You are here

Issues in Homeopathic Philosophy - Basic vocabulary: Vital force

This is one in a series of articles that will introduce the fundamental concepts of homeopathic philosophy: the vital force, disease, remedy, and the law of similars; and discuss some analogies or metaphors for understanding the relationship between them.

Physicians and other thinkers from earliest times have been faced with the problem of explaining life. What is life? What distinguishes the living from the non-living? What is the difference between my sister and the book on the shelf? Until the latter half of the 19th century (1860 - 1900), the most common and widely accepted explanation was vitalism. Vitalism says that there is a vital energy or life force that animates all living organisms. It says that if the vital energy leaves the body, then there is death. Life requires both the body and the vital force.
     Vitalism was dealt a serious and long-lasting blow by Darwin's general theory of evolution. He published this theory in 1859, about 17 years after Hahnemann's death. Darwin's theory offered a different explanation of life. It says that life arose by the accidental mixing of chemicals in the primordial soup billions of years ago. His theory is widely used today to explain life as the mechanical result of chemical interactions. In other words, it does not require this mysterious vital force to explain why living things move around and have self-consciousness. This explanation of life is called materialism.
     Materialism is classified as a metaphysics by philosophers. This means there is little or no evidence to support the belief. There is currently a very contentious, interesting argument going on within the scientific community about whether or not the post-Darwinistic general theory of evolution is a "fact." Although the evolutionists like to tar everyone who does not believe as they do with the brush of "creationism," this in fact hides a very deep and, to date, unvanquished problem: the evidence in support of the general theory of evolution is the exception, not the rule.
     Vitalism is also considered a metaphysics, another explanation of life based on belief, not fact. I am of the opinion that there is more evidence for vitalism than for the general theory of evolution because the vital force can, to some degree, be experienced directly. This does not necessarily qualify the experience as "fact" according to the orthodox scientists, but it is empirical.
     In Hahnemann's time there was little dispute as to whether or not vitalism was "factual" or not. It was as factual as any other theory. Nowadays the dominant explanation of life is materialism, and it states, as a fact, that vitalism is not factual. These two theories are inconsistent. One cannot be both a materialist and a vitalist.
     This has created immense problems for the vitalists, because the materialists decided that since nothing that is immeasurable has existence, then there is no way to use the concept of the vital force to explain anything. The decision that the vital force does not exist is made as part of the metaphysical belief in materialism. The mechanisms for deciding whether something is a fact were designed as though the vital force did not exist. Therefore, it is very difficult for those mechanisms to accommodate measurements relating to the vital force. When experiments are done today that show the efficacy of immaterial diluted and potentized substances, such as are used in homeopathy every day, the explanations are all couched in materialist terms. In the world of orthodox science, the vital force simply does not exist.
     Not all homeopaths believe in the vital force, and, indeed, such a belief is not necessary to practice homeopathy successfully. This is one of the beauties of homeopathy—it works no matter what you believe. However, most homeopaths today use the vital force to explain what they observe, so it is important to have a basic understanding of what they are referring to.

Hahnemann's description
Hahnemann, the founder of homeopathy (1755--1843), described the vital force in health in aphorisms 9 and 10 of the Organon (6th edition).
     ¤9: In the healthy condition of man, the spiritual vital force (autocracy), the dynamis that animates the material body (organism), rules with unbounded sway, and retains all the parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both sensations and functions, so that our indwelling, reason-gifted mind can freely employ this living, healthy instrument for the higher purpose of our existence.
     ¤10: The material organism, without the vital force, is capable of no sensation, no function, no self-preservation*, it derives all sensation and performs all the functions of life solely by means of the immaterial being (the vital principle) which animates the material organism in health and in disease.
     *It is dead, and only subject to the power of the external physical world; it decays, and is again resolved into its chemical constituents.
     There is a lot being said in these two aphorisms, but the following generalizations can be made. The vital force is the immaterial energy that regulates, regenerates and reproduces the organism, all according to the characteristic form of the species.
     In other words, if blood chemistry gets out-of-balance because of something eaten, then the vital force guides it towards the norm for a human being, not a frog. In the embryonic stage, it makes sure the lungs are human lungs as limited by our inheritance. It guides the maturation of the female out of the reproductive stage, and so on. It makes sure the purpose of being human can be fulfilled.

Experiencing the vital force
That describes the vital force in words, but what is it in reality, how is it known directly? The Chinese also base their system of medicine on this energy, which they call chi (sometimes spelled ki). They have been studying it for thousands of years and have developed certain techniques for becoming aware of, accumulating, and controlling the vital force for health purposes. Hahnemann also recognized that the vital force can be directly experienced. He reveals this in aphorisms 288 and 289, in which he discusses what he calls mesmerism.
     The vital force exists both in the body and in the atmosphere. To feel the vital force is simple, for most people. Simply open your hands and hold them about an inch apart. You should feel something going on—a prickly feeling, or warmth, or other sensation that feels like energy. If you slowly move your hands away from each other you can often feel something like elasticity between your hands, a mild feeling of resistance to moving them apart. Try not to let them touch. You may have other sensations, of balls of energy around your hands, or other ways your experience is being told to your mind. The energy should get stronger the longer you do this in a relaxed way.
     This is not the end of the story, though, for the vital force has both the gross manifestations that can be felt with the hands, and it has very subtle manifestations that are in the nature of thoughts. It is energy that exists in a wide spectrum of frequencies. However, none of these frequencies can be measured by the mechanical instruments of man. That is what Hahnemann means when he says they are immaterial. At the lower level of the energy felt in the hands, the vital force can be manipulated by electromagnetic energies, by the food we eat, by what we think, and by many other things.
     However, the important point to remember is that this does not mean the vital force is a physical force like electromagnetism. It is not. For this very reason, it cannot be expected to follow all the laws of what is known as nature. The natural laws we are familiar with govern the substances that can be measured by contemporary science, for these laws are themselves based on the measurements. If something, such as the vital force, cannot be measured, then the explanations based on measurements cannot apply to it. As homeopaths, we learn about a different type of measurement; we learn to accept as valid our experiences with immaterial substances, like homeopathic remedies. Because we accept as valid a different kind of evidence—our experience—we can talk seriously and with some confidence about the immaterial vital force.
     Does that mean there is a generally accepted explanation for what it is? No. In pre-Darwinian times, before 1859, it was commonly thought that the life force ultimately originated in the divinity. A little reflection on what it means if Darwin's general theory of evolution is incorrect can be an eye-opening experience. Regardless of the fact that many people are not sure where the vital force comes from, nor sure of all of its powers and manifestations, this does not stop them from acknowledging its existence and importance in understanding and explaining life.
     As homeopaths we are ultimately interested in assisting others and ourselves to stay healthy by using homeopathic remedies. Our specialty is not surgery, chiropractic, acupuncture, or other techniques. Our province is certain lifestyle advice and the use of diluted, potentized remedies to remove disease. In the process of learning how to use the remedies and studying the history, philosophy, and techniques of homeopathy, it is natural to question what exactly is the relationship between the vital force, the disease, and the remedy.
     In a future article, we will look at the concepts of disease and remedy in the Organon, and set the stage for an examination of the law of similars and the different ways it has been understood.

About the author:
John Lunstroth is a lawyer and student of homeopathy in Houston, Texas. He is a member of the board of directors of the Texas Society of Homeopathy and can be reached at john@homeopathyfaq.com