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Eighth Lecture. Possible Minds

Christopher Longuet-Higgins

Now that we have done our best to expose the severe limitations on our present understanding of the phenomenon of mind, perhaps I may be excused for throwing academic caution to the winds and arguing from what is to what might be. I want to begin by asking whether, and how, modern science has fundamentally changed our thinking about ourselves and our relation to the cosmos. Allowing that it has, and that for better or worse these changes cannot be reversed, what does our new world view imply about the future development of humanity and the possible existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the cosmos? And finally, whether or not such speculations seem to be well founded, how does our present image of man as an intelligent being affect the traditional notion of purpose, as applied both to individual human beings and to the universe as a whole? To let one's hair down in this way is to incur the risks to which Teilhard de Chardin exposed himself in his book The Phenomenon of Man; all I can hope is that some of these issues would have been deemed by Lord Gifford to be relevant to Natural Theology.

Christopher Hill has recently issued a warning against buying total history from partial historians, and the history of science can be a dangerously partial study. But even the Marxist historian, who insists that the development of science is driven by economic pressures, cannot ignore the extent to which each of the great scientific revolutions has altered man's view of himself. The Copernican revolution placed him in a much bigger universe than before, though not at its centre. The Newtonian revolution established the universality of natural law, so that he could feel secure against the whims of arbitrary forces. The Darwinian revolution placed him at the peak of a vast evolutionary development, and post-Darwinian biology has shown him where to look for the secrets of his inheritance. Relativity and quantum mechanics have established him as the observer who cannot be omitted from any complete account of matter and motion; and the computer revolution has enabled him to begin to construct working models of his own cognitive processes. Whether, as the Victorians confidently predicted, this increase in scientific understanding has been accompanied by steady progress in human well-being, is open to question. But it could hardly be denied that twentieth-century man has a model of the cosmic machinery which is incomparably grander and more comprehensive than that of his great-grandparents.

At this point the question inevitably arises; does any amount of machinery make a machine? Or is the cosmos rather to be compared with one of those assemblages of bolts, levers, crankshafts and pressure gauges that adorn so many exhibitions of contemporary sculptures? Let us pursue the comparison for a moment. It could be argued that what distinguishes modern science most sharply from its predecessors is its internal coherence. We are no longer prepared to regard the occurrence of an earthquake, or the appearance of a comet, as an intervention by some cosmic artist bent upon relating the nuts and bolts of human history to the pressure gauge of the earth's crust by artistic principles beyond our comprehension. We expect a scientific account of earthquakes to relate their position and intensity to such things as the stresses in the interior of the earth and the presence of faults in the overlying rocks. And by and large such accounts are forthcoming. The geographer turns to the geologist, and the geologist looks to the geophysicist, for information that will help him make sense of the seismic data and, with luck, to predict the location of future upheavals. The aesthetic principles which unite the various bits of cosmic machinery are not arbitrary and whimsical but surprisingly coherent and intelligible; far more intelligible than we have any right to expect. The pursuit of science—and a very rewarding pursuit it is—abundantly justifies our implicit faith in the ultimate intelligibility of nature. For whatever reason, the universe in which we live seems to have a great deal more internal logic than a mere assembly of spare parts—if such an understatement were not an insult to such a beautiful creation.

In using the word ‘beautiful’ I think I speak for the vast majority of people who have worked at the frontiers of science. No-one who looks closely at nature can fail to be moved by her austere beauty, or to feel a sense of inevitability that this beauty would one day be beheld by her children. One feels privileged to possess the equations which describe the motion of every drop of water in the ocean, and to know that the forces which hold the moon in the sky are exerted by the remotest masses in the universe. We now know too much ever to believe again that the world is a mere jumble of events of which we are the helpless victims.

Having, I hope, generated some feeling of surprise that we should be able to understand the world even as well as we do, and that its investigation should be so deeply satisfying intellectually, I will now move on to consider whether this is merely a contingent fact about ourselves, or whether it is a manifestation of some phenomenon which we might expect to occur elsewhere in space and time. From our own point of view, certainly, twentieth-century science is a very special phenomenon, unprecedented in the history of our species and unparalleled in the development of any other, as far as we know. Modern science seems to be a clear case of ‘hitting the jackpot’, to borrow Waddington's happy phrase. It could hardly have been foreseen that such a straightforward idea as that of the controlled experiment would lead so far in such a short time and give such power over our material environment. But there is something about our science which seems to differentiate it from biological inventions such as the elephant's trunk. It is not just useful—it seems to be true. I am not of course denying that much of science is provisional, or claiming that all its present concepts are sacrosanct; in many ways it is a very imperfect edifice. But I could not concede without cowardice or dishonesty that there might be as much truth in astrology as in modern astronomy, or in necromancy as in the social sciences. In science as in scholarship generally, one aims to get the right answers to one's questions. There will admittedly be differences in style between different formulations of the same knowledge; but nothing can alter the content of Mendeleeff's discovery that there is a periodicity in the chemical properties of the elements, or the fact, established by Watson and Crick, that the two strands of DNA are complementary, with all that that implies about biological replication.

One could argue, as Eddington did, that the laws of science are ultimately of our own making, and that is why we have the impression that the universe is governed by immutable and universal laws. Eddington's argument has considerable attractions, as being the only attempt by a modern scientist to account for the existence as well as the content of scientific laws. The laws of physics, he said, arise ultimately from the way in which physicists measure things; and he proceeded to derive the properties of protons and electrons from certain basic principles of measurement. Unfortunately he failed to predict anything that was not known at the time, and much has been discovered since, so his ideas are no longer taken seriously by professional physicists. But in retrospect it is difficult to see how Eddington's principle could ever have sufficed to account for the extraordinary reliability of natural law, not only in scientific laboratories, but also when no physicist is around to check that every proton and every electron is conforming to his methods of measurement. One cannot escape the feeling that there really is a natural order, and that at last, after thousands of millions of years, one of the creatures of that order has awakened to its existence and has penetrated with his imagination not only the remote corners of space and time but even the atoms and molecules of which he himself is composed. Let us turn a blind eye, for the moment, to his terrifying moral immaturity, and ask whether his existence is of any significance at all.

In an earlier lecture, when we were discussing the evolutionary development of mind, I remarked that once evolution had got under way it was pretty well bound to produce something interesting, and we like to think that we are specially interesting. The remark was, of course, deliberately paradoxical in that for something to be interesting there must be someone to take an interest in it, and the existence of such a person is at least as interesting as those things in which he is interested. So we really ought to be asking the thoroughly scientific question whether the existence of intelligent life is unique to this planet, or whether its appearance is a general phenomenon, which we may therefore expect to have occurred elsewhere in the universe. In our present state of ignorance we are in no position to answer this question, though serious scientists have actually begun to scour the heavens for evidence on the matter. Can we stretch our imaginations enough to think of the forms that such intelligences might take, and to hazard predictions about our own descendants on this planet?

The creation of imaginary worlds inhabited by imaginary beings is a literary tradition which has been honoured by writers as respectable as Homer and George Orwell; it is now fully accepted as a vehicle of social comment. So I will single out some of the recurring themes of this tradition, where they seem to touch on the question of possible minds. Let us start with one which often sends a chill down the spine, namely the thought of ‘alien life forms’ as we might meet them in the pages of H. G. Wells or on the cinemascope screen. The Bug-Eyed Monsters and the Little Green Men horrify us on first acquaintance not so much because of their twisted minds but because of their hideous bodies. Only when we see such monstrosities do we realise just how much we take our own bodies for granted as the miraculous pieces of engineering that they undoubtedly are. It is a besetting sin of the academic to dissociate the life of the mind from that of the body which sustains it. One can all too easily forget, when contemplating the nature of intelligence, how profoundly our modes of thought and perception are dependent upon the sense and limbs with which nature has endowed us. When, in The Merchant of Venice, Shylock is moved to protest his humanity, his first words are not about his mind but about his body:

‘Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions?’

It could well be supposed that the technological spree on which humanity has recently embarked is likely to come to grief unless we can learn to respect our bodies as much as the minds of which we are so inordinately proud. The physical performances of running over rough ground, or even of untying a parcel, are at least as remarkable as the ability to solve quadratic equations, at which computers beat us hollow. In many ways our most remarkable faculties are not those for which we claim special distinction, but those which we share with the humble beasts.

Another idea which haunts the imaginative writer is that of the artificial man, be it a Frankenstein, a Universal Robot or Stanley Kubrick's computer Hal, which is capable of taking command of an expedition to Jupiter. In the pages of science fiction the artificial man appears either as a helpful assistant or as a threat to the human race, according to the design of the computer program that controls it. What might count as virtue or ambition in such a being is assumed to be clear from our own experience of such qualities. The artificial man is none other than our own image reflected in the distorting mirror of modern technology. Its bulging brain-case accommodates an intelligence which computer scientists burn to emulate; an intelligence pure and logical, to which any concern with human beings and their tiresome affairs is at best a regrettable necessity. The means whereby the artificial man is to perceive the world, to interpret the behaviour of non-artificial people, and to behave sensibly and gracefully, are of course matters on which much expensive research urgently needs to be done. Until the results are forthcoming we shall not know how soon the human race is likely to become dispensable, or what sort of mind will be ruling this planet after we are gone.

A modified version of this fantasy is that in which the minds of the future are only semi-artificial. In a recent enquiry addressed to members of a scientific club I belong to, an influential American research agency asked for views about the desirability of constructing information-processing systems which would incorporate both computing equipment and human beings, whose brains, it was recognised, were in some ways superior to existing computers. To allay any possible anxiety the assurance was given that no plans had been contemplated for making direct electrical connections between computers and human brains. Here again we have an area which is clearly ripe for technical exploration, though my own feeling in the matter is that the most reliable input to the human brain is through the human senses, and the most informative output from it is what people say and do. We are free to form our own opinions on the ethics of experiments involving ‘human’ nervous systems; all one can hope is that people will not be so foolish as to do experiments which are not only inhumane but intellectually misguided into the bargain.

An altogether more engaging line of speculation about the development of mind begins with the thought that human beings are at their best when communicating with their fellows—that indeed no human being is complete on his own. Human society is compared to a multicellular organism, in which the individual cells are supported and restrained by one another. May we not look forward to a further step in evolution, to an enhanced intimacy of communication which creates, in some real sense, a collective consciousness? Already, with television and mass transport, we can look in on people all over the world and begin, or so we think, to see life through their eyes as well as through our own. Need there be any limit to this increased awareness of other human beings, and of the astonishing universe in which we all live?

The concept of the corporate society is as old as philosophy, and has been the cornerstone of some of the great religions. No-one would dare challenge it as an ideal, though some people are prepared to forgo its standards in the means which they recommend for its ultimate achievement. The corporate society raises, however, the central question of political philosophy, namely the right relation between the welfare of a society and the wants of the individuals composing it. In the human body each cell must be subject to the laws of the whole, or the organism will sicken and die. But is the individual human being to be sacrificed to the demands of the state? Common humanity seems to dictate otherwise. As yet human societies are not genuine organisms; the things we value most in our civilisation are not the pyramids but the achievements of free men, and we reserve the right, as individuals, to pass judgement on the societies of which we are members.

So we have to ask: are the new powers offered us by technology really helping us to move towards the ideal society in which we can speak without metaphor of a common mind? It is, of course, early to say; but of certain dangers we can already be aware. One danger is that of crudity in our judgements on other people, their actions and their achievements. With so much information pouring in about the mistakes, misdeeds and misfortunes of complete strangers, we are tempted to take the latest news at its face value, and to accept uncritically the snap judgements which go with hastily delivered reports. Would we want other people to sum up our problems and propensities as hurriedly as we are prepared to sum up theirs? I doubt it.

Another hazard which besets the mass media is what I will call one-way communication. If I witness a road accident on the Al, I may be in a position to help in some way—perhaps by administering first aid or telephoning for an ambulance if someone is seriously hurt. But if I see on the television some horror scene from Biafra, Belfast or Bangladesh, there is little or nothing I can do to mitigate the pain of the victims. Repeated experiences of this kind can hardly fail to dull my sensitivity to the misfortunes of others, or worse still, to replace a genuine compassion by a morbid and irresponsible curiosity. One cannot maintain for long a sense of responsibility if one lacks the power to fulfil it.

But even in morally neutral circumstances one-way communication may dull our sensibilities while seeming to enhance them. To a musician one of the most rewarding of musical experiences is to play in a group, with each member adapting his playing to that of the others, so that the performance approaches as nearly as humanly possible the product of a collective mind. A few years ago I had the unsettling experience of playing with a violinist whom I could simply not keep up with; he played faster and faster until we finally broke down and he then had the audacity to ask me why I was hurrying so. It turned out that he had been practising with a record of the piano accompaniment, and I suddenly realised that he must have formed the habit of playing slightly ahead of the record. This did not matter so long as the accompanist was deaf to his playing, but proved quite disastrous in a situation demanding genuine musical co-operation. Or, to take another example, rather nearer home: even such an innocuous medium as the formal lecture can fail to spread enlightenment if the lecturer is unable to read the faces of his audience. One need not go so far as to suggest that one-way communication is invariably worse than no communication at all; but one may well doubt whether it will bring us much closer to that community of mind which we would like to think of as a characteristic of the ideal society.

Let me try to draw some of these threads together. Whatever one's guesses about the other inhabitants of this universe, or about the quality of their minds, we cannot doubt that the invention of science has been a great intellectual leap by our own species, perhaps an even greater one than the invention of language, upon which the pursuit of science obviously depends. In so far as science suggests to us the forms that other intelligences might take, or the kind of society that our descendants might create, it holds up a mirror to our own nature and warns us not to ignore our physical character, or put too much trust in technology, in planning the brave new world of tomorrow. We cannot yet tell whether the emergence of mind is a general phenomenon of which we are merely one instance, but if it is, would we be able to give a good account of ourselves if summoned to judgement by wiser beings than we are? And this raises the last question I would like to discuss: does our new knowledge of the world, and our new power over it, enable us to see any more clearly where we ought to be going, or how to get there?

I am not one of those who believe that we can learn moral lessons from evolution, or that human beings are under an obligation to bow to man-made laws of history. But there is a principle which we cannot afford to ignore, and which has actually been elevated into a moral principle in the Islamic religion, namely the Law of Cause and Effect. Whatever one's ethical system it will be of little use unless one can predict the consequences of different courses of action. One thing science has done for us has been to increase by an order of magnitude both the range of possible human objectives and our knowledge of how to achieve them. And at last we are beginning to understand ourselves properly, and to see the need to match our morality and our technology to the minds and bodies with which nature has equipped us.

But these remarks do not directly address the question whether there could be said to be a cosmic purpose, to which human goals and plans should conform. To such a difficult question it would be absurd for me to offer an answer. But perhaps the question can be replaced by a more practical one: if there were a cosmic purpose, how could it best be discovered?! And here perhaps is where science really comes into its own. Because if this most recent product of the human mind has any value beyond the power which it gives us to push things and people around, it must surely be seen as an opening of our eyes to the true nature of the universe and our relation to it. In order to discern a cosmic purpose we must be able to see what the world is really like, though at any particular time our vision will inevitably be clouded to some degree by ignorance and prejudice. Perhaps when the vision is clearer and brighter our descendants will grow into such an intimate relation with the universe that their own purposes become merged with those of the world whose consciousness they embody. We ourselves must be content with the thought that it is better to travel hopefully than to arrive.



I think we must all be grateful to Christopher for the elegant way in which, in the first part of his paper, he displayed the connections between scientific truth and cosmic beauty. Truth is not beauty and beauty is not truth, but the two concepts are more closely connected than is allowed for in many philosophies of science. This is shown, among other things, by the use made in choosing between hypotheses of the aesthetic criteria of elegance and simplicity.

I would maintain, without attempting here to prove, that any intelligence, human or otherwise, which was capable of possessing the truth about the universe of science, must also be an intelligence capable of appreciating its beauty. But in a world in which there are no intelligent beings, there is neither truth nor beauty. If there is an intelligent and eternal God, then of course truth and beauty are equally eternal. He knows, and always has known, all truth and delights and always has delighted in all beauty. But if there is no God, then I do not see how to make sense of some of the remarks which Christopher made in his lecture. I do not see for instance, how there could be aesthetic principles connecting together the various bits of cosmic machinery. I do not see how there could be any cosmic purposes to which our own purposes may eventually become merged. It may be, I do not know, that when Christopher was expressing agnosticism about the existence of cosmic purposes he was equally expressing agnosticism about the existence of God. It does seem to me that cosmic purposes without God are nonsense.

I'd like next to defend the unique interest and importance of intelligence against Christopher's rather hearty remarks about the importance of the body and the need to defend it against academics. The physical performances, he said, of running over rough ground or even of untying a parcel, are at least as remarkable as the ability to solve quadratic equations at which computers beat us hollow. I must repeat that computers beat us hollow at solving quadratic equations only in the sense in which clocks beat us hollow at telling the time, but let's waive that. The physical performance of untying a parcel is not a remarkable performance by the untier. If it shows anything remarkable it shows something remarkable about the creator of the untier, whether that creator was God or nature, or both. The reason why Christopher is impressed by it is that he thinks to himself: ‘What a mind somebody would have to have in order to be able to construct a robot to untie a parcel’. What really impresses him is the mentality latent in the physical procedure involved. It is really the mind and not the body of the parcel untier that is impressing him.

I turn to a more serious point—Christopher asked whether the new powers offered us by technology are really helping us to move towards the ideal society. He had misgivings which I share, but I have others which I'm not sure whether he shares. He spoke of the dangers of one-way communication. It may be true that there is little that one can do to mitigate the pain of a particular sufferer in Belfast or Bangladesh, but of course it's quite wrong to suggest that there isn't anything one can do to mitigate suffering in Belfast and Bangladesh in general. At least there is always political action, there is always money that one can give. These activities, of course, don't have the immediate appeal or satisfaction that the giving of first aid has on the Al, but it's surely wrong to pretend that technology here doesn't increase our ability to do good. But eo ipso of course, it increases our responsibility for evil, and that is the main point which I want to develop.

The Pharisee who passed by the man who fell among thieves was blamed because he knew about the victim's sufferings and he could have helped him as the Samaritan did. If the Pharisee had been in the synagogue at Capernaum, a long journey away by donkey from the Jerusalem-Jericho road, no-one would have blamed him. Nowadays, the Pharisee can see the victim on the television and he can get from Capernaum to Jerusalem by jet. That the misfortune which the Pharisee sees on television is a stranger's misfortune seems to be neither here nor there.

I would wish to claim that it is not an accidental fact that there is a tendency of science to corrupt—and I mean this absolutely seriously. The way in which I'd like to prove this is very simple. Science gives power, and power corrupts, and therefore science corrupts. It is first of all obvious that science gives power. As Christopher himself said, one thing which science has done is to increase by an order of magnitude our powers of achieving human goals. That power corrupts is usually understood as meaning that if you have power this enables you to do evil: royal power may give you the power to cut off people's head and send them to prison. That was the kind of power that Lord Acton had in mind when he framed his aphorism; he meant that if you have power to do evil, human nature being what it is, the likelihood is that you will sooner or later succumb to the temptation power brings and do evil. It seems to me that at least as important a corrupting feature of power is that it gives you the ability to do good and therefore that it puts sins of omission as immediately and inevitably within your grasp as it puts sins of commission.

If one accepts two fairly plausible principles, it seems easy to show how power corrupts. The two principles are these: first, that the more evil you are responsible for, the more evil you are, and second, that we are responsible for evils which we know about and which we can prevent without disproportionate loss. Now as science increases our knowledge of the world, it increases our power; it increases our power for removal of evils, and to the same extent it increases our responsibility for them.

Now all the stages in this argument are too simple, but if they were restated with due qualifications, so that they were acceptable, I think they would still lead to the conclusion that other things being equal science corrupts, that is, the technological power that science brings makes one responsible for ever greater evil. Other things being equal that is what science does.

What are the other things that might not be equal? The most important is human motivation and, in particular, human selfishness. We might take as a simple and crude measure of selfishness—in contrast to altruism—the amount of one's time, energy, money, power, that one devotes to the satisfaction of one's own needs and desires, and the amount of time that one devotes to the satisfaction of the needs and desires of others. Let us imagine an average selfish man, l'homme moyen egoiste. Let us suppose that he devotes half his resources, half his time, money, energy and power, to himself, and half his resources to others. And let us consider the process to which Marx drew attention, by which as technology advances we devote less and less of our working life to actually providing ourselves with food, warmth and clothes.

In a primitive society the average selfish man is free from blame. It takes, let us say, half his working life to support himself; he devotes half his working life to supporting himself, and he devotes to his fellow men all the time that he has to spare from keeping himself alive. He's not responsible for any of the human suffering around him because there is none that he can remedy without imperilling his own life—something which is maybe estimable and heroic to do but which is not normally obligatory to do.

But in a highly technologically developed society like our own, the position is very different. Many people have an income more than twenty times as much as is necessary to keep them at subsistence level. Such a person, therefore, has earned enough to keep himself alive for the week by the time he reaches the coffee break on a Monday morning. Now, what is the moral situation of the average selfish man in this situation? As long as there are, within his knowledge and ability to help, other human beings below the subsistence level, he shows up very badly indeed. He needs only to devote only 5% of his resources to keeping himself alive, and in fact, he devotes 50% of his resources to the satisfaction of his own desires. Over 45% of his activity expresses a preference for superfluities for himself over subsistence for others. On the account of responsibility which I gave earlier, he is responsible for the amount of suffering that could have been prevented by his allocation of that 45% of his effort to altruistic purposes.

Once again, the model that I have presented is greatly oversimplified—it's extremely crude; but once again, I believe that if the simplifications were removed, the conclusion would still be warranted that technological progress is bound to corrupt unless altruism increases pari passu with scientific knowledge and the technological power it gives. This is true at least in those circumstances in which scientific progress has so far been made, namely, where a significant part of the human race lacks the necessities of life. Sadly, there seems little reason to believe that there is a positive correlation between altruism and technological power. I find it hard, therefore, to share the optimism of Christopher's conclusion—I find it hard to look forward to the cosmic harmony to be diffused by the progress of science. Similarly, I am not as depressed as Christopher would be by the prospect that John Lucas holds out that there may be areas of human behaviour to which scientific explanation can never penetrate.

Christopher pointed out quite rightly that the beginning of science was as important an intellectual leap in human history as the origin of language. Perhaps it was the origin of science and not the origin of language that was the tree of knowledge which brought our fathers' fall.


I do agree with very much of what you've said. I was trying to make a sharp distinction, which of course is difficult to maintain in this greedy world, between science, which is the disinterested pursuit of the understanding of nature, and technology, which is motivated by more material considerations. I was trying to express my distrust of technology, although just to throw it away is to shirk the additional responsibility which it brings and I couldn't agree more that this responsibility is inescapable.

But can I just return to Tony's very first point, which was about my position committing me to theism. If I knew what sort of deity he might be discussing, I think I would be prepared to say whether I believed in such a deity or not. I was trying to convey the feeling that comes upon anyone seriously engaged in attempting to understand nature. The feeling that when one discovers something, it was sitting there waiting to be discovered. One gets into the habit of expecting to feel that way, and by and large one's expectations are fulfilled. If one didn't have the hope that next time one obtained an insight, it would give one the same feeling of inevitability as the last one, one would probably give up research, or stop having ideas. Now, whether that constitutes a belief in God is for you, I suppose, to decide rather than for me, according to how you define your terms.


First of all, I want to defend Christopher's optimism against the apparently rigorous proof given by Tony of an almost inevitable selfishness. It seems to me to rest on a false dichotomy—we would not be better off if the skilled surgeons in the many hospitals of Edinburgh by the coffee break on Monday morning decided they had earned enough for themselves and now should start working for others. That is to say, there is not—and this is one of the fundamental facts of our social life—a sharp dichotomy between working for oneself and working for others; the same activity can be both for you and for me; on this fact Christopher can reconstruct the political theory that he didn't actually give us, so as to be immune from Tony's criticisms.

What I would now like to do is to pick up the lead Christopher offered at the very end where he invited Tony to provide him, as it were, with an emporium of possible gods, and then, as he was introduced to each of these potential deities, he would pronounce: ‘I'll have this one but not that’. This is a mistaken approach. The correct way is for Christopher first to think about the nature of the mind and the nature of the universe, and try and find words which express this; and then face Tony's needling—‘If you say of truth, and of beauty too, that they are not merely temporally conditioned but fundamental features of the universe, are you not committed to something?—not perhaps the God, that you don't like, of the Westminster Confession—not of course, the God of the Thirty-Nine articles, not even the God of Vatican Two, but something other than oneself making for good, making for beauty, making for truth?’ I think this is something which Christopher is committed to. As he developed the various natures of possible minds, certain marks of what it was to be a mind emerged. It was essential that a mind could reserve the right, as an individual, to pass judgement. Minds were intimately connected with not merely utility—the sort of things that computers can do—but truth; science was important not just for being useful but because it seems to be true. These are two of the marks of mind; and a third point emerged, that it was the nature of minds to be able to share. There is something wrong with one-way communication. Communication is properly a two-way process, and thus one has individual minds starting to form a common mind. These are three marks of what it is to be a mind. Christopher then began to find that he wanted to impute them to the cosmos as a whole, not perhaps in our generation, but at least in those of our children or our children's children; they would be able to merge their purposes with the cosmic purpose. And having said that, Christopher has thereby disposed the onus of argument that way round—he can't go and say: ‘I don't want this or I don't want that, you name it, Tony, and I'll disbelieve it’. Rather, having committed himself by describing the nature of mind and the nature of the universe as best he can, he has to expose himself then to Tony's probing, to show what sort of things are presupposed if these views are themselves to be rational.


It seemed to me that one of the main points of Christopher's talk was his conclusion that the universe does have a structure. We usually express this as a causal structure, which we expound as the laws of science. These are obviously to some extent moulded by our sense organs and our particular type of intelligence, but as Christopher pointed out, we do not invent the laws of science out of the whole cloth. To a large extent they reflect the structure of the world which we have to deal with. I think it is a very basic point that science is the main method we use to discover something about the structure of the universe.

I should agree with Tony that knowledge of this structure brings power. But I am afraid I was completely unconvinced by the argument he based on the idea that power corrupts. That phrase was a rather snide remark by a Victorian politician, who was really talking about political power in the corridors of Whitehall. I don't think it can be generalised to apply to all power under all circumstances. Tony did just let drop the remark that power also makes it possible to do more good, but then by some very peculiar arguments he tried to convince us that the power to do good in some way makes things worse. This was the point that I confess I find very difficult to grasp.

I should like to go back to Christopher's point that the world has some sort of structure. Any mind on this planet, or on any other planet or wherever you might discover it, would only qualify as a mind if it does succeed to some extent in reflecting this structure. Other minds might, of course, appreciate the world in a very different way from ours. Our minds and the structures we discern in the world are very largely based on the use of the sense of sight. A dog, who relies much more on the sense of smell, must have a very different way of approaching the basic structure of the universe; but if it is going to operate at all successfully, so that its mental activities can qualify as some sort of a mind, it will have to discern the same basic underlying structure, which seems to be there in the universe, and which we can discover to a greater or lesser extent, but which we cannot essentially alter.

This leads on to the questions about God and cosmic purpose. If one thinks of the structure of the universe in terms of simple Newtonian things pushing and pulling each other about, then it would be difficult to suppose there was anything like a purpose inherent in it. In so far as such a world could manifest a purpose at all, this purpose would have to be built into it by some purposeful creator who had made it. But I think we have all been arguing that the world and our perceptions of the world are not really like that at all. We perceive the world through an apparatus which involves our own mental abilities. Our perceptive apparatus could not function unless it had some internal properties of stability, which make it possible for us to recognise something when it comes into our experience for the second time. As I argued at an earlier lecture, these self-stabilising properties involved in perception are very similar in kind to purposes. Now when we speak of a structure of the universe, we mean of course a structure in the universe as we perceive it. That is to say, the components of this universe are not simple material bodies, quite independent of ourselves, but are the types of things we perceive with this apparatus which involves properties similar to purposes. In these circumstances it seems to me possible to say—if you like to use this type of terminology—that the structure of the universe involves a cosmic purpose. I think it is very much a matter of terminology whether you use expressions like that or not.

I think it is also a matter of terminology—a matter of taste, if you like—whether you want to go further and say that if there is a cosmic purpose this implies some sort of a god. But I should wish always to keep in mind the basis from which it seems to me legitimate to derive language of this kind. I mean that the use of phrases such as cosmic purpose or God seems to be derivable from the basic consideration that our knowledge of the world depends on a process of perception which involves something similar to purposes. This is not by any means the only sense in which these phrases are used. For instance, God may often be used to mean a creator who injects a purpose into an existing but meaningless material world. Words like God and cosmic purpose have in fact been used in so many different senses, that I personally tend to avoid them. Some of their uses I am not at all attracted to, though others have much more meaning for me.


I don't believe that the power to do good makes things worse—makes the world a worse place. I think that the unused power to do good makes us worse, makes us worse men.


Well, Wad has almost said what I would have said myself, I think, because perhaps the distinction of most interest between the conventional theistic position and any other position, atheistic, agnostic, or what you will, is really in whether one thinks of the universe as having been made by somebody outside it, or whether you think of it as containing within itself all the matters of significance to us; and I personally take the latter view. I think that when I spoke of our descendants' purposes being merged with those of the cosmos whose consciousness they embody, I was really thinking of life growing outwards, as it were, until the universe was in such a tight intimate relationship with itself that you could think of the whole thing as a living organism. This is, of course, a wild mystical fantasy borrowed from Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men, but never mind that. Anyway, I would regard it as a confession of intellectual defeat to say that we must think of the universe as having been made by somebody outside it, who had his own purposes which to a certain extent are no business of ours. But, of course, one finds oneself here in such deep water that perhaps the only thing to do is to shut one's mouth.

From the book: