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Chapter I -- 8

An example of a modern variant of the Epicurean point of view is found in Le hasard et la nécessité (Chance and Necessity),[1] written by Jacques Monod (1910–1976), the Nobel laureate who discovered the role of messenger RNA and who introduced the concept of operon, or functional unit of genes and control centres on the chromosome.

Monod prefaces his work with two quotations that seem to us, despite some further complexities of his thought, particularly apt—more apt than most quotations which preface books—to capture what he wants to say. The first quotation is from Democritus: ‘Everything that exists in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.’ For on the basis of his experience as a biologist, Monod explicitly advances a materialistic and mechanistic philosophy: the chance in Monod’s system, as regards the nature of man, is the chance nature of mutations to the DNA, the bearer of the genetic information of every living organism; the necessity is the severity of natural selection which pitilessly evaluates the usefulness of the mutation.

There are complications. Unusually for a modern biologist, Monod insists on a concept of teleology as necessary for the explanation of living systems; indeed, his teleology, which he calls téléonomie, is precisely a characteristic of the biological system taken as system—a materialistic and mechanistic system, no doubt; on that he is emphatic—but a system nonetheless. It appears to us that the insight that Monod wishes to preserve by reference to the concept of téléonomie is the concept of order and directedness in a system. He himself uses the comparison of the eye and the camera. Just as the artefact called the camera cannot be understood without reference to the purpose for which it is made, so a biological system such as the eye cannot be understood properly without reference to the purpose of the eye. It is clear from Monod’s examples in molecular biology that he has in mind the idea that a molecular biological system is a directed cybernetic system with control loops. By ‘directed’ we mean that the system has a ‘point’, a function or work (ergon). The relevance of this concept is this, among others: A mutation, say a point mutation—chance—that results in a slight change to a protein that is an active structural component of a biological cybernetic system, is evaluated by natural selection—necessity—in part by the degree of fit of that mutated protein to the ensemble of the cybernetic system. To pass the test of natural selection (necessity) the mutation (chance) cannot inter alia degrade the system’s structure and performance as system, without, presumably, providing some other compensating or more than compensating advantages in the response of the system to its environment. The criterion of the teleonomic fit of the mutation is therefore a criterion of fitness internal to the system, and it is complementary to the more usual criterion of the fitness of the mutated system to its environment. This seems to us well-founded to the extent, at least, that it is a recognition that a biological system—at whatever level of analysis—has a specific structure, even if that structure be abstract. Moreover, when the concept is applied to the system of development of the organism, something Monod does not do, it seems to us very useful. However, among Anglo-American biologists, such an insistence on teleology would most likely be considered a paradigm violation.

The second quotation that Monod provides to preface his book is a quotation from The Myth of Sisyphus by Albert Camus (1913–1960). This is Camus’ metaphor of the absurdity of human existence—Monod later explicitly states that he prefers strangeness to absurdity as a characterization of human existence—taken from the myth of Sisyphus, who patiently and agonizingly rolls the rock uphill, only to have it roll down again. It is clear that Camus means that each pushing uphill is a human life, futile, absurd and punctuated by the complete and final nothingness of death. Monod’s argument is that science has put man, especially in the developed societies, in the position of Sisyphus because that science has deprived man of all the projective—‘animist’[2]—systems of religion and philosophy that hid from man his existential predicament: he is alone in an indifferent universe; he plays his life out on the stage of the world; he goes to nothingness.

While this is very much what one might call the ethical dimension of his thought, Monod has a complicated development concerning the nature of man that uses Monod’s own version of the theory of evolution coupled to molecular genetics at the level of elucidation that was current in 1970, the date of his work. This theory might be described as Cartesianism injected into a strictly materialistic and mechanistic framework. For God is gone in Monod’s system; all the metaphysical trappings of Cartesian dualism are gone—except for a certain dualism expressed in a strictly materialistic context and depending for its elucidation on a theory, tenuous in the extreme, of the development in evolution of man’s mind through the play of chance and necessity on the central nervous system of the progenitors of man, coupled with the directedness of evolution conferred by the teleonomic aspects of man’s use of language. This is clearly a doctrine of ‘epiphenomenalism’, the philosophical doctrine that while the human mind is not precisely the same thing as the brain, it is an efflorescence of brain activity that occurred by chance at a certain point in man’s evolution. The result, in Monod’s view, is that, on the one hand, Cartesian innate ideas or Kantian a priori categories of thought are inherent in the structures of the human central nervous system, structures that are real and objective and that have developed in evolution through chance and necessity; and that, on the other hand, man is a link between the biosphere and the ‘Kingdom of Ideas’. We are struck by Monod’s image of man as the link between the physical and the noetic realms: we have already seen that this Stoic idea was taken up by St Gregory the Theologian and St Maximos the Confessor, but in a Christian mystical context. Monod has the same idea but has injected it into a materialistic and mechanistic system that makes provision for a spiritual realm of ideas only, a realm that Monod explicitly says developed when man’s capacity for abstract thought, verbal communication and cultural evolution crossed a certain threshold in his physical evolution.

Where does Monod end up? In an ethic of knowledge, which makes the primary value the free acceptance of the postulate of the objectivity of knowledge, which, Monod believes, is the basis of all that scientific progress that on the one hand has liberated man from all the ‘animisms’ of religion and philosophy and on the other hand has destroyed Western culture, all the while reinforcing the existential loneliness of man in the universe. That objectivity of knowledge and its related ethic seem to be Monod’s reflection on the logical positivism of the Twentieth Century, that logical positivism which relegated metaphysics, religion and ethics to the dustbin of meaningless discourse or emotional self-expression. For, he says, we must both recognize the separateness of knowledge and ethics, making a commitment to knowledge as the supreme value—he even puts forward the idea of a spiritual asceticism of knowledge!—and recognize the necessity of ethics, at the same time refusing to avoid the existential reality and anxiety of man’s isolation in the universe. As he himself puts it:

The ancient alliance [i.e. the intimacy between man and the universe created by the ‘animisms’ of religion and philosophy which hid from man his existential predicament] has been broken; man finally knows that he is alone in the indifferent immensity of the universe from which he has emerged by chance. No more than his destiny, his duty is written nowhere. It is for him to choose between the Kingdom and the darkness.[3]

Clearly Monod begins with the premises we have been discussing: a materialistic and mechanistic philosophy and a complete alienation, except on the level of nostalgia, from religion. He is a cultured materialist, strongly anti-Marxist, finally an avowed socialist humanist.

What we can infer from Le hasard et la nécessité is two things: First, that among scientists today there is a very great alienation from religion, a very great insistence on the materialistic and mechanistic paradigm as being not merely methodological but metaphysical, as being metaphysically imposed by the very nature of scientific discovery and as being validated or verified by the great fruit that that method has borne over the past three centuries since the Enlightenment. Second, that it is possible to build more than one building on that foundation. Epicureanism is one building; a socialist humanism founded on existential reflection on man’s isolation in the universe, another. Marxism is a third option, one that Monod is at pains to disparage on scientific grounds. Monod’s own reflections strike us as arising out of the French cultural milieu; Epicureanism seems to us far more consistent with the presuppositions that Monod himself has. Not all men are so personally cultured as Monod. Not all men have the strength to live on the razor’s edge of existential anxiety in the face of the indifference of the immense universe. And it is a very small step to Epicureanism.

It is well worth noting that David Hume, the central figure in the English Enlightenment—we are really concentrating in this work on the Anglo-American philosophical tradition—himself makes explicit use of the figure of Epicurus to put forth some of his own more audacious and evidently dangerous views. We wonder to what extent Hume was not in fact explicitly influenced by Epicurus’ philosophy in the development of his own views.

This explicit use of Epicurus was made by Hume in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748), where, in Section XI, ‘Of a Particular Providence and of a Future State’, he puts forward the figure of Epicurus—through the device of an ‘Epicurean friend’ who invents a speech in Epicurus’ name—in order to prove that:

…[W]hen, in my philosophical disquisitions, I deny a providence [i.e. the existence of a God who interests himself in and ordains the affairs of men and the world] and a future state [i.e. life after death], I undermine not the foundations of society, but advance principles, which they themselves [i.e. the religious philosophers who according to ‘Epicurus’ try to found the claims of religion on reason, especially by means of the argument of the Weaver from the garment, advanced by St Macrina below], upon their own topics, if they argue consistently, must allow to be solid and satisfactory.[4]

But what is St Macrina saying? So far, the argument has hinged on the survival or not after death of ‘that vivifying principle’, the soul. As we have indicated, that there might be such a vivifying principle is challenged today; however, the basis of all the modern arguments against the concept and existence of the soul is a materialistic conception of the universe, a materialistic conception in philosophy.

St Macrina, first, is attaching the view that the soul, ‘that vivifying principle’, cannot survive death to its source, the Epicureans. Next, focusing on Epicurus, St Macrina states that his philosophy was materialistic and probabilistic and ‘with no Providence pervading through things’.

As we have indicated, modern physics, the paradigm of modern science, is materialistic and without a Providence pervading through things; and in particle physics, it is probabilistic. Moreover, modern biology is also materialistic and without a Providence pervading through things; it is also probabilistic, even though it cannot yet be considered to be probabilistic in the same sense as quantum mechanics. We have provided the views of Watson and his fellow authors, and also those of Monod, as two sketches of such views. We have also indicated some consequences for the doctrine of the person that follow from such views, looking both at the issue of brain death and at the humanistic philosophy and psychology of religious experience.

In our view, these are the dominant views in the West today. There are certainly other views—we cannot present a history of every philosophy present today in the West—but those are not the views that have a predominant position in government, science, taken as a social institution, the courts and society. We think that these materialistic views are.

In St Macrina’s view, some consequences follow immediately. First, human life is considered to be like a bubble, and the duration of the bubble is the duration of life in the body. Moreover, she has already mentioned the ill effects on one’s attitude to virtue that arise from such a line of reasoning: this line of reasoning turns one to look to the present pleasure alone.

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[1] Monod.

[2] Monod’s term.

[3] Monod p. 225; our translation.

[4] Hume–Under p. 407.


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