Jacques Monod, I hear you

In the next two posts I am going on a foray above my pay grade, so to speak, and develop some thoughts in response to Monod’s challenge to develop an ethics of knowledge. If you recall, on page 176, he writes, “It is obvious that the positing of the principle of objectivity as the condition of true knowledge constitutes an ethical choice and not a judgment arrived at through knowledge, since, according to the postulate’s own terms, there cannot have been any “true” knowledge prior to this arbitral choice. In order to establish the norm for knowledge the objectivity principle defines a value: that value is objective knowledge itself. . . . one announces one’s adherence to the basic statement of an ethical system, one asserts the ethic of knowledge.” The principle of objectivity refers to the axiom that the universe is actually unknowable except through empirical means and thereby excludes any religious, which Monod labels ‘animist’, claim to absolute truth. “True knowledge,” Monod asserts, “is ignorant of values,” yet must be based upon a value judgment, an axiom reflecting the very substance and form of our thought.


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

I read this first as a humble acknowledgement of human ignorance and our inability to understand in any final form the larger issues of the universe and our existence. All life is local, and our understanding follows along from that. I recall a post sometime back about Vera Rubin (see post 12/29/16), one of the poorly acknowledged giants of astrophysics, who questioned why we would believe that the laws of physics as we conceive them are universal; perhaps different laws operate in other areas of our cosmos and most certainly in other universes. Secondly I read this as an allotype of the absurdist philosophy articulated by Monod’s friend, Albert Camus. While more nuanced and complex than I can render here, Camus asserts that the absurd arises when we confront the disparity between our quest for rational and even perhaps irrational understanding of a universe that is essentially “unreasonable” (in some very basic and strong sense of the word).


Albert Camus: French resistance hero and writer, championed the notion of the Absurd

Consider Camus’ statement that I find resonant with my own philosophy of life and mind: “Abstract evidence retreats before the poetry of forms and colors. Spiritual conflicts become embodied and return to the abject and magnificent shelter of man’s heart.” For a person who apprehends the absurd, our ‘knowledge’ is an aesthetic rendering of our experience and our spiritual quest is only to embrace the heart of humanity. Both Camus and Monod write about their apprehension of the basis of modern values, i.e., understanding that the universe, such as we can understand it, operates by mechanical and statistical laws, coldly and without divine feeling, and that acknowledges life’s special place in the universe. Values are biological; they come from us, or as Monod phrases it, “As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognizes their sociobiological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines”.

Monod firmly believes that an ethics of knowledge will lead to a knowledge of ethics (and I have a new book to read on that matter, Michael Tomasello’s The Natural History of Human Morality). And given the separation of knowledge and value, he also articulates a modern civilized value that seems to go unrecognized more and more, authenticity, perhaps because many have lost the feel of it; it is not a prominent aesthetic in our social considerations.  From a recent post, to be authentic requires one to think and act clearly about the values held/acted upon and any judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. For example, consider how and why we form and finance government as currently gleaned from our political discourse.

We are currently in a period when “Cut taxes” is a common war cry eliciting shouts of support from many (this is the USA now). To advocate the opposite is called ‘political suicide’. (This in a country where Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. famously said, “I like to pay taxes. With them I buy civilization.”  The duty of Monod’s authenticity calls for, first, that actions be based upon true knowledge, i.e., empirically based, and secondly, that the values upon which those actions are based to be articulated. Taxation reflects the biases of the society; check out Thomas Piketty’s monumental work, Capital in the 21st Century. How we tax, who actually pays those taxes, and what those taxes help government to accomplish are all empirical issues. For example, economic history as found in Piketty’s historical survey and in Paul Krugman’s analysis of modern times shows that cutting taxes for the wealthier people does not stimulate the economy but it does increase the disparity between rich and poor. The values behind cutting taxes are more often left unsaid, but generally these have to do with valuing individual achievement (sometimes due to hard work and sometimes exploiting the hard work of others, i.e., self-aggrandizement) over and above sharing resources and promoting the social good. To be authentic, then, a politician should both detail the data supporting their positions and their values leading to their espousal. Yeah, I know, the USA sometimes seems to have abandoned this road, but without an ethics of knowledge, how can we expect to make progress towards justice in an ever-changing modern world where our own actions have drastic consequences for each other and our planet? How can we move beyond the animist ethics of feudalism now mutated to the control by an economic elite few? I will only add that some other nations have understood this and are further along than we are.

What next for the ethics of knowledge? I recently read that knowledge is understood through an epistemology that is necessarily based upon some metaphysical notion of reality. So travel on to the metaphysics that consideration of our biological roots yields.


ReReading Monod: part 2

In the current debate between the religious side and those arguing for science, at least as I see it generally represented in the media and at local events, the former stand on the need for divine guidance and validation of values, else we devolve into uncivilized and evil acting animals (I am still not sure how that would be different in many instances), while the latter argue for the evolutionary basis of values derived from our ancestral past (ancestry defined broadly). Jacques Monod had something intelligent to contribute to this debate in 1971.

Monod saw that with the advent of science human epistemology changed because science, with its axiom of objectivity, separated knowledge from values, i.e., science contributes knowledge about this objective reality but values must come from human decisions and actions because, looked at objectively, the universe is more machine-like than god-like with no absolute or divine values to be found. Before the 16th century both knowledge and values were generally from one domain labeled religion with perhaps a tad of secular philosophy thrown in by Plato and Aristotle. Since that time we have developed a powerful practical means of knowledge (I hope all would agree that science is eminently successful in solving problems and extending our capabilities) that indicates that our ethical values are “sociobiological” in origin and are an emergent feature of our extended and extending conspecific relationships.

Monod goes further with this analysis, saying that actually the distinction between values and knowledge derives from the Catholic distinction between the sacred and the profane. As human society shifts from animistic to scientific, an ethics of knowledge will develop that will include a knowledge of ethics. (Consider the current outcry against the American Trump administration for their desertion of the ethics of knowledge). To be authentic (and here is a modern civilized value), then, requires one to think and act clearly about value held/acted upon and judgments based on knowledge. Jumbling the two results in inauthentic action and thinking. (Now consider again our current politics in a more general sense whereby many elected officials assess reality according to their political and economic convenience in contrast with others, including bureaucratic data driven stalwarts, who assess reality in order to intervene on a factual basis and move society towards adaptive and democratic values).

Does this sound so arcane as to be trivial? Consider the ‘debate’ about whether substance abuse problems are a matter of character/spiritual flaws or an illness. Consider the incorporation by legal authorities of neuroscience findings indicating that the adolescent brain is not fully mature or functioning rationally for fully responsible action. Consider the issues raised in Simon Baron-Cohen’s book The Science of Evil: On Empathy and the Origins of Cruelty (see my posts on 5/11/14, 7/15/2014 & 7/28/2014).  Consider the changing approach to autism spectrum disorders, especially in how and what supports we fund for our fellow citizens over their lifetime. Finally, changing tack a bit, consider the remarkable economic data covering 300 years that Thomas Piketty gathered and analyzed for his book, Capital in the 21st Century, and the analysis and values he offers in contrast to so many others who talk about economic and tax policy based upon political dogma (see post 11/25/2016).

Monod argues for a society organized around an ethics of knowledge and a clearly asserted presumption of values. In this he leans left towards civic governance that ensures that the essential needs, including adequate wealth and medical care, of all citizens everywhere are met. He says he knows this will be seen by some as utopian but asserts that this is our choice, if ever we can rise to such a conscious choice, and in this he echoes his old comrade in the French resistance, proponent of clear social responsibility unsullied by claims to the divine, and fellow Nobel laureate, Albert Camus.

A final word about skepticism and existentialism vs god. (In our free country, you may believe in any god you wish; there are plenty to choose from, though quantity does not imply quality. What is not free at the moment is to require non-believers to think and act as you would like.) I recently heard again the old argument that without faith in god, humans would do whatever they want and that is not good, but it seems to me, again looking objectively around the world and through history, that even with faith in god, humans still do whatever they want, oftentimes not good, only now they feel righteous. Oh, and I have posted about righteous indignation before, see post on 5/16/2014. Well, time to travel on.

Re-reading Monod: WOW! edition

Along about Chapter 8 in Chance and Necessity Monod quotes Francois Mauriac’s comment on his (Monod) natural philosophy: “The professor’s ideas are more incredible than any we poor Christians believe”. Mauriac had won the Nobel for literature in the early 50s and was a staunch defender of the Catholic faith. To say Monod’s ideas were more incredible, i.e., unbelievable, than god coming to earth through a virgin birth, being killed for his upsetting views and then returning to life before ascending to the skies is pretty incredible in itself. What had Professor Jacques Monod been saying? I will try and give you the gist and flavor here now but again I urge you to read the book for yourself.

Monod gives a remarkably complete and beautifully articulated view of humans as biological and yes, that means without a supernatural immanence exerting its power through the material realm. After explicating through some details of protein synthesis the scientific basis of molecular biology and explaining how that provides fully for the evolution of life forms, he discusses the implications this has for natural philosophy. He understands that the challenge is to understand life without immanence, i.e., without the animating force of a god or gods. This begins with the basic understanding that nature is objective and that we can know it only through empirical effort; there is no revelation of absolutes and even through science our knowledge is conditional.

His book’s title captures a basic principle. Evolution proceeds through chance mutations to what is a necessarily conservative invariant process of reproduction that are then tested first by their coherence in the overall genetic structure and then by any effects on adaptability and reproductive success of the group. Having passed those tests chance happenings become necessary because they are now part of the invariant machinery. What propels evolution forward is not immanent design but a “vast reservoir of fortuitous variability.” Life is not predictable because of this random variability but proceeds to greater complexity because of this altogether remarkable ‘reservoir’ of chance events adding to the necessity of organismic structures and then the furthering of exploiting environmental opportunities. (He explains this so very well—read it).


Jacques Monod, Resistance hero and great scientist and philosopher.

This reservoir of variability sustaining evolution is one of the features Mauriac found incredible. I find it quite understandable though; consider my idea of evolutionary watersheds first for Solving World Problems and then for Conspecific Relations (see posts 7/25/15, 12/17/16 & soon to come) where genes spring up and flow down to the great confluences of the River Sentience and the River Empathy that then merge for the River Consciousness, which when it meets the ocean of Experience forms the somatic delta and there solving world problems becomes a social affair and conspecific relations becomes a world problem to solve. That is us. Whew!

The next thing Mauriac finds incredible (I think) is Monod’s statement that all that life is comes from experience, not a tabula rasa ala Aristotle and John Locke, but from the entire history of life, i.e., “the experiences accumulated by the entire ancestry of the species.” All that we are arises in a fortuitous bubbling of genes coming together over 4 billion years, or to borrow a phrase from James Joyce, “accidental music providentially arranged” by unknown happenstance beginning long, long ago. One facet of this evolutionary experience is our inborn fear of solitude and our need for a “need for a complete binding explanation,” of our existence, i.e., this the facet of spirit and religion.

And so at the end of chapter 8 Monod writes, “What doubt can there be of the presence of the spirit within us? To give up the illusion that sees in it an immaterial ‘substance’ [god] is not to deny the existence of the soul, but on the contrary to begin to recognize the complexity, the richness, the unfathomable profundity of the genetic and cultural heritage and of the personal experience, conscious or otherwise, which together constitute this being of ours: the unique and irrefutable witness to itself.” To appreciate the soul, then, travel back upriver to the springs of our genetic watersheds. Now that is pretty incredible, and sorry to say, Monsieur Mauriac, quite scientific.

Rumor has it that when asked if he believed in god, Einstein replied, “I do if it is Spinoza’s god.”  I think Baruch Spinoza would be right there with Jacques Monod and his natural philosophy and would be delighted that somebody could write these notions openly without fear of being burned at the stake by the religious authorities. Travel on. I suggest heading upriver but it is all of a piece, river journey or a beachhead on the ocean of experience. Plash and eddy by the banks, wave and glisten on the shore.

Fierce Jacques Monod

I have finally after many years started re-reading Monod’s Chance and Necessity. The title is from a quote by Democritus that “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.” (Of late I have been thinking that any animate intelligence only mitigates contingency and exploits chance; that is really about all life does). I surprise myself that I can remember at least these early chapters fairly well and how carefully one must read to follow his chemical examples and to follow his line of reasoning. I do have a deeper appreciation now of his discussion of humanity’s alternatives to the postulate of objectivity as the basis of science, i.e., the universe is objective and can never be known and so can only be understood approximately through empirical efforts. Monod lists two alternatives, animism and vitalism. The latter is that life is separately energized by some projective animating spirit with teleonomic direction; the former is that all of the universe is so energized. Religions vary according to Monod by this distinction: spirits exist in all living things or spirits or one spirit gives motion to everything in the universe. His argument is that the teleonomy of life is inherent in the objective chemical workings governed by chance and necessity and is not a projection from outside of nature by say, a god guiding evolution to some end. Monod emphasizes that his use of ‘animist’ and ‘vitalist’ is idiosyncratic to himself, but his reasoning is clear enough that life operates and progresses by blindly objective chemical processes.

I did not remember a particular statement he makes at the end of chapter 2; I guess I am old enough now to appreciate how fierce a statement it is: “We would like to think ourselves necessary, inevitable, ordained from all eternity. All religions, nearly all philosophies, and even a part of science testify to the unwearying, heroic effort of mankind desperately denying its own contingency”. Here he strikes down any notion that we are the center of the universe or the crown of creation and replaces it with a deeper understanding and appreciation of molecular biology. Remember that he, Lwoff and Jacob won the Nobel Prize for discovering how genes control protein synthesis, and that has led to the remarkable explosion of molecular biology in our time.


Jacques Monod, French scientist and philosopher.

I am particularly struck by his use of the word ‘desperately.’ Monod is a careful writer and not given to hyperbole, so I take that word seriously enough I have to wonder: Why ‘desperately’? I understand that we tend to deny or ignore our mortality except at given times. Buddhist monks might consider it more; other religions think death only a transition to an eternal existence; skeptics and existentialists, like Monod’s good friend Camus (a quote from The Myth of Sisyphus also begins Chance and Necessity) hold that this life is all there is. I guess our desperation comes from the difficulty we experience apprehending our life span as a quick wink on a small planet in an ever growing universe, though I think today we have become more accustomed to that notion and so not as desperate to deny it.

In volume 3 of Mind Susanne Langer thought that we humans attained our current level of consciousness when we came to understand that from birth to death is one unitary act, that each life has these two boundaries beyond which it does not exist as an objective fact. I guess that having realized that and become fully conscious of being alive only for now, we then began to feel some need to go beyond that, i.e., to escape that contingency. And the ancients also believed, still in evidence today, in fate, another inescapable contingency. Skeptics, existentialists and some others understand that we create that need for ourselves out of our own imagination and so we can make up other pertinent needs and beliefs as well.

I will go back now and read some more Monod. I rarely see this book listed in bibliographies. I guess most consider it an historical work, but next to Darwin, and then Crick and Watson, Monod and colleagues led us to a greater understanding of ourselves. I hope I am clear that Chance and Necessity should be required reading for anyone hoping to understand how we came to understand the biological roots of our humanity.