Politics, Science and – yes! – Linguistics

Until the twenties of the last century, German was still the most common language of science. By 1933 Germany had won more Nobel Prizes than any other nation, more than England and the United States combined. Then came Hitler and his policy of systematic lies (and crimes). After the Second World War, German was just one language among others, and German science lost much of its former significance.

Since 1945, the United States could until recently claim that it was leading the way in almost all fields of science. Then came George Bush Jr. and afterwards a still greater evil: the show business man Donald Trump with his policy of systematic lies. In the meantime, China is emerging as the new world power of science (fortified by a messianic belief in science). The star of the US is now in rapid decline.

Science is committed to truth

This does not mean that it reveals that kind of TRUTH, by which people understand the meaning or goal of life. On the contrary, on this matter science has very little or nothing to say, yet it unites people in understanding reality. Only five hundred years ago, the elites of France, Japan, China or India had little to say to each other, since only the lower classes dealt with the practical matters of life, that is those which all over the world obey the same laws of nature. Peasants in Germany, India or China could have found much common ground when discussing the issues of field cultivation, but elites lived in different spheres, determined by honor, ambition and above all religion, which, in each country, served different gods and moral rules.

Today, the elites of China, the US, India and Europe

have infinitely more common ground. They may expertly discuss a wide range of subjects, be it finance, corporations, computers and tanks or the latest scientific findings.  At the latest since the second half of the last century, science even became the universal language of mankind.

This does not mean, however, that mutual exchange and a common language necessarily bring people closer together. Even in the past, that has never been true. The Indian caste system, for example, brought people into close contact who communicated in one and the same language and practiced professions that brought members of different castes (such as barbers and Brahmins) into daily contact, but they were not allowed to marry or even to dine together. The Brahmins wanted to retain their position of lords, the other castes had to remain servants – this fundamental conflict of interests ensured that close contact and a common language did not bring them closer together.

Things have remained that way until today. The fact that Western science has by now not only been adopted by China, but is being perfected with increasing success by the Chinese themselves, does not in any way mitigate the conflicting interests arising between the US and China. One thing is science where it is always possible to achieve agreement because its predictions are true or not, a mobile phone works or does not work. But interests are something completely different, because there is no objective basis for recognizing them as justified or rejecting them as unjustified. In the case of interests, an instance completely different from truth proclaims the ultimate verdict – namely power.

Unfortunately, science too can become subject to power

and indeed, it always has been. In the words of its great theoretician Thomas S. Kuhn, it then turns into a “paradigm” dogmatically defended against any contradiction. Such a paradigm was for example the pre-Copernican geocentric world view. Giordano Bruno was burned to death, many others were persecuted or likewise executed because they questioned the dominant paradigm. This world view was not even wrong, because in principle every point in the universe can be arbitrarily made the point of reference in order to describe and calculate the orbits of all surrounding celestial bodies. Even a lunacentric world view is perfectly conceivable and could lead to absolutely correct predictions of solar and earth eclipses. A lunacentric world view would thus be just as correct as the geocentric one – it would only be so extraordinarily complex that it would hinder the progress of astronomy even more than the geocentric one. The replacement of the latter by the teachings of Copernicus therefore represented a historical breakthrough.

We know that the condemnation of Galileo in the 20th century still inspired Bertolt Brecht. But it was not only the Church which resisted the new doctrine so long and so stubbornly, as the latter could not be reconciled with passages from its sacred texts. Lots of scientists, who had been educated in the old world view and had over many years imparted it to their students, rejected it with equal fervor. Their self-assurance, their fame, their previous knowledge depended on the old model, so they clung to it. Einstein once indicated how much this adherence to the familiar also applies to physics, the strictest of sciences. He thought that the old generation of physicists must first die before a new one would be ready to accept his thoughts. 

Often a progress of scientific knowledge

entails no immediate practical significance. As already mentioned, the geocentric world view was not wrong, it only rendered astronomic description unnecessarily complex. Nor was classical physics, as founded by Newton, wrong. Einstein did, however, show that it is not able to explain border areas of the real world (a fact that was further substantiated by quantum physics).

But clinging to a paradigm can have much more serious practical consequences. The Austrian surgeon and obstetrician Ignaz Semmelweis attributed the frequent death of women in childbirth due to childbed fever to lack of hygiene. He drew up a catalogue of regulations to prevent the outbreak of diseases through cleanliness and disinfection – regulations that are considered exemplary today. In his day, however, Semmelweis’s colleagues had different views on the causes of disease and premature deaths. They dismissed his theory as speculative nonsense. Semmelweis died in 1865 under unexplained circumstances in a Viennese lunatic asylum. His theory accused his colleagues – even if only indirectly – of ignorance, conceit and a lack of truthfulness. That is why until his end they never forgave him. In fact, they accepted the death of many women rather than allowing their professional honor to be offended.

Ignorance, conceit and lack of truthfulness

dominate science today as they did in the past. This is the essential insight that Thomas S. Kuhn arrived at in his book “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. I would like to back it up with another example, which is really harmless when compared to the devastation produced in the case just mentioned. But on the other hand, it nicely illustrates how lies not only in politics but in science as well may come to play a dominant role.

Since the beginning of the 1980s, linguistics

had for a couple of years become a kind of beacon of hope within cultural sciences. Noam Chomsky caused a worldwide sensation with a theory that apparently made it possible to explain, with the help of a few formulas, the principles that enable the speaker of any language to form a basically infinite number of correct sentences. Generative and General Grammar were born – and for a while it looked as if language was that part of culture which would allow the humanities to derive all cultural phenomena from a few universal principles in exactly the same way as the natural sciences had already succeeded in doing far earlier with regard to the realm of inanimate nature. In other words, linguistics became a star science for a short time during the 1980s and 1990s.

What remained of this enthusiasm?

The question may be concisely answered with one single word: nothing! Even one of Chomsky’s most dedicated admirers, Steven Pinker, sees in his master’s theory a bloated scholasticism hard to digest. Others are much outspoken and they have shown that Chomsky himself dismantled one component of his theory after the other. Even if they declare its goal, the scientific foundation of a General and Generative Grammar, to be legitimate, most critics agree that Chomsky’s method proves unsuitable and unfruitful for this purpose. Among Chomsky’s followers are of course all those who see him as their teacher – linguists like Steven Pinker, Ray Jackendoff or J. Mendivil-Giro – just to pick up some names at random. Among his more or less devastating critics are Christopher Hallpike, Giorgio Graffi, John Colarusso, David Golumbia, Nikolaus Allott, Roland Hausser, John Goldsmith, Per Linell, Tristan Tondino, Christina Behme – again I arbitrarily pick out a few names from the immense crowd of scientists who spent a good part of their lives trying to find their way through the nearly impenetrable thicket of Chomsky’s scholastic meanderings. Encouraged by Chomsky’s constant changes of direction, these people are now busy with the opposite concern of deconstructing Chomsky’s theses one by one.

As a scientific theory, Chomsky’s teaching is dead,

or rather, it has proved to be a lie, because unlike the geocentric world view, it is not only uncomfortable but decidedly wrong, unable to keep any of its promises. It neither explains the generative nor the universal aspects of human languages. But, of course, the people who have devoted the best part of their lives to this lie and infected their students with it do not want to admit that for years they have simply been wrong – just as Semmelweis’s colleagues did not want to be accused of lacking truthfulness. This is why many of them now turn their superior intelligence to the opposite endeavor, applying Chomsky’s scholastic jargon to the criticism of their former master. The danger associated with this had already been recognized by the wonderfully perceptive William James more than a century ago, when he – at the time with regard to German cultural scholars – recorded the following observation: “The forms /at universities/ are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and eccentric, has the legal right to figure forever in the history of the subject like a fly in amber. All later comers have the duty of quoting him and measuring their opinions with his opinion. Such are the rules of the professorial game – they think and write from each other and for each other and at each other exclusively.”

This is the typical behavior of an elite,

and it is as old as mankind itself. It reminds me of a scholastic enterprise that was conceived almost three thousand years ago and laid down in the so-called Brahmana texts, where an elite group of highly respected and highly paid priests, described with meticulous precision how, by piling up bricks, pouring butter over them and murmuring various mantras, they were able to cure all kinds of diseases, drive away enemies, prevent droughts and produce rain. An American Indologist described the texts – apparently in a fit of intellectual despair – as the “babble of madmen”, although a high level of systematic intelligence and knowledge belongs to its salient features.

As a theoretician of politics, Noam Chomsky has created some texts of great clarity and persuasiveness. The contrast to his sterile linguistic hairsplitting can only be explained by the fact that his method proved to be utterly inedequate and therefore required constant intellectual vagaries, reversals and concealment tactics to be kept alive. How will scientists who already criticize him so mercilessly today think about his linguistics after a decade or two? I suppose that his theory (together with most critical comments, which as a rule are mostly just as scholastic) will then be described as “insane babble” – despite or even because of their pretentious jargon. As Einstein said, a new generation must take a fresh look at reality. Only then can a change in thinking take place. Now the representatives of the old doctrine are still in office and far too much imbued with their own knowledge and eminence to overcome academic conceit through truthfulness.

But there are always outsiders

sometimes large ones like Nicolaus Copernicus, sometimes smaller ones like Ignaz Semmelweis, who oppose the paradigm. In linguistics, too, there has been such an outsider, early on in the beginning eighties. The person in question realized that General or Universal Grammar was difficult to talk about if you just had a little knowledge of Hebrew and Spanish in addition to your own mother tongue. A zoologist is expected to know hundreds of animals, a botanist thousands of plants to be at home in his area. Doesn’t it seem like a miracle that Chomsky and most of his linguistic followers have just mastered their mother tongue, English, and yet are able to express themselves confidently about Universal Grammar?

The master himself was not aware of any disadvantage. He literally claimed to have a homunculus within himself that would tell him the right thing.*1* It is, of course, difficult to oppose this argument if you do not feel the homunculus in your own chest. This is why the aforementioned outsider rather listened to reason proving back then, at the beginning of the 1980s, that Chomsky’s theory was based on quicksand, because it used hybrid concepts of traditional grammar that are not universal, namely verbs and nouns. These constitute formal classes filled with different semantic contents in languages such as English and Chinese, so that we may only speak of English, Chinese, Japanese verbs or nouns but not use these terms as universal categories. If this criticism of wrongly chosen basic concepts was correct, then any further preoccupation with a theory that claimed universality but was based on non-universal building blocks would be a waste of time.

In the 80s, however, the enthusiasm for the apparently Universal Grammar

of Chomskyan provenance was so overwhelming that the voice of an outsider was simply ignored. No, it was actively rejected. His objection was felt to be so disturbing that his initial mention as a linguist in Wikipedia was subsequently revoked. Not only was there never any discussion of his arguments,*2* but by removing the person in question from the list of linguists, the latter wanted the outsider to be declared linguistically non-existent.

Not only in politics but in science too,

such strategies are, as we saw, completely normal – and in most cases quite trivial as well. Lots of women had to lose their lives for the disregard of Semmelweis, but the scholastic aberrations of a Noam Chomsky only wreak havoc in the minds of a handful of university professors, the fate of the rest of humanity remains unaffected.

No, maybe not completely, because science changes its character in the process. Let us not forget that there is also an amazingly successful branch of modern linguistics: machine translation with the help of Artificial Intelligence. The successes in this field may be described as breathtaking. Now that living conditions and languages have become more and more similar worldwide, more and more of those cultural differences are rapidly disappearing that once made translation so difficult. Today, economic and scientific texts can be translated almost perfectly by these machines. Only literary texts – and especially poems – mock these efforts because they cannot be standardized. If a writer produces standard writings, then they are easy to translate, but mostly without value too.

Automated translation is nothing less than a great triumph

of instrumental intelligence – here the same rule applies as in the applied natural sciences – either it works or it doesn’t work. The quality of translation and thus the criterion of truth (of the underlying algorithms) can be clearly determined. This unambiguity is missing in the non-instrumental – the understanding – cultural sciences. And it is not even sought in those circles where, as William James observed, a clique of academics “write of each other, for each other and against each other”. Hence the imposed cutbacks in the humanities. Without public relevance many politicians no longer see a justification for their further existence – posts and areas are being reduced to such an extent that the humanities now play the role of ignored wallflowers. A considerable share of the blame for such a development must be attributed to the scholasticism of scientists like Noam Chomsky. What remains of the whole, originally so fascinating theory of his General and Generative Grammar is by no means a better understanding of language, but rather a difficult to incomprehensible scientific jargon – the empty shell of an insider language which linguistic adepts must up to this day assiduously learn if they want to belong to the circle of the initiated.*3*.

All that remains at the end is to add that,

by a whim of fate, the outsider in question happens to be identical to the author of these lines.  His book “Principles of Language” is not to be recommended to anyone who is concerned with the beauty of language, for it only speaks of logical structure and the universal constraints every natural language is bound to obey. The “Principles” merely deal with the logical skeleton of language, not with its living flesh, seductively blossoming in infinite nuances.

Those, however, who are interested in the logic of language will be richly rewarded by reading this book, for it reveals and explains the boundary between linguistic chance and linguistic law, which exists both in language as in culture in general, but is much easier to determine in language. As a matter of principle, immaterial meaning and its material manifestation through sound sequences that are exchanged in the process of communication between speaker and listener are regarded as the two constituent components of language and carefully kept apart. The conclusion of the “Principles” proves Chomsky right: Yes, there is a Generative and General Grammar. Language is generative because children are capable of forming an infinite number of statements, even if they have never heard them before. And, yes, the faculty of language must be general because the statements of different languages can be translated into each other. These are empirical facts. But language is not generative and general according to the deceptive simplicity of the model illustrated by Chomsky when he presented his once famous inverted trees. At the top of the tree he wrote an S for sentence, from which a speaker was supposed to derive in downward direction all possible concrete instances of that language with the help of but a very few general rules and a lexicon. Each particular language then adds some specific rules to the general ones in order to define the differences to other languages.*4* That was the dazzling idea of the Chomskyan model, its actual core, while everything else was just ancillary. The model owed its fascination to the fact that it turns language into a kind of simple computer game.

But language is not that simple,

this model is wrong from the outset, because its basic concepts (S, NP, VP, V, N etc.) are hybrid – they mix up the deep level of the immaterial analysis of reality (conceptual structure) and the material manifestation of this level by means of acoustic (or other) signs. Immaterial reality analysis already takes place in animals even without the use of material signs, and it develops in humans from primitive beginnings (as in the Amazonian Piranha language, for example) to the most complex conceptual structures. These are based on a basic conceptual structure that explains why sentences from an evolutionary primitive language can easily be translated into a more developed one, while this is very difficult or even impossible in the opposite direction (how can a modern text on mathematics be translated into a language where people don’t use numbers beyond two or three?)

But differences on the conceptual level do by no means exhaust the complexity of language, because on the basis of identical immaterial conceptual structures various material realizations, i.e. sign systems, can be built. Chomsky’s seductively simple tree does violence to language and it explains strictly nothing. In the “Principles” General and Generative Grammar is turned into a complex ensemble, which furthermore is characterized by constant evolutionary unfolding.

In “The Language Instinct”, Steven Pinker correctly recognized pre-linguistic conceptual analysis as the general and generative substrate underlying all languages. That was a bold step beyond Chomsky, but it remained a lonely insight. Pinker did not succeed in drawing the appropriate conclusions.

1 See David Columbia: “The Language of Science and the Science of Language: Chomsky’s Cartesianism

2 This is not quite correct. The linguist John Goldsmith of the University of Chicago finally felt compelled to concede that verbs, nouns, etc. are not suitable as universal categories.

3 Technical languages are of course wholly justified and even unavoidable when they are required by the object in question. Modern natural science cannot do without a specific technical language, because its results can only be achieved in this way. If, on the other hand, a technical language produces no results, then it just serves as a jargon for the initiated like in former times Latin or Old Slavic or Sanskrit in India that were meant to keep the laymen at bay.

4 For example, the difference in word order, which in English mostly prescribes a middle position of the verb, i.e. SVO, whereas in Japanese it prescribes its position at the end: SOV.

Justice – Why is it so hard to achieve?

For a serious thinker it is not advisable to talk about “the nature” of man, because such statements almost always turn out to be speculative, mostly they only reveal the nature of the daring author. I will, nevertheless, begin with two sentences that aim at doing just that: to say something about basic human aspirations. I expect that the following statements will support my statement.

1) It is part of the nature of man that he likes to be praised, respected and appreciated.

2) it is in the nature of man that he does not like and often finds it offensive if only others are praised, respected and appreciated, but not he himself.

Assuming that both sentences may claim general validity, we are obviously faced with the basic problem that the ideal of justice can never be realized once and for all, because both sentences are in open contradiction to each other. The more scope a society gives to the first demand, the more concessions it has to make to the second – and vice versa. We are dealing with a variant of the contradiction between freedom and equality.

When we talk of praise, attention and appreciation,

we may, of course, mean quite different things. Acknowledgments can consist of an admiring look, a handshake, a bundle of banknotes, an awe-inspiring title, a high income, a medal or an entry in the Book of Records. Societies have invented thousands of different ways to both punish and reward their members. Robert Knox, the 17th-century captive of Rajasingha, King of Kandy (Ceylon), writes that among court nobles nothing was coveted as much as a lofty title – the longer and the more opulent the closer the man was to the king. At the same time, everyone knew that the closer they came to His Majesty, the more their lives were at risk. The highest title was a guarantee to be trampled by elephants for some, often quite fictitious, offence invented by the mischievous king. This happened regularly, and everyone knew it – and yet all the nobles strove for titles: the more bombastic the better, and everyone wanted to get as close to the king as possible. It was like the fascination of moths by the light.

The need to stand in the light before others

remains unchanged up to the present day. It underlies all competition. On the other hand, the need to be valued by others, not to be disregarded or to be offended as an inferior is at least as strongly anchored in the human breast. This need is at the base of cooperation, which is only possible if the individual sees himself appreciated by others in his specific role – whatever the latter may be. Societies oscillate between the two extremes of (aggressive) competition that drives people to constantly fight against each other and forced cooperation that like in a termite state assigns to everybody their specific role.

The liberation of the individual by Industrial Revolution

since the 18th century has given an increasing number of people the opportunity to be recognized and appreciated on the basis of individual performance, ability, intelligence and determination – usually directly expressed through higher financial remuneration. However, what initially came as liberation quickly turned into growing inequality, because the most capable (and often the most ruthless) were able to appropriate more and more of the common cake. Money, recognition and power were concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, thus destroying the initial liberation – this is called refeudalization. In other words, the individual was initially given greater freedom through competition, but he subsequently lost this freedom, as the superiority of a small number of the super-rich and super-powerful condemned him to impotence, which he experienced as an increasing insult to his self-esteem (thesis 2). The US, where income and wealth are concentrated in the top one percent, has come a long way in this direction.

The concentration of power, wealth and recognition

in a few hands has never enabled a stable society – especially not in a time like ours, which, due to its extraordinary organizational and technological complexity, can be so easily destabilized and sabotaged. That is why the idea of a society in which no one feels offended because everyone has equal access to recognition and social dignity is so appealing.

Original Christian Communism

and many sects of various religions have preached equality in spiritual and material terms as an ideal and have even been able to implement it in smaller communities. Marx and more recently Thomas Piketty want this ideal to be realized in all societies, regardless of size. It was left to Mao to promote the ideal with the means not only of ideological propaganda but also of physical coercion. As we know, millions of dead were sacrificed to the experiment. It turned out to be particularly bloody because it contradicted the need mentioned under thesis 1, a need that in turn is based on the fact that people are different and therefore find it unreasonable that the same lifestyle both spiritually and materially is imposed on everybody in the same way.

The craving for self-realization

explains the explosion of creative abilities as soon as Deng Xiao Ping allowed the Chinese to throw off the Maoist straitjacket in the 1980s. Everyone was suddenly called upon to develop their knowledge, their skills, their assertiveness (as long as this did not contradict the goals of the state). Not unlike in Europe at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, this was an act of liberation that changed the world instantly and in a most powerful way.

But in China too

(not only in the US and in Europe) the number of billionaires has risen sharply in quite a short time. There, too, the initial liberation threatens to produce a caste of super-rich people who, by being overweight in power, influence and financial strength, increasingly hinder the rise of their less fortunate fellows. This caste is ready to embark on the same path of refeudalization as the upper one percent in the USA.

Why is it so incredibly difficult to stop halfway and reconcile both needs: the need for cooperation and the need for competition? Why this eternal back and forth between two extremes: first, the accumulation of wealth and then bloody social revolutions that bring about redistribution?

Classless society

In theory, the problem is surprisingly easy to solve. Plato had already proposed to take children away from their parents as in his time practiced by Sparta. Under this premise, every generation begins anew. For every child is to take up exactly that position which is due to him or her on the basis of their abilities. Inheritances cannot be handed over from parents to children, as they infallibly lead to the creation of classes or even castes. Certainly, Sparta was one of the cruelest states in world history, for the wealth of the top five percent of freeborn Spartans had to be earned by 95 percent of lawless helots. But the principle of social justice based solely on individual ability remains unaffected. If we were to transfer such a system to the present day, we would not have to worry about refeudalization and the one percent of super-rich and super-powerful at the head of the state. Marx, Piketty and Mao would not need to demand a classless society, because this comes about all by itself: talent and ability being distributed anew in each generation. And, of course, we wouldn’t even have to follow Plato and commit the cruelty of taking children away from their parents. It is enough to raise the inheritance tax to one hundred percent to achieve the same effect: a classless society.

But even this more modest goal has never been achieved,

because it is in turn contrary to a human need hard to suppress: the care of parents for their children. Every normal person takes it for granted that parents treat their own children with love, and love consists not only in good words but in all kinds of material gifts. It has always been seen as unnatural and as a sign of extreme lack of love that a father disinherits his children.

That is one thing. On the other hand, however, we think it is unfair that someone should be rich, respected, influential only because he received his position by mere accident of birth. Again, we are faced with a contradiction inherent in human nature. And again, we see societies oscillating between two extremes. A very few – especially smaller communities and sects – reject all unearned benefits of inheritance, including Sparta. But in densely populated societies, this strategy has proven to be unworkable. The prospect of working not only for one’s own ego but of sharing it with the whole family, one’s own children and grandchildren seems to be one of the most powerful motivations for action, while conversely the certain prospect of losing all property to the state or other unknown people after one’s death threatens to paralyze all initiative.

We should therefore not be surprised that in this case too it is extremely difficult to find the right balance. Ideals have so far only been realized in societies which we subsequently judge to be inhumane; this is true of communism in Sparta and under Mao and of neoliberal capitalism in the US today. Every society tries anew to find the right distance from the opposing extremes, but none has yet developed a final solution. The problem of justice is bound to accompany man throughout his history.

** The imperative of equality in Sparta had its obvious reason. A ruling minority of about five percent will only be able to permanently subjugate an enslaved majority of 95 percent if it does not allow dissent to arise within its own ranks. Equality among free Spartans was therefore the first commandment to maintain the inequality of all others. We are reminded of the actions of states in times of war. If they want to awaken in their citizens the willingness to sacrifice themselves for the fatherland, ruling circles feel compelled to grant them more rights – a concession that is quickly forgotten in times of peace.

Knox, Robert (??): An Historical Relation of the Island Ceylon. (1681) Public Domain Book.

Brave New Corona World – A heated Debate between Steven Pinker and Aldous Huxley

Aldous Huxley: Did I not make sufficiently clear what I think about principled optimists and ideological perfectionism when I wrote a masterpiece of world literature on the subject? Don’t believe that a man of the mind ever takes leave of thinking and simply retires. Instead I’m anxiously following what you’re doing down there – and certainly that gives me no rest. Coronavirus is only one among many threatening forebodings. Homo sapiens insapientissimus seems to do everything in his power in order to put himself on the red list of species without a future. And you don’t even know what you are doing! *0*

Steven Pinker: Here you go, I don’t talk to the dead; you’ve had your time, now the living are calling the shots. What you delivered in your great masterpiece was after all nothing but poetry, that is to say nothing but fantasy. But I can prove – figures at hand – that almost everything is much better today than it has ever been in the past. People live longer, they kill themselves less, they eat better, they have fewer illnesses than ever before – even though their numbers have increased sevenfold during the last two hundred years. *1* What better proof is there to reduce all your objections to absurdity – together with those of all other naysayers and prophets of doom, both living and dead?

Huxley: Oh certainly, I can provide the proof. It is being delivered to us right now. While you make man believe that he is in paradise, pestilences are spreading at ever shorter intervals and with ever greater devastation. First among the animals. “Hundreds of thousands of closely packed animals waiting to be taken to the slaughterhouse: ideal conditions for the mutation of microbes into deadly pathogens.”*2* The only way to combat the danger is to stuff those animals with antibiotics (which we then use to poison ourselves). Nevertheless, entire populations of pigs, cattle, chickens, geese etc. have to be culled, mauled, gassed and buried.

Pinker: So what? This is but a minor technical problem, which we successfully overcome. The sick is wiped out, the healthy remains, where is the problem?

Huxley: We will never eliminate the problem as long as the habitat for animals and humans is getting more and more cramped. Man himself will have increased his number tenfold within only three hundred years. The emergence of epidemic diseases such as cholera, plague, influenza, typhoid fever and smallpox requires a certain population density to allow effective transmission of germs. Hunter-gatherers were still spared this evil which for us has turned into a murderous danger. Up to the present day, Europe was regularly hit by epidemics. None was as deadly as the so-called Spanish flu between 1918 and 1920. This epidemic, spread by soldiers in America and Europe through the H1N1 influenza virus, killed almost as many people in a single year as the Black Death killed in a whole century: between 50 and 100 million people, far more than the 40 million soldiers who fell victim to the First World War.

But compared to former times, the problem could become much worse. Today, not only Western affluent citizens are demanding more and more meat, but also China and soon Africa and the rest of humanity. And in order to satisfy this hunger for meat, we need an area for all farm animals together that is already as large as the entire African continent.*3*

In other words, industrialized husbandry created those very conditions which produce pestilences not only among animals but also in agriculture at large. Our monocultures among farm animals correspond to the monocultures among edible plants. These too are devastated by epidemics. Meanwhile, we are burdening the agriculturally used landscape with vast amounts of poison – each year with new and stronger ones to save the harvests from hosts of constantly mutating plagues. Where once poets and thinkers sang the praises of nature in romantic verses, we are now confronted with disgusting stench. Who will still be happy let alone be poetically inspired when walking through vineyards or orchards freshly sprayed with pesticides? Ours are landscapes where the devil lets pop his bestial farts.

Pinker: Oh yes, I can see, Aldous, you are a grumpy spoilsport. Instead of shuddering in awe at the great achievements of man’s overpowering mind that led us down to the atom and the genome of living species and up to the galaxies, you criticize what is nothing more than children’s diseases, which of course always existed and will certainly still exist in the future. But I assure you, at some point our phytosanitary experts will invent odorless poisons and then your sensitive romantics and poets will go back to the vineyards to adorn the grapes with their verses. As to the wine, you continue drinking it anyway; I don’t know any sober poets. I tell you, we scientists have so far overcome all difficulties.

Huxley: No, that is definitely not true. So drunk you are with your own mind and Faustian endeavors that you are simply blind to all forebodings, though they be close enough. We are no longer speaking about animals only, it is about us, it is about people that we must worry. Our exploding numbers ensure that mass animal husbandry now goes along with mass human husbandry. In the large concrete heaps, we call metropolises, our species lives similarly confined as the animals we feed upon. What we do to other species, we end up doing to ourselves. To be sure, the Corona crisis has not led to mass slaughter among humans, but we lock ourselves up in multistoried sardine tins for weeks or even months, just to avoid contaminating each other through mutual contact.

Pinker: What’s the point of whining? In the end, we will invent a vaccine – and that’s the end of our problems..

Huxley: We will certainly invent a vaccine, perhaps even odorless poisons. But that only means that we will be forced to search for antidotes at an ever faster pace just to repair all those damages we have caused in the first place. From the era of progressive society, meant to improve people’s lives, we stumbled into the era of risk society during the last century, careful not to let a nuclear power station become an atomic bomb (Chernobyl or Fukushima). In the 21st century, however, we entered the era of repair society, where we are mainly concerned with containing damage. I mean the damage we have caused to the air (CO2), to the soil (destruction of humus) and to the water (plastic waste) over during hundred years of industrialization.

But that’s a race against time, which is becoming more and more complex and expensive. As world population has grown larger and larger, wanting to be fed better and better, we need more and more energy just to satisfy our basic physical needs. Today we realize that the so-called industrial revolution is above all an energy revolution. We can no longer close our eyes to the evidence that we ruthlessly plundered the planet’s energy reserves stored in the ground over millions of years – and that we still do so today. This plundering of scarce resources explains why both have grown exponentially within just two hundred years: energy consumption as well as the material standard of living measured in terms of GNP.

Energy consumption: In 1800, it amounted to about 400 million tons of oil equivalents. A hundred years later it was already 1.9 billion tons, almost five times as much. In the next ninety years, until 1990, consumption increased by a factor of sixteen to 30 billion tons (McNeill).

GNP: While global GNP – converted into US dollars in 1990 – was still around 650 billion around 1800, it had tripled to 1.98 trillion by 1900. With 28 trillion around 1990, this amount had grown fourteenfold in less than a century (Maddison).

The connection between the two exponential curves is obvious. Of course, coal and oil would never have had an effect without the invention of the steam engine, diesel and electric motor. But conversely, these machines were able to begin their triumphal march solely because mankind had by now ignited the fossil fire. The industrial revolution and the use of fossil fuels form an indissoluble unity. It’s only because we plundered the planet without any restraint that we are doing so well today.

Pinker: Right. Today we are doing better than ever before in all human history. I have proven this point in my groundbreaking book “Enlightenment Now” with reference to quite a number of indicators.

Huxley: Certainly, the book is one single hymn to the spirit of invention, but the dark flipside of the coin is unfortunately left out altogether. Any objective observer will understand that our experiment with the energy reserves hidden underneath the earth’s mantle will prove to be a flash in the pan. After just three hundred years, the reserves are already running out – and worse still, the residues from combustion (CO2) are heating up the globe in such a way that the rising tides of the oceans threaten us with submerging most coastal cities thus transforming millions of people into refugees. We already passed the peak of the Gaussian normal distribution of early rise and later fall. Even if our reserves were unlimited, we can no longer use them because the fossil fire leads to climate change. Our wealth is so closely linked to fossil combustion that one can only marvel at how optimists still have the upper hand in most governments and even among economists – optimists who cling with strange naivety to the myth of eternal growth.

Whether we want to admit it or not, growth will be over as soon as our supply of fossil gold is exhausted. Perhaps we will then even be pushed back into the poverty of earlier eras. This is a view openly expressed by the collective of scientists led by Ugo Bardi.*4* In any case, we are facing a way of life in which we will have to make do with the amount of energy that the sun provides for our territory. It is obvious that the discovery of fossil fuels – that is, the solar energy stored in coal and oil over millions of years – allows us to consume far more than the current solar radiation. “It is possible to calculate that at the peak of national coal production in the 1920s, coal was produced in England in such large quantities that it generated almost the same amount of heat as would have been produced by burning down the entire global forest” (Bardi, my italics).*5*

Pinker: How similar you Cassandra’s are! Your true and only trademark is lack of imagination. Maybe oil and gas will one day come to an end – of course they will -, and maybe we will not be able to use the methane abundantly found on the ocean’s seabed because we want to shield the globe from further CO2 emissions. But then fusion energy will come to our aid and provide us with a cornucopia of energy. Don’t you see, dear colleague, that we are the only species on earth, and perhaps in the whole cosmos, that has so far been able to give unlimited scope to the mind finding the right technical answer to every problem? For me, this superior trait represents no less than the very definition of what makes us human: we are the problem-solving species par excellence.

Huxley: And I regret to have to contradict you once more. We are the problem-blind species, because we are very close to the abyss yet hardly anybody seems to notice or – perhaps more correctly – hardly anybody wants to notice. “Listen to the news, to elected politicians, to economic and political pundits in this time of crisis. You will hear virtually no reference to climate change (remember climate change?), wild-fires, biodiversity loss, ocean pollution, sea level rise, tropical deforestation, land/soil degradation, human expansion into wild-lands, etc., etc., and there is no hint of understanding that these trends are connected to each other and to the pandemic.” *6*

Your vision of unlimited fusion power, dear Steven, would probably signal the final end of the human experiment. After all, energy is mainly used to convert substances. However, all the materials we need are now rapidly diminishing: copper, rare earths, phosphorus, even the sand needed for concrete. An unlimited supply of energy would only cause us to use up all the resources still left in one wild, orgiastic feast, so to speak – whereupon mankind then wakes up crowding naked on a barren planet. Although we need more and more energy to produce the food for those ten billion people expected during this century, we are quickly running out of the energy needed to do so – by the way, of green energy too. A research group around Jessica Lovering has calculated that we would have to cover with wind turbines and solar modules an area the size of the United States (including Alaska) together with the inhabited area of Canada and furthermore Central America if we want to produce the amount of energy projected for 2050.*7*

Pinker: Stop it! Such pessimism, Aldous, is a crime not only against the people living now but against future generations as well. It darkens the mind and paralyses the power of invention. The best proof that man’s story is one of unending success can be read from our numbers. We are born survivors. Whereas in the days of hunter-gatherers only hordes of at most a hundred people roamed the savannahs, cities with millions of inhabitants are now shooting out of the ground on all continents. Charles Darwin, undoubtedly the greatest scientist after Newton, gave us the right theory explaining this success already a century and a half ago. Whoever is better equipped in the life struggle will prevail, he will have the largest offspring and rule the globe.

Huxley: Sorry that I have to contradict you again. How can Darwin’s theory be correct, when counterevidence is so obvious? When putting all mammals on the scale, humans account for only 36% of total biomass. With a total of just 4%, elephants, tigers, seals, whales, etc. are practically extinct. An overwhelming mass of 60% is made up of cattle, pigs, chickens and the like. Obviously, these represent by far the most successful species – I can’t see how this fact can be reconciled with Darwin’s theory other than by auxiliary constructions. Man and the animals he devours have multiplied like locusts and lemmings within only two hundred years. But we should know what fate regularly befalls such a population explosion – population collapse. Darwin or not, I do not see how this can be seen as a success.

Pinker: Oh, that’s what you’re getting at.  Nature will help itself – with wars, epidemics, famines, etc., so that in the end there will be a small group of people left who will then again go hunting and gathering, as they did ten thousand years ago. That’s the same old tune I do no longer want to hear. To tell you the truth right to your face. I was always advocating freedom and condemning censorship, but such spoilsports and defeatists like you should simply be forbidden to open their mouth.

Sorry for that, but a small thought experiment would suffice to show you how harmless our current situation really is. If we were to accommodate all seven billion people in your dwarf state of Austria, then there would still be 12m2 for every single inhabitant, that is six by two meters – more space than granted by most prisons where quite a few of our contemporaries have to spend their entire life. So, there can be no question of overpopulation. What bothers me about your pessimism is that it is so mentally barren. If you consider it your task to critically question every achievement of our great technical-scientific civilization, then please tell me how you would devise a better world. Mere criticism is a disease that does no good to anyone unless it is administered at the same time as a prescription for healing.

Huxley: I accept this objection. I am even in complete agreement with you, but I also demand that you understand the immense difficulty we are facing. The sudden proliferation of our species beyond the ecosystem’s biological carrying capacity is a misfortune for which there are endless examples in nature – all of them quite unfortunate. I already mentioned lemmings and locusts, but among bacteria and viruses, exponential-explosive reproduction is the norm. And it is a norm too that nature solves the problem in quite a brutal way: it lets the surplus perish. We humans never rebelled against this cruelty as long as it merely affected other species. Then it seemed even quite “natural”. But now, it is we ourselves with almost ten billion individuals that face an ecosystem that can no longer cope with this burden. “Even at current global average levels of consumption (about a third of the Canadian average) the human population far exceeds the long-term carrying capacity of Earth.  We’d need almost five Earth-like planets to support just the present world population indefinitely at Canadian average material standards.”*8*

Yes, we are much better off materially than all of humanity before our time – you are absolutely right insisting on this point. But as soon as we realize that our success is due to the fact that we stripped the planet like locusts, the picture looks completely different. Only we, the ones you revile as naysayers and Cassandras, point out the danger. We say as loudly as we can that in the beginning 21st century humanity must do everything in its capacity to prevent nature from taking revenge on us by treating us in the same way as locusts and lemmings. Or to prevent nature from making ourselves its executors as we destroy each other with wars for the sake of the last remaining resources. “There are no exceptions to the 1st law of plague dynamics:  the unconstrained expansion of any species’ population invariably destroys the conditions that enabled the expansion, thus triggering collapse. “*9* 

Pinker: All right, let’s get to the main topic. Tell me now what you think the world should look like. I assume you either want to lead us back to stone age frugality or to radically reduce our number, as nature does with locusts. That’s what your prescription boils down to.

Huxley: I am surprised by the ease with which you compare humans with locusts, although you see reason, gained through enlightenment, as a characteristic that distinguishes us from other living beings. I guess you know that lots of scientific studies unequivocally prove that the present Western standard of living can only be maintained quite a short time for a population of almost ten billion people. Our energetic flash of the pan will probably be extinguished before the end of this century. If we want to avoid this collapse and create a sustainable world, we will only achieve this goal in two ways: either we reduce our consumption of nature to about one fifth of its actual amount, or only two billion people will be allowed to enjoy the current Western standard of living.

Pinker: Bravo, I already knew that’s what it boils down to. Either radical renunciation, where we all lead an existence of beggars, or five of the existing seven billion people are simply declared superfluous. Maybe you’ll dispose of them on Mars?

Huxley: Please, put mockery aside for a moment. It’s nothing but the usual flight reflex when we are confronted with an existential threat. I guess you’re thinking of the disastrous book by Ilija Trojanow “Der Überflüssige Mensch” (Superfluous Man). But no one who advocates a sensible population policy – Bertrand Russell himself had already done so more than half a century ago – has even for a moment thought of misunderstanding it in the sense of declaring any part of people already living to be superfluous. Such an absurd (and criminal) idea can only arise in the heads of demagogues. The point is to work towards the goal of sustainable population size by limiting the birth rate, as already practiced with considerable success in China. With its falling birth rate, Europe too provides a praiseworthy example.

Pinker: Oh really? And why do companies, politicians and pensioners continue to complain about a lack of workers and even of money to pay their pensions? And why do European nations let foreigners from all over the world stream across their borders in Order to compensate for shrinking population numbers? In Europe, no one seems to be happy about what you call a praiseworthy example. Instead everyone seems to see demographic decline as a national disaster.

Huxley: True, unfortunately, I have to agree with you. Leading scientists leave no doubt that a radical restriction of births is the only sensible policy if we want to escape ecological catastrophe. Everything: the overfishing of oceans and their rapid pollution with plastic, the poisoning of the atmosphere with CO2, the imminent depletion of energy reserves, the increasing threat of all kinds of epidemics in a totally overcrowded world – all this can only be overcome if a consistent population policy succeeds in reducing the birth rate to a fraction within this century. However, instead of presenting the Chinese and European examples as the best solution to what is currently the biggest problem facing humanity, we complain about dwindling pensions. Instead of recommending a radically different policy to the countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America, where the birth surplus is thwarting all sustainability, and supporting all efforts to this effect, we are opening up our borders, thus encouraging these countries to stick to their existing population policies.

Pinker: Do I understand you correctly that we should close our borders? Beware, dear colleague, of mutating into an inhuman, brutal national egoist who lets others die on the other side of the border rather than allowing foreigners into his country.

Huxley: I admit that you are touching a sore point – and one that is extremely problematic and controversial. Let’s leave migration aside for a moment and look at the same problem from a different point of view. Then we may perhaps find more easily common ground.

Let’s take waste production, for example. It seems obvious to me that, in future, every state will have to dispose of it exclusively by itself. More and more foreign countries (once treated superciliously as the “Third World”) are now refusing to poison their own territory with Western garbage. This trend should be welcome. Only by being forced to deal with the problem ourselves do we find strategies for waste avoidance. The responsibility for one’s own actions must again lie with the actor himself, whether individual, company or state. But what is true for waste should apply to industrial production as well. The Corona crisis has shown that, in an emergency, we should produce everything that is essential for life, if not in our own country then at least within the existing federations of states such as the European Union. We must not bring ourselves into existential dependence by relying on a workbench on the other side of the world.*10* In an ideal world, as described by orthodox economics, completely free trade would bring the greatest benefit to all people, that is true, but so far we never lived in a similar world, and we will only achieve it under a future world government.

Yes, and this brings me to point three. Every country (or federation or Union) should only accommodate as many people as can live sustainably on its territory. This conclusion too seems to be inescapable.

Pinker: Quite interesting – and quite strange. Do you really know what you are saying? This is a program to reverse 150 years of globalization. You want to go back to the world as it was a thousand years ago, when China, India, Europe, Australia and America either knew nothing about each other or at least needed almost nothing from each other to satisfy their immediate material needs.

Huxley: If it were as simple as that! Didn’t I just remark that the world is facing what is perhaps the greatest challenge of all times? It belongs to the power of each of the three great powers that it may at any moment contaminate any point on earth with nuclear, chemical and biological weapons in such a disastrous way that the entire human race will be affected. This globalization through the “progress” of weapons technology is irreversible. Even if, in the future, each state or confederation of states were to bear sole responsibility for its own territory and the people living within it, common survival would still depend on no one harming the other. But this can only be achieved through peace, cooperation and mutually binding treaties. In other words, current humanity will have to achieve two major feats at the same time: regionalization on the one hand, i.e. full responsibility within its own borders, and globalization on the other, because we are all passengers on the same boat that may easily capsize.

Pinker: That is again your usual exaggeration and panic mongering! In the times of the Thirty Years’ War, people believed that salvation could only be found in the right faith. In his great book “The God Delusion”, my dear friend Richard Dawkins has denounced the hopeless nonsense of all past and present religious fighters.  A century after thirty years of religious murder, the Enlightenment has for the first time exposed this madness. But then Karl Marx came and created a new delusion. Supposedly, the workers only had to own the machines used by them for production in order to make them happy. Soviet Russia has shown us that they did not become happier at all but were simply turned into beggars, when  compared with their rich counterparts in the US. Now the latest craze is that we ruin all previous progress for the sake of ecology.

Huxley: No, we don’t ruin progress, we only turn to the evidence. In the “Lucky Latitudes” located in the Old World in a strip of about 20 to 35 degrees north and in the New World between 15 degrees south to 20 degrees north, collecting yielded the best results. For a single calorie invested on the work of collecting, our distant ancestors ten thousand years ago gained fifty calories from the food thus collected.  Today, this balance has turned into the opposite: 22,000 calories are needed to produce 100g of beef with a calorie content of 270 calories. Instead of being rewarded for a single calorie of bodily exertion with fifty calories of food, we now put 81 calories into work to gain just one calorie of food. Most of the calories needed are obtained from fossil fuels that are used in tractors, fertilizers, etc. – a devastating energy balance. Every thinking person must understand that things cannot go on like this. The Green Revolution quadrupled the harvest yield between 1950 and 2000; only in this way was it at all possible to largely feed the number of people, which jumped from about 1.5 to six billion during this period. If instead the old methods would have remained in place, so that the agricultural yield had not been increased, then an area equivalent to the entire surface of the United States plus Canada and China would have had to be cleared and ploughed up to feed today’s world population.*11*

However, the willingness to draw the right conclusions from these facts has so far been demonstrated by only a handful of scientists. For it is at this point that something quite different comes into play. The elementary problem of ecology turns into a social question – one could also say a question of consciousness. As long as a minority wallows in power and wealth, the majority will not want to accept any loss. Seen in this light, Marx was indeed perfectly right.

Pinker: No, even this argument is far too simple. As long as the superpowers remain suspicious of each other, neither of them will want to give up the slightest advantage if it benefits the competitor. It’s a great naivety to think that while the superpowers invest billions in weapons just to keep up with their rivals, they will voluntarily cut back on their use of resources just because they listen to the siren sounds of ecologists. It’s here, my dear colleague, where all your hopeless idealism is suddenly revealed.

Let me suggest a little more realism. Mankind has developed something much more effective and thoroughly democratic than the voluntary cutting back of resources and waste production. And you should know that as well as everybody else. We have got the market, which does not show any consideration even for governments. The market controls all economic transactions through prices. That’s why we have nothing to fear for the environment. If oil becomes too expensive or the disposal of waste no longer affordable, the industry will switch to other forms of energy. Market and prices – that is global reason embodied in a global institution, which tames and regulates itself. As long as the market is intact, we have nothing to fear!

Huxley: Steven, now you are making me laugh! You call me an idealist when you yourself are nothing but a conservative dreamer. Do the melting glaciers have a price? Will wild animals dying out all over the world ever be included in market calculations? Does industry measure CO2 content in the atmosphere in order to add the cost of climate change to its prices? Has inequality that made some people multi-billionaires and others starving ever unsettled the market?

No, it is not the market that saves the world, but strong governments that consider the interests of both present and future generations. Our current misfortune could, however, prove to be helpful. As long as the world market, i.e. international competition, sets the tone, regionalization is out of the question. But now the major economic blocs have to think about themselves. This could turn out to be a huge opportunity. Before the onslaught of corona, many people were complaining about the fact that the environment cannot cope with the ever growing air traffic. Now the air industry has collapsed. Corona does almost everything that the saviors of the environment have been preaching and demanding for years. The virus has significantly reduced energy consumption, exhaust gases were reduced to a minimum because traffic came to a standstill, the sky over the cities has turned blue again, in sheer amazement some animals venture out of their hiding places. Corona forces the world to change.

Pinker: That sounds as if you ecologists had been longing for such a crisis.

Huxley: If without a smaller crisis it is not possible to save the world from the great catastrophe, then this question should be answered in the affirmative, because it is a fact that humans learn best from their mistakes. Incidentally, international cooperation in the fight against Corona is the obvious proof of the salutary aspect of globalization. The common misfortune could become a common opportunity.

Pinker: This won’t do. Man needs hope and a positive narrative. With my groundbreaking book on the Enlightenment, I succeeded in conveying precisely that kind of hope. We should be proud of everything we have achieved in science and technology. But you are taking hope away from the people.

Huxley: Is there a greater hope than a world whose beauty we preserve for ourselves and future generations? Has it never occurred to you that a peacock, a hippopotamus or a lion are greater and far more complex inventions than even our fastest supercomputers? It is this world of incredible beauty and complexity that we want to preserve. I know of no greater positive narrative than this common task.

.

*0* Arguably an even more convincing partner in this dispute with Steven Pinker would have been the former German psychiatrist and neurologist Hoimar v. Ditfurth, who is, however, little known outside Germany. The title of his book (published already in 1985!) “So lasst uns denn ein Apfelbäumchen pflanzen – Es ist soweit” (let’s plant an apple tree – it’s time) alludes to what Luther would have done if the world were to perish. The book provides not only a detailed description of mankind’s likely self-extermination through nuclear, biological and chemical weapons but also identifies the main reason for the predicament of our species: exponential growth of world population. For one thing only would I blame this extraordinarily well-informed, intelligent and sympathetic man. He saw no way out of mankind’s predicament and equated his own demise – which took place four years after the publication of the book – with the end of the world.

*1* Steven Pinker, Enlightenment Now.

*2*  Des centaines de milliers de bêtes entassées les unes sur les autres en attendant d’être conduites à l’abattoir : voilà des conditions idéales pour que les microbes se muent en agents pathogènes mortels. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*3*  Pour assouvir son appétit carnivore, l’homme a rasé une surface équivalant à celle du continent africain (8) afin de nourrir et d’élever des bêtes destinées à l’abattage. (https://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/2020/03/SHAH/61547#nb9)

*4* Bardi (2014): “Extracted. How the Quest for Mineral Wealth is Plundering the Planet”, Chelsea Green Publishing 2014,

*5* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

*6* William E. Rees (2020): The Earth Is Telling Us We Must Rethink Our Growth Society (https://thetyee.ca/Analysis/2020/04/06/The-Earth-Is-Telling-Us-We-Must-Rethink-Our-Growth-Society/).

*7* Quoted from Jenner (2019), Reflections.

*8* William E. Rees, op. cit.

*9* Rees, op cit.: Now here’s the thing. H. sapiens has recently experienced a genuine population explosion. It took all of human evolutionary history, at least 200,000 years, for our population to reach its first billion early in the 19th Century. Then, in just two hundred years, (less than 1/1000thas much time) we blossomed to over seven billion at the beginning of this century.  This unprecedented outbreak is attributable to H. sapiens’ technological ingenuity, e.g., modern medicine and especially the use of fossil fuels. (The latter enabled the continuous increases in food production and provided access to all the other resources needed to expand the human enterprise.) 

The problem is that Earth is a finite planet, a human Petri dish on which the seven-fold increase in human numbers, vastly augmented by a 100-fold increase in gross world product (consumption), is systematically destroying prospects for continued civilized existence.

*10* This imperative I had already advocated in my first book on economics: “Die arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (S. Fischer 1997; now newly published by Amazon “Nach der Coronakrise – keine Arbeitslosigkeit durch Auslagerung und Automation”).

*11* Quoted from Jenner (2019): Reflections.

Delusion!

Anti-cyclical behavior is recommended among economists. When the economy is flourishing, it should reduce debt, but in times of decline, it should rather stimulate business by incurring debt. As far as I am concerned, acting counter-cyclically seemed advisable to me amid the current corona crisis. Seeing all around me people who want to save the world and themselves from the virus, I decided to save myself from thinking about the virus, lest it should not only infect my body but perhaps even my brain. In this state of forced self-isolation what could be better than to turn it into a time of self-contemplation?

Eight years ago, I had put aside a manuscript to which I had been inspired by reading Richard Dawkins’ book “The God Delusion” – a world bestseller which owed its success to taking a clear-cut position regarding two primary topics. The first: religions are – according to Dawkins – not merely superfluous but constitute a positive danger – probably the greatest that man ever faced. Throughout history, religions tended to defend false knowledge with utter fanaticism. They set authority and command against personal thinking, thus subjugating the individual instead of calling him to maturity.

With equal determination the British biologist defends his second basic thesis. Today man finally started the epoch of victorious science that puts an end to millennia of religious madness. Science is able to solve all questions that up to then seemed unsolvable.

I assume that the problem of coronavirus if not solved in this year by medical science, will be solved in one of the years to come. But no one will be naive enough to assume that humanity will eventually reach a stage where it will have solved all problems. It would probably consider such a stage, if it were possible at all, to be as unbearable as the problems themselves. Would it not bring about a standstill of all thinking and acting?

In my endeavor to think anticyclically about such questions, I remembered that Albert Einstein – certainly a match for Richard Dawkins both in rank and range of mind – had a very different relationship to religion, and that this also applies to other great physicists such as Niels Bohr, Max Born, David Bohm or Erwin Schrödinger. I picked up the manuscript and the title was immediately found:

The Dawkins Delusionas seen by Mystic Universalism and its most famous advocate: Albert Einstein

As you may see, I could not renounce my penchant for polemics, although I had read with great suspense Dawkins’ very knowledgeable, intellectually stimulating book, which furthermore is sometimes enlivened by British wit. Dawkins’ delusion lies at a different place – a place where most of us may easily detect it in themselves. Dawkins clearly sees the mote in the eye of his opponent. But he fails to see the beam in his own. His exalted hymn of science suffers from a serious shortcoming. He is blind to the fact that science is at its greatest, when it is critically against itself. That is why my rather anti-cyclical book is about the limits of both religion and scientific knowledge and what area might exist beyond those limits. My intent is specified on the back cover:

Humanity invented two universal languages that have been understood at all times and on all continents – the language of facts (today named science) and the language of intuition (mystic universalism), but both have been and are being misused for the purpose of power. Power religion and power science distorted man’s world view. It is time for critical science to get aware of the limits of reason and for self-critical religion to go back to its mystical origins. This should not be understood as a rejection of the sharp intelligence of Richard Dawkins, but rather as criticism of power delusions.

The subtitle of the German edition asks the question: “Duel between science and religion?” We know that this duel has been going on since the 17th century. It will certainly not come to an end with Dawkins – to this very day power-science and power-religion are unreconciled and irreconcilable. But there is no antagonism between critical science and self-critical religion, namely mystic universalism. Aldous Huxley had described mysticism as “Philosophia perennis”: an eternal and universal philosophy. What is it that makes the mysticism of the Upanishads, Islam, Zen and Christianity so similar to critical science? The book wants to give an answer to this question.

P.S: I published the book in German and English on Amazon, both in Kindle format and as a paperback edition. I am, of course, aware that among my readers there may be quite a few, who shy away from a purchase at Amazon. I also admit that there are good reasons to do so, but on the other hand we should not forget that Amazon as a publishing house is probably the only institution that offers access to everyone who can write and design a book, i.e. the only really democratic publishing house. A critical, knowledgeable, unprejudiced editor in a renowned publishing house is irreplaceable, I admit, but how many publishers can still afford this luxury today? Most of them encourage their editors to base their judgement on expected sales figures. But those who write about mystic universalism and critical science are addressing thoughtful people, i.e. a tiny minority. In other words, I am grateful to Amazon for offering a platform to my thoughts.

Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

As human beings we are controlled by emotions and by our intellect – at any time both are invariably involved, even if it sometimes seems as if we are dealing with either purely emotional people or pure intellectuals. A mathematic formula, for example, which to an average person may seem as cold, lifeless and repellent as a prison wall, may produce enchantment and ecstasy in a mathematician who perceives it something extremely beautiful and elegant. In other words, he experiences much the same feelings as a musician who is playing Mozart or Bach. Feelings and the intellect don’t present themselves to us with an either-or, but we may definitely speak of prevailing tendencies.

The more emotionally driven man

let’s himself get involved with an object and makes it his own step by step in ever greater depth and complexity. This is how the artist proceeds, but this is also how any normal student approaches his subject. He feels attracted by an object, then slowly acquires more and more knowledge and skills in its handling – and at some point he himself will become an expert. In the course of his studies he acquires a reputation or at least some official certificate testifying that he may with legitimate competence express himself about the matter.

Those who identify with the object of their studies in this usual way hardly ever perceive it as a problem. A classical musician is not supposed to ask himself whether it is not the mere coincidence of his birth that is responsible for the fact that he loves Bach so much instead of, say, the musical tradition of the Peking Opera. The philosopher who grew up with Kant sees the world through the eyes of the famous man from Königsberg, he usually does not ask himself why he does not see it through the glasses of Shankaracharya’s Vedanta. The intense emotional attachment to a beloved object very often virtually excludes even the mere awareness of problems. People who grow up in a certain tradition therefore often reject as unconscionable the mere attempt by outsiders to doubt, to question or to modify it. The understandable reaction of such an affective relationship then consists in the motto that one holds against any intruders: “Unauthorized persons are forbidden to enter”.

More intellectually controlled persons

seldom follow the straight and slow path of a growing emotional bond; on the contrary, they are attracted to problems and fractures without necessarily scoring with great knowledge in the first place. “Die arbeitslose Gesellschaft“,  S. Fischer, 1997 (Society without work) proved to be a publishing success, but Jenner had never attended an economics seminar. What preoccupied him was not the economics subject as such, which until then had hardly attracted his attention but something quite different: a problem. During his stay in Japan for the purpose of study and work, he experienced how this country – much like China today – was taking over more and more industrial capacities from the West. He wondered what an increasing outsourcing of industrial production to Asia (at that time mainly to Japan and the “East Asian Tigers”) would mean for Germany. This problem preoccupied him – and it was only while working on it that he, as an autodidact, acquired the necessary economic knowledge to be able to have a say in the matter.

Problem solvers may be recognized by the fact

that they turn the usual order upside down: they rarely start with years of study, gradually and lovingly deepening their understanding until they are rewarded with some official certificate; instead they get involved with some problem that challenges them, fascinates them – and this then pushes them to an often stormy conquest of the subject in question. Without doubt, this approach contradicts the above-mentioned motto, because in this case an unauthorized person gains access. In other words, problem solvers tend to do so in an unusual way, often considered improper, namely without first asking the reigning luminaries for permission.

The risk of such a procedure is obvious

We know that lots of inspired weirdos are constantly busy conjuring up solutions to all kinds of world problems from all kinds of esoteric hats. At best, such people appear as problem finders – they point out existing fractures and conflicts – but rarely do they emerge as real problem solvers. You only need to take a quick glance at the Internet to see the truth of this statement. On the other hand, no society can do without problem finders and problem solvers, because emotionally attached people often tend to be inaccessible or completely blind to fractures and contradictions. They cling to what they have learned and to their respective subject as if it were a beloved one whose beauty they not even dare to question.

As for Jenner, he was certainly lucky

Prof. Bert Rürup, then a renowned leading German economist, who acted as an economic advisor for the German government as well as for S. Fischer publishing house, supported his work (whose topic, outsourcing, may again be quite relevant in times of the Corona). In this way he paved the way for the book’s success. The usual reaction towards an outsider: “Access prohibited for unauthorized persons” was overridden by Prof. Rürup’s timely recommendation. Jenner had gained access to the ranks of the economic guild – at least for a certain time.

However, problem solvers are unpredictable

precisely because they tend to question many things that others take for granted. This was soon to be seen in the case of the newly qualified economist. Jenner undoubtedly owed Mr. Rürup a great debt of gratitude (which, of course, he only noticed later, when the latter had already turned into his enemy). Had his manuscript fallen into the hands of an average editor, instead of being presented to the distinguished economist, the editor would have asked first of all: “Is this man even authorized to comment on the subject?”. He would of course have answered this question in the negative, and the manuscript would have been rejected by the publisher with the usual haughty arrogance.

But gratitude was no reason for Jenner to accept a course of action that to him seemed not really gentleman-like. On one of the first pages of his second book published by S. Fischer “Das Ende des Kapitalismus -Triumph oder Kollaps eines Wirtschaftssystems” (The End of Capitalism – Triumph or Collapse of an Economic System), Prof. Rürup described himself as co-author – literally: “Expert advice: Prof. Dr. Dr. h. c. Rürup”. Since Jenner could not remember any advice even after the most strenuous self-questioning, he immediately spotted a new major problem, which he personally solved by publicly rejecting this usurpation.

Of course, Jenner should have known that in Germany such a procedure is perfectly in tune with academic ethos. Professors consider it their God-given right to have most back-breaking work done by assistants and to adorn themselves with borrowed intellectual plumes, whenever this seems opportune. Jenner believed he had to protest against this venerable tradition. That was naive, because he had, of course, soon to pay for this audacity. Mr. Rürup made sure that from then on his access to the S. Fischer publishing house would be blocked.

Two more economic works were related to obvious problems

Both were published by major editors: “Energiewende – so sichern wir Deutschlands Zukunft” (Energy turnaround – how to secure Germany’s future) in 2006 (Propyläen), when there was yet hardly any talk of the impending climate crisis. Here Jenner propagated the transition to sustainability with a slogan that became part of popular usage later after the disaster of Fukushima. Jenner literally spoke of a “national project“. However, in that book he had drawn too black a picture of the German economy. The loss of competitiveness in key German industries (especially the automotive sector) due to outsourcing and Chinese competition is only now becoming apparent.

With “Das Pyramidenspiel” (The Ponzi Scheme) on the dynamics of public and private debt published by Signum in 2008, Jenner once again attracted the attention of an economic expert, namely Prof. Gerhard Scherhorn. Scherhorn also introduced the book with a benevolent foreword. In contrast to the first-mentioned economist, Jenner still remembers this outstanding scientist with great respect, even though he did not follow the fatherly advice he received from him. Prof. Scherhorn urged him to refrain from sending his texts (newsletters) to God and the world. This, he rightly said, was simply not usual among serious academics.

A characteristic of problem finders and problem solvers

is their volatility. Jenner had acquired knowledge and interest in basic economic facts. But the economy as such had attracted him less than the preoccupation with foreign cultures, which he had turned to from the very beginning of his studies, being concerned mainly with the Indian, Chinese and Japanese cultures. During his last stay in Japan, however, a problem began to worry him, which in time was to become the problem par excellence for him, although he first encountered it where most people are usually not even aware of it, namely in language.

Germans think it is evident to call a monkey with the word “Affe”, while an Englishman says “monkey”, an Italian “scimmia”, a Japanese “Saru”, a Chinese “Houzi”. The famous Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure concluded that the signs that humans use for concepts are arbitrary, i.e. the outcome of chance. This view is, of course, a purely intellectual insight, which is in stark contrast to the way in which the emotionally attached person normally experiences his mother tongue. In most earlier cultures, people were convinced that the gods expressed themselves with the very same words – these could therefore by no means be merely coincidental.

Nevertheless, the reader will wonder whether it is not ridiculous to see a problem in the relationship of a concept to its sign?

No, in reality this is much less ridiculous than it seems at first glance. How far this relationship actually extends becomes obvious as soon as we relate the question to other cultural “self-evidences”. Just try to tell a Muslim that the consumption of pigs is no more and no less justified than that of cattle. Or a Christian that his faith in Jesus Christ could be explained by the coincidence of his belonging to this specific religious community just as much as a Hindu’s faith in Shiva or Vishnu. Both will react to this with utmost anger. Obviously we are dealing here with cultural positions that have been able to incite people against each other in such a way that they repeatedly bash each other’s heads.

But first Jenner “only” looked at the problem of language,

because here he was confronted with a most intriguing question. If in natural languages all individual signs (tree, monkey, cloud, etc.) are arbitrary, as de Saussure claims, does this not apply to language as a whole, namely also to all those regularities, which we refer to by the term grammar? And furthermore: if every language as a whole is a work of chance, can we expect any connecting similarities to exist between different languages? After all, there can be no similarity between mere coincidences!

This question became a problem for Jenner, which fascinated him to such a degree that it gave rise to his next and quite ambitious work. As in the case of economics, he had never dealt with the subject matter itself – in this case linguistics -, although he had learned several languages in the course of his studies. Now he immediately fell under the spell of one of the leading linguists of the time: the then Pope of Linguistics, Noam Chomsky, who had asked the same question in quite a similar way. Is there a universal linguistic ability that is common to all human beings and can be demonstrated by drawing up a Universal Grammar? Apparently such a Universal Grammar would separate linguistic chance from linguistic necessity. Although people would use arbitrary signs in any language, the rules that codify their connection in grammatical patterns would then be universal, that is, far from accidental. Chomsky believed he had discovered such universal patterns, but in their description he used the same basic concepts that traditional grammars had gained from the study of Indo-European languages. Jenner soon realized that this path was misleading. Chomsky had never understood that the basic concepts he used can’t be applied to other languages – for instance Chinese. 1

Jenner was and remains in agreement with Chomsky as to the goal

It is about the description of the universal properties of the human faculty of speech. Where does chance end, and where do we find the structural laws common to all of them? After all, there must be a Tertium comparationis – how else would could we otherwise explain that they can be translated (to a large extent, though by no means completely!).

The outer garment of their random form must be based on meanings and structures of meaning that are understood as such by all human beings. Between 1981 and 1993, when Jenner’s “Principles of Language” were published (by Peter Lang Verlag), Jenner set out to define these non-random “deep structures” together with their partly random, partly formally necessary realization in various empirical languages. From today’s perspective, much of what he wrote at that time now seems to him to be too difficult to read and even more difficult to understand. He only agrees with the revised edition of the Principles published by Amazon in 2019 (“The Principles of Language: Towards trans-Chomskyan Linguistics“).

In this case too, Jenner acted as an unauthorized outsider,

who invaded a field of knowledge that originally was quite foreign to him. But this time he did not have the chance of finding a patron who appreciated an investigation openly contradicting the prevailing paradigm. Instead, he was confronted with the typical reaction: “Unauthorized persons are forbidden to enter!” 2

The reason is not hard to discover. Renowned scientists had wasted the most precious time of a short human life on the almost superhuman task of shedding some light on the largely incomprehensible scholasticism of Noam Chomsky, and an outsider simply declares this effort superfluous, making fun of respectable scientists, so to speak, when he claims that even the basic concepts of Generative Grammar are misleading because they are simply not universal. The answer followed immediately, it was: “Don’t even ignore the outsider!” 3

And yet it was by no means absurd to assume that a linguist should have acquired a certain knowledge of his subject, i.e. a knowledge of empirical languages. It is said of Chomsky that, apart from English, he only speaks Spanish and a little Hebrew, while Jenner earned his doctorate in Sanskrit, reads and understands Russian, Japanese and Chinese, and studied at the Sorbonne (Paris), at the Università degli Studi in Rome and at the School for Oriental and African Studies in London. Chomsky would, of course, not accept such an objection. He believes that he can do without trivialities such as empirical knowledge, as he carries a “homunculus” within him, as he literally confesses. Therefore, he only needs to study this tiny man in order to discover everything essential about language within himself. In other words, the knowledge of empirical languages does not really count and concern him! 4

The problem of chance and freedom

continued to be Jenner’s obsession. Having first encountered it in language it soon turned into a problem of a much more basic nature. With his book “Creative Reason – A Philosophy of Freedom (dedicated to William James)” he now ventured into a large terrain that had always intrigued him, but until then not as a particular challenge.

We noticed that in language the existence of chance is undeniable, nobody can explain why a concept like tree is “realized” with the sound prescribed for it in English while it could as well be realized by an infinite number of different signs. It must have seemed all the more strange to Jenner that since the 17th century a dogmatically held doctrine held sway over European science, namely determinism, which fundamentally denies chance and explains it as a mere indication of human ignorance. In truth, this doctrine states that all of nature, including man, is governed exclusively by laws. Chance does simply not exist. According to this view, human freedom, too, is dismissed as an illusion – more precisely, as a subjective delusion.

Creative Reason” is in its first part a historical work. The book traces the denial of chance and freedom through the philosophical history of the past three hundred years. It shows why science insisted so much on the denial of freedom and that even when quantum physics finally accepted the existence of chance, it did not know what to do with it. Chance is dismissed as blind and meaningless.

In contrast, with regard to chance and freedom

Jenner’s position is the exact opposite to the traditional one. “We cannot even think necessity without freedom (chance). A deterministic science is a logical self-contradiction because on logical grounds it presupposes the existence of freedom.” In his view, Creative Reason is of equal importance beside that Reason, which is based on the recognition of laws.

Jenner considers “Creative Reason” to be his best and most original work, because for the first time, it establishes freedom alongside necessity as a logically indispensable dimension and thus opts for a basic change of our present world view. In his view, “tantum possumus quantum scimus” (we can only do as much as we know – this statement about man, accepted since Francis Bacon) has been wrong from the start. In every moment of his personal life, each human being can and does far more than he knows. Creative Reason is a book whose aim is both to illuminate and explore the scope and limits of human reason.

In human history

the antithesis of necessity is not chance but freedom, with the essential difference between both resulting from the fact that we do not understand what we encounter as chance in nature, whereas we do sympathize with the motives of other people and are therefore able to give meaning to their as well as to our own freedom in thoughts and in acts. Why this world exists at all and why it is the way it is, we will never decipher, even if we describe existing order in thousands of laws. That is why in nature, necessity (comprising the totality of laws) is opposed to chance, which we perceive as blind and senseless, just because we are unable to endow it with any human meaning.

On the other hand, human history is so fascinating for us precisely because people always orient their own actions along some kind of meaning, which we may detect and decipher. Of course, there is necessity here as well. We can only survive in nature as long as we obey nature’s laws, but we can use these laws for purposes designed by ourselves – and indeed since the Industrial Revolution we have been doing so to an extent never seen before.

The three books

Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in History – The Destiny of Mankind in the 21st Century”,Peace, War and Climate Change – a Call for New Strategies“, and finally “Homo IN-sapiens – A Short History of Human Insanity” were written by Jenner again in the capacity of a problem solver, who gropes for the meaning of history. Let us remember: in language he was concerned with finding universals beyond the arbitrariness of signs.

He now set himself the same task with regard to the differences and contrasts in culture that go beyond language – aren’t all those infinite rules concerning food, behavior and belief equally arbitrary?

The basic question remained the same: Do we find supra-cultural meaning in human history? With regard to omnipresent evil, meaning seems indeed very hard to come by. But this is certainly not the last word. At least we can always ask for the motives of human agents, and – when finding them – explain evil to a certain degree.

As to the goal of history,

however, it seems to Jenner not only possible, but downright necessary to offer a solution to this paramount problem (which from Immanuel Kant to Arnold Toynbee, had already been conceived in a similar way).

Since the second half of the 20th century, the survival of humans as a species is in evident danger. Using the huge arsenal of existing nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles, it is as much in his hands to end his earthly existence as by irrevocably destroying the globe’s natural environment. For the first time in history, the goal of history becomes therefore perfectly clear. We are all in the same boat and together we must prevent it from capsizing and pulling us all into the abyss. In concrete terms, this means that we must radically change our economic system together with current politics. The problem of freedom being directly related to war and peace suddenly becomes very concrete, because man is not merely confronted with nature, but with his fellow human beings – and they pose a similar threat to his survival. In our days, the race between nations for greater economic, military and political power is the major force threatening to drive homo insapiens into insanity.

The intellectually controlled human being,

who is a problem finder and sometimes also a problem solver, who points to existing fractures, conflicts and contradictions, can only reveal insanity but not overcome it. He can show how Homo insapiens acts against his own advantage even risking his own survival. There is no lack of supreme intelligence in all modern states. Indeed, the breathtaking ingenuity of science and technology has radically transformed the face of the earth within only three centuries. But we now understand that intelligence alone does not make man a Homo sapiens. For this to happen, something else is needed, namely wisdom that springs from feelings, from sympathy for other beings, from mutual respect and help. As long as the disastrous race of nations for greater economic and military power is not ended, we can hardly hope that Homo sapiens – the wise and not the merely intelligent man – will steer history in a different direction.

For his large-scale history project

Jenner did not meet with any interest from major publishers, despite several attempts. Meinhard Miegel, a well-known German author whose writings Jenner always held in high esteem, expressed his praise both for the style and content of “Reflections on Meaning and Purpose in Human History” (referring, of course, to the German original). Miegel insisted that it must absolutely be published, and that he would like to support this if necessary with a printing cost subsidy. Not only Mr. Miegel welcomed Jenner’s new work, but Karl Acham, a renowned Austrian professor of sociology, even vouched for its scientific respectability with an extensive foreword.

Prof. Acham recommended the Springer publishing house (sociology), being convinced that his preface would open the door to the author. This time, however, things turned out quite differently from when he had offered “Die Arbeitslose Gesellschaft” (Society without work) to the Fischer Verlag. Just two days after the manuscript arrived at the publishing house, it was rejected without even being examined.

This out-of-hand rejection is not as strange as it may appear at first glance. A proofreader is hardly allowed to rely on his own opinion or that of a foreign reviewer. As in the Colosseum, where thumbs up or thumbs down decided on the life or death of a gladiator – all turns around the “placet” of one of those demigods in the German professorial sky who reserve for themselves the last word on what may or may not be published – anonymously, of course, nobody can hold them accountable. This time the motto obviously prevailed: “Unauthorized persons not allowed to enter“.

Since then, Jenner has published on Amazon

In a certain way, this kind of publication even seems to suit the author’s inclinations, for he not only finds fault with others, but often with himself as well. He continues to retouch his own writings, to add or to remove whole passages. Nothing worries him as much as when he can be proven to have made a mistake in the reception of facts or the framing of arguments (and, unfortunately that sometimes happens. Jenner is a lone fighter, so mistakes can never be wholly excluded). 5 In any case, the publication at Amazon accommodates his tendency to self-correction, because changes in both the print as well as in the Kindle edition can be done on the personal computer within hardly more than half an hour – a procedure that would be completely unthinkable at other publishers.

1 Jenner’s thesis that the basic concepts of Chomsky’s Universal Grammar (verb, nouns etc.) are not universal is either right or wrong. One would therefore think that serious scientists would either accept or disprove it. But Jenner knows of no linguist who has seriously dealt with the problem. So much has the orchid subject linguistics become a “paradigm” as described by Thomas Kuhn, that no one studies its premises anymore. Although attacks on Chomsky have increased recently, the child is now being ejected with the bath: The legitimate goal of getting language as such into view, and not just individual languages, is being questioned.

2 Jenner’s habilitation thesis on linguistics, which already contained his main propositions, was rejected “for formal reasons”, although a reviewer (Prof. Peter Hartmann from Konstanz) had stood up for it in the review board. However, Prof. Bernfried Schlerath, the then full professor at the Free University of Berlin, was not to be trifled with. And that for understandable reasons: Jenner had never sat at his feet for Even a single hour.

3 Chomsky is as clear in his political writings as he is unclear in his linguistic texts. That is probably why he finally abandoned the second and embraced the first area. Even a linguist like Steven Pinker rejects the scholasticism of his academic mentor. Pinker convinces with his amazing knowledge, with a clear language and clever argumentation. Jenner criticizes Pinker for another reason: he considers him not quite honest. His idea of a prelinguistic language (mentalese) is completely on Jenner’s line, and the conclusion resulting from this premise seems obvious. Pinker, like him, would have to replace Chomsky’s basic concepts of Generative Grammar with prelinguistic ones. But Pinker shrinks from doing so, for he would then be in danger of breaking away from Chomsky altogether and standing by the side of a still ignored outsider. Here again, we experience the power of paradigms so vividly described by Kuhn. Kuhn had tracked down dogmatism in the natural sciences through their paradigms. He would have had a much easier job if he had looked for them in the humanities. If a company plans and produces new devices according to the known laws of nature, we can be sure that the laws it applies are true – otherwise the devices would simply not work. But in the humanities, the most outlandish theories can emerge with no need (and often no possibility) for their proponents to test it by confronting it with reality.

4 Homunculus science, as practiced by the late Chomsky, is questioned by David Golumbia in the essay “The Language of Science and the Science of Language – Chomsky’s Cartesianism” as a violation of the principles of an empirical science.

5 Jenner is a lone wolf, his last books have not passed through the hands of an editor, nor has he asked friends to peruse them. Sometimes this has led to mistakes that quite embarrassed him. For example, the term Anthropocene he erroneously did not use in the sense intended by its inventor Paul Josef Crutzen to designate the industrial age, but referred it to the entire history since man actively changed his environment. We know, that this already happened at the time of hunters and gatherers, when they largely exterminated the existing megafauna. Jenner corrected this mistake by using the term “Great Anthropocene”.

Socrates versus Minsky – can Artificial Intelligence replace the Human Brain?

Socrates

Let’s get away from the disturbing problems of the present, in order to turn back to those much more basic and lasting ones which concern the nature of man. Mr. Marvin Minsky, you were the leading authority on Artificial Intelligence, glad to meet you in paradise!

Minsky

Oh, it’s you the philosopher? But let me tell you, we no longer need to philosophize about man in order to explore his true nature. For the first time in history, the exact sciences provide us with the means to use numbers and irrefutable proofs to make our statements irrefutable. What the natural sciences have achieved within the short lapse of merely three hundred years, namely making outward reality calculable so that we can master it, has now become possible with regard to man himself. Let me stress my point: for the first time in history.

Socrates

In other words, you don’t need philosophers anymore. We are mere dreamers, who created all sorts of fables and myths about man. But now you come with your measuring instruments, and in the end you will set up a handful of equations that will allow you to predict human thoughts and actions for the next fourteen days – just as you can now predict the weather for a fortnight and the orbit of Jupiter even for the coming millennia.

Minsky

Right, but I have no qualms in praising your past achievements. The conversations that someone like you used to have with clever young men in ancient Athens, oh, I quite loved to read that as a student. So much poetry and enthusiasm, really impressive! But let us be honest, your division of the state according to teaching, military and nutritional status had no practical consequences. Your most brilliant student Plato remained without political influence all his life; Syracuse’s infamous dictator did not even think of taking over his system but almost turned him into a slave for the rest of his life. You philosophers have provided the world with narratives, but your practical effect has been nil because it was not based on science. That is why the likes of you are now disappearing even from universities, while the natural sciences are booming.

Socrates

This makes you probably think that you will soon be able to describe human thinking and behavior so well that you can plan a community on the drawing board. Everything will then be as reliable and predictable as in a termite state? I am reminded of Watson and Skinner, the founders of Behaviorism, who proclaimed this sad utopia a century ago.

Minsky

That is your private quite malicious wording, because you want to suggest that freedom would be absent from such a state. But freedom is an illusion, as you should know. As long as man acts according to laws, there can be no freedom, but if instead he is not ruled by laws, then he is subject to blind and meaningless chance. Do you want to call that by the name of freedom? Your reference to a termite state is therefore nothing but misleading nonsense. Man has never been free, even if it is that what he imagines himself to be. Human scientists are merely demonstrating this lack of freedom by showing that it is quite obvious in artificial intelligence and in robots.

Socrates

I admit, you’ve done a lot of great things.

I Artificial man proves that we are on the right path to completely decipher his natural counterpart

Minsky

Indeed, that really deserves admiration. Our practical successes provide no less than conclusive proof that we are on the verge of completely decoding the human being. Our largest calculating machines carry out tasks within seconds that normal human beings have not been able to solve even in thousands of years. Our chess robots, equipped with artificial intelligence, now beat every human player, our robot doctors provide better diagnoses than professors with university degrees, our AI-equipped artificial lawyers have more knowledge and therefore more competence than any natural expert, our control systems in airplanes make pilots of flesh and blood superfluous  – and reduce the frequency of accidents to that minimum that will always be caused by defective technology (as in humans as well, for instance, by heart failure). Cars controlled by Artificial Intelligence soon will allow fluent traffic, which in addition will be nearby accident-free.

Socrates

If I understand you correctly, your goal is to replace the fallible, comparatively dull human being so limited in his knowledge with his perfect counterpart, namely an artificial brain in an artificial robot – both considered far superior in every respect.

Minsky

That’s right, and we have already progressed so far along this path that most of the professions that still exist today will no longer be needed in a few years’ time. Already now, pilots have become an expendable luxury, the drivers of trucks, busses and taxis will soon be dismissed as well. In diagnostics, doctors are already largely superfluous, only in therapy they still play a certain role, but robots will prove to be much better surgeons. Interpreters are hardly needed any more, as translation machines are now doing an excellent job. I confess that despite all the progress we can be very proud of, I am afraid that this might cause problems as so many people will lose their jobs.

Socrates

I agree that this could indeed turn out to be a tremendous problem. But it seems much more interesting to me to pursue a more fundamental question. Is your optimism at all justified that you will soon be able to completely decipher human beings and replace them with artificial superhumans?

I want to choose this topic because I don’t just think your thesis is exaggerated, as if you simply needed a little more time for further research. No, I think it is basically and demonstrably wrong. More than that, I consider it to be a great and dangerous illusion – despite all the undeniable practical successes that you already achieved and will undoubtedly still achieve in the future.

Minsky

Really? There speaks the philosopher opposing empirical knowledge with lofty speculation. But I will certainly not follow you on that path. The fact is that we are already very close to our goal of replacing natural man with his artificial substitute. We just don’t yet know which of two ways will allow us to reach it within the shortest possible time. Some want to make the elementary rules of logic the basis of artificial intelligence, i.e. to start from a few basic relationships and refine them more and more until we will not only imitate and perfect all natural operations of the human brain, but also carry them out much faster and more comprehensively (logic-based symbolic processing).

Others want to take a more pragmatic approach, combining all sorts of tried and tested problem-solving methods (deep learning). But in the end, our goal always remains the same. In the end, we will have created superhumans, who will not only perform all possible mental operations like any arbitrarily chosen person out of a world population of 10 billion, but who possesses much greater abilities, since his knowledge and his ability to react are capable of almost limitless extension.

Socrates

You want to say that you will be able to correctly predict what this artificial being thinks and how he acts?

Minsky

Of course. That is the final point and purpose of our research. Since it is us scientists who created this superhuman, we are of course able to predict his possible thought processes and actions. You will admit that this is a breakthrough of historic dimensions. So far science successfully managed to dominate inanimate nature, only man seemed to elude our efforts. Man remained unpredictable. The superhuman, whom we are equipping with artificial intelligence will change all this. He will be completely predictable, since he is ruled by the program we made for him. Given that his artificial brain largely surpasses the faculties of any natural human being, we will, of course, have no difficulty at all in decoding the latter even more easily. To be sure: Behaviorists like Watson and Skinner had already suggested the right direction. But now we are equipped with the required technical means to actually create fully computable and programmable human beings.

Socrates

You think that in the future you will succeed in predicting human thoughts and actions? I understand what you mean. If artificial superhumans are predictable, then this should apply even more to the two of us, who in comparison have only quite modest brain structures.

Minsky

Exactly! We must finally get rid of the absurd assumption that science may well calculate and dominate external nature, but remains helpless with regard to man as if the latter were not part of nature as well. That is nothing but a stupid, unscientific prejudice. After all, we humans belong to nature and are therefore at the mercy of all its laws. If we can predict and dominate the processes of outward nature, then it must be possible as well to predict and dominate the processes of our brain. Let me tell you: it can only be a matter of time before science deciphers my and your brain and knows what we will think tomorrow or in a week’s time.

Socrates

And I insist that any critical scientist must reject the thesis of the complete calculability of man and nature if he wants to remain a scientist, or in other words, that he can no longer be called a serious scientist if he accepts such a thesis.

II Robots cannot perform experiments

Minsky

I am aware that philosophers tend to surprise normal human beings. You will have to explain  this statement to a layman like myself.

Socrates

It’s not as hard as you might think. It is well known that the empirical sciences conduct experiments in order to test their theoretical statements. I ask you: don’t they take for granted that experiments can be conducted at any time, in any place, and in any size and complexity? In other words, don’t scientists assume that they can arbitrarily bring about real processes at any time by their own volition?

Minsky

That’s right, that’s the way how experiments proceed.

Socrates

But if it is due to the will of human beings that an experiment should take place, then you will agree that its occurrence at that moment and in that particular place (e.g. in a laboratory) cannot be determined by the history of the universe or its overall state? We must even claim that, with regard to the latter, it is entirely coincidental, since it owes its occurrence solely to the will of some definite scientist?

Minsky

I guess that’s right.

Socrates

I am happy that we both are agreed on the matter, because from Laplace to Bertrand Russell, a completely different view has been taken for granted throughout the history of modern thought. French mathematician Laplace expressed this view in classical form to Napoleon: “An intellect, which, at a certain moment, would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes.“

You see that according to this view, there can be no events that cannot be derived from any preceding stage of the universe. A perfect intelligence should even be able to deduce the whole future from its current state. If you really think that further research on robots with artificial intelligence will soon allow us to predict human thoughts and actions, then you adhere to this thesis – consciously or not.

Minsky

Wait a minute, you have to be a little bit more specific.

III An irresolvable logical contradiction!

Socrates

Yes, of course, I am ready to describe your Brave New World somewhat more in detail. As of now we are already sitting in planes that are steered automatically and tomorrow we will be sitting in cars that reach their destination without human help, but at least we still have the choice of directing the car to self-determined destinations, for example to Bonn or Rome. But your artificial superhuman will no longer have this choice, because you predict his behavior just like a lunar eclipse. According to Laplace and your own conviction he has as little freedom as that vanishing moon and the whole of inanimate nature. You are convinced that the scientists of tomorrow will not merely know the laws governing planes and cars, but those laws as well that govern the brains of the people using them. In this way you will be able to predict the future behavior of both.

Yes, and here you suddenly fall into a logical trap – I mean into perfect self-contradiction.

Minsky

Oh, fine. Where do you think you find it?

Socrates

It is found within the scientist himself, who at the same time turns into the subject and the object of prediction. For he should be able to foresee what he himself will think in the future. With your chess players, with your robot doctors, with your lawyers equipped with artificial intelligence this has become true already now, because you have programmed their thoughts and behavior. So, you know exactly how they must react. But since you claim that these artificial beings embody the essence of man in a perfect way, your reasoning applies doubly to ourselves, those imperfect natural human beings. Which means, that the researcher claims that at some point he will muster the intelligence of Laplace to predict not only his own later behavior but even all the future results of his research.

Minsky

That is true, but it will of course take years, perhaps decades, before research actually gets to this stage. That’s why it makes little sense to talk about it now.

Socrates

No, on the contrary, we should assume that your goal has already been achieved, only then can we talk about its inevitable logical consequences – I mean its self-contradiction.

Minsky

I know what you’re going to say. If I could predict exactly what I will do tomorrow, I will certainly not do it anymore, because all the attraction of novelty is lost since I would, of course, also know my future feelings and sensations. Life would become completely superfluous, for I would be nothing more than a machine without any drive of its own. 

But you are making a serious mistake. We can’t reject Laplace’s deterministic view just because we don’t like it.

Socrates

No, we must reject it because it is manifestly wrong. The freedom of man and nature is proven by scientific experiments. These conform to the laws of nature but cannot be derived from them as they owe their existence exclusively to human volition. Without the latter these events would not exist – not in this particular place at this particular time with these particular characteristics. A rocket flies to the moon according to laws that we have learned from nature, but the fact that it does so on Monday, June 23, does not obey any law of nature, but was decreed by the director of NASA or any other human agent.

Minsky

I admit that experiments presuppose an open reality where human will can intervene. But the evolution of nature takes place completely independently of our will. So, I see little use in choosing man-made experiments to explain reality.

Socrates

Objection! In fact, they are very useful for the purpose of demonstrating that we will never fully explain reality if we only consider laws and their deterministic effect.

Please look here: experiments are underivable from past stages of outward reality, but this applies to the evolution of nature as well. Our 83 primordial elements cannot be derived from the knowledge we gained of the primordial plasma at the initial state of the universe; they must only conform to those initial conditions. In their turn, molecules cannot be derived from primordial elements, they are merely subject to the laws that applied up to that point. And further: from the molecules of inorganic nature we cannot derive the later developed organic ones, although these remain subject to the laws of physics and chemistry. Finally, from biology we cannot derive the mental sphere, although the latter too cannot disregard the laws of biological life.

Let me put the matter in a metaphorical garb: a cosmic experimenter could have thought up all this, just as earthly scientists think up experiments. Both are limited in the creation of new realities by the laws already existing, and yet they create something new at a certain time in a certain place.

This is why we must unequivocally reject the idea of Laplace and his many successors up to Bertrand Russell. We are the inhabitants of an open world where new realities constantly emerge, realities which cannot be deduced from existing laws even though they cannot transgress them. Every experimental scientist creates reality by the sheer force of his will.

IV Your artificial superhuman cannot act, he can only re-act

Minsky

Interesting, surprising and for me at first sight even worth considering, although you are contradicting a three hundred year old tradition, which, as you certainly know, has meanwhile been relativized by quantum physics. The latter accepts chance and the underivable new. But let me mention this fact in passing. To me it seems more important that you come back to our topic. What do experiments and the new in nature have to do with artificial intelligence and robots?

Socrates

That’s what you ask? But the connection is obvious! Didn’t you previously insist that man is part of nature? Of course, I fully agree with you. But this means that what applies to the latter must also apply to man. If new reality can be produced at any time within existing reality by way of experiment or any other kind of human action, then there must be such islands of newness in human thought as well. In other words, we have to assume that thoughts constantly pop up in our brains (and lead to actions) that we cannot derive from the past of our thinking or from its overall state. For this reason, we will never be able to derive future thinking from its present shape.

Minsky

All right, but supposing you were right with this statement, I still don’t see what significance this statement has for artificial humans. To put it bluntly, I don’t see how you can criticize our great project, the project of finally creating the perfect human being, the artificial superhuman, who has all the advantages of the natural man but without suffering from his shortcomings. What is wrong with this superb project?

Socrates

I’m not questioning this, your goal. I’m just saying you’ll never achieve it because you can’t. The artificial robot equipped with digital intelligence differs from its natural counterpart in that it can do no more than re-act to reality.

Certainly, in many areas it does infinitely better than its natural counterpart. That’s a lot, but that’s all. The chess robot reacts according to a programmed algorithm to every move by its opponent, the diagnostic robot evaluates the radiologist’s photos according to a built-in program. The flight pilot reacts with the greatest reliability to the totality of situations with which he was previously fed. But no artificial human being creates new realities – and this for a simple, logically compelling reason: programmers are incapable of deducing the new from the old, i.e. the unknown from the familiar. But man does exactly that: he creates the new. Just think of how, over the past two hundred years, he has succeeded in radically reshaping both his natural and social environments.

Minsky

No, I definitely contest your thesis that artificial intelligence can’t create things new. We have law and we have chance. Laws dictate the rules, but a random generator can very well imitate chance and be built into our artificial humans. The robot then not only reacts to external stimuli and conditions, but also acts like a natural human being by taking new, unpredictable actions. I maintain that we can imitate and probably even surpass human beings in this respect as well.

V Chance coexistent with laws

Socrates

Fine, this brings us to a key concept of our joint investigation: chance.

Minsky

Right, and this concept helps us to get rid of freedom, which objectively doesn’t exist as it represents no more than a somewhat gratifying illusion. Remember what I said before: as long as man acts according to laws, he cannot be free, but if he does not act according to laws, then he is ruled by chance – so, he can’t be free either. We, the scientists studying man, are now demonstrating by means of artificial intelligence and robots that we do not need freedom in order to explain human behavior. Using the random generator, we create chance artificially – that’s all we need.

Socrates

I know that’s what you think, but in reality you are wrong again. You are quite incapable of explaining let alone imitate human behavior.

Minsky

Why not? Are you going to deny that there are random generators?

Socrates

No, I’m not denying that at all, I just maintain that they don’t produce chance. First of all, the kind of chance they produce is radically limited from the outset. It would be genuine chance if, for instance, a billion dollars were suddenly to appear on my account or if a strong gust of wind carried me to the hammock in my garden. But, of course, that’s not what a random generator achieves. It can only produce sequences of numbers.

Minsky

But it certainly suffices that these are completely irregular.

Socrates

To be sure, this would be enough for the purpose of demonstration, but they cannot be random if scientists want to produce them systematically.

Minsky

That’s a claim I am hearing for the first time.

Socrates

Let me ask you. Can we use a rule to create something bereft of rules?

Minsky

Of course not.

Socrates

But that’s what happens when we program a generator to produce chance – all planning is inevitably based on rules.

Minsky

All right, I can see your point. No algorithm is capable of producing a sequence that does not obey any algorithm. That’s elementary logic. But you missed an important issue. We may, for example, plan the randomizing device in such a way that it looks through the window where there’s normal pedestrian traffic. Let a sensor measure the size of each passing pedestrian and multiply it by the number of seconds that elapsed since the last pedestrian appeared. Then we get real chance. Because nobody can imagine a law that determines the frequency, the different sizes and the time distance between pedestrians.

Or take another case. We know the half-life after which the amount of radiating radium will be reduced by fifty percent, but we do not know the point in time when a single alpha particle will be sent out. This moment is ruled by chance. Which means that we could likewise feed our random generator with these irregular occurrences in order to get a sequence of numbers that cannot be calculated by any algorithm.

Socrates

Quite true, but do you know what that means? You are asserting – and quite rightly so – that man is incapable of producing chance, he can only produce events obeying some rule. If he wants to produce or to imitate chance, he has to take it ready-made from nature.

VI Chance remains a pure, unintelligible secret. This applies to chance in non-human nature as well as in man.

Minsky

And what is it you’re trying to say that is so terrific? Isn’t this but a bunch of philosophical subtleties that won’t get us anywhere?

Socrates

On the contrary, this is a basic insight. It says that chance is a mystery to us. We understand only rules, we recognize only laws, but everything irregular, everything lawless remains terra incognita for human understanding.

Minsky

Right, and that is precisely why it is of no concern to science, and why science speaks of “blind and meaningless” chance removing it completely  from its mental horizon.

Socrates

But how can we call something blind and meaningless, if we fail to know what it is? And how do you want to build something into artificial intelligence and robots that is beyond our understanding? And last not least, how do you want to achieve the self-imposed goal of predicting human behavior when chance eludes predictability?

Minsky

I see your point. That’s not possible, of course.

Socrates

So, we are back to our starting point. Artificial human beings, i.e. AI-equipped robots, can never be congruent with natural ones, because, unlike the latter, they always follows definite rules or algorithms. As mentioned before, we cannot program them with algorithms that do not obey any algorithm. Therefore, they will always remain second hand imitations, which may greatly exceed the performance of natural humans in terms of special performance, but do not possess that characteristic endowment of true human beings and of nature as well, which consists in getting beyond rules (or laws). For both are dominated by chance and by laws to the same extent – and chance is by no means blind and meaningless. We simply don’t know what it is.

Minsky

This reasoning is hopelessly abstract and philosophical. An example, please!

Socrates

I already used an example. The laws of nature known to us determine the path a rocket will take from Earth to Mars. But the exact time of its launch depends on the will of a certain Mr. Meyer, on financial means available at the moment, the state of the art and last but not least even on weather conditions at the launch pad – and of course on a thousand other conditions, all of which cannot be calculated in advance. Chance and law are therefore equally involved in this specific event as in any other. Laws are only valid under certain conditions.

Minsky

But that does not exclude the possibility that science may in due time explain all reality, including the human being acting within it, according to laws!

Socrates

You are wrong. It is precisely this goal that science will never reach – not because of inadequate human knowledge, but in principle. We already stated that experiments as such constitute unpredictable interventions of human volition. We are thus forced to conclude that chance does not just exist alongside natural laws, but must be seen as a second dimension of reality, and a necessary one at that. For science presupposes experiments, that is, arbitrary interventions in nature. For this reason, nature cannot follow a deterministic course for in this case it would not permit such intervention. We cannot conceive natural laws without freedom (chance) and freedom (chance) without natural laws.

Minsky

Quod erat demonstrandum! Bravo! But now I would like to see that extraordinary experiment that will prove your thesis. Because otherwise all this will remain just theory – not to use the word speculation. And what’s more, I don’t like the fact that now you speak of freedom and chance as if they were interchangeable concepts.

Socrates

Sorry, I have to disappoint you as to such an experiment. Experiments can only confirm rules or prove that we were wrong when we tried to confirm them. But there is no conceivable experiment with which we could prove the existence of irregularity with regard to any specific event. Let’s turn back to the sequence of passing pedestrians in front of our window. There is no experiment to prove that we could not in the distant future arrive at an infinitely complex algorithm that faithfully describes such a sequence. Nor can there be any experiment that conclusively demonstrates that the decay of radium does not obey a rule still hidden from us today.

On the other hand, there is no conceivable experiment either with which we could prove the opposite, namely that all reality is deterministically dominated by laws, as Bertrand Russell still believed. It was precisely because such an experiment is impossible, that Karl Popper spoke of the principle of causation as a metaphysical assumption.

Minsky

Well, in this case you are only confirming what I stated before, namely that your thesis is based on mere speculation, because it cannot be corroborated by experimental science.

Socrates

No, you’re wrong this time again! For at this stage it is the philosopher who comes into his own, or any scientist who asks about the preconditions of human thinking. Earlier, we have seen that scientists get entangled in irresolvable contradictions when they negate freedom. Even if we speak of chance instead of freedom, we cannot conceive reality without it. But we will never know what freedom or chance “really” or “objectively” are, because then we would have transformed them into something regular that can be grasped by means of analysis. But we cannot reduce what is new and as yet unknown to something familiar.

Minsky

So, we must finally accept the verdict that freedom is nothing but chance, and therefore blind and meaningless?

Socrates

No, not at all, it’s just that in many cases we can’t give freedom a meaning that we understand – and in this case it becomes mere chance to human understanding. From the perspective of a distant observer of cosmic events, the arbitrary explosion of an atomic bomb is mere chance, as would be the bursting of a supernova. But from the perspective of scientists conducting such an experiment, it constitutes a meaningful event.

The evolution of the cosmos from primordial plasma to the human spirit appears to today’s science as being the result of an endless sequence of blind and meaningless chance. That is why the whole of nature including all living beings is often apostrophized as totally meaningless. But against this point of view the zoologist Rupert Riedl rightly asserts: “Would it not be utterly presumptuous if the tick wanted to imagine the blood vessels of a mammal, a dog the international drug scene or if we imagined the laws beyond the cosmos?

When speaking about chance we only describe the limits of our understanding, because we can attribute meaning only to purposeful actions. But human meaning manifests itself in ever new forms as “Creative Reason” is constantly creating new manifestations. Ultimately that is what history consists of: newly evolving meaning.

Obviously, meaning is not the same today as it was in the times of hunter-gatherers, nomads or early peasants. We cannot imitate these differences by equipping robots with a random generator – in this case they will either act according to the rules of yesterday or they simply act in a completely meaningless way. Artificial superhumans are condemned to be mere caricatures of natural ones.

*In this essay, I resume some of the conclusions arrived at in my book “Creative Reason – A Synthetic Philosophy of Freedom in Nature and Man (Homage to William James”. What is completely missing in this essay is, due to lack of space, the historical perspective, which occupies a large part of my book.

Tasting Last Judgment

All of a sudden we experience a real collapse, this time the world changes so to speak overnight – not in an insidiously imperceptible way, as it always did. Frightened people are cowering in their dens, streets are empty, traffic is at a standstill, airplanes have disappeared from the sky.

This evokes the memory

of times when people were quite used to experience reality as something unpredictable. In Thousand and One Nights, a caravan moves through the desert, and suddenly, like a mirage, the ruins of a palace and the remains of a fountain appear before them. At this sight, people burst into tears imagining the joy and splendor that once reigned in this now desolate place where everything has turned to dust. Nowhere else did I so intensely feel the transience of things together with the deep and strangely sweet melancholy it evokes.

And now, all of a sudden, we ourselves experience

how our own world gets frozen from one day to the next. Had we not insured ourselves against all possible evils from A = car to Z = future? Did we not completely push any feeling of transience out of our consciousness? Everything around us had to be new and shining, what was old was immediately sent to the garbage bin, and yes, that even happened to old people, about whose death we didn’t want to know any more than about our own.

And all this suddenly changed,

now we know what the Arabs were talking about when in holy pathos they moaned about the “destroyer of all joys and separator of unions”. Although our own adversity seems rather harmless by comparison – after all, it is “just” the economy that is collapsing, and “only” the old are really threatened – we may, at such a moment, understand what regularly happened to Jews over two thousand years. At any moment, they had to expect that their world would collapse. As far as I know, they rather used the sharp weapon of wit to defend themselves against suffering. Only in their songs do we feel the same deep melancholy.

We also feel it in the songs of Francois Villon, particularly in that wonderful verse: Mais, ou sont les neiges d’antan? But where is the snow from yesterday? Until recently, this verse and the feeling of transience it conveys was something we hardly noticed. Nobody wanted to see or touch the snow of yesterday, all were dancing around the calf of the new.

But now – no, this will certainly not be the end of the world

Maybe after no more than a year we will have completely forgotten everything we are just passing through, and life will go on as before, only a few among us will not be able to get rid of the memory that all normality is deceptive. This applies to our supposed security, our supposed unassailability, our stubbornly defended certainties, even to our cherished problems of yesterday. These too suddenly seem quite unreal. Yes, when the red rooster sits on top of our roof, even the fight against neoliberalism becomes a thing of the past. All the many bloggers and do-gooders who, in years of peace, were bent on making their fellow citizens aware that they live in the worst of all worlds, will be happy if only they are released from the prison of their homes and allowed to see other people. Because suddenly we have a genuine and most pressing problem, while until then so many problems were just imaginary.

Yes, and even real problems

now disappear as if sucked up by a black hole. Does anyone now ask about Greta Thunberg and all the truant schoolchildren who drew our attention to a much bigger problem, namely the destruction of the globe’s ecosphere? Now, Greta could well sit day and night in front of the Swedish parliament, nobody would pay her any attention. Just listen and you will hear Putin and Trump take a really deep breath: “Thank God, this nightmare has finally gone”.

And what about the European Commission? It no longer talks about green strategies, now it is completely absorbed by much more virulent challenges, namely to prevent the whole Union from falling apart, I mean the European project, because now every state is closing its borders against its neighbor and all are so preoccupied with themselves that solidarity and help for others are just anathema.

I am in constant touch with this mood of doom,

as I am probably the only one in Austria and one of quite a few people in Germany who daily follow the news in Chinese, Russian and Japanese (on CVTV-4, 1TVRUS, NHK and JSTV 2) and also at longer intervals the broadcasts and print articles of our near and far neighbors France, England, Italy and the US. The Japanese and the Italians of Veneto seem to be the only ones, after the Chinese, to come to terms with the virus through a determined policy of containment. The Russian and Chinese comments have a special flavor, they are characterized by a certain satisfaction that the all too arrogant West is on the path of disintegration.

The bombardment with so many bad news

from all over the world does not trigger a doomsday mood in my head. I know, even Italy has in the distant past suffered much worse. Just think of Florence around the middle of the 14th century. At that time death raged in all walks of life, it killed nearly every second inhabitant. People were disfigured by bumps all over their bodies, children and adults, beggars, priests and nobles all fell victim to the disease, and the gravediggers in their black clothes with beaks on their masks turned the city into a surreal hell.

It was in this utmost distress that Giovanni Boccaccio

conceived his Decameron, where some young men and women celebrated the courage to live in spite of, or precisely because of, the doom. Imagine, this was the beginning of the greatest epoch in the history of Italy, it was a real new birth, a “rebirth”, which we usually call Renaissance.

What a consolation even in our current predicament!

Reason contra Virus – the Crisis as seen by a concerned contemporary

Corona virus poses such a massive threat that, besides virologists and politicians, medical laymen too should be allowed to express their opinion. Scientific statements concerning Covid-19 are now so well documented that, in addition to the two known courses of this epidemic, a third alternative may be envisaged – at least theoretically. The two known ones are first, the “Natural Outburst”, and second, “Imposed Quarantine”, as now practiced almost worldwide. The third alternative was originally envisaged in England; we could describe it as “Accelerated Immunization”.

First Alternative: the “Natural Outburst”

The plague described by Giovanni Boccaccio around the middle of the fourteenth century, killed between a third and a half of the population throughout Europe. In view of the medical knowledge available at that time, it was impossible to contain the epidemic. This was also true of the so-called Spanish flu, which killed more people than the First World War immediately preceding it. In the Middle Ages, as at the beginning of the 20th century, no government was able to prevent or even contain the spread of epidemics. The disease simply continued to rage until it had wiped out all people without sufficient immune resistance. But in Venice, when the plague broke out beyond the city, a forty-day (quaranta) isolation of all visitors was prescribed by law. Hence the name quarantine.

As long as there is no vaccine

and its development will most probably take at least a whole year, social intercourse should be restricted as much as possible to prevent the virus from being transmitted from person to person. As according to Chinese statistics the mortality rate due to Covid-19 amounts to about two percent, this means that without such imposed quarantine a population of eighty million (like Germany) would suffer the loss of 1.6 million people if the virus were allowed to spread like wildfire within the short span of one or two months. Death would hit people in their homes and on the streets, as intensive care units can only offer a fraction of the number of beds required, namely only about 28,000 in all of Germany, of which in normal times about 70% are occupied by other cases of illness anyway, (see https://www.faz.net/aktuell/wirtschaft/corona-in-deutschland-bis-wann-reichen-die-krankenhaus-betten-16676537.html), so that actually there are only about 8 400 beds available.

Let us now assume that the Chinese statisticians have been wrong by a factor of one hundred, because not all infections have been tested. In this case, only 0.02% of life-threatening cases would besiege German hospitals, but these would still represent 16,600 fatally ill people, i.e. still double what the German health system could cope with.

Second Alternative: “Imposed Quarantine”

The purpose of this alternative consists in slowing down the spread of the virus so that the number of seriously ill patients will – hopefully! – not exceed the number of beds available in existing intensive care units. This goal seems to have been successfully achieved in China (where additional hospitals were raised so to speak overnight), but not in Italy.

Important to note in this context is an insight that applies not only to Italy but to China as well. Even if it is possible to keep transmission in check by means of strict quarantine, susceptibility to the virus will continue to exist until at least 60% of the population have acquired immunity, i.e. until they develop the appropriate antibodies as a result of natural infection or artificially through vaccination. For this reason, China is now sealing its borders against the influx of foreign visitors, even after having reduced new cases at home near to zero, because ninety-nine percent of its population are still not immune at all (strict quarantine only protected them against infection). In other words, the danger of new outbreaks of Covid-19 is by not averted in the Far East either.

Nevertheless, the policy of imposed quarantine can be successful in the end if it succeeds in curbing the infection up to the point where a vaccine is available and the immunization of at least sixty percent of the population then succeeds by means of artificial but harmless infection (i.e. through vaccination). Since this can take up to a year or even more, alternative 2 implies that all social and economic life together with cross-border traffic remains exposed to almost complete paralysis during this period – with unforeseeable consequences.

Alternative three: “Accelerated immunization”

There is a third alternative that would avoid such paralysis. From the data available in China, we know that Covid-19 is particularly dangerous for people over 60 years of age. About a quarter of all people over eighty fall victim to the virus, between 60 and 80 this applies to only six percent, and below sixty the percentage is quite low. In general, there is a 27.4% probability of dying from Corvid-19 for people over 60 years of age, compared to only one tenth, namely 2.3%, for those under 60 (https://ourworldindata.org/coronavirus).

If these figures are correct, we must ask ourselves whether it would not make sense to limit strict quarantine to those over sixty, rather than extending it to the entire population. In the case of Germany, alternative 3 would mean that instead of 83 million people being kept in isolation with borders closed, this would only apply to about 24 million, i.e. less than a third without any restriction to normal traffic. These especially vulnerable 24 million are either already in retirement or in old people’s homes, where strict quarantine causes the fewest problems.

In contrast, two thirds of the population (in Germany about 58 million) will not be quarantined. Even in this case, mortality would, however, still reach the astronomical value of (59*2.3/100=) 1.36 million. A too rapid spread of the virus could be prevented by ensuring that all the work that can be done at home is actually done there until day x, but this would still overburden hospitals as day x will only be reached when immunity is achieved for 60% of the population, i.e. for all people up to the age of sixty over whom no quarantine has been imposed.

Without appropriate countermeasures highly contagious Covid-19 would spread within weeks over the unprotected two thirds of the population, so that a 60% immunization can probably be expected within three to four months – but somewhat longer if a larger number of employees are required to work in-house. After this time, the nightmare would be over once and for all, but at the cost of more than a million deaths in Germany. And for these people, who normally end up in hospitals before, only about 8400 intensive care beds would be available (30% of 28,000, see above) even in a country as medically well-equipped as Germany. In other words, the demand for beds would exceed the supply by more than a hundred times.*1* Strangely enough, renowned Austrian journalist Michael Lingens advocates this alternative for his country (https://www.lingens.online/2020/03/16/was-spricht-fuers-radikale-britische-modell/).

High-ranking experts such as William Hanage,

professor of Epidemiology at Harvard University, consider the “British model” a bad joke. He discusses it in the form first proposed in England, namely as “herd immunization” with little difference to alternative 1 or the “Natural Outburst”, where things are simply left to themselves. Prof. Hanage argues: “We talk about vaccines generating herd immunity, so why is this different? Because this is not a vaccine. This is an actual pandemic that will make a very large number of people sick, and some of them will die. Even though the mortality rate is likely quite low, a small fraction of a very large number is still a large number” (though much less so in the case of people over sixty staying in quarantine, which he did not consider. But even in this case the system would collapse, according to Prof. Hanage). “This would be expected to happen, even if we make the generous assumption that the government were entirely successful in restricting the virus to the low-risk population. At the peak of the outbreak the numbers requiring critical care would be greater than the number of beds available. This is made worse by the fact that people who are badly ill tend to remain so for a long time, which increases the burden.” (https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/mar/15/epidemiologist-britain-herd-immunity-coronavirus-covid-19).

Seen in this light, only alternative two seems to be admissible. However, since we know that at least sixty percent of the population must be immunized in a natural or artificial way (that is by vaccination), everything depends on whether the vaccine is available in time. If it is not, the losses in the second alternative may be even greater than in the third, because social and economic life and all cross-border trade would be paralyzed indefinitely. The fact that China has hardly any new cases and that South Korea is also seeing a drop in their number is no proof to the contrary, because, as mentioned above, the population is almost as immune to Covid-19 today as it was at the beginning of the epidemic. If the vaccine production is too much delayed, it might even be necessary at some point to switch from alternative two to three.

1. The enormous discrepancy between supply and demand for intensive care beds also puts the accusations against neo-liberal austerity measures into perspective (as justified as they are in other respects). No state can prepare for such a crisis in normal times.

I am indebted to criticism by my son Igmar Jenner and by Prof. William E. Rees for having decisively rejected the third alternative, which I had assessed more positively in a first draft. Here is my letter in response to the corresponding objection by Mr. Rees:

Dear Bill,

I forgot to respond to your objection:

“As for your ‘alternative 3’, it is actually quite brilliant in practical if not entirely in political terms. You acknowledge yourself that there would inevitably be some deaths among the younger set, deaths that might otherwise be prevented. Would it not be rather difficult for any politician to propose something that s/he knows will result in some extra mortality even if the long-term benefit/cost ratio greatly exceeds one? (There are plenty of other circumstances in which we make this kind of decision — such as setting speed limits — but most are less sensitive and put much of the potential for negative consequences on the affected citizens. However, if you as my leader choose not to isolate me and I die, that’s your fault!) It would be particularly difficult to appease relatives of these ‘sacrifices’ for the greater economic good.”

I agree with you that no politician could justify himself to the population if he did not do everything in the first days and weeks of the crisis to prevent avoidable deaths. I am, however, afraid that he rather fears the desastrous impression produced by masses of dying people in and in front of crowded hospitals. Normal dying, not seen on television screens hardly touches anybody. We know that tens of thousands of deaths due to car crashes occur every year in all major industrialized countries. Everyone knows the fact without apparently feeling really bothered because this is part of “normality” and is happening quietly. Hospitals and undertakers have long since adjusted for it and, cynically, even GDP is benefiting from it.

Hence my objection to the word “indefinitely” in the British Corona Virus Report (concerning the duration of alternative 2). I am afraid that we will hardly be able to live in quarantine for more than two months at most, after which rules will be gradually relaxed as soon as hospitals can cope with the number of deaths. After all, people don’t bear to lead the life of prisoners and they want to work and to live. I am sure that after a relatively short period of time, they will adapt to Corona in the same way as they did and do to car accidents.

I am not saying this out of cynicism or because I believe that the economy should be more important than life – my own life or that of others -, but because, as biological beings, we are constantly living with risk and often with victims. We only forgot about this basic fact because we have become so rich during the last century. Just think that in the poorest parts of Japan, sons used to carry their old mothers and fathers to mountains to die there when food was no longer sufficient for them and their children. If we were to avoid all risk on principle, we would not be allowed to board any airplane, we would not be allowed to let our children out of sight for a moment while playing, etc.

But, to be sure, I completely agree with you that at the present moment nothing else should apply as alternative 2, but it will not surprise me if the world soon stops doing so and gradually changes to alternative 3.

Best regards

Gero

The Virus in our Heads

Almost daily I watch one or the other transmission of the Russian-speaking channel 1TVRUS, because I want to know about the mood of our largest neighbor. The English-language programs of RT (Russia Today) are less informative in this respect, because they are geared towards Western expectations. “Vremja pokazhet” (Time will tell) is aimed at a Russian audience. It’s a talk show that’s louder and wilder than any other I know. Regularly discussants shout down each other, as if the volume of their voices were decisive for the quality of opinions.

Yesterday, for example, the Corona epidemic came up there too – how could it be otherwise? -, but in a way that surprised me. Obviously, talking about this disease gives smart people the opportunity to feel particularly smart and superior. Some of them wondered whether it wasn’t a sign of collective – especially Western – mental confusion to make so much out of a kind of flu, when other diseases such as tuberculosis claim far higher numbers of victims without anyone being particularly upset about it. Particularly clever discussants insisted that panic was carelessly being bred in the public mind!

No, I would have liked to answer

Much greater danger lies in the know-it-all virus of people who close their eyes to a simple truth. Every country’s health system – especially that of a less prosperous state like Russia – is designed to serve an average number of patients. It has (X times) a hundred beds, if on average (X times) a hundred patients are expected on a monthly basis. Long known diseases such as tuberculosis, diabetes, stroke – but also influenza – are included in such a calculation. If the number of beds were to be increased by even ten percent beyond average demand, this would place an excessive burden on the budget of any state. We all know that modern medical equipment consumes enormous financial resources. For this reason, all states limit the number of beds to the necessary minimum.

Now, the peculiarity of coronavirus or Covid-19 is that its spread – unless the sharpest countermeasures are taken – generates exponentially and within a very short lapse of time so large a number of serious cases especially among elderly people that the number of beds needed (with very expensive intensive care equipment) rises so to speak over night to (X times) two hundred and more. States are confronted with such an emergency only in times of war. Regardless of whether they be governed democratically or by an authoritarian regime, they cannot afford to let terminally ill people die in front of overcrowded hospitals. That is why China has made an admirable effort to create thousands of additional hospital places within a couple of days, and why kindergartens, schools and universities are now being closed all over the world, so that the highly aggressive virus less easily takes hold first among young people (where it causes little harm), but is then transmitted by the latter to the elderly, who are likely to cause the collapse of the entire system.

The know-it-all virus in the heads of those

who see only panic-mongering in such precautionary measures is at least as great a danger as Covid-19 itself. But the virus of deliberate ignorance causes us to worry even more.  The great event of these days, an event that finally steers Russia into the path of an undemocratic, autocratic state, is hardly discussed in the talk show “Vremja pokazhet” – or if it is, it is so under cover of pretended ignorance. How beautiful, we hear, that the country is finally getting a New Con­stitution, which includes social demands usually absent from such documents, namely that all people are entitled to a minimum wage and that the size of pensions should keep pace with yearly inflation. In Russia, there is rapture over what is believed to be a tremendous social progress. Of course, nobody explains how the government is supposed to keep its promises if oil revenues – the main source of Russian social expenditure – were to dry up, which may indeed easily happen in times of depression.

But that is not the point anyway

What is at issue – and everyone knows this, but hardly anybody in Russia dares to say so publicly – is an amendment added at the last moment to the new constitution – added, as it were, in passing during its second reading in the Duma, so that nobody might think that it was its main item and purpose from the very beginning. The new Constitution is intended to give Vladimir Putin the possibility to retain the office of president even beyond 2024, the last year of his presidency according to the old Constitution. For this purpose, the parliament and the Russian people were baited with minimum wages and pension indexation – a Russian operetta or political farce of a very peculiar kind.

President Putin is very popular with a majority in his country

Many Russians even adore him like a reborn tsar. Even abroad he meets with the admiration of those who hope for a strong leader in their country too. Putin’s popularity is based on the fact that he restored to his countrymen much of their lost self-confidence. We all cheered Mikhail Sergeyevich Gorbachev when he liquidated the Soviet Union. At the beginning of the 1990s, a majority of Russians probably sided with this bold reformer, because most of them hoped that the West would reward their willingness to break with the past. But that did not happen. Instead, Russia was humiliated and had to suffer the trauma of economic collapse during the 1990s without the West providing any help to alleviate its misery. On the contrary, the then President Yeltsin was urged to privatize Russian oil wells so that they could be bought up by Western corporations. And additional salt was later rubbed in the Russian wounds. Barack Obama, who at other occasions refrained from hurting the sensibility of other people, frivolously proclaimed that Russia was nothing more than an insignificant “regional power”. With regard to its economic output, this state­ment is certainly true. Russia’s national product is roughly on a par with that of Spain, even though the Russian federation is more than thirty times larger and is home to about three times as many people.

Putin was not able to change this situation,

even though he has now been directing Russia’s destiny for almost twenty years. As before, state revenues are based primarily on the sale of oil and gas – the rest of the economy being still underdeveloped. Nevertheless, the new tsar managed almost effortlessly to win over the Duma, the Russian parliament, for the New Constitution and its primary aim to prolong his presidency until 2036. Even if there is no electoral fraud, the Russian people will most likely vote for its implementation as Putin has achieved something else which contradicts the claim that people are primarily concerned with material prosperity. As I said, he restored self-confidence, namely the feeling that Russia is once again respected abroad as a great power – most recently even equipped with a supersonic missile system against which the existing Western defense is up to now powerless.

The realization that psychological factors

play at least as important a role among states as material ones, is of utmost importance for anyone seriously wanting to uphold international peace. If we refuse to respect others when they need solidarity and compassion (and that was the case of Russia during the 1990s), then respect will be forced on us by means of fear. This is exactly what Putin succeeded in doing. He has once again transformed an army almost disbanded at the time of Gorbatchev and Yeltsin into a powerful instrument ready for war, and he is now breeding a nationalism – even a new Russian chauvinism -, which unmistakably has the purpose of teaching the West to again be afraid of the Russian bear. Thus, he has taken revenge on all those who denigrated Russia as a weak “regional power”.

Putin continues to take revenge

by persistently trying to prove to his own people and to the West as well that the Soviet Union was to thank for the liberation of Europe from the yoke of fascism. Yes, Vladimir Putin is doing everything possible to recall the supposed liberation of Europe in military parades, on national holidays and in his public speeches. Untiringly, he claims that the world is indebted to the Russians for this great historical achievement. But instead of giving Russia the recognition and gratitude it deserves, the West begrudges the Russians this triumph achieved at so immense sacrifices and instead maliciously distorts history. That is the message almost daily spread by Russian media and by Putin himself.

All this constitutes a subtle mixture of truth and lie. Incurring immense sacrifices – much greater than those of the Western powers – the Russians defeated Hitler, who had insidiously invaded their country. In a glorious struggle they saved their country – and that is a reason for every nation to celebrate. But the Russians only liberated themselves and by no means Europe, because its entire eastern part only exchanged Hitler’s regime of terror for the no less bloody terror of Stalin. One dictatorship replaced the other, one unscrupulous tyrant made room for the next, one regime despising freedom merely followed its predecessor. The Russian President blatantly falsifies history when he praises Russia’s actions as a grandiose act of liberation. Can he really be unaware of the fact that the former Eastern bloc countries have a completely different look at the past? Certainly not! The Russian president’s great skill is demonstrated by a tactic that rarely fails to have an effect on the unsuspecting: accuse others of falsifying history when you do it yourself.

Here we are confronted with the most dangerous virus

because it colonizes our heads with particular tenacity. It is the virus of resentment. Russia, our great neighbor, so admirable in many respects, has been wounded in its pride. The nation has been humiliated. I do not say this with the intent of justifying or excusing Russian politics. But I am convinced that Putin’s success is closely linked to the failures of the West. He has turned the real and the felt humiliation of his country into a powerful political drive. What the AfD is striving for in Germany, namely national greatness and power (and the suffocation of all democratic dissent if it stands in the way of this ultimate goal), has become reality in today’s Russia. Ideologically charged slogans like “home­land” and “fatherland”, “glorious army”, “self-sacrifice for the community” – all this is conjured up daily in the Russian media and the president’s speeches. In Europe, we believed that such invocations were once and for all a thing of the past. Nor were we particularly afraid as long as NATO was far superior, at least technically, but now that Russia may boast of a definite ballistic advantage, the world has become a different place – especially for Europeans. The Russian bear is showing its muscles again. Since we refuse to like him, he is intent on teaching us fear.

But in the end it doesn’t matter how we think about Russia

and its president. It is important that we accept both for what they undoubtedly are: pivotal powers that decide on war and peace in our world. A good relationship with Russia is therefore just as essential as a good relationship with the United States. We should do everything possible to dispel Russian resent­ment. However, we will only succeed in doing so if we also take equivalent steps at home. Resentment arises from exclusion, humiliation and contempt. Several million Germans who vote for the AfD feel marginalized, humiliated and disparaged. No matter how politically uneducated and narrow-minded these people may be, if you exclude them, humiliate them and make them contemptible, we transform them into a real danger. The refusal of dialogue is the beginning of the end of democracy.

Instead of wondering

what circumstances generated such narrow-mindedness, i.e. instead of searching for our own failure, we take the so much more comfortable way of demonization and humiliation. This happened with regard to Russia, and this happens again in our own countries. If it is true that since this century at the latest we are all passengers on the same fragile boat, then everything depends on strengthening in all states the awareness that we now share the same destiny being part of the same world community. Certainly, we must insist on telling and being told the truth, but we can no longer afford to resort to exclusion, humiliation and contempt.

Is Democracy still alive?

We are used to measuring this form of government above all by the degree of freedom that a government grants its citizens. Viewed from this perspective, the picture is as bright as it is gloomy. No one prevents me from expressing even the most absurd opinions. I may even call publicly for the overthrow of the government, provided that this is done without insulting specific individuals and without denouncing the democratic constitution as such. We should not regard this as a matter of course. In Putin’s Russia, we see opposition members disappearing under unresolved circumstances; in China, they are simply eliminated under resolved circumstances. Countries such as Germany or Austria not only allow an almost unlimited freedom of speech but to a certain degree even of action. I am not forbidden to organize my life according to personal preferences living as a single person, in a homosexual relationship or as a protester with long hair or full body tattoo or even as an accepted dropout somewhere in the province. In the leading democracy of the West, in the US, I am even allowed to publish books in which I offer detailed descriptions of how to best crack the safes of rich people. Yes, and nobody prevents me from selling the tools that are best suited for this purpose. I am only forbidden to realize such recipes or to put those tools to a practical test.

This distinction is generally valid in the US. No law forbids me to openly confess my liking for human butchers like Hitler, Stalin or Pol Pot as long as I do not take concrete steps to translate their ideas into practice. Even a cursory glance at history teaches us that individual freedom, as it seems self-evident in the US or in contemporary Western democracies, never existed to such an extent.

Seen from this perspective, we have good reason to be grateful

for not being citizens of Putin’s Russia or Xi Jinping’s China. Many people who do not want to keep their own opinions in check would have to spend their lives in a prison cell – unless, that is to say, they are threatened with something even worse. These are facts that are hard to argue about. And yet, we have to say that such gratitude is not very widespread and rather meets with sneering smiles. We may be astonished by such reactions but they are not so difficult to understand. Let us for this purpose take a second look at Russia or rather at the international broadcaster RT (Russia today). It is striking how many outstanding Western intellectuals regularly appear at this platform – by no means only those who are sympathetic to the policy of the new Russian Tsar. They take this as a welcome opportunity to familiarize a wider audience with their thoughts, because they have little chance of being invited by the media in their own country.

It is true that in western democracies

everything may be said. Nobody wants serious thinkers to shut up, even annoying oppositionists, unscrupulous quacks, radical do-gooders or incorrigible reactionaries are allowed to speak out unhindered. The question is whether what they say will be heard.

Here the odds are definitely against them. Media concentration in a few hands has so much progressed in Western states – above all in the US – that opinions are now sifted and controlled by a handful of press moguls. This means that only those they admit as politically correct have any chance of being published and known by a broad public. Of course, social media such as Facebook etc. still open an almost limitless field to the freedom of expression, but at the cost of being unnoticed and unheeded. Utmost freedom is indeed perfectly compatible with an undemocratic control of media-effective opinion. The end of this development could very well be a de facto opinion dictatorship.

The fact that high-ranking US intellectuals such as Noam Chomsky are barred from public appearance in the media of their own country so that in order to be heard they accept invitations by RT, suggests that we are already heading in this direction.

Western societies suffer from a paradox

On the one hand, their people are doing better than ever before. Material living standards have never been as high as in modern welfare states. In earlier societies people regularly starved to death – as we know, in some parts of the world, this is the case even today. That is not to say that we do not witness premature deaths in Western societies, but instead of being caused by want as in earlier times they are the result of excess: obesity and other luxury diseases of present-day civilization.

On the other hand, we do experience a process of creeping disempowerment of the democratic sovereign. Many people are painfully aware that their vote counts for less or even nothing; the trend towards abstention should be an unmistakable warning. People feel the same with regard to their electoral participation as with regard to their personal opinions: they may freely indulge in both, but in the end they hardly matter.

Is this resignation justified

or does it only indicate an oversaturation with benefits that one takes for granted? After all, it is still up to the voter to decide whether Mrs. Merkel or the AfD, Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump come to power! And it is still up to the voter to elect a social regime like in Sweden or a decidedly neo-liberal one like in Great Britain. Such alternatives continue to be full of meaning! The democratic sovereign may still decide to use his voice for the sake of more social peace at home and greater respect from outside.

And yet the suspicion that even Western democratic states are granting their citizens less and less power is more than just an illusion. If Western peoples were really the lords of their own destiny, they should be happy with what is, after all, the outcome of their own choices. The barometer of satisfaction in Sweden or Great Britain would have to show a higher value than in autocratic China (before the Corona epidemic). But this is definitely not the case. A majority of Chinese look to their own future with optimism, while people in Western states – whether under left-wing or right-wing governments – face it with concern and fear.

But let’s leave psychology aside,

as it is subject to great fluctuations, and turn instead to those objective conditions that increasingly limit democratic freedom. Regardless of whether they are democratically governed or not, all modern states are forced to measure and align their own policies with those of their most successful competitors. Not only the latest inventions of technology, but also the most efficient organization of work or the most effective ways of attracting investment and international corporations are spreading like wildfire across the globe. Large companies always copied the best strategies of their competitors lest they fall behind. External pressure tends to be so overwhelming that they pay little or no attention to the needs of their workforce. But the same thing is happening between countries. These are increasingly behaving as if they were nothing more than variants of big corporations. Democratic self-determination is well on the way to being replaced by undemocratic external conditioning.

The progressive choking of democratic self-determination

is not the work of malicious conspirators against democracy – it is the result of external conditions. Without Germany and Austria succeeding in maintaining a presence on global markets through innovation, they will not be able to maintain their current standard of living. But in order to remain at the top, they must subject their people to the same degree of performance – and ultimately the same working conditions – as their most successful competitors. They must even allow the same concentration of banks and corporations as soon as mere size becomes an advantage in global competition.

And even more: they will have to sacrifice their own industries if their competitors gain an advantage by doing so. The policy of outsourcing industrial production to Asia was not the result of democratic decision nor of government planning – not even the CEOs of German industries wanted to do so, but it was dictated from outside by Germany’s most powerful competitor, the US. After the United States had embarked on this path, giving it a huge cost advantage, the Europeans had no choice but to follow suite, otherwise European products would no longer be able to compete with American products on world markets.

Why does the struggle between left and right political camps

seems rather unimportant after Tony Blair in England or Gerhard Schröder in Germany? Not at all because these two ideological positions suddenly lost credibility. It still makes a big difference whether we want to realize a maximum of material equality or a maximum of freedom.

The loss of significance of both positions is the result of external constraints. It is due to the fact that the individual state is no longer able to enforce its preferences when these are in conflict with the demands of global competition. In other words, the margin left to the democratic sovereign is increasingly restricted by globalization. Freedom only exists where neither a nation’s economic and military position nor the standard of living of its population is at stake. In the election of its President, Austria was able to choose between Alexander Van der Bellen and Norbert Hofer – a difference like between light and darkness. In Francois Hollande’s France, millions of people could take to the streets for or against homosexual marriage – the pressure from outside triggered by global competition only played a role insofar as the decision for this form of human bonds was considered “progressive” by most Western states. But even a decision against homosexual marriage would not have had any influence on the French standard of living.

But in a globalized world

it no longer depends on the decision of the democratic sovereign whether or not the country’s economy continues to follow a path of growth, whether or not it is dominated by international corporations and banks, whether or not Greta Thunberg’s demands are applied.

No – this observation needs to be corrected. It still depends on the democratic sovereign, because theoretically he could indeed elect a party that prohibits economic growth as well as any further increase in the consumption of resources. A democratic majority could even impose a radical green turn and initiate a basic transformation of the economy by reducing the current ecological footprint from more than two globes to the sustainable consumption of just a single one.

But this is precisely the step that no single state will take

Not because government or citizens are too stupid to recognize its necessity. After all, man has never been so foolish as to voluntarily devastate his own garden when he owes his survival to its fruits. The real situation is much more difficult and much more dramatic because the democratic sovereign literally fights against himself as he is torn between two insights that both have equal strength. Of course, every informed person would like put an end to ecological destruction rather today than tomorrow. But at the same time, everybody is equally aware that it would be of no use to his nation or to nature – if a single state sets an example that others do not follow. This applies both to sustainability in our dealing with nature and to the use of increasingly deadly weapons. The state that offers the world a truly Christian example by scrapping from one day to the next its entire nuclear armament will find itself the following day under the guardianship of villains who did not for a moment think of following its lead. Europe, militarily utterly weak when compared to the US, Russia and soon even China, likes to regard its weakness as proof of a higher moral stance. But it could one day bitterly regret this as fatal mistake if the superpowers exploit its weakness by making it the next theatre of war between them (like they did before to so many militarily defenseless states).*1*

The limitations of democratic sovereignty due to global competition

are a lot more pervasive than the interventions of the Brussels Commission in the sovereignty of European member states. In all central matters of national existence industrialized countries such as Germany, France or Canada follow the lead of the world’s most successful nations, just as every successful company constantly looks to its competitors in order to remain competitive. That is why consistent growth and the concomitant sell-out of nature remain categorical imperatives of governmental action as long as they give the individual state greater economic power in the race of nations and its citizens a higher material standard of living. States that would decouple themselves from this trend fall back to the level of developing countries or may even end up among “failed nations”.

The fear of relegation explains why CO2 emissions and the destruction of nature are constantly in the rise, although the need for green policies is being talked about more loudly every year. Every educated person is perfectly aware that progressive growth – both economic and military – is bringing humanity ever closer to its own ruin and that of the planet, but as long as the race of nations continues, they will not be able to do anything serious about it.

The question of whether we still live in democracies

thus allows for a twofold answer. Yes, we may still decide in favor of Merkel and against Höcke (AfD), in favor of Van der Bellen and against Hofer (FPÖ) – and that is an enormous asset. But unless being content with economic marginalization or imposed militarily domination, we must adapt to the most successful “role model” of leading competitors – in other words, we are forced to exchange a substantial part of democratic self-determination for a determination from outside – even doing so in the knowledge that it is precisely this race of competing nations that is leading all of them into disaster.

This insight amounts to an admission of powerlessness. But we must have the courage to face the truth, because only then will we be able to find a way of escape. This can only consist of a willingness in all states to renounce part of their sovereignty in order to put an end to the disastrous race that threatens everyone with both environmental and nuclear destruction. True, this demand too reduces sovereignty but it does so on a voluntary base in preventing disaster while current constraints from outside, that is the race of nations, make us involuntarily court disaster. In a globalized world, where each state influences the fate of all others by consuming scarce resources and destroying precious environment, events do no longer follow man’s true needs and intentions: democracy is in danger of degenerating into a mere farce. In the 21st century, man will reemerge as the master of his destiny only when he entrusts to an international authority the care for the tiny boat that (despite Mars and the Moon) will probably remain forever the only one for mankind.

1 How I hate to write this sentence! On a globe that already resembles a powder keg, every additional atomic bomb means another step towards the apocalypse. Unfortunately, strict pacifism is no alternative either when applied to a shark tank. The global race of nations has maneuvered mankind into a situation from which it can only rescue a supranational authority that ends this race.

De gustibus EST disputandum!

An important, perhaps the most important, task of a good teacher is to dissuade students from making hasty judgments, for it is with this craving that we come into the world, while on the contrary reason only develops very slowly. Infants immediately start crying when they feel unwell and they smile when being treated kindly. But the vocabulary of pubescent young people still contains mainly expressions like super, cool, great or negative ones like poo, disgusting, evil etc. The aversion to independent thinking and the tendency to replace arguments with hasty values and judgments remains in later life – for many people throughout their lives.

As we know, demagogues and populists know how to make virtuoso use of this innate inclination when they seduce their clientele with emotionally charged promises or vice versa with slogans of hate. Stirring up emotions for some tempting cause is in line with the human herd instinct – but to be outraged against some real or imaginary evil welds people even closer together. Only slowly and often very laboriously is man brought to maturity and reason when asking for relevant facts before pronouncing his judgment.

So far, we should applaud teachers when they try to impart this very important lesson to their students: “First acquire thorough knowledge before you presume to pass your own judgement.”

On the other hand, we should be allowed to ask,

what a person will look like if taking this seemingly golden rule literally in that he contents himself with mere factual knowledge? The answer is obvious, though quite sobering. We would be dealing with a walking encyclopedia. As is well known, these works of collected facts are neither able to arouse enthusiasm, nor are they capable of outrage. They are emotionally aseptic containers of pure knowledge. But does this freedom from emotion make them carriers of reason? I doubt that anybody will answer this question in the affirmative. Pure facts about the world and human beings say nothing at all about how we should relate to them. Let us hope that teachers know this quite well and therefore do not try to transform their students into walking encyclopedias!

But are there not also flesh and blood human beings,

who come closest to the ideal so dear to the heart of teachers? People, who completely abstain or at least want to abstain from judging and evaluating because they are only interested in facts? Indeed – this kind of person has been around since the 17th century at the latest, and it has spread exponentially across the globe, so that one day it could even become the dominant type. Everyone knows, of course, who I am talking about here, namely scientists – especially those who deal with the facts of nature.

In the textbooks of physics, chemistry, engineering, etc., there is no mention of good and evil, beautiful or ugly. The real breakthrough of the sciences consisted precisely in this turnaround: man asked exclusively about the objective laws governing nature, without bringing his subjective hopes and desires into play.

This was the great achievement that first succeeded in 17th century Europe, for until then man had done exactly the opposite. He had projected his own will, desire, hate and hope into nature by imagining it in his own image, as if controlled by the same forces of will and hope, that governed himself. But science has pushed human values, such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, completely out of nature, which it conceived as a kind of machine. It was only after this revolutionary step that man became nature’s master.

The theoretical foundation for this revolution

was laid by Galileo Galilei at the end of the 16th century, when he postulated a fundamental difference between “primary” and “secondary” properties of things. Shape, size, number as well as rest or movement belong, according to Galileo, to the inherent or primary properties, whereas taste, smell or sound are secondary sensations that arise in ourselves through our dealings with the external world.*1*

This division of knowledge into objective – lying in objects themselves – and subjective – lying in man – was further deepened after Galileo, because it seemed obvious that aesthetic and ethical standards too (beautiful and ugly, good and evil) must have their origin in man but not in things. For this very reason it would not occur to a scientist to qualify a uranium atom as morally bad or the quantum leap as esthetically ugly. As a matter of fact and of principle, science has banned all subjective judgments and values from its own sphere. It has extended the Latin motto “de gustibus non disputandum” far beyond its rather harmless everyday use. The Romans were critical of arguing about questions of taste, because each of us likes to defend our own preferences. Since Galileo, science has taken a decisive step beyond this harmless admonition by rejecting all human values and judgements as subjective and thus relegating them to a status of arbitrariness.*2*

If science were right in upholding this conviction,

man would have to regard himself as a mistake of evolution, because what use is the subjective tendency to relate his own value judgements to people and things around him? Shouldn’t he rather have been shaped into a walking encyclopedia? Why is he so enthusiastic about beauty and keeps away from what he rejects as ugly? Why does he ask for justice and condemn deceit and selfishness, when these are merely subjective and arbitrary values that he draws from himself? Shouldn’t man be guided exclusively by facts and probabilities?

The renowned German sociologist Max Horkheimer succinctly expressed the problem in the following words: “According to the philosophy of the average modern intellectual there is only one authority, namely science, understood as the classification of facts and the calculation of probabilities. The statement that justice and freedom are in themselves better than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless. It sounds just as meaningless as the statement that ‘red is more beautiful than blue or an egg is better than milk’ ” (1967, 33).

The statement is remarkable, because it shows that something in our world view has gone awry or maybe even be totally wrong.

If teachers were serious about the intention

to wean students from values in order to stuff them exclusively with facts, they would have turned our schools into training grounds for future scientists. However, they would be somewhat careless in doing so, as they overlook the fact that scientists always remain human beings. As such, no matter how much they seem to abstain from value judgments, they never can do without them.

No, I don’t refer to the fashionable objection, which might immediately come to the mind of some readers. We are used to hearing again and again, even from clever contemporaries, that we should not talk about objectivity, because it is no more than a pipe dream. Even supposedly “objective” science offers only subjective views of reality.*3*

I am sorry to say that this is logical nonsense. The number of solar planets does not depend on our subjective will and desires any more than the relative weight of iron and copper. True, the laws of nature are necessarily described in conventional concepts of human language, which in their turn may rely on different units of measurement and we may, of course, choose to illuminate quite different dimensions of reality, but the latter itself is not subject to change because of our descriptions (quantum physics only being partly a different matter). Our descriptions remain “objectively correct” if predictions based on them are correct and they are “objectively wrong” if they are not. The fact that we invented so many machines that perform exactly the tasks they are made to fulfill constitutes an obvious proof that we have correctly understood the laws of nature. Contrary to the view of German idealist Gottlieb Fichte, persistent regularities of nature exist outside of the ideas we may conceive about the latter – that is precisely what objectivity means.

Until the 17th century, the objective autonomy of nature

did not come into view. Until then, nature was conceived as the playground of gods and spirits, who ruled it by means of will and desire. Man had projected his own self and essence into nature.*4* As he himself was guided by his own will, nature was guided by the will of spiritual powers. If he wanted to find his way through nature and influence events, he had to recognize what gods and spirits consider good or bad, beautiful or ugly – in other words, he had to study their will and intentions.

Therein lay the aspiration of most people before the onset of the scientific revolution. “Get to know and to propitiate the world’s hidden spiritual agents (gods and ghosts) and you will easily come to terms with nature and man.”

For in this prescientific view, the regularities of nature, its so-called laws, were not independent of will and desire: the gods could override or change them at any time by way of alternative laws or miracles – and man could do so by propitiating the gods through prayer and sacrifice or even by trying to compel them by magical means.

Scientists have put an end to this view

by insisting on the objective autonomy, in short the “objectivity” of nature. Gods, myths, fairy tales and art – all these projections of human values and desires – they have banished completely from extra-human reality.

And yet this is not the whole story. In the process of demystifying the world, scientists had definitely to stop at one point – namely at their own persons.  For it is precisely here that will and desire inevitably play a decisive role. The scientist must be subjectively convinced that it is as important for himself as it is for humanity to unravel nature’s objective rules. Only after having settled this question for himself will he be ready to undergo the enormous efforts of scientific research. After all, many scientists submit to a way of life that bears the greatest similarity to the asceticism of medieval monks.

At this point, personal subjectivity comes into full play

But individual intentions are by no means sufficient to make science possible. Intentions and inclinations use to be as diverse as individuals. No matter how passionately someone may be interested in the family tree of the man in the moon, his passion is of no use to him if he is unable to convince the general public of the relevance of the subject. Since the 18th century more and more people were willing to support research because its results started to make their lives so much easier. Without this positive attitude towards science, i.e. without the collective evaluation of the new way of dealing with nature as right and good, the rise of science would never have taken place.

This leads to an important conclusion. Man is inevitably prompted by subjective desires even when completely eliminating his own values of good and evil while exploring the objective structure of nature – he wouldn’t do so unless driven by the urge of improving or enriching his life. If it had turned out that science only worsens people’s lives, it certainly would never have gained any influence in the first place.*5* In the past, different world views were regularly abandoned for this very reason – they did not keep the promises they had made. To name just one among many examples. In the infamous massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, the ghost shirts of the Indians proved to be completely ineffective against white man’s bullets. But they had been praised by local seers as an absolute weapon guaranteed by the gods.

Because man cannot help but evaluate

his own actions and thoughts according to moral or aesthetic criteria, it is very well conceivable that one day society may considerably reduce its support for science. German sociologist Ulrich Beck stated that modern mankind has created what he called Risk Society. That was forty years ago. In the meantime, risks have long since turned into dire reality. Science and technology are increasingly concerned with getting to grips with the largely unforeseen, partly catastrophic consequences of their own making, that is, of science and technology. At the latest since the climate crisis, we are living in what we now should call Repair Society. What progress has spoiled, progress is now supposed to repair.

On the one hand, the world created by science

corresponds to the deepest hopes and wishes of mankind. Famines have been largely eliminated, most diseases successfully overcome, life has been prolonged and made much easier by lots of amazing inventions. It is precisely this undoub­ted progress that led to the resounding success of the new world view. But since the second half of the twentieth century, the dark sides of this development have become increasingly visible too. More than 4000 nuclear explosives, dozens of lethal nerve poisons, hundreds of biological and chemical weapons are ready to exterminate humanity several times over. But even if their use may seem unlikely to optimists, it cannot be ignored that the residues and toxins of industrial production are globally contaminating air, soil and oceans – the air being already irreversibly polluted with carbon dioxide. In other words: the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.

In such a completely new and unique situation

we will again have to recognize that what ultimately counts are human values, wishes and hopes. De gustibus est disputandum! Humanity will have to ask itself what kind of life it wants for the future, because its future depends on such valuations. In doing so, it cannot avoid critically examining its previous dealing with reality. Science and technology are not areas detached from life, but must serve the well-being of mankind. If they do not or no longer do so, their use will have to be reconsidered in the same way as all other phenomena when they threaten to harm society.

But here too, humanity,

– shaken by the devastation caused by the “materialistic world view” – runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and falling back into superstition, esotericism and the denial of truth. The conscientious look at facts, which for three centuries science has made the basis of its approach, is an essential achievement, behind which there can be no going back. For it is this understanding of truth that enlightens us about the possibilities open to human will and where it encounters insurmountable limits. Ghost shirts do not protect against bullets, the exploitation of resources cannot go on indefinitely in a finite world. The poisoning of the environment with the residues of industrial production is another limit. It must be radically reduced if we are to survive in this world. The number of people or their consumption of resources must be commensurate with the carrying capacity of the planet.

It is the spirit of science, the spirit of reason, that asks such questions, but that reason is always based on human will and desire. Reason can never be value-free, because a value-free robot does neither care about life nor the fate of human beings. Nature itself is indifferent to whether humans exist or not.

These considerations owe their origin

to a rather trivial circumstance. A good acquaintance, a teacher, criticized the author of a historical work, whom I hold in high esteem, saying that he always tends to make value-judgments.*6* She was so thoroughly imbued with the resolve of weaning her students from evaluations that she could not tolerate these even in a work of history where they constitute the only means of bringing dead facts to life. I would, of course, be very skeptical if a chemist were to differentiate between beautiful and ugly hydrocarbons. As a rule, reality appears to him only in the form of symbols and formulas that are and should be free of all emotional connotations. This is generally true even for the language of the natural sciences, which is radically different from the emotionally colored idioms of everyday life.*7*

The humanities, however,

do not examine human beings in the manner of doctors, physiologists or geneticists as objects subject to the laws of chemistry, physics etc. just like the rest of nature; they want to understand them in a second and different way: as psychic entities (Wilhelm Dilthey). In so doing they want us to understand other people – regardless of time or origin – as we understand ourselves, namely as wanting and desiring beings. The mere enumeration of facts does not make history and certainly not explain it. We understand people only to the extent that we succeed in putting ourselves in their shoes by asking how we would behave under similar circumstances. Of course, we only succeed up to a certain degree – when not succeeding, their behavior becomes a mere fact remaining strange and incomprehensible. This is frequently the case when we deal with people whose culture we only superficially know. When dealing with other species, it becomes the rule. In a very imperfect way, we understand what happens in the minds of dogs and cats, no matter how many facts we gather about their behavior. And how a Corona virus experiences the world, we do not understand at all. The virus exists for us only as a value-free fact, like a hedge trimmer or a washing machine.

Brilliant historians are masters of understanding

They transform facts into events that concern us because they provide us with mirrors of ourselves serving as examples or warnings. When history becomes a mere value-free fact, it is as foreign to us as a virus or a lunar eclipse. It then lacks any human interest, unlike the facts of natural science, it does not even offer the instrumental use of controlling nature. Teachers should take this to heart when they inoculate their students with the hunt for facts. Certainly, without knowledge of facts we would be blind to reality, but without judging the facts according to whether or not they serve man’s will and desires, they are a dead weight.*8*

1 Philosophy is written in the great book that has always been before our eyes: I mean the universe. But we cannot understand its meaning until we have learned the language and grasped the symbols in which it is written. This book is written in the language of mathematics and its symbols are triangles, circles and other geometric figures. Without their help, it is impossible to understand a single word; without them, we wander through a dark labyrinth without success. (Galileo, 1842; Vol.IV, p.171)

So I do not believe that external things, in order to evoke in us sensations of taste, smell or sound, require anything other than size, shape, number and slow or fast movement. If we had removed ears, tongues and noses, I believe that the shape, number and movement would remain, but not the smells, tastes or sounds. Because outside the living being, in my opinion, these are nothing but names… (Galileo, 1936; II, p.801)

2 This denigration of the cultural, including the religious sphere, as ultimately arbitrary or even accidental was the result of the scientific revolution, which only allowed the laws of nature to be regarded as “iron”, “eternal” and “unbreakable”. This amounted to a devaluation of human creations – it is no wonder that for three centuries mankind has been occupied only with the exploration of non-human nature and its laws, while the sciences related to man and history, the humanities, have been removed from the curricula of schools and universities.

3 I can still remember a discussion with the Goliath among Austrian philosophers, namely Paul-Konrad Liessmann, who (at a meeting on the Kulm, Styria) held exactly this position. He probably never forgave me, who at that time took on the role of David, for daring to contradict him.

4 The thesis of projection, as already advocated by Xenophanes in antiquity and in more recent times by Ludwig Feuerbach, seems evident on the one hand, on the other hand it suffers from superficiality. It seems evident, because even a cursory look into the history of religions shows that people have attributed their own all-too-human qualities to gods and spirits. Even Prof. Hans Küng would hardly claim that the process has been the other way round, namely that people have copied and appropriated the all-too-human qualities of real gods. On the other hand, will (and the freedom it implies) proves to be as necessary a principle for explaining the complexity of this world as its counterpart: the principle of causality; both are complementary (see Jenner: Creative Reason – A Philosophy of Freedom (dedicated to William James).

5 That it was the success of the new scientific interpretation of the world which earned it the reputation of being logically “right” is also the view of Ludwig Boltzmann. “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that decides in the last instance whether something is true or false, but the deed. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental byproducts of natural science, I consider them to be logical proofs. If we had not achieved these practical achievements, we would not know how to conclude. Only such conclusions which have practical success are correct” (1990).

6 Egon Friedell. I appreciate this ingenious historical dilettante (as whom he describes himself) precisely because of his evaluations, for as far as the quantity and, sometimes, even the reliability of facts are concerned, academic modern historians are, of course, in a much better position, especially since the “Cultural History of the modern Age” was written during the twenties of the last century. But Friedell’s artistic empathy and style are unsurpassed – if we accept the American Will Durant.

7 But in the early days, there were quite a few natural scientists who knew how to describe the beauty of crystals or of vegetative forms so convincingly that they contributed significantly to the enthusiasm for their respective fields (think of Ernst Häckel, for example).

8 This essay leaves many problems open. Science does not consist of a mere collection of facts, but of theories that combine facts into consistent wholes that can explain as wide a range of reality as possible. Since confirmed theories are not based on subjective assessments, but describe objective structures, they too belong to the sphere of facts. But what about reason, which asks about the limits of causality and our “objective” knowledge? On this topic I have tried to work out some perhaps not entirely irrelevant reflections elsewhere (Jenner, op. cit.).

From William E. Rees I got the following feedback by email:

Dear Gero –

I was, as usual, intrigued by your latest essay on the proper role of human values, wishes and hopes (about which there will always be disputes). 

In fact, this essay touched a number of nerves. As a scientist (systems ecologist) teaching in a school of planning and public policy, my primary had always been the judicious application of “objective (ecological) knowledge” to questions of human socioeconomic development.  By this I meant reasoned or evidence-based analysis seasoned by consideration of people’s history, desires, beliefs and aspirations.  However, it also meant making the case that policies and plans designed to satisfy people’s hopes and aspirations should be seasoned with hard facts and analysis about the biophysical world. If taken seriously, these would often impose constraints on the hopes and aspirations of client communities – even my colleague economists and social planners would sometimes object.

One colleague was an avowed post-modernist of the type you would regard as tending to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’  To her, scientific data had no special place in decision-making; there was no such thing as objective knowledge. She saw science as just another form of value-based ‘social construct’ that oppressed human ambition, apparently making no distinction between things which could actually be measured in time and space (e.g., water contamination, carbon emissions) and things that were entirely products of the human mind (e.g., democracy, civil rights).  Students who took courses from both of us were often torn between what they saw as conflicting interpretations of ‘what is real’. 

In working with students to resolve this problem, I often remembered something one of my undergraduate professors had emphasized—scientists were obliged to ferret out the objective truth but should stay away from policy and politics.  These were the domains of the value-based ‘humanities’ and social scientists.  In short, budding hard scientists were taught that the biophysical sciences could produce the numbers and discoveries, but it was up to political leaders — including policy wonks and planners — to decide whether and how the science should be applied (inadvertently providing an excuse for scientists working on the development of atomic weaponry). 

It seems that the separation of fact from values is endemic to western-style learning.  I remember being intrigued on discovery that modern neoliberal economic text-books pretend to eschew moral and ethical considerations.  In its efforts to appear ‘scientific’, formal economics (whose theoretical foundations and simplistic models owe a great deal to Newtonian analytic mechanics) ignores such soft considerations as attachment to place, compassion for others, the existence of family and friends, the idea of community, etc., etc.  Again, concern for these things is the domain of politics, not sound economics, and, as all students of economics learn, political intervention in the market introduces gross inefficiencies that undermine the elegant operation of short-term self-interest in market-based decision-making. In effect, values other than efficiency are disallowed.

I have never understood how mainstream economics can see people as ‘self-interested utility maximizers with fixed preferences and unlimited material demands’ as if this were a value-free description of H. sapiens, and markets as the most efficient allocators of essential resources as if privileging efficiency were not itself a value judgement with enormous moral implications.

There is one part of your essay that I might have structured differently.  You note that:

 “…the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.”

It seems to me that this phrasing confuses the fact of science-led material progress with the effects generated by shear economic scale and thus obscures the real cause.  The ecological crisis – potential catastrophe – is not the product of science and technology per se, but rather results from excessive population and average per capita resource consumption (i.e., economic growth beyond limits).  Humanity is in overshoot; we are consuming bioresources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and discharging wastes in excess of nature’s capacity to assimilate/neutralize. 

Most importantly, overshoot results from both nature and nurture: H. sapiens, like all other species has a genetically-determined predisposition to expand into accessible habitat and use all available resources (this is our ‘nature’) but  these tendencies are currently being reinforced  by the socially-constructed myth of perpetual economic growth driven by continuous technological progress (this is contemporary ‘nurture’).

Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.  Far from tempering humanity’s primitive expansionist tendencies, the socially-constructed beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify these now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.  

Worse, they combine with another highly-subjective social construct, human exceptionalism, which sees our species as somehow detached from nature and not subject natural laws.  This narrative virtually guarantees the continued dissipative destruction of the ecosphere and the collapse of life-support functions upon which we all depend.

Many thanks again for a thought-provoking essay and the chance to revisit some of my own life experience.

Best, 

Bill

My reply:

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your thoughtful and benevolent criticism, which points to a problem that I was well aware of even while writing the essay. Can the latter not be understood as a quasi-biblical objection to the presumption of knowledge, as if man had done better never to eat from the tree of knowledge? May it not even be read as an obscurantist criticism of modern science?

No, certainly not. You quote the passage where I decisevely reject such a misinterpretation. Science has provided a new foundation for truth: there is objective knowledge and it would be the worst regression if we were to fall back into superstition and esotericism, as often happens today. But – and this thesis pervades all my work – objective knowledge is not enough, it can only serve to define the limits and possibilities of human freedom (being, however, essential for that very purpose). Basically, I am only saying that scientists are not what some great philosophers of 18th century Enlightenment and their late descendants like Steven Pinker wanted to see in them, namely supermen. Man is more than what he represents as a scientist because apart from the laws of nature (which are the objects of his studies), there is also freedom, about which his theories either know nothing or which he reduces to mere chance.

This fundamental criticism seems important to me, but in your answer you discuss a point of greater practical relevance. Possibly you are quite right that my article may be understood as a warning as if science and technology themselves were responsible for many of present-day predicaments and not just the fact that their application by ten billion people inevitably produces quite different consequences than if they were applied by two billion only. Although I have sought the blame in the “Industrial Anthropocene” (not directly pointing to science and technology), the suspicion remains.

I admit that this is a difficult point, because science is based on an elementary urge, human curiosity, which is the breeding ground both for everything great and for everything terrible. I am afraid that this elementary urge gives us the same intellectual satisfaction when we apply it to the study of neutron bombs as to that of vaccines. That is why I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science. After all the thirst for knowledge still operates in a boundless field even if only directed to things great.

Oh, I am concluding this letter with a rather trivial remark.

Best Gero

Mr. Rees’ answer:

Gero –

you are exceptionally fast off the mark–and your concluding paragraph is anything but trivial.  

You say: “…I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science.”  

Seems to me that this is the distilled essence of the original essay and perhaps should be inserted/ amplified in such clear  words toward the end.  

Actually, this extract is really what I was trying to get at with my own more clumsy prose. 

I wrote: “Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.”   

This is really an assertion that we have failed to use our ethical/moral sense (and associated values) to steer us toward accepting limits on the application of science (and techno-driven growth).  Hence, our failure to assert certain important human capacities is more to blame for the crisis than is science per se.  

And, again, the result is that the dominant “…beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify [the natural but] now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.”    

With highest regards, 

Bill

From Prof. Steve Pinker I got the following feedback:

Please delete.

Thymos and Logic – Why we know, yet do not act

Francis Fukuyama, arguably America’s most profound political scientist, enriched our understanding of man and history by an important notion of Greek origin – “thymos”. This term, used extensively by Plato in “The State”, is well suited to illuminate our present situation. The Greek philosopher speaks of thymos to describe a decisive dimension of human action. In his opinion, man does not obey reason alone; in truth, something else is added, namely will, desire, passion, anger, self-assertion – in short, “thymos”. Whoever ignores this driving force hardly understands human behavior. Continue reading Thymos and Logic – Why we know, yet do not act