By request, a profound ideas thread

Rationalists and professional scientific thinkers have long since dismissed the principle of vitalism, which proposes that a force animates living things that cannot be explained by current physical law. Many historians trace the concept of vitalism to Aristotle, but I would suggest that the instinct to give a vital force and conscious motives to entities like harvest crops, prominent geographical features and the weather is as old as religion, which is to say as hold as the human race (if not older).

Aristotle proposed that a non-reducible ‘spirit’ separates the inanimate from animate life. More recently, through two world wars the developmental biologist Hans Driesch found that you could isolate a single cell from the first few divisions of a fertilized sea urchin egg and the cell would still make a functional embryo, though a smaller one. Driesch decided that he had evidence that life develops certain profound rules that are distinct from its immediate physical environment. The embryos followed a vitalistic impulse if you will.

Having continued Driesch’s line of inquiry for the better part of a century, we now know that his embryonic urchin follows the guidance of pathways with various exotic and not-so-exotic titles: hedgehog, notch, wnt and MAP kinase collaborate, compete and feed back on one another to tell each cell whether, how and where to divide.

It took a long time but at last we delineated the embryo’s pathways. We scaled the peak, we named it, we planted a flag and some of the more significant people won a Nobel for it. That means we have conquered the superstitious vitalistic impulse and replaced it with something rational. Right?

Don’t count on it. More than that, it might not be a bad thing. Let me put it this way: the other day I got my reviews back for a paper that I submitted to one of the top three or four journals in the world. My lab and five or six others have already reported results consistent with this paper, but the two reviewers refused to believe that any such thing is possible. It violates what we already know are universal rules about how (this bit of) life works!

In the world where rationalistic explanations have won for good, they would be right. Impossible ideas that contradict known rules must be crazy and wrong. However. Ask a leading expert in any field and you will hear the same thing: we only barely understand how much we do not know. Every aspect of life is still ruled by invisible, inchoate forces. The ones we understand have underlying causes that we do not even know we do not understand yet. In fact, to put a finer point on it, just about every leading expert made his or her name by proving that the fixed rules that previously governed the rational world were either wrong or incomplete.

In a sense, then, I think that vitalism is not dead or even quiet. It sits on the shoulder of people like me who try to make sense of the world. Once in a while, often in the form of results that don’t make any sense but stubbornly refuse to change when we repeat them, it gives a gentle prod that we don’t understand everything and to some degree we never will. The noumenous might not be tangible but it is real.

***Update***

Let me put it a different way: It is hardly controversial to say that inchoate or semi-choate forces animate life, the universe and everything. It just means that, as GLaDOS put it, there’s still science to do. The noumenous forces that Driesch proposed have names now, yes, but each of those has its own poorly (or mis-) understood animating force. Judging by history (and the pages of any given high-impact journal) even a good bit of the territory we already mapped is either incomplete or wrong. In that sense we need vitalism precisely because it is illogical; it is an intellectual memento mori that gently prods us to keep a grain of humility in the midst of triumph*.

Hard religion, hard anti-religion and inflexible rationalism therefore all make the same mistake. It makes no more sense to say out of the blue that you know every answer to the ineffable than to say that you know that the answers are wrong (which is just another way of saying that you know the answers). You need to give each possible model a fair weight and build a watertight argument that convincingly rules out every other explanation, all while understanding that despite your best efforts you could still be wrong. That, in a nutshell, is science.

(*) I do not say that lightly; my last three papers came out in either a Nature journal or PNAS. It really is not that big a deal if I have to shop around the current one a bit more. And who knows, it might be wrong.

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119 replies
  1. 1
    Villago Delenda Est says:

    Midiclorians. Not just for Jedi anymore.

  2. 2
    El Tiburon says:

    Ditto.

  3. 3
  4. 4
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    So wait a minute–are you saying that (the work documented in) your paper demonstrates that what “we already know are universal rules about how (this bit of) life works” are incomplete, or wrong? If the former, it only means we need to find a more complete theoretical framework (e.g., relativity vs Newtonian mechanics) & that’s quite normal in science. You seem to imply the latter, though–in which case it would make perfect sense for the reviewers to push back hard, because your results (taken at face value) would demand that a lot of (presumably well-established and useful) theory be tossed out. Much more plausible to them to believe something must have screwed up somewhere (a la CERN & its superluminal neutrinos). Extraordinary claims & all that…

  5. 5
    Linnaeus says:

    In a sense, then, I think that vitalism is not dead or even quiet. It sits on the shoulder of people like me who try to make sense of the world. Once in a while, often in the form of results that don’t make any sense but stubbornly refuse to change when we repeat them, it gives a gentle prod that we don’t understand everything and to some degree we never will.

    It is easy (which is not to say the fine folks here at B-J do this) to look back on ideas like vitalism in a very whiggish fashion and think of their importance only in terms of how wrong they were (which is worth understanding, but that’s another topic). Another way to think about the significance of these concepts is how they inspired, guided (and yes, sometimes constrained) further inquiry.

  6. 6
    piratedan says:

    last time I was this engaged in the mysteries of the universe, I may have been watching the pot smoking scene from Animal House, but now I can’t even be sure of that…..

  7. 7
    TheMightyTrowel says:

    @Walker: Oh god. story of my life. reviewer 2 is always crazy and insulting. Last paper I submitted came back with 7 peer reviews because reviewer 2 was insane.

  8. 8
    Richard Shindledecker says:

    Thanks Tim, in a word (or a few) a fish will never discover water, only its absence too late. But it’s still nice to be here if only briefly.

  9. 9
    CaseyL says:

    I’m not sure if this is exactly the same thing, but…

    Despite the fact that I am a rationalist, a materialist (in the philosophical sense), and generally pretty impatient with superstition, be it of the established mainstream religious variety or the woo-woo New Age variety…

    …despite all that, I say, I have never been able to shake the feeling that just about everything, inanimate or otherwise, has some kind of “awareness,” or “selfhood.”

    When I say (for instance) that machines designed to accomplish certain tasks have a sort of Platonic need to fulfill those tasks, I am not really joking. In a strange little corner of my mind, or soul, or something, such a thing makes perfect sense.

    I have on occasion tried to intellectualize myself out of that belief, but can’t quite do it.

  10. 10
    bootsy says:

    Interesting post, but I fail to see how the rational procedures and experiments you are performing in a scientific lab could in and of themselves ever disprove “rationalistic explanations.” As it appears you are saying. Pardon me if I’m reading you wrong.

    In other words, the vitalism you speak of is a pre-scientific, unproven conjecture that has no evidence to back it up. (Something Aristotle frequently did.) Anything that you work on in a scientific, evidentiary manner could disprove some existing “facts”; but it could never disprove the scientific method. In fact, your use of new science to expand existing science just strengthens the scientific method and rationalism.

  11. 11
    joeyess says:

    Having continued Driesch’s line of inquiry for the better part of a century, we now know that hisbembryonic urchin the musicians follow the guidance of pathways with various exotic and not-so-exotic titles: hedgehog drummer, notch guitar player, wnt bass player and MAP kinase singer collaborate, compete and feed back on one another to tell each cell player whether, how and where divide the and-of-one is.

    Putting it that way, this atheist can see where you’re coming from.

  12. 12
    Yutsano says:

    @CaseyL: Chocolate.

    Think about it.

    And William had this nailed before we even existed as a country.

  13. 13
    El Cid says:

    Timecube?

  14. 14
    Tim F. says:

    @bootsy: no. I am trying to replace outdated and incomplete theories with my own, also incomplete theories. Progress!

  15. 15
    S. cerevisiae says:

    My vital humors are completely in balance and if you don’t believe that I will vaporize your ether with my Crookes-tube apparatus.

  16. 16

    Our comprehension of the world is like a kaleidoscope. We keep seeing different patterns; but if we saw all the pieces spread on the ground; we would nit comprehend it at all.

  17. 17
    Bdawg says:

    Pier reviews journals are great and he editors can be good people. But the reviewers can be real pricks just for fun or spite.

    Top 3-4 journals huh. PNAS by chance?

  18. 18
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:

    Dear Smart Dude,

    Duh.

    sincerely,

    every not-renewed gym membership in the world.

  19. 19
    some guy says:

    if Geist was good enough for Hegel then it should be good enough for the rest of us. sublation, bitchezs

  20. 20
    bootsy says:

    @Tim F.: Ok. Well it sounds intriguing. Obviously, with the new monkey trial bill in Tennessee (and well let’s face it, everything else) rational people like me get a bit freaked out by anyone seeming to make a case for irrationality.

    The numinous is a term that literally means the “presence” of a god, but I do enjoy Carl Sagan, Dawkins’ and others use of it to describe the feeling of interconnectedness and purpose that humans get from scientific endeavors. So all to the good if your work gives you that feeling.

  21. 21
    Mark S. says:

    Here’s a question I’ve always wondered: why aren’t viruses considered living things?

  22. 22
    WyldPirate says:

    Pushing the envelope in any area of inquiry of how our world works almost always raises as many questions as it answers. Because we don’t understand the new questions, or disagree as to the interpretation of the data explaining the questions we asked, doesn’t necessarily mean that we should ascribe the answer to any sort of “vital force” or divinity.

    There is no need to muddy the waters with a “God of the gap” explanation. More often the unknown or unaccepted answers are due to the fact that we simply haven’t tested our hypothesis adequately or lack the ability to obtain the data we need to evaluate the problem.

  23. 23
    kdaug says:

    @CaseyL: Quantum mind.

    Lots more where that came from – basic idea is that we can observe at the quantum level particles reacting to each other at (relatively) far distance.

    How does one particle “know” what the other is doing?

    Does this mean that matter itself has consciousness?

  24. 24
    JGabriel says:

    @Mark S.:

    why aren’t viruses considered living things?

    They can’t reproduce on their own. Most of them (actually, all of them, I think) take over or incorporate the cellular reproduction mechanism of their host to reproduce copies of themselves.

    .

  25. 25
    third of two says:

    I don’t believe that people are fundamentally logical actors; we are emotional beings who occasionally behave rationally insofar as it suits us. We want to live, and we want our lives to have meaning, and we behave thus in accordance with relevant belief (moral/ethical) structures.

    Not that I’m that into relativism: I’m a liberal, and I think liberal values (egalitarianism, justice as fairness, etc) should be viewed as, for lack of a better term, an absolutely correct worldview. Which is to say I’m against bigotry.

    Yet at the same time I realize people are not equal in their capacities. A conundrum.

  26. 26
    WyldPirate says:

    @Mark S.:

    Here’s a question I’ve always wondered: why aren’t viruses considered living things?

    They can’t independently propagate themselves without hijacking the cellular machinary of organisms (or cells) that can reproduce.

  27. 27
    David Koch says:

    “Vitalism?”

    “In what respect, Charlie?”

  28. 28
    Linnaeus says:

    @Mark S.:

    Here’s a question I’ve always wondered: why aren’t viruses considered living things?

    Besides the fact that, as JGabriel pointed out, they can’t reproduce themselves without the aid of another organism’s cellular machinery, they don’t have a cellular structure, nor do they have any metabolism. That said, they do have genes and they do evolve, so they occupy an ambiguous space.

  29. 29
    kdaug says:

    @WyldPirate:

    More often the unknown or unaccepted answers are due to the fact that we simply haven’t tested our hypothesis adequately or lack the ability to obtain the data we need to evaluate the problem.

    E.g. Dark matter and dark energy.

    How can our universe be expanding at an accelerating rate?

    All our physics say it should be slowing down, and yet…

  30. 30
  31. 31
    Ash Can says:

    To the BBC

    Dear Sirs:

    I wish to complain in the strongest possible terms about this post. Many of us in the scientific community are not, in the least if I may say, theoretical. In fact, we are quite butch.

    Respectfully,

    Edgar G. Wardblurt III
    (Deceased)

  32. 32
    contract3d says:

    “Vitalism” as a necessary hypothesis is just a bridge too far for me. (“God” as a ditto ditto is pretty much the same too-muchofa stretch…)

    But self-organization as an emergent property of a hella-lotta very different systems, spawning the exactly the sort of complexity and diversity required for Darwinian feedback loops?

    Including some really simple systems (see Conway “Life” game of.)

    Universe 1.0 (aka “Reality”) just seems to have some shit down there in its lowlevel system code that seems pretty damn vital to me.

    That, and the true weirdness, and weird true-ness, of math in general are what trouble my otherwise-fullfilling agnosticism.

  33. 33
    scav says:

    I’m not entirely sure there isn’t some confounding of vitalism and animism going on in some of this discussion.
    And with brains that are fantastically good at spotting patterns and catching baseballs without conscious thought, I’m not surprised that sometimes there’s a nagging feeling that one’s conscious mind is missing something and needs to catch up.

    In the world where rationalistic explanations have won for good, they would be right.

    And this I don’t get. Incorrect rationalistic explanations could have won. Certainly incomplete rationalistic explanations have been accepted at times just as complete religiously expressed explanations have been at others. We’re trying to explain and describe what we observe and our explanations change over time, how we choose to express those explanations changes over time, even as our observations and what we can possibly observe change over time. Of course it’s a retreating horizon although parts of the landscape are more stable than others. Multiple descriptions of what is going on are entirely possible and are in fact useful (Mercater’s projection for sailors but not for choropleth mapping where you want an equal-area projection. There’s a better example with planetary orbits I’m pretty sure but it’s late and I’m no doubt confusing my Copernicus with my Kepler and I only remember the obvious ones. Tycho’s right out, great nose, great observations, theoretical dead end I’m pretty sure. Now I’m rambling.)

  34. 34
    phoebes-in-santa fe says:

    HUH????

  35. 35
    gnomedad says:

    @CaseyL:

    ..despite all that, I say, I have never been able to shake the feeling that just about everything, inanimate or otherwise, has some kind of “awareness,” or “selfhood.”

    I think Alan Watts said that if something like this is not true, then “consciousness is just a special form of unconsciousness”. Wish I could remember the source.

  36. 36
    gnomedad says:

    @Ash Can:
    lol, excellent!

  37. 37
    Clime Acts says:

    Ask a leading expert in any field and you will hear the same thing: we only barely understand how much we do not know.

    This.

    Probably the fundamental reason that I tend to dismiss radical atheists (Christopher Hitchens!) who are as closed minded and arrogant as their psycho counterparts among the religious zealots. Anything is possible. We know almost nothing about anything.

    Being a victim of eight years in Lutheran parochial school followed by a high school and college education during which science did not play a huge role, I had never heard of “vitalism.”

    I like it. Aristotle rocks.

  38. 38
    scarshapedstar says:

    Can we get a teensy hint of the paper topic, Tim? I just want to know which part of my knowledge base ought to be regarded as more suspect than the rest.

  39. 39
    Clime Acts says:

    @CaseyL:

    I have on occasion tried to intellectualize myself out of that belief, but can’t quite do it.

    Have you looked at where that urge, to intellectualize yourself out of it, comes from?

  40. 40
    Mark S. says:

    Thanks everyone who answered my question. I got bored reading the wikipedia article on virus taxonomy so I read about twins instead. Did you know

    1. Fraternal twins are much more common than identical twins, and their incidence varies in different parts of the world. The highest rates are in central Africa (18-30 per 1,000 births) and lowest in Central America and South Asia (6-9 per 1,000).

    2. Identical twins are much rarer, only occurring 3 per 1,000 births. There is no variation in incidence in different parts of the world.

    3. There’s such a thing as half-identical twins where the kiddos inherit the same genes from their mother but different genes from their father. Scientists aren’t sure how the hell this works.

  41. 41
    Clime Acts says:

    @WyldPirate:

    More often the unknown or unaccepted answers are due to the fact that we simply haven’t tested our hypothesis adequately or lack the ability to obtain the data we need to evaluate the problem.

    Even if that is true, how would you know it to be so? Isn’t that a huge assumption? A “leap of faith,” even?

  42. 42
    Anne Laurie says:

    Or, as an animist would phrase it: Everything strives.

    We are swirls of energy, surrounded by a billion billion infinities of other swirls, each of us with a past stretching an unknown distance ‘behind’ us and an unknown length of future ‘before’ us. And every single one of us is connected, however tenously, in a network that can be torn but never shredded…

  43. 43
    kdaug says:

    @scav:

    Tycho’s right out, great nose, great observations, theoretical dead end I’m pretty sure.

    I believe Brache had two noses – the silver one was just for special occasions. Usually he wore a copper one.

  44. 44
    scav says:

    Miscellany before bed

    @kdaug:

    Does this mean that matter itself has consciousness?

    Or does it mean that we can use consciousness as a descriptive hook to describe what is happening (might be useful). We’ve also got a brain that is practically hardwired to find faces in patterns, it’s weird to watch sometimes. Our brains might be pulling similar tricks on us in attributing motive and consciousness to other things. It’s an amazing trick we have to achieve in the first place in order to function as self-aware intelligent herd animals — we might nevertheless slightly overdo it afterwards.
    Minimally relevant but cool face illusion video from QI

    Mark S. (sorry, ran of out link permissions) And how about those cases of twins with different fathers. I’ve heard of at least a few of those.

  45. 45
    MonkeyBoy says:

    One important step in mental evolution that lead to the current human mind is the ability to explain things – not only to deal with a current situation but as a way to remember and recall previous situations that may have similar explanations.

    For humans as animals the things most needing explanations are social interactions and these are given explanations in terms of the needs and intentions of the various parties involved. People are not very wired toward giving causal/physical explanations because such doesn’t help with social interactions.

    Regarding all physical things, say such as rivers, as having intentions is not all that bad of a strategy. If one wants to cross a river it helps to have observed rivers in the past to have learned their moods (angry, sleeping, …) and how those moods relate to the safety of your crossing.

    People are wired toward giving intentional explanations and causal/physical thinking is only later grafted on. So instead of describing “angry river” as metaphorical thinking it may be the more basic. In many cases it may be hard to distinguish the two types of thinking, though a more intentional approach is evident when someone starts talking to a river or tries to bargain with it say by giving it a chicken to buy a safe crossing.

    Intentional/vitalism/animism thinking is the basis of all magical thinking and a basis of all religions.

  46. 46
    scav says:

    @kdaug: oooh, thank you. I’m glad I stayed for that miscellany post.

  47. 47
    pragmatism says:

    Enjoyed this. Thanks Tim.

  48. 48
    specialed says:

    Here’s a profound thought, from the Charleston, WV Gazette’s “Reader’s Voice”, a column that prints random thoughts from anyone about anything:
    I sure hope Romney doesn’t win the election. I don’t think his dog can survive riding on top of Air Force One.

  49. 49
    Anne Laurie says:

    @scav:

    I’m not entirely sure there isn’t some confounding of vitalism and animism going on in some of this discussion.

    I’m sure there’s a very serious rational explanation why vitalism isn’t just animism in a lab coat, carefully purged of all crystal-bunny religioulous inclinations. They look pretty similar from the animist side of the metaphysical fence, though…

  50. 50
    specialed says:

    Here’s a profound thought, from the Charleston, WV Gazette’s “Reader’s Voice”, a column that prints random thoughts from anyone about anything:
    I sure hope Romney doesn’t win the election. I don’t think his dog can survive riding on top of Air Force One.

  51. 51
    MobiusKlein says:

    @JGabriel:

    They can’t independently propagate themselves without hijacking the cellular machinary of organisms (or cells) that can reproduce.

    By that standard, various parasites are not alive, as they can’t independently propagate themselves.

    Is the distinction all about taking over another cell, vs taking over a body?

  52. 52
    kdaug says:

    @Clime Acts:

    We know almost nothing about anything.

    It’s why I consider myself a Palebluedotist… there’s infinitely more that we don’t know than what we do.

  53. 53
  54. 54
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Mark S.: You think twins are fascinating? Go read up on human chimeras… which were dismissed as impossible by all the best biologists even a few years ago.

  55. 55
    scav says:

    @Anne Laurie: Nah, I think there’s more going on than lab coats. Animism is more about living spirit in all things and and I’m thinking Vitalism is more about whatever the mysterious thing there is in living things (and doesn’t assume it’s necessarily in everything). For a while, some vitalists got all excited about electricity I think. Yup, right around the Frankenstein time, vitalism was trending during the period of Romantic Science.

    @Mark S.: ooof another good word. Superfecundation. I may never get to bed!

  56. 56
    Joel says:

    I would say that your rational ideas challenging existing hypothesis would be a continuation of rationalism, not a venture into vitalism.

    Dare I ask: Nature, Science, or Cell?

    Also, are you telling me that the MAP kinase kinase doesn’t actually phosphorylate the MAP kinase?

  57. 57
    Little Boots says:

    I actually wish we could see that article and those reviews.

  58. 58
    Linnaeus says:

    @scav:

    I’m thinking Vitalism is more about whatever the mysterious thing there is in living things (and doesn’t assume it’s necessarily in everything).

    Yes. The idea is that living things have some distinct quality or principle inherent to them apart from their physical composition that makes them different from non-living things.

  59. 59
    rb says:

    @MonkeyBoy: People are wired toward giving intentional explanations and causal/physical thinking is only later grafted on. So instead of describing “angry river” as metaphorical thinking it may be the more basic.

    Indeed, well put. Think of the way a clever artist can depict any emotion with a few slashes and a dot or two. The face she sketches does not just look frightened, it is frightened.

  60. 60
    Calming Influence says:

    but the two reviewers refused to believe that any such thing is possible. It violates what we already know are universal rules about how (this bit of) life works!

    Seriously, you’re asking me to trust that you know what you’re talking about just because you’re submitting to “one of the top three or four journals in the world”, and expect me to take your side because – what? Show me the fucking data.

  61. 61
    Mark S. says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    Huh, that’s weird.

  62. 62
    kdaug says:

    @Linnaeus:

    different from non-living things.

    Ah. That’s what I’m getting at. Define “non-living things”.

    Because at a quantum (Plank scale) level, everything seems to be “alive” and interactive from a distance.

    How? We have no idea.

    It may well be the Shamans had it right all along.

  63. 63
    Little Boots says:

    @Mark S.:

    well, it’s all a little weird.

  64. 64
    Calming Influence says:

    Really, this post pisses me off. Tim, if you have actual data that the Notch/Hedgehog/Wingless pathway in some way demonstrates some meta-developmental control that requires the invocation of “Vitalism” to explain it, give us more than mystical Hooha. Hans Driesch isolate a pluripotent stem cell.

    I know that developmental biology is a brutally cruel mistress, but falling back on “Vitalism” is surrender.

  65. 65
    KT says:

    We’ve learned a great deal about the workings of the atomic and subatomic world, but the sheer difference in magnitude between the Planck scale and the size of an electron is staggering. If we say that a grain of sand represents a Planck length, the radius of an electron would be greater than the distance to the nearest star, Proxima Centauri.

    Seems like there is an awful lot of room for mischief in that gap. It’s not inconceivable that there are whole undiscovered worlds of protoparticles, or other stranger formations combining and crystalizing up through the gap until finally scales we can measure, like electrons.

    It not only seems possible, but likely that there are discoveries to be made in this gap.

  66. 66
    Calming Influence says:

    And yeah, I spent years of my life I’ll never get back looking at “Notch”, Hedgehog” and “Wingless” P-element mutants and “collecting virgins” for these types of devbio experiments; there’s always an explanation – unfortunately, it often comes from another lab. Move on.

  67. 67
    Redshift says:

    @kdaug:

    How does one particle “know” what the other is doing?
    __
    Does this mean that matter itself has consciousness?

    And at big scales, everything is also interactive, and nobody wonders how one particle “knows” to move toward another. It’s called gravity.

    Quantum mechanics is plenty weird, and works in ways that don’t seem to make “sense” at an intuitive level, but that doesn’t make it require consciousness. (Just for one example, if entangled particles required consciousness to “know” what the other is doing, then why can’t they “decide” to do anything other than what quantum mechanics dictates?)

  68. 68
    Calming Influence says:

    Crap; I’m really trying to restrain myself, but every time I re-read this post it drives me closer to violence. Tim, are you attending a “For Profit” University, by any chance?

  69. 69
    Redshift says:

    @Calming Influence:

    Seriously, you’re asking me to trust that you know what you’re talking about just because you’re submitting to “one of the top three or four journals in the world”, and expect me to take your side because – what? Show me the fucking data.

    No, he’s asking you to accept his side of this entertaining story of the academic publication process. Get a grip; you can have the data when it’s published, it’s not a prerequisite for being allowed to muse about the subject on a blog.

  70. 70
    Calming Influence says:

    @Joel: I would guess one of those, because they’re very strict about the “and then a miracle happens” explanation in the Methods section.

  71. 71
    Calming Influence says:

    @Redshift: So he’s not actually trying to publish a paper invoking Vitalism?

  72. 72
    Calming Influence says:

    @Redshift: And Redshift, if you’re a quantum physicist, I’m actually very impressed. But I’m still going to say stay out of discussions of developmental biology, because in that area you’re no more qualified than my dentist.

  73. 73
    Clime Acts says:

    @Calming Influence:

    Really, this post pisses me off. Tim, if you have actual data that the Notch/Hedgehog/Wingless pathway in some way demonstrates some meta-developmental control that requires the invocation of “Vitalism” to explain it, give us more than mystical Hooha. Hans Driesch isolate a pluripotent stem cell.I know that developmental biology is a brutally cruel mistress, but falling back on “Vitalism” is surrender.

    “scientific” types are so cute when they sound just like religious fanatics

  74. 74
    kdaug says:

    @Redshift:

    And at big scales, everything is also interactive, and nobody wonders how one particle “knows” to move toward another. It’s called gravity.
    __
    Quantum mechanics is plenty weird, and works in ways that don’t seem to make “sense” at an intuitive level, but that doesn’t make it require consciousness. (Just for one example, if entangled particles required consciousness to “know” what the other is doing, then why can’t they “decide” to do anything other than what quantum mechanics dictates?)

    And at even bigger scales, galaxies are accelerating away from one another.

    Define “consciousness”. Not free will. Not decision-making ability.

    “Consciousness”.

  75. 75
    Clime Acts says:

    @Calming Influence:

    but every time I re-read this post it drives me closer to violence. Tim, are you attending a “For Profit” University, by any chance?

    See what I mean? This one is coming unglued before our eyes…

  76. 76
    Urza says:

    I’m not sure if you can talk about it while waiting on reviews and such Tim F., but I would be interested to know what you were working on to get you thinking along these lines.

  77. 77
    Platonicspoof says:

    error test

  78. 78
    Calming Influence says:

    Alight, it’s the publishing part that irks me. Dream, cogitate, extent hypotheses, ruminate, dissect, reassemble, and otherwise think that shit to death. But why isn’t a concept like Vitalism part of the scientific knowledge base? Not because scientists are reluctant to accept new ideas. It’s because so far,there’s been no published reproducible data.

  79. 79
    Calming Influence says:

    @Clime Acts: accepted; well played.

  80. 80
    Anne Laurie says:

    @scav:

    Animism is more about living spirit in all things and and I’m thinking Vitalism is more about whatever the mysterious thing there is in living things (and doesn’t assume it’s necessarily in everything).

    So, animism is a theory of how the universe works, and vitalism is a theory of how animism — if such a nonrationalistic thing existed — works?

  81. 81
    Calming Influence says:

    Y@Clime Acts: And that of course means that any paper promoting Vitalism should be published, to avoid any hint of bias.

  82. 82
    Yutsano says:

    Because in the Sturm und Drang of the day we missed this.

    Apparently it’s gonna be close. GO LIZ!!

  83. 83
    Alchemist says:

    Tim, I’m also a little confused as to what you are referring to by using vitalism. I am thinking elan vital, magical stuff that living things have and non-living things don’t. That much we disregard as being not amenable to scientific inquiry, it can’t be falsified.

    For what it’s worth, I’m coming from a Daniel Dennett/Douglas Hofstadter-influencded perspective. Complex, self-reflexive systems can be astounding, but that’s no reason to invoke the mystical.

  84. 84
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Clime Acts: It’s not “a huge leap of faith” to believe that the continuing application of the same scientific methods that have allowed us to make so much progress in comprehending the world around us will lead to still greater comprehension. It IS a HLOF to believe that somehow those methods will simply stop working & force us to fill in the gaps with something less objective & replicable.

  85. 85
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @Clime Acts:

    “scientific” types are so cute when they sound just like religious fanatics

    And “spiritual” types are so moronic when they can’t distinguish a call for scientific rigor in a scientific paper from “fanaticism.”

  86. 86
    Uncle Cosmo says:

    @kdaug:

    It may well be the Shamans had it right all along.

    Perhaps–in the same way that astrologists “have it right” by issuing statements vague enough for the credulous to interpret as “right” no matter what the actual state of reality.

  87. 87
    kdaug says:

    @Uncle Cosmo:

    …no matter what the actual state of reality.

    Energy, position, momentum, or angular momentum observables?

  88. 88
    Clime Acts says:

    @kdaug:

    giggle

  89. 89
    wasabi gasp says:

    Pretty sure it’s 42. Been known.

  90. 90
    joel hanes says:

    If I recall correctly, viruses outside host cells have no metabolism. they don’t eat. they don’t excrete. they don’t grow, or have any active processes to repair damage; they don’t heal.

  91. 91
    Groucho48 says:

    @WyldPirate:

    Kind of like guys, then…

  92. 92
    Cermet says:

    Not clear on what you are claiming since DNA explains what happens with dividing eggs. What you are claiming is not really stated so I don’t see were you made the ‘discovery’ that was rejected. That said, I too have had major issues with reviewers – my thesis was bitterly attacked by two reviewers since I showed how to make glass flexible (three different glasses a standard soda-lime glass, Al2O3, and a Pb dopped glass) – all agreed that my thesis was correct, I had experimentally proven that the glass acted more flexible than aluminum (in both tension and bending) and that I made no mistakes – the only issue for these two reviewers was that I had no theoretical frame-work to explain how an amorphous solid could became so extremely flexible. I had some idea’s but didn’t have the money or time to prove them (would required extensive x-ray diffraction studies) … . I paid a high price for those two reviewer’s and I am rather bitter by the whole process. Yes, I was right, yes I invented a new class of materials but without a model, it meant nothing.

  93. 93
    priscianusjr says:

    @WereBear (itouch):

    Our comprehension of the world is like a kaleidoscope. We keep seeing different patterns; but if we saw all the pieces spread on the ground; we would nit comprehend it at all.

    Testify.

  94. 94
    priscianusjr says:

    @Clime Acts:

    Aristotle rocks.

    Definitely. So happy to see this on BJ.

  95. 95
    priscianusjr says:

    @Alchemist:

    I am thinking elan vital, magical stuff that living things have and non-living things don’t.

    Living things do have something that non-living things don’t: Life. But life’s not a stuff, it’s a form. Aristotle is way ahead of Driesch.

  96. 96
    HeartlandLiberal says:

    Along these lines, anyone interesting in reading a fascinating book that flies straight in the face of accepted scientific knowledge, but which offers just too many examples of animal behavior to ignore, should read Rupert Sheldrake’s “Dogs That Know When Their Owners Are Coming Home”.

    Wikepedia on Sheldrake: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rupert_Sheldrake

    Sheldrake has developed an hypothesis that tries to explain the observed behavior of animals and humans, when animals clearly exhibit behaviors indicating they sense the actions of their humans, even though separated by even miles of physical distance. He has done repeated controlled experiences including video taping, taking every precaution to avoid the clever Hans the horse excuse (just Google it). The evidence is simply overwhelming that animals are simultaneously responding cognitively and behaviorally to actions of their humans although separated by large distances.

    The language he has developed to try and describe this drives the traditional science community bonkers. It even leavesme wanting to bang my head. But frankly, the man is on to something. I see it as being related to the idea that telepathy does exist as a potential power of the mind. This from the Wikipedia article.

    “”Morphic field” is a term introduced by Sheldrake. He proposes that there is a field within and around a “morphic unit” which organizes its characteristic structure and pattern of activity.[17] According to Sheldrake, the “morphic field” underlies the formation and behaviour of “holons” and “morphic units”, and can be set up by the repetition of similar acts or thoughts. The hypothesis is that a particular form belonging to a certain group, which has already established its (collective) “morphic field”, will tune into that “morphic field”. The particular form will read the collective information through the process of “morphic resonance”, using it to guide its own development. This development of the particular form will then provide, again through “morphic resonance”, a feedback to the “morphic field” of that group, thus strengthening it with its own experience, resulting in new information being added (i.e. stored in the database). Sheldrake regards the “morphic fields” as a universal database for both organic (living) and abstract (mental) forms.”

  97. 97
    Lojasmo says:

    @MobiusKlein:

    It seems that the real hook about describing life is cell division, which virii do not do.

  98. 98
    marv says:

    It’s ALL Greek to me, specifically Plato’s cave, except maybe a few lines of poetry or some other few words breaking through every century or so.

  99. 99
    Riilism says:

    I am utterly confused by this post. What, exactly, is the subject of the paper that was rejected by the reviewers? For me, at least, it’s a huge leap between

    Ask a leading expert in any field and you will hear the same thing: we only barely understand how much we do not know. Every aspect of life is still ruled by invisible, inchoate forces. The ones we understand have underlying causes that we do not even know we do not understand yet. In fact, to put a finer point on it, just about every leading expert made his or her name by proving that the fixed rules that previously governed the rational world were either wrong or incomplete.

    and

    Aristotle proposed that a non-reducible ‘spirit’ separates the inanimate from animate life.

    I’m not at all clear whether you are suggesting that “science is hard”, so to speak, or whether you are claiming that you have “discovered”, “isolated”, “distilled”, or otherwise “trapped” Aristotle’s non-reducible “spirit”. Further clarification would be greatly appreciated…

  100. 100
    WyldPirate says:

    @Clime Acts:

    Even if that is true, how would you know it to be so? Isn’t that a huge assumption? A “leap of faith,” even?

    After some sleep, I see where your disgreement with what I wrote is.

    I suppose it would have been better phrased if I would have written “known” instead of unknown answers originally to clarify what I meant. For example, it was once accepted that one gene encoded one protein and that once we figured out the coding sequence of each gene we would have the map of where all the genes were and be able to determine the primary amino acid sequence. This thought ended up being grossly inaccurate and frankly wrong.

  101. 101
    Ronzoni Rigatoni says:

    Sometimes in these threads the author begins with a premise that I don’t fully understand. So I rely on the commentariat to provide additional thoughts leading to my better understanding of the original premise. Well, here I am at the very end of the goddam thread and I still do not have any fukkin’ idea of what the hell you are all talking about!

    Enyhoo, one thing I noted here with some satisfaction is that Warren leads Brown in a poll.

  102. 102
    DaveR says:

    Wow, I am a biologist too, and I would have never said that we have scaled the peak and planted the flag of conquest on embryonic development. There is a lot left to learn, and in the process of learning it is pretty common to have dead ends, fits and starts, as well as just plain mysteries that remain unexplained. It’s not uncommon for scientists to have to say “I don’t know”, nor is it shameful. There’s plenty left to know. In fact, when we know it all, there will be no more need for science!

    But vitalism is no longer a useful explanation. What we know about life can be best summed up as “it is a continuum from simple chemical reactions through things like prions and viruses to whole organisms to the biosphere”. Understanding the relationships (both up and downstream) within that continuum is a complicated and messy enterprise. But everytime we think we have found something that exists outside that continuum, it’s been shown to be well within the continuum upon later inspection. Without positive evidence for a vitalistic energy, it is no longer useful to just say that it is the default explanation when we can’t figure it out otherwise. That’s not evidence. That’s faith-based argumentation.

  103. 103
    Marcellus Shale, Public Dick says:

    @Redshift:

    maybe they do, and they are just fucking with people for trying to figure them out.

  104. 104
    Jim Pharo says:

    we only barely understand how much we do not know

    .

    Tim, you forgot to credit this to Socrates.

  105. 105
    gnomedad says:

    Slightly OT in a dying thread, but this is one of the coolest philosophical animations (is that a category) ever:
    John Weldon’s “To Be”

  106. 106
    Svensker says:

    Nice post. But it’s “numinous” not “noumenous”. Not to get all spelly on you.

  107. 107
    Ronzoni Rigatoni says:

    @Calming Influence: I remember the cartoon with some glee, but it’s “then a miracle occurs.” Then there’s this: “I know that developmental biology is a brutally cruel mistress, but falling back on “Vitalism” is surrender.”

    aHA! I get it now.

    Thanx, Calming Influence.

    Sorry, Tim

  108. 108
    Tim F. says:

    @Ronzoni Rigatoni: instead of understanding the post not at all, now you misunderstand it. Try the update.

  109. 109
    scav says:

    There’s a podcast on Vitalism in the In Our Time Science Archives, you’ll have to search down to find it about Oct 2008. All the In Are Times are sort of a discussion / lecture sometimes verging into debate and there are others in History / Culture / Religion and Philosophy. I listened to when going through a Frankenstein Romantic Science phrase, I’m giving it another go focusing on the developmental end after this thread and see what else I can understand. There is something on embryology in there.

  110. 110
    flukebucket says:

    Man we really should have more of the profound idea threads. This is a close as I have ever come to an actual profound idea.

    Thank you Tim F for the post and thank you BJ community for the comments.

  111. 111
    scav says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    So, animism is a theory of how the universe works, and vitalism is a theory of how animism—if such a nonrationalistic thing existed—works?

    I thought animism had more to do with there being some degree of living spirit in everything (e.g. Shinto is an animistic religion with all the kami) while Vitalism does focus more on the vital spark, the bright line that distinguishes living from dead matter. Now I need to go look for more on animism.

  112. 112
    Riilism says:

    I am further confused by your update. Why do we need vitalism? Because it provides a fallback position when our knowledge and understanding is limited or because it’s an example of something that we “knew” before and have now discounted as illogical and therefore serves as a warning against overconfidence?

    Also, I consider myself rather anti-religion for lack of a better word. I take this position not because I am arrogant enough to think I can prove or disprove God’s existence, but because I believe that God is unnecessary. In my case, it’s not a question of flexibility, it’s a question of relevance. Of course, the “anti” part comes into play when I consider the relative risk/reward ratio that is presented by religious belief and I am unable to discern a reasonable rationale for clinging to beliefs promulgated by people living thousand of years ago with limited knowledge and little choice but to ascribe supernatural explanations to observable phenomena….

  113. 113
    Judas Escargot, Your Postmodern Neighbor says:

    Damn, I need to hang out here at night more often…

    I’ve done a lot of work in self-organizing systems over the years.

    One of the long-term side effects of that mindset is that you stop thinking of biological life as ‘special’– or rather, you start to think of it as just one special instance of some greater organizing principle.

    Another side effect, after two decades of seeing the same mathematics popping up in everything from the behavior of atoms as they organize into a crystal, a swarm of robots in formation, the neurons in your brain recognizing a loved one’s face, or even the price of wheat on any given Tuesday– is that you find yourself half wondering if the universe itself is not, in some way… conscious. And that perhaps everything that we can know and see (including ourselves) is just the Foam floating atop of a sea of mathematics that churns beneath it all.

    I try not to think about that aspect of it too much. Some Rabbitholes are just a little too deep to be safely (or sanely) plumbed.

  114. 114
    Clime Acts says:

    @Riilism:

    Also, I consider myself rather anti-religion for lack of a better word.

    Seems from this and the rest of your comment, that you are taking a very limited view of what “religion” is; and allowing it to be defined by its most establishmentarian, traditional forms.

    Establishment religions, it seems to me, have almost nothing in common with the core concepts/people/writings/teachings on which they were based thousands of years ago.

  115. 115
    Hoosierpoli says:

    “. It makes no more sense to say out of the blue that you know every answer to the ineffable than to say that you know that the answers are wrong (which is just another way of saying that you know the answers).”

    I’m sorry, but this is pure nonsense. Saying “I know the answer to this question” is not the same as saying “I know that the answer to this question is NOT this”. Falsification is the bedrock of empiricism; if you go the Popperian route, the only thing that is POSSIBLE to know is when answers are wrong, because they are contradicted by the available evidence. In science, most of what we know is discovered because we falsify other explanations. If you’re actually saying that falsification is illegitimate then frankly you need to quit biology and enroll in seminary.

  116. 116
    Visceral says:

    I think the word you’re looking for is chemistry.

    Life works because it has to, not because of “animal spirits” animating otherwise inert matter. Chemicals can’t not react with each other, and the net result of these reactions is a higher order of stimuli that drive embryonic development. However, biology is nonlinear; there are stimulus thresholds below which a response won’t be generated despite the presence of a stimulus, but by analogy to vitalism, why doesn’t this argue for some kind of ineffable anti-life force? It’s also the case that a stimulus can provoke a significantly larger response because biological systems can and do amplify signals.

    Chemistry itself is ultimately driven by basic physics. There are a lot of holes in what we know, a lot of them are big holes, and there are hard limits to what we can know in the form of the completeness theorem and the uncertainty principle. But I will draw the line at invoking magic.

  117. 117

    In a sense, then, I think that vitalism is not dead or even quiet. It sits on the shoulder of people like me who try to make sense of the world. Once in a while, often in the form of results that don’t make any sense but stubbornly refuse to change when we repeat them, it gives a gentle prod that we don’t understand everything and to some degree we never will.

    Bravo, spoken by a scientist with an open mind.

  118. 118
    gerry says:

    A big aspect of this is idealism (unfortunately, I have my own technical vocabulary). By that I mean that the ideas we believe come to have a life of their own. So once we have a concept, we assume that it is real and therefore eternal. But if we think of them as maps, describing territories, we can accept that the outlines and positions of the continents, mountains, etc., can change with exploration. I, myself, have long believed there is more to Lamarckism than the stupid refutation of cats with their tails cut off giving birth to cats with tails would imply. And the birth of epigenetics is quite satisfying. Science is about doubt, not certainty. I remember hearing Steven Weinberg, Nobel laureate, announcing that we pretty well knew the shape that physics had to take in the future…tsk, tsk.

  119. 119
    abd philosopher says:

    Aristotle proposed that a non-reducible ‘spirit’ separates the inanimate from animate life.

    Whoa whoa whoa there. The first rule of people talking about things Aristotle said is that unless they’re serious scholars of greek philosophy speaking very carefully they’re probably saying something that’s at best misleading. This claim is probably in some way true. But I don’t think it’s the way that it looks like here. (It may well have been for Plato, but that’s a different matter.)

    The first corollary of this rule is that when historians say “Idea or theory X dates back to Aristotle”, what they are saying is not the same thing as saying “Aristotle thought X”. In fact it’s more likely than not to only be the first of those two.

    The second corollary is that the first rule is especially true when someone is trying to suggest that something Aristotle said is an example of unscientific thinking. Most of the common examples people give of this are at best highly dubious (Bertrand Russell is a particularly impressive example).

    There are lots of places where Aristotle talks about the distinction between living and non-living things, referring to living things possessing a psyche or soul. But he doesn’t mean that in the normal way that, for example, Christian theologians do. In fact Aristotle seems to have defined the soul/psyche/etc. as nothing more than (something like – this is not a quote) “that in virtue of which something the sort of thing that it is”. The spirit of living things that separates them from non-living things is probably best understood for Aristotle as just the capacities that living things have to engage in the sorts of activities characteristic of, well, things that are alive: eating, reproducing, perception, movement, and so on.

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