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From Chance and Necessity to Global Insanity

Updated on November 9, 2017

A review of two essays concerned with our place in the cosmos

Chance & Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology by Jacques Monod, translated from the French by Austryn Wainhouse (201 pages, Vintage 1972; Knopf, 1971).

Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World by James A. Coffman & Donald C. Mikulecky (160 pages, Emergent Publications, 2012).

In his brilliant 1970 essay Chance & Necessity, Jacques Monod, a microbiologist who was awarded the Nobel Prize for his pioneering work in molecular genetics, eloquently argued that there is only one philosophy of life that is compatible with science. The argument is essentially thus: scientific objectivity compels us to conclude that life on earth arose entirely by chance, and then evolved by a combination of chance and necessity, via the contingently deterministic mechanisms of molecular genetics and natural selection, to its present state. Therefore, objectively speaking, humanity is nothing more than the outcome of chance and necessity operating in a material universe mechanistically governed by physical law.

This is not an argument to be trifled with. Its logic is airtight, irrefutable. The mere fact that it leads ineluctably to existential nihilism, leaving humanism as the only rational basis for morality, is no counterargument. In fact, from the perspective of modern scientific orthodoxy, Chance & Necessity is probably the most cogent statement ever articulated on the nature of life and where we stand in relation to the cosmos. And while the nihilism it entails may appear grim, Monod himself boldly took it to be a rallying cry for a scientifically-informed, humanistic code of morality. Popular contemporary humanists such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett merely echo Monod. Chance and Necessity is, in essence, their manifesto.

It is therefore worthwhile to review Monod’s argument. I will do so here, in order to introduce a book that I authored with Don Mikulecky, which presents an alternative (and we would say healthier, although not altogether contradictory) point of view on many of the same issues.

Chance & Necessity

Monod begins his essay as follows (from the Preface):

“Biology occupies a position among the sciences at once marginal and central. Marginal because—the living world constituting but a tiny and very “special” part of the universe—it does not seem likely that the study of living beings will ever uncover general laws applicable outside the biosphere. But if the ultimate aim of the whole of science is indeed, as I believe, to clarify man’s relationship to the universe, then biology must be accorded a central position, since of all of the disciplines it is the one that endeavors to go most directly to the heart of the problems that must be resolved before that of “human nature” can ever be framed in other than metaphysical terms.

Consequently no other science has quite the same significance for man; none has already so heavily contributed to the shaping of modern thought, profoundly and definitively affected us as it has been in every domain—philosophical, religious, political—by the advent of the theory of evolution. Its phenomenological validity generally accepted by the close of the last [19th] century, the theory of evolution, while dominating the whole of biology, yet remained as if suspended, awaiting the elaboration of a physical theory of heredity. Thirty years ago [c. 1940], the hope that one would soon be forthcoming appeared almost illusory, notwithstanding the successes in classical genetics. Today, however, this is precisely what we have in the molecular theory of the genetic code. Here “theory of the genetic code” is t to be understood in the broader sense, including not only concepts relevant to the chemical structure of hereditary material and the information it conveys, but also the molecular mechanisms for expressing this information morphogenetically and physiologically. So defined, the theory of the genetic code constitutes the fundamental basis of biology. This does not mean, of course, that the complex structures and functions of organisms can be deduced from it, nor even that they are always directly analyzable on the molecular level. (Nor can everything in chemistry be predicted or resolved by means of quantum theory, which, beyond any question, underlies all chemistry.)

But although the molecular theory of the code cannot now—and will doubtless never be able to—predict and resolve the whole of the biosphere, it does today constitute a general theory of living systems. No such thing existed in scientific knowledge prior to molecular biology. Until then the “secret of life” could be viewed as essentially inaccessible. In recent times much of it has been laid bare. This, a considerable event, ought certainly to make itself strongly felt in contemporary thinking, once the general significance and consequences of the theory are understood and appreciated beyond the narrow circle of specialists. I hope the present essay will be useful to that end.” [Italics in original]

With that Monod stakes his claim: what distinguishes biology as a “special” science—and what makes life as we know it scientifically intelligible—is the molecular genetic mechanism of heredity shared by all life on earth. To a very large extent, I must agree. Science is all about reproducibility, discovering that which imparts predictable regularity to natural systems. And predictable regularity is in fact a defining attribute of life as we know it: in life, like begets like. In living systems on planet earth, that which is reproducible is, by and large, that which is genetically encoded. Thanks to Rosalind Franklin, Francis Crick, and James Watson, we have known since 1953 that the genetic code is uniquely embodied in the self-complimentary structure of the DNA double helix, which by virtue of its ability to stably record and reproduce physically arbitrary yet contextually meaningful sequences of nucleotide bases (‘letters’ of the genetic ‘alphabet’), essentially constitutes the terrestrial book of life.

But as Monod says, even given our knowledge of the genetic mechanism, the particular form and behavior of living systems cannot be precisely deduced from physical principles, and never will be. This differentiates biological predictability from say, that of Newtonian mechanics. In part this is because random chance plays a fundamental role in life, as discussed below. But it also reflects the fact that living ‘objects’ are qualitatively different from non-living objects. Whereas the latter are strictly ‘objective’—they simply are—the former are clearly ‘projective’, i.e. tasked with carrying out a specific project (e.g. reproduction)—they act with intent. Monod illustrates this by inviting us to imagine being a Martian scientist observing earth and tasked with programming a computer to distinguish human (i.e. designed) artifacts from ‘natural’ objects. By most any criteria we can think of to encode into our program, the computer will easily sort naturally occurring inanimate objects—e.g. stones, rivers, lakes—into the latter category. But not so living beings, which by the same criteria will be sorted into the artifactual, i.e. designed category. And this is because, as Monod states in Chapter 1,

“Every artifact is a product made by a living being which through it expresses, in a particularly conspicuous manner, one of the fundamental characteristics common to all living beings without exception: that of being objects endowed with a purpose or project, which at the same time they exhibit in their structure and carry out through their performances (such as, for instance, the making of artifacts).

“Rather than reject the idea (as certain biologists have tried to do) it is indispensable to recognize that it is essential to the very definition of living beings. We shall maintain that the latter are distinct from all other structures or systems present in the universe through this characteristic property, which we shall call teleonomy.

But it must be borne in mind that, while necessary to the definition of living beings, this condition is not sufficient, since it does not propose any objective criteria for distinguishing between living beings themselves and the artifacts issuing from their activity.” [p. 9; Italics in original]

Monod proposes two objective criteria for doing so: self-organization and reproductive invariance. Self-organization refers to the fact that living beings come into existence more or less autonomously via development, unlike artifacts, which are always assembled by an ‘external’ agent. But the same can be said for self-organizing inanimate objects such as crystals, so we still do not have sufficient criteria to distinguish living from inanimate objects. A third criterion—invariance of the complex information expressed and reproduced with each self-organizing generation of living being (i.e. heredity)—is needed. And that is what is afforded by DNA.

So in order to distinguish natural living beings from inanimate natural objects and artifacts, our Martian scientist would need to program her computer to recognize teleonomy (purposeful behavior), self-organization, and a heritable source of reproductive invariance. Of course, we could add a fourth criterion to this list, which is homeostatic maintenance of thermodynamic disequilibrium. And Monod discusses this as well, and dispenses with the common misconception that life somehow defies or contradicts the Second Law of thermodynamics. He does this by way of the following thought experiment:

“We take a milliliter of water having in it a few milligrams of a simple sugar, such as glucose, as well as some mineral salts containing the essential elements that enter into the chemical constituents of living organisms (nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur, etc.). In this medium we grow a bacterium, for example Escherichia coli (length, 2 microns; weight, approximately 5 x 10-15 grams). Inside thirty-six hours the solution will contain several billion bacteria. We shall find that about 40 per cent of the sugar has been converted into cellular constituents, while the remainder has been oxidized into carbon dioxide and water. By carrying out the entire experiment in a calorimeter, one can draw up the thermodynamic balance sheet for the operation and determine that, as in the case of crystallization, the entropy of the system as a whole (bacteria plus medium) has increased a little more than the minimum prescribed by the second law. Thus, while the extremely complex system represented by the bacterial cell has not only been conserved but has multiplied several billion times, the thermodynamic debt corresponding to the operation has been duly settled.

“No definable or measurable violation of the second law has occurred. Nonetheless, something unfailingly upsets our physical intuition as we watch this phenomenon, whose strangeness is even more appreciable than before the experiment. Why? Because we see very clearly that this process is bent or oriented in one exclusive direction: the multiplication of cells. These to be sure do not violate the laws of thermodynamics, quite the contrary. They not only obey them; they utilize them as a good engineer would, with maximum efficiency, to carry out the project and bring about the “dream” (as Francois Jacob has put it) of every cell: to become two cells.

“Later we shall try to give an idea of the complexity, the subtlety, and the efficiency of the chemical machinery necessary to the accomplishment of a project demanding the synthesis of several hundred different organic constituents; their assembly into several thousand macromolecular species; and the mobilization and utilization, where necessary, of the chemical potential liberated by the oxidation of sugar: i.e., in the construction of cellular organelles. There is, however, no physical paradox in the invariant reproduction of these structures: invariance is bought at not one penny above its thermodynamic price, thanks to the perfection of the teleonomic apparatus which, grudging of calories, in its infinitely complex task attains a level of efficiency rarely approached by man-made machines. This apparatus is entirely logical, wonderfully rational, and perfectly adapted to its purpose: to preserve and reproduce the structural norm. And it achieves this, not by departing from physical laws, but by exploiting them to the exclusive advantage of its personal idiosyncrasy. It is the very existence of this purpose, at once both pursued and fulfilled by the teleonomic apparatus, that constitutes the “miracle.” Miracle? No, the real difficulty is not the physics of the phenomenon; it lies elsewhere, and deeper, involving our own understanding, our intuition of it. There is, really, no paradox or miracle; but a flagrant epistemological contradiction.” (p. 19-21; Italics in original]

The contradiction, according to Monod, is this: scientific knowledge, by definition, is ‘objective’. This objectivity is obtained by disallowing Aristotelian ‘final cause’ (i.e. purpose) in scientific explanations of nature; this, Monod correctly notes, is the “cornerstone of the scientific method”. It is all too easy to projectively imagine purposes where they don't actually exist, and difficult if not impossible to discriminate between actual and imagined purposes by way of testable hypotheses. But as Monod has already made clear, a defining characteristic of living beings is their purposefulness (teleonomy). The problem then is that living beings are purposeful; yet science, in order to remain objective, must never invoke purpose in its explanations of nature. Commitment to the scientific method of obtaining knowledge requires this

“unbending stricture implicit in the postulate of objectivity—ironclad, pure, forever undemonstrable. For it is obviously impossible to imagine an experiment which could prove the nonexistence anywhere in nature of a purpose, of a pursued end.

“Objectivity nevertheless obliges us to recognize the teleonomic character of living organisms, to admit that in their structure and performance they act projectively—realize and pursue a purpose. Here therefore, at least in appearance, lies a profound epistemological contradiction. In fact the central problem of biology lies with this very contradiction, which, if it is only apparent, must be resolved; or else proven to be utterly insoluble, if that should turn out indeed to be the case.” [p. 21-22; Emphasis added]

Monod then proceeds, in Chapter 2, to deconstruct the two approaches that have been taken, including by many scientists and secular philosophers, to sidestep this problem: vitalism and animism. According to Monod both approaches are scientifically flawed, as they are inconsistent with objectivity. Vitalism is the notion that living systems have something extra, some vital quality not present in mere physics or chemistry. But as of the second half of the twentieth century this notion was no longer needed to explain either the invariance or teleonomy of life, as these are respectively explained by molecular biology and cybernetics (feedback), both of which can be reduced to physics. The only remaining distinguishing quality of life is self-organization, and Monod suggests that it is only a matter of time before that too is physically resolved. And indeed, four decades after the publication of Monod’s essay, we now have a fairly good physical understanding of self-organization, which in living systems amounts to physical (non-equilibrium thermo)dynamics regulated by genomically encoded information. So vitalism appears fully vanquished.

Animism, which Monod finds to be the more interesting of the two traditional approaches to solving “the central problem of biology”, is the notion that everything in the universe is alive. In other words, the very idea that there is such a thing as an inanimate object is an illusion. In this perspective there is no need to explain purposefulness, because nature is inherently purposeful—that is, we can take purposefulness to be axiomatic, a ‘first principle’. Monod notes that this was the perspective of our ancestors, and remains the understanding of many ‘primitive’ cultures. But there are modern incarnations as well, most notably in the evolutionary progressivism of Teilhard de Chardin, and the earlier dialectical materialism of Marx and Engels. Monod argues that such ideas simply project human subjectivity—our desire to feel connected with a purposeful nature not unlike our own, and thus “at home in the universe”—into the world at large. In doing so they run completely counter to the objectivity demanded by science.

So for Monod, vitalism and animism are flawed approaches to understanding life, as indeed is any theory with pretensions of being able to predict any particular thing or occurrence—including humanity itself:

“At the source of these errors lies, of course, the anthropocentric illusion. The heliocentric theory, the concept of inertia, and the principle of objectivity were never enough to dissipate that ancient mirage. Rather than dispelling the illusion, the theory of evolution at first seemed to endow it with a new reality by making of man no longer the center of the entire universe but its natural heir, awaited from time immemorial. God could at last die, replaced by this new and grandiose fantasy. The ultimate aim of science from now on would be to formulate a unified theory which, based on a small number of principles, would account for the whole of reality, biosphere and man included. It was this exalting certainty that constituted the fare upon which nineteenth-century scientistic progressism fed. A unified theory which, for their part, the dialectical materialists believed they had already formulated.....

“Not until the second half of this [the 20th] century was the new anthropocentric illusion, propped up on the theory of evolution, to give way in its turn. I believe that we can assert today that a universal theory, however completely successful in other domains, could never encompass the biosphere, its structure, and its evolution as phenomena deducible from first principles.

“This proposition may appear obscure. Let us try to make it clearer. A universal theory would obviously have to extend to include relativity, the theory of quanta, and a theory of elementary particles. Provided certain initial conditions could be formulated, it would also contain a cosmology which would forecast the general evolution of the universe. We know however (contrary to what Laplace believed, and after him the science and “materialist” philosophy of the nineteenth century) that these predictions could be no more than statistical. The theory might very well contain the periodic table of elements, but could only determine the probability of existence of each of them. Likewise it would anticipate the appearance of such objects as galaxies or planetary systems, but in no case could it deduce from its principles the necessary existence of this or that object, event, or individual phenomenon—whether it be the Andromeda nebula, the planet Venus, Mount Everest, or yesterday evening’s thundershower.

“In a general manner the theory would anticipate the existence, the properties, the interrelations of certain classes of objects or events, but would obviously not be able to foresee the existence or the distinctive characteristics of any particular object or event.

“The thesis I shall present in this book is that the biosphere does not contain a predictable class of objects or of events but constitutes a particular occurrence, compatible indeed with first principles, but not deducible from those principles and therefore essentially unpredictable.

“Let there be no misunderstanding here. In saying that as a class living beings are not predictable upon the basis of first principles, I by no means intend to suggest that they are not explicable through these principles—that they transcend them in some way, and that other principles, applicable to living systems alone, must be invoked. In my view the biosphere in unpredictable for the very same reason—neither more nor less—that the particular configuration of atoms constituting this pebble I have in my hand is unpredictable. No one will find fault with a universal theory for not affirming and foreseeing the existence of this particular configuration of atoms; it is enough for us that this actual object, unique and real, be compatible with the theory. This object, according to the theory, is under no obligation to exist; but it has the right to.

“That is enough for us as concerns the pebble, but not as concerns ourselves. We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency.” [pp. 41-44; Italics in original]

And that’s just it: we humans find it extremely hard to accept that our existence is an accident of history. You might say that the very notion drives us mad....

But random chance is clearly fundamental to life, as much so as physical necessity. It is fundamental in a reductionist sense, as in the ontological indeterminacy of quantum events; but also in a phenomenological sense, as in the inherent unpredictability of specific events taking place in any complex system that is far from thermodynamic equilibrium (e.g. the outcome of a coin toss or roll of the dice, or the coincident convergence in space and time of independent trajectories such as occurs in an automobile accident). Indeed, as Victoria Alexander has argued in her book The Biologist’s Mistress, chance, in its many guises, is essential to life’s purposefulness—a point to which I will return below.

Monod devotes much of his essay to describing how living systems (are able to) perform the teleonomic work of self-maintenance and self-propagation. By and large this is the job of proteins, particularly enzymes, which, by virtue of their specific shapes and shape-specific intermolecular interactions, behave as tiny “Maxwell’s Demons” to cause what otherwise would be low probability events to occur with high probability. In effect, enzymes load the ‘dice’ so that they come up the same every time they are ‘rolled’. And they do this in a purposeful way, i.e. as needed (at the right time and the right place), because their structure is encoded into genetic memory, as are the algorithms that control their context-appropriate deployment. The memory encoded into an organism’s DNA is thus used to fulfill the organism’s needs (via “microscopic cybernetics”), and indeed, bring the organism itself into being (via “molecular ontogenesis”).

This DNA-encoded memory, then, provides the invariance that Monod claims is one of the three defining characteristics of living systems (the other two being teleonomy, explained by natural selection, and self-organization, explained by physical chemistry and thermodynamics). It is here where the ‘the central dogma’ of molecular biology reveals its importance. For the source of invariance (DNA) is afforded its requisite stability not only by its unique physical structure (unlike proteins, DNA is a highly stable biomolecule), but also by virtue of the fact that the teleonomically purposeful information scripted within its nucleotide sequence flows only one way: toward its own persistence (through repair and replication) via the construction (by way of transcription and translation) of RNA and protein:

“Hence the entire system is totally, intensely conservative, locked into itself, utterly impervious to any “hints” from the outside world. Through its properties, by the microscopic clockwork function that establishes between DNA and protein, as between organism and medium, an entirely one way relationship, this system obviously defies any “dialectical” description. It is not Hegelian at all, but thoroughly Cartesian: the cell is indeed a machine.” [pp. 110-111; Italics in original]

What this means is that while the internal physiology of an organism can be (to an extent) purposefully adjusted in real time, and even in an anticipatory fashion to fit the organism’s needs to its circumstances (by using DNA-encoded, epigenetically-regulated algorithms to appropriately alter its active repertoire of proteins), the DNA script itself is not altered according to those needs. From the perspective of the organism, any changes that occur in and among its proteins do not (and cannot) alter the DNA sequence in any way that can be thought of as purposeful. And because of this, evolutionary innovation—which requires change in the otherwise invariant DNA script—is left entirely to chance.

As noted by Monod, the idea that living systems—cells and organisms—are machines extends from Rene Descartes, and continues to this day as the prevailing paradigm for biological science. Monod’s mechanistic ideas regarding microscopic cybernetics and molecular ontogenesis provided the foundation for the ideas of Eric Davidson (my own mentor), who in 1969 with Roy Britten proposed a mechanistic model for developmental gene regulation that has since been empirically substantiated and developed into a well-fleshed out paradigm for understanding and deciphering the genetic program for ontogeny. At this point in history only those who are uninformed or willfully ignorant can deny that the genetic system embodies a mechanistic reality, the mechanics of which were first worked out by Jacob and Monod in the early 1960s, and which was so eloquently described by Monod in Chance and Necessity.

But does that logically imply that living systems are nothing more than machines? That depends on your assumptions, and is an important question to which I will return below.

It is important to note that, while Monod’s argument is quintessentially reductionist, it is not naïvely so, in that it doesn’t presume, a la Laplace, that everything is predictable given sufficient knowledge. Indeed, quite the opposite, owing to the ontological reality of pure chance. Because chance events are by definition unpredictable and yet key to evolution, science can explain life in retrospect but not predict its future evolution. Evolution, according to Monod, is essentially an expression of the Second Law of thermodynamics, which statistically speaking embodies a global tendency toward disorder, i.e. unpredictability. The genetic mutations that afford novelty arise because of the mechanical inefficiency demanded by the Second Law. In this Monod was ahead of his time, anticipating ideas later articulated by Brooks & Wiley (Evolution as Entropy), Stan Salthe (Development and Evolution), Kay & Schneider (Life as a Manifestation of the Second Law of Thermodynamics):

“A simple “point” mutation, such as the substitution of one letter in the DNA code for another, is reversible. Theory tells us that this should be so, and experiment proves it. But any appreciable evolution, like the differentiation of two even very nearly related species, reflects a great many independent mutations successively accumulated in the parent species and then, still random, recombined thanks to the “gene flow” promoted by sexuality. Because of the number of independent events that produce it, such a phenomenon is for statistical reasons irreversible.

“Evolution in the biosphere is therefore a necessarily irreversible process defining a direction in time; a direction which is the same as that enjoined by the law of increasing entropy, that is to say, the second law of thermodynamics. This is far more than a mere comparison: the second law is founded upon considerations identical to those which establish the irreversibility of evolution. Indeed, it is legitimate to view the irreversibility of evolution as an expression of the second law in the biosphere.” [p. 123; Italics in original]

So, insofar as life is concerned, beyond rational post facto explanation science can at best predict statistical trends, never particular occurrences. But rational explanation is useful (to a point), for it helps us understand ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Science has taught us quite a lot about ourselves. What then are the frontiers going forward? Monod saw two: the problem of the origin of life (and with it, the genetic code, which as noted above is a defining feature of life as we know it); and the problem of subjective consciousness embodied in the central nervous system of animals. Although progress has been made, both remain unsolved to this day.

Regarding the origin of life, barring some monumental breakthroughs in paleontological technology it may always remain unsolved, simply because if Monod is right (and there is little objective reason to think he is not) then the origin of life on earth was a singular and therefore inherently unpredictable event:

“The riddle remains, and in so doing masks the answer to a question of profound interest. Life appeared on earth: what, before the event, were the chances that this would occur? The present structure of the biosphere far from excludes the possibility that the decisive event occurred only once. Which would mean that its a priori probability was virtually zero.

“This idea is distasteful to most scientists. Science can neither say nor do anything about a unique occurrence. It can only consider occurrences that form a class, whose a priori probability, however faint, is yet definite. Now through the very universality of its structures, starting with the code, the biosphere looks like the product of a unique event. It is possible of course that its uniform character was arrived at by elimination through selection of many other attempts or variants. But nothing compels this interpretation.

“Among all the occurrences possible in the universe the a priori probability of any particular one of them verges upon zero. Yet the universe exists; particular events must take place in it, the probability of which (before the event) was infinitesimal. At the present time we have no legitimate grounds for either asserting or denying that life got off to but a single start on earth, and that, as a consequence, before it appeared its chances of occurring were next to nil.

“Not only for scientific reasons do biologists recoil at this idea. It runs counter to our very human tendency to believe that behind everything real in the world stands a necessity rooted in the very beginning of things. Against this notion, this powerful feeling of destiny, we must be constantly on guard. Immanence is alien to modern science. Destiny is written concurrently with the event, not prior to it. Our own was not written before the emergence of the human species, alone in all the biosphere to utilize a logical system of symbolic communication. Another unique event, which by itself should predispose us against any anthropocentrism. If it was unique, as may perhaps have been the appearance of life itself, then before it did appear its chances of doing so were infinitely slender. The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game. Is it any wonder if, like the person who has just made a million at the casino, we feel strange and a little unreal?” [pp. 144-146; Italics in original]

No it is not. In fact, we can explain this strange feeling of unreality (a loss of touch with reality, as it were) quite readily. And the mental frames erected by science are a big part of that explanation, as Don and I argue in our new book that I introduce below. But first we need to consider Monod’s final arguments.

Regarding the problem of subjectivity, he recognizes that the key question is how did the central nervous system come to embody an imaginative simulator of reality capable of anticipatory subjective experience? Monod discusses the importance of language, but also its limitations and the fact that it is largely a means of rationalizing unconscious simulation after the fact, and how (based on Roger Sperry’s work) this reflects the hemispheric differentiation of the human brain. He even recognizes, anticipating Julian Jaynes and Iain McGilchrist, “the possibility that the right hemisphere is responsible for an important part, perhaps the more ‘profound’ part, of subjective simulation.”

Monod then notes that the evolution of human subjectivity is readily explained by natural selection:

“ was on account of its capacity for adequate representation and for accurate foresight confirmed by concrete experience that the power of simulation lodged in our early ancestors’ central nervous system was propelled to the level reached with Homo sapiens....

“As the instrument of intuitive preconception continually enriched by lessons learned from its own subjective experiments [i.e. imagination], the simulator is the instrument of discovery and creation. Analysis via language of the logic of its subjective functioning has made possible the formulation of laws of objective logic and the creation of new symbolic instruments such as mathematics. Great thinkers, Einstein among them, have often and justly wondered at the fact that the mathematical entities created by man can so faithfully represent nature even though they owe nothing to experience. Nothing, it is true, to individual and concrete experience; but everything to the virtues of the simulator forged by the vast and bitter experience of our humble ancestors. In systematically setting logic face to face with experience, according to the scientific method, what we are in fact doing is confronting all the experience of our ancestors with that actually facing us.” [pp. 157-158; Italics in original]

In other words, our way of experiencing, relating to, and anticipating the world has historic roots that extend deeply into the past. But we still don’t know how it works. And

“There lies the frontier, still almost as impassable for us as it was for Descartes. Not until that barrier has been passed will dualism cease to be a force, and to that extent a truth, in the lives of all of us. We today are no less in the habit of differentiating between brain and mind than they were in the eighteenth century. Objective analysis obliges us to see that this seeming duality within us is an illusion. But it is so well within, so intimately rooted in our being, that nothing could be vainer than to hope to dissipate it in the immediate awareness of subjectivity, or to learn to live emotionally or morally without it. And, besides, why should one have to? What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial “substance” is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” [p. 159]

And yet, as Monod acknowledges in his final chapter (“The Kingdom and the Darkness”), most people find this perspective to be dispiriting, as it flies in the face of our deeply felt need for a grand, totalizing narrative that explains our place in the cosmos. But, he argues, it need not be. As suggested in the passage quoted above, rejecting the objective reality of Cartesian dualism with its disembodied “soul” in no way requires that we deny the reality of soul or spirit, which can just as (if not more) easily be rationalized as something that is materially embodied in the complex system of relationships that comprise a human being. The problem, in a nutshell, lies in the troubled relationship between knowledge and human values, and how to approach that relationship. The solution, says Monod, is to recognize that obtaining objective knowledge requires that we view the world dispassionately, that is, without bias from our system of values. But the fact of the matter is that, in so doing, we are making a subjective, value-based choice, viz. that we hold objective knowledge to be of value.

Thus, although obtaining objective knowledge requires that we work to overcome prejudices instilled by subjective values, in the end we must acknowledge that doing so entails a subjective value: that objective knowledge is a good thing. According to Monod this is the only way to proceed given what we now know. Moreover, it leads not only to humanism as the only rational a basis for morality, but also to socialism as the only moral political system. But not socialism based on the historical materialism of Marx, which Monod views as a modern incarnation of animism based on “a total confusion of the categories of value and knowledge”, which must be clearly defined if we are to remain objective. Rather, what we need is a socialism based on the “ethic of knowledge”:

“Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism, if not in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value—the measure and warrant for all other values? An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, hence as the measure of their authenticity, their value, only the ethic of knowledge could lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defense, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation—a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the deceitful servitudes of animism, he could at last live authentically, protected by institutions which, seeing in him the subject of the kingdom and at the same time its creator, could be designed to serve him in his unique and precious essence.

“A utopia. Perhaps. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its force to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man knows at last that he is alone in the universe’s unfeeling immensity, out of which he emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.” [p. 180]

With the last two sentences I couldn’t agree more.

Global Insanity

A somewhat different take on these matters is presented in my new book with Don Mikulecky, Global Insanity: How Homo sapiens Lost Touch with Reality while Transforming the World (Emergent Publications). While our position on the socio-cultural importance of scientific knowledge resonates with that of Monod, we argue that the two central postulates of his reductionist philosophy create serious cognitive problems, which have contributed to the human social, economic, and ecological health crises now manifesting on a global scale. The problematic postulates are the principle of objectivity, and that life is a machine. We argue that both of these postulates constitute ideological myths that, by virtue of not being recognized as such, have led the human species astray, bringing civilization to the brink of catastrophic collapse. Rather than review the book in detail here, I will only discuss how our argument bears directly on that of Monod, with which it is in some ways resonant, and in others diametrically opposed.

Our book was motivated by our concern with the fact that civilized humanity, like any addict, is destroying itself by way of entrenched habits of mind and hence action. As we say at the beginning of Chapter 1:

“Through our accelerating acquisition and use of technological knowledge, our species has become a singularly powerful force of nature. Unfortunately, our ability to deal responsibly with that fact, and thus maintain a healthy relationship with the world that sustains us, has not kept pace.”

“We contend that Western civilization, in developing a global consumer economy based on industrial mechanization requiring rapid dissipation of non-renewable, high-grade energy, lost touch with reality and embarked on a path of self destruction. Accessing a new path conducive to long-term human survival and quality of life will require that we fundamentally change our relationship with nature, which will in turn require that we significantly improve our comprehension of nature—including human nature. It will require that we develop a more realistic way of life, and healthier ways of imbuing our existence with meaning.

“We are not alone in calling attention to the urgency of our situation. We do however have a unique explanation for how we got here, and the role of human intellect in that process. Contrary to what is now almost universally accepted as given, our technological creativity and scientific inquisitiveness have not served us well. The reason for this is that the development of our cognitive abilities produced an unhealthy mental imbalance. The technological aspect of the human mind has come to repressively dominate other aspects, and this is intimately linked to the unconstrained development of the consumer economy. Science and technology feed that system by supplying a continuous stream of ‘disposable’ commodities, as well as techniques for ensuring that people keep buying them, in order to drive economic growth, which then feeds back to drive science and technology. What many (perhaps most) people fail to appreciate is that this is a vicious cycle whose continuance assures the collapse of civilization, and quite possibly the extinction of humanity.” [pp. 9-10]

In other words, scientific knowledge—what Monod argued should be the foundation of our ethics—is not only insufficient to solve our existential crisis; it is a major contributing cause of that crisis. But as we argue in the book, scientific knowledge is nonetheless needed to overcome the crisis. How can this seeming contradiction be resolved? We suggest that the answer can be found by examining the nature of knowledge itself, which in turn requires that we re-examine the nature of life and mind.

Chapter 2 of our book, entitled “Of Metaphors, Metaphysics, and Math: a Mythology of Mechanisms”, reviews the work of George Lakoff, Julian Jaynes, and others to show how conscious human thought is inextricably bound with metaphorical language. What we (think we) know depends on how we think about the world, which is culturally developed through the stories we are told growing up, and the stories we continue to tell ourselves and each other throughout our lives. Those stories constitute mythologies that inform, or ‘frame’, how we think—they provide us, via metaphor, with a mindset that interprets whatever information we receive. The problem with Monod’s principle of objectivity is that it is a myth—a story—that can never be fully realized in the actual world, any more than can any other cultural myth. Objective knowledge implies, and requires, a subject, and it is quite impossible for any subject not to be subjective.

In the late 16th century Francis Bacon, father of the ‘Scientific Method’, in addressing how subjective biases (“Idols”) interfere with the acquisition of objective knowledge, declared that the notion of purpose—Aristotelian ‘final cause’—has no place in scientific explanations of nature. Purposes are subjective, whereas science can only deal with that which is objective. As noted by Monod this creates an epistemological contradiction, since life clearly acts purposefully. But whereas Monod simply accepts that contradiction as a fact of life, we argue that it is a source of cognitive dissonance. The problem with ‘objectivity’ is that, like any other myth, when the reality of its unreality is left unacknowledged, it takes on an unconscious mental life of its own that repressively directs how we relate to and interact with the world. To be ‘objective’ is to treat everything in the world—including all its living inhabitants—as objects. So Bacon’s stricture against final cause, combined with Descartes’ declaration that living beings are merely machines within which the immaterial substance of mind finds a home (at least if you are human), created an alienating mental frame that precludes empathy for the world and its inhabitants:

“Through the metaphysics of Bacon, human beings became a bit less inclined to view the world and its inhabitants sympathetically as subjects in their own right, i.e. agents with ends of their own, and more inclined to view them as mere objects to be studied and manipulated for selfish purposes. Moreover, by rejecting final cause, Bacon devalued the consideration of consequences in scientific efforts to acquire knowledge. This contributed to the development of ex post facto rationalization as a cognitive approach to dealing with the world, making it easier to take without asking permission. Science became a means to dominate Nature, “to conquer and subdue her, to shake her to her foundations”. In other words, science enabled rape of the earth.” [p. 32]

This then, is the problem with Monod’s “ethic of knowledge”: since, when it comes to the particulars of life, all science can do is explain (but not predict), scientific knowledge is at best a means of rationalizing action. But to paraphrase Iain McGilchrist, rationally explaining life, like explaining a joke, drains it of its vital essence (humor in the case of the joke). Those who tout science as the be-all and end-all of knowing fail to see that what is really dispiriting about this perspective is not the objective reality it reveals, but the subjective reality it occludes. When objectivity becomes paramount, the fact that science is just one of many authentic ways we have of getting to know the world, and one whose great technological potential ought to be wielded circumspectly, is discounted. The result is science in the service of out-of-control development, giving rise to things like weapons of mass destruction, the military-industrial complex, genocide, ecocide, and the global consumer economy—things that really are dispiriting, not to mention completely insane.

The late Robert Rosen, an extraordinary scientist and mathematician whose ideas we introduce in Chapter 3, found a scientific route out of this mental trap. Rosen’s freeing insight came from his use of category theory, an advanced field of mathematics, to examine the nature of knowledge. In essence, the insight extends from what I already touched on above, something that Monod himself glimpsed but did not follow to its logical conclusion: that objectivity, in any possible sense that is meaningful, implies, and thus entails, subjectivity. In other words, objectivity is a specifically developed form of subjectivity, a subclass thereof—the specification hierarchy is {subjectivity{objectivity}}. Therefore objectivity can only arise in a subjective universe.

It is therefore quite impossible to be completely objective about anything, which is why objectivity—the defining attribute of science—is in reality an ideological myth. Nonetheless, that does not mean we should not strive for as much objectivity as possible, as befits our circumstances and moral sensibility. Moreover, the fact that we cannot ever be completely objective does not in any way imply that there is not an objective reality (i.e., an actual factual world). And to the extent that this is true, it benefits us to know something about that reality, which is why we need science.

How then do we acquire realistic knowledge about the objective world? Rosen showed that for this to happen we need to develop a model of the world. The way that this happens is through the Modeling Relation, which we argue constitutes a defining attribute of life itself:

"In order to anticipate its future needs, a system must become informed about the world as it relates to those needs; that is, it must acquire knowledge about relevant aspects of the world. Contrary to what is perhaps common sense, knowledge acquisition does not occur by passive absorption of ‘information’. Rather, it occurs by way of experience, which entails attention, a form of intentionally focused work. The key to understanding why this must be so is found above in the word ‘relevant’: the world has myriad (indeed, an infinite number of potentially informative) aspects, only a small subset of which is relevant to the needs of a system. Those aspects that are most relevant are those that predictably produce an outcome that satisfies the system’s needs. That which is predictable in nature is that which is caused. So to acquire knowledge about the world as it relates to its needs, a system must become to some extent informed about causation.

The only possible way to do that is to construct a formal model. Toward that end a system must semantically encode relevant aspects of the world, and then determine, through an internally embodied system of syntactically formal logic, what those encodings entail. Such entailment need not represent any reality beyond the system itself, and thus may not have anything else to do with the real world. However, when decoded back into the world by way of the system’s actions it may well fit the system’s needs to its circumstances, in which case a model is born. Rosen (1985, 1991) referred to this anticipatory loop as the Modeling Relation.

The significance of the last step in establishing the relation, the act of decoding, cannot be overstated. It is only through decoding that the results produced by an internal system of entailment become externalized. This is fundamentally a creative act—in other words, it is art. If the decoded creation fits (is ‘congruent’ with) an ‘external’ aspect of reality, the Modeling Relation is said to commute—a situation wherein one system (e.g., an organism) comes to embody a model of a second system (e.g., an ecological niche), which is in turn a realization of the model. So when the Modeling Relation between two systems commutes, reality is not just anticipated within the system doing the encoding and decoding, it is actively created within the world at large. In this way ecological niches are intentionally constructed (Laland et al., 1999), as for example occurs when bees construct their hives and beavers build their dams. Through the Modeling Relation prophecies can (and sometimes do) become self-fulfilling, and dreams can (and sometimes do) come true.

So the acquisition of realistic knowledge about the world is an anticipatory process that requires attention, at some level, to signs that are specifically relevant to the needs of a system, which are deciphered by the creation of models. It should be obvious that the Modeling Relation is the basis of the Scientific Method. But it goes much deeper than that. The Modeling Relation is fundamental to life itself...." [pp. 46-47]

Relating this back to Monod’s quest for identifying the defining features of life, we can postulate that in life as we know it (as revealed by the work of Monod and those of his intellectual lineage), the DNA-based genetic apparatus (‘genotype’) embodies the internal system of entailment that transforms encoded experience into decoded action (‘phenotype’), thus realizing a model. In a very real sense then, all creatures are living embodiments of models. Extinction occurs when the model falls out of congruence with reality.

If you look through this window on the world I think you will find the view quite stunning. For it shows us how life, rather than being “marginal”, might really be central to the cosmos, a generic characteristic thereof. Perhaps, given that countless self-organizing physical configurations (not just DNA-based) might potentially come to embody models via the Modeling Relation, Monod’s critique of animism and vitalism missed the mark, and the cosmos really is alive, its vitality being manifest in its relational organization. Our failure to recognize that may simply be due to the lack of an appropriate mental model for life itself. If this is true then the twin problems of the origin of life and mind—as noted by Monod, the key unsolved problems on the frontier of science—simply evaporate, because in reality the origin of life and mind in our universe coincides with the origin of the universe itself.

To see this it helps to consider in general how anything comes to be. The English word we often use to refer to that process is development. Extending from the work of Stanley Salthe, Robert Ulanowicz, and others, Chapter 4 of our book, “The Logic of Development”, describes what it is and what it entails: growing (inter)dependency, dialogic (becoming informed via the Modeling Relation), subjective individuation, and entrenchment. From this perspective life as we know it—and as scientifically elucidated by Monod et al.—is the not altogether unexpected fruit of a developing universe. Indeed, anything that can be reasonably described as a machine or deterministic mechanism can be seen to be the product of that development. The downside of this is that owing to the laws of thermodynamics, continued development of anything leads to the senescence and demise of that thing. In that sense development is a trap—one that, as we discuss in Chapters 5 and 6, that our industrially mechanized and globally capitalized civilization now finds itself ensnared in. In Chapter 7 we close with our thoughts on what can be done to free ourselves from that trap, in order to avoid extinction.

In an important way then, what we propose in Global Insanity differs fundamentally from what Monod proposes in Chance and Necessity. For Monod life is an absurd accident of earth’s history, whereas we take it to be descriptive of the very nature of the cosmos. Whereas Monod would probably have denigrated our position as being yet another misguided strain of animism, we find fault in his reductionism. But in other important ways our perspectives are not all that different. Our argument that science needs to reconcile with Aristotelian final cause or teleology resonates with Monod’s argument that science must account for the teleonomy of life. As we note in our book, the differentiation of teleonomy and teleology amounts to semantic hairsplitting in the service of rhetoric.

As I mentioned above, Victoria Alexander recently authored a book on the teleology of life, entitled The Biologist’s Mistress: Rethinking Self-Organization in Art, Literature, and Nature (Emergent Publications). In it she argues that the purposefulness of nature, like that of artists and writers, comes from the creative assignation of meaning to things that by chance are in some way alike ('analogous') or have some mutual affinity. I think Monod would agree. Again, it comes down to semantics, and how you interpret the word ‘chance’. One way would be to call any serendipitous occurrence, anything that is fortuitously useful, beautiful or meaningful, an ‘accident’; another would be to call it a ‘miracle’. Accident and miracle are just two different words for that which is unexplained and perhaps scientifically unexplainable (as chance occurrences by nature are), differing only in connotation. And that semantic loading is really what gets us to the crux of all these matters. Whether you choose to call the emergence of life on earth an accident or a miracle reflects nothing more than your own semantically loaded subjective attitude toward life itself. Thus, it is quite possible for even a committed atheist to agree with Wendell Berry’s assertion that Life is a Miracle. It seems to me (and we suggest in our book) that the heated arguments between science and religion, between theists and atheists, are all fueled by overly literal (i.e. superstitious) interpretations of metaphorical cognitions, on both sides of the argument.

So yes, life does boil down to chance and necessity, which miraculously conspire to produce teleonomic systems that develop into conscious creatures capable of articulating teleological rationalizations intended to explain the outcomes of chance and necessity. But rationalizations, the human product of words, have consequences. One is nihilism. Another is reverence. Take your pick. But when you do, pause to consider why, given the necessities of life and what it means to be human, the choice might actually matter. What is at stake is our collective sanity.


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