Preserving Our Vitalistic Philosophy


The chiropractic profession is at a precarious place relative to universal acceptance. If we abandon our vitalistic, above-down philosophy, we will likely achieve universal acceptance as a limited mechanistic model (musculoskeletal conditions). If we maintain our vitalistic objective (correcting vertebral subluxations to enable the innate intelligence of the body to be better expressed), we run the risk of alienating an increasingly naturalistic (mechanistic) government, scientific community and general population. We are being asked to give up our philosophy for the sake of scientific acceptance and the assumed advantages that will bring to our profession.

Science is King

While it appears that in modern times science and philosophy have parted ways and science has assumed the dominant role, that is really not the case. Scientists have merely taken on a philosophy of metaphysical naturalism and called it science. The late Dr. Mendelsohn often referred to medicine as a religion.(1) If that is so, then for the same reasons, science has reached the point of assuming the role of a religion. Like all religions throughout history, after gaining a position of dominance, it has assumed a tyrannical position over all other schools of thought.

Culture defines science and we have allowed the naturalist, reductionist, materialist, mechanist, and atheistic scientist to define science. No less an eminent scientist than Frances Crick, discoverer of DNA double helix, maintains that materialism and only materialism is science. Anything else is religion.(2) Therefore, a vitalistic concept cannot have any place in a scientific endeavor. While the straight chiropractor sees a vitalistic model as a basis for what he does, the naturalistic scientist wants to relegate this “religious belief” to a small part of one’s life, no more than a perfunctory “nod to God” on Saturday or Sunday. He sees it as almost a leftover from an earlier life, some superstitious gesture we do out of habit knowing that it really is worthless, like “knocking on wood.” The last thing we should do is allow it to seep into any other aspect of our life, least of all, anything that is part of a scientific endeavor. Crick said in criticism of religious people, although I am not sure he was serious, that “if the members of a church really believe in life after death why don’t they conduct sound experiments to establish it?”(3)

The mechanists in the scientific community (and the two terms are almost synonymous) are becoming more and more vicious in their attacks. They have moved from the compromising position of allowing vitalistic and theistic concepts to have a place (albeit a small place) in one’s life, to the position that they are totally irrelevant to life. William Provine provides perhaps the most uncompromising point of view when he said, “you have to check your brains at the church house door if you take modern biology seriously.”(4) In the halls of science vitalism is viewed with disgust. In the minds of the scientists science is for everybody. Their argument is that since the use of the senses is verifiable by everyone, it should be considered the universal determinant for truth. It does not necessitate a belief system, a leap of faith, revelation or even the use of reason (a method of perception apparently only a relatively few people are capable of utilizing). The fact that experience is only applicable to matters subject to verifiable experiment is inconsequential to them. The mechanists assume that all matters are or will eventually be verifiable if they are of any importance.

Of course, to take that position, science must begin with a heuristic assumption that there is no such thing as vitalistic or supernatural intervention. Then they see how far they can go with proving that position. When they come to an obstacle, they are not discouraged because they have already determined a priori that they are on the right track and they use examples of what they have found thus far to convince themselves they are on the right path. The classical example is evolution. Science concludes that man sprang from a non-living primordia. No other explanation is possible. (Although one scientist has seriously suggested that life was deposited on the planet by aliens). The fact that a finch’s beak on the Galapagos Islands can change size to adapt to changes in the food source or that a moth can change color due to pollution in the air is enough proof for them that one species can evolve into another, and that a complex mechanism like the eye can evolve from a one-celled animal. However, in order to survive, naturalistic mechanism must destroy vitalism and theism. Naturalism is a philosophy of life, and as such, competing philosophies must be thrown out one way or another. Mechanism, is a philosophy of random activity, purposeless design, no order, no value and therefore, it must, in one way or another, eradicate any thinking or philosophy that relates to order, organization, purpose, intelligent creation or intelligent design. With these diametrically opposed philosophies, it is only natural that the vitalistic philosophy of chiropractic should come under attack.

The attack upon chiropractic vitalistic philosophy has come from outside and inside the profession. Within the profession are people like Donahue and outside the profession are others like Wardwell and Coulter and then, of course, there is Keating, who is neither in nor out. The attack comes on two fronts, first, the need for a scientific model for chiropractic and second, the need to abandon the philosophy which they do not consider a philosophy at all.

The Need for a Chiropractic Science

The science of the above mentioned individuals and others of their persuasion is one quite different from that of D.D. and B.J. It is clearly a naturalistic science that they embrace, little different than that of the rest of the mainstream scientific community. Science in 1895 was much more vitalistic. Darwin’s Origin of Species was only 36 years old. While scientists were embracing Darwin’s naturalistic, atheistic philosophy, most scientists had not abandoned the theistic thinking of the general population. The famous Scopes trial on the right to even teach evolution in the public schools was still more than 30 years away when D.D. gave his first adjustment. The science of chiropractic clearly had a vitalistic overtone to it so there was little conflict with its philosophy. The philosophy of D.D. and B.J. leaves no doubt that they viewed innate intelligence and universal intelligence as a subset manifestation of or even synonymous with Deity.(5) The science of chiropractic as D.D. and B.J. espoused it was not atheistic naturalism and did not conflict with their vitalistic chiropractic philosophy. But as we move into the second century of our profession, things have changed. As already noted, the science of the late 20th-century is naturalistic/mechanistic and antagonistic toward a vitalistic philosophy, any vitalistic philosophy. Those within the profession who consider themselves scientists or who see science as the flagship of chiropractic’s future naturally share that antagonism, even if it means directing animosity toward the traditions, the philosophy, the Founder, the Developer and anyone else who espouses a philosophy other than the philosophy of science. Their position is that science has abandoned vitalism and if chiropractic is going to have any relationship with the scientific community, it too must abandon its vitalistic philosophy. Their collective cry is that just as it was all right to believe in Creationism before Darwin, it was all right to have innate and universal intelligence as our foundation but now we have science and we no longer need superstition or to “knock on wood” for luck. Not only don’t we need it but unless we give it up and acknowledge that if it ever was needed, it was only until we matured enough as a profession to the enlightened place that we now are (or at least some of us are), we will not advance as a profession.

The argument for the need of a scientific model automatically creates an attack on the philosophy. Many in the profession (estimated as high as 80%), both the straights and others who are not willing to abandon the metaphysical “innate philosophy,” fail to see that you cannot have it both ways. If we want to join the “scientific community,” we must recant our philosophy. Many do not see that. They are like the theologians who believe that somehow Christianity and evolution can be made compatible. In a sense, we are fortunate to have people like Donahue and Keating who keep reminding us that science and the mainstream, health care community are mechanistic and for us to move away from a fringe, alternative-care, healing art and into the mainstream, we better get with the mechanistic program. Donahue(6) agrees that chiropractic should have a metaphysical belief system that undergirds one’s practice. He says he opposes the idea that the system be unchanging. However, he really has no problem with an unchanging system as long as that system does not hold to a vitalistic/theistic philosophy (the two are synonymous in his mind). In other words, your metaphysical basis can be anything as long as it is not innate intelligence. He suggests that the metaphysical construct for chiropractic be that “disease is a process rather than an entity.”(7) Whether he is willing to ever change that metaphysical belief system is beside the point. He clearly elucidates where he is coming from, “…science is generally regarded as being metaphysically grounded in a natural philosophy called materialism. Its root metaphor is that the world can be understood in terms of natural objects without recourse to vitalistic explanations such as God or innate.”(8) It is this statement that is Donahue’s (and science’s) metaphysical belief system undergirding everything and which is not changeable.

Nelson, a researcher at Northwestern College of Chiropractic, is not as accepting as Donahue of a metaphysical foundation. He says that science is incompatible with metaphysical thinking and that you do not start out with metaphysical concepts (e.g., universal intelligence) and call yourself a science.(9) Of course that is just a debater’s technique. Nelson, like Donahue, has a metaphysical concept and like Donahue, it is naturalism.

The attack on objective straight chiropractic philosophy occurs on two other fronts. The first is on the word “philosophy” itself. Statements made that there is no such thing as “chiropractic philosophy,” that it should be “the philosophy of chiropractic” are merely an attempt to undermine our philosophy. Terms like “the philosophy of the science of chiropractic” also try to obscure the argument. Whether chiropractic has or is a philosophy, science or merely an art is open to discussion and not the subject of this paper. Whatever philosophy we have or is associated with chiropractic is being taken away or denied as even being ours. Coulter says, “philosophies such as vitalism, holism, critical rationalism, etc. were neither developed by chiropractic or unique to it.”(10) In other words, anything that is legitimate philosophy is not chiropractic.

Much of the argument is meant to obfuscate and illegitimize everything about the philosophy of chiropractic. While it is true that much of practice building, spizzerinctum and anti-medical rhetoric is passed off as chiropractic philosophy, that does not deny the fact that what we generally consider to be chiropractic philosophy falls within one or more of the nine dictionary definitions of the word. There is a clear conspiracy to denigrate chiropractic philosophy, maintain it does not exist, or redefine it within a scientific framework. The often times unclear and vacillating writings of D.D. and B.J. are used as an historical basis for getting rid of the philosophy.(11) But in reality, having a philosophy is not the problem. Everyone has a philosophy of some sort. The whole attempt is to accomplish one objective, to remove the vitalistic component from the chiropractic philosophy.

The other attack on philosophy is on the deductive process that we use in objective straight chiropractic.(12) It is not so much that deductive processes are anti-scientific but that the deduction we use in chiropractic is based upon a blatantly anti-neoscientific (naturalistic) concept called universal intelligence. Science has no problem finding truth through deduction. They have done exactly that with evolution. They begin with an a priori assumption that the world and life began by chance. That is a metaphysical concept. It is not scientific. To be scientific it must be capable of being proved incorrect. It obviously is not. That is the same reason why universal intelligence is a metaphysical concept and not scientific. From this, a priori, they concluded evolution. (Which is the only logical deduction you can draw from that starting point). They then go about finding scientific data (or manufacturing it, e.g., Piltdown Man) to support their deductions. So the problem with straight chiropractic is not so much our deductive philosophy. It is the starting point of it, our Major Premise.

A Universal Intelligence is in all matter and continually gives to it all its properties and actions, thus maintaining it in existence.


There is one further attack on straight chiropractic’s vitalistic philosophy and that is that it hinders scientific investigation and advancement within the profession. The call for science and research is legitimate on many chiropractic fronts but it is also part of the conspiracy to do away with the vitalistic tenets of our profession. Frankly, the argument has no merit. B.J. Palmer, who developed the philosophy more than anyone, also did more research than anyone else. Second, there are vitalistic chiropractors doing research on many fronts. People like Stillwagon, Fuhr, Spano and those associated with Sherman College all hold to a vitalistic philosophy which does not hinder their research. Chiropractors have, in fact, engaged in scientific activities to establish scientific validity for our deductive conclusions. That has caused us to fine tune and develop our philosophy. Or perhaps more correctly, check our slipping. One example is the clinical results that have demonstrated to us that chiropractic is not a cure-all (everybody doesn’t get well in a chiropractic office). This has helped us get back to the philosophy that chiropractic is a cure-nothing, that it relates to DIS-EASE rather than disease.(13) Third, there are plenty of mechanistic chiropractors and others of like mind around, like Nelson and Keating, to do the research. In fact, the mechanists control education, accreditation and the chiropractic purse strings so that to make a whipping boy out of our vitalistic philosophy for the lack of research is unfair. The problem is not the paucity of research that irritates the mechanists, it’s the fact that the vitalists are not interested in doing the research that the mechanists want to do. The vitalists do not see chiropractic as a treatment for any condition or disease, least of all musculoskeletal problems which are the adopted child of the mechanistic segment of our profession. There is plenty of legitimate research within the vitalistic paradigm, it is just not the research that the mechanists want to do to prove the efficacy of “chiropractic treatment” to the scientific community. Vitalism does not hinder our profession’s advancement. Bad philosophy does, bad metaphysics does, bad science does and incorrect thinking does. Thinking based upon incorrect metaphysical assumptions will hinder the profession. The issue is, which is a bad metaphysical assumption-vitalism or religious mechanism (science based upon unprovable a priori assumptions)? That really gets to the heart of the issue. It is not philosophy vs science. It is two different ways of looking at life that are at odds.

The Conflict of Philosophies

Philosopher John Searle, politician Patrick Buchanan and law professor Phillip Johnson have suggested that society is embroiled in a culture war. Chiropractic is one small battle in that war. We often use the word “paradigm” to mean a model. But the word means much more than just that. It is also “the conceptional framework that permits the explanation and investigation of phenomena or the objects of study in a field of study” (Heritage Dictionary). A paradigm assumes a way of looking at life. Theories of the origin of the universe and life exist in every culture. These theories influence objectivity, value system, government, sociology, religion, law, the arts and relative to this discussion, philosophy and science, and these theories themselves are influenced by the world and life viewpoint.

The naturalist thinks and acts from an outside-in perspective. He is mechanistic. He sees man as a point on the evolutionary scale having come from and going in a direction that has no purpose or rational end. A mechanist must be atheistic if he is to carry his thinking to its logical conclusion. His model assumes that God does not exist, did not interject Himself into human history in any way, and that man has no purpose or rational end. He then goes about accumulating facts to support that assumption. Further, he must eradicate any vitalistic or supernatural concepts from every endeavor, whether it be value systems, sociology, psychology, science or modern chiropractic.

The vitalist/theist has made an assumption concerning the universe. It is based on intelligent design, order, organization and the existence of an intelligent designer. As part of that world and life viewpoint the objective straight chiropractor assumes intelligent design in the human body and an intelligent designer. Everything, including man, has a purpose and has a cause which creates effects. The objective straight chiropractor’s actions are based on the assumption that the human body is not the result of billions of years of random activity that has by chance resulted in the complex and beautifully organized human body but is the result of a principle or law that exists apart from the body and manifests itself through it. This principle is part of a larger principle or law. While it is not part of the objective straight chiropractic philosophy to name or describe this Lawgiver, it is traditionally accepted that it is a Supreme Being which the Palmers had no apparent reservation in calling God.

This step back beyond our vitalistic chiropractic philosophy is a natural progression. It can be logically and historically argued that our philosophy arises from a theistic world and life viewpoint. It is this, more than anything else, that grates upon the chiropractic mechanists causing them to reject our philosophy, innate intelligence and its foundation, universal intelligence. Much to the frustration of the chiropractic mechanists, the vitalist cannot divorce his vitalistic or theistic concepts from any area of life. The objective straight chiropractor cannot divorce innate intelligence from the art, science or the philosophy. That would be like asking a Christian to apply his ethical principles only to his friends and not love his enemies, or an orthodox Jew to apply his religion only to his Sabbath activities and not to his dietary habits. Or for that matter, expecting Madelyn Murray O’Hare to fight to get prayer and Bible reading out of public schools but not care about “In God We Trust” being printed on our money. The mechanistic aspect attacks us because of our tradition. We are denigrated as unscientific because of “Palmer fundamentalism…belief in God or God’s agent, Innate Intelligence, is blatantly untestable, yet generations of practitioners have adhered to this biotheology and have thereby justified (among themselves) the broad applicability and prophylactic value of their services.”(14) It may be true that innate intelligence is untestable and that may make it unscientific in the eyes of neoscience but that makes it no less valid than black holes, the big bang and relativity. One would be hard pressed to call Hawking, Roger Penrose or Einstein unscientific, all of whom have produced theories that are untestable yet accepted as fact by most of the scientific community.

The Future of Vitalistic Chiropractic

Being a vitalistic profession causes objective straight chiropractic to occupy a unique place in the community. We may very well be the only school of thought outside of theology that holds to an ADIO world and life viewpoint. That viewpoint has virtually disappeared from science and the health fields. It is a difficult position to maintain. To the “scientific” opposition to that viewpoint (in and out of the profession) we represent the last vestiges of an archaic system of thought. In our minds we are the last bastion of an important world and life viewpoint that impinges upon every aspect of human existence. We are neither fish nor fowl. We are not a religion but outside of religion, conversely, nobody in the mainstream of scientific thinking has our paradigm. I’m not sure but that this precarious position was not partially responsible for D.D.’s suggestion that chiropractic become a religion (15), Shears’ similar suggestion (16) and the development of Spinology (17). It is definitely an impossible position in the field of biology. Dean Kenyon, a distinguished biology professor at San Francisco State University, experienced the real world politics of our position. Kenyon was the co-author of Biochemical Predestination, a book about the origin of life on earth. His text reflected the naturalistic philosophy of the scientific community. Over time, however, Kenyon became disenchanted with the naturalistic explanation of life as a series of purposeless, random, chemical events that by sheer chance over billions of years resulted in life as we know it. In his classroom lectures he voiced his skepticism and presented the argument of intelligent design as an alternative. He apparently stayed very vitalistic and was careful to avoid religion. However, after a few student complaints, the department chairman announced Kenyon would no longer teach his course because he was introducing “religious opinions” into the science curriculum. Fortunately, his appeal to the school’s Academic Freedom Committee caused a reversal of the decision but it demonstrates that even universal intelligence is viewed as a religious concept. (18)

The battle will heat up, but why? Why should it happen? We know from history the damage done by “religious wars.” I would suggest it is the same reason that religious wars occur. The mechanistic and vitalistic viewpoints both precipitate action. Those that want to strip chiropractic of its philosophy do so because it is “a system of principles for guidance in practical affairs, a philosophy of life” (Heritage Dictionary). It sets standards and directs action. Naturalistic philosophies and mechanists do not want standards, principles or a system based on anything but their own arbitrary desires. They do not want to play by any rules but their own. Science is supposed to be amoral but it cannot exist as such in a moral void. There are moral decisions in science and the health field to be made every day. But that is not their desire. If they have no restriction, then anything they do is right. That is a pretty frightening thought for the health care community. If you recognize an innate intelligence, it is an altogether different ball game and a new set of rules are your guidelines in practical affairs. The issue of chiropractic clinical research and a philosophy hindering it was the argument presented earlier. I would suggest that clinical research without a philosophy is dangerous. Without a value system and a set of standards it will go in any direction. Of course, the easiest direction is the line of least resistance, which is disease treatment and within that is the treatment of musculoskeletal conditions. Having a naturalistic philosophy that denies a principle greater than self is a model that hinders us. Further, a metaphysical foundation does not skew our objectivity. Nelson says that real science is not being sure about anything.(19) (I assume they are sure about the truth of that statement). Not being sure about anything does not give you objectivity. It poisons your objectivity toward absolutes, standards, principles or laws. That is what naturalism does and I propose that is more dangerous than the metaphysical a priori foundation of vitalistic philosophy. Perhaps the fact that we are sure about something (that the innate intelligence can run the body better than the educated intelligence) is why they really hate us. But for all the diatribe on their part, (and a little on ours) we are getting together. Dialogue and debate is taking place, accreditation has thrust us together. Frankly, it is a bit frightening. I am not sure that we are strong enough philosophically to not be drawn into the naturalistic mechanistic model. If it happens, it will happen one step at a time. We are already taking that first step and it is a philosophical one. In objective straight chiropractic philosophy, we begin with universal intelligence. We say that it is a law but inherent within the existence of a law is a Lawgiver. We have been careful not to talk about Who or what created that law and the law of active organization (innate intelligence), although it is clear from D.D.’s and B.J.’s writings that they considered these principles (universal intelligence and innate intelligence) to emanate from a theistic mindset. It seems rather ludicrous to talk about vitalistic principles (not chiropractic principles) and ignore the Creator of that principle. Similarly, to talk about the Law of Life and not the Lawgiver seems to be lacking something. We have been careful not to go any further back than universal intelligence to avoid “religious overtones” to chiropractic. The legitimate question is, can we continue to do that? We apparently need to acknowledge that there is Someone that transcends our chiropractic terms or from which they emanate. We can say that anyone is free to call that Someone what they want: God, Jehovah, Allah, Jesus or just to recognize the transcendence of universal intelligence. But we need to emphasize that whatever it or He is, the existence is apart from the matter, separate and distinct from the material, although clearly manifested by it. In other words, we must have a preternatural or supernatural mindset to keep our chiropractic philosophy pure. If we do not, I suggest that we run the risk of going the way of mechanism philosophically and in practice. The medical doctor acknowledges vis medicatrix or nature’s healing ability. But there is no practical outworking of that knowledge. The reason is that vis medicatix is part of the matter, not separate and distinct from it, and since the matter is where the physician directs his attention, he is free to alter it, leave it alone or try to improve upon it. The mechanistic chiropractor takes a similar position. Donahue (20) says that organization and control are biological attributes, they are inherent in an organism rather than something apart from the organism that gives to it its “organismness” (my term) and can be taken away rendering the organism lifeless. But chiropractic philosophy does not agree. Innate intelligence is separate from the matter, the force is separate and distinct from the matter also. True, they are in union but there is a difference between separate entities being in union and being the same thing. A group of people may be part of an organization (an organism if you will) but they still maintain their individual characteristics and qualities: They do not lose their identity. I believe there is a trend in our chiropractic philosophy to cause the innate intelligence of the body to lose its identity and become “one with the matter.” Innate intelligence is not the matter in active organization, it is manifested by the matter in active organization. The former idea is acceptable to the mechanistic chiropractor, the naturalistic scientist and the atheist. The latter is not, it presupposes a something that is separate from the matter and while chiropractic does not identify what it is, this position causes people to consider that Something and are challenged to relate it to their health, their life, their action, and their value system. That is the key. The amoral scientist does not want to consider that there are laws or a Lawgiver that is superior to his educated brain, to whom he owes obeisance. He can do what he wants; ethics, values, morals, right or wrong, are only as he perceives them. That’s the difference between us and them. To the objective straight chiropractor there is always the innate intelligence of the body which must be accepted, respected and deferred to. Why is all of this of importance? I believe there are people within the straight chiropractic community who are willing to compromise in order to placate the scientific community. We can join the scientific community but only on their terms. These terms include compromising the vitalistic philosophy that we adhere to. We do not have to compromise the correction of vertebral subluxation, just the reason for doing it. Should that happen, we will lose the uniqueness of our philosophy and head down the mechanistic road. We are at a crucial point in the history of our philosophy. We can integrate our philosophy into the mainstream scientific paradigm but only if we are willing to abandon the basis for our vitalistic philosophy. Or we can maintain our present position, as a fringe profession tenaciously holding to our 19th century philosophy, and wait and hope that science will one day come to us.


1. Mendelsohn, R., Confessions of a Medical Heretic.
2. Johnson, P., Reason in the Balance.
3. ibid.
4. ibid.
5. Palmer, D.C., The Chiropractors Adjustor, 1910, Portland Printing Co.
6. Donahue, Joseph, “Principles of Tone,” Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, 1993, National College of Chiropractic.
7. ibid.
8. ibid.
9. Great Debate Video, 1995, Chicago, IL.
10. Coulter, I.D., Uses and Abuses of Philosophy in Chiropractic, Philosophical Constructs for the Chiropractic Profession, Vol. 2 No. 1, National College, 1992.
11. Keating, Joseph, The Evolution of Palmers’ Metaphors and Hypotheses, Philosophical Constructs for the Chiropractic Profession, National College, Vol. 2 No. 1, 1992.
12. Keating, Joseph, “Five Contribution to a Philosophy of the Science of Chiropractic,” JMPT, Vol. 10, No. 1, February, 1987.
13. Strauss, Joseph B., Chiropractic Philosophy.
14. Keating, Joseph, Traditional Barriers to Standards of Knowledge Production in Chiropractic, Chiropractic Technique, Williams and Wilkes, 1990.
15. Palmer, D.D., The Chiropractor published posthumously, 1914.
16. Strauss, Joseph B., “A Unique Approach to a Fee System”, Journal of Straight Chiropractic.
17. Gregory, Thomas, conversation with author, November 9, 1995.
18. Johnson.
19. Nelson, Craig, quote from video of Great Debate.
20. Donahue, Joseph, Letters to the editor, p76, Journal of Chiropractic Humanities, Vol. 5 No. 1, National College, 1995.

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