between mechanism and vitalism with his theory of holism which he explained in his 1926 book, Holism and Evolution.[25]

A modern day example of a biologist and an advocate of vitalism is very rare, however the work of the biochemist Rupert Sheldrake has been described as vitalistic. In 1981 in his book A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation he developed the idea of nonlocal and nonphysical morphogenetic fields.[26] Sheldrake has however rejected both materialism and vitalism (although he admits he has had an influence from vitalism) and claims his work fits into organicism.[27][28]

James Le Fanu has recently defended a form of vitalism in his book Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves (2009), According to a review of the book by the New Scientist, Le Fanu argues for the existence of an immaterial "life force".[29] Le Fanu is not a creationist; he does not argue for God, instead he argues for a non-physical cosmic force which he claims could explain where consciousness originates from; he also claims it may explain many of the other mysteries unexplained by material science.[30][31]

Relationship to emergentism

A refinement of vitalism may be recognized in contemporary molecular histology in the proposal that some key organising and structuring features of organisms, perhaps including even life itself, are examples of emergent processes; those in which a complexity arises, out of interacting chemical processes forming interconnected feedback cycles, that cannot fully be described in terms of those processes since the system as a whole has properties that the constituent reactions lack.[32][33]

Whether emergent system properties should be grouped with traditional vitalist concepts is a matter of semantic controversy.[34] In a light-hearted millennial vein, Kirschner and Mitchison call research into integrated cell and organismal physiology “molecular vitalism.”[35]

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.

Emmeche et al. (1998) state that "there is a very important difference between the vitalists and the emergentists: the vitalist's creative forces were relevant only in organic substances, not in inorganic matter. Emergence hence is creation of new properties regardless of the substance involved." "The assumption of an extra-physical vitalis (vital force, entelechy, élan vital, etc.), as formulated in most forms (old or new) of vitalism, is usually without any genuine explanatory power. It has served altogether too often as an intellectual tranquilizer or verbal sedative—stifling scientific inquiry rather than encouraging it to proceed in new directions."[37]


A popular vitalist theory of the 18th century was "animal magnetism", in the theories of Franz Anton Mesmer (1734–1815). However, the use of the (conventional) English term animal magnetism to translate Mesmer's magnétisme animal is extremely 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 magnetism, cosmic 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/power as a quality that belonged to all creatures with breath; viz., the animate beings: humans and animals.

In Mesmer's time the word "animal" had different mental associations than today. Specifically there were practitioners of the technique that said of a mesmerized person "the person is back animal"[citation needed] meaning "the person is back in a natural mental state where she/he recovers his/her most primitive part of the mind".[citation needed]

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." This was an important example of the power of reason and controlled experiment to falsify theories.[38] It is sometimes claimed[12] that vitalist ideas are unscientific because they are not testable; here at least is an example of a vitalist theory that was not merely testable but actually falsified.

Psychology and consciousness

Group photo 1909 in front of Clark University. Front row from left: Sigmund Freud, G. Stanley Hall, Carl Jung. Back row from left: Abraham A. Brill, Ernest Jones, Sándor Ferenczi.

Perhaps more than any other area of science, psychology has been rich in vitalist concepts, particularly through the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. Freud was a student of the notable anti-vitalist Hermann von Helmholtz, and initially struggled to express his concepts in strictly neurological terms. Abandoning this effort as fruitless, he became famous for his theory that behaviour is determined by an unconscious mind, of which the waking mind is unaware. In 1923, in The Ego and the Id, he developed the concept of "psychic energy" as the energy by which the work of the personality is performed.

Although Freud and Jung remain hugely influential, mainstream psychology has made a determined effort to rid itself of the most mystical of these concepts in an attempt to appear more like the hard sciences of chemistry and physics.[39] Although research within cognitive neuroscience has made substantial progress in explaining mental processes such as perception, memory and motivational states such as anger and fear,[40] larger concepts such as mind and intelligence, remain essentially higher level constructs, with observable neural correlates distributed throughout the brain.

The neuroscientist Roger Sperry, in his Nobel Prize lecture in 1981, described modern scientific concepts of the nature of consciousness and its relation to brain processing and emergent properties as follows:

The events of inner experience, as emergent properties of brain processes, become themselves explanatory causal constructs in their own right, interacting at their own level with their own laws and dynamics. The whole world of inner experience (the world of the humanities) long rejected by 20th century scientific materialism, thus becomes recognized and included within the domain of science.

Around the time of Sperry's acceptance of the Nobel Prize the study of consciousness was considered to be outside the realm of science, and serious researchers risked their credibility by broaching the topic. Sperry changed all that, although it didn't happen overnight. Slowly attitudes changed to embrace the possibility of a physical explanation for consciousness, with symposia devoted to the topic beginning in the mid-1990s and interest growing until now there are whole academic departments devoted to the study of consciousness such as the Center for Consciousness Studies in Tucson.

Some scholars have attacked vitalism in psychology. Thomas (2001) states that "It is now generally considered that biology had to rid itself of vitalism to enable significant progress to occur. It is suggested that psychology will develop as a science only after it rids itself of anti-reductionistic, 'emergentism'."[42]

Complementary and alternative medicine

While contemporary conventional medicine has distanced itself from the less reductionistic and more vitalistic approach of traditional medicine, some areas of complementary medicine continue to espouse various guises of vitalistic concepts and worldview. The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) classifies CAM therapies into five categories or domains:[43]

  • alternative medical systems, or complete systems of therapy and practice;
  • mind-body interventions, or techniques designed to facilitate the mind's effect on bodily functions and symptoms;
  • biologically based systems, including herbalism;
  • manipulative and body-based methods, such as chiropractic and massage therapy; and
  • energy therapy.

The therapies that continue to be most intimately associated with vitalism are bioenergetic medicines, in the category of energy therapies. This field may be further divided into bioelectromagnetic medicines (BEM) and biofield therapies (BT). Compared with bioenergetic medicines, biofield therapies have a stronger identity with vitalism. Examples of biofield therapies include therapeutic touch, Reiki, external qi, chakra healing and SHEN therapy.[44] Biofield therapies are medical treatments in which the "subtle energy" field of a patient is manipulated by a biofield practitioner. The subtle energy is held to exist beyond the electromagnetic (EM) energy that is 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..."[44]

Acupuncture and chiropractic emphasize a holistic approach to the cause and treatment of disease (see main articles on these subjects). However, it should be noted that today many chiropractors no longer adhere to the concept of vitalism to explain the mechanisms at play, and are more mechanistic in their approach. More traditional or "straight" practitioners, however, adhere to a concept of "innate." For example, in a paper named "The Meanings of Innate", Joseph C. Keating, Jr. says that "Innate Intelligence" in chiropractic can be used to represent four concepts: a synonym for homeostasis, a label for a doctor's ignorance, a vitalistic explanation of health and disease, and a metaphysical premise for treatment.[45]

The founder of homeopathy, Samuel 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." As practised by some homeopaths today, homeopathy simply rests on the premise of treating sick persons with extremely diluted agents that – in undiluted doses – are deemed to produce similar symptoms in a healthy individual. Nevertheless, it remains equally true that 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.

Critical opinions

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 soporific power."[46] Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its "aquosity".[47] 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 this criticism goes back at least a century. In 1912, Jacques Loeb published a landmark work, The Mechanistic Conception of Life. He described experiments on how a sea urchin could have a pin for its father, as Bertrand Russell put it (Religion and Science). He also 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). He also addressed vitalism more explicitly (pp. 14-15):

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.

Bechtel and Richardson[12] state that today vitalism "is often viewed as unfalsifiable, and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine." 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.”[48]

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?).[49] 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.”[49]

In his book "Kinds of Minds", philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, "Dualism...and Vitalism (the view that living things contain some special physical but equally mysterious stuff -élan vital- have been relegated to the trash heap of history...." (Chapter 2).[50]

Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD,[51] 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 philosopher Joseph Donahue, D.C., 'is absurd'.

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.

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'.

According to Williams,[52] "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." "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."

Stenger[53] 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."[54]

Such a field is sometimes explained as electromagnetic(EM), though some advocates also make confused appeals to quantum physics.[44] Joanne Stefanatos states that "The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics."[55] Victor Stenger[54] 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".[56] 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.[54]

Vitalistic thinking has also 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."[57]

See also


  1. ^ Merriam-Webster definition
  2. ^ Charles Birch, John B. Cobb, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, p. 75
  3. ^ Jidenu, Paulin (1996) African Philosophy, 2nd Ed. Indiana University Press, ISBN 0-253-21096-8, p.16.
  4. ^ e.g. Zarrilli PB. (1989) Three bodies of practice in a traditional South Indian martial art. Soc Sci Med 28:1289-309. PMID 2660283, Noll R (1989) What has really been learned about shamanism? J Psychoactive Drugs 21:47–50 PMID 2656952 and Merchant J. (2006) The developmental/emergent model of archetype, its implications and its application to shamanism. J Anal Psychol51:125-44 PMID 16451325
  5. ^ "Other writers (eg, Peterfreund, 1971) simply use the term vitalism as a pejorative label." in Galatzer-Levy,RM (1976) Psychic Energy, A Historical Perspective Ann Psychoanal 4:41–61 [1]
  6. ^ Mayr E (2002) The Walter Arndt Lecture: The Autonomy of Biology, adapted for the internet, on [2]
  7. ^ The Rise and Andrew Ede, Decline of Colloid Science in North America, 1900–1935: The Neglected Dimension, 2007, p. 23
  8. ^ see Schummerr J (2003) The notion of nature in chemistry. Stud Hist Phil Sci 34:705-736 for this account within an extensive review on vitalist notions in the foundations of chemistry [3]
  9. ^ Vitalism and Synthesis of Urea
  10. ^ cited by Schummerr J, op cit
  11. ^ The Real Death of Vitalism: Implications of the Wöhler Myth
  12. ^ a b c Vitalism. Bechtel W, Richardson RC (1998). Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy. E. Craig (Ed.), London: Routledge.
  13. ^ a b c Charles Birch, John B. Cobb, The Liberation of Life: From the Cell to the Community, 1985, pp. 76–78
  14. ^
  15. ^ a b Developmental Biology 8e Online: A Selective History of Induction
  16. ^ Ernst Mayr, This is biology: the science of the living world, 1998, pp. 12–13
  17. ^ Jung's Concept of Die Dominanten (The Dominants) Online
  18. ^ Debora Hammond, The Science of Synthesis: Exploring the Social Implications of General Systems Theory, 2003, p. 39
  19. ^ Wallace, Alfred Russel. "World of Life". The Alfred Russel Wallace Page hosted by Western Kentucky University. Retrieved 2011-03-23. 
  20. ^ Mark Ridley, Evolution, 2004, p. 17.
  21. ^ Robert G. B. Reid, Biological emergences: evolution by natural experiment, 2007, p. 8
  22. ^ a b R. J. Berry, T. J. Crawford, G. M. Hewitt, Genes in Ecology: 33rd Symposium of the British Ecological Society, 1992, p. 7
  23. ^ a b c Mark A. Bedau, Carol E. Cleland, The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science, 2010, p. 95
  24. ^ a b Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, pp. 168–169
  25. ^ Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early-twentieth-century Britain, 2001, p. 170
  26. ^ Amit Goswami, Creative Evolution: A Physicist's Resolution Between Darwinism and Intelligent Design: A Quantum Resolution Between Darwinism and Intelligent Design, 2008, p. 144
  27. ^ A New Science of Life: The Hypothesis of Formative Causation, Los Angeles: JP Tarcher, 1981, p. 52, ISBN 0-87477-281-8
  28. ^ Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Modern Theories of Development. An Introduction to Theoretical Biology, New York: Harper, 1962, pp. 21, 28-46, ASIN: B0007E65IK
  29. ^ Amanda Gefter, Review of Why Us? by James Le Fanu, New Scientist 5 February 2009, retrieved September 17, 2011.
  30. ^ Will Self, Review of Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu, London Evening Standard 13 February 2009, retrieved September 17, 2011.
  31. ^ Brian Clegg, Review at Popular Retrieved September 17, 2011.
  32. ^ Schultz, SG (1998). "A century of (epithelial) transport physiology: from vitalism to molecular cloning". The American journal of physiology 274 (1 Pt 1): C13–23. PMID 9458708. 
  33. ^ Gilbert, SF; Sarkar, S (2000). "Embracing complexity: organicism for the 21st century". Developmental Dynamics 219 (1): 1–9. doi:10.1002/1097-0177(2000)9999:9999<::AID-DVDY1036>3.0.CO;2-A. PMID 10974666. 
  34. ^ see "Emergent Properties" in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. online at Stanford University for explicit discussion; 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 Emmeche C (2001) Does a robot have an Umwelt? Semiotica 134: 653-693 [4]
  35. ^ Kirschner, M; Gerhart, J; Mitchison, T (2000). "Molecular "vitalism". Cell 100 (1): 79–88. doi:10.1016/S0092-8674(00)81685-2. PMID 10647933. 
  36. ^ Emmeche C (1997) EXPLAINING EMERGENCE:towards an ontology of levels. Journal for General Philosophy of Science available online
  37. ^ Dictionary of the History of Ideas
  38. ^ 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 care 12 (3): 232–3. doi:10.1136/qhc.12.3.232. PMC 1743715. PMID 12792017. 
  39. ^ see Warren HC (1918) Mechanism Versus Vitalism, in the Domain of Psychology Phil Rev27:597-615 [5] and Elkus SA (1911) Mechanism and Vitalism J Phil Psych Sci Meth 8: 355-8 [6] for examples of this debate within psychology
  40. ^ see for example standard cognitive neuroscience textbooks such as Gazzaniga M, Ivry, R and Mangun, G (2002) Cognitive Neuroscience: The Biology of the Mind, 2nd Ed. New York, New York W.W. Norton ISBN 978-0-393-97777-6 or Ward J. (2006) The Student's Guide to Cognitive Neuroscience London, UK Psychology Press 978-1841695341
  41. ^ Some Effects of Disconnecting the Cerebral Hemispheres, Roger W. Sperry, Nobel Lecture, 8 December 1981
  42. ^ Hazards of “Emergentism” in Psychology, Roger K. Thomas, Ph.D.
  43. ^ "Complementary and Alternative Medicine – U.S. National Library of Medicine Collection Development Manual". Retrieved 2008-03-31. 
  44. ^ a b c Rubik, Bioenergetic Medicines, American Medical Student Association Foundation, viewed 28 November 2006, [7]
  45. ^ a b c d "The Meanings of Innate," Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD, J Can Chiropr Assoc 2002; 46(1)
  46. ^ 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)
  47. ^ The Physical Basis of Life, Pall Mall Gazette, 1869
  48. ^ Crick F (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."
  49. ^ a b Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?
  50. ^ Dennett, Daniel C., 1996, Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness, BasicBooks.
  51. ^ Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD: Biographical sketch
  52. ^ Williams.W. (2000) The Encyclopedia of Pseudoscience. From Alien Abductions to Zone Therapy. Facts on File inc. Contributors: Drs D.Conway, L.Dalton, R.Dolby, R.Duval, H.Farrell, J.Frazier, J.McMillan, J.Melton, T.O'Niell, R.Shepherd, S.Utley, W.Williams. ISBN 0-8160-3351-X
  53. ^ Victor J. Stenger's site
  54. ^ a b c Stenger.V.J., (1999) The Physics of 'Alternative Medicine': Bioenergetic Fields. The Scientific Review of Alternative Medicine, Spring/Summer 1999 Volume 3 ~ Number 1
  55. ^ 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.
  56. ^ Biley, Francis, C. 2005, Unitary Health Care: Martha Rogers' Science of Unitary Human Beings, University of Wales College of Medicine, viewed 30 November 2006, [8]
  57. ^ Inagaki, K; Hatano, G (2004). "'Vitalistic causality in young children's naive biology.'". Trends Cogn Sci 8 (8): 356–62. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2004.06.004. PMID 15335462. 

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  • vitalism — VITALÍSM s.n. Curent în biologie, opus atât materialismului cât şi spiritualismului, care explică procesele de viaţă prin prezenţa în organismul viu a unui principiu imaterial şi incognoscibil, căruia îi sub subordonate toate procesele fizico… …   Dicționar Român

  • Vitalism — Vi tal*ism, n. (Biol.) The doctrine that all the functions of a living organism are due to an unknown vital principle distinct from all chemical and physical forces. [1913 Webster] …   The Collaborative International Dictionary of English

  • vitalism — [vīt′ liz΄əm] n. [Fr vitalisme] the doctrine that the life in living organisms is caused and sustained by a vital force that is distinct from all physical and chemical forces and that life is, in part, self determining and self evolving vitalist… …   English World dictionary

  • vitalism — The doctrine that there is some feature of living bodies that prevents their nature being entirely explained in physical or chemical terms. This feature may be the presence of a further ‘thing’ (such as a soul), but it may also be simply the… …   Philosophy dictionary

  • vitalism — vitalist, n., adj. vitalistic, adj. vitalistically, adv. /vuyt l iz euhm/ 1. the doctrine that phenomena are only partly controlled by mechanical forces, and are in some measure self determining. Cf. dynamism (def. 1), mechanism (def. 8) …   Universalium

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  • Vitalism (Jainism) — Vitalism, also known as dynamism is the philosophy expounded by Mahavira, a prominent teacher of Jainism. It combined the earlier Jain teacher Pārśvanātha s asceticism and the naturalistic teachings of the Ājīvikas.Because life is to be… …   Wikipedia

  • vitalism — noun Date: 1822 1. a doctrine that the functions of a living organism are due to a vital principle distinct from physicochemical forces 2. a doctrine that the processes of life are not explicable by the laws of physics and chemistry alone and… …   New Collegiate Dictionary

  • vitalism — noun the doctrine that life involves some immaterial vital force , and cannot be explained scientifically …   Wiktionary

  • vitalism — The theory that animal functions are dependent upon a special form of energy or force, the vital force, distinct from the physical forces. SYN: vis vitae, vis vitalis. [L. vitalis, pertaining to life] * * * vi·tal·ism vīt əl .iz əm n …   Medical dictionary

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