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.