Toward a Biology Worthy of Life > From Physical Causes to Organisms of Meaning > Brief excerpt
A project by Stephen L. Talbott

The false specter of vitalism (1)

But this entire discussion of ideas and meaning in the world brings us face to face with a haunting specter we need to exorcise once for all: the specter of vitalism. The accusation of vitalism seems inevitably to arise whenever someone points to the being of the organism as a maker of meaning. This is owing to a legacy of dualism that makes it almost impossible for people today to imagine idea, meaning, and thought as anything other than ghostly epiphenomena within human skulls. So the suggestion that ideas and meaning are “out there” in the world of cells and organisms immediately provokes the assumption that one is really talking about some special sort of physical causation rather than about a content of thought intrinsic to organic phenomena. That is, ideas and meanings are taken to imply a vital force or energy or substance somehow distinct from the forces, energies, and substances referenced in our formulations of physical law. Such an entity or power would indeed be a spectral addition to the world — an addition for which no one has ever managed to identify a physical basis.

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