A Really Big Question Part I

What's the difference between a live and a dead body?

Posted Feb 27, 2017

I’ve got a really big question for you.

Uh-oh. What is it this time?

It’s nothing personal. I just think it’s interesting.

You always do this. I end up very confused.

No problem. We can do something else.

No, I like it. I know you’re not trying to show off or one-up me. It gets me thinking. Go for it.

OK, What’s the difference between a live and a dead body?

Well, obviously, one is alive and the other’s dead.

Yeah, but what accounts for that difference?

The dead one is missing whatever makes it living.

And what is it that makes a body living?

Um…vital force?

What is vital force?

You know, it’s a force that makes things come alive.

A force like the wind?

Sort of. It’s breathed into matter.

And gets it breathing? 

It’s like spirit.

Spirit, inspiration, respiration – they all have the same root.

Exactly. Spirit respired into us, causing us inspiration.

And respiration.


So exactly like the wind or breath?

No, more special than that. I mean wind can inspire us but wind is just wind.

And vital force isn't just wind?

No. Maybe it acts like wind blowing through us but vital force is its own kind of thing.

OK, so the difference between a live and dead body is that the vital force gusts in and out of matter. When it’s in, we’re alive; when it’s out we’re dead?

Yeah. When you’re born, the vital force enters and when you die the vital force leaves.

Can you detect this vital force? I mean does it weigh anything or have a charge or pressure?

What do you mean?

I mean is there any way we can sense it, like with our senses or with scientific instruments.

Sure we can sense it. I mean we can tell the difference between a live and dead body.

I’m not asking whether we can detect the consequences of it. I’m asking whether we can detect vital force itself.

Well, wind doesn’t weigh anything, so no reason to think that vital force does, right?

Yeah, but we can detect wind. It’s pressure from gas molecules that do weigh something. We can detect the gas molecules and the direction of the pressure.

Sure, but wind does disappear. You get high winds that calm down and stop being winds.

The pressure can disappear but the gas doesn’t, does it? It’s not like the air molecules disappear.

You’re right. Vital force isn’t exactly like the wind that way. It’s a force like wind but it’s not a natural substance like air.

A force that involves no material?

No. A supernatural force. Some supernatural material.

Ah, so it’s from a separate realm. There’s the natural realm and the supernatural realm, and vital force is from the supernatural realm?


So it’s made of some matter but not of natural matter. Maybe a supernatural material.

That’s right. The force and what it's made of are beyond our ability to detect.

OK, so you’re saying that we know it must exist because it makes the difference between being alive and dead. We know it by its consequences. And we can guess that it works like wind entering and exiting us. But it’s beyond us to know what it’s made of because it’s supernatural, so we can’t sense it.

Sounds about right.

OK so tell me what you think of this. Forensic scientists are called in to explain why this guy died. They find a bullet wound from a gun owned by the guy’s enemy. But since the scientists are hired by the guy’s enemy, they say the bullet wound didn’t kill him; the guy died because an undetectable supernatural force left his body.

That’s ridiculous. They can’t prove that.

But you can’t prove that it’s not the case either can you?

The bullet wound is right there.

Yes, but it’s not beyond a reasonable doubt to assume that this supernatural force leaving his body is the cause of death since the force is undetectable.

I read somewhere that when we die we lose about 21 grams of weight. That's the vital force leaving us.

Yup, a study done in 1901, long since debunked. We weigh the same dead or alive.

Oh. OK, well like I said, supernatural.

Right, and therefore undetectable. It’s like what causes us to come alive is the opposite of an undetectable poison gas. Vital force is an undetectable life-giving gas. When the matter that you’re made of absorbs this undetectable gas, the gas makes you alive, and when this undetectable gas exits the matter that is you, you’re dead. So the forensic scientists can just say, "he died of supernatural causes. The vital force left his body."

Nonsense. You can see the bullet wound.

Sure, but maybe the bullet wound came after the supernatural vital force left his body. And you can’t prove otherwise.

Those aren’t forensic scientists, they’re con artists.

Good. So, name a different kind of scientist.

How about a chemist?

OK, so these chemists are called upon to explain why soap forms bubbles and they say there’s a supernatural bubble force that makes bubbles form. It’s undetectable. It enters into soap and makes bubbles.

But there’s a natural explanation for why soap forms bubbles.

And there isn’t a natural explanation for what makes living bodies alive?

No there isn’t. There’s no natural explanation for life, so it’s OK for scientists to say there’s a supernatural vital force.

So anytime scientists haven’t yet found a natural explanation for something, it’s OK for them to resort to supernatural explanations?

I’m not a scientist.

Me neither. But tell me if you’re cool with that. By that standard, there’s no scientific mystery that hasn’t already been solved. It’s solved with a natural explanation or, if not, then it’s solved with a supernatural explanation.

Not exactly solved by a supernatural explanation, but it’s OK for a non-scientist like me to use supernatural explanations for things that scientists haven’t yet solved with natural explanations.

Good. So you’re saying the that the supernatural explanation isn’t a scientific one. But it satisfies you.

More than satisfies. See, I think the vital force is a force for good. I work to align with the vital force.

OK, so let me ask you this. Comparing vital force to the wind’s force, would you say that both are forces for good?

No. So I guess that’s another difference. Wind is just wind. It can do good like with windmills or bad like with tornados. It’s not a force for good or bad.

Which raises new questions. If vital force is good, are bad people lacking in vital force? I mean, would you say that the more bad you do, the closer to death you are?

Yes. If you do bad things, the consequences will catch up with you. Those who live by the sword die by the sword.

OK, then how do you explain folks like Stalin who killed 35 to 50 million people and died at 73 of natural causes?

Hmmm…I don’t know.

But you’re suggesting somehow that vital force is a force for good, so the more virtuous you are, the more vital force is in you and the healthier you are?

Maybe Stalin paid in an afterlife for all the evil he did.

Is the afterlife natural or supernatural?

Supernatural. I mean, that’s what people report from near death experiences. Maybe when we die we move to the supernatural realm.

And before we’re born?

Maybe that’s also existence in the supernatural realm.

OK, so vital force is like wind a force that results from some supernatural substance, a supernatural equivalent to air that somehow gets breathed into matter making us come alive in in the natural world to do good here, and then when that force passes out of us, we die, and live on in the supernatural realm.

Or we go there temporarily and then return here. I don’t know.

It’s confusing, isn’t it?

It is. It’s a mystery.

Meaning you don’t know the answer?

Well, I just have my hunches.

And even more confusing because a lot of people who think of life as the product of a good spirit or vital force define good very differently from how you define it.

How do you mean?

Well, terrorists who think that God, a supernatural force, inspires them to be terrorists. Like you, they’re trying to align with this vital force. They think that terrorism is good, what the supernatural force wants.

Oh, that. Yes, that’s a problem too.

Another problem if you don’t mind.

Well, maybe just one more. This is hard.

The people who have near-death experiences, they report on memories of what they saw when almost dying? Are their memories natural or supernatural?

No, the memories are just memories. They’re natural. Brain stuff.

OK, so let me ask you this. If we saw writing in the sky that said “I’m God and I’m real,” would the writing be natural or supernatural?

The writing would be natural but they would be a sign of something supernatural.

Yup. Like the memories, natural but about or from something supernatural.

Yes. After all, the supernatural is undetectable. What’s detectable is the natural consequences of it.

So natural consequences from supernatural causes, like the way that being alive is a natural consequence of a supernatural vital force?


And the dead guy’s death from a supernatural loss of vital force and not from the bullet wound?

Yeah. I see the problem.

To me, that’s the problem with all supernatural explanations. Everything we attribute to the supernatural comes from natural consequences that we can’t yet explain from natural sources. It’s like if we can’t find natural explanations, we say it’s caused by something from the supernatural realm.

My point exactly about the guy with the bullet wound. Since we have a natural explanation for his death we don’t have to bother with supernatural explanations.

But doctors can always give us a natural explanation for the difference between a living and dead body.

Sure. Cancer, poison, old age, whatever.

But not for the fundamental difference between a living and dead body.

Well, maybe they can. I wouldn’t know. I’m not a scientist.

Yeah, but you have all sorts of other basic scientific explanations, explanations for sunsets, the tides, lightning. If scientists had a clear natural explanation for the difference between life and death you’d probably have heard about it, right?

Yeah, and I can’t remember ever hearing an explanation for what makes matter come alive that’s anything like the scientific consensus about what lightning is.

Are you at all willing to think with me about whether there’s a natural answer to the mystery, some scientific explanation for the difference between a live and a dead body?


And you saw right away the ways that the vital force argument becomes sketchy.  Maybe we can just use our powers of reasoning, at least to eliminate possibilities and hone in on what’s left that could explain the difference between being alive and dead.

Yeah, I’m up for that but not now. This stuff is hard and it makes me tired. Maybe we can see what’s on TV?

I’m up for that.

I mean live it up some while we’re alive, right?

Yes, but how do you know we’re alive. I mean, really, what’s the difference between a live and dead body?


I’m just yanking your chain. Let’s see what’s on TV.

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