Vitalism - Critical Opinions

Critical Opinions

Vitalism has sometimes been criticized as begging the question by inventing a name. Molière had famously parodied this fallacy in Le Malade imaginaire, where a quack "answers" the question of "Why does opium cause sleep?" with "Because of its soporific power." Thomas Henry Huxley compared vitalism to stating that water is the way it is because of its "aquosity". His grandson Julian Huxley in 1926 compared "vital force" or élan vital to explaining a railroad locomotive's operation by its élan locomotif ("locomotive force").

Another criticism is that vitalists have failed to rule out mechanistic explanations. This is rather obvious in retrospect for organic chemistry and developmental biology, but this criticism goes back at least a century. In 1912, Jacques Loeb published a landmark work, The Mechanistic Conception of Life. He described experiments on how a sea urchin could have a pin for its father, as Bertrand Russell put it (Religion and Science). He also offered this challenge:

... we must either succeed in producing living matter artificially, or we must find the reasons why this is impossible.

(pp. 5–6). He also addressed vitalism more explicitly (pp. 14–15):

It is, therefore, unwarranted to continue the statement that in addition to the acceleration of oxidations the beginning of individual life is determined by the entrance of a metaphysical "life principle" into the egg; and that death is determined, aside from the cessation of oxidations, by the departure of this "principle" from the body. In the case of the evaporation of water we are satisfied with the explanation given by the kinetic theory of gases and do not demand that to repeat a well-known jest of Huxley the disappearance of the "aquosity" be also taken into consideration.

Bechtel and Richardson state that today vitalism "is often viewed as unfalsifiable, and therefore a pernicious metaphysical doctrine." For many scientists, "vitalist" theories were unsatisfactory "holding positions" on the pathway to mechanistic understanding. In 1967, Francis Crick, the co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, stated "And so to those of you who may be vitalists I would make this prophecy: what everyone believed yesterday, and you believe today, only cranks will believe tomorrow."

While many vitalistic theories have in fact been falsified, notably Mesmerism, the pseudoscientific retention of untested and untestable theories continues to this day. Alan Sokal published an analysis of the wide acceptance among professional nurses of "scientific theories" of spiritual healing. (Pseudoscience and Postmodernism: Antagonists or Fellow-Travelers?). Use of a technique called therapeutic touch was especially reviewed by Sokal, who concluded, "nearly all the pseudoscientific systems to be examined in this essay are based philosophically on vitalism" and added that "Mainstream science has rejected vitalism since at least the 1930s, for a plethora of good reasons that have only become stronger with time."

In his book "Kinds of Minds", philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote, "Dualism...and Vitalism (the view that living things contain some special physical but equally mysterious stuff—élan vital—have been relegated to the trash heap of history...." (Chapter 2).

Joseph C. Keating, Jr., PhD, discusses vitalism's past and present roles in chiropractic and calls vitalism "a form of bio-theology." He further explains that:

Vitalism is that rejected tradition in biology which proposes that life is sustained and explained by an unmeasurable, intelligent force or energy. The supposed effects of vitalism are the manifestations of life itself, which in turn are the basis for inferring the concept in the first place. This circular reasoning offers pseudo-explanation, and may deceive us into believing we have explained some aspect of biology when in fact we have only labeled our ignorance. 'Explaining an unknown (life) with an unknowable (Innate),' suggests philosopher Joseph Donahue, D.C., 'is absurd'. —

Keating views vitalism as incompatible with scientific thinking:

Chiropractors are not unique in recognizing a tendency and capacity for self-repair and auto-regulation of human physiology. But we surely stick out like a sore thumb among professions which claim to be scientifically based by our unrelenting commitment to vitalism. So long as we propound the 'One cause, one cure' rhetoric of Innate, we should expect to be met by ridicule from the wider health science community. Chiropractors can't have it both ways. Our theories cannot be both dogmatically held vitalistic constructs and be scientific at the same time. The purposiveness, consciousness and rigidity of the Palmers' Innate should be rejected. —

Keating also mentions Skinner's viewpoint:

Vitalism has many faces and has sprung up in many areas of scientific inquiry. Psychologist B.F. Skinner, for example, pointed out the irrationality of attributing behavior to mental states and traits. Such 'mental way stations,' he argued, amount to excess theoretical baggage which fails to advance cause-and-effect explanations by substituting an unfathomable psychology of 'mind'. —

According to Williams, "today, vitalism is one of the ideas that form the basis for many pseudoscientific health systems that claim that illnesses are caused by a disturbance or imbalance of the body's vital force." "Vitalists claim to be scientific, but in fact they reject the scientific method with its basic postulates of cause and effect and of provability. They often regard subjective experience to be more valid than objective material reality."

Stenger states that the term "bioenergetics" "is applied in biochemistry to refer to the readily measurable exchanges of energy within organisms, and between organisms and the environment, which occur by normal physical and chemical processes. This is not, however, what the new vitalists have in mind. They imagine the bioenergetic field as a holistic living force that goes beyond reductionist physics and chemistry."

Such a field is sometimes explained as electromagnetic(EM), though some advocates also make confused appeals to quantum physics. Joanne Stefanatos states that "The principles of energy medicine originate in quantum physics." Victor Stenger offers several explanations as to why this line of reasoning may be misplaced. He explains that energy exists in discrete packets called quanta. Energy fields are composed of their component parts and so only exist when quanta are present. Therefore energy fields are not holistic, but are rather a system of discrete parts that must obey the laws of physics. This also means that energy fields are not instantaneous. These facts of quantum physics place limitations on the infinite, continuous field that is used by some theorists to describe so-called "human energy fields". Stenger continues, explaining that the effects of EM forces have been measured by physicists as accurately as one part in a billion and there is yet to be any evidence that living organisms emit a unique field.

Vitalistic thinking has also been identified in the naive biological theories of children: "Recent experimental results show that a majority of preschoolers tend to choose vitalistic explanations as most plausible. Vitalism, together with other forms of intermediate causality, constitute unique causal devices for naive biology as a core domain of thought."

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