A chat I had a while back on physicalism, on a Wilkin’s post on vitalism.
(Seems not to be on Wilkins’ site any longer, so I’m pasting in below from Google cache so I can read it later.)
I came across this quote:
In our recent science the Aristotelian doctrine is not dead. For but little changed, though dressed in new garments, this Aristotelian entelechy, which so fascinated Leibnitz, enters into the Vitalism of Hans Driesch; and of those who believe with him, that far as physical laws may carry us, they do not take us to the end: that the limitations of induction forbid us to pass in thought and argument from chemistry to consciousness, or (as Spencer well knew) from Matter to Mind; that Life is not merely ‘an outstanding difficulty, but a veritable exception to the universal applicability of mechanical laws’; that not to be comprehended under the category of physical cause, but to be reckoned with apart, is the fundamental conception underlying Life and its Teleology.
[Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. 1913, p29]
It slightly amuses me that when people assert that biology is not reducible to physical laws, they are, in historical terms, asserting tradition vitalism.
Now, when you hear the word “vitalism” you immediately will think of some sort of mysterian occult spiritualism, and this is certainly true of Driesch’s version of it, and to an extent of Oken and others in the 19th century, but it is not true of those called “vitalists” before the 19th century, or even many of those up until Driesch. For example, Lamarck’s version was entirely physical. He thought that life was an organising principle, a force that drove the evolution (literally, the development) of progressive complexity. In that respect, Lamarck is not so different from the systems biologists of today. So, too, was Blumenbach, who formulated the Bildungstrieb (in Latin, Nisus formativus), according to which living things were organised and hence different to inorganic things. It is worth noting, as Tobias Cheung has shown, that “organism”, a term used occasionally in French, did not become widely used in English until the mid-2oth century, and the preferred term in all languages for living beings was “organised being”. The notion of organisation, not too far from “complexity” or “complex adaptive system” of the modern era, was the definiens of biology, and that was the principle used by the person who coined the term biology, Treviranus (just beating out Lamarck).
Now a good many people, including Ernst Mayr, have made the claim that the laws of biology are not reducible to those of physics (in contrast to those who argue that biology has no laws, a view I incline to). Ironically, these are often those who equally firmly reject vitalism (of Driesch’s variety); the irony being that according to the prior definitions, they are themselves vitalists of a kind. Not much of philosophical import can be taken away from this, as debates and positions shift over time, but it amuses me, as I said…
Cheung, Tobias. 2006. From the organism of a body to the body of an organism: occurrence and meaning of the word from the seventeenth to the nineteenth centuries. The British Journal for the History of Science 39 (03):319-339.
Thompson, D’Arcy Wentworth. 1913. On Aristotle as a biologist with a prooemion on Herbert Spencer: Being the Herbert Spencer lecture delivered before the University of Oxford, on February 14, 1913. Oxford: The Clarendon Press.
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