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"To us all towns are one, all men our kin.
Life's good comes not from others' gift, nor ill
Man's pains and pains' relief are from within.
Thus have we seen in visions of the wise !."

- Tamil Poem in Purananuru, circa 500 B.C 

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Home  > Truth is a Pathless Land > Unfolding Consciousness: From Matter to Life to Mind...  > Arthur Koestler

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Last updated
23/08/07

"...Einstein's space is no closer to reality than Van Gogh's sky. The glory of science is not in a truth more absolute than the truth of Bach or Tolstoy, but in the act of creation itself. The scientist's discoveries impose his own order on chaos, as the composer or painter imposes his; an order that always refers to limited aspects of reality, and is based on the observer's frame of reference, which differs from period to period as a Rembrandt nude differs from a nude by Manet. .." Arthur Koestler in The Act of Creation

Arthur Koestler - Biographical Sketch
Arthur Koestler - Quotes

Books
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*Stranger on the Square, 1980 - both Arthur Koestler and his wife, Cynthia, died in a suicide pact while this book was being written
*Bricks to Babel : Selected Writings, 1980
*Janus: A Summing Up, 1978
*The Thirteenth Tribe: The Khazar Empire and Its Heritage, 1976
*The Heel of Achilles: Essays 1968-1973, 1974
*The Roots of Coincidence, 1972
*The Call-Girls: A Tragi-Comedy, 1972
*The Case of the Midwife Toad, 1971
*Beyond Reductionism - New Perspectives In The Life Sciences, 1969
*Drinkers of Infinity: Essays 1955 to 1967, 1968
*The Ghost in the Machine, 1967
*The Act of Creation, 1964
*The Lotus and the Robot, 1960
*The Sleepwalkers : A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe, 1959
*Trail of the Dinosaur, 1955
*The Invisible Writing: The Second Volume of an Autobiography, 1932-40, 1954
*Arrow in the Blue: The First Volume of an autobiography: 1905-31, 1952
*Age of Longing, 1951
*The God That Failed, 1949
*Thieves in the Night, 1946
*The Yogi and the Commissar: And Other Essays, 1945
*Arrival and Departure, 1943
*Dialogue with Death, 1942
*Scum of the Earth, 1941
*Darkness at Noon, 1940
*The Gladiators, 1939 1939
 

 From Matter to Life to Mind...
AN UNFOLDING CONSCIOUSNESS

Arthur Koestler
1905 - 1983

Arthur Koestler in * Janus : A Summing Up

1. From the Prologue - the New Calendar..
2. On Reductionism..
3.
The Parable of the Unsolicited Gift...
4. From the Conclusion..
 


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 first 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 the future.

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 Watson - Skinner 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 encoded information'.

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 gift:

"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 I.B.M. 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

"...I 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 Invisible Writing, 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’: 

"The ‘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 meaning.  

The 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. 

In 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 higher level. 

If 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. 

I 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. 

I 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...."

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