Monday, March 26, 2012
Remembering Arthur Koestler
One of my most favorite authors has been Arthur Koestler, who initiated me into the hyper world of books and ideas. Arthur Koestler caught my imagination very early in life and his influence lasted long. He was a great polymath and, from late nineteen forties to early nineteen eighties, he enjoyed great reputation as a unique intellectual who moved easily in such disparate disciplines as politics, science and literature. He was a great champion of freedom and fought authoritarianism of both the Right and the Left. In his young age he was a political activist, was sentenced to death by Franco but escaped miraculously. He wrote very good novels and at least one of his novels, “Darkness at Noon” is regarded as a classic and has since been translated into more than hundred languages. His legendry account of how he was disillusioned with Marxism has gone under the rubric “The God that failed” and has since become a political classic. He wrote on philosophy and methodology of science and rocked scientific establishment with his writings in early seventies. Arthur Koestler’s world was not simple and linear; it was exotic, colorful, and mesmeric and had large cosmic horizons.
Fighting Authoritarianism: Darkness at Noon
Arthur Koestler was a Hungarian Jew and was born in Budapest in 1905. He left education at an early age, when he was studying for engineering and joined Zionism. The Central European Jews in those days, in the words of Eric Hobsbawm, had only two options: either to become a Zionist or to become a Communist. Soon he took avidly to science journalism, became editor of a science journal and interviewed such great scientists as Louise De Broglie and Heisenberg. Later on he also had an opportunity of interviewing Albert Einstein. He did a short honey-moon with Marxism too, but was soon disillusioned with it and openly opposed it. He also joined fight against Franco’s fascist forces and was captured and sentenced to death by the fascist regime; however, while awaiting the sentence he miraculously received reprieve.
The “Arrow in the Blue” and “The Invisible Writing” constitute his autobiographical writings that are full of action, drama and his early engagement with political ideologies and his fight against the forces of fascism and communism. In late 1940s he was to write one of the greatest novels of all times, “Darkness at Noon.” This novel powerfully portrays the dark side of Soviet Marxism. One rarely comes across a novel that so vividly describes the communist world of investigations, enquiries and trials and shows how the traditional power structure and the ideology worked hand-in-hand to end freedom of human beings. It also shows, with deep psychological insight, how the communist dictators and bureaucracy retained their power by eliminating dissenters and those who challenged the system. The novel shows deftly how Soviet Communism carefully managed trials and how victims often confessed their guilt and cleared way to their own liquidation and led to perpetuation of power in the name of the ideology. Translated into more than a hundred languages, “Darkness at Noon” is regarded as the most influential and penetrating novel yet written on the secret and subterranean world of Soviet Marxism.
Astride Two Cultures: “Sleepwalkers” and “Act of Creation”
After the end of the Second World War, however, his writing took a different turn. He turned to philosophy of science and creativity. In nineteen fifties British scientist and novelist C. P. Snow held that the two cultures, science and humanities, are irreconcilably different from each other and that any attempt to explain them in a single framework may not work. This stirred a great debate on the nature of science and nature of humanities and led to examination of many important ideas.
Arthur Koestler too was toying with novel ideas. He was trying to build a synthesis, a larger system of ideas that would explain both science and humanities in one common and unified framework. Reading Arthur Koestler’s works is a wonderful and enjoyable exercise for the sheer audacity of the attempt at synthesis of so many disciplines. Koestler’s writing touches many disciplines simultaneously. It talks of scientific discoveries, evolution, psychology, creative writing, mysticism and spiritualism. In one single argument he invoked and sought to understand the basic patterns that lay behind such disparate theories and ideas as biological evolution, literary theories and other scientific theories and transcendentalism.
It is true that Koestlerian synthesis was not sustainable and did not work except for a while. It was too ambitious and too sweeping. The fact, however, remains that this novel synthesis brought great insights into creative processes in scientific discovery, literary creativity and all forms of art. In the matter of relationship between science and man, his trilogy--- “The Sleepwalkers”, “The Act of Creation” and “The Ghost in the Machine”--- by far remains unsurpassed both in scope and contents. “Sleepwalkers” was a patient and thorough enquiry into man’s changing vision of the cosmos from antiquity to the times of Galileo and Copernicus and it showed very insightfully how science has progressed through a process of trial and error and how men of science whom we often blindly worship as heroes also at times were not free of dogma. It is a philosophical discussion on increasing schism between science and religion on one plane and faith and reason on another. It presented a historical and sociological perspective on science and discovery. It demolishes the view that scientists are heroes and the world, a villain, a view that dominated the discourse in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. “Sleepwalkers” demonstrates that science is a process of trial and error, a slow and non-linear process of learning that moves to and fro and then consolidates itself and moves on again. He also mentions that science was not a crusade against religion and in practice religion did not work against science. Indeed in most of the cases the early scientists and thinkers who greatly revolutionized our ideas were themselves clergies and churchmen. It also traced increasing schism between faith and reason in the field of knowledge and pointed to increasing schizophrenia afflicting man’s world of progress. The progress of science, argues Koestler, slowly broke down the unity between science and religion, and faith and reason. Koestler’s argument that the traditional systems and institutions of knowledge were not entirely obscurantist and in many cases those traditions were fairly enlightened did not go down well with the scientific establishment.
His argument was that with more and more progress science has come to excessively rely on reductionism. And with increasing schism between faith and reason, reductionism itself is progressively becoming barren and unproductive, and in turn science is neglecting phenomena that it considers irrelevant. Although these opinions sounded strange to the older scientists, the young generation of scientists saw some point here. Koestler, through his Alpbach Symposium “Beyond Reductionism” also gave voice to the concerns expressed by the generation of young scientists and sought to break the barrier imposed by reductionism.
“The Act of Creation”, the second book in this trilogy, goes further and tries to explore basic patterns behind all forms of creativity. “The Act of Creation” was an enquiry into all the creative activities suggesting a common and similar pattern at work behind all creative works, be it a scientific discovery, humor, mysticism, self-transcendence or a work of literature. With numerous case studies and examples drawn from different disciplines, Koestler concludes that there is remarkable uniformity in the patterns behind all forms of creativity: scientific discovery, literature and humor. The last book in this trilogy, “The Ghost in the Machine” is some speculative writing based on the insights gained in earlier volumes in this trilogy and provides some clues as to how the mind and the body may be working together and how species may be slowly evolving. In some writings towards the end, Koestler indicated a possibility that something may have gone wrong during the process of evolution, resulting into some disparateness in the growth of Neo-Cortex and the Limbic brain in human beings. This he would say may be the beginning of the end of human race, a conclusion he drew, perhaps, without much conviction. We need not dwell much on this conclusion as any such hasty judgment on human race is not worth contesting seriously. However, in the process of arriving at this conclusion, Koestler discusses many brilliant and original ideas and speculates on them, an exercise that is interesting, insightful and rewarding.
The trilogy, “The Sleepwalkers”, “Act of Creation” and “Ghost in the Machine”, was an attempt at unifying faith and reason as also science and religion to understand fully the world of man. Increasing schism between faith and reason on one hand and religion and science on the other, Koestler would argue, is the source of all problems in the modern world. And hence he wanted to unify faith and reason in a framework to somehow reverse the process of separation between the two that had begun with the enlightenment. Koestlerian synthesis of faith and reason was also prompted by uneasiness in the scientific community in the sixties and early seventies that were largely directed against too much of reductionism in the methods of science that tended to neglect significant findings.
Koestler’s “The Case of the Midwife Toad” can be likened to a mystery book of science. But it is also an account of how the scientists and the world of science is still mired in the familiar and the furrowed world of jealousy, hatred, politics and blindness to new ideas. He tells the tragic story of a brilliant Austrian scientist Paul Kammerer, who committed suicide after allegations that he tampered with some samples in experiments that were trying to demonstrate how evolution would follow a Lamarckian path rather than a Darwinian one. He also wrote a controversial but important book “The Roots of Coincidence”, which examines discipline of parapsychology. He was of the view that the horizons of the scientific investigations should be broadened to include even such phenomena that are overtly non-scientific and non-rational.
Beyond Reductionism : Human! All too human!!
Although the novelist-scientist Snow perceived considerable distance between the science and the liberal arts, there still was and always is a case for looking at their unity for both are valid ways of looking at the world, perceiving the world and interpreting the world. Both are results of observation and contemplation of a curious mind that wants to explore what exists. It is true that Koestlerian synthesis was not sustainable and did not work except for a while. The fact, however, remains that this novel synthesis brought great insights into creative processes in scientific discovery, literary creativity and all forms of art. Koestlerian synthesis was bound to fail, sooner or later, for it was too ambitious---trying to unify faith and reason. It is not important that it failed. What is important is that in the process it gave deep insights into creative processes and human behavior. The two cultures still remain fairly separate and all attempts to reconcile them in a unified framework have failed. And yet if a fair amount of friendly and useful trespassing is seen here, it is solely due to realization that both the cultures are complementary and have their origin in the human mind that tries to comprehend the universe in different ways. Co-existence of two vastly different cultures may not be schizophrenia after all. Indeed, continuing with two different cultures in human mind is a unique feature of human mind and needs to be read as a sign of wisdom.
What an irony! A person who set out to lambast Skinner’s behaviorism ended up giving deep insights to the very science of behaviorism. These are also the unintended benefits of purely intellectual criticism----serendipity, if you choose to define it.
Koestler’s greatest contribution to the scientific world was his Alpbach Symposium which gave voice to a generation of young scientists and made the scientific world look beyond reductionism. He helped in bringing science and its processes close to people and showed that science is very much a human process, correcting its own wrongs and in the process creating further wrongs. Posterity would also remember him as the author of that brilliant novel, “Darkness at Noon” that laid threadbare the nature of communist regime.