As my students and I work through Bennett’s Vibrant Matter, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable with her vitalism. The Lucretian materialist in me is extremely uncomfortable evoking agencies and principles that are not susceptible to materialist explanation. Chapter 5 of Bennett’s Vibrant Materialism is entitled “Neither Mechanism nor Vitalism”, yet strangely we seem to get next to no discussion of mechanism and she seems to end up advocating a vitalism descending from Bergson and Driesch.

For me, I’m just unclear as to what we gain from this vitalism. The set of concerns that seem to motivate vitalism arise from a concept of matter that is purely dead such that it movement can only come to it when it is acted upon by something else. By contrast, life seems to be self-organizing, self-maintaining, and to possess agency. In many respects, this conception of matter already is at work in Aristotle’s four causes as laid out in the physics. Aristotle had argued that matter is characterized by potentiality because it can take on a variety of different forms (clay can be moulded into a vase, plate, cup, etc). Form is therefore the active principle that descends upon matter. At a metaphysical level, we thus quest the question “what is the agency by which matter takes on form?” This is a “first beginnings” sort of question about the origins of motion in the universe. We can grant that matter exists, but if it’s true that matter is characterized by potential, then it follows that motion cannot arise from matter itself. Rather, there must be some sort of outside agency that introduces form into matter. In subsequent tradition, this agency will be human beings (we form matter into various instruments) or God (god or the gods take the chaotic chora of matter, generating form or individuation in the variety of species we see in the world.

What is difficult to imagine– especially in the atomistic materialism that arises during the sixteenth and seventeenth century –is the idea of matter taking on organization of its own. Take the example of a billiards table as an example of a purely mechanical system. It is extremely difficult to imagine the billiard balls hitting one another in such a way that they take on a self-maintaining and self-organizing pattern that then strives to maintain itself across time. In this respect, vitalism becomes an attractive alternative to mechanism and theism because it allows us to imagine some immanent life-force within matter that organizes dead matter into living forms. Here we’re able to– allegedly –avoid the problems that arise from the deadness of matter without falling into theism or the postulation of a divine being that imbues matter with agency.

read on!

A couple of points here. First, isn’t this a wildly simplistic notion of matter and what is possible for matter? Second, what do we really gain by this sort of explanation? Let’s take the example of gravity. Someone asks “why do the planets revolve around the Sun?” Another person responds “because of gravity!” Here it sounds like we’ve explained something, like we’ve given the cause of orbits (gravity), but all we’ve really done is give a name to the mystery. This is how it sounds in the case of vitalism. We ask “how can there be forms of matter that are self-organizing, self-maintaining, and that possess agency?” and we answer with “by virtue of a vital principle”, yet all we’ve really done is name the qualities of life. We haven’t really evoked any sort of explanation or account.

And at issue here is whether we really need such a vital principle or creative life force at all. Take the example of a chemical clock:

Here we have a quite beautiful reaction:

What is remarkable here is the regular oscillations of these systems. Our tendency is to think mechanical systems as necessarily tending towards some sort of equilibrium state where nothing else takes place. The billiard balls scatter on the table and that’s it. But here we see something quite different. In the first Belousov-Zhabotinsky reaction we get a solution on a hot plate oscillating between the colors red and blue. The trajectory of the system is not uni-directional such that it evolves to one attractor– i.e., it becomes blue and that’s it –but rather it oscillates back and forth turning now blue, now red, and back again. Initially this phenomenon might cause us to shrug and say “so what?” But think about what this means: It means that all of the molecules that make up the solution are simultaneously shifting their relations in an ordered fashion, producing regular, ordered, cyclic behavior. This is the exact opposite of billiard balls scattering on a billiard table and coming to a state of rest.

What’s interesting here is that we don’t need any “vital principle” to explain these sorts of processes. These are entirely ordinary material processes requiring no mysterious agency to take place. In this regard, rather than suggesting that there’s some sort of vital life that resides in matter, wouldn’t it be better to say– contra what Kant says in the second half of the third Critique –that matter is able to produce life? Aren’t the phenomena of life just more complex versions of these sorts of self-organizing processes and chemical clocks? The truly radical position is not to defend a sort of vitality at the heart of matter (this, I think, is a step backwards), but to vigorously defend the ability of self-organization to take place through matter alone.