Jenner on Jenner: Outline of a mind-related biography

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

The more emotionally driven man

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

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

More intellectually controlled persons

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

Problem solvers may be recognized by the fact

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

The risk of such a procedure is obvious

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

As for Jenner, he was certainly lucky

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

However, problem solvers are unpredictable

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

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

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

Two more economic works were related to obvious problems

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

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

A characteristic of problem finders and problem solvers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem of chance and freedom

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

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

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

In contrast, with regard to chance and freedom

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

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

In human history

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

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

The three books

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

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

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

As to the goal of history,

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

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

The intellectually controlled human being,

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

For his large-scale history project

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

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

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

Since then, Jenner has published on Amazon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

II Robots cannot perform experiments

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

I guess that’s right.

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

III An irresolvable logical contradiction!

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

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

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

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

V Chance coexistent with laws

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

But it certainly suffices that these are completely irregular.

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

Of course not.

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

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

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

Minsky

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

Socrates

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

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

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

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

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

De gustibus EST disputandum!

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

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

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

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

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

But are there not also flesh and blood human beings,

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

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

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

The theoretical foundation for this revolution

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

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

If science were right in upholding this conviction,

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

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

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

If teachers were serious about the intention

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

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

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

Until the 17th century, the objective autonomy of nature

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

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

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

Scientists have put an end to this view

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

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

At this point, personal subjectivity comes into full play

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

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

Because man cannot help but evaluate

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

On the one hand, the world created by science

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

In such a completely new and unique situation

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

But here too, humanity,

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

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

These considerations owe their origin

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

The humanities, however,

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

Brilliant historians are masters of understanding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Gero –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best, 

Bill

My reply:

Dear Bill,

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

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

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

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

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

Best Gero

Mr. Rees’ answer:

Gero –

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

With highest regards, 

Bill

From Prof. Steve Pinker I got the following feedback:

Please delete.