13 The Hunger For Synthesis
Freedom to Conform
Monod is not just a piece of history. His remarkable attempt to let science have its cake and eat it is still favoured today. It is not surprising that this combination made Chance and Necessity a best-seller and gave it great influence among scientists. It was one of the last really popular efforts to establish science as the true source of values. Its success no doubt owed much to Monod's making no effort to explain the discrepancy, relying instead on the dramatic rhetoric of open paradox—on simply saying a thing and then saying its opposite—a habit already common in Existentialist writings.
Monod could also, however, call on something more substantial lying behind the rhetoric, namely a faith. Existentialism is a credulous exultant faith in the human will as omnipotent, admirable and in effect an object of worship. Particular values or ideals are then exalted as supreme by the claim that they are the only values freely chosen by that will. The ideal that most commonly gets this arbitrary treatment is freedom itself, but Monod simply transferred the prize to knowledge, naming it, out of the blue, as the only end to be valued. All the other ‘highest human qualities’, such as ‘courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition’ and the rest, are (he wrote) only means to knowledge.1
If we ask why, we are simply told that this end has been chosen:
In the ethic of knowledge, it is the ethical choice of a primary value
that is the foundation… The ethic of knowledge does not impose itself on man; on the contrary, it is he who imposes it on himself
, making it the axiomatic
condition of authenticity for all discourse and all action… [All the same, no other choice is really available, because]… The ethic of knowledge that created the modern world is the only ethic compatible with it, the only one capable, once understood and accepted, of guiding its evolution.2
(Emphases are Monod's)
In this twenty-year-old formulation, then, there is no serious attempt to reconcile the two divergent claims about the status of science. I know of no more recent attempt to do it, and the intellectual climate has of course been getting steadily more hostile to the project. Officially, science grows ever narrower, ever more specialized, ever less willing to say anything about its relation to the world outside its journals. Even Existentialism, on which Monod relied, was already something of a bygone intellectual fashion at the time when he invoked it.
Many people, however, still search confusedly for a language in which to express the idea of science as a general saviour. The euphoric fantasies of some scientists about an endless, dazzling human future, to which we will come back shortly, are surely one symptom of such a hope. Another is the continued use for this purpose of moral idioms—such as the Existentialist one—which have in general been somewhat discredited, but are still called on because they are wide and obscure enough to do the job. Similarly, believers in the ‘omnicompetence of science’, especially in the United States, often still talk in a style extremely reminiscent of H.G. Wells.
In this sort of situation, where a lot of people are still trying to say things which the academics consider no longer defensible, it is often worth while going back to the more open statements that were made before that inhibition set in. Between the wars, it was widely believed that Marxism could solve the whole problem. We now stand at a point where it is becoming quite hard to see how anybody can ever have thought this. For that very reason, I think it is important for us to make that effort.
The Lure of the Articulate
Why did Marxism exert such a strong fascination on bright and learned intellectuals at that time? In particular, why was it so strongly welcomed as ‘scientific’ by people to whom that was an important recommendation, people who would have been suspicious and hostile towards anything that they had recognized as primarily a faith or creed? Why, for instance, did even people who had plenty of detailed objections to bring against Marxist theory, treat it with a respect that reads so oddly now?
For any one who lived through this epoch it is very striking to remember how highly Marxism used to score with an immense variety of sophisticated people. The notion of what is ‘scientific’ was then considerably wider. It could easily be used for large-scale, highly articulate theories on any subject-matter, though, for professional scientists themselves, an explicit link with physical science did increase the appeal. Engels had taken some trouble to supply this link for Marxism.
Even apart from this, though, the mere fact that Marxism was an elaborate, articulate theory impressed intellectuals extraordinarily. It often seduced even those who were both critical by nature and also disillusioned on many matters by long experience, like Bernard Shaw and the Webbs, and also scientists like Bernal and Haldane. It blinded them, both to gross faults in the theory itself, and to the huge gap between the whole mass of theory and the actual grim facts about the USSR. This experience has undoubtedly contributed to producing a widespread disillusion with theory in the West today, a philistine distrust of all thinking on general subjects.
The Underlying Drama
What made this acceptance possible, however, was surely the fact that Marxism was not only a theory but a faith, and in some ways a highly dramatic faith. Intellectuals are no more immune than other people to this kind of attraction, provided the packaging is one that they can accept. Once accepted, Marxism was emotionally very sustaining. It provided, in a most striking form, the promise of a better future, and it showed that future as approaching through a vast conflict of a kind that has tremendous emotional appeal. (Compare the lasting popularity of the Book of Revelation.)
This stress on conflict is the element which has made Marxism lastingly popular and nutritious in countries whose population is genuinely oppressed, and has no option but to fight its ruling class. Here it can strengthen idealism, making possible struggles against spiritual wickedness in high places which might have proved too discouraging without it.
This same stress on conflict is, however, also what has made it most deadly when it is professed by governments that are already in power. It gives such people a general excuse, allowing them to combine a sense of immediate emergency, justifying any sort of means against their opponents, with the confidence that their success in establishing the general happiness will vindicate these methods in the end. Notoriously, it blots out the extent to which, on a political scale, the means used will determine the end attained. This distortion of the relation between means and ends is important in understanding the fantasies that we shall have to consider.
Among intellectuals, Marxism attracted people who like the heroic because of its emphasis on conflict, and it reassured those among them who might have distrusted its purely emotional appeal by the cragginess of its texts. (At this level, it pays to be unintelligible. Ex-party members who have had to study the works, not just of Marx, Engels and Lenin but also of Stalin, can still testify to the stiffness of the ordeal.) For a time, this body of theory seemed to many thinkers to open an intellectual new Jerusalem, not just because it promised a millennium gained by conflict, but because it seemed to back this promise with a scientific status. It seemed like a means of extending the reliability of science over the whole area of practical thinking—a way of spreading it that would be free from doubtful value-judgments, since the theory was impartial, non-sectarian, essentially scientific. The modesty of science was to be combined with the constructive achievement of a new and central moral insight.
This hope appealed to the architectonic intelligence in many bright scientists. It satisfied that urge towards a general, comprehensive understanding which had brought them into science in the first place. It balanced the fragmentation of their specialized studies, allowing them to relate scientific aims to a wider humanitarian idealism. This was not a trifling gain; it was not a luxury. If we find no new way of making that relation—if nothing better now replaces Marxism—the loss will be serious. We are not in a position just to dance on the grave of Marx. We need to learn from his failures.
The Scientistic Project
The ideal of science which made Marxism seem appropriate has not changed. The hope at that time was that the demands of heroic Enlightenment puritanism were at last being met. A body of thought which was scientific because officially it owed nothing to feeling was available to save the world. To follow it simply involved subordinating all other ways of thinking—notably ethics and the other ‘humanities’—to science. This position was not really that of Marx, who was primarily a historian, and who spent much more of his time discussing metaphysics, economics and politics than attending to physical science. Nevertheless, he had made this claim to scientific status which was growing so important in his day, and, as the idea of science narrowed, Engels had taken great trouble to endorse it.
Thus there emerged the idea that the synthesis which intelligent scientists hungered for could be found by starting from their own end—that physical science was, so to speak, always at the bottom, supplying the foundations on which alone other kinds of thought could be built. This gravitational metaphor is, as we have noted earlier, very strong and persistent. Descartes used it, putting physics at the bottom of the pile, and the picture of ethics and literature as something up in the air—something added perhaps as a pleasing, optional roof-garden—still possesses many people.
A moment's thought can show up its hollowness. Why would we do physics at all unless we had standards by which we judge it to be important? How would we choose between these standards if we did not know how to think morally? How, again, would we form such standards in the first place if our feelings and our imaginations had not been educated by many serious comparisons? Most of these comparisons must be presented by others who have thought seriously about them, so they take the form of history and literature.
And so on. Of course the point is not that the humanities supply the real foundation, but that the whole gravitational metaphor is wrong. Reasoning proceeds in all directions. The kind of ‘support’ that any given idea needs depends on the kind of doubt that is being raised about it at the time. If the doubt is a moral one, then the considerations it immediately needs are moral ones. Till they have been worked out, all the physical discoveries in the world will not help it. Of course, after the moral aspect has been brought in focus, those discoveries may happen to be relevant to solving the problem. But the idea that they are the universal, all-sufficient starting-point is naive and empty.
That idea, however, is just as prevalent in much Western thought today as it ever was in Marxism. It certainly formed one main strand in the conversion of considerable scientists such as Haldane and Bernal. The other strand was their credulity about the USSR, working on their quite genuine indignation against the oppression of the poor.
Here again, with hindsight, it is easy to see the effect of idealism acting on strongly combative temperaments and leading people who were fiercely—and often rightly—critical of their own society to be childishly uncritical of a distant one, even when they visited it often. To resist this bias called for a very firm philosophical balance, which, among this group, perhaps only Joseph Needham possessed. The others, clever and learned though they were, were unaware that they were indulging in romantic projection of their desires on to remote and unknown scenes as an escape from immediate and disagreable problems. This kind of unawareness, unfortunately, is still with us, and it forms an important element in the future-fantasies we have to consider.
If it seems to us now that these people were exceptionally naive, we should perhaps remember that it is always easy to see the errors of one's forebears. The level of public credulity does not really change much. People are always straining at gnats and swallowing camels; the main change is in the particular camels that will go down at any given time, and even the nature of those camels does not always change. When the Soviet government sacked Vavilov and his school of highly effective agronomists in 1948 to replace them by Lysenko's set of green-fingered charlatans, it gave exactly the same reasons for doing so that have been given recently for closing so many university departments—Vavilov was not getting practical results fast enough. The future of Russian agriculture was indeed sacrificed at that time to abstract economic and political theory. But it was certainly not the last thing to be so sacrificed.
The Choice of Faiths
Those who accepted Marxism between the wars mainly thought that they were doing so because they were austere, realistic, modern people who had outgrown the consolations of religion, and were responding to purely rational, scientific arguments. If we now reject those arguments, we shall probably conclude that they did it because they needed a faith. But why this faith?
It is worth while looking at the others that were available. Seekers for faith tended to find Marxism more nutritious than Freudianism, partly because it was much more optimistic—it really did promise a better future—and partly because it was larger, more comprehensive, more unifying. Marxism had something positive to say and recommend about almost every aspect of human activity, whereas Freudian thinking concentrated on the inner problems of the individual.
People did, of course, turn to Freudian thinking for their personal salvation, as they still do. But in general this had to be a private salvation, one which involved to some extent turning one's back on the problems of an irredeemable world, rather like Gnostics and Manichees in an earlier age. This therapeutic refuge is of course still available, and in the United States it is now a very important element in shaping people's conception of salvation. But to make it a central element demands a depth of individualism which is rarer on this side of the Atlantic—perhaps in the end a kind of moral solipsism.
This extreme individualism is indeed itself also a possible faith, and one for which there has been a good deal of propaganda in this century—propaganda which has roots in both Nietzsche and Social Darwinism, and prophets as various as Sartre, Ayn Rand and the sociobiologists. In another fifty years, writers looking back and wondering how their parents can possibly have been so foolish will perhaps be heard marvelling at the romantic excesses of twentieth-century individualism, and noting how its economic expression in monetarism and exaltation of market forces attracted just the same kind of earnest intellectuals who had earlier been converts to Marxism.
In the twenties and thirties, however, monetarism was not available. The Eastern religions were not widely considered either, though indeed Haldane—always ahead of his time—did settle in India after the Lysenko affair had disillusioned him with Stalinism, and became seriously interested in Hinduism, which had always attracted him.
The faith that, along with Marxism, was most attractive to British intellectuals at that time was Roman Catholicism, which also offered fairly tough intellectual argumentation, was also applicable to every aspect of life and, of course, also proposed an eventual happy ending. (Fascism, which was a much less wide-ranging theory, did not usually become attractive as a faith unless it was combined either with Roman Catholicism or with mysticism about race.) But the distinguished intellectual converts to Rome tended to be people from the humanities—Edith Sitwell, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene. For people who put their faith in science, Marxism was the obvious option, a challenge which they had to meet if they became involved in general reflection at all. You had, as it were, to show reason why you were not a Marxist.
The only serious competitor with Marxism for this role was evolutionism—the Lamarckian belief in a vast escalator-process by which the human race has been brought to the top of the world's animal populations and will be carried on securely to an indefinite series of further glories in the future. The reason why Waddington could view Marxism with a certain detachment was that he—like Julian Huxley—was deeply committed to evolutionism, and believed it to be wholly scientific.
This belief is itself strange, because, officially, the current Darwinian view does not see evolution as an escalator, but as a sinuous, branching, radiating pattern—not a staircase but perhaps a bush or a seaweed. Life-forms diverge from each other to meet particular needs in their various environments. Our own species figures then only as one among the many, with no special status or guarantee of supremacy. This notion has, however, always been found far less exciting than the escalator model, which has been enormously popular ever since it was promoted by Herbert Spencer, in spite of Darwin's own rejection of it and its evident complete irrelevance to his theory.3
This belief in an endless evolutionary escalator exalting the human race, which is often seen as part of science, is a prime example of the dreams, dramas, myths or fantasies out of which faiths are constructed to fill the vacuum which is left when more familiar ones are abandoned. This process in itself ought not to surprise us. In any profession or sect, seductive but irrelevant ideas do get passed round and added to the official core as easily as pheromones in an ants' nest.
For instance, it might be said that the Christian church, too, early acquired some ideas that would probably have much surprised its founder—among others, a special objection to sexual activity, an approval of war (‘crusades’), and a strong identification with the forces of worldly government. To later generations, these things have often looked essentially Christian. The only reason why we expect this kind of thing not to happen to ‘the Church Scientific’, as T.H. Huxley called it, is that science has loudly and publicly forsworn them. But it is rather simple-minded to put one's trust in such forswearings.