Today we will discuss the all-important topic of Vital Force and its role in health. Hahnemann has described the concept of Vital Force in aphorisms 9 to 17 of Organon of Medicine. The aphorisms 9 and 10 deal with the role of vital force in health. But before we elaborate these aphorisms, we need to understand what is the origin of the Vital Force? Where did the concept come from?
Literally speaking ‘vital’ means ‘essential’ and ‘force’ stands for ‘power/energy’. So the vital force means ‘essential energy’ or energy that is essential for our life. Vital force was not discovered by Hahnemann. It is a very old concept that probably dates back to the earliest human civilization and can be traced back in medicine to the times of Hippocrates and Galen. Vital Force is a name given to that ‘something’, which is the difference between a living creature and a dead body. Different people have related it to energy, soul, spirit, religion etc. People who have believed in the idea of vital force are called Vitalist. Others who believe in pure biological and material existence are termed materialists. Hahnemann is considered to be the last famous vitalist. Once the modern material science started progressing, the vitalist tradition more or less died except in Homeopathy.
Now let us move on to aphorism 9 and 10 to understand what was Hahnemann’s Vital Force. Later I’ll present some new ideas in which I’ll try to explain the concept of vital force in terms of the thermodynamics of biological systems.
In aphorism 9, Dr. Hahnemann states:
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.
I’ll explain each phrase in part before we look at the totality here. He begins defining the vital force with two adjectives ‘spiritual’ and ‘autocracy’. Autocracy means ‘self-governed’ or ‘governed/ruled by one single entity’. It is opposed to ‘democracy’, which means ‘ruled by consensuses’. So the first property that we know about vital force is that it is autocratic. It is the one that governs our biological system and there is nothing else above it.
The next qualifier is ‘spiritual’. This single word has brought a lot of chaos and confusion to the homeopathic world. People with ‘scientific minds’ have rejected the concept of vital force because it has been defined as ‘spiritual’ and ‘spirit-like’. But what people fail to see is that the next phrase ‘the dynamis that animates the material body’ has been used as a qualifier to the ‘spiritual vital force’. The second phrase is there just to explain the first one. So we will first explain the second phrase.
The word ‘dynamis’ was originally the Greek term for ‘power’ or ‘force’. It was used by presocratic philosophers in reference to the qualities (non-material) of material elements. Aristotle later used the term to signify potentiality, or the capacity for undergoing change. Even during Hahnemann’s time the word was used to describe the ‘force producing motion’.
Hahnemann says, ‘the dynamis that animates the material body‘. This gives us insight into two aspects of Hahnemann’s philosophy. One, he considered the body to be ‘material’ and two, he believed that there is some ‘energy’ in our body that is responsible for our being ‘alive’. That the living body is more than the sum total of its parts. It is the energy that keeps us alive. If you understand this, it is very clear that the word ‘spiritual’ in the first phrase was not used to describe ‘soul’ or with any religious connotations. The word ‘spiritual’ was used only to describe the ‘non-material’ nature of the vital force.
Further, he says that the vital force ‘rules with unbounded sway‘. The word sway has two meanings – ‘to move from side to side’ and ‘Power, Influence’. Here the second meaning is applied. Unbounded means ‘unrestrained’. So the phrase means that the vital force has unrestrained influence over the material organism.
Further, he describes what the vital force does while retaining the ‘unbounded sway’. He says, it ‘retains all the parts of the organism in admirable, harmonious, vital operation, as regards both sensations and functions‘. So the vital force maintains (retains) the normal functioning of our body parts. To retain means ‘to hold together’. And what happens when you stop holding together …things degenerate, they break, they disintegrate. And that is what happens to our body when the Vital Force is no more …it disintegrates. The body needs constant flow of ‘regulated’ energy to hold this biological creation together.
So the vital force is responsible for maintaining our body together ‘as regards both sensation and function‘. So Hahnemann mentions the two primary characteristics of living organisms that need energy. Living organisms can ‘sense’ and they can ‘function’. And it is the vital force, the vital energy that imparts this ability to sense and function to our body parts and to the organism as a whole. Now just name a biologist, a physicist or any ‘modern’ scientist, who can deny this! Wasn’t Hahnemann just great!
He qualifies it further and says that the vital operations are maintained in a harmonious and admirable fashion. Harmonious means the ability to work together appropriately or to maintain the equilibrium. So the vital force not only gives sensations and functions to each organ but it also sees to it that all the organs and systems gel together to create a unit that we called life. The system is so complex at the biological level that it’s no wonder that Hahnemann called this feat ‘admirable’!
Now after describing what the vital force is and what it does in health, Hahnemann goes on to describe why the vital force does what it does. He says that the vital force keeps the body alive and functioning ‘so that our indwelling, reason-gifted mind can freely employ this living, healthy instrument for the higher purpose of our existence.‘
Here a hierarchy becomes clear. Hahnemann feels that first there is ‘material’ body, above that is our mental faculty, the mind. The mind is reason gifted, it can not only ‘sense’ but it can also analyze, interpret and think actively. Above all is a dynamic power that keeps us alive and functional. And there is a reason for us being alive. The reason is that we have to attain our ‘higher purpose of existence’. But what is this higher purpose of existence? And how do we attain it?
Here again many people, who try to understand Organon, become religiously philosophical. They start thinking about God and being one with God. But Organon is a scientific medical text. It can bring out philosophical shades of its writer, but at no point does it reflect an overt inclination to any religious practice or metaphysical explanations. So the question is, what is the higher purpose of our existence?
It is not easy for me answer this one in a straightforward manner. Have you ever wondered why we as human beings are so different from other living creatures? Why we have the ability to analyze our ‘self’? Why we are able to ‘introspect’? I have full faith in the theory of evolution, Darwin and Genetics, yet there are moments when you feel that our biology alone cannot explain the level of our social complexity and personal evolution. Biology and theory of evolution says that each one of us should do everything possible to propagate our genes. That means polygamy and lack of social sexual architecture. Yet, we fall in ‘love’ and often ‘stay’ in love for life. For the sake of our loved ones, we do things that are ‘foolish’ in terms of the theory of evolution and survival. Why do we do all this?
The primary purpose of all life is to ensure that its life form continues, the genes go to the next generation. THIS is the ‘biological purpose of existence’. But that cannot be our sole purpose of existence. We don’t need this level of complexity and evolution to fulfill our biological purpose of existence. There has to be some other purpose too …something that we can call ‘the higher purpose of our existence’.
For me it is that something, which we do in our lifetime, as a contribution to make our societies and ourselves better. Human beings have continuously striven to become ‘better’ human beings. Whatever we decide to attain in our lifetime that can make a positive change to humanity, can become the higher purpose of our existence. I want to see homeopathy as a well established, scientifically accepted and dominant system of medicine in my lifetime. So that becomes my higher purpose of existence. For you, it could be something like becoming a good clinician, doing a particular research work, helping others, or just doing your work well. You don’t need to be a doctor or an engineer to have a higher purpose of existence. Even a sweeper can have a higher purpose of existence – if he realizes it. Unless and until we realize that we have more intelligence then we need for fulfilling our biological purpose and put it to some good use …we are no different from any animal. We come, we feed ourselves, we mate, produce offspring and die. I hope you don’t want this to be your life summary. If not, then try to be a better human being every day and contribute to your society in a positive manner.
So Hahnemann says ‘so that our indwelling, reason-gifted mind can freely employ this living, healthy instrument for the higher purpose of our existence.’ Here Hahnemann has called our material body an ‘instrument’, a ‘mode’ to attain our higher self. Whether you look at these words from a social aspect or a philosophical and religious aspect, they are just stating that when a person is truly ‘healthy’, he/she is able to evolve beyond its biological purpose of existence and works positively to evolve himself as an individual and contributes something meaningful to his society.
So to sum up the ninth aphorism: the vital force is a dynamic energy that keeps us alive and maintains our organs and systems in a harmonious whole. It imparts sensations and functions to our body and helps us to work for evolving ourselves as better human beings!
Isn’t it amazing that what has taken me nearly 1600 words to explain, Hahnemann was able to sum in just 62 words!
Now let’s move on to the tenth aphorism. He states:
The material organism, without the vital force, is capable of no sensation, no function, no self-preservation1, it derives all sensation and performs all the functions of life solely by means of the immaterial being (the vital force) which animates the material organism in health and in disease.
1 It is dead, and only subject to the power of the external physical world; it decays, and is again resolved into its chemical constituents.
Now in the tenth aphorism, Hahnemann repeats what he has said earlier. In the ninth aphorism he said that vital force is responsible for the ‘sensation’ and ‘function’. In the tenth aphorism, he adds another quality – self-preservation. To preserve this organic system, we need constant flow of energy. It is a universal law that biological systems degenerate without the influx of energy. The energy system within our body that provides energy to preserve the material structure is our vital force. Without the presence of this ‘dynamis, this energy, we will be devoid of all essential characteristics of life – sensation, function and self-preservation. The vital force animates the material organism in both health and disease. Its role in disease differs from its role in health but we will discuss that later.
So now we have developed a basic understanding of Vital Force and it’s time to introduce some new ideas. If you read these aphorisms, you still get the feeling as if Vital Force is an ‘entity’, but I have personally come to understand Vital Force as a system. Allow me introduce these concepts to you.
Have you ever thought about what our body is made up of? It’s made up of Organs, which are made up of tissues, which in-turn are made up of cells. The cells are made up of proteins, carbohydrates, fats etc. These are made up of molecules and atoms of Hydrogen, Carbon, Nitrogen, Oxygen and numerous other elements. All the different atoms are but a unique combination of energy particles like protons, electrons and neutrons. So at any given point-of-time, we can be defined as an organized bundle of protons, electrons ad neutrons. We know that mass and energy is convertible. We know that E=mc2 works and we know that mass can be defined in terms of energy. Therefore our biological systems that we define in terms of cells, organs and organ systems can also be defined in terms of energy as ‘energy-systems’, without losing the biological truth.
So what I will be doing next is to explain the vital force in terms of energy systems that we study in modern physics. I’ll need to introduce some basic concepts of Thermodynamics to you before that.
Thermodynamics is a collection of laws and principles describing the flow and interchange of heat, energy and matter in a system of interest.
The First Law of Thermodynamics states: The total amount of energy in an isolated system is conserved, though the form of the energy may change.
And the Second Law of Thermodynamics states: In all natural processes, the entropy of the universe increases.
Entropy is a measure of disorder in a system. A system with order and complexity has low entropy. As the complexity and order decreases, entropy of a system increases. The second law indicates that nature tends to go from order to disorder, from complexity to simplicity.
In Thermodynamics, the ‘system’ is the portion of the universe we are concerned with; everything else is the surroundings. The system + surroundings = universe
There are three types of systems – closed, isolated and open. In a closed system, the system does not exchange matter or energy with the surrounding. In an isolated system, energy exchange can occur between the system and the surrounding but the matter is not exchanged. In an open system matter and energy are freely exchanged between the system and the surrounding.
If the second law of thermodynamics is universally true, then the complex evolution of life and Darwin’s theory cannot be true. Every system in the universe tries to be simple, to increase its entropy. Still life has evolved as complex systems that are difficult to attain thermodynamically. Most physicists still feel that proteins, RNA and DNA are of such high complexity that they can only be produced by existing systems (cells) and the spontaneous evolution of life theory is still considered suspect, because thermodynamically the probability of spontaneous production of highly complex systems in nature is considered next to nil, especially if the second law of thermodynamics has to hold true.
We will not go into the origin of life here. We will stick to explaining the biological entities as energy systems and then move on to elaborate vital force in that light.
Living systems are composed of complex molecular configurations whose total bonding energy is less negative than that of their chemical precursors and whose thermal and configurational entropies are also less than that of their chemical precursors. Thus, the Gibbs free energy of living systems is quite high relative to the simple compounds from which they are formed. The formation and maintenance of living systems at energy levels well removed from equilibrium requires continuous work to be done on the system. Securing this continuous work requires that energy and/or mass flow through the system, apart from which the system will return to an equilibrium condition (lowest Gibbs free energy) with the decomposition of complex molecules into simple ones.
In living plants, the energy flow through the system is supplied principally by solar radiation. This solar energy is converted into the necessary useful work to maintain the plant in its complex, high-energy configuration by a complicated process called photosynthesis. Mass, such as water and carbon dioxide, also flows through plants, providing necessary raw materials, but not energy.
For animals, energy flow through the system is provided by eating high energy biomass, either plant or animal. The breaking down of this energy-rich biomass, and the subsequent oxidation of part of it (e.g., carbohydrates), provides a continuous source of energy as well as raw materials. If plants are deprived of sunlight or animals of food, dissipation within the system will surely bring death. Maintenance of the complex, high-energy condition associated with life is not possible apart from a continuous source of energy.
The Facts So Far
Human beings (all living organisms) are complex open thermodynamic systems.
Open thermodynamic systems are never in a state of equilibrium. They continuously exchange mass and energy with their surroundings.
It takes lot of energy to maintain complex living systems in a state of low entropy.
Back to Vital Force
If you consider the human body as an open thermodynamic system (which it is), then Vital Force is that essential energy (literally!) system that is required to maintain this complex biological system in its low entropy state.
This energy system has all the characteristics of Vital Force that Hahnemann has suggested. It maintains and preserves the life; it provides the energy for all sensations and functions and if the Vital Force (or this thermodynamic energy system) is disturbed or diminished, the system shifts towards a more disorderly state, leading to an increased probability of disturbance at the biological level – a process that we term as “disease”.
These are just some initial thoughts and we will discuss them further when we study the role of vital force in disease and cure. But for now, I’ll leave you with all this to think and contemplate!
- Hahnemann S. 1997. Organon of Medicine. B. Jain Publishers, New Delhi.
- Thaxton et al. 1984. The Mystery of Life’s Origin. Lewis and Stanley, Texas.
Dr. Manish Bhatia