Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Legitimate Questions - A letter to a Young Colleague

"Hey guys I'm a 1st year Chiro student and I have 2 question that I am struggling to find the answer to. Why do we put ourselves into boxes? Mechanistic or Vitalistic! And what do the people in the middle of the spectrum call themselves?"

This question was recently posted on a large (roughly 2,600 member) Facebook page populated by a collection of students, practitioners, researchers and educators. I've been all these at some stage or another in some shape or form. Overall the environment, of this particular forum, is supportive but also supports or promotes objectivity as a fundamental axiom or 'law' considering that we are inside a profession. Professional bodies hold a 'social contract. That assumes that not all ideas are equal and that environment is, in itself, the only one which supports the ethic of professionalism, that despite personal preferences, we all exist primarily for the benefit of others, the public, our patients, and must subject our own opinions and those of the profession to the scrutiny of high intellectual standards - we assume that learning is lifelong and can only proceed if we accept that some ideas will be shown to be forlorn, wrong, and should be discarded, again, for the benefit of society. We accept that the process of being a professional means you may well be wrong, that there are ways to determine this and that we will all follow evidence and good reason above personal belief and speculation.

The query itself is quite possibly the first natural, legitimate, brief and significant question posed by all students as they grapple with what is often a remarkably shallow chiropractic philosophical pool. And the reality is that efforts to expand the profession and truly make it 'Great' are hampered not simply by external pressures (common to all) but the insistence by many that 'Unity' can be achieved by demanding that people 'choose' which un-unified end of a false philosophical spectrum they inhabit.

It's a mouthful. But wait. It is important to understand ourselves if we are to sort out such common (and philosophically falsely based) schisms.


My experience is that most staff members, let alone students, can't exactly define either term (vitalism, mechanism (and a dozen or more others)) and therefore what they mean when those terms are applied to the world around us. Yet many identify strongly with something they appear to understand rather poorly - and that question is a matter of IDENTITY or TRIBALISM. Once a human has identified with a tribal belief it is generally resistant to new or contradictory information. 

We might consider a profession to be a type of tribe but it has quite specific rules and expectations (see above) which are not shared by other ideologies or belief systems.

The minds we have, evolved to be very good at socialisation and re-confirmation for the reason that it seemed to aid our survival if the group 'stuck together'. Sticking together can be enormously beneficial. For professionals, the question should always be - "What exactly are we sticking together for?" That intuitive tribal urge however also means that the beliefs we form are resistant to alteration. Habit's stick whether 'good' or 'bad' and it's also why science (testing hypotheses) has been such a reliable system of knowledge gathering whereas personal faith or revelation is not as neither one can actually be tested beyond opinion.

So tribalism is real and can be very useful. Unfortunately it doesn't necessarily mean that the tribal principles or ethics or information are necessarily sound or true.

Vitalism was a mechanism

A chief (perhaps the only argument) in favour of vitalism is it's assumed difference from mechanism (literally "what makes this 'go' or 'work'? What's it's mechanism?). Something which seems entirely glossed over (by adherents of vitalism) is that Vitalism was a scientific theory ('science' was called natural philosophy back then) over 200 years ago. Most straightforwardly 'Vitalism' was defined as a soul or spirit (later elan vital), basically the quality or process that was thought to make the non-living into living. It was, and here is an irony worth pausing upon, the proposed mechanism that explained why there was 'life' or 'not life'. It was the asserted or claimed mechanism for biology and living systems.

So despite many still believing that something like a soul might exist, no one on the planet has actually found evidence of such a phenomena but, importantly, this is where we need to stop and dissect the issue a little more else we will assume that people are being told that they have to stop believing in something like a spirit, a soul or any of a thousand other forms of supernatural belief.

No middle ground

One responder to the question simply said "What do you call people in the middle of the spectrum between astronomy and astrology? The point being of course that there is no middle between explanations since found to be false (technically superseded) and explanations which actually do work. Imagine measuring the success of Usain Bolt by constantly referring back to the guy who came last, or suggesting 5th place (middle) were both just as 'winning' as first place.

In physics, Newton broke through a conceptual barrier with the theory (the explanation for why his observations worked) that gravity was an attractive force. Einstein came along and leaped out of the conceptual box again and now we understand that a theory which uses a 'magical attractive force' to explain gravity isn't as good an explanation as that mass distorts the geometry of space/time. The FACT is that the explanation is better. The FACT is that vitalism only explained things when the human understanding of biology was 'naive'. To understand 'vitalism' listen to a child explain how living things work - that is as far as we could get when we knew almost nothing about the natural world (circa 1800).

Another way to think of vitalism is that it's one of thousands of labels for our ignorance. Instead of saying "I don't know" we say "that must be what vitalism is" in which case we fool ourselves into believing that we just understood something whereas we have just reinforced a childlike view of the natural world.

Similarly there is no legitimate 'middle' between a flat OR spherical earth, we know it's one and not the other at all. There is no halfway, or 'box', between preformationism and what's really inside a sperm. Preformationism was the theory, plausible at a time when we knew very little about biology, that humans grew from fully formed miniatures housed inside the sperm. If you think about it (and try to strip away what we do know about cellular biology) it actually appears as though a 'miniature' human just 'inflates' inside the mother, pops out and keeps increasing in size. We simply found that this didn't explain anything once we could actually see inside a cell. What clearly happened was that preformationism wasn't anything at all except an idea which was wrong.

Preformation - It seemed perfectly logical to assume that within each sperm was a fully formed human which expanded as it grew. It was never found. So can it still be there but we can't measure it "yet"?

Always "not yet"

I've been in quite a few conversations with vitalists and they will often say "Ok, I know we can't measure it yet" but they appear unaware that there is no 'it' to measure. Perhaps 'it's' something else entirely. On the balance of probabilities we will continue to discover more about how the universe naturally works. (which immediately means it's natural not supernatural (since we can't ever seem to find anything supernatural)).

The most that can be said about the supernatural is that it's a popular word for things no one can seem to verify. Anything we have no evidence for might be called supernatural. Santa is technically supernatural but of course we accept it as myth. Similarly, devoted Muslims don't run about praying to the Greek pantheon of supernatural beings just their own. To them (and every other devotee of another faith) all the other faiths are myth. It all becomes absurd. Confine this to personal belief and not much trouble occurs but inject it into a profession and the sky falls.

The list of discarded or superseded theories is long and full of concepts we didn't see then discard, they were simply wrong, never found, and now populate the history of mistakes. Vitalists can never actually agree on what it is they're talking about except to agree that they'll keep assuming it means something else which can't be measured "yet". It's also why discussing vitalism with someone who doesn't want to understand it's history will prefer to be perplexed, exchanging that natural sense of awe and wonder we all experience for it's facsimile, ignorance itself. They will use awe and wonder (which is our basic human ignorance (not a bad thing)) to reassert their own need to pretend that vitalism is an explanation.

That has quite serious consequences as it simply becomes a reason to stop thinking.

Flogging a Dead Horse

People have invented 'neo-vitalism' more recently in an attempt to reinvigorate or bring back to life something which never worked in the first place. 'Neo' is attached to 'emergence' and even 'quantum mechanics' but in all cases it's assumed to still be there, as yet unmeasured. That sounds slightly plausible and 'open-minded' until we realise that we can't yet measure anything we can't measure but we can claim we can't measure anything! We can make anything up and assert or claim that it's there but we can't measure it yet. Dragons, gods, ghosts, magic teapots, anything, yet!

Mechanisms - Understanding or Incomprehension?

Other complex physical processes (often termed mechanisms or mechanistic) were found but let's remind ourselves again that vitalism WAS a purported mechanism. The most that can be said for vitalism comes from dualism (the very real sense or feeling that 'me' or 'I' is somehow different from 'my body') but even that is explained rather well via the mechanisms of neuroscience and evolution (more on that below). The mind evolved with the quality of imagination. It is possible to imagine being in two places, imagine what might be around the corner or imagine that someone is in your house, but that is a real process inside the brain not the actual ability to project consciousness across a room. Dualism and cognitive neuroscience is a whole other discussion, I mention it here to demonstrate, again, that vitalism as a mechanism never helped explain anything at all.

Epistemology - The thinking behind beliefs.

Having once seriously believed in something like vitalism I understand how compelling the notion is. Just imagine being able to use The Force, because as ridiculous as that sounds the philosophy (the thinking) behind behind every supernatural belief out there is fundamentally the same type of epistemology, that something I can imagine is also felt to be real (that's how the mind works). What we can imagine can be real but a mind does not readily distinguish between real/not real. Intuition only feels that what we imagine is true by default. This is how all beliefs are initially generated and we also know that as far as understanding complex things (like biology (and generally everything really)) intuition is not reliable, it just feels very reliable. it also reminds us that ethics, the sense that we better check our guess (for the benefit of others) against reason and evidence is essential for professionals.

Vitalism simply never explained any part of biology however, the founder, DD Palmer, was a spiritualist who believed that the teachings of chiropractic were given to him from the "other world". His hypothesis was that subluxations interrupted the communication between 'god' and 'soul' (Universal and Innate) via the nervous system. The neurological system is, of course, biology, so vitalism doesn't explain it, evolution via natural selection (which is biological theory) does. In fact if you replace any legitimate theory with 'false explanation' you'll get incomprehension. Again think back to preformationism and ask yourself how that would play out in science and health care today (if all professionals used preference as the chief epistemology in their decision making)?


Vitalism shares an uncomfortable relationship with creationism, the move by religious fundamentalism in the USA to inject the teaching of biblical genesis into public education. When early efforts to do this were blocked by the Supreme court, creationists manufactured 'Intelligent Design', called it a 'theory' and popularised an invention by the Tobacco Industry in 1979 to teach 'The Controversy' to combat the "body of fact" within the minds of the public (basically sow confusion when explanation was required in order to avoid the actual explanation and protect the preferred version/sales). We now see this played out in US politics and the re-emergence of fundamentalism and blatant church state boundary crossing into education and politics. Think 'Alternative facts'.

'Mechanism' is never a valid criticism

Mechanism as a philosophical opposite to vitalism is a red herring, a decoy, a non argument. Creationism/Vitalism repeats the same false dichotomy, and error of reasoning, that any issue ONLY has two possible outcomes. In this case it is that you MUST choose either vitalism OR mechanism. The first is generally associated with being open minded, inclusive, loving, kind, etc, while the later is dismissed as 'reductionistic', limiting, dehumanizing, etc. Again, there are valid points if the discussion is well played out but as presented it's worthless rhetoric, as valid as listening to the worst political monologue. 

These days I'm technically an 'atheist' (don't believe in a god concept) however I was a Buddhist for 12 years (which is technically a-theist) so what did it mean? First of all it meant I was remarkably arrogant. I found theistic explanations of the supernatural to be wrong but was quite happy to embrace other explanations which, although more sophisticated, were just as 'not actually there'. These days I'm quite happy to defend the useful aspects of religious traditions as well as criticise the downright dangerous aspects. If you allow your mind to fall victim to a false dilemma/dichotomy you wont be able to think too much about anything just the old 'whose side' do I take schtick.

This is reflected in the first big opposition movements to the teaching of evolution last century when Darwinism was accused of being immoral and dehumanising despite the fact that critics had never bothered to comprehend it in the first place (the same has always occurred when facts clashed with theology). People of all persuasions, used to the supposed sanctity of faith, simply were not used to such an obvious 'assault' on their scripture by basic facts, in this case (natural selection) a fact of astounding philosophical import - that humans were another species of animal and there didn't appear to be any one's version of a god present in the process. Not even Buddha or Vishnu or a thousand other revelations seemed invited either but all faiths fumed in unison and ran about trying to manage the problem. They were all wrong again, no one had asked their permission to have their traditions down graded and by gum the legitimate authorities of a million disparate celestial dictatorships had to be reasserted no matter what.

It didn't help that people such as HL Mencken (who was 'anti-religion' and probably anti-Semitic as well) spread the dogma that evolution meant we were all just savages who had to forget about the 'weak' in order to prosper - that shit has nothing to do with the theory of evolution or science or mechanism or philosophy at all. It only has to do with human nature and our ability to be selfish, narrow minded, poo flinging apes when there's also an opportunity to create art, literature, science and philosophy. 

It's just true -M'kay?

Basically, both 'Vitalism' and 'Creationism' contend that their explanation is true, M'kay?, and simply don't care that only 0.05% of biologists in the USA accept Creationism as a 'theory' (because they are creationists) while 99.85% do not (and many of those are also religious). But if your self image/identity as a professional is sold as being dependent upon an essentially faith based position we have both philosophical, scientific and significant professional issues because while it's fine for ME to believe whatever, in my own mind, in my own home, I can't just waltz into my office, with the responsibility to others, and claim that science or philosophy proves that my adjustments allow Jesus, or whatever explanation I prefer, to flow about the body chomping up bad things. That's the 'chiropractic philosophy' we can all do without.

Are Vitalists, Vitalists? OR Please shit on my floor OR Silence is Consent.

I find that most who like the idea of vitalism are actually drawn to holism and humanism which have nothing directly to do with faith based beliefs. Humanism (that individuals deserve rights or a 'say') was a response against centralised theocracy (god based governments). That point of confusion (The Incessant 'Controversy') is used by people such as Billy DeMoss, organiser of Caljam 2017 'The Love Tour'. Caljam has hosted some of the planets dizziest conspiracy theorists and they have zero room for anything approaching discussion, scrutiny, disagreement or objectivity. Those who constantly preach the greatest love generally display the worst passive aggressive tendencies (you do get this sort of thing in other industries by the way so don't think it's just chiropractic. I say that as reassurance to you not as an excuse for us or anyone else). Billy's latest offering, posted up on YouTube was titled 'Nazi Vaccine Regime' in Australia. Pure crazy. Apparently vaccination is "Satan's Work" (yes he did say that!) and apparently this demonstrates the level of 'love' held by Principled Vitalistic ChiropracTORs. Something to reflect on. So when anyone insists that everyone, regardless of their behaviour, should be offered a due respect I say bugger off. If a person defecates on your floor you don't say "Oh, goodness, perhaps you'd prefer the living room?"

So note particularly those who say they disapprove (the 'moderate vitalist') of the 'Billy's' but never publicly call for their de-registration. Such types will hold up a banner of 'Individual rights' and never reflect on the fact that they are basically saying 'rights' means sitting on a fence with your 'freedom' banner while people have the right to lie through their teeth and defraud and intellectually disable a population. That is not any right but the right to leverage stupidity and danger. Simple solution - make a stand. Silence is just consent.

The 'innocent bystander' is not a protection for a professional. If you don't want to get involved that's fine but don't expect to be able to 'preach' love or reason while others get run over. That level of dumb will be pointed out pretty quickly. If it does happen then the best approach is to remember that this is why we bother creating these types of groups, because we are responsible for others. I often use the example of teaching children to safely cross a road and another was my younger self learning how to use guns. One day I showed my Aunt how to check the barrel of a rifle by looking down the sharp end (I'd taken 'lessons' from a movie I think, much like an 'education' from Sherman College). My 'freedom' to express myself was met with a slap over the head and "Don't ever do that again!". I was ashamed and hurt (the whole family was watching). My Aunt said "Don't ever check a gun like that!" 

It seems like a ridiculous example but it's ethically very sound. We are responsible to others - Vitalists will argue that the bullet can come out sideways or backwards or invisibly. (Note that 'subluxations' are discussed like this as well because faith never wants to be bothered with facts). They want the freedom to tell the public, that the public has the right to choose whatever their version is, etc. That's how stupid and unethical vitalism has become.

The reason we don't speak up is that most humans avoid trouble, naturally. We are easily indoctrinated into believing that a chiropractor just has to be kind of 'vitalistic', and are told that a strong profession must band together in UNITY. Policing unprofessionalism has fallen directly on those who choose to speak up because, again, our job is to protect the public good, not use this profession or science or philosophy as a personal platform for faith. We are bound by codes of ethics not personal satisfaction.

Here's another irony - vitalists will argue that criticism only comes from 'outside', from medicine, etc and that 'good' chiropractors must always support each other. It's bullshit. Much of our professions problem is that we are not seen to effectively self regulate. When colleagues go 'rogue' we stay silent, the tribe demands wagon circling, and that is professionally disastrous. The public sees us covering up and not acting in a manner they expect from 'experts' so this inward looking stance simply backfires on us.

If you end up swallowing Vitalism as anything like an explanation for biology or clinical reasoning or ethics this is precisely the level of thinking you'll have to adopt. Any supernatural or paranormal explanation as either science or serious philosophy requires you to STOP thinking because none of those claims can be investigated to begin with, therefore any 'evidence' or 'proof' is distortion or just personal opinion, pure conspiracy, not science or philosophy and certainly not professionalism.

If you are religious and have taken immediate offence, or if this all appears rather too 'heavy' then don't worry too much. It's all easy to ignore but I'd offer this. You can ignore it in your personal life just not inside a profession. In that sense the Tribe has spoken. We have no right to mess around with the facts and pretend that 'evidence based' is just a matter of preference, politics or personal faith.

Scientia est potentia - Knowledge is power.


Douglas Scown

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