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"Vitalism—the insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things—turns out to have been not a deep insight but a failure of imagination." --Daniel Dennett

Vitalism is the metaphysical doctrine that living organisms possess a non-physical inner force or energy that gives them the property of life.

Vitalists believe that the laws of physics and chemistry alone cannot explain life functions and processes. Vitalism is opposed to mechanistic materialism and its thesis that life emerges from a complex combination of organic matter.

The vitalistic principle goes by many names: chi or qi (China) prana (India and therapeutic touch), ki (Japan); Wilhelm Reich's orgone, Mesmer's animal magnetism, Bergson's élan vital (vital force), etc. American advocates much prefer the term energy. Many kinds of alternative therapies or energy medicines are based upon a belief that health is determined by the flow of this alleged energy. For examples, see acupuncture, Ayurvedic medicine, therapeutic touch, reiki, and qigong.

Energy medicine is a placebo, leading many advocates to mistake the effects of classical conditioning, expectation of relief that leads to reduction of anxiety and stress, and beliefs about the effectiveness of the medicine as effects of mythical energy.

See also magical thinking, superstition, and Energy Healing: Looking in All the Wrong Places by Robert Todd Carroll.

further reading


Lindeman, M. & Saher, M. (2007). Vitalism, Purpose and Superstition. British Journal of Psychology, 98, (1), 33-44. Abstract.

Alternative Medicine and the Laws of Physics by Robert L. Park

Last updated October 27, 2015

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