From Matter to Life to Mind...
AN UNFOLDING CONSCIOUSNESS
1905 - 1983
Arthur Koestler in * Janus
: A Summing Up
1. From the Prologue
- the New Calendar..
2. On Reductionism..
The Parable of the Unsolicited Gift...
4. From the
1. From the
Prologue - the New Calendar
" If I were asked to name the most
important date in the history and prehistory of the human race, I would
answer without hesitation 6 August 1945. The reason is simple. From the
dawn of consciousness until 6 August 1945, man had to live with the
prospect of his death as an individual; since the day when the
atomic bomb outshone the sun over Hiroshima, mankind as a whole has
had to live with the prospect of its extinction as a species. We have been
taught to accept the transitoriness of personal existence, while taking
the potential immortality of the human race for granted. This belief has ceased
to be valid. We have to revise our axioms.
It is not an easy task. There are periods of
incubation before a new idea takes hold of the mind; the Copernican doctrine
which so radically downgraded man's status in the universe took nearly a century
until it penetrated European consciousness. The new downgrading of our species
to the status of mortality is even more difficult to digest.
It actually looks as if the novelty of this
outlook had worn off even before it had properly sunk in. Already the name
Hiroshima has become a historical cliche like the Boston Tea Party. We have
returned to a state of pseudo-normality. Only a small minority is conscious of
the fact that ever since it unlocked the nuclear Pandora's Box, our species has
been living on borrowed time.
Every age had its Cassandras, yet mankind
managed to survive their sinister prophecies. However, this comforting
reflection is no longer valid, for in no earlier age did a tribe or nation
possess the necessary equipment to make this planet unfit for life. They could
inflict only limited damage on their adversaries - and did so, whenever given a
chance. Now they can hold the entire biosphere to ransom. A Hitler, born twenty
years later, would probably have done so, provoking a nuclear Gotterdanmerung.
The trouble is that an invention, once made,
cannot be disinvented. The nuclear weapon has come to stay; it has become part
of the human condition. Man will have to live with it permanently: not only
through the next confrontation-crisis and the one after that; not only through
the next decade or century, but forever - that is, as long as mankind survives.
The indications are that it will not be for very long.
There are two main reasons which point to this
conclusion. The first is technical: as the devices of nuclear warfare become
more potent and easier to make, their spreading to young and immature as well as
old and arrogant nations becomes inevitable, and global control of their
manufacture impracticable. Within the foreseeable future they will be made and
stored in large quantities all over the globe among nations of all colours and
ideologies, and the probability that a spark which initiates the chain reaction
will be ignited sooner or later, deliberately or by accident, will increase
accordingly, until, in the long run, it approaches certainty. One might compare
the situation to a gathering of delinquent youths locked in a room full of
inflammable material who are given a box of matches - with the pious warning not
to use it.
The second main reason which points to a low
life-expectancy for homo sapiens in the post-Hiroshima era is the paranoid
streak revealed by his past record. A dispassionate observer from a more
advanced planet who could take in human history from Cro-Magnon to Auschwitz at
a single glance, would no doubt come to the conclusion that our race is in some
respects an admirable, in the main, however, a very sick biological product; and
that the consequences of its mental sickness far outweigh its cultural
achievements when the chances of prolonged survival are considered.
The most persistent sound which reverberates
through man's history is the beating of war drums. Tribal wars, religious wars,
civil wars, dynastic wars, national wars, revolutionary wars, colonial wars,
wars of conquest and of liberation, wars to prevent and to end all wars, follow
each other in a chain of compulsive repetitiveness as far as man can remember
his past, and there is every reason to believe that the chain will extend into
In the first twenty years of the post-Hiroshima era, between the years 0 and 20
P.H.. - or 1946 to 1966 according to our outdated calendar - forty wars fought
with conventional weapons were tabulated by the Pentagon;' and at least on two
occasions - Berlin 1950 and Cuba 1962 - we have been on the brink of nuclear
war. If we discard the comforts of wishful thinking, we must expect that the
focal areas of potential conflict will continue to drift across the globe like
high-pressure regions over a meteorological chart. And the only precarious
safeguard against the escalating of local into total conflict, mutual
deterrence, will, by its very nature, always remain dependent on the restraint
or recklessness of fallible key individuals and fanatical regimes. Russian
roulette is a game which cannot be played for long..."
2. On Reductionism
"....we are faced with two impressive
strongholds of reductionist orthodoxy.
One is the neo-Darwinian (or 'Synthetic') theory which holds that
evolution is the outcome of 'nothing but' chance mutations retained by
natural selection - a doctrine recently exposed to growing criticism,
which nevertheless is still taught as gospel truth. The other is the
behaviourist psychology of the
school which holds that all human behaviour can be 'explained, predicted
and controlled' by methods exemplified in the conditioning of rats and
pigeons. 'Values and meanings are nothing but defence mechanisms and
reaction formations' is another of Frankl's
telling quotes from a behaviourist textbook.
By its persistent denial of a place for values, meaning and purpose in
the interplay of blind forces, the reductionist attitude has cast its
shadow beyond the confines of science, affecting our whole cultural and
even political climate. Its philosophy may be epitomised by a last quote
from a recent college textbook, in which man is defined as 'nothing but a
complex biochemical mechanism, powered by a combustion system which
energises computers with prodigious storage facilities for retaining
Now the reductionist fallacy lies not in comparing man to a 'mechanism
powered by a combustion system' but in declaring that he is 'nothing
but' such a mechanism and that his activities consist of 'nothing but'
a chain of conditioned responses which are also found in rats. For it is
of course perfectly legitimate, and in fact indispensable, for the
scientist to try to analyse complex phenomena into their constituent
elements - provided he remains conscious of the fact that in the course of
the analyses something essential is always lost, because the whole is more
than the sum of its parts, and its attributes as a whole are more complex
than the attributes of its parts.
Thus the analysis of complex phenomena
elucidates only a certain segment or aspect of the picture and does not
entitle us to say that it is 'nothing but' this or that. Yet such
'nothing-but-ism' as it has been called, is still the - explicit or
implied - world-view of reductionist orthodoxy. If it were to be taken
literally, man could be ultimately defined as consisting of nothing but 90
per cent water and 10 per cent minerals - a statement which is no doubt
true, but not very helpful...."
3. The Parable of the Unsolicited Gift...
"The crucial point is that in creating the human brain,
evolution has wildly overshot the mark... The archaeological evidence
indicates that the earliest representative of homo sapiens - the Cro-Magnon
man who enters the scene a hundred thousand years ago or earlier - was already
endowed with a brain which in size and shape is indistinguishable from ours.
But however paradoxical it sounds, he hardly made any use of that luxury
organ. He remained an illiterate cave dweller and for millennium after millennium,
went on manufacturing spears, bows and arrows of the same primitive type,
while the organ which was to take man to the moon was already there, ready for
use, inside his skull. Thus the evolution of the brain overshot the mark by
a time factor of astronomical magnitude. This paradox is not easy to
grasp; in the The
Ghost in the Machine, I tried to illustrate it
by a bit of science fiction which I called the parable of the unsolicited
"There was once a poor, illiterate shopkeeper in an Arab bazaar, called Ali, who,
not being very good at doing sums, was always cheated by his customers - instead of
cheating them, as it should be. So he prayed every night to Allah for the present of an abacus -
that venerable contraption for adding and subtracting by pushing beads along wires.
But some malicious djin forwarded his prayers to the wrong branch of the
heavenly Mail Order Department, and so one morning, arriving at the bazaar, Ali found his
stall transformed into a multi-storey, steel-framed building, housing the latest
computer with instrument panels covering all the walls, with thousands of fluorescent
oscillators, dials, magic eyes, et cetera; and
an instruction book of several hundred pages - which, being illiterate, he could not read.
However, after days of useless fiddling with this or that dial, he flew
into a rage and started kicking a shiny, delicate panel. The shocks disturbed one of the
machine's millions of electronic circuits, and after a while Ali discovered to his delight
that if he kicked that panel, say, three times and afterwards five times, one of the dials
showed the figure eight. He thanked Allah for having sent him such a pretty abacus, and
continued to use the machine to add up two and three, happily unaware that it was capable
of deriving Einstein's equations in a jiffy, or predicting the orbits of planets and
stars, thousands of years ahead.
Ali's children, then his grandchildren, inherited the machine and the
secret of kicking the same panel; but it took hundreds of generations until they learned
to use it even for the purpose of simple multiplication. We ourselves are Ali's
descendants, and though we have discovered many other ways of putting the machine to work,
we have still only learned to utilise a very small fraction of the potentials of its
million of circuits. For the unsolicited gift is of course the human brain. As for the
instruction book, it is lost - if it ever existed. Plato maintains that it did once - but
that is hearsay..."
4 . From the Conclusion
shall conclude this book with a kind of credo, the origin of which dates some
forty years back, to the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 I spent several months in
the Nationalists’ prison in Seville, as a suspected spy, threatened with
execution. During that period, in solitary confinement, I had some
experiences which seemed to me close to the mystics ‘oceanic feeling’ and
which I subsequently tried to describe in an autobiographical account. (The
1953) I called those experiences ‘the hours by the
window’. The extract which follows, though rather loosely formulated,
reflects what one may call ‘an agnostic’s credo’:
‘hours by the window’ had filled me with a direct certainty that a
higher order of reality existed, and that it alone invested existence with
narrow world of sensory perception constituted the first order; this
perceptual world was enveloped by the conceptual world which contained
phenomena not directly perceivable, such as atoms, electromagnetic fields or
curved space. This second order of reality filled in the gaps and gave
meaning to the absurd patchiness of the sensory world.
the same manner, the third order of reality enveloped, interpenetrated,
and gave meaning to the second. It contained ‘occult’ phenomena which
could not be apprehended or explained either on the sensory or on the
conceptual level, and yet occasionally invaded them like spiritual meteors
piercing the primitive’s vaulted sky. Just as the conceptual order showed
up the illusions and distortions of the senses, so the third order revealed
that time, space and causality, that the isolation, separateness, and spatio
temporal limitations of the self were merely optical illusions on the next
illusions of the first type were taken at face value, then the sun was
drowning every night in the sea, and a mote in the eye was larger than the
moon; and if the conceptual world was mistaken for ultimate reality, the
world became an equally absurd tale, told by an idiot or by idiot-electrons
which caused little children to be run over by motor cars, and little
Andalusian peasants to be shot through heart, mouth and eyes, without rhyme
or reason. Just as one could not feel the pull of a magnet with one’s
skin, so one could not hope to grasp in cognate terms the nature of ultimate
reality. It was a text written in invisible ink; and though one could not
read it, the knowledge that it existed was sufficient to alter the texture
of one's existence, and make one's actions conform to the text.
liked to spin out this metaphor. The captain of a ship sets out with a
sealed order in his pocket which he is only permitted to open on the high
seas. He looks forward to that moment which will end all uncertainty; but
when the moment arrives and he tears the envelope open, he finds only an
invisible text which defies all attempts at chemical treatment. Now and then
a word becomes visible, or a figure denoting a meridian; then it fades
again. He will never know the exact wording of the order; nor whether he has
complied with it or failed in his mission. But his awareness of the order
in his pocket, even though it cannot be deciphered, makes him think and act
differently from the captain of a pleasure -cruiser or of a pirate ship.
also liked to think that the founders of religions, prophets, saints and
seers had at moments been able to read a fragment of the invisible text;
after which they had so much padded, dramatized and ornamented it, that
they themselves could no longer tell what parts of it were authentic...."