Vitalism

Why biology tells us a lot about life, but not about how to live your life.

The Seven Raven Brothers, by Hartwig HKD, on Flickr.com

Re-Assembling Reality #25, by David A. Palmer and Mike Brownnutt

In essay #24 on What is life, we compared different conceptions of life: the contemporary biological definition of life, Chinese conceptions of vitality such as qi and sheng, Aristotelian conceptions of psyche, and Biblical conceptions of khahee and zoe, among others.

Varieties of vitalism

The Chinese, Aristotelian and Biblical conceptions can be classified as vitalist.

Vitalism is the notion that life originates from some vital principle, vital force or vital energy that is distinct from chemical and physical forces.

In the history of modern biological science, there have been many controversies over vitalism. In the 17th and 18th centuries, a mechanistic view of the body began to predominate, banishing the Aristotelian schema. But as scientists became aware of the incredible complexity and coherence of living organisms, many posited that they must be governed by an invisible principle of organization. By the 19th century, the Romantics, who rejected mechanization, emphasized empathy between humanity and the natural world, and insisted that there is something essentially different — a vital force — that separates dead, inanimate matter, from feeling, growing, pulsating life. By the early 20th century, developmental biologists wondered about how organisms exhibit non-random growth that seems directional and even purposeful, and postulated a vital force, entelechy, to explain this phenomenon.

But since the 1930s, all of these vitalistic conceptions have been thoroughly banished from biology. Reductionist conceptions of life, based purely on physical and chemical processes, rule supreme in biology.

As one text states,

Vitalism now has no credibility. This is sometimes credited to the view that vitalism posits an unknowable factor in explaining life and further vitalism is often viewed as unfalsifiable and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine.[1]

Nowadays, to be called a vitalist is often to be accused of “lack of intellectual rigor, anti-scientific attitudes and superstition.” [2]

While vitalism is banished from orthodox biology, it remains widely prevalent in society.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) systems, whether Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), Ayurveda, naturopathic, chiropractic, and other forms of Integrative Medicine, are all, to varying degrees, based on vitalist cosmologies.

The traditional cosmologies, cultures and religions out of which these forms of healing have emerged, in China, India, Africa, among indigenous peoples around the world and so on, are based on some form of vitalism.

The monotheistic, Abrahamic religions, to the extent that they claim that God “breathed the breath of life” into living beings, are vitalist.

When people pray for the souls of the dead or give offerings to them, assuming that these souls once animated the body, they are being vitalist.

The increasing popularity of vitalist complementary and alternative therapies, and the increasing sympathy of people in modern societies for the vitalist worldviews of indigenous peoples, with notions of a single life-force circulating through all beings — these trends suggest that vitalism is not on the verge of disappearing.

Anti-vitalist biological science is an island in a world awash with vitalistic beliefs and practices.

There are different ways of looking at this situation.

  • Biological science is the correct view of life. Most of the people of the world are wrong. They still don’t understand life, they are lost in superstition, and overcoming this ignorance is a never-ending battle which, unfortunately, we may be losing as people become increasingly irrational.
  • Biological science is the correct view of life. Most of the people are wrong. However, their vitalist beliefs might give them psychological relief. Any benefits they claim to gain from these beliefs are placebos, which must, eventually, be replaced by the true benefits coming from a correct understanding of life.
  • Vital forces exist. Traditional vitalist theories are based on mistaken explanations coloured by mysticism, poetry and subjective impressions, but they are based on true intuitions. Once we remove the supersitious colorations and beliefs, we will understand the rational regularity and principles of the operation of vital energy. Through further scientific research, experiments and theories, biology will one day finally be able to detect, measure, and harness this energy, for the betterment of humanity.
  • Vitalist cosmologies have a more comprehensive and holistic understanding of human life and our place within the living community of the planet. They are more conducive to our personal health and our healthy relationships with our natural and built environment. Reductionist biology deals with superficial phenomena and we should resort to its expertise in cases of acute illness or ecological emergencies. But these crises are effects of our refusal to respect the natural rhythms and forces of life.
  • The mechanistic, reductionist approach of biology is wrong and dangerous. We are not machines. We should listen to our life force, follow the natural and sacred rhythms of our lives, and stay away from the medical industry and the biological science that underpins it. Illness and death are intrinsic aspects of the cycle of life. Cultivating our our vital energies, we live longer and healthier. But we should accept the inevitable onset of disease and death, rather than using unnatural interventions to fight them desperately.

These positions follow the “two-lists” frame that we have critiqued in this series of essays. The first two positions, especially, situate biology on the “science” column of empirical fact and rationality, and vitalism on the opposite column of superstition and irrational, subjective belief.

I find myself agreeing with all five of these positions at different times.

Are there other ways of considering the issue?

The Door to New Directions, by Hartwig HKD on Flickr.com

Ontological positions

There is no such thing as the “philosophy of life” as a sub-branch of academic philosophy, but the philosophy of mind, a major field in academic philosophy, offers some intriguing potential parallels, notably around the mind-body issue, also known as the question of consciousness.

The main philosophical positions are as follows:

  1. Materialist (reductionist) monism: we only have a brain. There is no “mind” with an existence distinct from the brain.
  2. Dualistic monism (emergentism): The mind emerges from the brain. It is not ontologically distinct from the brain. Out of the incredibly complex relationships and interactions between neurons, a set of properties and capacities emerges (the “mind”) that are completely absent at the level of the brain alone.
  3. Dualism: We have both a brain and a mind. The mind (consciousness) and the brain (body) are ontologically distinct from each other.
  4. Idealist monism: we only have a mind. What we experience as the physical world is only a mental projection.

We find the same positions with respect to life:

  1. Materialist (reductionist) monism: we only have a body consisting of biochemical elements and processes. There is no “life” with an existence distinct from the body; life is simply a name for those biochemical processes. This is the position currently accepted within mainstream biological science.
  2. Dualist monism (emergentism): Life emerges from the body; it’s not ontologically distinct from the body. Out of the incredibly complex relationships and interactions between the chemical elements or cells of a being, a set of properties or capacities emerges (“life”) that is absent at the level of the chemical elements alone. This position has been advocated by a growing number of philosophers in recent years.
  3. Dualism: We have both a body and life. The body and the life-force (soul) are ontologically distinct from each other. Religious conceptions that posit that the soul gave life to the body and that, after the death of the body, the soul separates or detaches from the body to continue an existence in the afterlife, are dualist in this sense.
  4. Vitalist monism: the universe is made of life force. Some religious cosmologies, such as Daoism, take this position. The cosmos consists of qi, which has differentiated itself into more coarse and more rarefied forms. The coarse forms of vital energy have coagulated into solid things, while the more rarefied forms of vital energy can be found in higher spiritual realms. The vital energy is in constant transformation and circulation; all the beings in the universe are but different, temporary configurations of qi.

Each of these positions has its own criteria and methods of verification. It also has its own implications for how we live our life, and what aspects of our life we can get a handle on.

Qi and associated terms such as sheng are central concepts in the Chinese vitalist cosmology.

Does qi exist?

If we operate within a vitalist monist ontology (position #4), the existence of qi is axiomatic, in the same way that, for sociologists, social power is axiomatic. The dynamic relationships between any beings in the universe — such as, for example, all of the relationships that make a tree thrust upwards and give coolness and stability to the creatures that live under it — are the expression of configurations of qi, just as all social relationships express power relations. It would be impossible to try to separate qi from all the things that give a tree its particular “energy” and put it in a container, just as it would be impossible to isolate the “power” from a relationship between a boss and his employee, and store it in an account.

This account of qi (or of social power) sounds vague and imprecise. Wouldn’t it be great if we could capture that energy, measure it, and use it? In the 1980s and 1990s, many Chinese scientists wanted to put Chinese cosmology onto a solid, scientific foundation. This entailed moving qi from out of the vitalist ontology (position #4) and placing it into the reductionist ontology (option #1). Qi was redefined as a specific kind of material energy, that could operate alongside other biochemical processes. To understand qi, then, was simply a matter of designing the right kind of instruments, that could go ping and produce measurements whenever qi ran through them.

But it didn’t work. Qi couldn’t be observed or detected. Once again, vitalism was disproven: if the goal is to observe a distinct Qi or vital force or vitality that has a mechanistic impact on other substances or beings, there is no such observable thing.

But perhaps this is not what “Qi” or “vitality” points to.

The Colours of the Soul by Hartwig HKD via Flickr.com

Qi as postulated noumenon

In a vitalist ontology, Qi (or other concepts of vitality) can be seen as a postulated noumenon that can’t be directly perceived, but that can be considered to be manifest through all the different phenomenal forms of vitality that can be observed in the world, from the ear-shattering squeals of a baby to the drooping, discoloured leaves of a dying plant.

Taking qi as a posited noumenon, the question is not whether qi exists as an independent phenomenon, but what is accomplished by linking such a wide and disparate range of phenomena under a single word, qi, which is treated as a single noumenon. Does this posited noumenon give us a greater handle on reality?

One answer to this question is, clearly, no. After vital energy was abandoned as postulated noumenon in Western biology, and we tried to understand the specific noumena underlying each individual phenomenon from the heartbeat to the industrial economy, we then gained an infinitely greater handle on all of these phenomena.

But from another perspective, perhaps the concept of Qi does give us a greater handle on other aspects of life.

The word Qi refers to both the quality of a thing, as in, for example, “he has strong youthful vigour.” It also refers to something such as an energy or force that circulates. A particular Qi arises through the interaction of any combination or configuration of things. Your vitality, then, is influenced by the vitality of other things and your vitality influences others. The concept of Qi leads one to a greater attentiveness to the quality of one’s own vitality in relation to the vitality of other beings, places, and situations, to the influence of other vitalities on oneself, and to how one’s own vitality influences others.

Far from being unknowable, vitality can be perceived and experienced. This perception is not mere “belief”. It’s obvious when someone is manifesting the “energy” (or “qi”) of anger. You can verify this perception, and it’s possible to be aware to what extent that “energy” has spread to you, igniting anger in you. To call the anger an “energy” is to give a name to the power of the anger to trigger all kinds of reactions and responses in you.

Perception of this energy can be trained if you postulate it as something that exists, that can be nourished, enhanced, and exchanged. For example, becoming aware of the “energy” of your emotions is the first step to gaining a handle over your emotions. Somebody who uses “energy” as a posited noumenon may thus work to enhance the quality of their “energetic” relationships with different beings and situations. With this awareness, they seek to gain a better handle on their life than someone who lacks the awareness and the methods to manage those relationships and their effects.

Chinese relational vitalism suggests a way of living your life, being attentive to what you eat, to the balance between your waking and sleeping hours, to the differences between the seasons, to the environment in which you live, to the way you relate to people, to the way you treat your body, to how you manage your emotions and your thoughts. It suggests learning and developing knowledge about all of these aspects of life. People who use Chinese vitalism to think about their life tend to be very interested in these things, and it affects how they live their lives.

Epistemic communities of people who work with qi share experiences about these different types of knowledge, arguing about some claims, advancing other claims and dropping others. They talk about techniques and methods — specific exercises or remedies — to produce certain effects, and they test these by trying them out and talking about the results. With time, they come up with (and argue about) new interpretations, new discoveries and new applications; and they argue about old ways of doing things.

As we discussed in essay #11 about climate science and essay #17d about subjective realism, those who are members of that epistemic community know what they are talking about. But those outside the epistemic community, who don’t know the techniques and jargon being discussed, and have never seen or experienced what they are talking about, have no way to assess whether they are talking about something real, or if it’s just a big community of people talking hocus-pocus.

But the outsider could get a sense by looking at the results: are those who work with Qi healthier and happier than those who don’t?

Magical Landscape 109 by Hartwig HKD via Flickr.com

Psyche as postulated noumena

Now let’s think again about the different types of Aristotelian psyche, often translated as the “vegetative soul”, the “sentient soul”, the “rational soul” and so on, which we discussed in the previous essay. These souls are as irrelevant as Qi to modern biology, which does not need them for its research on biological life.

But, as in the case of Chinese vitalism, the Aristotelian concepts might provide a better handle on other aspects of life. The Baha’i version of Aristotelian vitalism described in the previous essay, which incorporates a spiritual faculty, suggests a way of living your life attentive to your nutritive, your sensitive, your rational and your spiritual capacities. With this theory, you may want to know more about all of these faculties and learn how to exercise and train them. This theory suggests an approach to education that would combine education of the body, of the intellect and of the spirit, all of which would be seen as complementary and mutually supporting rather than as oppositions between body and soul, or between reason and faith.

A psyche-based conception of life might place great emphasis on education designed to nurture each type of vital faculty. The nutritive and sensitive faculties might be trained and developed through habits and practices of nutrition, health and lifestyle. The rational faculty would be developed through philosophical and scientific education, reading, writing and problem solving. Training in the spiritual faculty might involve exposure to knowledge of divine qualities through deepening understanding of virtues, learning from the lives of figures who embody such virtues, engaging in spiritual practices that train the virtues, and learning how to apply them in concrete situations in life.

Baha’is, who use this vitalist frame to think about their lives and the lives of people who live in their community, are interested in creating the conditions for the full development of all of these capacities within each individual, within the limitations congenital to each person. They care about the physical health and well-being of all, and they also work hard to develop both the intellectual and spiritual life of their communities.

As an epistemic community, Baha’is work to accumulate and share knowledge about these efforts. They test different approaches and experiences, abandon certain understandings and develop new ones, and discuss and debate these within an epistemic community of practitioners committed to developing this approach.

Life mediated by instruments

In this essay, we have considered three conceptions of life: Biological life (let’s call it bios), Chinese cosmological life (Qi), and Aristotelian life (psyche) [Life in Chinese cosmology and in Aristotle can’t be boiled down to Qi and psyche respectively, but we limit ourselves to these terms for the sake of brevity].

Bios points to the mere presence or absence of life, not to its relational quality. On the other hand, life, understood as vitality in Chinese cosmology, has different qualities in different situations; there’s a difference between energetic vigour and lethargy; and different ways of conducting one’s life, of relating to different places, things, people and your own body can have bearing on vitality. It’s possible to nurture and enhance your vitality through tending to the way you live, the way you eat, the way you relate to people and the way you think.

Bios is conceptualised as lacking any direction and purpose, merely following blind mechanical forces. Aristotelian vitalism, on the other hand, postulates different and progressively increasing faculties in different realms of the world of life, with humans having unique intellectual and spiritual faculties which have intrinsic values and purpose. Biological theory, in contrast, postulates that the purpose and direction of the bios of humans is qualitatively identical to that of an amoeba.

The different types of psyche also suggest qualitative differences between different forms of life — a qualitative difference between growth and its absence, between sense perception and vegetable growth, between rationality and pure sensuality, between intellectuality and spiritual yearning. Bios, on the other hand, posits that all forms of life are essentially the same, differing merely in their scale and complexity.

Bios, Qi and psyche are all postulated noumena, which each give us a certain handle on life in the phenomenal world, but in different ways with different implications. Qi leads us to pay attention to the nature and quality of the relationships between our bodies and the beings that surround us. Psyche leads us to pay attention to our different capacities and the means of nurturing them. Bios leads us to identify the specific biochemical processes that keep living beings alive.

But there is a significant difference with bios. Ultimately, the presence or absence of bios can only be detected in an objectified thing, through the measurement of a certain number of indicators using instruments. These are the expressions of things such as your blood pressure, your digestive system and your nervous system. Our knowledge of these things in the framework of bios is almost exclusively the knowledge based on data provided by these instruments. To the extent that you or other people directly experience things like your digestion or your nervous state, this subjective experience does not constitute the basis for knowledge of bios.

Until doctors had instruments, they had to listen to the patient’s words. “Where does it hurt?” With the introduction of instruments like the stethoscope, the patient’s own testimony became secondary to listening to the patient’s body directly. With each medical “advance” (X-rays, MRI, blood-cultures…) the patient as a person becomes increasingly unimportant. Why would the patient bother to monitor their own body, when no one cares what they have to say? They turn up to their scheduled body-check each year, and they are told what is wrong with them. Because the machine-that-goes-beep said so.

MRI scan. Image credit: Toubibe via pixabay.com

The indicators of bios either cannot be subjectively experienced, or, if they can be experienced, your subjective experience can tell you nothing about your bios. But in Daoism and Aristotelianism, your own experience through introspection, and the experience that others have of you, can give you knowledge of your qi or of your psyche.

Generally speaking, modifying bios through regimens of health, hygiene or medicine, involves making chemical alterations to the body through injection, ingestion, extraction, or training of the body through physical movements. While the subjective experience of feeling unwell, pain, or in need of better health may lead you to seek an intervention, the only valid knowledge is the knowledge generated by specialists who generate data using instruments.

The epistemic communities of people who work with bios consist exclusively of those who are able to use those instruments, to aggregate the data generated by those instruments, and to compare it to other forms of data. When they construct knowledge and debate different findings and theories, they compare your data to the data of other individuals. Your experience, if mentioned at all, is only background to the data. And the experience of the specialist is also largely irrelevant: the job of the specialist is to collect the data, not to talk about her impressions of you.

On the other hand, if you seek to modify your qi through a yangsheng regimen of health, diet, exercising or meditating, you monitor your body. But what matters is self-monitoring, not with instruments, but through greater attentiveness to your own body and environment, becoming knowledgeable about different types of food, ingredients, movements of the body, breathing cycles during the day and seasons, the air your breathe, your the social and natural environment and so on.

You may share your impressions with members of your family and friends, who will share their views, which you may or may not welcome, and which you may or may not accept. You may seek advice from a teacher of some form of yangsheng discipline, or from a doctor of Chinese medicine — who will give you their considered judgement based on their observation of your overall state of vitality through the complexion of your skin, the glow in your eyes, the colour of your tongue, the quality of your pulse, the energy of your movements, or so on. All of these are impressions of the observer, not mediated by instruments. You may also speak with different teachers or specialists. Knowledge of your vitality is constructed through the communication between yourself and these other people, who form an epistemic community of people thinking and communicating about the state of your body. However, you are at the centre of this epistemic community.

In Baha’i community building, when the community seeks to develop its physical, intellectual and spiritual capacities — different forms of psyche in the Aristotelian terminology — members reflect and consult with each other on the material, intellectual and spiritual conditions of their lives. They take into account their personal experience, as well as local knowledge and cultural practices, the specialized perspectives of relevant scientific disciplines, and the Baha’i teachings, principles, and spiritual practices. In this framework, intellectual and spiritual capacities can’t be measured, and they can’t be assessed by an outside expert. Individuals reflect on and seek to improve on these capacities through prayer, meditation and service, combining their own efforts and seeking divine guidance. Groups and communities do likewise, through a process of group study, consultation, action, and reflection on the collective action and its results. This leads to adjusting course, and further cycles of consultation, action and reflection. In its efforts to develop its material, intellectual and spiritual life, the group becomes an epistemic community, in which the experience of the group and its members constantly enriches the collective knowledge.

Moral implications

Bios, qi and psyche point to different dimensions of life, and they also have different moral implications. Under qi, the question is how to enhance vitality? Under psyche, the question is how to develop capacities? Under bios, the question is whether to choose between biological life or death?

When only considering biological life, being biologically alive or not biologically alive are the only options under consideration. As such, a medic who wants to keep the patient alive sets biological life as a priority. And the executioner who wants to make the prisoner biologically dead sets that as the priority. The conservationist sets keeping the forest biologically alive as the priority, and Bill Gates sets making polio biologically extinct as the priority.

So, when we are choosing priorities, and when the framework considers only bios, then the priorities select from the available options of biologically alive or biologically dead.

Thus, under bios, when the moral choice is to protect the biological life of the population, the key is to monitor the vital signs of each individual member of the population. The priority is to keep people biologically alive. Physical safety, as well as reducing the causes of death, improving hygiene, reducing infectious diseases and prolonging life expectancy are the goals.

In modern times, the conception of bios became the dominant conception of life in parallel with the development of increasingly sophisticated infrastructures to monitor the bodies of the population and keep them healthy. Governments, scientific institutions and the health industry have invested ever-growing resources into these measures, in order to keep people biologically alive.

The converse, however, may well be true: having sophisticated technological infrastructure predisposes us to set a priority on keeping people biologically alive. Most people, when they die, want to die surrounded by family and friends. And yet increasingly people die surrounded by beeping machines, because it is beeping machines, not family and friends, that can eek out those extra few days of biological life.

Machines cannot measure the relief at seeing your estranged daughter finally smile at you. Machines can measure heart rate and blood pressure. When you have spent a million dollars on a machine, you want to get best use of it, so you measure heart rate to the end, and your daughter can stand at a distance, cut off from you by tubes and metal and glass.

Perhaps we have transformed what we mean by “life” because we followed technology where it led?

This has been called “biopower” by the philosopher Michel Foucault. It implies that to preserve life, medical institutions need to regularly monitor the bodies of each member of the population, measuring various indicators, comparing these indicators to statistical norms, and intervening as required through health policies when the statistical trends deviate too much from what is defined as normal. Management of the covid-19 pandemic is a good example of the effectiveness of biopower. The lives of the population depend on infrastructures of testing, contract tracing, quarantine, social distancing, administration of vaccines, medical equipment, and so on.

Weaving strands of life together

In this essay, we have presented three different conceptions of life. We have chosen to present three, but there are many more in different cultures, cosmologies and religions.

Each conception of life underpins different systems of knowledge and different epistemic communities. They are ontologically incompatible or indifferent to each other: There is no qi or psyche in bios, there is no bios or psyche in qi, and so on. Once could conceivably find a way to integrate these notions, or parts of them, into a single system, and some scholars have tried. But, in practice, the epistemic communities of bios don’t deal with qi and psyche, and reciprocally.

A concept of Qi or psyche is unnecessary when doing research on biogenetics or cancer cells. Knowledge about your red blood cells is unnecessary when training your rational psyche.

Each theory of life is useful for some ends and not for others. Each of them gives us a handle on certain dimensions of life, but is blind to other dimensions. They may be incompatible in some respects, but they may also be complementary. The incompatibility of the theories is not sufficient to determine that one of them is wrong (nor does their compatibility suffice to prove that they are right).

Pragmatically, it’s possible to simultaneously advance the different conceptions of life, without having solved the tensions between them. The same person may hold multiple contradictory views of life. For example, a scientist may hold — within the framework of biology — the belief that life is nothing but mechanism, and also hold — as an adept of taiji shadow boxing — — the belief that life is more than mechanism.

These various conceptions are all consistent with empirical reality, but each of them pays more attention to different types of evidence, collects evidence differently, talks about it differently, and turns it into knowledge differently. Each is also blind to other aspects of experience and reality.

Each leads us to interact with the world in a certain way, causing a feedback loop by which our way of interacting with the world re-enforces a particular view of life.

By understanding multiple conceptions of life, it becomes possible to become more aware of the blind spots in a specific conception, and to explore new dimensions of life. The tensions between the different conceptions don’t imply that you need to choose one and reject the others — that accepting the “scientific” conception means that you need to reject the “religious” ones, or vice versa. And the insights we gain from contrasting conceptions of life may give us reason to push back against the tendencies or implications of a certain conception, if gone unchecked. In this sense, different conceptions of life can act as correctives for each other.

And ultimately, life will always be more than any of our theories of life.

This essay and the Re-Assembling Reality Medium series are brought to you by the University of Hong Kong’s Common Core Curriculum Course CCHU9061 Science and Religion: Questioning Truth, Knowledge and Life, with the support of the Faith and Science Collaborative Research Forumand the Asian Religious Connections research cluster of the Hong Kong Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

[1] Luttermoser, Donald , Physics 2028 : Great Ideas in Science : The Exobiology Module. https://web.archive.org/web/20160412201815/http://faculty.etsu.edu/lutter/courses/phys2028/p2028exobnotes.pdf

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A dialogue between physicist Mike Brownnutt and anthropologist David A. Palmer. Insights from the natural and social sciences, Asian and Western philosophy, and theology.

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David A. Palmer

David A. Palmer

I’m an anthropologist who’s passionate about exploring different realities. I write about spirituality, religion, and worldmaking.

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