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(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

ph_0111207093-Koestler.jpg Arthur Koestler Published by Salem Press, Inc.

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...

(The entire section is 1,912 words.)