We Christians must, therefore, be different from the philosophers in the way we think about the causes of these things.

Martin Luther, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. 1, p. 30


We here see plainly that that knowledge of God which we credit to some natural agency is really from God.  “For God,” Paul says, “manifested it.”  And what else is natural agency than the constant and uninterrupted operation of God, His disposition of all things?  And whence, pray, comes our intellect but from Him, who “worketh all things in all” [I. Cor. 12:6]?

Zwingli, Commentary on True and False Religion, p. 59


     Many Christians do use their faith when they think about the causes of what is observed in the natural world.  Many accept that there are natural processes which govern the natural world but that God is ultimately behind these processes [God “worketh all things in all”] and that all the natural processes of the world operate under the Divine plan.  Others, however feel that they must choose between natural processes and Divine action.  Some have argued that a knowledge of natural mechanisms is not sufficient to understand the natural world—there is “something else” that is involved in causation that science cannot study.  This “something else” meant that no scientist will ever truly understand the causes of things without invoking religion.  There was a force, a “vital force” which was required for the natural world to function that went beyond physics and chemistry and did not operate according to the laws of chance.  Some of those who held this view identified themselves as vitalists.


If you compare the following quotes from Martin Luther and Cotton Mather, it is evident that both see evidence of the glory of God in the natural world.  Mather however, can do so even when he admits that natural phenomena are governed by natural forces rather than direct miraculous influence.

This retrograde motion of the planets is also a work of God, created through His Word.  This work belongs to God Himself and is too great to be assigned to the angels.  It is God who has separated these bodies in this manner and who governs and preserves them.  And the same One who commanded the sun to run, but the firmament to stand, also said to the star Mercury: “Star, move in this fashion.”  It is the Word that brings it about that the most uncertain motion is the most certain, even though bodies are carried along to an unsteady heaven, not in some part of it or on some material line.  Like a fish in the middle of the ocean or a bird in the open sky, the stars move in their place, but with a most definite and truly miraculous motion.  It is also clear for the same reason the Elbe flows along on its perennial course here in this area and never grows weary.  All such works or the Word, which Moses here glorifies with the words: “He said.” 

Martin Luther, Commentaries on Genesis, Vol. 1, p. 30


Would it not be proper, in the first place, to lay down those Laws of Nature, by which the Material World is governed, and which, when we come to consider, we have in the rank of Second Causes, no further to go?  All Mechanical Accounts are at an end; we step into the Glorious God immediately: The very next thing we have to do, is to acknowledge Him who is the First Cause of all: and the CHRISTIAN PHILOSOPHER will on all invitations make the acknowledgements.

Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, p. 8


In the above quote, Mather joins his science with his religion by viewing God as the First Cause which moves the Second Causes, i.e. the natural forces of the world.  Mather himself, and the Puritans in general, are remembered as being progressive when they did just that—when they accepted the new scientific ideas of Newton, Copernicus, and other scientists and incorporated them as second causes which did not disturb their faith.  Of all the beliefs of Mather and the Puritans, the ones which led most to their declining influence in America were those which refused secondary, natural causes for natural phenomena and leapt straight to supernatural ones as occurred in the New England witchcraft trials or in Mather’s explanations of fossils.



The natural world is the way it is.  If there are natural processes which govern natural phenomena, then individuals are still free to believe that it was God who instituted the natural processes.  Descartes argued as much.

I therefore supposed that God now created, somewhere in imaginary spaces, enough matter to compose such a world, enough matter to compose such a world; that He variously and randomly agitated the different parts of this matter so as to form a chaos as confused as any the poets could invent; and that He then did nothing but lend His regular concurrence to Nature, leaving it to act according to the laws He established.

Descartes, from Ruler, p. 255


For God has established these laws in such a marvelous way, that even if we supposed he creates nothing beyond what I have mentioned, and sets up no order or proportion with it, but composes from it a chaos…the laws of nature are sufficient to cause the parts of this chaos to disentangle themselves and arrange themselves in such good order that they will have the form of a quite perfect world.

Descartes, from Fuchs, p. 120


The most fundamental difference between the Biblical and the Cartesian accounts, however, it that, in Descartes’ world, God does not complete His Creation Himself.  If only He lends “His concurrence to Nature”, He may leave it “to act according to the laws He established.”

Ruler, p. 258

Are there natural mechanisms which cause of natural events?  Conservative theologians have always resisted efforts to describe the natural world in terms other than those promoting religion.  When Descartes proposed that natural mechanisms can determine natural phenomena, many opposed him on religious grounds.

Voetius warns “What is to be avoided is that by accepting [the view] that efficacy and motion can be assigned to quantity and shape, students will, as a result, one day unwittingly accept the axiom of magic, rejected until now in Christian theology and philosophy, that ‘quantity and shape have a certain efficacy which, either by itself, or in combination with other [principles] concurs as an active principle of change.’ ”

    Schook draws the same conclusion.  Being first and foremost a mathematician, Descartes will probably just stick to his “lines and figures” as do all “sons of magicians” and “associates of magic” who hold numbers to be the key to “the mysteries and secrets of Nature.”…The charge of magic is based on the idea that mathematical properties might be regarded as physical causes.  If so, shapes and numbers would be assigned the efficacy which is normally assigned to spirits, forms, forces, and other causal agents—which is exactly what magicians do.

Ruler, p. 194-5, (Voetius from 17th century)


Voetius also foresaw that the mechanical philosophy would lead to a world in which “all created beings would merely be accidental beings, collections, aggregates, and not essences or unique natures by themselves.”

Ruler, p. 241, (Voetius from 17th century)


We shall not here unearth the loathsome and long discredited [opinions] of both old and modern Paracelsists and Hereticists…but merely aim to describe the [theory] which has suddenly emerged and in which it is held that everything derives from quantity, shape, position or situation, motion [and] rest, and that all secrets of nature can be perfectly explained and demonstrated by them—which we deny.

Voetius from Ruler, p. 263


Many theologians did not want a God who set up the universe to run on its own—they wanted a universe that couldn’t run on its own and a God who was therefore required to manage every “natural” phenomenon.  In their view, science should not be separate from religion because there was no aspect of nature which did not continually function through direct miraculous intervention.

…Following a host of authorities both Christian and pagan, the Conimbricenses emphasize that God must yet actively perform a constant deed of conservation ever since He first created the world.  God’s conservation is in fact the major function of His omnipresence.  Far from being superfluous, the presupposition of God conserving the world is necessary for making the comparison of God as the ultimate artisan or architect. 

“…God immediately conserves all objects of creation.  For albeit that He has first brought things about in conjunction to what is required for their preservation, He nevertheless conserves them in tehir being by Himself by way of an intimate influence.”

Conimbriscenses, from Ruler, p.  266-7


St. Paul preached on the Areopagus in Athens that in God “we live, and move, and have our being.”  God in fact directs and conserves not only us, but all parts of His Creation.  By an “occult potency”, He moves the Universe, “and while it is kept moving by this motion, while the angels accomplish their tasks, the stars revolve, the winds turn, while the abyss of the waters is engaged in a steady motion, while green places sprout and their seeds grow, while animals are begotten …He authorized when things were first established, although they would not develop their course if He Who established them would hold off administering them by a provident motion.”

Conimbriscenses, from Ruler, p. 270


Contrary to someone like Voetius, for whom the subject of physics had no other use than to explain the Mosaic text, Descartes worked outside textual traditions….According to the Utrecht theologian [Voetius], the problem with the mechanical philosophy was that it yielded causal metaphors much less appropriate to theological images of divine guardianship.  His blackest dreams were nevertheless destined to come true.  For all the jubilation with which, in the eighteenth century, Newtonians and physico-theologians might describe God’s managing and mending the clockwork of the Universe, there would never again be that intimate kind of co-operation seen in the past.

Ruler, p. 319

Upcoming chapters will address Newton and the physico-theologians who increased the acceptance of natural processes in the natural world.  The rest of this chapter deals with those who refused to accept any account of nature which did not refer to a supernatural force.  These were the vitalists.



…the general belief of Christians in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in a literal interpretation of the first chapters of Genesis has been discussed as leading not only to erroneous views about geology but to a non-critical acceptance of vitalism. 

Wheeler, 1939, p. 225

Vitalism allowed for a supernatural “vital force” in nature, especially in living things.  As long as there were aspects of nature which could not be explained, conservative believers could point and exclaim, “That’s what God does!”  Vitalism represented an attempt to introduce the tenets of religious belief into the natural world.  The titles of the following series of books indicates how vitalism fit into systems of belief.

Windle, Bertram.  What is Life?  A study of Vitalism and Neo-vitalism.  Expository Essays in Christian Philosophy.  B. Herder., St. Louis, 1908.

 --part of a 4-part series Expository Essays in Christian Philosophy whose other titles include The Principles of Christianity, The God of Philosophy, and Messianic Philosophy. 

“The series will consist of volumes upon the rational groundwork of the Christian Religion: God, the Soul, Revelation, the Christian System, (the Person and ) Resurrection of Christ, Miracles and Spiritualism, etc.


--Science displeases literature when it dehumanizes nature and shows us irrefragable laws when we had looked for humanistic divinities.

Burroughs, p. 243

    The above quote sums up the problem with the approach of the vitalists themselves.  Rather than basing their conclusions on data and testable hypotheses, they had already decided what conclusion they were “looking for” before the experiments were performed.

     For some, it seemed appropriate to discuss “vital forces” even though they could not be defined precisely or studied scientifically.  The author of the following quote defended this position by claiming that vitalism is just as real as the ether which fills space and allows the passage of light.  Unfortunately for the author, this “ether” was subsequently shown to be a fantasy; space is a void and light travels through this vacuum without any aid from ever-present ether.

Or again take the question of the ether, the existence of which no scientific man doubts….If then the vitalistic explanation is verbal only so also is the theory of gravitation and so the existence of the ether.

Windle, 1908, p. 122-3


The following vitalist also compared the characteristics of ether to those of God.  Unfortunately, ether was a mythical substance which did not exist.

The ether of space, which science is coming more and more to look upon as the mother-stuff of all things, has many attributes of Deity….Tremors of vibrations in it reach the eye and make an impression that we call light; electrical oscillations in it are the source of all other phenomena.  It is the fountain-head of all potential energy.

Burroughs, p. 61-2


The inorganic seems dreaming of the organic.  Behold its dreams in the fern and tree forms upon the window pane and upon the stone flagging of a winter morning!  In the Brownian movement of matter in solution, in crystallization, in chemical affinity, in polarity, in osmosis, in the growth of flint or chert nodules, in limestone formations—like seeking like—in these and in other activities, inert matter seems dreaming of life.

Burroughs, p. 167

The above quote does not name any characteristic of inorganic matter which requires a supernatural explanation.  The author made the same mistake as those who for thousands of years believed in spontaneous generation and those physico-theologians of the 1700s who felt that fossils were created spontaneously.  Unless one were to count the spontaneous production of organic molecules under the proper conditions (which may have led to an abiotic origin of life three and a half billion years ago), there is no evidence that the nonliving world is “dreaming” of life.


Many unexplained chemical phenomena were attributed to the vital forces of molecules.

Although Christian natural philosophers from mid-century onward came to accept the atomic structure of matter—indeed it is at the foundation of Newton’s system of the world—they did so only after after they had discarded Epicurean materialism and determinism….Atomism was only acceptable to the latitudinarians if the principles of motion by which the atoms are formed into material substances are rendered external to them and therefore controlled by spiritual forces.

Jacob, p. 63


A mechanical energy is latent in coal, and in all combustible bodies, is vital energy latent in carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and so forth, needing only the right conditions to bring it out.

Burroughs, p. 160


Venel developed themes that were to remain constants of vitalist discourse: the ineradicable distinction between the “living” and the nonliving as between the “organic” and the “inert”; the essential role played in chemical phenomena by inherent by undefinable “forces”…

Williams, p. 163


As soon as the four principal elements, carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, and nitrogen, that make up the living body, have entered the world of living matter, their activities and possible combinations enormously increase; they enter into new relations with one another and form compounds of great variety and complexity, characterized by the instability which life requires.  The organic compounds are vastly more sensitive to light and heat and air that are the same elements in the inorganic world.  What has happened to them?  Chemistry cannot tell  us.

Burroughs, p. 77-8


Considering the length of human history we have to admit that even the science of physics is in its very infancy.  Why, it is only recently that they have tortured the father of physics for stating that the earth is turning around the sun, because it hurt their feelings to acknowledge that the abode of man is not the center of the universe.  And it hurts the feelings of men to be told that the mysteries of life are only unrecognized chemistry—hence the passionate crusade in some circles against mechanism in biology.

Meltzer, p. 21

As chemistry, physics, and astronomy became better understood, it seemed that biology might be the last refuge for those who claimed that God worked directly and miraculously in the natural world.

Mechanism is the theory which regards the organism as a highly complex machine, controlled exclusively by physico-chemical laws, without any sort of action or guidance by any force or power foreign to the conceptions of physcis and chemistry.  Vitalism, on the contrary, asserts that living organisms possess within them some directive power or force of non-material nature, and therefore unknown to science.  This force, called the vital force, is supposed to control some or all of the activities of the organism….On the assumption of vitalism, the living organism is something more than an incident in the universal redistribution of matter and motion; its activities are in part the product of totally new forces, which may be manifestations of a soul, a mind, or other spiritual entity….In the region of physiology, therefore, it is necessary to show that the activities supposed to be due to these entities are in reality due to physico-chemical factors.

Elliot, 1919, p. 106


Natural philosophy may explain a rainbow but not a rabbit.

Burroughs, p. 174


With the growth of science and civilization, an ever-increasing category of events became explicable on mechanical principles, and the spiritualistic principles by which they were formerly accounted for fell into disrepute.  The advances of materialism, though always unpopular, have always been successful, and the predominance of materialism at any epoch affords the truest possible index to the degree of civilization at that epoch.  Materialism was at its height at the zenith of ancient Greek civilization.  It declined with the growth of Christianity at the beginning of the Middle Ages.  It almost completely vanished—vanished to a degree that is now entirely inconceivable to us—during the blackest period of medieval times.  If revived with the renascence of science and philosophy.  It has since grown steadily, notwithstanding the animosity and persecution of religion, and in the present century it has reached a higher point than ever before in the history of the world.  The domain of spiritualistic methods formerly included every branch of nature.  By degrees the inorganic realm became emancipated, until now, by universal consent, all events of inorganic character are interpreted by mechanical methods.  For a long time the rise of materialism scarcely touched the organic realm.  Then gradually organic processes fell under the materialistic law of interpretation.  Spallanzani disproved the spiritual theory of the process of reproduction.  Lavoisier showed that bodily heat was due to oxidation.  Up until that time spiritual theories of life had remained almost unquestioned; after that time the opposite schools of vitalism and mechanism came into sharper conflict.

….There remained the nervous system, which long seemed too complex for experimental investigation, and which was thereupon proclaimed as the true sphere of spiritual activities..  But after a time, experiment began to invade even this sanctified and difficult region.  Reflex action was the first to be investigated; and it was soon found that reflex action was wholly and completely mechanical in nature.

Elliot, 1919, p. 116


And the name materialism only has a meaning by contrast with the rival doctrine of spiritualism.  We may, indeed, note the astonishing range of materialistic explanations, as compared with those put forward on the spiritualistic side.  These latter adopt the commonplace experiences of ordinary life, and transfer them indiscriminately to a new region.  Whenever a difficulty arises, spiritual agency is invoked to explain it….This single idea is monotonously repeated as often as the need of explanation is felt, whereas under the materialistic philosophy a stream of fresh conceptions of unimagined novelty continues to flow.  The wonders and the miracles of theological cosmogonies become dull and commonplace by comparison with the materialistic statement of the actual facts.  But, in truth, spiritualism has long been driven from the sphere of the inorganic.  Its last refuge is in the sphere of life and consciousness, to which accordingly we shall now turn our attention.

Elliot, 1919, p. 70


     Biochemistry dealt a serious blow to vitalism.  Even after chemists had begun to understand chemical reactions and molecules, this understanding was limited to inorganic molecules.  The organic molecules which functioned inside living things were poorly understood.   Vitalists believed that the molecules of living things were somehow different than those of the nonliving world—they were endowed by God by some “vital force” which allowed them to perform functions inside living things which were not observed in the nonliving world.  After the first organic molecule was synthesized in a lab from inorganic molecules (urea), it became more and more obvious that living things were not composed of any special agent which was not part of the non-living world and that all the components of living things followed the same chemical and physical laws observed described apart from life.  The belief that life could never be fully understood stifled research.  In contrast, the belief that life was completely knowable stimulated great experimental efforts which have contributed most of our understanding of the biological world.

Fr. Maher tells us that “the principle of life in the lower animals was held by schoolmen to be an example of a simple principle which is nevertheless not spiritual since it is altogether dependent upon the organism, or, as they said, completely immersed in the body.  St. Thomas accordingly speaks of the corporeal souls of brutes.”  In fact the scholastic assigned what it called “souls”, sensitive and vegetative souls, to vegetables as well as to the lower animals, and by that term “soul” signified that principle of life which, as vitalists hold, is the factor—the elusive but none the less certainly existent factor—which distinguishes living from non-living matter, which places the meanest drop of living protoplasm, the microscopic Amoeba, in a position separated by a gulf of immeasurable width from the most complicated product or substance of the inorganic world.

Windle, 1908, p. 4-5


There is some first root and first conception of every entity, e.g. of humanity, horseness, etc., which constitutes a thing in its proper being and distinguishes it essentially from others.  This, however, is not matter, since this is common [to every object alike]; nor accidents, because these cannot compose or constitute a substance, and give it its being.  It is therefore what we call form, idea, essential nature, actuality of the perfect, or nature par excellence, since it actuates and informs matter and constitutes a compound being with it.

Voetius from Ruler, p. 242


Until some sixty years ago the prevalent view was that nearly all life phenomena were guided by an all-pervading vital force.  Even after the discovery by Wohler in 1828 of the possibility of producing synthetically such an organic substance of urea, such a universal mind as that of Johannes Muller was still clinging to the belief in the all-powerful force as the creator and harmonizer of the various mechanisms of the living body.  The belief in the omnipresence of an all-creating vital force furnished little stimulus for laborious studies of the innumerable mechanisms of life.

…the new theory which made no distinction between the animate and inanimate phenomena became known as the mechanical theory of life.  Right or wrong, this theory was of incalculable benefit to the progress of the biological sciences.  The conviction that all parts of life are accessible to an analysis by the methods employed in natural science, stimulated then and stimulates now thousands of patient investigators in their indefatigable attempts to unravel an infinitely small fraction of the mysteries of life.  Vitalism had a paralyzing effect.

Meltzer, p. 18


Vitalism was doomed to fail, just as had all prior attempts to identify the direct action of God in the natural world.  The reason is concisely summed up in the following observation:

…the belief in vitalism is least where the knowledge of the facts are greatest.

Elliot, 1919, p. 118


Vitalism needed ignorance.  As long as there were unanswered questions, vitalists could claim that the answers to certain questions would never be known.

It is the chemistry in the leaf of the plant that diverts or draws the solar energy into the stream of life, and how it does it is a mystery.

Burroughs, p. 78


The question whether we can explain vital phenomena, which is unique, and does not operate in the rest of nature, is to be answered partly in the affirmative, partly in the negative.  In the affirmative, if force is to mean nothing more than what the words electricity and gravity mean; in the negative, if there is meant a supernatural principle independent of the universal laws of nature, which does not manifest itself through the law of cause and effect…In any case we may at least admit a life force, so long as all known agencies fail to explain life.

Driesh, 1914, p. 155


All proofs of Vitalism, i.e. all reasonings by which it is shown that not even the machine-theory covers the field of biological phenomena, can only be indirect proofs: they can only make it clear that mechanical or singular causality is not sufficient for an explanation of what happens.

Driesh, 1914, p. 208


This, then, is the general result of our inquiry:…to have recourse to metaphysical possibilities, unknowable in principle, i.e. to the hypothesis that there may “be” certain areas of reality which have no spatial signs, human experience being bound to spatiality and therefore not able to solve even the biological problem satisfactorily.

Driesh, 1914, p. 231


Very nearly all the arguments adduced against mechanism at the present day are based on the statement that “it is impossible to understand” how such and such an event could be produced by mechanical means.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


The vitalists have been apt to proceed upon the assumption that the burden of proof lies upon mechanism, and that until mechanism shall be definitely established by experimental methods, vitalism holds the field.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


Eighteenth century vitalism may be called dogmatic.  Its proponents were concerned with explaining separate, concrete events using the concepts of “life force”, systematicity, and others, but the principal question of the acceptability of such an approach simply did not exist for them.  They silently assumed the permissibility of their explanations.  If that question ever arose, then its fundamental methodological side remained understood.  The following evidence would be raised: we cannot determine the chemical composition of substances within the organism (the so-called “life essences”), we cannot artificially prepare them in a laboratory, and so it follows, in principle, that they cannot be understood from the perspective of normal physical and chemical laws.  They are created by unique forces.

Burwick, p. 80


The following author mistakes the regions into which “mind can take no further step” with the regions where his mind refused to take a further step.

So in life, what is it that sets up this slow gentle explosion that makes the machinery of our vital economies go—that draws new matter into the vortex and casts the used-up material out—in short, that creates and keeps up the unstable condition, the seesaw upon which life depends?  To enable the mind to grasp it we have to invent or posit some principle, call it the vital force, as so many have and still do, or call it molecular force, as Tyndall does, or the power of God, as our orthodox brethren do, it matters not.  We are on the border-land between the knowable and the unknowable, where mind can take no further step. 

Burroughs, p. 42


 With each generation, the number of phenomena which could be attributed to vitalism decreased rapidly.  In fact, because so many of the “vital” phenomena were explained by natural forces to the great embarrassment of the vitalists who claimed that such explanations would never be found, those who claimed that the remaining mysteries were vital had to give themselves a new name—the “neo-vitalists”.

Furthermore, the very incessant activity in the investigation of biological problems which was stimulated by the mechanical theory soon brought out the unmistakable fact that, so far, comparatively only a small fraction of life phenomena are accessible to interpretation by the physics and chemistry of our day…What a failure! Say now the growing number of vitalists, or ‘neo-vitalists’ as they choose to call themselves.

Meltzer, p. 19


Yet naïve vitalism is untenable.  Originally adopted by those who endeavored to accept the implications of science without abandoning their religious faith, early vitalism (sustained by several versions of the mind-body dualism) allowed for spiritual animation amidst the workings of physical law.

Burwick, p. 1


Some vitalists sought to rename the “vital force” with another name because of the disrepute to which vitalism had fallen.

But it the facts in question cannot thus be explained we are then driven to the conclusion that there is “something over” in living matter which does not exist in non-living.  Some call this a “vital force”, others, apparently thinking that the term savours of medievalism and superstition, prefer to invent some new name.

Windle, 1908, p. 139


The neo-vitalists had the same problem that the vitalists encountered: they could explain nothing themselves and served only to point out the questions which had not yet been answered by others.

In conclusion the writer might perhaps be allowed to say that his sole object was to bring forward such biological evidence as had come under his notice in favour of a vitalistic or neo-vitalistic…explanation of living matter.  It has been no part of his intention to deal with the question of the human soul and its relation to the activities of the human body, since that is a matter for theologians rather than for biologists to deal with.  Nor has he desired to wander the paths of the philosophers and debate the nature of the vital force nor to discuss…the question as to the relations of the operations of the cells or collections of cells into organs with the body of which they form a part.

Windle, 1908, p. 143


For all his religious conviction, however, Bell felt no urge to seek out and locate in human anatomy “the seat of the soul” or the vital principle.  He believed in both.  But he saw no reason, religious or philosophical, to confine spititual essence to some specific physical location.  Let it be at home where it will.

Burwick, p. 110


As more natural processes were understood, the vitalism which hoped to explain the unexplainable, became itself the unexplainable.

(On an analogy with billiard balls)

Mechanism assumes that the ball is struck in the correct way from the first.  Vitalism assumes that it is incorrectly struck, and that it moves forwards at a wrong velocity and alignment.  Midway in its career, however, the vital force comes into contact with it, and this contact is so delicately arranged that it produces in the original ball just the very modification of motion needed to cause it to strike the final ball at the exact angle and velocity contemplated.  This is surely a far more remarkable event than if the first ball had been correctly struck at first.

Elliot, 1919, p. 114



     The entire science of physiology has been a battleground between those who attempted to describe the natural processes which govern the function of the natural organs of the body and those who felt that no function of life could occur without direct supernatural involvement.  In fact, the first physiology textbook ever written went unpublished for fear of those who only accepted supernatural explanations for the natural world.

L’Homme (pub. 1662) was the “first textbook on physiology”; it was written because “it was part of his philosophy to show that man consisted of an earthly machine inhabited and governed by a rational soul.”…Descartes did not publish it while alive for fear of conflict with the Church, which had lately condemned Galileo’s teaching. 

Wheeler, 1939, p. 18


Descartes…sketched the first post-Galenic physiology in his Traite de l’Homme (Treatise on aman, 1632), but through his philosophical and scientific writings…influenced the medical view of man in far-reaching ways that are still being felt today.  Only a Cartesian basis makes possible a physiology that is, in principle, independent of inner experience and is thus in the modern sense, scientific.

Fuchs, p. 2


To Descartes, a proper understanding of the body would not require any supernatural principle to explain its functioning.

The other functions which some attribute to the soul, such as moving the heart and the arteries, digesting food in the stomach and so on, do not involve any thought and are simply bodily movements.

Descartes, from Fuchs, p. 122


When all the bodily organs are appropriately disposed for some movement, the body has no need of the soul in order to produce that movement.

Descartes, from Fuchs, p. 123


Even once experiments into the phenomena of the body began, vitalists argued that they should stop since the “vital principle” of the body could not be studied scientifically.

The notable change that occurred at the end of the eighteenth century in the philosophical and biological outlook is well summarized by Whetham.  He attributes the seventeenth-century “naturalistic turn” in physiological enquiry to Harvey, and , with Mach, “the general wave of heretical thought” to the “mechanical philosophy” based on “the astonishing success of the Newtonian theory.”  “But in the second half of the eighteenth century the difficulty of the (physiological) problem led to the almost universal adoption of the hypothesis of vitalism…which retained its influence till the middle of the nineteenth century.

Wheeler, 1939, p. 41


The vital and the mechanical cooperate in all our bodily functions.  Swallowing our food is a mechanical process, the digestion of it as a chemical process and the assimilation and elimination of it a vital process.  Inhaling and exhaling the air is a mechanical process, the oxidation of the blood is a chemical process, and the renewal of the corpuscles is a vital process.  Growth, assimilation, elimination, reproduction, metabolism, and secretion are all vital processes which cannot be described in terms of physics and chemistry.  All our bodily movements—lifting, striking, walking, running—are mechanical but seeing, hearing, and tasting, are of another order.  And that which controls, directs, coordinates, and inhibits our activities belongs to a still higher order, the psychic.  The world of thoughts and emotions within us, while dependent upon and interacting with the physical world without us, cannot be accounted for in terms of the physical world.

Burroughs, p. 213-4


…the attack that Bordeu had initiated on medical mechanism, calling for an end to the “subjection of medicine to the laws of experimental physics.”  Medicine could not aspire to a degree of certitude comparable to that achieved by such sciences; it could only hope to establish “rules” that were sometimes “vague, indeterminate, and almost arbitrary.”  Similarly, experimental techniques imported from the physical sciences and intended only for investigation of le corps mort, were altogether inappropriate to medicine.  Boerhaave’s experiments on blood, for example, were pointless since “blood in the living body” had different properties from blood manipulated in the laboratory.

Williams, p. 42


Chemistry then does not raise the veil which hides the secret of life, and physics is equally incompetent to do so, indeed Lord Kelvin says that “the only contribution of dynamics to theoretical biology is absolute negation of automatic commencement  of automatic maintenance of life.”

Windle, 1908, p. 44


We may fairly claim then that though many phenomena exhibited by living things may be explained as tactisms, and as reactions to certain chemical or physical forces, it is not possible to explain all the phenomena of life or of irritability in these terms.

Windle, 1908, p. 52


Why a muscle contracts, or why a gland secretes, or “why the oxidation of starch in the living machine gives rise to motion, growth, and reproduction, while if the oxidation occurs in the chemist’s laboratory…it simply gives rise to heat,” are questions he cannot answer. 

Burroughs, p. 93-4


In every machine, properly so called, all the factors are known; but do we know all the factors in a living body?  Professor Conn applies his searching analysis to most of the functions of the human body, to digestion, to assimilation, to circulation, to respiration, to metabolism, and so on, and he finds in every function something that does not fall within his category—some force not mechanical nor chemical, which he names vital.

     In following the processes of digestion, all goes well with his chemistry and his mechanics till he comes to the absorption of food-particles, or their passage through the walls of the intestines into the blood.  Here, the ordinary physical forces fail him, and living matter comes to his aid.  The inner wall of the intestine is not a lifeless membrane, and osmosis will not solve the mystery.  There is something there that seizes hold of the droplets of oil by means of little extruded processes, and then passes them through its own body to excrete them on an inner surface into the blood vessels….Professor Conn next analyzes the processes of circulation and his ready-made mechanical concepts carry him along swimmingly, till he tries to explain by them the beating of the heart, and the contraction of the small blood vessels which regulate the blood supply.  Here comes in play the mysterious vital power again.    He comes upon the same power when he tries to determine what it is that enables the muscle fiber to take from the lymph the material needed for its use, and to discard the rest. 

Burroughs, p. 91


Some argued that all of physiological processes required this “vital principle”.

…the vitalist would add to this the statement that all the processes which take place in the body are not explicable in these [mechanistic] terms, and moreover that none of them find their full explanation in any such way.

Windle, 1908, p. 7


While physiology was rapidly advancing the understanding of the natural processes which govern living things, some vitalists deluded themselves into thinking that the vitalist cause was being strengthened.

These and other difficulties, which it will be the business of this book to bring forward, have led many men of science to abandon the mechanical explanation of nature as inadequate, and have caused them to endeavour to substitute for it a further theory of living matter.  Thus Dr. Haldane says: “In a living organism, there is a specific influence at work, which so controls all the movements of the body and of the material entering of leaving it, that the structure peculiar to the organism is developed and maintained”.  And again: “To any physiologist who candidly reviews the progress of the last fifty years it must be perfectly evident that, so far from having advanced towards a physico-chemical explanation of life, we are in appearance very much further from one than we were fifty years ago.”

Windle, 1908, p. 11


only an insufficient acquaintance with the forces of inorganic nature can account for the frequent denial of the existence of a special force in organic beings, and for the ascription to inorganic forces of modes of action which are opposed to their nature and which contradict their laws.”

Driesch, from Wheeler, 1939, p.  61


Some argued that an understanding of physiology had a great deal to offer to religion.

On physiology—ever more secure in its progress, measured even in its errors, and complete theories—can repair the evil done in its name….Better than any science, it can—if it refuses to give over to pretensions contrary to observation, its sole guarantee—distinguish that portion of man which belongs to the tomb, and render to metaphysics and religion…that portion of man which alone makes him great, noble, and immortal.

Berard, 1823, from Williams, p. 144


Many vitalists made the common mistake of assuming that since humans couldn’t design a machine that worked like natural organs, they must be supernatural.

Is not the peristaltic movement of the bowels, by which solid matter is removed, also a vital phenomenon?  Is not the conception of a pipe or tube that forces semi-fluid matter along its hollow interior, by the contraction of its wall, quite beyond the reach of mechanics?

Burroughs, p.93 machine can beget a new machine nor has any one succeeded in constructing anything which, by division, will shape itself into two instruments where but one existed before.  It is only and properly so in a living organism that we talk of irritability, of stimuli, of reflex actions, and it is a hopeless task to attempt to explain an organism on mechanical principles.

Windle, 1908, p. 115


Even some of those who accepted that scientific data supported a mechanistic explanation of life, refused to accept such an idea on the basis of their religious beliefs.

We know, do we not? that life is literally dependent on the sun as is the rainbow, and equally dependent upon the material elements; but whether the physical conditions sum up the whole truth about it, as they do with the bow, is the insoluble question.  Science says “Yes,” but our philosophy and our religion say “No.”  The poets and the prophets say “No,” and our hopes and aspirations say “No.”

Burroughs, p. 119



     We now know that the brain is a biological organ where sensations are detected, motor commands are generated, memories are stored, and where our emotions are determined.  In the past, many argued that a material organ could never be capable of determining what they viewed to be supernatural attributes of the soul.  Cotton Mather not only felt that thoughts arose in the soul rather than the brain, but that this was “a law given to the soul by the glorious God.”

That the rational soul hath a real motion, as the angels have

To establish therefore this doctrine, which must serve to explicate the nature of the passions, we are, in the first place, to consider the motions of the rational soul. 

That the motions of the Will are real motions

I imagine to my self there are few persons will oppose this kind of motion, but they will haply object, that it is not in this the knot of the difficulty consists, and that the question is, to know, whether the internal motions of the will, as love, hate, etc. are of the same with the forementioned.

de la Chambre , 1665, p. 69-70


The words of the excellent Sir Richard Blackmore, in his essay on  the Immortality of the Soul,  are worthy to be transcribed and pondered on this occasion.  “I must acknowledge that I look upon the souls of brute creatures as immaterial, for I cannot conceive how an internal principle of sensitive perception and local motion can be framed from matter, though ever so subtle and refined, and modified with the most artful contrivance…”

Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, p. 211


The Union between the soul and the body is altogether inexplicable, the soul not having any surface to touch the body, and the body not having any sentiment as the soul  The union of the soul and body does consist, as Monsieur Tauvry expresses it, in the conformity of our thoughts to our corporeal actions; but says he, for the explanation of this conformity, we must have recourse to a superior power.  Truly sirs, do what you can, you mist quickly come to that!

     Our nervous parts are very sensible.  Objects do affect our senses, and make impressions on them; the senses receiving such impressions, the modification of the organs produced by them terminate in the brain; if they do not so, the soul is unconcerned in them; but there is a law given to the soul by the glorious God, who forms the spirit of man within him, that in their doing so there shall be such and such thoughts produced in the soul.

Cotton Mather, The Christian Philosopher, 1721, p. 291


The functioning of the brain was one of the last refuges for vitalists.

Science can only deal with life as a physical phenomenon; as a psychic phenomenon it is beyond its scope, except so far as the psychic is manifested through the physical.

Burroughs, p. 161


The notion that the brain could not be responsible for thoughts and emotions was a major premise of Mary Baker Eddy and Christian Science.   If the brain could think, she argued, God was a liar.

Question.Does brain think, and do nerves feel, and is there intelligence in matter?

Answer.—No, not if God is true and mortal man a liar.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 478


Remember, brain is not mind.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 372


The belief that matter thinks, sees, or feels is not more real than the belief that matter enjoys and suffers.  This mortal belief, misnamed man is error, saying: “Matter has intelligence and sensation.  Nerves feel.  Brain thinks and sins.”

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 294


The mortal says that an inanimate conscious seedling is producing mortals, both body and mind; and yet neither a mortal mind nor the immortal Mind is found in the brain or elsewhere in matter or in mortals.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 190


My discovery, that erring, mortal, misnamed mind produces all the organism and action of the mortal body, set my thoughts to work in new channels, and led up to my demonstration of the proposition that Mind is All and matter is naught as the leading factor in Mind-science.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 108-9


It is a grave mistake to suppose that matter is any part of the reality of intelligent existence, or that Spirit and matter, intelligence and non-intelligence, can commune together.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 73


Question.What is man?

Answer.—Man is not matter; he is not made up of brain, blood, bones, and other material elements.

Mary Baker Eddy, 1890, p. 475


Descartes believed in the soul but felt that the mind was natural.  Others disagreed.

The difference between the theories of Descartes and van Helmont is that, while both postulated a soul or mind as supreme in man, in Descartes it was so distinct from the body that later thinkers could discard the soul and retain Descartes’ very complete picture of the body as a self –acting machine.  But such a separation was impossible for van Helmont’s ideas; take away all the blas connected by grades with the sensitive soul and its indwelling immortal mind and no causes for the simplest bodily functions remained.  Hence, bizarre and fantastic as van Helmont’s views are in themselves, they are in the line which led to the later, more refined, ideas of a vital principle or force as a form of energy similar to chemical and electrical energy and the like.

Wheeler, 1939, p. 23


Sylius had opposed van Helmont’s physiology of blas and archaei “and maintained that the events of the living body were ordinary chemical events.”.

Wheeler, 1939, p. 24


Forms may also act from outside.  This is the case with “assisting” forms, the clearest example of which is that of an angel, incarnated in human flesh….Being possessed by an angel or a demon is thus a way of being assisted by a form from without.  The angel or demon is the external motor of bodily action.  This is also what Voetius had in mind “That an angel, or a demon in the body of someone possessed…is neither more nor less a unity than the soul which is in the body.”

Ruler, p. 187, (Voetius from 17th century)


When the involvement of the brain in thought began to be understood, vitalists claimed that the natural aspects of the brain were not sufficient to determine thought without consideration of a non-natural “vital principle”.

When the mechanical and chemical concepts are applied to the phenomena of the nervous system, they work very well till we come to mental phenomena.  When we try to correlate physical energy with thought or consciousness, we are at the end of our tether.  Here is a gulf we cannot span.  The theory of the machine breaks down.  Some other force than material force is demanded here, namely, psychical, --a force or principle quite beyond the sphere of the analytic method.

Burroughs, p. 93


Now the mechanistic theory affirms that any current established within the nervous system proceeds to its natural physico-chemical effects.  The vitalistic theory affirms, on the contrary, that a spiritual force co-operating with the ordinary material forces causes it to issue in different results from those which would have been produced by the material forces alone.

Elliot, 1919, p. 111


Anxious as is Dr. Haldane to disclaim adherence to the tenets of vitalism, he is very definite in denying the possibility that atomistic concepts will ever successfully deal with the problem of what he calls “conscious behavior.”

Hogben, 1930, p. 94


One of the amazing facts, however, which mechanism does not and cannot explain is the fact of consciousness and reason.  If consciousness and reason were not in the original fire mist, how could they come into existence?  I hear you say that in reality consciousness and reason are identical with chemical-physical changes.  I stoutly deny it.

Neal, p. 23


I think you are wrong in assuming that Mind is a quality of Matter…This is why Mind has to be ignored in the mechanistic scheme.

Neal, p. 36


Hardly any have ever recognized the close relation between the problem of mind and body and real Vitalism. 

Driesh, 1914, p. 162


Will Durant in his last book on “The Mansions of Philosophy” writes, “What unwitting dishonesty has come upon us, that today, if we wish to be in vogue, we must deny the existence of consciousness in order to save the mechanistic philosophy that could not possibly explain it?”  The error which you make seems to me even worse.  You ascribe values and mental attributes to atoms to which they do not belong.

Neal, p. 55



Matter is mass.

Mass can only beget mass.

Mind, consciousness and thoughts are not mass. 

Therefore they must be something else.

Therefore they cannot have been begotten by mass.

Therefore they are indefinable in terms of mass.


I can only admit as true the first six sentences of “The Case of the Vitalists.”

Neal, p. 65


Although we are very far from contesting the influence of the physical on the moral, although we are even forced to admit that there exist temperaments and modes of organic constitution better suited to great development of the intellectual faculties, or to the habit of generous actions,still we cannot dissimulate that if each modification of the heart and spirit were regarded as a distinct faculty, dependent on a particular organ, there would no longer exist any morality in the actions of men.  The unfaithful and adulterous woman, the swindler, the thief, even the murderer—finding themselves such by virtue only of the dominance of their organs of physical love, of ruse, of larceny, and sanguinary penchants—would justify themselves by accusing nature itself.

Moreau, 1804, from Williams, p. 110


Ailbert opened the Physiologie des passiones with an immediate reproach to the “materialists”: “To know man, one must seek him in his soul and not in the material organs that make up his bodily envelope.”…Following Bossuet, Alibert averred that human physiology must be joined with “la morale” to form “true philosophy.”

Williams, p. 124


Ailbert’s scorn for these “anatomists” was intense: “What can the anatomist’s scalpel teach us?  What can our doctrine have in common with [one that urges] dissection of an organ whose unique destiny is to intensify the fires of the soul?”

Ailbert, 1827, from Williams, p. 126


Newtonian physicians were profoundly hostile to what they took to be the Cartesian that everything in nature could be understood by the blind action of the tourbillons.  Such a view asserted that a human capacity to understand the inner workings of nature that was, at the least, impious.  Proper respect for the mysterious plan of the divine required that there always be “unanalysable, undemonstrable ‘forces’ or causes” at work in nature.”…Medical works of the 1730s by Bryan Robinson, Stephen Hales, and Browne Langrish asserted that crucial functions such as the motion of the heart were controlled by the soul.

Williams, p. 84


…Stahl posited an all-directing “soul” that governed the activities of the organism in the interests of health and the harmonious exercise of functions.  He banished any conception of the body as strictly material, soul as strictly spiritual, and in consequence any perspective that sought to reduce the activities of the organism to material processes.

Williams, p. 86


While it is easy to refer to the operation of the soul in governing a living body in theory, it proved impossible for vitalists to describe in scientific terms.

We will call this motor Nature in the sense most fully accepted among ancient and modern doctors, all of whom agree that it is a principle of movement.  Some compare it to a fire that they call vital, others call it an animated spring,…others…believe it is a faculty of the soul different from freedom and will, or…that the Supreme Being himself executes these movements without the cooperation of any other motors.

--Sauvages, from Williams, p. 87


Yet Sauvages’s construct of the “soul” is embedded within a terminological thicket.  “Soul,” and its sometime equivalent “nature,” carried their meaning amid and alongside a number of other terms—“forces,” “faculties,” “powers,” “functions,” “actions,”—from which they are not easily disentangled.

Williams, p. 95


     Vitalists once tried to explain all physiology in terms of non-natural forces.  As the body’s systems were better understood, they were left with the brain as the only remaining organ where a “vital principle” might be found.

..the only branch of physiology requiring attention is the physiology of the nervous system, for it is only in this branch that any remnants of vitalism survive.

Elliot, 1919, p. 105



Some believed that the heart functioned through supernatural forces.

According to Voetius, the heart “is moved by the soul or informing form through the mediation of qualities [operating] as principles and other instruments which are necessary for animal motion.”

Ruler, p. 170


Others disagreed.

Indeed, the heart performs its actions merely as a result of the convenient disposition of its parts, in such a way that there is no need to summon the help of the human soul (anima) or any other substantial form.  This is already clear from the pulse of the little heart of an eel, which beats for many hours after it has been removed from the body and which appears to regain its pulse and to somehow revive by adding blood and by heating it slightly after it has already lost all of its motion.

--Regius from Ruler, p. 170


The Bible states that life is located in the blood.  This belief persisted.

…Descartes, apparently in the same way as Harvey, calls the blood the ‘soul’ of otherwise soulless animals—even citing the same biblical passage…: “I would not wish to say that motion is the soul of animals…I would prefer to say with Holy Scripture…that blood is in their soul, for blood is a fluid body in very rapid motion, and its more rarefied parts are called spirits.  It is these which move the whole mechanism of the body as they flow continuously from the arteries through the brain into the nerves and muscles.”

Fuchs, p. 140


Diastole…occcurs through the blood, which is swelling in virtue of its inner spiritus….

Harvey, from Fuchs, p. 71


Even the first drop of blood shows reactions; it “lives, moves itself and senses like an animal”…”through the spirit pulses the life blood”

Harvey, from Fuchs, p. 74



Descartes felt that the development of gametes into a new individual could occur through natural means.

Particles of semen “acquire as much agitation as fire has, and expand, and press on other particles, thereby putting them little by little into the state required for the formation of the parts of the body.”

Descartes, from Ruler, p. 253


Others felt that the “vital force” in matter was responsible for reproduction.

Further considerations concerning spontaneous generation of infusoria and worms from decomposed elements…lead Tiedemann—not very logically—to postulate the existence of a “vital matter”…

Driesh, 1914, p. 108


The reproductive system and development were often identified as examples of the supernatural “vital principle” in action.


It is extremely difficult to imagine any theory which will account for the phenomena of regeneration on purely chemico-physical lines, since they, like the phenomena which we studied in connection with the developing ovum, so clearly point to the existence of a directive force in living matter which has no parallel in non-living substances.

Windle, 1908, p. 109


We know that embryological becoming is “vitalistic,” that it is impossible to comprehend it by the laws of physics and chemistry. 

Driesh, 1914, p. 226


In Animal Chemistry Liebig expressly states that in animal ova, plant seeds, and plant organs “we recognize..the vital force, vis vitae, or vitality” and in animals “in the nervous system apparatus a source of power.”

Wheeler, 1939, p. 61


 The facts of development and the observations which are due to the labours of the experimental embryologists present us with a picture wholly different from that afforded by a contemplation of the processes of inanimate bodies and it is the contemplation of this wide and unbridgeable difference which seems to be leading those or many of those whose work is chiefly of an embryological character to the conclusion that some kind of force other than that recognized by chemists and physicists must have its existence in the living cell, a force which is able to direct it to the appointed term of development…

Windle, 1908, p. 69-70


In other words the indications point to the fact that the remarkable happenings which have been described as taking place in the cell prior to and during division are vital manifestations, since they cannot be explained by any of the known forces of physical science.

Windle, 1908, p. 60


While Mendel’s work suggested that there was a natural mechanism which determined inheritance, many vitalists insisted that inheritance was governed by the supernatural.  Not only did vitalists de-emphasize the importance of Mendelian genetics, but also of the function of DNA once its function was revealed.

Children resembled their parents not because of the “mechanical arrangements” investigated by anatomists but because of “the character of the active force which presides over the vital functions of the child.”  A mother’s thoughts and feelings shaped the child in the womb without the intervention of any physical mechanism.

Williams, p. 245


It appears, in short, that by this argument so-called inheritance is shown not to depend on mechanical factors exclusively, material conditions, as studied by Mendelism and in the experiments of Boveri and Herbst, are only means of inheritance but are not its proper essential factor.

Driesh, 1914, p. 212


Staggering creative powers are now ascribed, without qualm, to the mutability of the DNA molecule.  These powers are, to a large extent, inferred powers…A giant inferential leap is taken, to the assertion that the inexhaustible richness of life is the product of the innate mutability of this supermolecule, aided by selection.  Never was so much owed to so little.  In thus elevating one molecule above all others, Biochemistry has, as it were, reached the monotheistic stage of its development.  This molecule is endowed, like God, with potential creative powers…At this point it ought to have become clear that DNA has become invested with transcendental powers.

…Personally, I find it inconceivable that a molecule, through its innate mutability, aided by selection, could have invented such a being as man, in his versatile innate potentialities.  Far more conceivable is it that man should have “invented” such a molecule—i.e., endowed it with creative powers that are, in part at least, imaginary…

Spilsbury, p. 120-1


The basic principles of inheritance were discovered before cell differentiation and DNA regulation were understood.  Vitalists felt that these processes would never be understood scientifically.

It was held by some that the nucleus of each cell was of a specific character and could produce a cell of one type and of one type only.  Even if this were the case it would not have helped us very far along the road towards an explanation of the powers of the cell, for we should still be ignorant of how the nucleus succeeded in so modifying the cell as to make it lead to the development of a liver or some other part of the body. 

Windle, 1908, p. 67


The living body is often compared to a machine and is said by some to be nothing but a machine and explicable, did we know all the facts, on the same laws and principles as those whereby a machine is explained.  Those who hold such views have…to encounter enormous, even insuperable, difficulties, when they arrive at this subject of development…For here the original cell—or machine as some would have it—does far more than reproduce itself, it makes scores and hundreds of new and quite different machines…Perhaps it will be said that the comparisons just made are crude and coarse and cannot fairly be taken as representing the delicate processes of nature.  This may be freely admitted, but such comparisons bring about the difficulties which there are in accepting the mechanical theory of nature…

Windle, 1908, p. 61-3


The following vitalist arguments could arguably be called persuasive before the function of DNA was well understood.  Vitalism did not address unanswerable questions, simply questions which had not been answered yet.

You assume vitality to start with—how did you get it?  Did it arise spontaneously out of dead matter?  Mechanical and chemical forces do all the work of the living body, but who or what controls and directs them? So that one compounding of the elements begets a cabbage and another compounding of the same elements begets an oak—one mixture of them and we have a frog, another and we have a man?  Is there not room here for something besides blind, indifferent forces?

Burroughs, p. 16-17


The chemico-physical explanation of the universe goes but a little way.  These are the tools of the creative processes, but they are not that process, nor its prime cause.  Start the flame of life going, and the rest may be explained in terms of chemistry; start the human body developing, and physiological processes explain its growth; but why it becomes a man and not a monkey—what explains that?

Burroughs, p. 23



Some vitalists entered medicine and brought vitalism with them.

The principal subject of our research in the science of man must be knowledge of the determinations or laws of the vital principle by which it is animated.  I regard this principle of life as the most general experimental cause, [the one working] at the most elevated order, presented to us by the phenomena of health and illness.

Barthez, from Williams, p. 263


Massiac’s reflections were judged those of “a wise and educated man” and taken to demonstrate that the phenomena of human illness were often inexplicable in mechanical and chemical terms:  “Mechanical laws and chemical bodies susceptible to analysis and calculation certainly exist..but they are dominated by another power that directs, modifies, and develops them.  This unknown power, which cannot be conceptualized, is that of the nervous system.”

Williams, p. 301


 Because of their belief in the supernatural causation of natural events, vitalistic physicians opposed the germ theory of disease and were reluctant to practice inoculation.

Chicoyneau has been the object of historians’ ridicule for embracing an anti-contagionist doctrine of plague.

Williams, p. 71


…[Cusson] traced the history of inoculation in Montpelleir, observing that his city had been among the slowest to accept this practice…

Williams, p. 303


Observers schooled in vitalist discourse…had played no small part in undermining confidence in inoculation.

Williams, p. 304


Although there was no unified vitalist response to Mesmer, vitalist physicians were on the whole more sympathetic to Mesmer than physicians with other theoretical leanings…

Williams, p. 306


Instead of fighting infection, other methods were sought for the curing of disease.


In opening his study Massiac proclaimed the basic verities associated with vitalistic medicine: “the intimate liaison” that extends between the physical and moral faculties; the powerful influence exerted on all individuals by temperament, age, sex, and season…

Another case involved a man who suffered from a severe nosebleed.  When an old woman “with a mysterious air” gave him a scrap of blue paper to put under his tongue and assured him he would be cured, his faith in her caused his nosebleed to cease…Another case involved a woman who suffered an attack of epilepsy after being knocked down by a bull.  Remedies were tried to no avail and finally, on a surgeons advice, the woman’s husband tied around her neck a vessel of water containing three toads; her horror at the proximity of these creatures cured her epilepsy and she suffered no further attacks.

Williams, p. 300-1


Rather than germs, these vitalist physicians attempted to treat the “spiritual and moral causes of disease.”

One of Sauvage’s student theses…indicated his interest in a very different kind of disease, one that postulated an intimate body-mind connection and that sought the passional origins of disease.

Williams, p. 81


This was Fouquet’s first entry into a field—the promotion of dramatic physical therapies to treat “moral” disorders—that became one of his specialities.

Williams, p. 226


Menuret’s entry asserted strong claims about the competence of physicians in matters of sex, marriage, and family and, more generally, about the entanglement of physical and moral causes in health and disease.  Menuret attributed satyriasis [the “malady which puts men…in the state of salaciousness that, according to mythology, characterized satyrs] to “a disorder of the semen and genital parts” that was itself traceable to seminal plethora or “excessive tension or sensibility”.  These in turn were caused by bad habits and activities including “debauchery…masturbation, lascivious reading, obscene pictures, [and] libertine conversations,” any or all of which could result in a “habitual state of erection.”  Proposing remedies for “satyriasis,” morevover, Menuet counseled that this condition could be cured only by marriage, “the sole means authorized by religion, law,a nd morality for the legitmate excretion of semen.”  Such medical moralizing was not easily distinguishable from the inventories of sexual sins and remedial steps found to be found in catechisms.

Williams, p. 227-8


The victim of satyriasis who followed Menuret’s cross reference to the entry “Marriage” encountered another set of rules for sexual comportment…The most important rule was not to have sex too often…only because of “genuine need” and never as a result of the artificially stimulated desire of “the libertine”.  Here too basic physiology received some attention: the prohibition on sex for young men resulted from the conviction that semen accumulated in the testicles of a maturing male, was then discharged into the blood stream and moved about the body supplying the virile force that caused the growth of body hair, the deepening of the voice, and the strengthening of the frame and musculature.  If an immature man engaged in sexual intercourse he would fail to develop fully these crucial attributes of manhood.

Williams, p. 228


In describing “moral diseases”, some vitalists focused on those maladies which women suffered.

Unmarried girls, in whom desire is more precocious and more pressing [than in young men], are much more troubled by the overlong retention of semen…They not only desire the evacuation of their own semen by the womb avidly desires the semen of the man.  When these…desires are not fulfilled, girls fall into a choleric delirium…They become feeble, languishing, melancholic.  Sometimes the effects of the semen on the organs of the body and on the mind are so strong…that they overwhelm the reason.  Reaching this degree of violence the venereal appetite…produces the raging delirium known as uterine fury.  Carried beyond themselves, these young women lose sight entirely of the laws of modesty and self-comportment, and seek by all means to assuage the violence of their passion.  They do not hesitate to attack men or to attract them by the most indecent postures and lascivious seductions.  All practitioners agree that the different symptoms of the vapors or hysterical affectations that attack unmarried women and widows are a consequence of the privation of sexual intercourse.

Menuret from Williams, p. 229


Most important, pregnancy itself was a disease…As Sauvages himself stated, this representation of pregnancy-as-disease rested on religious authority: pregnancy was “a true malady which, according to Genesis, was inflicted on women as punishment.”

Williams, p. 233


Sauvages claimed that as many as half of all chronic ailments resulted from “moral” causes.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the case of women, who suffered from diseases like chlorosis not only because of the peculiar mechanics of the female humoral system but also because of the peculiar constitution of women, whose moral corruption earned the divine reprobation of pregnancy and whose emotional volatility was attested by innumerable medical observations.

Williams, p. 235


These vitalist physicians, in studying the mystical vital principle of individuals, arrived at explanations for the differences between races.  This “science” helped to reinforce the racism of the day.

From the outset, the universalist claim that all human beings were alike in essentials and encompassed within the same trajectory of progress was beset by doubts, uncertainties, and perplexities.  These were powerfully encouraged by vitalist medical discourse, which declared efforts to transcend “natural” limits on human improvement futile, even dangerous.  Vitalists argued that the pursuit of perfect well being was chimerical not only for individuals, who invariable suffered from some primordial vital deficiency, but, more importantly, for diverse human “types”—tempermental, regional, sexual, racial—whose vital force was limited, variably channeled, and susceptible only to slight alteration, if any.  Accordingly, Montpellier physicians stand precisely at the origin of those “exclusions” from Enlightenment optimism—women, exotic peoples, manual workers…

Williams, p. 5


Montpellier vitalism, with its insistence on the fatal weakness of individuals as expressed in the “weak organ” and on the seemingly irrevocable results of noxious habits practiced by black Africans, the Chinese, and other degenerate or stagnant peoples had supplied requisite medical authority.

Williams, p. 327


The vitalist physicians also reinforced stereotypes of women based on their “scientific” study of the vital principle in women.

One of the most remarkable features of the history of Montpellier vitalism in the Enlightenment, then, is the fashion in which the creators of this medical discourse of “natural” limitations—those established by temperament, class, age, sex, region, and race…A crucial dimension of this story is…the peculiar “sensibility” of women, who…were volatile, imaginative, and similarly ill-constructed for the work of reason and science.

Williams, p. 8


  The study of sensibility was as important in Roussel’s treatise as it was in other vitalist analyses: sensibility, he argued, “provides the basis” for all knowledge of the interrelations of the physical and the moral.  Like children, women exhibited high sensibility; their “existence consists more in sensations than in ideas or in corporal movements.”  Dominated by rapidly changing sensations, women were capricious and inconstant; they lacked interest in politics, ethics, or science; their lives were characterized by those “sweet and affectionate sentiments” so necessary to the happiness and well-being of society.  Education and training could not alter the basic character of women…

Williams, p. 55


The following author argued against a woman’s right to vote because it would oppose the position designed for women by God and because women were inferior to men in their vital force.

The Family is the proper nursery of the race in morality and religion.  For this it was designed by the Creator…The Family was instituted as a school for heaven, whose perfect symbol is the Family gathered in their father’s house.  The study of Woman’s primeval relation to Man and the Family would aid in the solution of some questions concerning her sphere in modern society…

But though woman is thus inferior to Man in native vital force, a kindly Nature has imparted to her a more subtile vivacity and grace…and it is this prerogative of Womanhood that she would sacrifice by attempting the unequal strife and burden of the “working-day world”.  Only at the cost of this same prerogative—the prerogative of ruling in society through the homage of valor to grace, of strength to refinement, of muscle to heart—only by sacrificing this cold Woman enter into the arena of political strife…Since suffrage carries not simply the act of voting but the function of ruling as well—not only declaring one’s preference in political affairs, but actually governing the whole community—this can not be the natural right of any individual, but is a privilege to be accorded by society—by the Body Politic finding itself in power…

But while Woman shall continue to fulfill for society that most serviceable, most honorable, and most sacred office of Maternity, which is hers by divine right, her very nature must forbid her employment in the public service of the state.

--Thompson, 1870, p. 141-2


As will be discussed elsewhere, religious conservatives of the eighteenth through twentieth centuries blamed “onania” (a term for masturbation derived from the figure Onan in the Bible) for just about everything from disease to old age.  The author of the book Onania which started this craze referred to vital principles.

And another very late author (a physician also) having spoke of the imbecilities and weaknesses incident to the fair sex [women] and their cure , says, “There is one calumny amongst many others, ignorance and partiality have very unjustly thrown on them, viz., that the barrenness, unfruitfulness, and want of posterity, so frequent in England (especially among the better sort) is commonly cast on them; whereas it is very great odds, if the fault lies not on the other side.  If the account of generation is now established, and confirmed by undeniable experiences and observations, be true and just…that the female furnishes out only a proper habitation, fit nourishment, due warmth, and such like outward conveniences for the little beings; but that the vital principles, the living particles proceed altogether from the male, then it will follow, that the concurrence of a great many more circumstances, and their precise degrees is necessary for fecundity in the male, than the female.

Onania (anonymous, early 18th century), p. 169




     What ever happened to the vitalists?  In the strictest sense, they are no more.  However, the “vital energy” that they proposed to be required for all aspects of nature to function normally was simply another name for what they thought was the direct action of God in nature.   There are many today which still argue that natural processes will never be able to fully explain phenomena, especially in living things, without reference to this direct influence of the divine.  The vitalists who held this philosophy disappeared in the early 1900s, just as the new fundamentalist movement was giving rise to creationists.  Vitalists applied this idea of a “vital principle” to evolution—they argued that no natural processes would be sufficient to explain the evolution of species.  They shared the feelings of modern creationists in that they felt that only when divine, supernatural action is considered could the development of life be understood.

But now Darwinism had apparently “explained” Descent in general, why should it not “explain the pedigree of individual species”?  And so the old comparative anatomy, which claimed to be nothing but a classificatory preparation for the knowledge of type, of the rational in the forms of nature, became the phantasy christened Phylogeny.

Driesh, 1914, p. 140


The most acute phase of the conflict now raging between spiritualism and materialism is that comprised within the sphere of physiology.  During the last century the main action was carried on within the confines of zoology and botany.  Materialism there became identified with the theory of evolution, and especially of the common origin of Man with the lower animals.  The philosophical controversy was for the time narrowed down to a single important question of fact—a question to which an assured answer could be given within the range of a single science.  Many of the disputants of the evolution controversy, indeed, did not perceive, though they certainly must have felt, the larger philosophical implications of their discussions.  They did not overtly recognize what few now would call into question, namely, that the evolutionists were the historical representatives of the materialistic mode of thought; that evolution v. fixity of species was the passing phase of a controversy which has always existed and which indicates the greatest of all cleavages between the opinions of intellectual men.  That the true nature of the dichotomy was more clearly perceived by the spiritualists may be gathered from the unanimity with which they attacked the new theory, and labeled it with the titles of materialism and atheism.

Elliot, 1919, p. 104


Vitalism had opposed natural explanations of chemical and physical phenomena, the entire science of physiology (especially neurophysiology and cardiophysiology), and the germ theory of disease.  As these sciences advanced, vitalism fell into disrepute.   In the early 1900s, the vitalist opposition to natural processes involved in development, differentiation, and life itself were doomed by the rapidly developing understanding of inheritance and of the function of DNA.  By the early 1900s, vitalism itself was dying in all of its attempts to replace natural processes for supernatural ones, with one exception.  The tenets of vitalism still inspired opposition to evolution.

…we may say here once and for all that all who during the ascendancy of materialism preserved the vitalistic tradition, were at the same time opponents of orthodox, i.e. materialistic Darwinism.  Indeed, it was in its opposition to the theory founded on chance that the tradition maintained its strength.

Driesh, 1914, p. 151


Once more the endeavour is made to prove on one ground or another that the vitalistic view of life, and only this view, is necessarily true.  In the eighteenth century this resulted from the struggle with materialism; it now makes its appearance after the struggle with Darwinism.  It is thus due to its enemies that Vitalism once more raises its head….The cause of the real establishment of Neovitalism was, as we have mentioned, the reappearance of experimental morphology, the “mechanics of development”…

Driesh, 1914, p. 170-1; [“development” was a term used to describe what is now referred to as “evolution”]


The vitalist opposition to evolution was perhaps understandable since an evolutionary understanding of the world was one of the factors in the decline of vitalism.

After discussing the vitalism of Kerner, the materialism of Haekel, and allied matters, Wallace wrote, “Neither ‘life’ nor ‘vital force’ nor the unconscious ‘cell soul’ are adequate explanations.”

Wheeler, 1939, p. 111


However, belief in the special creation of existing species, as held up to 1859, was certainly destroyed by belief in organic evolution, and the vital force doctrine of Liebig, J. Muller, and other great chemists of their day were rejected by many scientists.  The period of Wohler, C. Bernard, Joule, Lyell, and Darwin undoubtedly marked a crisis in the history of vitalistic thought.  As Driesch says, vitalism ceased to be dogmatic; it now had to fight for its validity instead of being a postulate for scientists and the general educated public.

Wheeler, 1939, p. 122


Although Darwin tried to remain aloof from the traditional vitalistic interpretation and its growing struggle with mechanism, the effect of his theory, by its very nature, definitely favored mechanism and helped quickly and effectively to drive the supernatural out of the bulk of the biological literature. 

--Mixter, p. 12


Louis Pasteur rendered a great service to biology and medicine in his experiments showing that spontaneous generation is a concept without foundation in fact—a serious setback for mechanism as well as for those hyper-viatlists who believed God creates maggots in rotting meat and tadpoles in water.

-- Key, Thomas from Mixter, p. 14


     As some of the 20th century vitalists admitted, vitalism’s reputation had reached such depths by the 1900s that its adherents sought other terminology for the “vital force” and sought other names for themselves such as “neo-vitalists”.  Neo-vitalism declined just as creationism became more prominent.  The beliefs of these two movements were largely similar: the rejection of mechanistic, naturalistic explanations for natural phenomena, the belief in an all-pervading divine force which maintains nature, the belief that the functioning of the brain would be better ascribed to the soul, the skepticism in the molecular explanations of fetal development and differentiation as being sufficient without references to the supernatural, and their opposition to evolution.  In fact, because they are so similar, I think many of the statements made above to combat vitalism in the past century would be just as effective in combating creationism in this one.  For example, in the following quotes, I have merely substituted the word “vitalism” for “creationism” and “mechanical” or “machine” to “evolutionary”.

…the new theory which made no distinction between the animate and inanimate phenomena became known as the evolutionary  theory of life.  Right or wrong, this theory was of incalculable benefit to the progress of the biological sciences.  The conviction that all parts of life are accessible to an analysis by the methods employed in natural science, stimulated then and stimulates now thousands of patient investigators in their indefatigable attempts to unravel an infinitely small fraction of the mysteries of life.  Creationism  had a paralyzing effect.

Meltzer, p. 18


…the belief in creationism  is least where the knowledge of the facts are greatest.

Elliot, 1919, p. 118


All proofs of Creationism, i.e. all reasonings by which it is shown that not even the evolutionary-theory covers the field of biological phenomena, can only be indirect proofs: they can only make it clear that mechanical or singular causality is not sufficient for an explanation of what happens.

Driesh, 1914, p. 208


Very nearly all the arguments adduced against evolution at the present day are based on the statement that “it is impossible to understand” how such and such an event could be produced by evolutionary means.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


The creationists have been apt to proceed upon the assumption that the burden of proof lies upon mechanism, and that until mechanism shall be definitely established by experimental methods, creationism holds the field.

Elliot, 1919, p. 115


In my opinion, the core tenets of vitalism were present long before its adherents specifically called themselves “vitalists” and are still very evident today, despite the fact that its adherents prefer the term “creationists”.  I also see similarities in the renaming of vitalism as “neo-vitalism” in attempt to rescue legitimacy from the disrepute of past errors and the recent interest in the tenets of “intelligent design” which are by no means new, as illustrated in the following quote from a vitalist physician.

Teleology, of the doctrine of ends and purposes that God set himself in his works, is wrongfully neglected by the Moderns.  If the human body was the work of chance, as asserted by Lucretius and Descartes in his fable called “man,” it would be ridiculous to seek ends in his works, but one would have to be as blind as that impious Stoic not to recognize that everything has been destined by an infinitely wise being to fulfill useful ends…

Sauvages, from Williams, p. 88




     Throughout history, conservative believers who have claimed that God was directly responsible for any phenomenon of the natural world which was not explicable in their day have felt threatened by new discoveries.  They have often tried to de-emphasize the significance of the new discovery and its ability to explain the natural processes which had previously been a mystery.  Creationists reacted similarly as the study of genetics unveiled cellular processes which they had previously attributed to miraculous divine intervention.

With so many expositors of science making a sort of “god” out of DNA, it is time to show that, with all of its complexity, DNA still is but the “servant” of the cell or organism as a whole, not the “master” (Lammerts, 1967c)

Rather than being the master chemical, DNA is the servant of the cell (Gish, 1967).

What of DNA?  Is it the “master chemical”, the “secret of life”?...It seems inescapable to me that DNA, rather than being the master of the cell, is the servant of the cell (Gish, 1967).

Williams stated in his review of Juke’s book, mentioned above, that in this book we have witnessed “the deification of a molecule” (Gish, 1967).


There have even been cases of creationists in the 1990s who have openly advocated vitalism even though the movement is usually associated with the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.  According to the editor’s note following the first quote, there are a number of vitalistic creationists.

Mechanism in the philosophical sense means that all operations of living organisms are explained by the interrelationship of physicochemical forces.  The opposite view, vitalism, means that programmed operations of living organisms are performed by some life principle distinct from physicochemical forces….Vander and others make some interesting comments on these doctrines…They claim that the mechanistic view predominates in this century, because the evidence has agreed with this view, and that vitalism still exists in various forms.  They are willing to concede creationism has some rights to exist as a possible option. (Kaufman, 1995). [Editor’s note:  There is considerable difference of opinion among creationists on the historic vitalism-mechanism debate.  Some…would agree with David Kaufmann that historic vitalism should be resurrected as an appropriate stance for creationists. (Kaufman, 1995).]

     McCann offers evidence which strongly supports the view that in development form the fertilized egg cell the embryonic cells appear possessed of “skill” to “govern” and “exercise control” and that this is suggestive of “a cellular level of intelligence.”  McCann uses modest, careful language.  I think that we can be bolder. ..the quantitative estimates given above for the insufficiency of the genome accord with the view that the intelligence required for development has to come from an external, immaterial source…
The information for the designs and construction of biological structures and in particular for those characters which define and maintain the originally created “kinds” (baramin) is imposed on the natural world by special divine providential power….
Since the basic design information for biodesigns cannot be carried in the genome, mutations of the genome and natural selection are incapable of producing the evolutionary novelties which would be absolutely necessary to make macroevolution a reality…The first part of the above proposal is not a scientific hypothesis, for it incorporates the empirically untestable principal of supernatural influence on nature.  It is actually a metaphysical concept which is an element in a Chrisitan conceptual framework for research in genetics…Biology still needs God the Creator who is also the sovereign Lord and Sustainer of all His creatures..  Vitalism of a supernatural kind as taught in the Bible is not an inviable concept in biology.  It has its proper place in the conceptual framework of Christian research scientists.  Let there be more research by Christians who have this fundamental spiritual and philosophical commitment (Kofahl, 1992).