23 May 2014

Vitalism: The Philosophy That Wouldn't Die

It's very much part of the modern Buddhist landscape to read passionate polemics against materialism/physicalism or "scientism" or even rationalism. However these polemics typically come with philosophical baggage. All too often the anti-Materialist is a Vitalist; the anti-Scientist is a Fideist; and the anti-Rationalist is a Romantic. Which is to say that in the argument over what constitutes right-view many, far too many, Buddhists are not arguing for the Middle-Way, but are repeating 19th Century Western arguments over the perceived faults of the science of the day and, consciously or unconsciously, adopting philosophical positions that are also of doubtful compatibility with Buddhism.

I say 19th century advisedly. My colleagues often seem to be stuck in a time warp when it comes to science. One of my colleagues recently cited Schopenhauer as having "refuted materialism", but Schopenhauer's key work The World as Will and Representation was published in 1848, 11 years before Darwin's On the Origins of Species. He died in 1860. So what did he even know about modern Materialism? Almost nothing. 

We now have some nascent critique of Romanticism in Western Buddhism with David McMahan's book The Making of Buddhist Modernism (which I would make required reading for all Western Buddhists) and Thanissaro's useful essay The Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. Very few Buddhist writers are openly Fideist (Dharmavidya being one recent exception) and we at least have a widely understood critique of blind faith, even if it's not something we all live by. So it seems to me that there is a gap around the issue of Vitalism and how it informs polemics against Materialism. In this essay I will begin to develop a critique of Vitalism specifically for Buddhists.

What is Vitalism?

Vitalism is a doctrine which argues that living things are distinguished from non-living things by a vital spark, an élan vital, life-force or living essence. The idea has a long history and is explicit in the works of some ancient Greek philosophers. In Indian terms this would equate to jīva 'the life force' (from √jīv 'to live').

If you've ever seen the corpse of a loved one, you'll probably have some sympathy for this view. For example seeing my father's corpse in 1990 led me to reflect that though the body was clearly his in every respect, that he himself seemed to be missing. Although even then I did not believe in a soul, the experience is still one that I find unsettling to recall. The Vitalist argues that what is missing is precisely the jīva.

Clearly the idea of a vital essence has much in common with a soul, though a vital spark might be less individualised and personalised. On the face of it, any view which endorses the idea of a jīva ought to be incompatible with Buddhism, but it is apparent that many Buddhists are also Vitalists.

Science and Vitalism

18th Century Vitalists argued that organic molecules associated with life would not be able to be synthesised from non-living matter. This hypothesis was disproved in 1828 when a German chemist, Friedrich Wöhler, reported that he had synthesised urea from cyanic acid and ammonia. Urea is a by-product of amino acid metabolism in mammals and a significant component of mammal excretions (birds excrete the related substance uric acid). It is the most common source of nitrogen in fertilisers for plants. Since 1828, virtually every molecule associated with living things has been synthesised in a laboratory from basic components.

Vitalist scientists once believed that one could prove the existence of this essence by weighing a body before and after it died. In the early 20th century this approach was put into practice by Dr Duncan MacDougall, though his results were inconclusive and his methods now look suspect. Dr MacDougall weighed his patients, bed and all, and the measurement error on his scales was sufficient to obliterate information at the level he claimed to be measuring. However neither Wöhler's discovery, nor any subsequent chemistry, nor MacDougall's failure completely destroyed the appeal of Vitalism, indeed in some circles it positively thrived.

Many scientists have been focussed on continuing to undermine vitalism. For instance In a talk to Royal Society in March 2014 Dr Christine Aicardi described Francis Crick, one of the co-discovers of the structure of DNA, as an "anti-vitalist activist". Early in his career Crick had identified three problems related to disputes between Vitalists and Materialists (or between ontological dualists and ontological monists):
  • The frontier between living and non-living
  • Consciousness and the mind/brain question
  • The origin of life. 
Francis Crick
His first 27 years of scientific life (1949-1976) were spent at Cambridge exploring the first problem, where he helped to discover the structure of DNA and it's role in life and received the Nobel Prize. It's less well known, because his biographers down play it, but he spend the next 28 years (1976-2004) at the Salk Institute, San Diego helping to establish the scientific study of consciousness. In both places Crick joined the field at the beginning, when the mainstream attitude to them was frequently dismissive or even derogatory: molecular biology in the 1950's was seen as a quixotic discipline. Crick was instrumental in establishing both disciplines on a sound footing and getting the establishment to take it seriously.

It's even less well known that Crick briefly collaborated with Dr Leslie Orgel on the question of the origins of life. The two of them investigated the Panspermia theory that life arrived on earth from an extra-terrestrial source. But he decided to leave this area to Orgel. Aicardi argues that Crick's working life can be seen as vigorously pursuing an anti-Vitalist agenda and indeed as making a significant contribution to discrediting Vitalism, at least amongst scientists.

Francis Crick is a household name because his 1953 collaboration with James Watson, Maurice Wilkins and Rosalind Franklin in determining the structure of the DNA molecule earned the 1962 Nobel Prize in Medicine for Crick, Watson and Wilkins. Franklin died in 1958, aged only 37, and the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously. DNA was suspected to be involved in heredity since it is concentrated in the cell nucleus, but with the structure solved it could be seen how it was involved. We now know that the DNA contains codes for making proteins that perform a variety of structural and functional roles in a living cell. DNA and its close relative RNA are responsible for carrying information about how to build cells in all life on earth.

Defining the structure of DNA was an extraordinary breakthrough in our understanding of life. From it we have come to understand a huge amount about the function of living cells and what distinguishes a living cell from a dead one. We can now manipulate DNA at will, transferring genes from one organism to another, creating new genes. Recently an entirely artificial chromosome was synthesised and shown to be functional in a living cell. Of course we still have much to learn, but the distance between living and dead organisms, once thought to be an unbridgeable gulf, is now just a short hop. What we've discovered however is that complexity occurs at every level we examine. A living cell has tens of thousands of different proteins all doing vital work, each protein is itself a marvel of complexity. The problem of reverse engineering such a complex system is formidable. Ascertaining the structure and function of single proteins is the kind of work for which scientists have received Nobel Prizes. However it would seem to be only a matter of time before perseverance results in entirely synthetic "living" organisms. As one scientist said recently: "the conceptual unification of biology with physics and chemistry is now underway." - Aeon

But the Vitalist is loath to acknowledge the significance of these discoveries. They persist in the axiom that there is a fundamental difference between living matter and dead matter. So while the refutation of the basic propositions of Vitalism means is has been eliminated from the laboratory, it persists in the general population.

Presented with facts, Vitalists retreat into the unknown and base their truth claims on propositions that cannot be tested. This is also known as the God of the Gaps Argument. Whenever some advance in science means they are put to the test, and inevitably shown to be wrong, they simply retreat further into the unknown and make a different truth claim. As one prominent astrophysicist commented recently, the God of the Gaps argument suggests that "God is an ever receding pocket of scientific ignorance..." (YouTube) The God of the Gaps Argument is generally considered to be a poor argument for God and bad Theology. 

Since the idea of a jīva has been severely undermined by science, and since it was never very attractive to Buddhists in any case, the Buddhist Vitalist tends to focus on consciousness as the vital essence of living things. Traditionally Buddhists embrace a dualism between mind and body as expressed in nāma-rūpa or in rūpa versus the four 'mental' skandhas. The Salla Sutta refers to bodily (kāyika) and mental (cetasika) experiences. And since bodily transmigration is clearly out of the question, interest falls on the mind even though early Buddhist texts reject the idea that consciousness itself transmigrates.

Of course Buddhists argue against a direct transference and adopt the language of conditionality: the last moment of consciousness in one being gives rises to the first moment of consciousness in another. But how this is achieved is unknown. The idea is sketched out with metaphors, but the underlying reality the metaphors describe remains opaque and incomprehensible. The incomprehensibility allows for the Mind in the Gaps equivalent of the God of the Gaps argument. 

Science and Consciousness

The question of what is meant by the word consciousness is itself a book length project. I've explored this question to some extent in previous essays: especially What is Consciousness Anyway? One of my colleagues once remonstrated with me quite vehemently that "the study of matter will never tell us anything about consciousness!" This is very similar to the Vitalist argument argument about chemistry. In the early 19th Century the speculations of Vitalists concluded that there must be some fundamental difference between living matter and dead matter. Scientists showed that there is only one kind of matter and it all obeys the same rules. We can speak of living and dead organisms, but not of living and dead matter. Matter is just matter, it is neither living nor dead. "Life" is a property that is apparent only at higher levels of complexity and organisation. 

However the study of consciousness is still in its infancy compared with chemistry. Crick joined the Salk Institute in 1976 when the scientific study of consciousness was still seen as suspect, unscientific and even risible by the establishment. This kind of fact seems to be forgotten by those who argue that the only reason paranormal research is not taken seriously is the hostility of the establishment. What establishes a new field of study as bona fide is good science, replicable results and sound theories that make accurate predictions. The field of paranormal research has failed to do good science, and their theories make no accurate predictions. Indeed the paranormal field has been the victim of a number of high profile hoaxes: e.g. Project Alpha, crop circles, Uri Geller (still in business despite being exposed as a fraud!), the 100th monkey effect , and the Fox Sisters. In many cases the exposure of fraud has not deterred some believers from taking the supposedly paranormal effect as real. (See also my essay: On Credulity)

Crick on the other hand was instrumental in establishing two completely different fields about which the mainstream was doubtful, cynical and dismissive. Crick was able, in both cases, to produce results which forced the establishment to take notice. Another fine example of this is (my hero) Lynn Margulis, who fought for years against not only paradigmatic mainstream hostility, but also rampant sexism, to have Symbiogenesis accepted as a fact. It is now found in every biology textbook, but the original paper was rejected by fifteen academic journals. These days paranormal researchers publish in their own in-house journals and where the critique of the mainstream cannot reach them because when it does it generally debunks both their methods and conclusions. The 100th Monkey Hoax is one of the better examples of this. 

To-date the scientific study of consciousness has largely focussed on the way that consciousness is altered by brain injuries and other insults to the integrity to the brain. Even at this early stage we know that an ontologically dualist explanation of consciousness seriously struggles to explain what we observe. Clearly consciousness is tightly correlated with brain activity with a good deal of function/location specificity. Chemicals and highly location specific brain injuries create predictable breakdowns in the functioning of the mind. As imaging techniques become more sophisticated we are also starting to get glimpses of brain activity associated with various tasks (though it is very much early days).

If, as the Vitalist often argues, consciousness is able to completely separate from the body (and by implication the brain) then why does brain damage inevitably negatively impact on consciousness? No explanation which calls for an absolute distinction between mind and brain can account for this phenomenon in a coherent way.


As with the chemistry of life it's useful to start small. So scientists study small organisms with only a few neurons into order to assess the roles of the various structures involved. For example the OpenWorm project has mapped all of the cells of a particular kind of microscopic nematode worm. This organism contains 302 neurons and 95 muscle cells. On this scale they are able to map every single cell and all of the connections between cells: the somatic nervous system (282 neurons) contains 6,393 chemical synapses, 890 gap junctions, and 1,410 neuromuscular junctions. Such a map is called a connectome. Studying the organism at this level will give us a much clearer picture of how a nervous system creates behaviour. Scientists boldly claim that the computer models of the organism themselves constitute artificial life-forms, and while the enthusiasm is understandable, this is probably overstating things a little.

Partial Human Connectome
Since the structural units of the nematode are more or less the same as the structural units of a human brain - the difference is in the complexity of our brains - modelling the nematode's nervous system ought to give us insights into our own brains. The effects of scale are bound to introduce differences however - our brains have 100 billion neurons with 100 trillion connections. The emergent properties of systems this complex are impossible to predict.

Similar work is being done at a variety of levels. Larger scale maps of the human connectome are now emerging and recently a new technique for preparing brain tissue has revealed a 1:1 scale map of every neuron and synapse in a mouse brain (watch the video!). Meanwhile the Blue Brain Project is simulating individual cortical columns (as seen on TED) millions of which make up our neo-cortex.

However the Vitalist can dismiss all of this with one sweep of the hand because for them studying the brain will not reveal anything about subjective consciousness. Vitalists also argue that we'll never know what it is like to experience the world from someone else's point of view. I don't accept this for a simple reason that was evident to early Buddhists as well. Most of us are highly skilled at modelling emotional states using empathy - we do not simply guess what another person is feeling, we actually have the same experience as they do. How do we know it's the same? We communicate about what the experience is like and there are aspects of experience that are universal. A skilled story teller can make their audience laugh, cry, boil up in anger or cringe in fear. This could not happen if inner-states were truly unique. The fact is that we do know what it's like to have a point of view which is not our own. Some of us a better at it than others, but the ability is available to some extent to all social animals.


It's more than a century since any scientist took Vitalism seriously. It's not a theory that makes accurate predictions and has been shown to be inaccurate in many ways and on many occasions. However Vitalism still has its appeal outside the laboratory, especially with religious people. It appeals to that part of us that is disturbed by the idea of our own death, an area of particular concern to religion. The idea that human beings, often over and above other kinds of life, contain a vital spark, an essence, a jīva that not only animates us in this life, but which survives our physical death and makes an afterlife possible is an enticing prospect. If at the same time we are ontological dualists, with a predisposition to reject the impure material world then some kind of pure animating spirit is almost a requirement. The attraction of Vitalism is obvious. But the life ought to have gone out of Vitalism by now. It has been refuted time and again. Vitalism is like a philosophical zombie, suffering from partial death syndrome. 

Vitalism, like other non-materialist doctrines, survives and prospers by appeals to the unknown and unknowable. The truth claims of Vitalists by necessity lie just outside the province of scientific knowledge, where-ever the boundary happens to lie. The fact that Vitalism is found to be flatly wrong whenever the frontiers of knowledge advance is of no concern to anyone who can retreat into the unknown. Despite the fact that Vitalism has repeated been proved an inaccurate worldview, Vitalists still claim it cannot be proved wrong. Thus Vitalism is more in the realm of theology than science these days.

For Buddhists the attraction is not so much in physical Vitalism - the distinction between living and dead matter; as in psychological Vitalism - the interest is in sentience and in how that can be transferred (along with habits and memories) from one being to another. Explaining this is usually at least implicitly Vitalist - the metaphor of one fire kindling another is explicitly Vitalist. This view can easily come to the point of arguing that consciousness is what animates the living being.


The next essay in this series on Vitalism will look more closely at the transition from dead to living.
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