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Lifeless Vitalism


The distinquished British scientist Michael Polanyi speaks of something he finds “unbelievable.” What is that? For three hundred years, he says, writers who contested the idea that life can be explained by physics and chemistry “argued by affirming that living things are not, or not wholly, machinelike.” What’s wrong with that? Instead, Polanyi says, those writers should have been “pointing out that the mere existence of machinelike functions in living beings proves that life cannot be explained in terms of physics and chemistry.”1

What does Polanyi mean?

According to the old, traditional belief, living beings are animated by some kind of vital principle we can’t fully understand in physical terms. Modern biology textbooks firmly reject that belief, called vitalism. Most modern biologists would say we can fully understand life through physics and chemistry. Today a scientist who goes in for vitalism puts his credibility on the line.

Yet Polanyi says life can’t be explained through physics and chemistry. Is he breaking ranks with mainstream science and going heretic? No. It turns out that Polanyi’s position fits snugly with the established principles of the physical and biological sciences. What he is doing is showing how to redefine vitalism so it agrees with those principles.

Transcending Boundaries

The key to Polanyi’s argument is the idea of boundary conditions. Physicists can predict what a piece of matter will do by taking account of two things: boundary conditions and the laws of physics.

For example, suppose we want to predict the trajectory of a cannonball. To do this we need to know the speed of the cannonball as it leaves the gun and the angle at which the barrel is tilting. Then, using Newton’s laws of motion, we can calculate the cannonball’s path. The important point is this: Unless we know the boundary conditions—the initial speed and the gun-barrel tilt—the laws of physics tell us nothing about what the cannonball will do.

Here’s a more complex example. In a computer, what are the boundary conditions? First we have the engineered structure of the computer, including such things as the design of its circuits. Then we have the operating conditions, like how hot the room is and how many volts come from the power supply. Next comes the software. And last there’s the information fed into the computer while it’s running. And the laws of physics? In this case the relevant ones are the laws of electromagnetism.

The boundary conditions here are highly complex, but when we think of a computer, these boundary conditions are mainly what we think of. For example, a programmer thinks of software, and a computer designer thinks of circuit diagrams. We skip the details of what the laws of physics say the computer is doing.

Even though the computer does obey the laws of physics, its design and software let us think about the computer and yet forget those laws. So on a practical level, we could say that the computer’s boundary conditions go beyond—“transcend”—the laws of physics.

Polanyi extends these observations to the bodies of living organisms, which in some ways resemble computers. Living organisms are extremely complex in structure, and their molecules of DNA hold vast information. That structure and that information, we can think, define the living organism’s boundary conditions. So Polanyi reasons that, as with the computer, a living system “transcends” the chemical and physical laws that govern the atomic stuff of which it’s made.2

For Polanyi, to “explain a phenomenon fully in terms of physics and chemistry” means to nail it down with physical and chemical laws plus simple boundary conditions, like those in the example of the cannonball. If the needed boundary conditions get complex, Polanyi says, then what we’re studying by definition transcends the laws of physics.

A Compromise that Fails

It may seem at first glance that Polanyi is attributing to life some unique property of transcendence. But in physics and chemistry, solving the vast majority of problems calls for knowledge of complex boundary conditions. So it follows that such problems all transcend chemistry and physics. Indeed, Polanyi says, any chemical compound that has a complex structure and so transmits a lot of information to its neighborhood must in this regard “be irreducible to physics and chemistry.”3

What it boils down to is this: Most scientists see boundary conditions as part of physics and chemistry, and they see life as fully physical. Polanyi accepts that the physical laws fully govern an organism’s material body. But by juggling words and separating complex boundary conditions from physical laws, he has found a way to declare that life is transcendental.

Polanyi has created a compromise between vitalism and physical science by redefining vitalism as a subdivision of the existing physical theories. But this won’t work. The old ideas of vitalism posited laws and energies of life that simply have no part in contemporary physics and chemistry. For example, the Bhagavad-gita says that energies called mind, intelligence, and false ego control how living organisms behave. Since these energies have no place in the existing theories of chemistry and physics, it follows that if the Bhagavad-gita is right, Polanyi’s understanding of life is wrong.

Exploring the Link at the Boundary

But we can salvage something from Polanyi’s ideas. Bhagavad-gita 3.27 indicates that Krishna, the supreme controller, acts in the material world through the agency of material nature. But material nature operates according to His will. This means that in the actual laws of nature there must be boundary conditions that represent the moment-by-moment link between matter and the supreme will. These actual natural laws will conform with the known laws of physics under special conditions. But in general they will extend further to allow for subtle energies (such as mind, intelligence, and false ego). And they will allow for Krishna’s personal direction of material affairs. So here’s a true challenge to physical science: Can it progress towards learning the details of these higher-order natural laws?


  1. Polanyi, Michael, “Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry,” Chemical and Engineering News, Aug. 21, 1967, p. 65.
  2. Ibid., p. 55.
  3. Ibid., p. 62.