Arthur Koestler
Arthur Koestler; drawing by David Levine

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.

In the first volume, Koestler wrote perceptively and intelligently about the Renaissance astronomers, particularly Copernicus and Kepler; but he coupled these sensitive intellectual portraits with a grossly simplistic Message to the effect that scientists make theoretical discoveries by a blind, unreasoning Intuition—moving unwittingly through their problem-situations like sleepwalkers across a darkened room. In the second volume, he combined some ingenious psychological analogies between scientific discovery, artistic creation, and wit, with a grandiose scheme of biological and psychological “hierarchies” intended to “break the grip” of Mechanistic Determinism, and demonstrate the potential glory of man. In both cases some intriguing ideas, expressed with all Koestler’s practiced literary skill, were presented as the basis of a revelatory message which had nothing to do with the case.

His new book continues the same pattern; only this time the display of “real science” is carried to extreme lengths. Koestler sets himself to demonstrate two things—first that, along with the “glory” of his artistic and scientific creativity, man inherits also a “predicament,” in the form of a tendency to paranoia and self-destruction; and secondly, that, in the light of a properly balanced view of modern biology and psychology, this “paranoid streak in man which has made such an appalling mess of our history” can be seen to originate in our genetic make-up, to be corrected only by an “adaptive mutation.”

Now if there really were adequate scientific grounds either for Koestler’s diagnosis, or for his prescription, our species would indeed be in a tragic (and probably irremediable) situation. So we must look carefully both at the meaning Koestler attaches to his conclusion, and at the way he uses scientific material to support it. In the event, he gets around to the central thesis only in the final third of the book: the previous 220 pages comprise his preparatory survey of the natural sciences on whose testimony he intends to rely. He begins with psychology, and here he has some sound Leibnizian points to make. Whatever merit the idea of “reflexes” may have had in analyzing the operations of the autonomic nervous system, it was always a delusion to suppose that this category could be used to account for all human behavior—notably, linguistic and “language-mediated” behavior. True: this delusion is still active in parts of the American academic world, thanks to the influence of Watson and Skinner; though my own observation is that the Skinnerians are by now a self-isolated minority. More relevant is the fact that even Pavlov himself never supposed that the idea of “conditioned reflexes” could be extended to the higher mental functions of the central nervous system; and his successors in Russia, such as Vygotsky and Luria, have made good use of his complementary ideas about “signalling systems” and “rule-governed communication.” (Curiously, Koestler makes the same mistake as the American psychologists he so dislikes, as his few scornful allusions to Pavlov indicate: he does not realize that the theory of “conditioned reflexes” was only the first part of Pavlov’s physiological psychology, and one that he himself never imagined was adequate to cover the higher mental functions.)

If we adopt a more acceptable psychology, Koestler goes on to argue, we shall see that the understanding of human behavior calls for the idea of rule-governed strategies; and he hastens to apply the same idea to organic systems of every kind. At all levels, he claims, we must see the “directive behavior” of organs and organisms as exemplifying similar “strategies.” The organic world is not a congeries of mechanisms but—to use his own neologisms—a “holarchy of holons”: interacting systems whose individual operations must be understood in essentially teleological terms. This brings Koestler up against the subject which is the eternal stumbling-block for ideologues of all tendencies: organic evolution. For he cannot rest comfortably with the neo-Darwinian idea that, in themselves, the genetic mutations that occur in the germ-cells of animal populations are causally and functionally unrelated to the life-situations with which the resultant mutant individuals will have to cope. Such a belief undercuts the (teleological) idea of “strategies” at the point where he most needs it—i.e., at the intersection of biochemistry and history. Somehow or other, the biological evidence must be made to yield a notion of “mutations” which is less “random” and more “adaptive.”

To this end, Koestler spends much of his second hundred pages citing authentic evidence of “adaptiveness” in the behavioral interactions between evolving populations and their environments, under the impression that, in this way, he can weaken the neo-Darwinian theory. Of course, he does nothing of the sort. All that neo-Darwinists rightly deny is that molecular changes in the ova and sperm of animals are (or could conceivably be) influenced beforehand by the future needs of their progeny’s lives. Still, it is going to be important for Koestler’s eventual thesis, to show if possible that “adaptiveness” is built into the operation of biological systems throughout history, and right down to the lowest level. Otherwise (if I get the point of his terminology) the “holons” will not form a true “holarchy.” And how could this program be carried through if one conceded that the very material of organic evolution consisted of “blind, random mutations”?

SO WE ARRIVE, finally, at Koestler’s central topic. His account of our human “predicament” places the cause of human paranoia in an “imbalance” between different parts of the brain: specifically, in a “dissonance between the reactions of neocortex and limbic system.” If we do not always act wisely and calmly, this is because our defective brains do not permit us to do so; and only an “adaptive mutation” will enable us to overcome this defect. Such a “mutation” will have to be produced at the molecular level by beneficent “biochemical engineering.” If we are to avert the ultimate historical catastrophe, we must quickly develop a Pill (his capitalization) to bring about—or imitate—the necessary “mutation.”

This conclusion—the climax of Koestler’s argument throughout three long books—occupies only the final ten pages of The Ghost in the Machine, and I have read these pages several times with great care. I have to report that I can still find no real connection between Koestler’s prescription for human folly and the “scientific evidence” he offers in its support. After all that has gone before, we expect, at least, a call for an “artificially-induced mutation” aimed at “improving” the functional balance between neocortex and limbic system in the brains of our offspring. Instead, Koestler calls merely for a new, superior tranquilizer or “mental stabiliser,” with which we are to control our own brains, rather than change our children’s. But why do we need all the preceding argument to prove what a drink or a phenobarb will demonstrate—that applied biochemistry can help to settle the nerves?

The points at issue in this book appear connected, only if one is committed beforehand to a teleological interpretation of organic evolution. At least three separate theses are involved, with two further sub-theses: (i) that the major evils in human history are consequences of a species-specific psychosis, rather than (as historians assume) a mixture of genuine conflicts of interest, miscalculations, and occasional neurotic fears; (ii) that this species-wide psychosis derives from an anatomical source, in the inadequate control of the (rational) neocortex over the (paranoid) limbic system; and (iii) that such an anatomical inadequacy has parallels in the other “mistakes” of evolution—e.g., in some of the arthropods. To which one must add: (iv) the assumption that the contrast between rational and paranoid behavior has direct parallels at a neuroanatomical level at all; and (v) the belief that, if it were in fact clinically desirable to change the balance of action between neocortex and limbic system, this could be done in a sufficiently discriminating manner by pharmaceutical means alone.

Each of these five theses would take much more elaborate discussion to support than Koestler has room for; and none of them could, in the present state of things, be defended in any but the most tentative of spirits. In the event, Koestler’s whole package hangs together only on account of item (iii). Here is where we run up against the central issue between Koestler’s teleological world-picture and the current theories of organic evolution he finds so inadequate. For the very idea of “evolution” as “succeeding” or “making mistakes” takes for granted what is by now highly questionable: that the historical succession of organic forms can be properly interpreted as the outcome of a sequence of purposive “strategies.” Without such an interpretation, indeed, what sense do phrases like “evolutionary mistake” have? Yet man is the first, and to the best of our knowledge the only, species which has understood its evolutionary situation well enough even to try to change its structure and mode of life in response to the demands of that situation; and, unless the idea of “trying to adapt” makes sense, how can the ideas of “succeeding” or “failing” possibly be applied either? It is perhaps no accident that, at this crucial point in his argument, the books to which Koestler turns for testimony and support were largely written (like Gaskell’s Origin of Vertebrates of 1908) at a time when genetics scarcely existed as a science, and its application to the history of evolutionary change was at least twenty years away.

WHAT HAS GONE WRONG? The answer is that Koestler is here repeating Goethe’s mistake. As we have seen, his selection of scientific illustrations is intentionally tendentious: it is aimed (as he declares in the Preface) not to weigh up rival hypotheses, but to undercut an “image of man” as “a conditioned reflex-automation produced by chance mutations…the antiquated slot-machine model based on the naively mechanistic world-view of the nineteenth century.” This model he sees as still entrenched in “scientific orthodoxy” today; and we shall not achieve a balanced conception of our essential humanity unless we replace it by an alternative “holarchic” world-view, limiting the scope of mechanistic science with the help of the distinction between “organized holons” and “mere parts.”

If however we insist on the distinction between Science as theoretical hypothesis and Science as the material for Weltanschauungen, it becomes possible to disentangle Koestler’s message from its theoretical wrappings. It is—to make its theological character explicit—a Manichean or Zoroastrian message. Evolution has left man at the mercy of two contrary urges: a constructive one that works for good—this was the topic of The Act of Creation—and a self-destructive principle of evil that subverts the achievements of individuals and institutions alike. These antagonistic principles unite man to the universe, having been at work throughout cosmic history; and this insight restores the “meaning” which the “blind mutations” of neo-Darwinism took away from organic evolution. Man’s hope of glory is thus balanced by his looming predicament—in the form of a genetical counterpart of original sin. Whereas Teilhard preached a bland doctrine of salvation through cosmic progress, Koestler is the prophet of a harsher biological Calvinism: though he shares with Teilhard an all-embracing cosmic vision borrowed ultimately from Lamarck, he sternly insists that the final outcome of Evolution may well be Armageddon, or the Damnation of the Species.

I have good reasons for insisting that, in the last resort, Koestler’s book must be considered not as science, but as theology. Scientifically, there is never sufficient reason for choosing one world view rather than another; and there are usually good arguments for suspending judgment and declining the choice. If Koestler had written throughout in the spirit of Leibniz rather than Goethe—simply emphasizing the need to supplement “mechanicist” explanations of physiological structures by “organicist” analyses of the functions and activities of the systems concerned—things would then have been very different. The result might then have been to improve our understanding, but it would have led to no message. In that case, however, Koestler would have had to paint a different picture of contemporary science. For, after all, there is no such entrenched orthodoxy as he alleges; and he as good as admits this in an appendix, in which he excuses himself for “flogging dead horses.” Now, as always, there are branches of biology and psychology—such as embryology and language-learning—whose theories depend on “integrative” concepts, just as there are others—such as molecular biology and reflexology—that are concerned with “reductionist” analyses. The kind of modest, rationally critical mileage being got within Science from Leibnizian concepts could be illustrated again and again from the former branches: we can, for instance, study the life-history of the cell, or the perception of colors, or the development of mental processes in children at all, only if we are prepared to accept cells, observers, and/or children as “monadic” units or agents to begin with.

Even so, an enthronement of “integrative” concepts within biological theory—i.e., a methodological victory for Leibnizian organicism over a one-sided Cartesian mechanicism—would still fall short of what Koestler’s message requires. For that, what is needed is a theological victory for Goethean Organicism over Mechanistic Science of all varieties, with the entire historical process governed throughout by the rival principles of good and evil. As Julian Huxley found when he tried to argue against his grandfather, we are (for all that Science can tell us) at liberty to view the cosmic-process-as-a-whole in whatever light we please.

THOSE WHO DEFEND a true humanism in a scientific age will do well to re-read their Michel de Montaigne. All this to-do about “blind mutations” and universal “urges” would have struck Montaigne as terribly presumptuous. Who are we humans (he would ask) to project our own ambitions onto the history of the universe? Among historians of human affairs, this lesson was learned long ago: none but the most naive Marxian and Christian historiographers still see the Hand of God, or the Dialectic, in the detailed sequence of temporal events. The same lesson will eventually get through to our twentieth-century natural theologians also. For there is no reason to see the history of Nature, either, as pregnant with a message; and it is human vanity, equally, to claim a basis in science for an unquenchable evolutionary optimism like Teilhard’s or Huxley’s, or for a dark and romantic irrationalism.

P.S. After preparing this review I received a letter from Koestler’s publisher:

Dear Reviewer:

On February 26 Macmillan will publish The Ghost in the Machine, Arthur Koestler’s first new book since the Act of Creation in 1964.

In this book Mr. Koestler proposes a pharmaceutical solution to man’s self-destructive urge: a pill to correct the streak of paranoia inherent in a man which, in this post-Hiroshima age, must inevitably lead to extermination.

The birth control pill can save man from outbreeding himself. The pill which Arthur Koestler forsees can save man from genocide.

If there were such a pill—a “peace” pill—would you take it?

Publicity Director

Above the signature was glued a red, heart-shaped pellet. I have three comments: (1) Can an author of Koestler’s experience not know what his publishers are doing in his name? This sort of publicity speaks for itself, since it uses the language of quackery, not of science. (2) 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. (3) Finally: if there were such a pill, would Arthur Koestler take it?

This Issue

April 11, 1968