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Vitalism Revitalised

Vitalism – the idea that understanding the workings of nature needs to take into account the role of a "life force" – has been fairly ridiculed in modern times, and despite developments of a more metaphysical nature such as Rupert Sheldrake's work on "morphic fields" and the Global Consciouness Project, there still appears to be a widespread reluctance to link any such "fields" to the intelligence and meaning we experience as a prominent part of daily existence. The prevailing consensus seems to prefer a mechanistic model of existence which proposes that we operate in ways which can be entirely explained in terms of biochemical reactions and physical processes. Vitalistic perspectives tend to be accorded about as much respect as animistic beliefs, being widely regarded either as laughably quaint and "primitive", or as "new agey" (whatever that may mean).

With the application of the mechanistic model now beginning to beg more questions than it can answer, perhaps it's time to revisit vitalism. After all, how would you feel about an electrician who claimed that electricity had no real relevance in explaining the workings of an electrical circuit?


Phillippus Aurelius Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim (Paracelsus) 1493-1541

“ I have yet to meet a single person from our culture, no matter what his or her educational background, IQ, and specific training, who had powerful transpersonal experiences and continues to subscribe to the materialistic monism of Western science. ”
Albert Einstein

“ We read the world wrong and say that it deceives us. ”
Rabindranath Tagore

“ A human being is a part of the whole called by us universe, a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feeling as something separated from the rest, a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. ”
Albert Einstein

“ The word “genius” isn't applicable in football. A genius is a guy like Norman Einstein. ”
Joe Theisman, NFL quarterback and sports analyst

“ No question is so difficult to answer as that to which the answer is obvious. ”
George Bernard Shaw

Vital Error

Though it might seem to be stating the blindingly obvious, we experience life through living it. There doesn't appear to be any other way to do so. Life is the lens through which we study life. That being the case, it's completely impossible to divorce the qualities of the lens from what is being viewed through it. If you look at a pair of rose-tinted spectacles through rose-tinted spectacles, how can you rationally conclude that the quality of pinkness belongs only to the pair in your hand? Yet that's apparently the situation that obtains in the biomedical sciences.

As living, breathing, intelligent, rational, emotional beings with a sense of continuity, motivation and meaning in our existence, not to mention spontaneity, irrationality and occasional meaninglessness, we view the processes that go on inside our bodies and divorce all life, intelligence, emotion, spontaniety, irrationality, motivation and meaning from what we see, not to mention a large amount of rationality into the bargain. Instead we subscribe to a model of the totality of our beings as amounting to a happy accident of good teamwork between various component systems and parts, and treat the whole thing as if it's an imperfect and badly put together machine. And, of course, we know better ... as if the consequences of our meddling in the subtle and delicate balance of natural ecosystems has taught us nothing! Anyone with any degree of psychological training will probably be recognising the hallmarks of projection in all of that. It's not our bodies that are badly put together, confused, lacking rationality and intelligence ...

There are no detectable differences in the physiological and biochemical processes taking place in a living body and a body minutes after death (assuming a peaceful untraumatic natural demise). So what calls a halt on that happy accident of good teamwork? What flicks the switch that causes the circuit to go dead? All of a sudden, all the bodily processes come to a standstill and the physical structure very quickly starts to decay. Yet nothing physical has apparently changed to precipitate it. Everything just starts to stop. In that stark and simple contrast between what is living and what is no longer living lies the key to the nature of life. It's not material, because no material change at the moment of death can be detected. It is therefore immaterial or energetic in nature. Leaving aside the people who can actually perceive a spirit-like essence leaving the body at death, it requires no particular spiritual leanings to grasp the fact, yet any acknowledgement of that motivating force is wholly absent from all the biomedical equations describing sickness, health, life itself. It does seem utterly incredible that we appear to so easily accept an image of ourselves that's completely devoid of the one thing absolutely central to our being!

Instead we plumb ever-increasing depths of material minutiae as if somehow amongst all the genetic switchboards of individual cells we'll find the definitive "answer" to what makes us tick. If we can just get to the bottom of it, there'll be the solution to all our problems and the answer to all our prayers! It all seems a bit like digging a well ever deeper to try to get to the moon, when what's in the water of the well is only the moon's reflection. The rationalisations behind the study of genetics, for instance, somehow seem back to front and inside out. Not to mention slightly self-contradictory. If genes are capable of being engineered and altered, and for those alterations to propagate through an individual as a solution to some inherited problem, then they can't, in the same breath, be immutable blueprints that rigidly determine our lives and seal our fate.

Philosopher Ken Wilber comes at the subject from a related angle (see also Blog):

"A ... common dilemma faced by medical practitioners is the very difficult problem that has become popularly known as the "Cartesian dualism," or the mind-body problem, and which, for all its high-flying philosophical accoutrements, simply means this: right now you mostly likely feel that you have some sort of consciousness and free will, and yet physical science proceeds as if reality is a closed materialistic system. Even if philosophically you are a materialist, you have to constantly translate every experience you have into materialistic terms, because that is simply not how your experience arrives. Physicalism, in other words, violates the grain of how the world naturally presents itself (not to mention the fact that the majority of philosophers in the area simply do not believe that consciousness can be reduced to eliminative materialism). And yet, as a conventional physician, you are more-or-less forced to treat a patient as if the patient were essentially a biophysical or material system—medications for this, surgery for that, radiation for this, one physical intervention after another physical intervention. Your patients, when it comes to medicine, are physical machines, and yet in your own awareness you do not feel that you are a physical machine—and neither do your patients. The "Cartesian" problem in the conventional practice of medicine is simply that you are basically forced to treat a patient as if he or she were a physical machine, when both of you know otherwise."

Vital Statistics

So what does a vitalist perspective of medicine look like?

For starters, it has some governing principles, reflecting the observation that the life force operates as the governing principle of the physical body; as the team coach, if you like. It does seem appropriate that any effective model of an integrated and coherent system – which a human being patently exhibits the characteristics of – should itself demonstrate integration and coherence, flowing from bold outline principles down through ever-increasing levels of detail while maintaining consistency throughout. Intervention with the system then proceeds and operates according to those same principles, and any of the medical methodologies that incorporate a vitalist viewpoint do indeed exhibit this internal consistency and coherence. Interestingly, the biomedical model lacks any such governing principles. Each of the body systems are treated largely independently of each other by techniques that often owe more to trial and error than anything.

Given the "team coach"'s role in the team, a vitalist perspective tends to a more top-down than bottom-up perspective. In other words, we are not the end-product of the molecular structure of our bodies, but rather the molecular structure of our bodies is just as much the end product of the life force which gives us our being.

A methodology that's modelled on integration and coherence takes the entire system into account when applying any system of treatment. In popular terminology, it's holistic. Instead of regarding various co-existing symptom complexes as separate complaints, it takes them all into account simultaneously. As a result, it's apparent that some forms of treatment can be suppressive, driving symptoms from a relatively superficial expression deeper into the body and becoming progressively more life-threatening in the process. The commonly observed progression of eczema to asthma is a case in point. An integrated model has further implications too. There can be no mind-body dualism here, since mind is an integral part of the experience of life.

Vital Link

If this perspective holds good, then demonstrable correlations between the state of mind and the state of body should be apparent, particularly when we're dis-eased. In other words, we should be able to trace similar themes running through both the physical and mental symptoms of the dis-eased state. This does indeed appear to be the case. Identifying such themes needs a form of language that translates readily into both realms, and this comes most easily from the subjective experience of symptoms rather than the labels we put on their collective appearance from the biomedical perspective. For instance, conditions in which physical movement is restricted often find echoes in a general outlook which lacks flexibility in some area or another. Strangely (or perhaps not), the richest area to mine for the links between mind and body are in the common everyday colloquial analogical expressions we use to describe how we feel. Ask someone with cystitis what they're pissed off about, or someone with torticollis who or what is the pain in their neck. Should we be surprised at having visual problems if we're not seeing eye to eye with someone? Or to find ourselves with hæmorrhoids if someone or something is being a pain in the ass? For any holistic medical practitioner, such observations are commonplace. It's far rarer to find instances where there are no apparent correlations between mental and bodily states. There are many useful books on the subject: Dethlefson and Dahlke's The Healing Power of Illness, Dr Christine Page's The Mirror of Existence, Caroline Myss' The Creation of Health, and many others besides.

But there's often enormous resistance, not to mention outright anger, at the implications of such correlations. None of us like the idea of being "to blame" for our sufferings. Somehow the idea of being a hapless victim of a faulty machine has a lot more appeal, and possibly accounts for part of the failure of medical science to integrate the findings of physics – from the early 20th century onwards – into its models of existence. Yet, as far as I can see, both views are valid. What causes the problem is the idea that our conscious waking minds are all there is to us and in control of everything to do with our existence. We're not victims of our "faulty" bodies, but of the hubris of our minds. It really does not seem appropriate to hold ourselves accountable for something of which we're blithely ignorant. What we can hold ourselves accountable for is the ridiculous idea that we – or the "experts" – actually know all there is to know about what's going on! Looking at it from this perspective then allows us to take responsibility for what's happening in our bodies and to engage usefully with the language of our symptoms. After all, what's responsibility but RESPONSE-ABILITY? And without response-ability, should we be surprised if we don't respond very well to treatment?

Such a perspective promises the potential of providing some answers to the very natural question that frequently erupts with the onset of illness: WHY? The most critical factor involved in any attempt to solve a problem is to correctly define the cause of the problem. As Paracelsus said 500 years ago, “Those who merely study and treat the effects of disease are like those who imagine that they can drive away the winter by brushing the snow from the door. It is not the snow that causes winter, but the winter that causes the snow.”

Far from being a superstitious nonsense fit only for consignment to the middens of history, vitalism, in a very scientific sense, presents a credible, rational, coherent and powerful model for framing interventions in the context of healthcare. Sufficient data now exists for even the hardened materialists to accept that mental attitude has an impact on recovery outcome (as if it wasn't as obvious as the noses on our faces to begin with, but I'll leave that to another essay). How much more could be achieved if this perspective was fully integrated into our systems of healthcare?


© W Howard, March 2005
General Essays | Vitalism Revitalised
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