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The death and rebirth of vitalism

One of the common themes in biology and medicine is the feeling that somehow there must be more. Creationist cults simply know that life must be more than matter, and mind-body dualists (which includes most alternative medicine advocates) are certain that humans are more than an “ugly bag of mostly water” (sorry for the geek reference). If you can stick with me here, I’ll explain to you a bit of the history surrounding this fallacy.

Most of us intuitively feel that we are both a body and a person. In every day life, it makes a certain operational sense to think of our “mind” as being something distinct. From a biological standpoint, however, this doesn’t work as well.

Biology was one of the last of the “natural philosophies” to become a science. It was clear to those who studied chemistry and physics that certain principles seemed to explain the natural world, but those who studied living things were mostly involved in description. Still, biology has become a science in its own right. According to Ernst Mayr, one of the greatest biologists of the last century, a number of events preceded biology being recognized as a legitimate science. One vital event was the recognition that all biological processes were constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry. Another important step was the rejection of two erroneous principles: vitalism, and teleology.

Teleology is the idea that there is some larger end-point or goal that drives biological processes, such as the idea of the ladder of ascent where the development of life has had, as its goal, the creation of more and more complex forms. Darwin’s synthesis of natural selection and evolution pretty much destroyed this idea. Clearly, if stochastic processes can drive the changes we see in living beings, determinism is out the door. Evolution has elements that are random (changes in environment, mutations, etc.) but other elements that are decidedly non-random (for example, convergent adaptations are difficult to call “random”—sure the processes that underlie them are random, but these processes and pressures lead to a non-random result). But from a “cosmic” standpoint, there is no room left for teleologic explanations.

More offensive to me as a physician is the idea of vitalism. This ancient principle says that the difference between living and non-living things is some sort of non-material vital force. As the natural philosophers of the last few centuries became more sophisticated, they worked with this assumption and tried to define it scientifically. For example, it was felt that organic and inorganic matter differed in that, if melted with heat, only inorganic matter could re-crystalize naturally with the removal of the heat source (since we obviously cannot add that essential vital force). This seemed to give a “scientific” way of testing whether or not something was from a “living” source. If this were found to be true, it might pave the way for more experiments that could help show that there must be some sort of “elan vital” that animates living matter. In 1828, a chemist named Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea, an organic compound, from two inorganic compounds. In other words, he created “life” from “non-life”.

This, and experiments like it, effectively destroyed the best attempt to use knowledge of natural laws to divide living from non-living systems. The implications were probably unimportant to Wohler and many others, but from a modern perspective, this is seen as the beginning of the end for vitalism.

The death of vitalism, and the discovery of genetics, allowed biology to grow into a mature scientific discipline. There are no processes in biology that have not been amenable to scientific investigation or that have required a deus ex machina to fully understand. That doesn’t mean that vitalism is dead. Since we, as human beings, operationally see ourselves and both “mind” and “body”, we will always be tempted to think vitalistically.

This is especially true in the most anthropocentric of sciences, medicine. All alternative medicine is based on the idea that we are more than biology, that there is some force, some elan vital that animates us and elevates us.

  • Chiropractic uses the concept of “vertebral subluxation complexes” that block the flow of vital energy, despite the lack of any evidence for these things.
  • Acupuncture, reiki, and other “energy therapies” claim to affect the role of qi, or vital energy, a non-organic, immeasurable force that animates us. Such a vital force has never been found.
  • Homeopathy makes claims that some sort of magic happens to water when they shake it just right. In this case, it’s actually the water that has some sort of vital force imposed upon it, but then this magic water is supposed to be able to affect human biology via a presumably equally invisible and immeasurable process.

If something is immeasurable and un-observable, either directly or indirectly, then it is not medically relevant. Remember, if you are claiming that an intervention is helping a patient, then you are claiming that it is measurable and observable.

If a measurable, observable phenomenon is better explained by known physical laws than by a vitalistic explanation, then why make up a silly, non-reality-based explanation?

Vitalism, an ancient and discredited philosophy, has become irrelevant in modern thinking with two important exceptions: alternative medicine, and religion. That, right there, should tell you something important.

Posted in: Science and Medicine

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42 thoughts on “The death and rebirth of vitalism

  1. pec says:

    “There are no processes in biology that have not been amenable to scientific investigation or that have required a deus ex machina to fully understand. ”

    My god. Your statements are just astounding. You really think there are biological processes which are fully understood?

  2. Peter Lipson says:

    Reading comprehension FAIL, pec. “Amenable to scientific investigation” does not equal “fully understood”.

    Jeez, are you really that blinded by ideology? Or is it a cognitive impairment of some sort?

  3. pec says:

    “Vitalism, an ancient and discredited philosophy, has become irrelevant in modern thinking with two important exceptions: alternative medicine, and religion. That, right there, should tell you something important.”

    Yes, it tells me that you hate religion almost as much as you hate alternative medicine.

    Your post expresses personal philosophical preferences, not scientific evidence. You don’t even bother citing evidence for any of your statements. But lack of scientific evidence doesn’t stop you from being confidently condescending.

  4. pec says:

    You said there are no processes that require a deus ex machina to fully understand. How could you possibly know that, unless you already understood them? How do you know what will be required to fully understand all biological processes?

  5. pec says:

    “Darwin’s synthesis of natural selection and evolution pretty much destroyed this idea.”

    Darwin hypothesized that chance variations plus natural selection could fully explain the origin of species. He didn’t prove it, and no one else did either. It remains a hypothesis.

  6. pec says:

    [ In 1828, a chemist named Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea, an organic compound, from two inorganic compounds. In other words, he created “life” from “non-life”.]

    Oh really. Scientists have created life. Well that is news. Except it isn’t true, and you know that darn well. Synthesizing urea is a far cry from creating life, and everyone knows that. Who are you kidding?

  7. Peter Lipson says:

    There is a word for deliberate ignorance…

    The point of the religion phrase at the end is to remind us all that alternative medicine is essentially religion—without the redeeming qualities.

  8. Yes, it tells me that you hate religion almost as much as you hate alternative medicine.

    …Or it tells you Dr Lipson might believe in non-overlapping magisteria.

    Oh really. Scientists have created life. Well that is news. Except it isn’t true, and you know that darn well. Synthesizing urea is a far cry from creating life, and everyone knows that. Who are you kidding?

    Context, context, context.

    In the context of the brand of vitalism we are discussing, it was determined that organic chemicals had some sort of “elan vital”, which was not possessed by inorganic chemicals. It was therefore hypothesized that organic chemicals could not be synthesized from inorganic components. In the context of that theory, doing so would be creating “life from nonlife.”

    But go ahead, continue to quotemine for ignorance.

    Darwin hypothesized that chance variations plus natural selection could fully explain the origin of species. He didn’t prove it, and no one else did either. It remains a hypothesis.

    *blink* Pec are you a creationist too? Man, when it rains it pours.

    You said there are no processes that require a deus ex machina to fully understand. How could you possibly know that, unless you already understood them? How do you know what will be required to fully understand all biological processes?

    I can prove the internal angles of a triangle add up to 180 degrees without counting the angles inside every triangle.

    Also,

    There are no processes in biology that have not been amenable to scientific investigation or that have required a deus ex machina to fully understand

    /emphasis mine
    I believe did not say “there can be no such process,” i believe he said “none so far, and no evidence of any up ahead.”

  9. Basiorana says:

    Eh, scientists have created whole new species before (heck, early man came pretty close with animal husbandry). We’re not all the way there yet but we know this much:

    -it is entirely possible for a bacterial organism to arise from inorganic molecules under the right levels of heat and inorganic compounds, and early Earth most likely had those conditions

    -obviously, new species are created by natural selection, hence, MRSA and other superbugs even just in our lifetime and ignoring fossils

    -natural selection occurs because a chance mutation happens to be advantageous (there’s also genetic drift and such which Darwin never considered, but which also applies)

    Thus, it’s entirely possible to see in each step how/why from early pre-life earth, inorganic molecules would naturally be inclined due to chemical and physical laws to slowly evolve over billions of years into the diversity on Earth. And yes, biology or biochemistry has proved all of the above in the scientific sense (when we make predictions based on these ideas, our predictions turn out to be consistently correct, whereas that is not true of competing ideas), if not in the legal sense (convincing the average person that it is correct beyond a reasonable doubt), which is what Creationists want.

    It’s not about scientific proof, it’s about legal proof– they want us to prove it to them, not to prove it. But you see, in a court they would be rejected for jury duty because of their obvious biases– they already know what they want the outcome to be. So trying to prove it to them is stupid. Let people live in their ignorance, and instead teach their children the scientific evidence, so the children can attempt to form their own opinions based on truth and not tradition.

  10. storkdok says:

    Thanks for explaining that. I have never understood what Pec is talking about, she is incomprehensible and so illogical.

  11. Mojo says:

    @pec

    Darwin hypothesized that chance variations plus natural selection could fully explain the origin of species. He didn’t prove it, and no one else did either. It remains a hypothesis.

    You don’t get science, do you?

    Science doesn’t “prove” anything – all theories are provisional, and subject to being overturned based on (wait for it) evidence.

  12. pec says:

    [Darwin hypothesized that chance variations plus natural selection could fully explain the origin of species. He didn’t prove it, and no one else did either. It remains a hypothesis.]

    [*blink* Pec are you a creationist too? Man, when it rains it pours.]

    *blink blink blink* I SAID:

    the idea that chance variations plus natural selection can fully explain the origin of species

    is an unproven hypothesis. I NEVER said that evolution is a hypothesis. Evolution is a FACT. I am NOT a creationist.

    But you don’t know, and no one knows, what causes evolution. Natural or artificial selection can result in variations within a species — breeds of dog, for example. The creation of new and increasingly complex species has not been explained.

    Here we go again …

  13. spurge says:

    For someone who claims not to be a creationist you sure sound like one.

    “the idea that chance variations plus natural selection can fully explain the origin of species

    is an unproven hypothesis.”

    This is a total straw man. I don’t know any biologists who would make this claim.

    “But you don’t know, and no one knows, what causes evolution.”

    Nothing causes evolution. It just happens.

    Your ideology blinds you to this.

    “The creation of new and increasingly complex species has not been explained. ”

    Quite clearly it has. Your ignorance of the evidence is your problem.

  14. Mojo says:

    Natural or artificial selection can result in variations within a species…

    Nope. Natural or artificial selection selects for particular traits within those variations that already exist. the variations themselves are a result of genetic differences between individuals and mutations.

    The creation of new and increasingly complex species has not been explained.

    Are you an IDer? You seem to be straying into Dembski’s territory.

  15. Mojo says:

    the idea that chance variations plus natural selection can fully explain the origin of species is an unproven hypothesis.

    Sure it is – see my earlier comment about science and proof – but it is a hypothesis that is well supported and fits all the available evidence. That means it is (in scientific terms) considered to be a theory.

  16. David Gorski says:

    the idea that chance variations plus natural selection can fully explain the origin of species
    is an unproven hypothesis.

    Dead wrong, pec. Evolution due to natural selection and other mechanisms causing speciation is a theory that is well supported by overwhelming quantities of evidence from multiple scientific disciplines. You clearly have no clue about evolution, either. For example:

    But you don’t know, and no one knows, what causes evolution. Natural or artificial selection can result in variations within a species — breeds of dog, for example. The creation of new and increasingly complex species has not been explained.

    Ah, yes. That argument is straight from the creationist playbook. You’re repeating the “selection can cause microevolution but not macroevolution” nonsense that creationists like to trot out. Sorry, but speciation has been observed. Browse TalkOrigins.org for a sampling. Moreover, where does microevolution end and macroevolution begin? It’s a continuum.

  17. pec says:

    “it is a hypothesis that is well supported and fits all the available evidence.”

    Oh yeah, evolution “just happens.” That’s real scientific. Calling me ignorant doesn’t make you look smart, by the way.

  18. spurge says:

    pec

    You are ignorant.

    It is quite clear to everyone but you.

    Evolution does just happen.

    There is no magic force behind it like you seem to imply.

    Your ideology blinds you to this.

  19. Zetetic says:

    Pec baiting is not “nice”.

  20. pec says:

    “Evolution does just happen.”

    Well then I think it’s time to simplify all scientific knowledge into one grand theory — the It Just Happens Theory. We can actually explain everything that way, and it would save an awful lot of time and money. No need for any more big expensive physics experiments — after all, everything they’re studying “just happens.”

    “Your ideology blinds you to this.”

    Your ideology, on the other hand, doesn’t blind you. You, of course, are in possession of the real and complete Truth. How exalted, how tremendous. Congratulations.

  21. Mojo says:

    Well then I think it’s time to simplify all scientific knowledge into one grand theory — the It Just Happens Theory.

    What you’re ignoring, of course, is that the theory of evolution by natural selection of inherited characteristics describes how it happens.

  22. David Gorski says:

    Well then I think it’s time to simplify all scientific knowledge into one grand theory — the It Just Happens Theory. We can actually explain everything that way, and it would save an awful lot of time and money. No need for any more big expensive physics experiments — after all, everything they’re studying “just happens.”

    No doubt such a grand theory appeals to you. After all, you’re the one who invokes vitalism (some magical force just makes life happen).

    But Mojo beat me to it. Evolution does happen. The theory of evolution tells us the mechanisms by which it happens.

  23. spurge says:

    As always the point flies over pec’s head.

  24. Dave Ruddell says:

    I’m pretty sure gravity ‘just happens’, yet nobody seems too troubled by that.

  25. spurge says:

    Maybe if pec would actually come straight out and explain what she believes I would not be so confused by her problem with evolutionary theory.

    I shall not hold my breath.

  26. BringsomeHealing says:

    @Peter Lipson

    Quick clarification question:

    On:
    “If something is immeasurable and un-observable, either directly or indirectly, then it is not medically relevant.”

    May I accurately paraphrase this sentence as: “If something is immeasurable and un-observable, either directly or indirectly, then it is not [scientifically significant, and thus not medically relevant.]” ?

    Thoughtful feedback appreciated,

    -bh

  27. megancatgirl says:

    You really think there are biological processes which are fully understood?

    Yes. There are plenty of biological processes which I personally fully understand. Just because you don’t understand them and they seem mysterious to you doesn’t mean that others don’t understand them or that they are not understandable. Sorry to break it to you, but some people know things that you don’t.

  28. megancatgirl says:

    I’m pretty sure gravity ‘just happens’, yet nobody seems too troubled by that.

    You’re absolutely right. Gravity is more mysterious than evolution. I think we should stop teaching about it in schools. Actually, all forces “just happen”, including electromagnetism and and the strong and weak intramolecular forces.

  29. BringsomeHealing says:

    @megancatgirl

    “Gravity is more mysterious than evolution. I think we should stop teaching about it in schools.”

    Intriguing idea… stop teaching mysterious things via school…

    How would you suggest approaching students about the forces which “Just Happen”?

  30. mckenzievmd says:

    Peter,

    Dead on! I think it’s important not only to recognize that alternative medicine is, essentially, faith-based medicine, but that the underlying philosophical basis of CAM is a failure.

    This creates a lot of discomfort for some since, as pec’s initial response illustrates, the same underlying philosophical ideas are the foundation for other faith-based systems. It is hard to truly accept science-based medicine, with its necessary methodological naturalism and materialism and recognition of the huge role randomness plays in the real world, and not ask awkward questions about even more sensitive topics.

    I suspect this may be part of the reason why even scientifically-educated people resist SBM and cling to CAM even when it requires some challenging doublethink to apply one set of epistemelogical standards to one category of phenomena and another to everything else. I’ve certainly had colleagues take my dismissal of vitalism as applied to CAM approaches and dismiss it in turn as my “atrheist bias” or some such.

    Brennen McKenzie
    http://www.skeptvet.com
    http://skeptvet.com/Blog

  31. pec says:

    “I’m pretty sure gravity ‘just happens’, yet nobody seems too troubled by that.”

    And physicists admit that they have not explained gravity. Do you see the difference? Gravity just happens and evolution just happens, and no one really knows how. But biologists, at least the more arrogant among them, insist they know how and why evolution happens.

  32. pec says:

    “There are plenty of biological processes which I personally fully understand.”

    Yes you probably took one intro course where they made everything look so simple you thought you had complete understanding. Let’s see if you feel the same way after you learn a little more.

  33. Peter Lipson says:

    @BringSomeHealing

    I suppose I don’t have any strong objection to your paraphrasing, however for the purposes of this piece, I chose more limited language and didn’t intend to include all of science, but rather medicine.

    If something has no observable effect on patients, then it is not very relevant.

  34. overshoot says:

    Congratulations, pec.

    One of the best jobs of thread hijacking I’ve seen in quite a while.

  35. trrll says:

    Your statements are just astounding. You really think there are biological processes which are fully understood?

    Most biological processes are substantially understood, to the point that one can carry out experiments and observe predictable consequences.

    And so far, nobody has encountered any clear “gaps” that have required the assumption of new physics to understand. Nerves communicate within the body by chemical reactions, electric fields, and ion fluxes that have been generally understood for decades or more. Muscles flex by conformational transitions of proteins that have been crystalized and modeled in detail at the molecular level. Biological substances within the body are interconverted by chemical catalysis following the standard laws of chemistry, and the same thermodynamics that was originally worked out to understand how engines work.

    Of course, those who have an emotional need to believe in supernaturalism are always looking for “gaps” in knowledge where they can imagine that supernatural processes reside, but the gaps have gotten pretty small–to the point that supernatural apologists such as pec are reduced to speculating that perhaps there is some process that is not yet fully understood, but that will turn out to require some kind of supernatural mechanism–perhaps the undifferentiated “energy” or “fields” that supernaturalists are so anxious to believe in.

  36. daijiyobu says:

    Great post.

    -r.c.

  37. The Blind Watchmaker says:

    Why are we trying to convince pec?

    Please see Eugie Scott’s book, “Evolution Vs. Creationism”,2nd Edition.

    http://www.amazon.com/Evolution-vs-Creationism-Eugenie-Scott/dp/0313321221

  38. Mojo says:

    …supernatural apologists such as pec are reduced to speculating that perhaps there is some process that is not yet fully understood, but that will turn out to require some kind of supernatural mechanism–perhaps the undifferentiated “energy” or “fields” that supernaturalists are so anxious to believe in.

    Even if pec were to establish that there are processes that are not fully understood, all that would establish would be that there are processes that are not fully understood. It wouldn’t be evidence for the existence of these “energies” or “fields”.

  39. oderb says:

    “All alternative medicine is based on the idea that we are more than biology, that there is some force, some elan vital that animates us and elevates us.”

    I am astounded at that statement Peter.

    I have two doctors. The first is Nicholas Gonzalez, whose entire practice has been dissected on this site on numerous occasions. He has eliminated my liver mets over 20 years ago, so needless to say I trust him.

    Please explain how Dr. Gonzalez is a vitalist. He believes in diet, detox, and the biological action of pancreatic enzymes. He is as materialist a doctor as I have even encountered. He just happens to believe in a different set of material substances than the rest of the medical/pharm establishment. You may believe that he is wrong to use such protocols, but I cannot fathom how you can by inference label him a vitalist (unless you concede that he is not an alternative practicitioner).

    My family doctor uses supplements and herbs, intravenous vitamins ,ozone, etc in lieu or pharmaceuticals (in most but not all cases.) He has been doing this for thirty years with thousands of patients with remarkable success.

    Most everyone in the medical profession would label him as a alternative practitioner. I have never heard him espouse or recommend any therapy that is anything but materialist. Just as with Dr. Gonzalez he prescribes a different set of material substances, ones you and others may believe are ineffective or less effective.

    How then are he and thousands of other similar practitioners vitalists – or are they then not alternative doctors? And if not I assume they are just doctors using their best clinical judgement, best scientific data, and best clinical experience.

  40. Peter Lipson says:

    Well, perhaps I need to rethink the label as being all-inclusive.

    However,

    He is as materialist a doctor as I have even encountered. He just happens to believe in a different set of material substances than the rest of the medical/pharm establishment.

    There is no “other” set of substances, hence, “vitalism” (or insanity).

  41. Charon says:

    “He has eliminated my liver mets”

    If only he could eliminate liver Yankees!

    (Couldn’t help myself. This appears to be a perfectly normal term in medicine, but sounded funny to my physicist ears.)

    And yes, Peter, I do think you need to consider insanity as well as vitalism as an explanation.

    And people, on pec: “You cannot reason people out of positions they didn’t reason themselves into.” -Ben Goldacre

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