Lecture 11: Vitalism

 Foundations of Liberty
The Intellectual Crisis of the Modern World

A Lecture Series with Prof. Thomas Patrick Burke

In the last lecture we investigated a recent development in physics that can be viewed as pointing in the direction of the views we have been espousing in these lectures: the theory of emergence. The theory argues that at least in certain cases the reductionism that has been typical of the physical sciences is out of place, because there are phenomena that must be accounted for by explanations of a higher order rather than a lower one.  Newtonian gravity, for example, cannot be explained by analysis into its constituent parts, but can be explained by Einstein’s broader or higher theory.  While the theory of emergence has been embraced with enthusiasm by some, many working scientists still consider it controversial.

We turn now to another controversial theory: vitalism. Since it is not widely familiar, I will begin by giving you some definitions of it provided by well-known sources. According to the Oxford English Dictionaryvitalism is “The doctrine or theory that the origin and phenomena of life are due to or produced by a vital principle, as distinct from a purely physical or chemical force.”  According to Webster’s New World Dictionaryvitalism is “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.” The Encyclopedia Britannica describes it as a “school of scientific thought—the germ of which dates from Aristotle—that attempts (in opposition to mechanism and organicism) to explain the nature of life as resulting from a vital force peculiar to living organisms and different from all other forces found outside living things. This force is held to control form and development and to direct the activities of the organism. Vitalism has lost prestige as the chemical and physical nature of more and more vital phenomena have been shown.”

If  these descriptions are correct, you would be right to conclude that the views proposed in these lectures constitute a form of vitalism. But as the Britannica suggests, in scientific circles vitalism is not only seen as mistaken, but as foolish, disreputable and embarrassing, to be classified with belief in UFOs or the flat earth. According to the philosopher Daniel Dennett, vitalism has “been relegated to the trash heap of history.”  In the words of Francis Crick, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, “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.” What is the ground of this uncompromising rejection? And what is our response to it?

For the answer to the first question we must turn to history. The scientific discipline concerned with the nature of life is biology. But the science of biology was a late development. Modern science began, as we saw,  around 1600 with physics and astronomy: William Gilbert on magnets, Kepler on the planets, Galileo on motion, Newton on gravity. Biology had different roots, namely in the practice of medicine, which of course was concerned with the practical task of  healing. Biology did not emerge as a science in its own right until around the beginning of the 19th century, two centuries after Galileo. By that time the new physics was well established. And you will recall that the worldview associated with that physics was entirely mechanistic. We saw that Descartes viewed animals merely as machines, and Julien de la Mettrie propagated the view that all living things including man and the phenomenon of life itself are machines. The early investigators of life wanted biology to be a genuine science. But they were not happy with the mechanicism that physics seemed to demand. The practice of medicine from its earliest days had relied on the special healing powers of the living human body, powers which were not in evidence in the world of physics and astronomy. It seemed to many early biologists that living beings in general differ in fundamental ways from those that are not living.

This view had been supported already during the previous 18th century by cultural trends outside of science. The cultural world reacted against the soulless mechanicism of Descartes. We can find many references in English poetry and literature, and even philosophical, political and economic writing during that century, to the mysterious power of “vital” spirits or sparks, vital particles or functions, and vital energies, forces and motions, vital air and vital breath.[1] The early biologists of the 19th century inherited a culture of vitalism, and they attempted to incorporate this vitalism into their science.  Here, for example, are the opening paragraphs, dealing with the definition of life,  of a treatise by the great French biologist Xavier Bichat (1771-1802):

The definition of life is to be sought for in abstract considerations; it will be found, I believe, in this general perception: life is the totality of those functions which resist death. Such is in fact the mode of existence of living bodies, that every thing which surrounds them tends to their destruction. Inorganic bodies act upon them incessantly; they themselves exercise a continual action, the one upon the other; and would necessarily soon be destroyed, did they not possess a permanent principle of reaction. This principle is life; not understood in its nature, it can be known only by its phenomena: the most general of which is that constant alternation of action on the part of external bodies, and of reaction on the part of the living body,  the proportions of which alternation vary according to age.[2]

You see here that for Bichat living bodies “resist death,” “exercise a continual action,” and “possess a permanent principle of reaction”  — although we do not understand the nature of life in itself, and can know it only through its phenomena or manifestations.

The strict meaning of the word “science” that we have today in the English-speaking world as the experimental investigation of nature exemplified especially by physics and chemistry, which put forward testable theories and endeavor to prove them, developed only around the middle of the 19th century. Before then “science” had generally the broader meaning of an organized or systematic body of knowledge about almost any kind of subject. It was in this sense that Aristotle spoke of episteme, usually translated science, and this broader sense is still the usual meaning of the word Wissenschaft in German.  These differences in terminology can still give rise occasionally to misunderstandings about what belongs to science and what does not.

This tightening of the meaning of “science” occurred in the English-speaking world at the same time as the concept of biology developed to mean the scientific, in the new stricter sense,  investigation of living beings. The result was a struggle between the two forces: the vitalist conception of science, which recognized that living beings were unique, and the strict conception of science which insisted on theory, experiment and proof. The vitalists initially regarded many aspects of living things as uniquely vitalistic and therefore incapable of being produced by the inanimate world. The Swedish chemist Jöns Jakob Berselius, who created much of our modern chemical terminology (proteins, etc),  suggested the distinction we still make between inorganic and organic compounds, and maintained that organic compounds contained the life-force but inorganic ones did not. The vitalists believed that certain substances, such as urea, could only be produced by living bodies. They pointed out that ordinary inorganic matter could be heated, and might melt, but could be brought back to its original state once the heat was removed. But organic compounds did not merely heat but cooked,  and then could not be brought back to their original components.

As the 19th century wore on, the vitalists were compelled in the name of science to demonstrate experimentally that the unique “life-force” they believed in actually existed, and that organic compounds were basically different from inorganic ones as they asserted. Thousands of experiments were conducted, but from the vitalist perspective all of them eventually failed. In 1828 the German scientist Friedrich Wöhler suceeded in synthesizing urea, demonstrating that there was no basic difference between organic and inorganic compounds.

However, vitalism remained strong in many scientific quarters until well into the 20th century. Louis Pasteur, the inventor of pasteurization, one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century, believed that fermentation was a peculiarly “vital action” that could not occur without living beings such as live yeast. Other notable vitalists were:

Johnnes Peter Müller, who published an influential manual of physiology (1833, 1844), in which he explains that the presence of a soul makes each organism an indivisible whole.

Johannes Reinke (1849-1931), who was a proponent of scientific “neo-vitalism” which influenced Carl Jung.

Oscar Hertwig (1849-1922), who made important discoveries in zoology, such as the role of the cell nucleus in inheritance.

Hans Driesch (1867-1941), who showed by experiments on sea urchin eggs that some cells can generate every cell in an organism, giving rise to the distinction between totipotent and pluripotent cells. Searching for a theory to explain his experimental results, he adopted Aristotle’s theory of teleology, which has played a part in these lectures. Gave the Gifford Lectures.

John Scott Haldane (1860-1936), Scottish physiologist, who among other achievements invented the gas mask and the oxygen tent in the First World War, and made many discoveries in the study of gases. He wrote that the organism is “a self-regulating entity” and “every effort to analyze it into components that can be reduced to a mechanical explanation violates this central experience.” (Peter J. Bowler, Reconciling science and religion: the debate in early twentieth-century Britain. 2001, pp. 168,169.)  “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.” (Mark A. Bedau, Carol E. Cleland, The Nature of Life: Classical and Contemporary Perspectives from Philosophy and Science. 2010, p. 95.)

The greatest philosopher of vitalism is usually thought to be Henri Bergson (1859-1941), author of Creative Evolution, 1907, The Two Sources of Morality and Religion, 1932, and many other works.

Some Recent Vitalist Works:

Rupert Sheldrake, A New Science of Life, : the Hypothesis of Formative Causation, 1981.

James Le Fanu, Why Us? How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves. 2009

What all of these vitalists had in common was an assumption that belief in the existence of a life-force belonged within the purview of science, that it was a scientific concept which ought to be proved by scientific methods and eventually accepted by scientists and incorporated into the body of scientific knowledge.

And despite all this support, at the end of the day the decisive fact has been that the existence of life and the uniqueness of the life-force has not been able to be established by the procedures of scientific method, through empirical testing and experiment.  The great biologist Ernst Mayr has commented on this situation. On the one hand he agrees that the vitalists make a very important point.

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 developmental biologists in particular asked some very challenging questions. For example, how can a machine regenerate lost parts, as many kinds of organisms are able to do? How can a machine replicate itself ? How can two machines fuse into a single one like the fusion of two gametes when producing a zygote ?

The logic of the vitalists’ critique was impeccable.

But on the other hand Mayr considers that their enterprise was a failure, for two reasons: first, they could never prove their ideas scientifically, and second, their postulate of  a special life-force in living things is no longer needed or serves any useful purpose.

The end of vitalism came when it could no longer find any supporters. Two causes were largely responsible for this, first the failure of literally thousands of failed experiments conducted to prove the existence of a Lebenskraft, and secondly, the realization that the new biology, with the methods of genetics and molecular biology, was able to solve all the problems for which one traditionally had invoked the Lebenskraft. In other words the proposal of a Lebenskraft had simply become unnecessary.

According to the view I am defending, both of these “causes” are mistaken.  But because the term “vitalism” now carries with it so much baggage, I do not refer to my own theory as vitalist.

Recently Professor Paul Liebman raised the important similar question: what use is the idea of teleological causation, when everything can be accounted for by mechanistic causation? What do we gain from accepting the existence of a special life-force, when everything can be explained scientifically without it?

My answer is: for science, nothing; but for humanity, everything.

  1. For science, nothing.  Science is fine the way it is. It is a great success, within its domain. It should keep doing what it has been doing. We do not propose to change science in any way.

But, both the vitalists and their critics have assumed that the phenomenon of life must fall within the purview of science. This is a profound mistake. It does not. The intrinsic reality of life cannot be grasped in the test-tube or under the microscope. We know what it means to be alive by living.  Science must always treat life as if it were a mechanism. This has been immensely beneficial to us, and science should continue to do it, because life manifests itself and acts upon the world by employing mechanisms. Philosophy is no substitute for science.

  1. For humanity, however, everything is gained by recognizing teleological causation and the distinct reality of life or the life-force, since all the qualities that are most distinctive of human beings are teleological, and are dependent on the life-force. These include mind, free will, personhood, and the entire domain of ethics and morality, as well as spontaneity and imagination.  Our knowledge of this comes from our direct interior experience of ourselves, beginning with our experience of the freedom of our will to make choices. A world without freedom of the will, a world of machines, is not a human world.  If philosophy is no substitute for science, it is also true that science is no substitute for philosophy–or for ethics, or for poetry.

There is an important question of logic at stake. As we have seen earlier, a machine cannot do good or evil, and cannot make judgements of good or evil.  Unlike life, and teleological causation, which immediately implies value, the concept of mechanistic causation contains no reference to value. Logically there is no room in a mechanistic universe for the concept of “good.” Mechanists who continue to use it are guilty of incoherence. Mayr to the contrary notwithstanding, the proposal of natural purposes and a life-force is indispensable.

The ultimate explanation of life and teleology is another question, which we do not address in these lectures, but plan to investigate in a further series.

[1] See Catherine Packham, Eighteenth Century Vitalism.  2012

[2] Physiological Researches upon Life and Death. 1809.