My neighbors used to be devotees of the “X Files". Aware of the deprivation our family suffers having neither cable nor satellite television, they sometimes invited us over to view their favorite program or even lend us a tape of one of the latest episodes. We usually accepted their gracious offer — though our enthusiasm ran higher for the neighborly socializing and the crystal clear images of their satellite system on a big screen TV than for the actual program itself. The last time we indulged ourselves, I was somewhat surprised to find that the episode we viewed was in theme and plot almost exactly the same as the one we saw the previous time. To wit, they were both about some highly sophisticated computer which had developed an independence and intelligence beyond anything that its creators had programmed. The shows revolve around the efforts of the expressionless male and the brainy female leads to subdue the computer which has run amuck on a violent path of self-protection.
Not that this is an especially inventive story line. Endowing a computer with consciousness like Hal in “2001” and even Big Blue of the Kasparov versus IBM chess battles of recent years are cinematic and real life antecedents. Yet, methinks the reason for the recurring allure of this theme lies embedded in a much larger issue.
If nothing else, contemporary civilization is marked by our capacity to explore and exploit the mechanics of physical reality. As the ability of human beings to create objects that in some cases mimic and in other cases supersede certain parameters of performance found in the creatures of natural world, we find ourselves fascinated, consciously or subconsciously, with what actually separates us and other life forms from the things we create. Rephrased, the question refers to the distinction between the mechanism of life and life itself.
Intuitively, we understand there indeed is a distinction. Yet, it is hard to put a finger on exactly what that may be. The short answer is “consciousness” — but what in fact is that? For the moment, let us give a name to whatever separates a living being from other things. Call it the “X Factor”.
Although unfamiliar to most modern people, there actually is a very old belief in the intangible “X Factor”. Discredited and discarded long ago along the road to modern scientific thinking, it adds a dimension to life that goes beyond the laws of chemistry and physics. It is a force of nature that animates living beings.
This concept or the philosophy related to it is called “Vitalism”. The dictionary tells us that the word refers to “a doctrine that the life in living organisms is caused and sustained by a vital force that is distinct from all physical and chemical forces...”1
Our ever more sophisticated mastery of the mechanics of physical reality encourages us to all but ignore vitalistic thinking. We are apt to try to explain away all phenomena — even those related to the experiences of human life — in mechanistic terms. This certainly is the foundation of modern medicine. Whether speaking of a flu, a headache, an ulcer, cancer or depression, the conventional medical understanding inevitably returns us to a model of human beings as a complex conglomerate of tissues and chemicals.
But to define life and life processes exclusively in these terms can be quite limiting. For instance, our medico-legalistic quandries concerning the definition of death based on physical functions alone is a prime example. When is it appropriate to declare a person dead? When is it permissible to withdraw life support systems?
The experts must determine which organ and what physiological function holds the kernel of life. Is it the brain, and if so what part of the brain? Or is it the heart and circulatory function or the lungs and respiration? Actually the determination is impossible and, ultimately, the decision is arbitrary.
Yet, apart from the sophistication of our knowledge about how the body functions, we can often sense when the real life has gone out of a body. It is not a matter of whether the brain or heart is still functioning. It is a matter of whether or not the animating force — our “X-factor” — is still present in the body that lies before us. If absent, then we may sense an instinctual repugnance toward artificially supporting the physical tissues when in fact ‘no one is home’.
While the contemporary person may find it difficult to shake free of our contemporary common sense, vitalism is a useful outlook that sustained ancient peoples as well as traditional cultures and religions. Even today in Japan, one can barely have a convesation without using language which refers to vitalistic thinking. Weird as it may sound to our ears, Japanese for “hello” is literally “How is your fundamental vital energy?”. The common term for weather is translatable as “the vital energy of the sky (or heaven)”.
Vitalism and vital energy is also a principle fundamental to many medical systems that lie outside of the dominant, conventional model. Oriental medicine and philosophy dubs it “Qi” (pronounce ‘chee’). East Indian thought and medicine calls it “prana”. Western thinkers and physicians of vitalistic medicine use a variety of terms such as ‘vital force’ , ‘vital energy’, or ‘dynamic principle’.
Amongst other systems, homeopathy is founded in vitalistic thinking. Samuel Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy, in his writing gave a lucid expression of his understanding:
“In the healthy human state, the spirit-like life force that enlivens the material organism as dynamis, governs without restriction and keeps all parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both feelings and functions, so that our indwelling, rational spirit can freely avail itself of this living, healthy instrument for the purposes of our existence.
The material organism, thought of without life force, is capable of no sensibility, no activity, no self-preservation. It derives all sensibility and produces its life functions solely by means of the immaterial life force that enlivens the material organism in health and in disease.”2
Thus, to the acupuncturist, ayurvedic practitioner, osteopath or homeopathy (amongst others), since the essential nature of a living being is not to be found in physical tissues and organs of the body, neither is the essential nature of illness, nor the avenue to cure. True cure results from rectifying a disturbed or weakened vitality.
Symptoms are merely an expression of the disurbance in a person’s vital force. They surface as an attempt by the vital force to stabilize or cleanse the entire system when it becomes disordered, but they are not the disorder itself. Elimination of the symptoms alone does not bring cure anymore than clipping off the dandelion flower will uproot the plant.
The endeavour of vitalistic medicine provides great challenge and great satisfaction. There are few short cuts. It demands that each person be understood and treated according to the uniqueness of his or her personal vital energy. It calls upon both practitioner and patient to possess patience and clarity of purpose.
1. Guralnik, David, Ed. “Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language”, World Publishing Company, New York. 1970.
2. Hahnemann, Samuel. “Organon of the Medical Art”, edited by Wenda O’Reilly, translated by Steven Decker; pg. 65; Birdcage Books; Emonds, Washington. 1996.