(5) The Familiar and the Commonplace

Our relationship to miracles and the miraculous is ambivalent. On the one hand, we crave the extraordinary and devour all reports and rumors of the occurrence of an event believed impossible; on the other hand, we fear such events because we perceive the unplanned, unwanted, unforeseen as a threat to our security. By contrast, the attitude of science is unambiguous. It scorns the miracle and mocks all who believe in it. If the validity of the laws of nature does by definition not allow any exception, there can be no miracles.

Science also rejects the miraculous, unless it elevates the formulas by which it describes physical processes, e.g., Einstein’s famous equation quantifying the ratio of mass to energy, to the status of objects of awe and admiration because of their miraculous simplicity. However, most scientists hasten to emphasize that even this formula only expresses that everything in the world happens in a completely natural way, so there too we find nothing miraculous. We can at most marvel at the extraordinary intelligence of those people who were the first to explain the machinery of nature and to represent it in such elegant and simple formulas.

Discussions about the miraculous in nature

take place in science at best among the real experts, e.g., when they try to understand quantum theory. After all, one of the most prominent authorities in the field, physicist Richard Feynman, was moved to remark, “If you think you understand quantum theory . . . you don’t understand quantum theory.”

No doubt, this statement provides a direct confrontation with the miraculous. A theory which in practice allows useful statisti­cal predictions of physical processes is said to be inaccessible to reason. This is also illustrated by the so-called Copenhagen inter­pretation with the popular metaphor of a black box. If we do not open it, the cat inside is both dead and alive. As soon as we open it, it is only one of both: either dead or alive.

If you want to understand the paradox of the cat

that is dead and alive at the same time, you must go beyond the metaphor. You must complete years of study in quantum physics. This could be interpreted as if the encounter with the miraculous had to remain the preserve of the experts. Doesn’t this remind us of earlier, dark times when religion reigned supreme? For a millennium and a half, reading the Bible was the privilege of experts, i.e., priests. To prevent people from relying on their own judgment and criticizing its often grotesque and contradictory content, the priests not only insisted that the Bible remain inaccessible to lay people, but also that sermons be delivered in a language they could not understand, namely Latin. If unautho­rized persons nevertheless dared to enter the enclosure of the priestly monopolists of truth, they risked persecution as heretics, possibly even death at the stake.

Meanwhile, the natural sciences have become no less remote from the understanding of ordinary people. With the cordon sanitaire of their respective technical language, they effectively close themselves off from the laity. Thus, the impression must arise that only those have the right to talk about God and nature who successfully completed specialized seminars and acquired the corresponding diploma.

In contrast, the democratic task of critical

thinking is to prove that even the highest towers of religion and science are built on the pedestal of a few basic truths that every human being is capable of understanding. We do not have to look for the miraculous in quantum theory – it reveals itself much more obviously and with far greater clarity in quite familiar and everyday facts. To open our eyes to this truth was the aim of Kant’s “pure reason” (when he discussed antinomies).

Let’s take a process of seemingly utmost banality, like the movement of my arm because I want to move it. Or think of the departure of an army of tankers to the Ukrainian border because Vladimir Putin just gave the order to do so. Mere thoughts – the modifications of neurons within a human brain – can trigger the greatest physical events, although according to the textbooks of physics even the smallest change or movement is fundamentally dependent on and caused by natural laws. However, the thoughts in the head of a Vladimir Putin or of all those billions of actors who constantly change the events in our world are not due to any natural law known to us.

This obvious contradiction,

this confrontation with the miraculous, which so far defies any explanation, is hardly ever discussed. Experts are agreed that this problem is none of their business – at least for the time being. Problems that – at least for the moment – seem unsolvable are tacitly suppressed. The representatives of religion were anxious to hide the contradictions and riddles of the Bible from people so that they would not doubt their supposedly higher knowledge, the experts of science suppress the most elementary riddles of reality for quite the same reason. In other words, the experts keep silent about the miraculous. This saves them from admitting their ignorance.

The familiar is anything but ordinary

This insight imposes itself the moment we realize that the ordinary is by no means identical with what we understand. Let us take another example. As long as people believed that the earth was a disk, there existed an upside as well as a downside. The sky above your head indicated the direction upwards. So, once you reached the edge of the disk you would, of course, fall downwards. Meanwhile we know that the earth is a sphere and therefore there can be neither top nor bottom. Or more correctly said, the sky above the heads of the Australians designates the direction upwards for them as well as for us on the opposite side of the sphere. But this means that the idea of above and below, so familiar to each of us, cannot apply to cosmological space. It is, in fact, just as incomprehensible as the force of gravity that keeps every German just as firmly glued to the planet as Australians on the other side of the globe.

Gravity is such an ordinary fact of everyday life that no one gives it any thought at all. Nevertheless, we could apply Richard Feynman’s above-mentioned statement to gravitation too: “If you think that you have understood gravitation … then /that is proof/ that you do not understand it.” It is true that physics has no difficulty in quantifying its effects with the greatest accuracy for any distance from the center of the earth. Nevertheless, this invisible force is beyond our understanding. We know that it exists and has exactly measurable effects, but why it is there and why this invisible force succeeds to glue us reliably to the globe and to steer the course of far-away celestial bodies, we simply do not know. Some (like for instance Karl Popper) concluded that questions about the essence of physical phenomena are inadmissible and should therefore be kept out of science. The essence of any force, i.e., what it actually is, need not interest us, it is sufficient that we can describe its effects in detail and use them for our purposes. 

Others have grasped the obvious paradox

To these others belongs no less a person than Immanuel Kant, who dealt with a similar problem, namely the extension of space. Its experience is one of the habitual facts of life about which we seldom or never think. But once this happens, we immediately encounter the miraculous – Kant called it “antinomy” (an impasse for perception and conception as well). We cannot accept that the world is finite, because after every limit we expect further spaces. But we cannot imagine its infinity either, because infinity is for us inconceivable. At this point Kant encountered the wonder of a world that is beyond human comprehension. This is how he presented the paradoxical in the chapter On the Antinomies of Pure Reason. This will be discussed later (cf. chapter Pioneers of Antignosis: Hume, Kant, Popper).

The fact is that our ability to comprehend reality

is limited. This explains why we are so much shaken by the antinomy of space, which we can neither imagine to be finite nor infinite. Our senses and our mind are made for the intermediate world between the infinite smallness of the atoms and the infinite grandeur of the universe. More than a century ago, quantum physics had already shown that we do not understand the realm of the very small. In our time modern astrophysics has demon­strated the same truth for the realm of the exceedingly large. It points to black holes, so-called “singularities”, where the laws of nature that govern the Intermediate World lose their validity and possibly universes with completely different regularities arise.There will be an eternal dispute among experts about the paradoxes of time and space. But this need not interest us. We may forget quantum physics, and the singularities of astrophysics. That is not the place where we need to look for the miraculous – it surrounds us on all sides. But we don’t notice it because we confuse the ordinary with what we understand. Chapter taken from my book The Miraculous and its Enemies).

The Miraculous and its enemies (2)

Democratic Antignosis – knowing the limits

In this book, I want to encourage the reader to become aware of the miraculous. However, my approach, will not consist in quoting authorities or presenting mere assertions. Rather, I want to guide the reader by stimulating his or her own approach. Independent thinking is the prerogative of human beings, everyone may engage in it and everyone can gain from it, if in the process he frees himself from prevailing prejudices or announced taboos.

That means, I will appeal explicitly to a democratic capacity, because pure thinking is not the prerogative of self-appointed experts. Pure or elementary thinking is the foundation on which all of us, including experts, must rely. This fact is all too easily lost sight of. Certainly – to speak with expertise about any field of science, be it physics, chemistry, astronomy, etc., requires a study of several years, and even then individual knowledge remains fragmentary considering what in any particular field can be known. Since Leibniz and Voltaire, the universal scholar no longer exists. But the principles on which human knowledge is based – including of course all expert knowledge –  are quite simple and elementary and belong to the comprehension of all of us. That is why the sciences are accessible to all mankind – all dispose of the necessary preconditions of “pure reason”.

These basic premises are so universal

that, after an assumed destruction of present-day humanity, a new generation, starting from zero, would bring forth science anew in theory and practice. Of course, all conventional determinations such as length, weight, time, temperature, etc., could be determined in different ways (which is true even today: Celsius differs from Fahrenheit, inches from centimeters, etc.), but after conversion of these conventional units the laws of nature would have the same appearance as before – and for an obvious reason: we abstract them from a reality existing outside ourselves, independent of our desires and wills.

It is of crucial importance,

to keep this in mind. The democratic basis of human thought is universal, even if – opposed to it and often denying it – we are faced with the claims of power, which exist in science quite as much as in all other human activities. I already said that anyone would make a fool of himself who talks about details of quantum theory without having acquired the relevant knowledge in years of study. In such a case, ridicule is, of course, justified. But it becomes an abuse of power when specialists resist the generalist’s efforts to illuminate the elementary, democratic foundations of knowledge that are at the root of his particular knowledge too. Then they ascribe to themselves a monopoly of truth that they certainly do not possess because the foundations of their method of thinking have their roots in the thinking of all other people.

Pure or elementary thinking,

once described by the now rather worn-out term of philosophy – leads man not only to the objective world, which he understands with the help of science, but to his own self as well. It is true that he may understand his own person in a scientific way, namely like any other external object, as he is made of the same material as the nature surrounding him. For the physician, my body is a machine, which he can diagnose and possibly repair by means of his physical, chemical, biological, neuronal, and psychological knowledge. When he restores this body-machine to its normal state, we speak of a cure. The laws of nature inside my body are not different from those outside me. Therefore, miracles have just as little place here as in the rest of nature. A dead man has never risen from the graveyard, a severed head has never grown back, no man can withstand a hail of bullets.

And yet it is precisely at this point

that we encounter the miraculous. It remains hidden from most people only because it seems so commonplace and ordinary. Science assumes that a stone detaches itself from the height of a rock at a certain moment, because quite determinate natural causes are responsible for this event. If a physicist were to know all relevant causes, he would be able to predict exactly when, where, and why such an event will and must happen. In any case, science already determines causes and effects so precisely that a rocket to Mars arrives exactly at the time and place predicted by theory. But now look at my person or at yours. Nobody – at most times not even I myself – is able to predict what I will do in half an hour.

The contrast between the behavior of a stone

and that of a human being seems at first sight irreconcilable. Obviously, the stone slavishly obeys those laws which we can demonstrate in all nature.  It has no will of its own and therefore no possibility to change reality. It is exclusively controlled by forces over which it has no influence – at least this used to be the view of classical natural science. Meanwhile, quantum theory has cast some doubt on this understanding. After having introduced chance, it attributes to the stone (more exactly, to the elementary particles of which it consists) a certain initiative of its own, even if an infinitely small one. Theoretically it is quite conceivable that the stone not merely slavishly obeys external laws but may, so to speak, take the initiative of falling from the top of the rock, because some of its atoms happen to make some erratic, unpredictable movements…

Like any stone, humans and other living creatures are subject to thousands of dependencies. If calories are missing from their diet, they die of debilitation; if calcium is lacking, their bones atrophy; if they are exposed to an excess of ultraviolet radiation, cancerous melanomas develop on their skin. Moreover, are we seldom aware of how narrow the boundary conditions of our existence on this planet really are. The air must have a minimum percentage of oxygen and must not exceed a maximum concentration of CO2 or nitrogen. The temperature range that allows us and other living beings to survive on Gaia is, as we now learn, compressed to a very narrow corridor. In addition, life only takes place in a wafer-thin area spanning no more than ten kilometers between the hard surface of the earth and surrounding infinity. Seen in this perspective, the laws of nature radically limit possible life on our planet. We are part of nature and so inescapably subject to its laws that even minor changes to the existing physical parameters could completely wipe out our existence.

But this is by no means all

Though life is subject to the same laws of nature, these laws do not exclude chance and freedom. Guided by the meaning which we give to our actions we constantly intervene in the things around us, in order to shape them (for good or for worse) after our own desires. This constant shaping of outside reality does not happen against the laws of nature, but it can in no way be derived or justified from them.

This is the miracle par excellence, because in a world, where all events without exception are determined by law, such an intervention of the will should not exist. Is it not the most basic principle of science that its procedure consists in describing and explaining reality – independent of our will and desires – as it objectively exists? But if living beings led by their wants and desires constantly shape reality, then we are faced with a completely different picture! The will – the human one as well as that of our animal fellow creatures – represents a separate force beside the laws of nature. It is, moreover, a force of such prodigious proportions that it enables us to transform our own habitat into a paradise or, conversely, to poison and destroy it so permanently that it may become uninhabitable for life.

The scientific specialist does not need

to close his mind to such insights into the power of human will, yet they do not belong to his or any other field of expertise – they belong to the pure, elementary thinking that is common to all human beings. The marvelous, as just shown, does not only expand the self, in some cases it is also terrible and threatening, that is, exiting and shaking us at the same time. It is a fact of life to which we should devote special attention. The specialist, every specialist, deals with certain problems of a theoretical or practical nature. For this he is respected and rewarded. If his achievements significantly exceed the usual range, he may even be awarded with the highest prize that today’s mankind has to award, the Nobel Prize. This raises an important question.

What does a generalist achieve,

when he falls back on pure thinking, that is, on initial principles in dealing with nature? We will see that he shows something completely different: the limits which human knowledge is not able to cross. Limits – the word is discouraging at first sight. You may get the impression that the generalist would rather do a bad service to human knowledge even if he succeeds in opposing learned certainty of knowledge – all that learned arrogance that demands submission. The generalist seems to diminish the faculties of man as he demonstrates the boundaries beyond which our knowledge and the explanation of reality do not reach.

This impression is reinforced by the fact that democratic antignosis does not deal with those fluid boundaries conditioned by the actual state of scientific knowledge. No, it speaks of fundamental limits which result from the nature of our cognitive faculty itself. We do not trust an ant to possess a complete theory of the world; its senses and intelligence are made exclusively for its particular sphere of life. Human beings too are the product of evolution. We possess senses and a mental apparatus which are made for the orientation within the areas of reality relevant for us. This results in obvious limits which we partly exceed by extending our senses by all kinds of instruments. In the same manner, we extend our reason quantitatively through artificial intelligence, but we cannot change it qualitatively, because in this case we would no longer understand this kind of intelligence.

I speak of democratic antignosis

as that insight which not only intuitively describes the limits of human reason but by compellingly proving them goes far beyong mere intution.  This insight is rightly seen as democratic because it is at the base of all specialized knowledge and therefore accessible to everyone. I speak of “antignosis”, because it is not at all identical with that seemingly similar doctrine, which may boast of a long history – I mean agnosticism. Agnosticism consists in the – usually hesitant – admission that there is much we do not know and perhaps cannot know. Agnosticism is another word for renunciation, and as such it is always experienced as a shortcoming that brings no satisfaction.Antignosis, on the other hand, knows a lot more than agnosticism. It shows, no, it proves by means of pure thinking that human knowledge is limited in principle. But this insight does not lead to mere renunciation or resignation. It will be seen that, on the contrary, it opens the horizon of a world freed from prejudice and hubris. For democratic antignosis shows us that we could neither live nor want to live in a world that we have completely concquered, deciphered, decrypted. Such a world would block all horizons and stifle all freedom. The fact that democratic antignosis also puts the arrogance of experts in its place may seem to some to be a democratically desirable side effect.

The Miraculous and its Enemies (1)

This is an excerpt from my new book „Das Wunderbare und seine Feinde“.  The english translation „The Miraculous and its Enemies” will be completed within a few weeks.

Preface

This book is certainly not an esoteric attempt to counter the prevailing scientific worldview with a neo-obscurantist theory of miracles. It would be a miracle in the classical sense if, in a cemetery, coffin lids were suddenly lifted, and the dead were to rise again. It would be a miracle as well if an eagle suddenly hatched from a hen’s egg, if water turned into wine, if God stepped out of a burning bush, or if a magician succeeded in overriding a natural law of physics by the mere power of his mind.

Such and even more extraordinary miracles have been ascribed by religions all over the world to their respective deities – and their followers have believed them fervently Today, this is no longer the case. At least since the European Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, science has relentlessly ridiculed such claims and rejected them as superstition. This view is unswervingly maintained in the present book – even if, as already shown by Karl Popper, the sciences themselves are by no means immune to the temptation to flirt with superstition ….

The miraculous is an altogether different matter

It is all around us, even though the routine of everyday life has made most people almost blind to its presence. They are continuously told that only fools are amazed by the phenomena of this world. In contrast, every scientifically enlightened and educated person knows that everything happens in nature in the most natural way. A great poet like Saint-Exupéry had to transfer the Little Prince to an asteroid in order to make these educated and enlightened beings aware of their truly unbelievable situation in the vastness of the universe. And Immanuel Kant had to invoke the starry sky and the moral law in his chest to get in touch with the mystery of life and to make his readers shiver. But even this great man did not keep up the mode of inner shock for long; right after Kant was busy to press the mystery into abstract formulas. The trembling before a reality more powerful than human reason, that seeks to tame it, is the privilege of spiritual openness. It opens the eyes to mysteries that man has been trying to unravel since the beginning of history. In other words, such spiritual experience opens the eyes to the miraculous that lies at the bottom and beyond everyday life.

Who faces such mystery without blinders,

knows that THE TRUTH remains inaccessible, even if an infinite number of partial truths are constantly revealed. After two centuries of industrial revolution, the scientifically proven knowledge of facts and laws has swelled to a torrent that is getting wider day by day. Superficially, it might seem that modern man is about to solve even the last riddles of his existence. But it should give pause for reflection that he was already imbued with this conviction more than a hundred years earlier, when his knowledge was incomparably less than it is today. In 1899 Ernst Haeckel published a book with the title Die Welträthsel (The Riddle of the Universe). There, the author triumphantly claimed that all mysteries had by now been successfully solved by science. True, there still remained a last mystery, the Kantian “thing-in-itself”; but that was probably because this strange thing could be a mere invention.

From Haeckel’s book – by far the greatest popular success in the history of the German book – it can be seen that the proclaimed unraveling of mysteries has little or nothing to do with the actual state of knowledge of a particular time and author. This amazing realization is brought home to us even more forcefully when we take a much larger leap into the past. Two and a half thousand years ago, the two Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus were deeply convinced that they could fully explain and trace back all events to the different relations of smallest material particles, which they called “atoms”.  In this way, they created an all-encompassing mechanistic worldview that made the gods as superfluous as sentient and willing humans. But note that the knowledge then was close to zero compared to its present state. Obviously, it is not its extent and depth that makes certain people accept or reject the miraculous. Indeed, it was simple wishful thinking that led the two Greek philosophers to anticipate Laplace’s notorious formula (see chapter Science-Religion: Disenchanting Man and Nature).

Modern science

is neither the only nor the first attempt to make the desire for divine knowledge the father of thought. No matter how great or limited actual knowledge was, there existed always some foolhardy theorists who thought themselves able to occupy that lofty armchair somewhere in space, on which man had previously enthroned the divine creator of the world. If these theorists had rightly claimed to solve all mysteries, then man would have succeeded not only in banishing forever all miracles but the miraculous as well. What mystery will remain once we have completely decoded all events, put everything into formulas, and used these to explain all futures so that we can predict human actions as reliably as the orbits of planets?

In truth, we are dealing

with mere wishful thinking, which I will call “science-religion”. It is precisely the greatest scientists who are quite aware that one solved problem immediately conjures up a dozen others. The brighter the ray of light that the discerning spirit casts into the surrounding darkness, the more the spaces touched by that light expand. Science is the attempt to advance into the infinite with the finite means of discerning reason. The miraculous is never exhausted in the process.

Nor is science

the only way in which we approach reality. This is impossible, since science addresses only the intellectually cognizing faculty. Feelings and sensations are suppressed because they are only “subjective” – dependent on the wishes and desires of the person. In contrast, scientific truth is said to be fundamentally independent of desire and will, so that it can grasp reality “objectively” without involving personal inclinations. A piece of glucose on my tongue can trigger joy, but the chemical formula C6H12O6 leaves my feelings untouched. This is because the emerging scientific formula owes its origin exclusively to the requirements of the analytical mind. The value of science to man is thus only instrumental (although the act of discovering a scientific law can, of course, move its author strongly in an emotional way). Science gives us security in dealing with the things of the world; it achieves its greatest success when it allows us to plan or predict the future. In this way, it indirectly serves human emotions as well, for security satisfies an elementary need – it frees us from fear of the unplannable, the unpredictable.

But man would be deprived of the fullness

of his humanity if he encountered reality only in a scientific way, i.e., by applying his analytical abilities to describe reality objectively – without regard to his feelings. In addition to the scientific approach, there is a second way of dealing with reality that radically differs from the scientific one. Here, too, we are dealing with a form of cognition, but it is of a completely different kind. Instead of deciphering existing reality, this cognition consists in creating realities. In other words, it creates truth and its physical manifestations instead of merely recognizing them.

Of course, I am talking about art

It is not miracles that manifests itself in art – miracles were rightly disposed of by science – but the miraculous. Though art is by no means identical with the beautiful (this point will be discussed later), it often consists in its conscious creation. Beauty is not a description of what exists on the basis of intellectual analysis, and it is certainly not an emotionally uninvolved testimony. Beauty is the projection of our intellectual together with our emotional forces to bring forth something that does not yet exist. Art makes man a creator, because beauty is a new truth and reality that cannot be deduced from the existing one, but originates in the human being – his brain and his heart. Science, on the other hand, does not establish a new truth and a new reality because both can be derived – in an analytical and generalizing form – from what is already objectively present in an infinite number of individual events. A law of nature is not an invention of man – it is a finding of something already existing.

Let us arbitrarily pick out

one of an infinite number of examples illustrating beauty: Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. From a scientific perspective we can easily understand why the supply of calories keeps us alive. But how can we understand that mere vibrations of the air can put us into ecstasy – vibrations produced by blowing through pipes and by the scratching of horsehair on metallic strings, for that’s indeed what symphonies consists of. This is and remains an insoluble mystery: the epitome of the beautiful and the miraculous. In order to be shaken by this mystery, we do not need a suspension of the laws of nature, and we do not need miracles. We only need to look at the smiling face of a human being, when the latter, conquered by rhythm and melody, experiences something invisible, intangible, which touches him more strongly than the everyday acts of his physical existence.

From a physical point of view, the mere vibrations of air molecules are almost unreal. And yet their effect can be so overwhelming that some of us can only endure everyday life because music temporarily catapults us into another, higher form of existence – into the miraculous.  Of course, this too is a form of cognition, for it shapes us just as it shapes our experience of external things. The world transforms itself and ourselves through the experience of the beautiful

Contact with the miraculous

makes everyday life tolerable, it bewitches reality. On the other hand, the de-enchantment of reality is responsible for the fact that many people find their own lives and the world around them difficult to bear. Must science take the blame for alienation from nature and man?

No, it is certainly not that simple. It is only partially correct to blame science for this disillusionment. But there is no doubt that they have deprived the world of much charm and poetry. Before William Harvey (1578 – 1657) the heart was a mysterious organ – for many peoples and times the seat of supernatural powers. After Harvey, the heart was just a simple pump. On the one hand, this was an enormous leap of knowledge – expansion of verifiable truth, on the other hand, it was an emotional loss: a pump no longer lends itself to extravagant poetic parables. For poetry, the heart was lost – disenchanted. The same trivialization of reality due to successive advances in truth achieved by the analytical mind soon affected larger and larger areas of nature as for instance the celestial bodies. Until the advent of modern astronomy and spectroscopy, planets and stars were considered the seats of the gods or even their very embodiments. Today they are only flying clusters of different chemical structure. For our feelings they have become icy cold and lost all attraction. We would not wish our worst enemies to stay on one of these desolate structures, let alone the gods (if we still believe in them).

What a radical disenchantment! When we look around us, we see that scientific explanation has laid a gray mildew on things robbing them of their poetry. The heart became a pump, the whole reality surrounding us became a mere machine of varying complexity.

However, since the beginning of the last century

something strange, rather unexpected has happened. Quantum theory made physics so extraordinarily complex that its theories and products once again exude a kind of magic. Newton’s general celestial mechanics, which describes the motion of stars as well as that of a falling apple on our planet, was comprehensible (almost) to everyone. By virtue of the reliability of its formulas it worked as a revelation for the inquiring intellect, and as a cold disillusionment for human feeling. While the cosmos had been pulsating with life before Newton, after him man only faced a gigantic clockwork, which he could understand but not love. Who loves such a dead thing as a mechanism working according to stubborn rules?

But in 1900 Max Planck developed the basic idea of quantum mechanics and one and a half decades later Albert Einstein achieved world-wide fame with his general theory of relativity. As its greatest authorities unanimously proclaim, quantum theory can no longer be visualized. The reality of the atom no longer corresponds to the reality of the Middle World where we live (cf. Chap. “The Failed Revolution of Quantum Physics”).

The failure of the human mind to grasp the strange reality of the infinitely small could not remain without consequences. Suddenly, the image of nature as a clockwork and dead mechanics had become obsolete. Mystery had returned, because for natural science there is no greater mystery than when it must admit that it can no longer explain parts of the external world (even if these can still be manipulated – otherwise the new theory would be superfluous in the first place). In view of this development, we may claim that the supreme discipline of science, physics, while having radically disenchanted nature in the past, has now given it back some of its lost mystery. What we do not understand is mystery to our mind.

This re-enchantment applies not only to theory,

but extends to many modern products that we owe to it. Just think of computers or cell phones to get an idea. People would not be so addicted to them, they would not work and play with these things so obsessively, if these devices did not seem to them to be mysterious and downright inexhaustible. How a classic telephone worked was still easy to understand, even for the layman. It had a specific task to fulfill, the transmission of speech; its use was confined to that purpose. A smartphone, however, offers an almost unmanageable wealth of these and other functions; not only does it pose an intellectual challenge, but it also captivates the emotions when its users lose themselves in exciting games. For many people, the latest products of science suddenly turn into gadgets of magic and sorcery, because at best one in a thousand persons knows how such devices actually work.

Ours are paradoxical times

I just claimed that art creates new, unprecedented realities, while science describes existing realities. This statement seems logically incontestable, but is it not contradicted by facts? Until the 18th century, the shaping of reality all over the world was mainly achieved through art. Temples and cathedrals, gardens and castles are the most visible examples of this transformation of reality by man. Add to this the realm of the invisible, namely music and poetry, and the evidence for the reality-shaping power of art is overwhelming.

But this power of art over reality has been broken since the end of the 18th century. Since then, it is the products of science that transform the nature around us to such an extent that the people of earlier times would hardly recognize their former world in the present one. There are thousands of new scientific devices – railroads, automobiles, airplanes – and thousands of factories for their production that now determine the appearance of our cities and landscapes as well as our daily life. The real achievement of science, visible to everyone, is obviously not that it correctly describes the order of nature with its laws, but that it radically reshapes nature in the briefest of moments in an unprecedented way – and far more comprehensively than art has ever been able to do.

How does this fit together?

On the one hand, science as the totality of all objectively verifiable statements about the world around us and, on the other hand, science as the most effective instrument for the creation of new, unprecedented realities, i.e. as an instrument for the unleashing of human freedom?

As we will see, this does not at all fit together. It is precisely at this point that we encounter the miraculous, which science itself is not able to explain. The unleashing of human freedom by a science that denies freedom altogether or equates it with meaningless chance is surely one of the greatest paradoxes of our time (see chapter: “Democratic Antignosis in Our Time”).

Seen in this light, it is a rather modest paradox,

that for at least a century the most talented and ambitious minds have been crowding into the sciences, and specifically into the sciences of nature, because their utility in increasing the wealth, power, and prestige of states is so evident. On the other hand, the arts and the sciences of the mind have been withering away for decades. They are being kept on an ever-shorter leash because the material benefits that can be derived from them are comparatively small.

What a contrast to the past? While five hundred years ago men of talent devoted themselves to the arts and made Italy the wonder it remains today because of its many testimonies of beauty, the outstanding minds of today devote all their energy to the natural sciences and everything related to them. However, although they produce intellectual wealth, increase analytical abilities, and turn us into rational people with growing intelligence quotients, the sciences leave a spiritual and emotional vacuum because they do not satisfy the human need for emotional warmth and spiritual security. In their theoretical foundation they have no place for ethical ideals and aesthetic beauty. What concerns the human being, if he wants to give a meaning to his existence, is beyond their grasp and their interest. We easily understand why miracles have no place in the scientific world view. If the laws of nature are by definition eternal and unbreakable, then breaking them constitutes a logical absurdity. But why has the miraculous disappeared completely from man’s field of vision since the advent of science? This fact cannot be justified with logic – it belongs to the prejudices of science as a new type of secularized religion.Uncovering these prejudices is not a task for experts, who are rather anxious to administer their knowledge like a monopoly. It is a task of that basic human faculty which Kant had called “pure reason”. I will speak of “democratic antignosis”.


Silly question: Are humans free?

No, the question is only stupid because it is thought to be so. Not long ago leading German neurologists like Roth and Singer considered their fellow men expressis verbis naive, if not downright stupid, if they did not want to recognize that from a scientific point of view – man does not possess freedom of will.*1* Their conviction is nothing new. The Babylonians thought that human destiny was completely determined by the stars. Church fathers like Augustin, Luther and Calvin justified their rejection of human freedom with the omniscience of God. To God, the entire future including the thoughts and intentions of men are known since the beginning of creation. Ergo, freedom cannot exist. Philosophers like Democritus, Spinoza, Voltaire, Schopenhauer up to Bertrand Russell also belong to the vocal deniers of freedom. They are opposed by thinkers such as Gottlieb Fichte and Martin Heidegger, who conversely pathetically proclaim freedom. In the middle between these two oppsing camps usually stands the unbiased layman, who has always known to be at the same time free and exposed to multiple constraints. Among the great philosophers who convincingly argued this point of view we find William James, Karl Jaspers, and Karl Popper.*2*

The opposition between these two positions

not only manifests itself in the history of religion and philosophy, it is inherent, as it were, in each of us. When observing other people, we intuitively ask about the motives of their behavior, i.e., about the limits of their freedom and arbitrariness, in order to respond to them in an appropriate way. This is the case with feared adversaries anyway, but even with people we love. The better we know their respective likes and dislikes, the more likely we are to anticipate their reactions, and the less danger there is that there will be friction in dealing with them. In the same way, this object perspective is assumed by a writer of novels who tries to make us understand why his protagonists act just the way they do (he describes the conscious or unconscious compulsions to which their actions obey).

In contrast, we adopt the subject perspective with equal naturalness as soon as we analyze our own personal actions. When spontaneously deciding to make a trip to the Kulm, a nearby mountain, on a beautiful autumn morning – and not, say, two weeks from now – I naturally evaluate this decision as free. It is not forced on me by anyone – not even by my own cherished habits, because I am aware that I can revoke them at any time. Yes, this awareness of one’s own freedom of thought and action goes so far that some people deliberately do the opposite of what others expect of them or even what they expect of themselves. 

This twofold perspective

has its reason in two opposing needs, which are fundamental for every single human being as well as for every society. We only gain security in dealing with nature and with other people if we explore their rules and laws ever deeper and further. With regard to nature, we have succeeded so well that we are now able to retrodict the history of the cosmos back to the Big Bang and to predict it until the sun will have burned its hydrogen fuel. But security has never been the only human need. For the child and every human being who has retained his natural curiosity into old age, the unexpected, the surprise, the mystery of existence constitute a constant challenge giving life its charm and its color in the first place. Complete security, i.e. predictability, would enclose us within a straitjacket that suffocates all spontaneity. As long as we live, we constantly look for the attraction of the not yet known, the emergence of things new.*3* A world, in which we would know everything, would be a mere machine, devoid of freedom. It would be dead and frozen.

I venture to say that the need for security on the one hand and for mystery on the other, i.e. for the challenge by the unknown and the new, dominated man from the very beginning of history. They are no more and no less than the two constituent features of the human condition.

The paradox of man’s condition is,

that we alternately strive – with a kind of inner necessity – for security (resulting from the discovery of order) and for freedom. So, these two elementary needs are closely connected with either the two alternatives of the object or the subject perspective. This contrast attains its extreme expression as soon as man appears as a researcher, i.e. when he questions nature and himself not only intuitively like any layman but systematically. Psychology as a science would be of no avail if all our emotional or intellectual reactions were the result of mere chance, so that the researcher would only come across chaos instead of recognizable regularities. The same observation applies to sociology. And, of course, it is only worthwhile for neurological science to investigate the biological foundations of human nature because an abundance of such regularities (partly of a law-like nature) do actually exist.

Just at this point the paradox

reveals itself with particular evidence. The same neurologist who regards man as an object revealing to him an abundance of regularities or even laws, holds the second role of a subject at the same time as he is their active observer and discoverer. In this role, however, he not only feels free – he even has to be so, because otherwise his approach would be subject to an insurmountable contradiction. If the human beings he studies as objects would be determined for him by laws throughout, if, in other words, they would be completely predictable – in popular diction bereft of free will -, then the same must, of course, be true for the observing researcher himself. In other words, he himself would condemn himself to be no more than an automaton controlled by impersonal laws. His own results and scientific statements, even the false ones, would be equally conditioned by impersonal laws. In this case, the distinction of scientifically true in contrast to false statements would, of course, make no sense.

As long as science assumes

that basically all human thinking and acting can be interpreted in a law-like way (provided we would only carry on our research for a long enough period), this paradox is unsolvable, because we are faced with an insurmountable logical contradiction. In our time it is fashionable to deny any credit to purely logical considerations. Scientists prefer to carry out physiological experiments according to Benjamin Libet or turn to quantum physics to clarify the problem in a very elaborate and costly way.  But the elementary rules of logic and scientific truth are at the base of all research, so the logical paradox remains crucial, even if its recognition costs us no more than a little more than average thinking ability

We therefore come to a clear conclusion: However numerous the rules or even laws we may still discover in the thinking and acting of human beings, it is nevertheless evident that these rules or laws will never determine them completely. Besides being to a certain degree governed by rules or laws, we act and think out of freedom – that is in an unpredictable way. If most laymen were not intuitively aware of this basic fact, they could derive it from the opposition between subject and object perspectives, both of which are inherent in each of us.

Significant, however, are the contrasts of temperament

and inclination that arise between researchers, especially when it comes to the interpretation of human behavior in history (historiography), politics (political science), society (sociology), and interpersonal relationships (psychology). Since the 19th century up to our days an opposition unfolds here, which manifests itself above all in the readiness (or else the reluctance) to transfer the methods of the exact natural sciences to the sphere of man. Even if the freedom of man or contrary view that he is subject to regularites and laws just like the rest of nature, is not explicitly mentioned, this opposition always remains perceptible in the background. It even leads to heated arguments about what should be considered serious science. I consider these argument as misleading as most of the cockfights between the representatives of freedom versus necessity.

Let us turn to a concrete example:

namely, the controversy about Joseph Henrich, a Harvard professor with much influence among present-day anthropologists. Like no other before him, Henrich tried to explain man and his history in terms of a few characteristics, especially in terms of the density of biological relationships. According to him, Europe owes its unique historical evolution above all to the fact that biological clans, which dominated social life everywhere else in the world, had been suppressed since the fourth century by the marriage and family policy of the catholic church.*4*

The reaction to the theses of the Harvard anthropologist consists in an “aha” experience among those who consider them correct; on the other hand, his opponents consider them all but simplistic – the complex historical reality does not allow to explain the evolution of society and the resulting psychological traits in such a simple way.

In my opinion, this objection misses the purpose of science

All science seeks to explain reality – whether that of external nature or that of man – with as few principles and factors as possible. In his famous “world formula”, Albert Einstein only used three basic entities, namely energy, mass and the speed of light to explain matter. Jared Diamond has attributed to a single factor, namely the germ resistance of Europeans acquired through close cohabitation with domestic animals, a decisive influence on the victory of Europeans over the great empires of the Aztecs and Incas. Michael Mitterauer attributed to a single factor, namely the spread of rye (and oats for horses) in northwestern Europe, a major role in its emergence after the collapse of the Roman Empire.*5*

The fact that Joseph Henrichs regards the elimination of close kinship relations as a decisive factor explaining the uniqueness of European development must also be considered legitimate. It is not the question whether complex historical developments are explained by a multitude of factors, or by only one (monocausal explanation), that vouches for scientific respectability, but whether the explanation is right or wrong (also with regard to the scope attributed to it).

One-dimensional explanations of complex relations are often quite wrong – this makes them suspicious from the outset, but if they turn out to be right, then they meet the ideal of scientific explanation (the demand for greatest possible simplicity) to a special degree. For example, Henrich claims to have come across the following statistical correlation: “The greater the rate of cousin marriage in a province, the higher the rates of corruption and Mafia activity.” This finding is rather challenging because it relates two apparently completely different cultural dimensions: the density of biological relationships on the one hand, crime on the other. After reviewing the figures in different parts of the world, anthropology will have to either accept Henrich’s thesis as accurate or reject it as false (or partially valid only). Even if it turns out to be correct, it does, of course, not tell us anything about the cause of this correlation. One of the two variables could be the cause of the other or a factor that lies outside of both. For Henrich himself, the cause lies in the special clan mentality that results from such close kinship relationships.

The freedom of man,

his complexity and multidimensionality, remains, even if the limits of freedom are sometimes determined by very simple factors. From a scientific point of view, the crucial question always remains one and the same: do the statements in question stand up to scrutiny, are they right or wrong? For example, throughout his history, man has put forward the most ludicrous theories about epidemics. Witchcraft and magic, the wrath of the gods or personal enemies have been blamed, and a myriad of innocent people have been persecuted for such imaginary causes. It was not until the 19th century that the existence of bacteria and even later that of viruses was discovered. This correct monocausal explanation immediately swept away all those wrong and highly complex multicausal explanations of earlier times. As a matter of fact, human freedom may sometimes be limited by a single cause such as bacteria or viruses.

*1* His colleague Lüder Deecke (2012, pos. 1458): “Gerhard Roth, who worked predominantly on salamanders, is trying to persuade us to give up responsibility…. Another neuroscientist, Wolf Singer, an expert of the visual system…. is of the opinion that the principle of responsibility of man is untenable, for in the brain there is no leadership… Wolf Singer draws extensive conclusions for our legal system from his dubious premises, he pleads for the abolition of responsibility.”

*2* In my book “Creative Reason” I tried to extend these arguments in several directions.

*3* The Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski expresses this very beautifully:

The unknown world can be a source of fear, but so can the overly familiar world with its well-known course planned by ourselves… In things we subdued thanks to centuries of dramatic effort, we are no longer able to discover a mythical organization, nor to believe in it seriously. Precisely because they are subdued, harnessed, as it were, before the cart which we know how to steer, the physical energies appear to our gaze a hundredfold more “dehumanized,” more indifferent, in the fullness of futility, although we have just meaningfully integrated them into our projects. We long again for the abandoned unpredictability of things…, we have been longing for it since the 18th century, from the moment that mechanized industry began to transform the surface of the earth”.

And “… complete predictability /is/ a quality fundamentally different from what is familiar to us from relationships with other people…. In encounters with other people, in which we succeed in relaxing the rules of factual exchange and in allowing the spontaneity pulsating on both sides to have its say, the inability to predict, as well as its superfluity, constitutes a specifically human value for us; the predictability of the other person is a quality of the reified relations between us: all spontaneity is creative… ” (my translation of the German edition Kolakowsky1973; p. 97).

*4* In the preceding essay, I examined Henrich’s theses in more detail.

*5* The conversion to new cereal varieties then led to more integrated agriculture with large livestock, deeper plowing of the soil, the use of water mills, and many other consequences.

This is my cover letter to Prof. Mitterauer:

Dear Mr. Mitterauer,

I read your two essays – one on the special path of Europe, the other on endogamous kinship relations – not merely with intellectual profit but with emotional pleasure as well, because they embody that kind of historiography which combines meticulous care in dealing with concrete events with the endeavor to recognize more general connections existing between them. It struck me, of course, that your research on the influence of the catholic church on the development of kinship relations, provides much of the empirical foundation on which Henrich could then pile his lofty edifice (after all, he quotes you 35 times). However, little is left in his work of the numerous reservations and restrictions found in your pages.

 I understand your criticism of Joseph Henrich and can imagine your surprise that I respond to it with an essay that first speaks very generally of freedom and necessity. Let me justify this approach in this cover letter.

In our time, I see two tendencies at work which fundamentally change the way history has been understood up to now. While the classical way consisted in taking great, wise, venerable people as models (above all men) and regarding them as the actual demiurges of historical transformations, an altogether different tendency has established itself at the latest with Marx. Now impersonal mechanisms of a social, psychological, political kind were held responsible for historic change. This substitution of the personal by the impersonal was accompanied by what we may call democratic pathos that finds the idea unacceptable that men or women of the past should be considered more credible than the normal man of our time (since we are all basically the same). Such democratic pathos logically culminates in Henrich’s proceedings: People living today are questioned about every imaginable item and their answers then statistically evaluated in order to interpret even past history. 

I deal with what I believe to be a second modern tendency in dealing with history when – via the detour of freedom and necessity – I respond to your objection that you cannot accept Henrich’s approach as scientifically serious. Here I do not quite agree. Certainly, his approach would not be scientifically serious if his peers can prove that his generalizations are not empirically justified – that is, false. But there is nothing wrong with generalizations per se – even the most daring ones – from a scientific point of view. More precisely, nothing except that little remains of previous historiography. For what Henrich presents to us is a most alarming assimilation of the human sciences to the natural sciences. The latter may allow themselves to summarize the whole order of nature in one single formula like E = m*c2, because the regularities of nature are laws which from the human perspective are eternally. But this obviously does not apply to the sphere of man and human institutions.

Now, the endeavor to transfer the methods of the natural sciences to those of the mind as well exists since the 17th century – German Romanticism merely repelled it for some time. It is precisely this endeavor which manifests itself in full strength in Henrich’s work. So, it is no surprise that his work too (difficult to read due to constant repetitions) may be summarized in a single formula: Progress = destruction of close relations + psychic factors A, B, C….

As I said before, this endeavor in itself should not be called unscientific. It only becomes so, if one believes to be able to apply such formulas just like those of the natural sciences. What these are meant to achieve, is obvious. Einstein’s world formula gives us immense power. With its help we have tamed the nuclear forces of nature.

But let’s assume that Henrich’s formula is empirically correct. Would it then be possible to use it in the same way in order to exercise power over people and society? For instance, could we provide government with a recipe of the kind: Be careful not to allow marriages between cousins. If you do so, you can be sure that society will develop in the direction of democracy, innovation, etc.?

Just like you, dear Mr. Mitterauer, I harbor the strongest reservations against this new way of using history (which in fact amounts to its abolition). Until recently, people used to look up to great role models for guidance. With immense pleasure I followed Will Durant, a master of this empathetic way of presenting history. But I know a professorial philistine who, to speak with Nietzsche, never discovered more than one or two philological earthworms, but nevertheless allows himself to disparage this encyclopedically educated man as a mere popularizer. He is doubly wrong since Durant is no longer popular at all, nobody reads him anymore, although his time is separated from ours by only one generation.

Now, let me express my real reservation against Henrich, which I omitted in my first essay. Even if his generalizations are not invalidated as empirically wrong, the formulas based on them can never be used for practical purposes like those of the natural sciences. For it is here once more that human freedom comes powerfully into play. If man suffocates under too much order, he longs for chaos (see my quotation from Kolakowski), if around him the world disintegrates in chaos, he longs for nothing so much as for order. To put it in the words of Paul Valéry, two things constantly threaten the world: order and disorder. In this way, he lives with and in opposites – and both condition each other.

A formula of the kind “progress = destruction of close relations” therefore leads us completely astray. At the beginning of the 21st century we are aware that America is no longer a melting pot but threatens to disintegrate into independent ethnic groups. But not only in the US, everywhere in the world ethnic nationalism seems to be on the rise. Moreover, the consequences of progressively loosening all close interpersonal ties become more and more visible as it now even threatens to disintegrate the oldest institution of mankind, namely marriage. Couldn’t we even argue that the dissolution of endogamous ties posed no problem for the very reason that the closest of all, namely marriage, still provided the individual with a sufficient emotional anchorage?

Henrich knows nothing about the dialectics of interdependent opposites, Henrich does not know anything about the conditionality of opposites, and neither do those of his successors who destroy humanities by wanting to transform them into a natural science (because it only partially overlaps with them).

Kind regards

Gero Jenner

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.

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

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.

Continue reading Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

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!

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

The Hallpike Paper – Universal and Generative grammar – a trend-setting idea or a mental straitjacket?

It is Noam Chomsky’s merit to have significantly influenced (if not created) a prominent area of modern linguistics by asking the right questions. Continue reading The Hallpike Paper – Universal and Generative grammar – a trend-setting idea or a mental straitjacket?

Why Freedom matters – in Praise of William James

Philosophy is the art of asking old questions in a new way. Even if everyone is certain that the right solutions to existing problems have once and for all been found, there is always a rebel who discovers the hidden gap in the densely woven web of supposed certainties. He pulls and tears until, all of a sudden, a crack widely opens that tears those finished answers apart. This is no small endeavor. Thomas S. Kuhn has vividly demonstrated how difficult it may be even in the exact natural sciences to seriously shake ready-made theories once they coalesce into what he calls “paradigms”. A whole phalanx of academic Guardians of the Holy Grail is likely to fiercely attack – or more often simply ignore – any rebel.

This is most effectively done in the way described by William James more than a hundred years ago with regard to German academic life. There, he wrote, “the forms are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and excentric, 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.”

What James said about Germany at the end of the nineteenth century may be applied to academic philosophers at the present time. If the “Grande Dame” has turned into a “Living Zombie” of vanishing significance to the general public, then this is mainly due to professorial inbreeding complained of by James. Of course, it is very important for a history of philosophy to count all the flies, i.e. all those fleeting ideas, secondary thoughts, side blows or footnotes which experts from A to Z may have uttered at some time of their life. But it remains an open question whether this really serves the purpose of philosophy? After all, philosophy is much more than its own history. In its times of glory, it always endeavored to set itself abovehistory, namely to lift the curtain of petrified convictions or prejudices in order to gain a new view of a new reality.

The confusion of true philosophy with mere philosophical history, where people only write “about each other, for each other and against each other”, is of course essentially due to the fact that the humanities lack that basic yardstick, which so effectively prevents the sciences of nature, to conserve even the most “ludicrous and eccentric” views like flies in amber. Whether acceleration occurs in free fall or not can be empirically examined, but how can one empirically refute or confirm the philosophical assertion that without any possible exception all events in nature are determined so that we must declare human freedom to be nothing more than a subjective illusion? It is well-known that this conviction is currently enjoying great popularity among neurologists.

This philosophical prejudice – this paradigm to use the term of Thomas S. Kuhn – has dominated the minds of philosophers and serious scientists for almost four hundred years. It continues to do so among neurologist even today, notwithstanding the findings of quantum physics. Those who protest, saying that so many events arise by sheer coincidence, as, for instance, the fact that I yawn while at the same moment the earth is shaken by quakes, are rebuked for their ignorance. They are lectured that once research has discovered and deciphered all laws of nature, chance would no longer exist.

William James commented on this point too in a remarkable way. “A widespread prejudice says that all the sap has long been squeezed out of the discussion about free will, so that today one can at best repeat stale arguments. But that is a glaring misjudgment… I do not know of any object that offers greater possibilities for new thinking.”

This statement was made more than a hundred years ago, but it seems to me that it has lost nothing of its relevance. I would like to illustrate this point by means of the following conversation between a neurologist and a physicist with regard to the problem of freedom.

The neurologist has a definite position. In view of the fact that brain research is already able to correlate measurable neurological processes with certain thought contents, he is convinced that man is a machine and as such has no claim to freedom. A stone falling to the ground can certainly not be described as free – it simply obeys the law of gravity. This would still be true if the stone had a kind of consciousness so that it imagines the fall to the ground to be caused by its own will (see the similar argument of Spinoza).

The physicist shakes his head unable to agree.

Since quantum physics has accepted chance alongside necessity as equal dimensions in nature, physics knows about the limits of human knowledge, as chance represents the absence of all discernible order. Notwithstanding Einstein maintaining the opposite conviction, we no longer doubt that God (or evolution for that matter) actually does play at dice. In addition to the recognizable orderly architecture of nature, he also created its exact opposite, namely chaos that we are unable to describe or define. As a physicist, he must therefore reject determinism as it postulates a world in which there is nothing but order. The neurologist’s claim that man alone should be an exception to this rule is unacceptable when seen from the vantage point of the natural sciences.

The neurologist disregards the physicist’s objection which he holds to be superficial. He says:

That’s right. On the one hand we are dealing with laws, on the other hand with blind chance. But please, you have all but overlooked the most important point. Natural law excludes freedom, but blind chance does so too! A human action cannot be called free if it follows its cause like any necessary effect, but neither can it be said to be free if it is the arbitrary result of blind chance. We, as neurologists, succeeded in probing into the deepest corners of human brains recognizing everywhere both law and chance, but nowhere did we find what people call human freedom. So, please understand, we have no choice but to regard it as an illusion. Every single thought is either the result of neuronal processes determined by natural laws or is subject to chance.

The physicist nods. Then he says with a barely noticeable smile.

I completely agree to your proposition. The thought you have just expressed is the result of law-bound physiological processes. For this reason, you should regard yourself as an unfree automaton that at this very place and moment cannot possibly put forward any other thought than the one you just uttered. But wait, there is, of course, still one more alternative. Your brain may have worked like a roulette spitting that thought out as a product of blind chance. I accept that too, but please, beware of the consequences! In one case as in the other, your claim is worth nothing as it cannot be held to be either true or false being the product of necessity or chance. However, if I remember right, dear colleague, you insisted that I should regard your assertion as perfectly true?

The neurologist takes a breath, his face reddens. You can tell he’s not only aroused, he’s definitely angry.

Dear sir, sir…, he stammers. Then, finally, he exclaims: Dear Mr. Heisenstein. How dare you confuse the proof of truth with the problem of freedom! These two things have nothing in common, they are fundamentally different, belonging to two separate disciplines! Mixing them wantonly up, you make fun of our whole western world view!

But the physicist remains unmoved and insists on his point of view. Consistent thinking, he says stressing every word, includes the readiness to apply a general theory to all individual cases – that is, also to the neurologist himself. And he concludes with a certain aloofness.

If you really insist on determinism, you are undermining the very truth of your science. We are not allowed to stick to logic only in so far as it corroborates our thesis, we cannot send it to hell as soon as it stops to do so!

He then adds a further remark. The view that man may regard himself determined like a machine suffers from a logical self-contradiction, which the mathematician Kurt Gödel had already demonstrated in an alternative but no less cogent manner. No system, Gödel had proved by purely logical means, can fully explain its own premises. This is only possible from a metasystem on a higher-level.

As you may see, dear colleague, we physicists have quietly abandoned the claim to godlike omniscience. It seems to me you neurologists need a little more time, you’re not yet ready.

The neurologist looks contrite, but obviously he’s not prepared to give up yet.

You will not insinuate, he replies, that a person may think or act freely, if all processes we observe in his brain strictly obey the laws of causality?

Of course not, the physicist answers, the real mystery is and remains chance which we will never explain, because every explanation is based on discernible order. However, our brain is not designed to explain chance: the lack of all discernable order. It is there that we have to look for the mystery of freedom.

***

This conversation proves, how a paradigm hinders thinking to such an extent that it is quite unable to discern its hidden assumptions and prejudices. In order to maintain his conviction, the determinist is forced to impose a strict prohibition on himself and all others: determinism must not be applied to himself, more precisely, to the truthfulness of his own statements as soon as these too are subjected to the deterministic credo. In such a way, prejudices based on faith rather than knowledge are shielded from objections by means of taboos. In this case, the taboo consists in a strict ban on dealing with the question of truth and the problem of freedom in one and the same breath. They are treated as if belonging to two different spheres of reality.

One is reminded of those gone-by times when highly respectable scholars could argue in all seriousness about the question of how many angels could find a place on the tip of a needle. Rebellious thinkers had to enter the scene and question the very existence of angels before the problem finally disappeared to where it belonged: in the curiosity cabinet of collective mental aberrations. A similar fate awaits the determinism of neurologists, even if the paradigm in question is still defended or half-heartedly avoided – for instance by resorting to so-called “soft determinism”. Like in the above example, this may consist in postulating strict determinism for all physiological processes within the brain, while miraculously liberating the scientist who presents the postulate from its strictures so as to save the truth content of his statement. These are, of course, futile maneuvers much like the attempted rescue of the Ptolemaic world view through the invention of ever new epicycles. In its hard as well as in its soft presentation, determinism is logically untenable – irrespective of whether it refers to non-human nature or to man himself. In the above discussion, the physicist demonstrated this point by means of a proof which I call “contradictory” in chapter IV of my book “Creative Reason – a Synthetic Philosophy of freedom in Nature and Man”, but he could have adduced three more proofs that are equally compelling.

It should be noted that when arguing against the denial of freedom the physicist remained a physicist all the time. In other words, he does not insist on subjective intuition, nor does he refer himself to any higher authority but exclusively relies on the insights of reason. He tries to show that the problem of freedom versus determinism is solvable in a completely rational way, provided that reason does not take refuge behind veils of taboos and dogmas indignantly rejecting basic questions, as did the neurologist.

 

Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error – how Analytic Philosophy distorts Human Reason

Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) took by no means a bad advice as it embraced the demand of science for truth. Its opposition to religion in the pre-Socratic era, and again at the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, emerged from a deep insight. The search for truth is indeed one of the foundations of human knowledge. Continue reading Bertrand Russell’s Fatal Error – how Analytic Philosophy distorts Human Reason

Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) – Grande Dame or living Zombie?

Philosophy is going through rather hard times at present. Like an old lady of genteel birth, she is still talked about because of her stately demeanor and tremendous self-confidence – just as if she did not know that you’re mocking her as a zombie behind her back. Certainly, philosophy is still present at almost all universities, but you only need to translate her boisterous Greek name into plain English to provoke a condescending smile. What, after all, is left of that ‘Love for Wisdom’? If people are serious about their life, they turn to business, logistics or physics. If they just want to have fun, they don’t care about wisdom at all. Continue reading Love for Wisdom (Philosophy) – Grande Dame or living Zombie?

Left or Right – is that the question?

(The German original, which bears the title Rechts oder Links – das ist die Frage, was published in EuroKalypse Now? (Metropolis 2014) Continue reading Left or Right – is that the question?