Vitalism – The One Thing That Connects Nearly All Of Alternative Medicine

What Is Vitalism?

Vitalism is essentially the belief that living things are fundamentally different from dead things. Meaning that there is some kind of ‘vital force’ that sets living cells fundamentally apart from dead cells.  In different cultures this vital force is called differently. Some call it prana, some call it chi. And some call it orgone. But either way  very often when you hear the word ‘energy’  you’re essentially dealing with a vitalistic perspective on life. This is the primary reason why acupressure , yoga and other ‘energetic’ modalities had such a hard time being accepted by mainstream science. They basically propagated a view that reigned once, but is now not used by science- Vitalism.

Other than the ‘vital force’, vitalistic indeterminism is another feature of vitalism. Science basically nowadays beliefs that everything has a cause and an effect. The principle of the vital force basically acknowledges that somethings might happen without an apparent cause. Many proponents of telekinesis, psychic phenomena and magick are proponents of this philosophical perspective whenever they claim that ‘the truth is that there is no real causality and you just have to trust in me and everything good will happen to you’ Additionally this is pretty much the inspiration for Psi

Vitalism Is Now So Out Of Season, Mechanism is IN

Mechanism is essentially a metaphor of life ‘as a machine’ .Whenever you hear someone say “I am a machine. I am my brain and my body- nothing else” He’s essentially someone who prescribes to the mechanistic perspective. This is the view that life is nothing more than a property of the material existence.  It essentially states that all natural phenomena can be explained by physical causes.  This is actually the belief 90% of people hold.  To put it simply:

Mechanism is the idea that things work in through cause and effect: One thing leads to another which leads to another, and so on, so that the past determines the present

Vitalism Vs Mechanism

The important thing to realize is that the clash between mechanism and vitalism is not at all new.  Vitalism was actually the dominant philosophy of scientific thought for centuries. It’s only recently that mechanism ‘won’ and vitalism  is pretty much shunned in scientific circles.  It’s actually a normal reaction if you think about it. We all hate and demonize nazis and everything associated with them now because they lost  WW2 and similarly  scientists demonize vitalism because  it lost the science wars.   But I personally think that  vitalism still has some limited value to put on the table, but in a different less scientific way.   About which I’ll write soon.

Why did Vitalism Rule Once?

It is important to note that vitalism was actually the dominant perspective for biological and chemistry for years. It was in the 30s that this perspective lost it’s power. That’s not that long ago when you consider for how long we’ve been in this world.

For a very long time most of science was based on the works of greek philosophers. And the fact is that greek philosophers pretty much postulated an existence of a vital force. Aristotle thought that the principle of all organic life is the soul and he postulated that it’s contained in the organs.

Additionally vitalism made sense because it was postulated that inorganic compounds were simply incapable of of creating organic chemical compounds. But this argument pretty much crumbled when chemists succeed at doing precisely that which was deemed impossible by vitalism – create organic compounds from inorganic compounds.  It is very important to understand that back then the vitalistic perspective was not held by those on the fringes of science, but by the most respected scientist of that time. For example Caspar Friedrich Wolff, the founder of embryology.

Vitalism And Psychotherapy

It’s amazing that nowadays in psychotherapy  psychic energies and vital force are used in the exact same way as they were used in biology in the XIX century- as an explanatory mechanism for something we can’t yet observe. Nothing more, nothing less. And they aren’t even half bad at it.  Libido allowed psychoanalysis to produce not a half bad model of development, and it allowed bioenergetic analysis to link chronic muscular tensions with personality development.

Vitalism And Alternative Medicine

There are two aspects of vitalism that are found in alternative medicine. First you see agency and intentionally prescribed to internal organs. In chinse medicine and taoism organs are very often depicted as seperate entities with their own will and ‘energetic properties’. The liver is said to have an ‘intention’ or a ‘desire to do something’.  Organs and other parts of the human body are personifies and treated as if they were a human being with a plan, motive and intentionality.

Vitalism is very often used to explain certain unusual beliefs very commonly possessed by practitioners of alternative medicine. For example the belief that natural products are inherently better than synthetic ones is explained by the fact that they posses vital energies. The belief that the universe has a deeper purpose hidden in store for you also is very often explained in terms of an ‘energy of the cosmos’. Similarly things like prayer and virtually all paranormal phenomena are explained by energies.

In chinese medicine, acupressure, yoga, the activity of the body pretty much revolves around the movement and exchange of certain ‘energies’. Chi in chinese medicine and prana in yoga. But other alternative methods also rely on vitalism.

All forms of distance healing rely on vitalism, all forms of magnetic therapy, pyramid healing, and almost everything else rely on the concept of vitalism. Even homeopathy  infuses a spiritual vital essence into its remedies.

 

…but?

Why Is Vitalism So Appealing?

But why is that? Why is vitalism the one thing that pretty much now separates alternative medicine from conventional medicine? Why is it even used?

Well there are good reasons for that.

Vitalism Is Innate

Studies done in japan and australia have shown  children generally prefer vitalistic explanations of biological and psychological phenomena than any other explanation  To them they make the most sense.What this indicates is that the energetic explanation might be innately appealing. And that vitalism seems to be the prefered explanation of humans when a mechanistic explanation is not available.

This makes sense if you look at our culture. In cartoons we very often see ‘magic rays’ and beams, because those are appealing to children and to them they often ‘make sense’.

This  is because the energetic explanation is basically the prefered native way of explaining things in people who simply don’t have a mechanical explanation. So when the ancients didn’t know what atoms, enzymes and digestive acids where they used the energetic metaphor of a ‘digestive fire’ to explain it, because it made sense to them due to an innate bias.

Prior to the acquisition of complex, scientifically accurate mechanisms,
we hypothesized that children and lay adults invoke energy
transmission as a causal placeholder. This satisfies their belief
that the effect has a cause and may also motivate the search for a
more detailed biological explanation. The proposal that a hypothetical
construct like energy serves as a causal placeholder for the
explanation of bodily processes accords well with the claim that
even young children have naive theories

As Gopnik and Wellman
(1994) have argued, theories embody abstract hypothetical constructs
that provide causal explanations using different entities
than the phenomena to be explained. Specifically, theories appeal
to abstract entities, invisible forces, or other events to account for
empirical phenomena. We suggest that the construct of vital energy
has this power to “explain” biological processes and in this
sense may be taken as an indication of theory-driven reasoning in
this domain.

 

So it seems that vitalism is more innate than mechanism. It’s an explanation that appeals to the more primal humanistic part of our mind. The right brain one could say, which makes it…

 

A final historical digression may be a useful precursor to the
identification of how naive biological theories emerge in children.
The starting point for Western vitalists was the recognition that
there is a fundamental difference between an inanimate object,
such as a rock, and a living organism (Mayr, 1982). Thus, the
difference between living and nonliving kinds was taken as a
conceptual primitive for the early vitalists. The same distinction
may be developmentally foundational for infants also (Mandler,
1992).

 

It’s The Ultimate Metaphor

It Allows Us To Explain Everything

I might mention here that pretty much most explanations of alternative medicine can be found in cartoons. One popular explanation is that ‘it’s quantum physics and quantum physics can do everything’ which is pretty much the most popular modern explanation for alternative medicine today, incidentally it’s also used by cartoons to explain their impossible things

Teleology

Teleology is basically the belief that natural phenomena has a deeper cause or purpose. For example many people once believed that evolution had a deeper purpose of creating a ‘super-being’ or ‘superhuman’ (this is actually what some nazis believed). This is an example of teleology. Additionally whenever a book on spirituality claims that animals will bow before someone who’s enlightened or that when someone is enlightened everything and everyone will support him and love him because he ‘exemplifies the purpose of the universe’ this is also an example of teleology.

This is a very appealing belief to humans because we humans like to think of nature as similar to us. It’s very and sometimes a very useful way of thinking from a pragmatic perspective, it gives meaning to our lives and gives us hope that nature will lead us to a better tomorrow.

Although most scientists and books that teach science will attack this belief very strongly because it leads to errors in thinking, and doesn’t explain many instances in which nature does not produce optimal products.

Additionally all of the teleological goals are humans. It’s essentially the belief that nature works to serve us, which is something most scientists definitively don’t agree with, but at the same time something that most people find very appealing.

Interestingly teleology has a very real and practical use in psychotherapy. Neo-Freudians, humanists, and existentialists tend to be teleologists, who believe that our psyche ‘naturally knows what’s best for them. Whenever a humanistic psychotherapist claims that an individual will ‘figure  the way to health on his own if you give him unconditional positive regard’ he’s having a teleological belief, as he views the mind as having a deeper purpose.

Incidentally this is also very common in alternative approaches that claim that ‘the body will know how to heal you on it’s own.

The main difference between those two beliefs, which actually are somewhat accepted by science. And the form of teleology prescribed by creationist is that humanistic psychotherapists limit their teleology only to the human mind or body in the case of some physical therapists.

Teleology is very often linked with the concept of vitalism and a vital force, as teleological ways of explaining the world very often pretty much claim that an individuals vital force (chi, or prana etc.)that guides someone to a higher purpose, and more often than not the proponents of vitalism subscribe to teleological beliefs.  Incidentally this is why the concept of energies is so accepted in the one academically respected discipline (well in most countries) in which vitalistic thinking is praised  – bioenergetic analysis, which aims to be a humanistic psychotherapy.  Additionally the vital force is very often itself described as having a form of ‘deeper purpose’ and that it does not simply abide by laws of cause and effect.

Has Vitalism Any Value?

First and foremost I believe that the beliefs that vitalism allows people to accept have pragmatic value. If someone believes for example that raw foods have a special ‘vital force’ that makes them healing, as opposed to the ‘toxic candies’, he’ll naturally eat more vegetables, fruit and nuts. I have actually known people  who would never eat fruits and vegetables if it wasn’t for their belief that they have a special energy that they can’t get from a synthetic source. So this belief might actually motivate people to lead healthier lives.

Additionally other vitalistic beliefs such might give people a sense of purpose (pretty much every teleology gives people a sense of purpose by definition), security , and hope. Which I think is a good benefit. I always try to remember that depressive people generally have a much bigger grasp on reality than positive thinkers, and that it is the positive thinkers that move the world. Vitalism and it’s associated beliefs allow many people who have a more positive outlook on life and be happier.

It’s also a fact that if you’re not a professional working with something the energetic explanations are pretty much as good as any mechanistic explanation will ever get. For example a person who doesn’t know much about vitamins, biochemistry and other details can use vitalism to create a very good diet plan for himself.

 But is Vitalism Dangerous?

In a way yes. Many vitalistic theories claim that all of our physical problems come from mental complexes or negative beliefs. In a way the law of attraction is nothing more than a vitalistic theory. Those theories are in  a way useful because they give people hope for healing, but the problem is that they also have a very negative effect on many people. Many people who treat vitalistic theories seriously develop what’s a called new age guilt.

Because if you accept the theory that ‘you create your own reality’ you basically accept that you are in control  of your world, and therefore EVERYTHING bad that happens to you:illness, bad looks, accidents, were attracted or caused by you.

And if you accept the popular new age theory that all diseases come from negative emotion you have to accept that you’re sick because of a bad character or because you’re a ‘bad mean spirited person’. This might sound funny but it’s actually something a lot of new agers believe in and it’s a problem I myself had to deal with when I had such beliefs.

Should Vitalism Be Used In Psychotherapy Or Not

It’s interesting to note that vitalism is still to this day used in psychotherapy.  Most notably in body-based psychotherapies such as EFT, TFT, bioenergetic analysis. This is not a bad thing since it allows those therapies to create a simplified model of the mind, but at the same time I believe it limits the grows of those therapies, because most of their practitioners treat those energies as ‘real energies’ as in not as a metaphor but as a tangible ‘life force’.

Vitalism is useful in the study of subjective experience because it allows us to make sense out of observable subjective phenomena. But at the same time it limits the scientific appeal of those methods. This is why TFT, and EFT are not thought in universities while their similar cousin EMDR is.  I personally think that if those modalities want to be accepted in the scientific field they should aim to uncover the true biological reasons for the effectiveness of their therapies, which is precisely what I am to do in my book Energy Therapy: A Practical Analysis, so if you’re interested in the biology behind those vitalistic therapies you can have a read.

 

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About the Author ()

Hello I’m Matt Pepliński, the lies in alternative medicine have literary given me psychosis and as such I created this site to take the pseudo out of pseudoscience to make it actually useful in your life.