The Ghost in the Machine
What do we demand of Science? Vitamin-reinforced bread and astronautical circuses; Genesis according to Hoyle and the Revelations of Teilhard the Divine; piecemeal, tentative theories about those aspects of nature that we can now bring into focus; or a bit of all three? That question must not be answered in a hurry. For all three ambitions—technological, theological, and philosophical—have been operative throughout the development of scientific thought, and its history could be written with an eye to the changing balance between them.
Certainly, technology has been the junior partner in the alliance. The mask of Francis Bacon has always concealed the face of Isaac Newton, and has been used by scientists to catch patrons for their excursions into philosophy and theology. (Recall how the newly hatched Royal Society elected as its Secretary Samuel Pepys of Charles II’s Admiralty, and how today’s National Science Foundation was incubated beforehand within the Office of Naval Research.) Though always a selling point, technology has, intellectually speaking, never come near to the heart of science. For that one must look rather at the other two strands: the piecemeal, tentative aim well captured in Karl Popper’s formula, Conjectures and Refutations, of conceiving and criticizing hypothetical solutions to specific theoretical problems; and the more comprehensive, speculative aim, of fitting these theoretical concepts together into an all-embracing—and, if possible, a humanly significant—view of the world.
Many tough-minded scientists (it is true) dislike having science linked with theology even more than with technology, regarding their tender-minded colleagues’ effusions about Creation, or design, or freewill, as a mark of soft-centeredness for which Science herself (Hagia Sophia) is in no way responsible. Still: from the time of Newton until barely a century ago, the theological aims of science were accepted as co-equal with its theoretical aims, so that “natural theology” was an institutionalized element in the scientific enterprise itself. When, for instance, the Royal Society sponsored publication of the Bridgewater Treatises (on “the Power, Wonder, and Goodness of God, as manifested in the Creation”) nobody questioned that this was a proper function for a scientific academy. Natural theology has become wholly “disestablished” from the kingdom of Science only in the twentieth century.
Even now, there are those who deplore the new order of things. In different ways, such men as Michael Polanyi and Julian Huxley, Arthur Koestler and Teilhard de Chardin all express regret at the severance of “natural philosophy” from the discussion of Weltanschauungen. All of them let their intellectual imaginations roam beyond the established results of disciplined scientific research, into cloudier regions of speculation—about Personal Knowledge as a clue to the Divine, about a religion based on Science rather than Revelation, or about a “Christogenesis” which shall be the apotheosis of both biological and human history. The appearance of the final installment of the vast trilogy that has occupied Arthur Koestler for the last ten years, or more, is an occasion for reassessing the new situation.
Intellectual courage and imagination on this scale are, in themselves, rare and admirable; but has there not been something misguided about the whole thing? Faced with Koestler’s attempt to bring the concepts of the different sciences into a synthetic unity, for the sake of a general Vision of Nature that will illuminate the Glory and Predicament of Man, we must ask: “Were there not in fact strong reasons, both sociological and intellectual, why scientific theory was divorced from natural theology in the first place—reasons that still hold?”
BEFORE TURNING to the actual substance of Koestler’s completed trilogy, we must recall the hurdles he has set himself to clear. First, the institutional hurdle: the chief sociological mark of twentieth-century Science is the fact that it has become a profession, and the structure of scientific institutions today simply reflects this. For they are required, as never before, to be the instruments of coherent professional disciplines. That demand, by itself, has imposed on Science a new and sharper boundary, dividing a central class of problems and hypotheses, observations and experiments—whose very specificity and close relation to experience makes them the collective concern of all the scientists involved—from a peripheral class of speculative theses about the “broader implications and tendencies” of the sciences—over which there is no hope of exercising the strict rational control expected within a scientific discipline.
Thus, working as a biologist, Julian Huxley has contributed to our understanding of evolution (small “e”), in ways his professional colleagues have been able to check for themselves, by seeing how his hypotheses fare in competition with their rivals, when compared with the records of our experience. Yet Huxley has been anxious to develop also a world-view embracing all cosmic history: an optimistic cosmogony in which Evolution (capital “E”) becomes the central theme of History—linking primeval “pre-biotic” slime to modern democratic society, by way of all the intervening “emergent” phases of organic descent—and which at the same time will provide the ultimate justification for our moral codes, in the form of an Evolutionary Ethics. At this point, the problem of rational control becomes acute. To Thomas Henry Huxley, Julian’s grandfather, it was equally clear that Ethics and Evolution worked not in the same direction, but in directly opposite directions: moral action should not promote organic evolution, but should suspend and counteract its brutalities. How was one to choose between T.H.’s views and Julian’s? Scientifically speaking, one couldn’t; for, scientifically, there was no basis for a choice between them. In moving from questions about the specific operations of organic evolution to questions about the relevance of Evolution to Ethics, they had crossed the boundary separating the hypotheses of science itself from its speculative “implications”; and in the process the whole character of the questions at issue had changed.
The establishment of this sharper boundary has had one healthy effect: it has made scientists intellectually responsive to one another’s judgments, not only about the doctrines they are ready to assert, but—more important—also over the questions about which rational judgment must be for the moment suspended. In this respect they have gone beyond Socrates, for whom maturity lay in the personal acknowledgment of all that he did not know, to the position of Cusanus. Wisdom lies, for them, in the institutionalization of ignorance.
THIS FIRST HURDLE by itself need not be entirely daunting. The fact that the institutionalized disciplines of Science no longer find room for natural theology leaves us free to consider the broader significance of scientific ideas and insights as individuals—though it demands that we do so with proper cautions and qualifications. We are not compelled, as individuals, to act like those intellectual ascetics (and they include many working scientists) for whom the prattle of implication-hunters is as the crackling of thorns under a pot. But there is a further, intellectual hurdle, whose consequences can be more serious. Unless we are absolutely scrupulous in our handling of the ideas we pick up, our discussions of the “implications” of Science can be seriously misleading, and run into cross-purposes with the scientific debate itself. There is a standard historical illustration of this point that is directly relevant to Koestler’s new book.
Our contemporary physics and physiology have developed from the New Mechanical Philosophy of Descartes and Newton; their systems were attacked during the eighteenth century both by Leibniz and by Goethe. The two attacks were quite different in character. Leibniz argued—as a matter of systematic theory—against the Cartesians’ determination to explain the operation of “ordered systems” by their structure, material composition, and mechanisms alone. This attempt, he declared, inevitably distracts us from the “ordering principles” according to which the continuity and patterns of action of such systems need to be understood. Cartesian physiologists, for instance, tried to explain the passions and emotions shared by men and the lower animals as a mechanical effect of the “agitated motions” of the separate “material particles” making up our bodies and brains; and similarly for all other physiological operations of animal organs and organisms. In Leibniz’s view, such a theoretical program is radically defective since, in concentrating on the component “particles,” it fails entirely to explain the unity and individuality of the systems—their character as “monads.” (In twentieth-century jargon: Leibniz argued that the “integrative” action of ordered systems must be understood, not by considering them as material structures alone, but in terms of the functions and activities that are characteristic of the entire “monadic” systems.)
If we now look for labels to contrast Descartes’ and Leibniz’s methodologies, we may (if we please) call them “mechanicist” and “organicist” respectively; but, since this was a critical debate within natural philosophy, the labels must—emphatically—have a small “m” and “o.” Leibniz was no more inclined than Descartes to place limits on the scope of mechanistic analysis. Clearly (he said) there must be brain-processes paralleling our mental experiences and activities, to whatever degree of detail we care to probe: it is just that taking all these processes individually, and explaining their mechanical operations, leave the intrinsic character of perception and thought, as activities of the entire man, unaffected and unexplained.
Goethe and Schiller attacked from a very different angle. In their eyes, Newtonian Science was not just intellectually deficient but anathema. As they saw it, Newton had represented all material things as “blind impoverished mechanisms,” and had denied the “rich purposive creativity” of living, thinking, feeling, beings:
Like the dead strokes of a pen- dulum-clock
Nature, bereft of all her Divinities,
Slavishly serves the Law of Gravita- tion.
Any natural science worked out on the mechanical principles followed by Descartes and Newton—even, to be truthful, by Leibniz—must be subordinated to a broader organic vision of Nature; and the scope of mechanistic analysis must be explicitly curtailed. So Goethe the Romantic Prophet preached Organicism, in direct opposition to all the mathematically based programs of the New Philosophers, whom he denounced as collectively committed to a Mechanicist world-view.
Evidently, there was room here for a plain misunderstanding, just so long as the philosophical and theological strands in Science were not handled separately. Merely because natural philosophers from Descartes on had concentrated on developing and testing mechanical hypotheses about the workings of nature, they were not necessarily committed—either collectively or individually—to a Mechanicist view. Nor has there been any very consistent correlation between a man’s intellectual methods within Science and the theological framework in which he has, personally, interpreted the broader significance of his own ideas. (Notoriously, Faraday was a Sandemanian.) With all affection and respect, one must insist that—over this point—Goethe was sadly confused.
ALL THIS HAS TO BE SAID in preface to Koestler because, in The Ghost in the Machine, his position is once again (as in The Sleepwalkers and The Act of Creation) that of a latter-day Goethe; and, if one keeps in mind the basic duality implicit in Faust, many things about Koestler’s arguments come into focus. For instance: it becomes clear why, in all three volumes, he gives the impression of producing not one but two or more books at the same time—books whose arguments have unfortunately not been disentangled. For this is just what he does. In each case, he leaves it to us to distinguish the truths he is explaining from the Truth he is preaching; and these are no more connected than Goethe’s Organicist Weltanschauung was to the organicist methodology of Leibniz.