Charles Darwin, Chance and the good Lord – a Philosophical Excursion

In 1970 Jacques Monod’s seminal book „Le Hasard et la Nécessité“ (Chance and Necessity) was published, on the cover of which the renowned biochemist summed up in a single and concise formula the world view that had dominated first Europe and then the entire world since the 17th century. For the objective scientist, so Monod’s message, the world is nothing but chance and necessity. For there is nothing in the world but these two principles alone: on the one hand, necessity representing that order, which the natural sciences explore in the shape of laws, and on the other hand, chance, which denotes the void within this order – in other words, a meaningless nothing with which science does not know what to do. Since Monod established this formula, neurology has made tremendous progress, his book is certainly no longer „up-to-date“, but the view that reality has nothing else to offer but these two dimensions has become even more entrenched. According to a now prevalent view, our world is made of calculable mechanisms of the physical and neuronal world, and the yawning emptiness of meaningless chance.

Exploring the natural order of things (its „laws“)

always represented the true goal of knowledge. But for a long time, chance was felt to be so disturbing and superfluous that its very existence was questioned – and this even in two distinctly different ways. France’s prince of enlightenment, Voltaire, for example, was convinced that chance was but interim ignorance – it merely referred to what we yet do not know. This opinion can be based on solid arguments, because an infinite number of findings that still seemed random events to our ancestors, like for example cholera epidemics or lunar eclipses, can be deduced by modern science from quite specific causes and are thus conforming to definite natural laws. For this reason, the conclusion seemed quite convincing that all events we still call random are so only because of gaps in human knowledge. To the extent that the progress of science gradually fills these gaps with increased knowledge, we would be able to eliminate chance altogether and in the end recognize everywhere and at any time nothing but lawful order.

This, at any rate, was the opinion of Baruch de Spinoza as well as of his great admirer, Albert Einstein, who, as is well known, put his own rejection of chance into a famous dictum: „God does not play dice“. In other words, the good Lord creates order, because order conforms to reason, order is rational. Chance, on the other hand, carries with it the odor of the worthless and the irrational. No doubt the idea that in chance we are encountering something quite useless and superfluous resonates in its disparagement.

But chance is more than just a gap in our knowledge

It was an epochal discovery that quantum physics helped chance to regain a prominent place in scientific world view. Towards the beginning of the 20th century, it was physics, the supreme discipline of natural sciences, that had to confront randomness – the absence of order. The basic principle of classical physics, according to which every definite effect could be attributed to some definite cause, had definitely to be abandoned. Werner Heisenberg expressed the revolutionary insight in the following way. „Let us consider a radium atom, which can emit an alpha-particle. When we observe the emission, we do not actually look for a foregoing event from which the emission must according to a rule follow… If we wanted to know why the alpha-particle was emitted at this particular time… we would have to know the microscopic structure of the whole world, including ourselves, and that is impossible.“

Chance added the dimension

of unpredictability to the world of classical physics,*1* which up to then had been considered thoroughly predictable as a matter of principle. Jacques Monod put this view in a nutshell when describing evolution (once understood as a process of divine creation) in the following way. „Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.“

The French biochemist,

would not have insisted so emphatically on the sole validity of this hypothesis, had he not kept its opponents in mind, the religious „animists“, as he calls them, who want to give some ulterior meaning to the events of evolution. But this meaning, he adamantly insists, does not exist. The scientist, no matter whether physicist or neurologist, cannot see anything else in the history of dead or living matter but lawful mechanisms that owe their unfolding to blind, meaningless chance. And in order to be absolutely certain that even the most stubborn reader correctly grasps the extent of such total absence of meaning, Monod refers to chance as mere ’noise‘. „… we may say that the same source of fortuitous perturbations, of ’noise‘, which in a nonliving.. system would lead little by little to the disintegration of all structure, is the progenitor of evolution in the biosphere and accounts for its unrestricted liberty of creation.“

In these crushingly dismal lines

Monod summarizes the world view of modern science. Let me supplement his intention with a metaphor that illustrates what he means in a more vivid way. In the view of ancient prophets and founders of religions, a poet like Dante sat at the typewriter to write the divine comedy, only that this poet was God himself creating the cosmos in the process, to which he gives a meaning that man is able to understand. Now, according to the great scientific thinkers since the 17th century up to the present time, this role is played by a monkey who pointlessly presses the keys, and after eons, chance brings forth the divine comedy or the cosmos – but purely mechanically and because of blind and meaningless chance. In one case, God represents embodied intelligence and wisdom, while in the other the monkey represents the exact opposite, the embodied non-intelligence, a candidate for the madhouse.

The special thing about both metaphors

is, in my opinion, that each must be called wrong – that is, wrong by the standards of truth and science.*2* The fact that the first cannot be correct, namely that God created a universe whose plan of salvation is rationally accessible to the human mind, was early on maintained by scientists – Monod merely represents the last link in a long chain of four hundred years. But Albert Schweitzer, great theologian and even greater man, holds the same conviction. „The refined and deceitful attempts to understand the world in an optimistic-ethical sense have no better success than the naive ones. What our thinking wants to pass off as knowledge is but an unjustified interpretation of the world. Thinking defends itself against this admission with the courage of despair, because it fears that it will be at a loss to face the problem of life. What /moral/ meaning should be given to human existence if we have to renounce giving /moral/ meaning to the world? But thinking has no choice but to submit to the facts.“

The statement is perfectly clear! The most outspoken critics of religion could not have expressed their opposition to any moral interpretation of evolution more distinctly than Schweitzer does in these lines where he calls such an interpretation „deceitful“. For thousands of years people attributed plans of salvation to their respective gods, they imagined a rational meaning of evolution, but the scientifically sober observer must conclude that the facts do not agree with any of these mythological constructions.

But the counter-metaphor of blind and meaningless chance

is no more acceptable. We even have to use a much harsher word, it is „unscientific“ – a condemnation that carries approximately the same blame today as did in earlier times words like „godless“ or „atheist“. The image of the monkey pressing the keys purely mechanically is void of scientific justification even if given the more sober appearance of chance described as „blind“ and „meaningless“. Unscientific in this case means that we claim more than we can ever know.

Everybody agrees that we can assign properties only to things we know. Do we know chance so that we may endow it with properties? Certainly not. We have not the slightest idea what chance really is, and we can’t generate it artificially (certainly not by means of a „random generator“!). All algorithms by which we try to produce it, even the most complex ones, necessarily create repeatable events, in other words order – that is, the very opposite of chance. Whoever knows the algorithm in question is therefore able to predict its results. If we want to produce genuine chance, we must borrow it from reality, for example by triggering a certain algorithm whenever a real random event happens, let’s say whenever a sensor connected to the trigger sees a woman in a yellow shirt passing by on the street. This would be as random an event as when some passer-by crossing the street is hit by a tile, which suddenly falls on his head from the roof (Monod uses this example to illustrate randomness).

The impossibility of knowing chance is a simple yet decisive insight. It says that we cannot, in principle, get a knowledge or concept of chance. In fact, chance represents the opposite not only of what we know but (according to Heisenberg) of what we can know. Chance is thus the ultimate unknown, the unintelligible, which no science is able to render accessible. In this sense it is and remains an insoluble mystery for human knowledge.

It is for this reason that both the philosopher and critical science

must reject Monod’s world view as naive and scientifically untenable. The world is not made of necessity and meaningless chance, but its two basic dimensions are order and mystery. Reality presents itself to human understanding on the one hand as the object of (presumably infinitely expandable) knowledge, on the other hand as fundamentally unrecognizable – the limits to human knowledge being set by chance.

This insight bears consequences for believers too. If a God created the world, then we must acknowledge with Albert Schweitzer that we do not understand the meaning he gave to his creation – but that is, of course, not at all the same as Monod’s statement that the world is devoid of meaning. It makes a fundamental difference whether something does not exist absolutely or only when seen from the perspective of a certain type of mind. The Austrian biologist Rupert Riedl found the right metaphor for expressing this truth. „What presumption would it be if the tick wanted to imagine the blood vessels of a mammal, the dog the international drug scene or we /humans/ the laws beyond the cosmos.“ Science is now able to explain infinitely many things in detail, e.g. why a bee stings us, a volcano erupts or how a mobile phone works, but it cannot tell us anything about why this world and its orders exist at all and what sense to give to human existence.

This difference is indeed crucial

Just consider Charles Darwin’s great evolutionary formula and see how different it looks as soon as we acknowledge that chance is not blind and not meaningless but represents an unsolvable mystery? Darwin explains the development of species with the struggle for survival, where individuals that are better adapted to prevailing conditions enjoy a selection advantage and therefore have larger offspring. It is well known that Karl Popper called this theory „metaphysical“ because it cannot be refuted (falsified) – which means that it cannot be proven either.

We easily understand why the white birch moth previously clinging to an equally white bark of some birch tree had no selection advantage when England’s landscapes slowly became sooty and the moths on the dark bark suddenly became much more visible to their predators. But the environment to which every living creature must adapt is seldom so clearly defined. As a rule, it is extremely complex and changes at every moment. It therefore demands all kinds of simultaneous adaptations from living beings, which are just as difficult to calculate as the forces of the whole world acting on an alpha-particle at any given moment. This is why Darwin’s theory has never achieved what physicists demand of their laws, namely the capacity to predict the future development of species. Even the most convinced Darwinist would not dare to predict what mice – let alone human beings – will look like 500 or 1000 years from now, (unless under laboratory conditions, when all environmental conditions have been artificially reduced to a minimum). It is this impossibility of predicting the future of evolution that Popper probably meant when he called Darwin’s theory metaphysical.

In his time, Darwin himself did not yet know

about the mechanisms, which provide the „material“ to be selected, i.e. genetically differentiated individuals. Biogeneticists have long since described the causes that may lead to different genetic make-up – e.g. endogenous or, conversely, externally induced errors in the replication of the genetic code. It is important to note that biogeneticists are dealing here with random changes (e.g. mutations); if these were lawful, they would be able to calculate future developments. So, biogene­ticists agree with Jacques Monod that here it is indeed chance – the absence of laws -, which reigns supreme. That is why Monod’s basic law may indeed be transferred from physics to biology: „The development of species is completely explained by chance and necessity“.

But what do we really explain

given that we never know chance as it represents pure  mystery? As soon as we acknowledge this basic truth, the formula that summarizes Darwin’s teaching (as enlarged by his followers) takes on a completely transformed appearance. „The evolution of species is entirely explained by necessity together with mystery.“ Obviously this is a contradictio in adjecto, for this formula fails because of its obvious internal contradiction. An explanation can never be complete if based on unsolvable mystery.

This insight is of a fundamental nature, for it compels us to be epistemologically humble. The science of life may gain perfect knowledge of the descent of species, that is of the history of evolution. But it will never be able to offer a complete explanation of the evolution of species, precisely because the latter comprises the scientifically unintelligible dimension of chance as one of its two basic dimensions.*3*

The revolution of knowledge that began in the 17th century,

consisted in a methodical search for truth that should in principle be accessible to everybody. Science does not recognize the dictates or revelations of authorities, it is radically democratic. But science was always tempted to act like a revelation itself, and that fact explains why from the outset it was not just a method for searching the truth but could itself become the victim of lies, especially since it had a most influential opponent from the beginning: undemocratic „power religion“, which did not rely on reason but on supposedly incontestable revelation.

In order to fight this powerful enemy, as science did since the 17th century and Monod still in the twentieth, it gave and still gives the public an explanation of reality meant to be as comprehensive and total as the claim and intention of „power religion“ (in contrast to „critical religion“ that does not pretend to recognize the last reality, that is, God and his intentions). The very moment when science embarks on this path, it turns into a mirror image of its opponent becoming itself dogmatic or „power science“. Of course, critical scientists always resisted this lapse into dogmatism. The mathematician Gödel proved that no system can give a logically complete account of itself, it fails to do so because of fundamental incompleteness (Gödel’s Incompleteness theorems). If man tries to do so nevertheless, he acts – as Rupert Riedl said – like a police dog trying to know the international drug scene.

Unlike „power religion“

criticized by Albert Schweitzer for deceitfully pretending to offer an optimistic explanation of evolution, „power science“ does the exact opposite: it raises an oppressive perspective to the rank of indisputable, absolute truth. Or can there be a more dismal vision than the philosophy of Nothing-But, according to which man and the cosmos are nothing better than mechanisms whose development is determined by blind, meaningless chance? This is clearly the kind of valuation that scientists usually avoid, for example when they describe the chemical bonding of H and O to H2O. There is no talk here of beautiful or meaningless – the event is simply presented in its factuality. Science cannot do more than this, if it does not want to turn into an ideology itself.

When calling chance, one of the two basic dimensions of reality,

a mystery we do not valuate but are naming a fact because we simple do not what chance is apart from being the opposite of recognizable order. And that is why we must firmly reject the world view of Monod, which continues to be that of most scientists even today, and replace it with an entirely different one. Reality is both an architecture of recognizable order and unrecognizable mystery.

This insight is new only to „power religion“ and „power science“. Critical reli­gion, one of whose greatest representatives is the mystic Meister Eckart, who preached the unrecognizable God, has always known about it. Critical scientists like Kurt Gödel or the supposedly positivist Karl Popper, the biologist Rupert Riedl and many others always acknowledged this truth. But for fear of admitting their limitations, power religion and power science both insist on total explanation, the first by artificially imputing an optimistic plan of salvation to reality, the second by devaluing the latter into a mere Nothing-But.

In our time, when science and technology

are reshaping reality more deeply and comprehensively than religion has ever been able to do, the threats we face are not merely of a theoretical nature but consist of more serious material challenges. The greatest achievement of our time: the scientific search for truth, threatens to turn into actual meaninglessness, as our immense knowledge and skills tempt us to gradually render uninhabitable the unique green planet to which we became adapted in millions of years. What a blatant contradiction! Homo sapiens, the most highly developed among primates, manages to invent the vehicles that will carry him to another planet in the solar system. It is no longer unrealistic to expect him to build oxygen-filled container prisons on the barren stone deserts of Mars, in which he may lead a sad and secluded life like in a Siberian penal colony. But so far he seems unable to create the necessary conditions for leading a sustainable life within his own habitat, the Earth. Science could have offered us the opportunity to make life on the green planet a paradise, instead we have used it to poison nature so that we may well turn Earth into an uninhabitable hell.

Nobel Prize winners of the rank and intelligence of Jacques Monod

mentally prepared this development by spreading their false and unscientific philosophy of Nothing-But. Why should we have any inhibitions when dealing with a meaningless world, a meaningless life? This attitude assures that destroying or preserving our habitat are equally devoid of meaning. I would like to call this „false enlightenment“ which was destined to lead to a secular counter-reaction. The renaissance of fundamentalist religions as well as the terrifying proliferation of artificial concoctions of meaning in esotericism are intended to fill the void that the lie of Nothing-But created in people’s minds. As is so often the case: the fanaticism of one camp promotes that of the other. We have seen that Monod too does not tolerate contradiction: „Pure coincidence, absolutely free but blind, at the root of the mighty edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other possible or even conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact.“

The dogmatism of „power science“ may be refuted

in still another way. Instead of tracing the secret of chance in the cosmos or in biological evolution, where we will never unravel it, we could have looked for it within ourselves. After all, evolution constantly happens in the Here and Now and in every living being. At the moment we seek the effects of chance within ourselves, we experience it directly as meaningful, for instance when listening to music. Music owes its elementary effect on our psyche to resonance, that is recognition. We are enraptured by the beauty of some musical architecture, e.g. a sonata by Mozart or Bach, because it not only flows upon us as an external sequence of notes, but the elements of this order are already present within us, so that we experience recognition and re-encounter. Thus, the supreme enjoyment produced by music emanates equally from the outside and from within ourselves – without resonance, i.e. our active participation, music would have no effect.

But music is much more than just a certain order or architecture that we have internalized as part of our culture; at the same type it produces an escape from petrified order by playing in an unpredictable way with established „architectural“ elements. Music becomes bad, boring or even kitschy when it seems predictable because it has nothing new to offer in terms of sound or rhythm. Great music surprises us precisely by the fact that while we constantly recognize established elements, yet it appears to us to be refreshingly new, because we cannot anticipate all those surprising ideas, variations, sudden discoveries that are enriching it. This is how chance, when experienced within ourselves, turns into freedom acquiring a quality that goes far beyond mere randomness. We experience it as the highest meaning of all, because the unexpected escape from petrified patterns proves to be a source of intense happiness. This is creation, but certainly not of meaninglessness but of abundance.

Of course, the same observation applies to all cultural creations as these constitute are our own human contribution to evolution. But here too, the happiness we experience remains a secret that we cannot put into a formula though its effects are perfectly real – real enough, in any case, to decisively modify Monod’s bleak world view, which largely corresponds to the one prevailing today.

*1* That chance can range from zero to one in probability theory, i.e. from total unpredictability to the certain occurrence of an event, only means that the transition from recognizable order to unrecognizable chaos is a gradual one.

*2* Cf. my book „Creative Reason“.

*3* Just as we are faced with a potential infinity if we want to grasp the totality of the facts to which a living being must adapt, we are also faced with a potential infinity of possible reactions to these circumstances. Modern science has identified magnetic fields, infrared and ultraviolet light, ultrasound, etc. as possible sensory abilities in certain living beings, giving them survival advantages, but we do not know how many other phenomena exist that living beings could use for this purpose. For this reason alone, Darwin’s teaching lacks prognostic capacity.