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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1883

In Janus: A Summing Up, Arthur Koestler successfully distills the past three decades of his writings on mind, paranormal experience, biology, psychology, and creativity. Because Koestler, now well into his seventies, is a Renaissance man—novelist, political journalist, philosopher, and in Janus an essayist bent on correlating a humanistic view of man with the empirical data of the life and physical sciences—Janus is able to contain coherently many diverse worlds. Moreover, Koestler incorporates these diverse materials within a General Systems Theory that encompasses all phenomena. This theory posits open systems of hierarchical levels of organization, rather like a branching tree which at each level allows a certain degree of autonomy, or wholeness, even while each level is constrained by being part of a greater whole. Koestler’s metasystem thus provides the reader with a rare vision of the possible interconnectedness not only among the sciences, but also between the two cultures.

Given Koestler’s productivity and range over the past thirty years (some twenty books and numerous essays), the task of Janus seems superhuman. A brief description of the major works synopsized here makes this clear: “The Yogi and the Commissar” (1944) focuses on free will and determinism; Insight and Outlook (1948) on hierarchical organizational principles that interrelate science, art, and social ethics; Trail of the Dinosaur (1955) on the possible extinction of humanity; The Sleepwalkers (1959) on the creative process of scientific geniuses such as Kepler and Brahe; The Lotus and the Robot (1961) on the paradox of self-transcendence; The Act of Creation (1964) on the positive freedom of creativity; The Ghost in the Machine (1967) and Beyond Reductionism (1969, Editor with J. R. Smythies of papers from The Alpbach Symposium) on the fallacies of biological and psychological reductionism; The Case of the Midwife Toad (1971) on the possibilities of Lamarckian biology; The Roots of Coincidence (1972) and The Heel of Achilles (1974) on the correspondence of paranormal experience and quantum physics.

Yet Koestler makes this mixture cohere, first, because he, like such comparable interdisciplinary writers as C. P. Snow or Robert Ardrey, has a sure grasp on science, and second, because all his diverse writings can be seen as variations upon a single theme—that of free will versus determinism. One of Janus’ main contributions is that it makes explicit how Koestler’s holistic systems theory resolves this central problem of freedom.

Here is the way the system works. According to Koestler, our empirical experience with the laws of nature suggests that all phenomena, be they psychological, social, biological, linguistic, electrical, or even inorganic, can be seen as tiered systems, or “holarchies.” These holarchies are composed of interrelating systems whose levels of organizations, or “holons,” increase in complexity: atom, molecule, organelle, cell, tissue, organs, and so on. Moreover, each level has its own governing principles: the atom operates differently from the molecule, the molecule differently from the organelle. Thus each level, or holon, is partially free because it obeys its own laws, while at the same time, it is subordinate to and determined by the larger system of which it is a part. Like Janus, the double-headed god, the holons have dual natures; they look both outward and inward. Although the laws of the higher level cannot be reduced to, nor derived from, the lower levels, nevertheless the phenomena of the lower level and their principles are implied in the higher level. Thus the freedom of each holon inheres in the new values and relationships not present in the lower level. The destiny of the holon, however, depends on the laws of the superior level, laws which the holon cannot predict and which to it must appear inexplicable. The holon, man, experiences his greatest freedom in the subjective experience of free choice which, even as it is free, is likewise limited by the greater wholes—biological, social, symbolic—to which man belongs.

Likewise, Koestler’s concept of the dual nature of all living organisms can be seen as a partial solution to his concern with freedom. At every level, a living organism exhibits two contrary tendencies: the tendency towards self-assertion accounts for the holon’s conservatism and individualism; on the other hand, the tendency towards self-transcendence, or integration, accounts for the holon’s urge to be part of something greater than itself. Surprisingly enough, it is man’s self-transcendent tendency which, according to Koestler, not only accounts for his creativity, but also for his destructiveness. It is man’s need to devote himself to something greater than himself—an ideal, a faith, a demagogue—that results in the bloodshed and carnage distinguishing human history. It seems strange that Koestler lays war at the feet of the patriotic or conscripted foot soldier instead of at the head of Atilla or Hitler. Yet his theory would seem to be upheld by Stanley Milgram’s well-known experiments on obedience and authority.

Koestler’s views on man’s inhumanity to man are provocative, yet unfortunately Janus offers only a feeble solution. The basic reason for man’s predicament, argues Koestler, is that man is a biological mistake. That is, his new brain, the neocortex or reasonable “thinking cap,” is merely overlaid or super-imposed upon an older brain. This older brain, composed of reptilian and mammalian infrastructures, governs our passions and instincts. But because the vertical neural pathways between these two brains are inadequate, reason is often unable to control passions, and thus the organism works against itself. For this problem, as old at least as Plato, Koestler proffers a kind of deus ex chemia: he says science must discover a drug that will enlarge the brain’s pathways and thus give more control to man’s new brain.

Koestler offers no better solutions when he misapplies physical laws to biological or psychological data. For example, he uses the Law of Complementarity, which asserts that all elementary particles have dual natures of corpuscles and waves, to explain the holon’s self-assertive (corpuscular) tendency and its self-transcendent (wave) tendency. Unfortunately, such explanation confuses more than it clarifies. In like manner, Koestler’s transference of Werner Heisenberg’s Principle of Indeterminancy to paranormal phenomena seems untenable. This principle, we recall, asserts that if a physicist accurately determines the velocity of a particle (which is simultaneously a corpuscle and a wave), he will be unable to fix its location, and vice versa. Koestler holds that there is a fundamental analogy between the inexplicable way paranormal phenomena operate, and between the behavior of quantum particles; neither can be comprehended by the usual laws of space, time, or causality. Five years ago, interest in QM as a basis for psi was so widespread that Koestler himself instigated and convened an important international conference of physicists and psychologists interested in psychical experience. Today, however, more and more physicists are quick to disclaim any association with investigations into paranormal realms.

More enduring, surely, are Koestler’s insights on biology and psychology. Here his refutations of reductionism, as well as his application of the General Systems Theory to the life sciences, prove genuinely illuminating. Koestler is a lively controversialist. He argues against the neo-Darwinian (Darwin, amended by the geneticists) biologists’ view that evolution, and thus man, is “nothing but” random mutations. He cites Waddington’s well-known analogy that this is like hoping that by throwing bricks together in heaps, we should eventually be able to choose ourselves the most desirable house. While Koestler admits that the principle of natural selection works “like a weed killer” to eliminate unfavorable mutants (and most mutations are such), he asserts that it does not explain the emergence of new plant species. A favorable mutation such as the lens of an eye, for example, requires numerous other organic systems such as the retina, ciliary muscles, and so on, in order to function. The chances of there being simultaneous mutations in all these necessary ancillary systems is beyond an astronomical chance. Koestler confides that it is a well-known face among biologists that neo-Darwinism is no longer a tenable theory. In its place, Koestler of course proposes his own holistic hierarchic system that allows for a kind of purposiveness, or inner direction (freedom), in evolution. According to the eminent biologist, W. H. Thorpe, although Koestler’s views are controversial, recent developments in scientific knowledge tend to confirm them.

Just as the body of Koestler’s insights on biology are valid, so are his views on psychology. Again, he convincingly attacks the reductionists—here the Behaviorists—who hold that learning is “nothing but” the differential reinforcement of random responses (that is, the learned behavior of boxed pigeons or rats who happen upon the right food lever). Moreover, he points up the absurdity of behaviorists consciously denying that there is such a thing as consciousness. Instead, Koestler asserts, psychologists need to study what distinguishes human beings from pigeons, not just how we are alike. Koestler suggests that new laws, new values obtain at every level of hierarchical organization; perhaps life, consciousness, language are such new laws.

Perhaps, too, creativity is such a new law, or freedom. Set within his critique on behaviorism and his definition of consciousness is Koestler’s most positive statement on human freedom—his analysis of creativity. First proposed in Insight and Outlook (1948) and fleshed out in The Act of Creation (1964), this provocative and sometimes perplexing theory of the creative act posits another Janus-headed holon. Its cornerstone in the general systems theory is bisociation, or double vision, wherein we view two self-consistent but incompatible levels of organization simultaneously. Creativeness, then, arises, from the comparison of two hitherto unrelated ideas, or value systems. Humor, by its surprising juxtaposition of two unlike systems, elicits a physiological response—“Ha!” Scientific creation overlaps two unlike systems and thereby creates a new concept, eliciting an “Aha!” And finally, artistic creation systhesizes two overlapping patterns and thereupon evokes an “Ah!” Furthermore, creativity in both science and art is analogous in that each is engendered by a regression from the more rational areas back into the more primitive, nonverbal levels of ideation. This regression, or undoing, is then followed by a leap forward, but in a new direction. In fact, Koestler asserts that this creative undoing-redoing pattern runs as a leitmotif through biological evolution (as paedomorphosis, or juvenilization, which allows a species to retrace its steps by dropping off an adult stage), through the revolutionary turning-points in science and art, to the archetypal monomyths of death-and-resurrection, withdrawal-and-return, that structure all mythologies.

Final assessment of such a sweeping, all-inclusive vision as Janus presents is hazardous. Science is more fickle than art. If physicists currently deplore Koestler’s mysticism, they applauded it a few years ago; if biologists are abandoning neo-Darwinism, they are doing it quietly. We will have to wait and see if, as Koestler asserts, evolution is a game of fixed rules and flexible strategies. Indeed, Koestler’s ultimate gift, as presented in Janus, may not be his theory of holarchies, his analogies among diverse systems, but rather his evidencing of the creative tendency itself—his own curiosity, his openness to varied ideas, his wonder and awe at the mystery, beauty, and order of the universe. Koestler has said, “A true science of life must let infinity in and never lose sight of it.” In Janus: A Summing Up, he shares this glimpse with the reader; it is a rare gift and we are grateful for it.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 29

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Economist. CCLXVI, March 4, 1978, p. 107.

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