Michelle Sharpe

Dr.  Hauser

PHL 305

Dec. 1999

Vitalism Revival

Why are we here?  What purpose do we serve?  Is there some higher intelligence that created us and moves us still?  Or are we alone in this world, a mass of purposeless molecules?  In the course of human pondering these questions have been foremost in our minds, and rightly so.  In years preceding, before technology was the god of our lives, we relied on such tools as mythology and religion to explain the unknown.  With the advance of said technology, however, we have turned to explaining those mysteries through equations and measurements rather than blind faith.  Scientific philosophers have consequently abandoned the idea of vitalism for materialism.  Vitalism is the metaphysical doctrine that the functions and processes of  life are due to a vital principle distinct from physicochemical forces and  that the laws of physics and chemistry alone cannot explain life functions and processes (Carroll).  This opposes materialism, which is the metaphysical view that there is only one substance in the universe and that substance is physical, empirical or material(Carroll).  Materialists deny the existence of anything ethereal, and subsequently deny that life is anything other than a menagerie of chemical reactions.


To begin at the beginning, this argument will first explore microscopic interactions, and properties common to both organic and inorganic compounds, and proceed outwards.  All known physical laws, such as the conservation of energy, apply to both organic and inorganic molecules.  It is common knowledge that one force affecting the direction and rate of chemical reactions is entropy, or the increase of disorder in a system.  In most chemical reactions, however, entropy plays such a small role as to be essentially negated from the energetic equation.   As a rule, liquids contain more entropy than solids, and gases more than liquids.  The most obvious counterexample of the universal tendency toward entropy is the formation of galaxies and planets.  These conglomerates of matter not only contradict entropy in and of themselves, but their discreet components have similar properties.  Skipping a few levels toward the main consideration, in general organic chemistry, few chemical reactions can create a carbon-carbon bond.  Those that are able generally require the aid of a halogen, carbonyl group or other high energy bond.  Regardless, the most fundamental building blocks to life are enormous polymers, consisting mostly of carbon chains.  This direct opposition to a basic law of both inorganic and organic chemistry makes no logical sense, and therefore suggests the intervention of a yet unquantifiable force, dubbed “vitalism”  by humans.


Since this idea of vitalism has existed since the beginning of human intelligence, an excellent starting place lies near to the beginning of recorded time.  Aristotle was “in the fullest sense a vitalist”( Wheeler, 3).  He theorized that the interaction between the earthly body and the heavenly soul, “is neither independent of, nor . . . identical with, the body”(Wheeler, 4).   The relationship between the two depended on the existence of “Entelechy” or an inherent intentionality about all things.  Hence, there is a designed purpose in the fundamentally lifeless chemical reactions we can observe in living organisms.  Even biochemists agree that the formation and interaction of the twenty amino acids, basic building blocks for life, could not have happened by accident.  The probability of the amino acids having formed and constituted the universal staple of life is approximately equal to the probability of a primate being able to rewrite Hamlet.  Take even one line, and allow the monkey to retype it as many times as necessary, preserving every correct keystroke.  To correctly type merely one short line would require between 2000 and 3000 repetitions of that line (Stryer 418).  How, in light of the fact that the formation of carbon-carbon bonds is disfavored by organic chemistry, and the extreme unlikelihood of twenty compounds, comprised primarily of such bonds, becoming the staple of life, can we discard any proposition of a metaphysical force?


For the sake of argument, let us agree on one point: the possibility of our evolution from inorganic compounds to organic compounds to life is so improbable and disfavored that at least its genesis needed the impetus of a higher power.  Now what?  We have all the basic components necessary to maintain biological function.  Has life been set into motion, like a pendulum, and needs no further intelligent design to maintain function?  Again, the immense complexity of the essential amino acids provides insight.  Take, for example, a single aspect of amino acid function in the tertiary or 3-dimensionally interactive structure of proteins.  This generally is the most crucial element of protein formation, without which the proteins could not function properly.  Even a relatively small protein, with only 100 residues, has a total of   3100   possible conformations.  Given only 10-13 seconds for permutation between possible arrangements, it would still take 1.6x1027 years to resonate through all of the possibilities, searching for the correct configuration (Stryer, 418).   This would take far too much time to accomplish and still create viable living organisms.  The example given was also only that of a small protein, most are hundreds or thousands of times larger, so this evidence was skewed in favor of its likelihood. 


Another applicable aspect of enzymology retraces back to the energetic viewpoint of chemical reactions.  As stated previously, most chemical reactions do not rely heavily on entropy to serve as the driving force.  Exothermic reactions, or those that are spontaneous and energetically favored, rely on the breaking of high energy bonds, usually accompanied by the release of heat.  Enzymatic reactions generate relatively little heat, and many create high energy bonds, rather than break them.  Another physical law pertaining to enzymes is the hydrophobic effect.  This is the tendency for water to surround charged or dipole molecules, thus assimilating them into solution.  Water, however, binds so strongly to itself that it would rather be free in solution than bound to an enzyme.  Not only do enzymes catalyze reactions that are completely impossible otherwise, the major driving force of the first step of enzyme function, substrate binding, is entropy, mainly in the displacement of water, thus utilizing the hydrophobic effect.   This is yet another example of life contradicting the accepted laws of nature. 


Scientists supply possible evidence against the necessity of metaphysical help again, in that they are able to remove enzymes from their natural place of function in vivo, and they still perform the same function.  If an engine performs the same operation outside the living organism, what necessity is there for a higher power?  However, although individual enzymatic processes can take place in vitro, when observing the awesome harmony involved in coordinating even the most basic cellular function, the intricacies can overwhelm the human mind.  In discussing vitalism, philosophers need to consider the interactions of the whole organism.  The physicochemical interactions of living cells do not explain the function of the whole organism (Wheeler 231-2).  Even one protein in the wrong place during cell division can cause lethal deformity.  With millions of errors possible and a high probability of each error happening, most of the cells in our bodies should be incorrect, yet cellular reproduction generally continues without complications.  In fact, the erroneous divisions are the exceptions(usually as a tumor).  Since life continues still against high possibilities for lethal errors, it seems logical to assume that life processes have the assistance of a vital force.


Another philosophical subject matter closely tied to vitalism is embryology.  Embryology considers the organism as a whole and attempts elucidating the mechanisms behind the formation of life (Wheeler 34).  Any new mother or father will agree that the birth of their child is nothing less than a miracle.   This is not a completely unwarranted conclusion, when comparing the starting materials and the end product.  One branch of embryology, epigenesis,  deals with the development of an organism from the ambiguous and seemingly insufficient materials present in the adults’ gametes.  As seen in the development of an embryo from a cluster of cells, there is evidence for an “‘essential force’ [which unites] with the agents of the inorganic” (Wheeler 37).  No examples of such a drastic change in entropy exist in inorganic chemical interactions.   This force, transposing inorganic materials into living organisms through mechanisms found nowhere else in the universe, clearly supports vitalism, and directly challenges materialism.

Though unlikely by pure chance, even improbable occurrences can happen.  It is entirely possible that life on Earth is that one chance in a billion of inorganic elements combining, causing the emergence of life.  Perhaps, was life proven to exist on other planets, this would serve as proof favorable of some vital force bringing about creation and then continuing it.  Life would be commonplace, and the evidence against it would overpower the argument.  Not to begin an X-files tangent, but that possibility does remain.  The universe is immense, and current instruments only barely begin the potentiality of exploration.  Even the near planet of Mars has not been thoroughly explored, but the current Martian probe may show that the ingredients for life were there; perhaps it contained even the crude beginnings of life.  For the argument that we are that sole unlikely occurrence, in the absence of enlightenment from possibilities existing for confirmation, there is not yet any substantial evidence to refute or corroborate the hypothesis that terrestrial life is an accident of cosmic proportions.


This brings to front the question of science’s likeness to mythology and religion.  Most religions do not acknowledge the possibility of life anywhere but Earth.  It seems that all religions have the ego to believe that their god created this paradise for us alone, a very jealous God/gods.  Surprisingly, this unigenesis theology coincides more with materialism than vitalism, and miraculously creates an alliance between science and religion.  If we are the only emergence of life, science may say that it is because of a fortunate yet unlikely accident, while religions may claim it is due to their god’s love for this world alone.  Perhaps this is why the idea of vitalism is no longer argued.  It coincides with neither prerogative, and therefore is an issue for philosophers alone.

Moving to the edges of the physical manifestations of vitalism, and far beyond the comfortable reach of materialism, is the emergence of cognizant thought.  Causality of thought versus free will aside, let us assume thought to be at least related to the chemical interactions occurring in our brains.  The final and most persuasive argument for a vital force contributing to life is this active thought shared by all humans.  Although this can neither be quantified nor set to paper, it is the contemplation unique to human mind that is the ultimate and most formidably unnatural emergent property of these inorganic compounds.  Even denying all increments presented previously, to dismiss the existence of a vital force in light of our contemplation of it is fallacious. 


Falsifiability is one essential aspect of scientific theories.  However, realistically, when a hypothesis has multiple marks of evidence against it, it must be discarded for a new one.  Why, then, has vitalism fallen by the wayside in philosophical and scientific arguments?  Certainly it is not from lack of evidence supporting it.  Many life processes contradict laws of nature, from the bonds creating the building blocks to the emergence of thought as a result of various chemical reactions.    Is it because neither side finds the outcome of acceptance favorable?  This seems more plausible, since very few will argue the antithesis to their viewpoint.  Or have we merely given up on the idea, proclaiming the argument futile, that vitalists and materialists will never agree?  Perhaps the intellectual exercise has been forsaken too readily.  The evidence in favor of vitalism deserves more thorough research, and this hypothesis should not be abandoned before another, more plausible one has made itself apparent.  However, instead of seeking tangible knowledge from this intellectual pursuit, the pursuit of that life force that vitalism posits is useful in maintaining our perspectives in life.  Perhaps Bergson’s idea of elan vital is accurate.   A vital force resides intrinsically in all organisms and is responsible for the evolution of life (Merriam-Webster).   Our lives have a purpose deeper than physicochemical interactions, and elan vital supports our everyday functions.


Works Cited

Wheeler, L.  Richmond.  Vitalism: Its History and Validity.  London H.F.&G.  Witherby Ltd.  1939. 

Stryer, Lubert.  Biochemistry.  4th ed.  1995, Lubert Stryer

Carroll, Robert Todd.  The skeptic’s dictionary.   http://skepdic.com/.   SkepDic.com 1999.  

Merriam-Webster.  Merriam-Webster online.  http://www.m‑w.com/.  Merriam-Webster, Inc.  1999.