Ye shall know them by their Fruits!

This classic saying from the New Testament (Matthew 7:16) confronts effect and cause. A bad effect is not likely to have a good cause, and vice versa. Thorns do not bear grapes, and we find no figs on thistles. We should therefore not rely on fine words and theories. What counts are the effects that arise from them.

Ludwig Boltzmann, the great Austrian physicist, applied this elementary truth to the natural sciences. “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that ultimately decides whether something is true or false, but action. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental; I consider them to be logical evidence. If we had not achieved these practical results, we would not know how to argue. Only such conclusions, which have practical success, are correct”

Very well, a type of thinking without proven results,

which regarded all natural phenomena as causally determined, already existed 1500 years before Christ, namely in the so-called Brahmana texts, where all events of the universe were considered to be magically linked to human thinking and acting. What the Vedic priest imagined and then magically set in scene by piling up sacrificial stones and pouring holy butter over them, resulted in definite and inevitable consequences – or so the priests of that time believed. These magicians thought themselves capable of destroying enemy armies with their incantations or of arbitrarily inducing lunar eclipses (apart from healing all possible diseases and misfortunes). The Indologist Hermann Oldenberg described the world view of that time as “prescientific science”; the French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss interpreted it as an anticipation of scientific determinism. But it was Ludwig Boltzmann, who highlighted the crucial difference between this way of thinking and the scientific world view that emerged almost two thousand years later in the 17th century. Magical thinking merely wreaked havoc in the minds of priests, but nature remained unchanged. After all, enemies were never really defeated by priests, lunar eclipses were never induced by priests. At some point, these aberrations of mere thinking were doomed to death because people no longer believed in them. In recent times a somewhat bewildered American anthropologist even called them the senseless “jabbering of priests”. So Boltzmann is right indeed and so is the Bible: Ye shall know them by their fruits!

Ludwig Boltzmann was to live until the beginning

of the last century. He could rightly speak of a spectacular success of the natural sciences. Within only three centuries, these had made the states of Europe by far the richest and most powerful of the globe. Never before had a majority of the population enjoyed such great material prosperity, never before had people enjoyed longer lives, never had they been able to protect themselves better against diseases. And technological progress had given Europe enormous power over the rest of the world. By 1914, Great Britain controlled a quarter of the globe’s total land area before it achieved its greatest expansion in 1921. Tiny industrially armed states of a tiny western part of Eurasia had conquered entire continents (North America and Australia) and brought the rest of the world, including the two advanced civilizations of China and India, under their sway. No one was in any doubt as to the reason of this extraordinary success: All those new weapons recently developed with high scientific expertise played the decisive role: They were the direct fruit of the new scientific knowledge and skills.

But beware, how do these fruits look like today

more than a century after Boltzmann? Let’s apply the ethical standard of the Bible and the scientific standard of the great Austrian scientist to our present situation. What conclusion will we reach? Albert Einstein, the theorist, scribbled the famous formula of the equivalence of mass and energy on a piece of paper. This was a Faustian act, but Mephisto was immediately on hand to make a fruit of it, by which to recognize the validity of the theoretical formula. Since then mankind has been living with that enormous arsenal of weapons of mass destruction with which it can exterminate itself more than a hundred times over. No theorist wanted this, least of all Einstein himself, who later warned like no other of the effects of the bomb and saw in a world government the only way to deal with the deadly threat. But thistles are made to carry thorns. If we follow Boltzmann’s logic, we are not allowed to rave one-sidedly about the sweet fruits of science only – such as the historically unique wealth it has brought to a substantial part of the world’s population. No, we must also have the courage to see its poisonous fruits.

It does not even require special courage to do so

An intact world only exists in fairy tale books, the real world is made of a multitude of red lists. From California past Australia and Indonesia to Siberia forests are blazing everywhere. At the same time storms are getting more and more violent and destructive, floods are becoming more and more frequent. Already in 2006 the Stern Report conjured up the frightening prospect that agriculture in large parts of Africa can no longer feed the people so that millions of people can be expected to storm Fortress Europe.

Doctor Faust, the bold theorist, has drawn up those abstract

formulas that give modern man a dominion over nature, which until then was considered a prerogative of God. It was Mephisto, the incarnation of thousands and thousands of gifted engineers, who subsequently put the theory into actual practice. The latter was, as Boltzmann says, its logical proof.

Both together, Doctor Faustus and Mephistoles, embody the two sides of man, whose deeds consist of both good and poisonous fruits. No one, for example, doubts the tremendous progress of medicine. However, its breathtaking not only enabled man to extend life by decades and keep him healthy into old age, but it made us change the genetic make-up of living beings according to our wishes. And now we see Mephisto whispering in  our ears why not apply this ability to humans themselves, so that we may create superman not caring for the danger that he may turn out to be a mere Frankenstein monster? Such prospects are depressing. Our earth will soon become a terrible place unless we are willing and able to put something completely different alongside the superior intelligence of Dr. Faust and his alter ego Mephisto. For such help we must turn to Sophia, human wisdom, which, fortunately, we find in ourselves as well. For the sake of the common good – or rather for the sake of mere survival on an increasingly maltreated planet – Sophia must issue binding ethical rules to protect humanity from itself, namely from the poisonous fruits of scientific intelligence.

For – let us not forget – the fruits of science

cannot be obtained without exploiting things, that is nature and its resources. Without the ever increasing use of coal, oil and gas hidden in the earth’s crust, the industrial revolution would never have happened. With equal justification we may therefore call it “fossil revolution” as well. One of the poisonous fruits of the new scientific world view is that it brought about acts of unbelievable brutality against nature. In the introduction to a new, as yet unpublished book, I use the following comparison:

“Should we not compare our present situation to that of a victorious army that after seizing all the booty of a conquered country now squanders it in a short, drunken frenzy? Since the beginning of the industrial revolution, which should rather be called a fossil flash in the pan, we have been squandering the wealth of the earth and do not want to admit that all this may last for just one or two generations more. And we certainly do not want to be told that our great feast produces poisonous traces all around us: in the air, in the water and in the soil.”

For sensitive ears these are Cassandra warnings,

which endanger the complacent lies of our state-sponsored “positive” world view. But the ecological crisis is a hard fact long since accepted by all leading ecologists. Herman E. Daly, former economic officer of the World Bank, whose ecological writings are considered by many to be represent outstanding examples of scientific analysis, has given my book his explicit applause. ” Dear Dr. Jenner, Thanks for sending me your cogently reasoned, well informed, and clearly written book. I hope it is widely read. Best wishes, Herman E. Daly.

I had already received praise for my writings from economic experts, namely two well-known German economists Bert Rürup and Gerhard Scherhorn. However, I regard Prof. Daly’s benevolent assessment as particularly important, because I know of only a few scientists who uphold the truth even when it turns out to be rather “unsavory” (in Al Gore’s words) and violates the subjection to “political correctness”, which is about to force thinking more and more onto the track of self-censorship.

In any case, my book is certainly not politically correct

for I had no other intention than to be “well informed” with regard to facts, to present a ‘”clearly written” text and all arguments in a “cogently reasoned” way. Nevertheless, will those who demand political correctness so that everybody is content, shy away from some of its statements, even if their professional soundness is expressly acknowledged by an internationally celebrated authority. Ms. Julia Womser, an editor at the German dtv publishing house, with whom I had on telephone arranged the sending of the manuscript, may until now not have understood that even a young student like Greta Thunberg is fully aware of the dramatic situation we are faced with. In any case, my disregard for political correctness apparently upset the lady so much that she did not even consider it necessary to maintain the outward rules of common politeness: Even after a written inquiry – one month after delivery I asked if there was any interest in publishing my book – she did not consider it necessary to give an answer.*1* 

Yes, it is true: The book “Yes, we can – No, we must!”*2*

is characterized throughout by political incorrectness. Renouncing any euphemism, it deals with climate change, migration, basic income and similar topics that have become combat terms for many contemporaries by which to recognize other humans either as like-minded ideological friends or as enemies to be ruthlessly fought. I believe that the scientific search for truth depends on our willingness to deal objectively with each matter – carefully weighing the pros and cons. Open discussion is essential, as criticism constitutes the very essence and impetus of science. What fundamentally contradicts its spirit is the popular shitstorm as well as any secret string pulling in the background. Unfortunately, I had to experience the latter myself. I mention this incident, which in itself is devoid of any general interest, for the sole reason that it has become part of current political correctness too to make oneself small like a sneak and cowardly conceal violations of the ethos of truth and science.

The editor of a German publishing house and a German scientist

acted, in my opinion, quite carelessly, the first with regard to his reputation, the second in view of scientific ethos – such may be the consequences caused by political incorrectness. Or is it not a serious danger for the good reputation of an editor, if two weeks after my inquiry, whether there is any interest in publishing the book, he states that the “idea of the book … naturally suits us and it is surely also Worth /sic!/ to appear in Germany”, but then concludes  only the mail with the standard phrase: “please do not evaluate this refusal as criticism of the book’s quality.” Mind you, Mr. Hirsch said so without having read even one line of the book, because in my publishing offer I had only mentioned the title together with  the benevolent assessment by an internationally renowned expert. But in truth, he learned to know about the manuscript too from Mr. Niko Paech, an esteemed author of his house, who had indeed received the manuscript and already congratulated me on the commendatory statement from Mr. Daly: “I would have liked to have such a feedback from the Pope /the growth criticism/…” Prof. Paech also knew that I wanted to contact the oekom publishing house, because I had previously informed him of my intent in two emails.*3*

Well, such intrigues and secret arrangements behind the scenes are so commonplace that it would not be worthwhile to Even mention them. On the other hand, I don’t want to be told that I’m closing my eyes to such manoevres out of a sense of defenselessness. Open discussion also means calling by name those who avoid  such discussion and prefer to whisper behind the scenes. Ye shall know them by their fruits!

But is there still anything more to be learned about climate change

that is not already known to those who want to be informed? Not really much, indeed. My book will only be granted a certain originality and value for further discussion in one respect. If it is true that the depletion of resources and – even more so – the constant poisoning of the environment by the residues of industrial processes (of which CO2 is only one among hundreds of thousands) represents an even greater turning point than the two greatest revolutions of the past, the Neolithic and the fossil. And if it is equally true that the measures necessary to overcome this historic crisis are in themselves quite simple and well known to science, then we must ask ourselves why these rather simple and well known measures are meeting with such bitter resistance so that despite the Paris Treaty and countless other efforts we are de facto sliding towards the abyss ever faster? This question cries for an answer – and this what the book wants to provide.

1 We should not be surprised that in view of such proceedings on the part of editors it is becoming more and more common for authors to send their manuscripts to several publishers at the same time – otherwise they must reckon with waiting for an anser until the end of their days.

2 The German original is titled “Wir schaffen das!” (We can do it!); the English version, available as Kindle on Amazon, has a better title: “Yes, we can – No, we must!”.

3 I very much appreciate the thoughtful and often challenging reflections of German ecologist Prof. Niko Paech. That was the reason why I sent him a copy of the present book venturing at the same time to ask him to intercede with the oekom publishing house, where he was an esteemed author, in case he liked the manuscript. I even made this request a second time after he had confirmed receipt of the manuscript. I then contacted Mr. Hirsch of the oekom publishing house to ask if he was interested in the work, in which case I would send him the manuscript. I did so by mail and by phone on the same day. If from the outset he had to turn down my offer because at that time there was no more room left for further publications, then he could have told me this right away on the phone – indeed that is what he should have done.

It was not until two weeks later that I received a rejection in the form of the usual standard text, namely that unfortunately the publisher already had other books in its program and that I should please not take this as a statement about the quality of my book. This was pure mockery in view of the fact that Mr. Hirsch never received the manuscript. Only Mr. Paech, the established author of the publishing house, had been able to provide information within these two weeks – I had twice informed Mr. Paech that I wanted to contact oekom.

I mention this refusal which in itself is, of course, quite insignificant, because it is the opposite of a possibly very justified criticism of my work. Indeed, I would have been grateful to Mr. Paech if he had conducted in an open way. As to Mr. Hirsch: publishers are private companies and therefore have the right to accept or reject whom or what they want, even without giving reasons, but there are rules of decency that even a Mr. Hirsch should observe. Let me add that the presumption of innocence applies to Mr. Paech as it does to everybody else. After all, nothing is impossible with God – perhaps archangel Gabriel gave Mr. Hirsch insight into my book making him a competent judge.

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

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

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

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

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

But chance is more than just a gap in our knowledge

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

Chance added the dimension

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

The French biochemist,

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

In these crushingly dismal lines

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

The special thing about both metaphors

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

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

But the counter-metaphor of blind and meaningless chance

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

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

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

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

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

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

This difference is indeed crucial

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

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

In his time, Darwin himself did not yet know

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

But what do we really explain

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike “power religion”

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

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

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

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

In our time, when science and technology

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

Nobel Prize winners of the rank and intelligence of Jacques Monod

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

The dogmatism of “power science” may be refuted

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

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

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

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

*2* Cf. my book “Creative Reason”.

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

Politics, Science and – yes! – Linguistics

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

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

Science is committed to truth

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

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

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

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

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

Unfortunately, science too can become subject to power

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

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

Often a progress of scientific knowledge

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

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

Ignorance, conceit and lack of truthfulness

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

Since the beginning of the 1980s, linguistics

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

What remained of this enthusiasm?

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

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

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

This is the typical behavior of an elite,

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

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

But there are always outsiders

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

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

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

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

Not only in politics but in science too,

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

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

Automated translation is nothing less than a great triumph

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

All that remains at the end is to add that,

by a whim of fate, the outsider in question happens to be identical to the author of these lines.  His book “Principles of Language” is not to be recommended to anyone who is concerned with the beauty of language, for it only speaks of logical structure and the universal constraints every natural language is bound to obey (of course, this applies generally to all linguistic texts that deal with the abstract regularities of language). The “Principles” examine the logical skeleton of language, not its living flesh, seductively blooming in infinite nuances.

Those, however, who are interested in the logic of language will be richly rewarded by reading this book, for it reveals and explains the boundary between linguistic chance and linguistic law, which exists both in language as in culture in general, but is much easier to determine in language. As a matter of principle, immaterial meaning and its material manifestation through sound sequences that are exchanged in the process of communication between speaker and listener, are regarded as the two constituent components of language and carefully kept apart.

The conclusion of the “Principles” proves Chomsky right: Yes, there is a Generative and General Grammar. Language is generative because children are capable of forming an infinite number of statements, even if they have never heard them before. And, yes, the faculty of language must be general because the statements of different languages can be translated into each other. These are empirical facts.

But language is not generative and general according to the deceptive simplicity of the model illustrated by Chomsky when he presented his once famous inverted trees. At the top of the tree he wrote an S for sentence, from which a speaker was supposed to derive in downward direction all possible concrete instances of that language with the help of but a very few general rules and a lexicon. Each particular language then adds some specific rules to the general ones in order to define the differences to other languages.*4* That was the dazzling idea of the Chomskyan model, its actual core, while everything else was just ancillary.

Chomsky’s deceptive trees owe their fascination

to the fact that they turn language into a kind of simple computer game. It is only this extraordinary fascination by a theory that seemed to explain the genesis of language as comprehensively as the natural sciences explain the world of dead things, which makes us understand why no one became aware of the elementary logical error in these deceptively simple trees. For it only needs some straightforward logical analysis to show that the tree model – the very core of Chomskyan Generative Grammar – is wrong from the outset, because it confuses the deep level of immaterial analysis of reality (conceptual structure) and its material manifestation by means of acoustic (or other) signs.

Immaterial reality analysis already takes place in animals even without the use of material signs, and it develops in humans from primitive beginnings (as in the Amazonian Piranha language, for example) to the most complex conceptual structures. These are based on a basic conceptual structure that explains why sentences from an evolutionary primitive language can easily be translated into a more developed one, while this is very difficult or even impossible in the opposite direction (how can a modern text on mathematics be translated into a language where people don’t use numbers beyond two or three?)

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

Steven Pinker, in “The Language Instinct”, correctly recognized pre-linguistic conceptual analysis as the general and generative substrate underlying all languages. That was a bold step beyond Chomsky, but it remained a lonely insight. Pinker did not succeed in drawing the appropriate conclusions. Chomsky’s hopelessly simplistic and logically untenable linguistic model proves to be a stubborn paradigm, which even today hinders the progress of science.

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

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

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

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

.

From Prof. Hallpike I got the following commentary by mail:

Dear Mr Jenner,

Thank you for this, which is most entertaining – “the babble of madmen” indeed! In which one can also include, for example, Skinner and the Behaviourists, and Levi-Strauss and the structuralists.) It’s really fascinating to see how dogma overtakes so many branches of science and learning generally. Those believe that Darwinian Selectionism can explain cultural evolution provide another example in my own field. I have also been thinking some more about Chomsky and recursion. As I understand it, mathematical recursion is nothing more than an iterative procedure by which one constructs a series, like the natural numbers or the Fibonnacci  series, which go on for ever. This “going on for ever”, however, which apparently Chomsky and followers thought an essential feature of language creativity is quite different from and irrelevant to the structural complexity both of grammar and meaning achievable by the repeated nesting of clauses within a sentence, which could actually be quite short. From what you say this basic difference between the two recursions was actually glossed over?

Yours

Christopher Hallpike

My return mail:

Dear Mr. Hallpike,

I am glad you took no offence at my somewhat harsh comment on certain intellectual games in academia, a comment which was indeed meant to amuse. Even more amusing are comments by followers of Chomsky that interpret his thoughts in blatantly contradictory ways:

Mendivil-Giro (“Is Universal Grammar ready for retirement?”): “The mathematical concept of recursion was quasi-synonymous with computability, so that recursive was considered equivalent to computable… what Chomsky… postulates as the central characteristic of human language is recursion in the computational sense, not the existence of sentences within sentences or the existence of noun phrases inside noun phrases” (my italics).

Pinker (“The Language Instinct”): “Recall that all you need for recursion is an ability to embed a noun phrase inside another noun phrase or a clause within a clause” (my italics). Is there a better proof of Chomskyan vagueness than such opposing interpretations?

Yours

Gero Jenner

Why Freedom matters – in Praise of William James

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

This is most effectively done in the way described by William James more than a hundred years ago with regard to German academic life. There, he wrote, “the forms are so professionalized that anybody who has gained a teaching chair and written a book, however distorted and excentric, has the legal right to figure forever in the history of the subject like a fly in amber. All later comers have the duty of quoting him and measuring their opinions with his opinion. Such are the rules of the professorial game – they think and write from each other and for each other and at each other exclusively.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

The physicist shakes his head unable to agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

***

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

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

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

 

How do humans guard themselves against their own kind?

The German original “Wie schützt der Mensch sich vor sich selbst” will be published by Meinhard Miegel.

The question is of actual relevance and it is timeless as well, because it applies to man alone; no other biological species needs to guard itself against its own kind. The survival of species was endangered by predators or by a hostile environment. Man alone among all species has evolved to such an uncanny degree that he now threatens his own survival. Continue reading How do humans guard themselves against their own kind?

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

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