The Vital Forces and Their Relation to Other Forces

By  Dr. S. E. Carey

(With a little help from Laurence Layne)

One of the ancient philosophers said that the universe was composed of mind and matter; another one said it was composed of matter and motion. Both these propositions, though true to a certain extent, are quite indefinite and unsatisfactory. A more correct and satisfactory statement of the case is, that "matter and the motive powers constitute the sum total of the universe."

Of all the material in the universe there is no capability of motion, inertia being the natural state or condition in which it is always found to exist, whether in an organic or inorganic state; it only acts as it is acted upon by some one or more of the motive powers referred to.

This brings us properly to the consideration of the motive powers.

The first of which we shall notice, and the one which is most universal we call gravitation which acts upon all substances with a force corresponding to the amount of matter which they contain, without regard to the form, quality or temperature. There is no other motive power so universal as this one; and whilst its tendency, as it relates to a large body (as the earth), is to bring everything to a state of rest upon its surface, yet we are told by philosophers that it is this motive power or force, acting upon the celestial bodies of the universe, which keeps them in their orbits, and will continue to do so whilst time lasts.

We recognize another motive power or force, which though different from gravitation in many essential particulars, is nevertheless as clearly seen. This we call chemical affinity.

So far as we know, it never acts upon matter except when substances of different kinds or qualities are brought into immediate contact, as acids and alkalies, metals and fluids, or acids or alkalies when brought into contact with other substances. This power changes simple elements or compounds into other compounds, the elements of which bear certain definite proportions to each other.

The next motive power which we notice is called electricity by the action of which upon matter, under certain circumstances, new combinations are produced; but none of these combinations are organic—always inorganic, as the combination of oxygen and hydrogen in producing water, by passing an electric spark through a bladder filled with these gases, and many other examples which might be stated. Again, by its action compounds are often destroyed or separated into countless indefinite proportions.

So we see that at best this power only stimulates organization under certain circumstances (galvanism–as in stimulating muscle fiber twitch); but under no circumstances can it produce even the lowest animal or vegetable organization.

The next motive power which we will notice briefly is called magnetism which has the power to act directly upon metals only, to give some of them polarity, or in other words, to cause a suspended bar of metal an inclination to point to the north, with only slight variations.

Then there is the motive power we call light which seems indispensable to the growth and well-being of many vegetable and animal organizations; and especially is it necessary to the health and comfort of man; but it is admitted by all to be wholly incapable of producing either vegetables or animals, and so we pass to notice another motive power to which has been ascribed greater results than any we have yet noticed.

Hippocrates, who was the great medical oracle of his age, said, "that nature was heat or caloric" and many celebrities (such as Samuel Thomson) who have lived long since his day have embraced the same theory, notwithstanding the most superficial observer knows that heat often destroys organization in the least possible time; and hence, we see that heat can not produce organization, though it may be necessary to the comfort and well-being of man and other organizations.

In the contemplation of the subject thus far, we find that, except the magnetic power, all the motive powers act upon substances without special reference to organization.

But now we come to the consideration of motive powers which are peculiar to organizations alone: the powers which pre-exist to organization, and control it from the moment of its commencement to end of life. This motive power as it applies to man, who stands at the head of all animal organization, is what Hippocrates called nature; what Stahl called anima, and what others have called ens (particular and discrete being) or ens vital life, and what Elijah the prophet called the soul when he cried,"0 Lord my God, I pray thee let this child's soul come into him again. And the Lord heard the voice of Elijah, and the soul of the child came into him again, and he revived." — I Kings, xvii.

There is a motive power, a vital force, which preexists to every form of organization, controls its growth, and presides over and directs all its operations peculiar to it, until some superior force impairs or destroys the organization, and the vital force is driven from it, when we say it is dead, or, as applied to man, we say "the soul has departed." But we may be asked. How do we know there is a motive power peculiar to all organizations, or how do we know that all the phenomena of life which we observe are not the result of some or all the motive powers first before mentioned?

We know that the natural tendency of the SIX motive powers first mentioned: gravitation, chemical affinity, electricity, magnetism, light, caloric or heat, is to destroy organizations of all kinds, instead of producing any of the phenomena of life, unless they are controlled by a superior force, as applied to the organization. For example: We see that if the body was not controlled by a superior power there would be no capability of locomotion, or even power in the body to maintain an erect position, because the force of gravitation would keep the body in a state of rest or immobility.

Therefore we are brought to the inevitable conclusion that all organizations are controlled by a motive power "vital force" or life power; that in the human organization the life force—vital force — builds up and controls the organism, independent of all other forces or motive powers; that these are brought into use by this vital force, but always act in obedience or subserviency to it. Further than this, we are brought to the conclusion that there is a vital force — life power —peculiar to each organized being or vegetable, and hence there are as many vital forces as there are animals and vegetables in the universe.

Transcript of a talk given at the Indiana State Physio-Medical Convention held June, 1874. Originally printed in the Physio-Medical Journal and Reform Advocate Vol. I. Indianapolis, July, 1875. No. 7, Pages 193.

This article was edited down to about 1/2 its original length for clarity by Laurence Layne. You can read the full article with comments by Dr. Alva Curtis and Prof. John Young at

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