One colorful English language word has become obsolete as a scientific term. Vitalism was never a theological term used to describe the essence of life God implanted in all living things. It was thought instead to embody a mysterious non-physical principle distinct from physiochemical forces. Early scientists used it to describe organic substances. They thought living material had a vital principle inorganic chemicals did not possess. Another colorful term was élan vital, coined by French philosopher Henri Bergson in 1907.
Humanity has the ability to contemplate mysteries of our universe, including its existence, how it originated, how it sustains itself from moment to moment, and humanity’s place in this temporal sphere. Hundreds of other questions spin off from these basic queries. The unique characteristics of living things is but one example.
We inhabit a nearly infinitely miniscule corner of our enormous universe. Human inhabitants inquire, “Is there a God who created this universe in all its grandeur and immensity? Does he sustain its function? Is he involved in the lives of humanity? What special quality separates living creatures from non-living in this miniscule corner of the cosmos?” Such questions occur only in the neural structures of the human brain. Similar inquiries do not occur in neural structures of any other living creatures populating our solar system. We are unique in this type of inquiry.
What essential difference exists between living things and non-living things? The quantity of matter supporting life on our Earth is vanishingly small when we consider the quantity of matter in the universe which supports no life. Scientists describe life and life processes better than they explain it. We repeat the characteristics of life found in most biology textbooks. It is far more descriptive than explanatory: Living things (1) are organized into cells, (2) manifest metabolism--processes of energy use for construction or breakdown, (3) respond to stimuli, (4) have homeostasis--the ability to maintain their internal stability, (5) grow and develop, (6) reproduce, and (7) change and adapt.
After reviewing a large volume of material it is apparent most life scientists search out a naturalistic cause and effect for virtually every function manifest in living things. Many life processes yield their secrets to this inquiry, but many do not. Reductionism (see previous post) is adequate for many explanations. Many fundamental secrets of life, however, remain unanswered. Bio-scientists confess that many life processes are clothed in fundamental mystery.
In the 19th century the well-established concept called “vitalism” was endorsed by many bio-scientists. Essentially it posited that a “vital spark” or “something special” existed in living things. Vitalists were not necessarily theists proposing God’s sustaining power. They claimed all living things had materials or substances giving them special properties of “aliveness.” The term has fallen completely out of favor among today’s bio-scientists. Daniel Dennett, science philosopher and evolutionary scientist says, concerning vitalism, “The insistence that there is some big, mysterious extra ingredient in all living things—turns out to have not been a deep insight but a failure of imagination.”
The Creator infused the “breath of life.” (Genesis 2:7) We do not subscribe to vitalism as did many biologists the last few hundred years. Naturalistic and theistic scientists alike, however, both acknowledge special qualities living things manifest which non-living things do not. The tiny fraction of physical matter on Planet Earth comprising living things possesses a quality clearly demarcating living from non-living matter. We no longer use the term vitalism, but living matter is distinct from non-living matter. The Creator supplied the “breath of life” for living matter. Modern scientists step around this mystery. They prefer to propose the principles of reductionism or cite the mysteries of “emergent properties” of living things, mysterious properties which emerge at a previously unknown level of complexity.