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Pill

In response to:

The Book of Arthur from the April 11, 1968 issue

To the Editors:

In the postscript to his review of The Ghost in the Machine (March 17), my learned friend Stephen Toulmin asks three questions. First, referring to a Press handout by my publishers, The Macmillan Company, he queries: “Can an author of Koestler’s experience not know what his publishers are doing in his name?” (Toulmin’s italics). The answer is that I had never before seen the letter which Toulmin quoted; and that it was not sent out “in my name,” but in that of The Macmillan Company. Authors are sometimes shown the publicity put out by publishers with whom they are in close personal contact; but generally the blurb, advertisements, jacket design, handouts, etc., are the publishers’ business and responsibility, not the author’s. This applies even more to foreign translations, paperbacks and the USA editions of writers living in England, as I do (the English edition was published six months earlier by Hutchinsons of London).

  1. The claims made for this imaginary pill are oddly like those Leary makes for LSD, and the arguments against them are the same—that a pharmaceutical millennium would only threaten our capacity for moral and intellectual judgment, and accelerate our return to the world of Darkness at Noon.”

May I in reply quote a relevant paragraph from the book? It is preceded by a reference to Huxley’s praise of LSD 25 in Heaven and Hell, and runs as follows: “Now this is precisely what I do not mean by the positive uses of psychopharmacology. In the first place, experimenting with mescalin or with LSD 25 does involve serious risks. But quite apart from this, it is fundamentally wrong, and naïve, to expect that drugs can present the mind with gratis gifts—put into it something which is not already there. Neither mystic insights, nor philosophic wisdom, nor creative power can be provided by pill or injection. The psychopharmacist cannot add to the faculties of the brain—but he can, at best, eliminate obstructions and blockages which impede their proper use. He cannot aggrandise us—but he can, within limits, normalise us; he cannot put additional circuits into the brain, but he can, again within limits, improve the co-ordination between existing ones, attenuate conflicts, prevent the blowing of fuses, and ensure a steady power supply. That is all the help we can ask for—but if we were able to obtain it, the benefits to mankind would be incalculable” (pp. 335-6).

As for the risk of a “return to the world of Darkness at Noon“—have we ever grown out of it, except for changes in scenery and actors? The oddest thing that struck me about Toulmin’s review is his complete lack of that sense of urgency and imminent danger which ought to be the starting point of any meaningful discussion. For instance, he writes that if my diagnosis were correct, then “our species would indeed be in a tragic (and probably irremediable) situation.” Dear Professor, where do you live?

  1. If there were such a pill, would Arthur Koestler take it?” Answer: indeed he would.

So much for Toulmin’s postscript. As for the review itself, a cogent reply would take up columns, so I shall not argue—and anyway I have seen worse.

Postscript. The USA edition of The Ghost in the Machine was published on February 19. On March 17, the Science Correspondent of The Observer, London, noted for his cautious restraint, published an article in his paper with the headline, Scientists Plan for Peace with a Pill. The first paragraph of the article read: “Human aggression, according to an American psychologist, can now be controlled with a pill. Dr. K. E. Moyer, of Pittsburgh University, told a UNESCO conference on brain research, which has just ended here, that brain scientists now stood ‘on a threshold similar to that on which the atomic physicist stood in the early 1940s.”’

To stick out one’s neck a few years ahead of one’s time is a risky thing to do. But just three weeks?

Arthur Koestler

London

Stephen Toulmin replies:

If Arthur Koestler does not take his own argument seriously, how can he expect us to be impressed by his conclusions? I have read carefully through all 1,600 pages of the three books in which he sets out his diagnosis of the human condition—a survey which ranges over the whole of biology and psychology, together with much of the history of science and artistic creation—and my review raised serious questions about the “scientific basis” claimed on behalf of his proposed “peace pill.” Instead of facing these questions about the validity of his arguments, all that Koestler responds to is my brief postscript about his American publisher’s publicity handout. If he is not prepared to discuss the intellectual credentials of his views, why trouble to reply at all?

Pleading urgency gets us nowhere. The graver our view of the human predicament, the more important it will be (surely) to scrutinize any diagnosis, and prescription, in a careful and critical frame of mind. Nor is it any help going into battle with sensational newspaper headlines: I doubt whether John Davy writes all his own headlines, and suspect that the Observer‘s sub-editor was consciously adapting Koestler’s own slogans.

So I can only summarize, once again, the doubts Arthur Koestler has not met. (1) As to his general diagnosis: can the misfortunes of human history truly be attributed to so unique, so simple and so universal a cause as he suggests—viz., an innate, species-specific aggressiveness, manifesting a genetically determined imbalance in brain-function, between the “good” neocortex and the “bad” limbic system? (2) As to his prescription: even if we achieved discriminating pharmaceutical control over the cerebral pathways linking these two parts of the brain, would such a “pill” give us anything more than one additional selective tranquilizer—with all the same old practical problems about drug-administration and control that have existed throughout the ages in the case of peyote, alcohol, and marijuana? Remember: failing adequate controls, psychopharmaceuticals can become the instruments of tyranny just as well as of peace, and fears about the political misuse of any such substance—however “pacific” its potentialities—are well founded. (3) As to Koestler’s larger argument, of which this is presented as the final culmination: does the elaborate fabric of connections he weaves between his “peace pill,” the concept of “evolutionary mistakes,” the argument between Chomsky and Skinner, etc., etc., really stand up under close examination?

Arthur Koestler may try to brush these questions aside (“My learned friend…,” “I have seen worse…,” and so on), but I met his argument—deliberately, and advisedly—on his own, multifarious, chosen ground, and in as temperate a spirit as I could muster. Nothing would have been gained by treating him with savagery; or by ignoring his arguments, and discussing his “prescription for peace” in isolation from its supposed “scientific credentials.” For my part, I continue to believe that a conclusion is as strong as the argument on which it rests; and that Koestler’s argument is not strong enough to bear the weight he puts on it.

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