“Entrenched” science, subjective experience and vitalism

Steven Pinker, the experimental psychologist, commented in a Financial Times interview when asked if he believed in an afterlife:

No. The mind depends entirely on the brain, which is indisputably mortal. I’d add that the concept of an afterlife is morally troubling. It implies that health and happiness are not such a big deal, because life on earth is an infinitesimal portion of one’s existence. Every moment in our finite span of consciousness is something to savour.

His comment begs the questions: what does the brain depend on?; isn’t there a difference between a dead brain and a living brain and if so, what’s the significance?

In his reply to a related question in the New York Review of Books Thomas Nagel says:

… What I doubt is that patterns of neural activation alone constitute or are experience—if neural activation is a purely physical process.

subjective subjectivity consciousness science physical reduction scientism darwin

Thomas Nagel

… But if subjective experience is not an illusion, the real world includes more than can be described in this way.1

The inability of the physical to explain consciousness and subjectivity was explored in his book Mind and Cosmos which he summarises in the New York Times:

… Since then the book has attracted a good deal of critical attention, which is not surprising, given the entrenchment of the world view that it attacks…

The scientific revolution of the 17th century…depended on a crucial limiting step at the start: It depended on subtracting from the physical world as an object of study everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose…

However, I believe this possibility is ruled out by the conditions that have defined the physical sciences from the beginning. The physical sciences can describe organisms like ourselves as parts of the objective spatio-temporal order – our structure and behaviour in space and time – but they cannot describe the subjective experiences of such organisms or how the world appears to their different particular points of view. There can be a purely physical description of the neurophysiological processes that give rise to an experience, and also of the physical behaviour that is typically associated with it, but such a description, however complete, will leave out the subjective essence of the experience – how it is from the point of view of its subject — without which it would not be a conscious experience at all.

So the physical sciences, in spite of their extraordinary success in their own domain, necessarily leave an important aspect of nature unexplained… it follows that biological evolution must be more than just a physical process, and the theory of evolution, if it is to explain the existence of conscious life, must become more than just a physical theory.

This means that the scientific outlook, if it aspires to a more complete understanding of nature, must expand to include theories capable of explaining the appearance in the universe of mental phenomena and the subjective points of view in which they occur – theories of a different type from any we have seen so far.2

Current mainstream “entrenched” thinking in science “subtracts everything mental – consciousness, meaning, intention or purpose”, Nagel tells us, to which we can include feelings, sensations and the symbolic language used to express one’s symptoms. Since medicine shares this entrenched thinking, which only appreciates the physical, it means medicine cannot satisfactorily treat a person in their entirety; likewise with herbal medicine and naturopathy.

There is more to a person’s non-physical make-up than subjectivity, which is the subject of Nagle’s enquiry; one has a constitution, being a vital, unified and whole economy;3 entire. One is dynamic (upon which evolution and disease are dependent otherwise an organism cannot react to its environment and stressors respectively) is an essential quality of living organisms, ignored by philosophers and scientists. State is a concept not explained in philosophy or science (or medicine for that matter, which is why allopathic medicine will never cure and why homeopathy can cure4). How can philosophers of mind successfully explain these concepts such as mind, dynamic, constitution, state? There is potential for vitalism to explain these and should be revisited since vitalism was never disproven but “died from lack of opponents.”5

Vitalism can be defined as follows: “The doctrine that phenomena of life possess a character sui generis by virtue of which they differ radically from physico-chemical phenomena. The vitalist ascribes the activities of living organisms to the operation of a ‘vital force.’ Opposed to vitalism is biological mechanism which asserts that living phenomena can be explained exclusively in physico-chemical terms.” (Dagobert Runes, Dictionary of Philosophy.)

Nagel states:

Since our mental lives evidently depend on our existence as physical organisms… it seems natural to think that the physical sciences can in principle provide the basis for an explanation of the mental aspects of reality as well — that physics can aspire finally to be a theory of everything.

But, like Pinker’s brain, isn’t our physical existence dependent too, dependent on what some in biology and medicine have termed our vital life force? Professor Nagel does explain four ways of objecting to his vision of a “theory of everything” but for our purposes, I suggest it’s because a physical explanation won’t allow for an individual’s subjective experience. In disease, symptoms are subjective: “I feel”, “it’s as if…”, “it’s a stabbing pain.” All four qualities in bold might find an explanation in vitalism, and certainly homeopathy has revealed such a possibility.6 In aphorism 189 of the Organon Hahnemann explains how this takes place, albeit in a diseased state:

And yet very little reflection will suffice to convince us that no external malady (not occasioned by some important injury from without) can arise, persist or even grow worse without some internal cause, without the co-operation of the whole organism, which must consequently be in a diseased state. It could not make its appearance at all without the consent of the whole of the rest of the health, and without the participation of the rest of the living whole (of the vital force that pervades all the other sensitive and irritable parts of the organism); indeed, it is impossible to conceive its production without the instrumentality of the whole (deranged) life; so intimately are all parts of the organism connected together to form an indivisible whole in sensation and functions. No eruption on the lips, no whitlow can occur without previous and simultaneous internal ill-health.

Vitalism will find critics because it is not amenable to empirical testing, but, because it is observable as phenomena, vitalism is appropriate for treating a patient’s totality of symptoms. The phenomenon of one’s disease is expressed as a totality of symptoms; therefore this totality is what has to be removed (for example see aphorism 213, p. 33).

Vitalism does not split mind and body, subjectivity and objectivity, as Hahnemann showed, but provides continuity between body and mind as he explains in aphorisms 215 and 216 (see pp. 34-36). Should proponents of medicine have a problem with this, it’s for the reason explained by Professor Nagel.

[1] New York Review of Books

[2] “The Core of ‘Mind and Cosmos’”, Opinionator, New York Times (18 August 2013)

[3] The “human economy” is a term Dr James T. Kent used. For our use economy can be defined as “the orderly interplay between the parts of a system or structure” or a medical dictionary will define it as “the body of an animal or plant as an organised whole.”

[4] Medicine won’t make a person better because, although it mentions state of health or diseased state, it never treats the entire psycho-somatic state a patient is experiencing subjectively.

[5] See The History and Theory of Vitalism by Hans Driesch and Charles Kay Ogden, p.125.

[6] While homeopathy is objectively true, its success lies in the fact that it not only copes with individuality but revels in it! Orthodox medicine (allopathy) will never cure. One reason is because it falls into the naturalistic physical paradigm of science and allopathy’s failing is proof that such a paradigm is wrong – but for reasons possibly not yet explored by philosophical inquirers.

[7] For an informative exposition of vitalism in medicine, see WAISSE, Silvia; AMARAL, Maria Thereza Cera Galvão do; ALFONSOGOLDFARB, Ana M. “Roots of French vitalism: Bordeu and Barthez, between Paris and Montpellier.” História, Ciências, Saúde – Manguinhos, Rio de Janeiro, v.18, n.3, jul.-set. 2011. Available here

Photo credit: NYU Law faculty photo

Posted in Philosophy of Medicine, Science and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , .