Jacques Monod (1970)

Jacques Monod

The Ethic of Knowledge
and the Socialist Ideal
concluding paragraphs from Chance & Necessity

Source: Chance and Necessity publ. Collins, 1970. Part of final Chapter reproduced here.

the need for an explanation

For hundreds of thousands of years a man's lot was identical with that of the group, of the tribe he belonged to, and outside which he could not survive. The tribe, for its part, could only survive and defend itself through its cohesion. Whence arose the extreme subjective power of the laws that organised and guaranteed this cohesion. A man might perhaps infringe them; it is unlikely that anyone ever dreamed of denying them. Given the immense selective importance such social structures perforce assumed over such vast stretches of time, it is difficult not to believe that they must have influenced the genetic evolution of the innate categories of the human brain. This evolution must not only have facilitated acceptance of the tribal law, but created the need for the mythical explanation which gave it a foundation and sovereignty. We are the descendants of these men, and it is probably from them that we have inherited the need for an explanation, the profound disquiet which forces us to search for the meaning of existence. That same disquiet has created all myths, all religions, all philosophies and science itself.

I have very little doubt that this imperious need develops spontaneously, that it is inborn, inscribed somewhere in the genetic code. Apart from the human species, nowhere in the animal kingdom does one find such highly differentiated social organisations except among certain insects: ants, termites, bees. The stability of the social insects' institutions owes next to nothing to cultural heritage, but virtually everything to genetic transmission. Social behaviour, with them, is entirely innate, automatic.

Man's social institutions, which are purely cultural, cannot ever attain such stability; anyway, who would wish for it? The invention of myths and religions, the construction of vast philosophical systems - they are the price man has had to pay in order to survive as a social animal without yielding to pure automatism. But a cultural heritage would not, all alone, have been strong or reliable enough to hold up the social structure. That heritage needed a genetic support to provide something essential to the mind. How else account for the fact that in our species the religious phenomenon is invariably at the base of social structure? How else explain that, throughout the immense variety of our myths, our religions and philosophical ideologies, the same essential 'form' always recurs?

mythic and metaphysical ontogenies

It is easy to see that the 'explanations', which gave a foundation to the law while assuaging man's anxiety, are all 'stories' or, more exactly, 'ontogenies'. Primitive myths almost all tell of more or less divine heroes whose deeds explain the origins of the group and base its social structure upon sacrosanct traditions; one does not remake history. The great religions are of a similar form, based on the story of the life of an inspired prophet who, if not himself the founder of all things, represents that founder, speaks for him, and recounts the history of mankind as well as its destiny. Of all the great religions Judeo-Christianity is probably the most 'primitive' in its strictly historicist structure, being founded on the saga of a Bedouin tribe before being enriched by a divine prophet. Buddhism, which is more highly differentiated, is based in its original form on Karma, the transcending law governing individual destiny. Buddhism is a story of souls rather than of men.

From Plato to Hegel and Marx, the great philosophical systems all propose ontogenies which are both explanatory and normative. It is true that, in Plato's case, the course is downhill rather than ascending. He sees in history only the gradual corruption of ideal forms, and his aim in the Republic is to reinstate the past, to move backwards in time.

For Marx, as for Hegel, history unfolds according to an immanent, necessary, and favourable plan. The immense influence of Marxist ideology is not due only to its promise of man's liberation, but also, and probably mainly, to its ontogenetic structure, the explanation which it provides, both sweeping and detailed, of past, present, and future history. However, limited to human history, even though decked with the certainties of 'science', historical materialism was still incomplete. It needed the addition of dialectical materialism which provides the total interpretation the mind needs: in this, the history of mankind is bound up with that of the cosmos, obeying the same eternal laws.

the breakdown of the old covenant and the modern soul's distress

If there is an innate need for a complete explanation whose absence causes a deep inner anxiety; if the only form of explanation which can ease the soul is that of a total history which reveals the significance of man by assigning him a necessary place in nature's scheme; if, to appear genuine, meaningful, soothing, the 'explanation' must be fused with the long animist tradition, then we understand why so many thousand years passed before the appearance, in the realm of ideas, of those presenting objective knowledge as the only source real truth.

Cold and austere, proposing no explanation but imposing an ascetic renunciation of all other spiritual fare, this idea could not allay anxiety; it aggravated it instead. It claimed to sweep away at a stroke the tradition of a hundred thousand years, which had become assimilated in human nature itself. It ended the ancient animist covenant between man and nature, leaving nothing in place of that precious bond but an anxious quest in a world of icy solitude. With nothing to recommend it but a certain puritan arrogance, how could such an idea be accepted? It was not; it still is not. if it has commanded recognition, this is solely because of its prodigious powers of performance.

In the course of three centuries, science, founded upon the postulate of objectivity, has won its place in society - in men's practice, but not in their hearts. Modern societies are built upon science. To it they owe their wealth, their power, and the certitude that tomorrow even greater wealth and power will be ours if we so wish. But there is this too: just as an initial 'choice' in the biological evolution of a species can be binding upon its entire future, so the choice of scientific practice (an unconscious choice in the beginning) has launched the evolution of culture on a one-way path; on to a track which nineteenth-century scientism saw leading infallibly on to a vast blossoming for mankind, whereas what we see before us today is an abyss of darkness.

Modern societies accepted the treasures and the power offered them by science. But they have not accepted - they have scarcely even heard - its profounder message: the defining of a new and unique source of truth, and the demand for a thorough revision of ethical premises, for a complete break with the animist tradition, the definitive abandonment of the 'old covenant', the necessity of forging a new one. Armed with all the powers, enjoying all the riches they owe to science, our societies are still trying to live by and to teach systems of values already blasted at the root by science itself.

No society before ours was ever torn apart by such conflicts. In both primitive and classical cultures the animist tradition saw knowledge and values stemming from the same source. For the first time in history a civilisation is trying to shape itself while clinging desperately to the animist tradition in an effort to justify its values, and at the same time abandoning it as the source of knowledge, of truth. The 'liberal' societies of the West still pay lip-service to, and present as a basis for morality, a disgusting farrago of Judeo-Christian religiosity, scientistic progressism, belief in the 'natural' rights of man, and utilitarian pragmatism. The Marxist societies still profess the materialist and dialectical religion of history; on the face of it a more solid moral framework than that of the liberal societies, but perhaps more vulnerable by virtue of the very rigidity which up to now has been its strength. However this may be, all these systems rooted in animism exist outside objective knowledge, outside truth, and are strangers and fundamentally hostile to science, which they are willing to use but do not respect or cherish. The divorce is so great, the lie so flagrant, that it can only obsess and lacerate anyone who has some culture or intelligence, or is moved by that moral questioning which is the source of all creativity. It is an affliction, that is to say, for all those who bear or will bear the responsibility for the way in which society and culture will evolve.

The sickness of the modern spirit is this, and lie at the root of man's moral and social nature. It is this ailment, more or less confusedly diagnosed, that provokes the fear if not the hatred - in any case the estrangement - felt toward scientific culture by so many people today. Their aversion, when openly expressed, is usually directed at the technological by-products of science: the bomb, the destruction of nature, the soaring population. It is easy, of course, to answer that technology and science are not the same thing, and moreover that the use of atomic energy will soon be vital to mankind's survival; that the destruction of nature denotes a faulty technology rather than too much of it; and that the population soars because millions of children are saved from death every year. Are we to go back to letting them die?

This is a superficial reply, confusing the symptoms of the disorder with its underlying cause. For behind the protest is the refusal to accept the essential message of science. The fear is the fear of sacrilege: of outrage to values; and it is wholly justified. It is perfectly true that science attacks values. Not directly, since science is no judge of them and must ignore them; but it subverts every one of the mythical or philosophical, ontogenies upon which the animist tradition, from the Australian aborigines to the dialectical materialists, has based morality: values, duties, rights, prohibitions.

If he accepts this message in its full significance, man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realise that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his suffering or his crimes.

Who, then, is to define crime? Who decides what is good and what is evil? All the traditional systems placed ethics and values beyond man's reach. Values did not belong to him; they were imposed on him, and he belonged to them. Today he knows that they are his and his alone, but now he is master of them they seem to be dissolving in the uncaring emptiness of the universe. It is at this point that modern man turns toward science, or rather against it, now seeing its terrible capacity to destroy not only bodies but the soul itself.

values and knowledge

Where is the remedy? Must one claim once and for all that objective truth and the theory of values are eternally opposed, mutually impenetrable domains? This is the attitude adopted by many modern thinkers, whether writers, or philosophers, or indeed scientists. I believe that it is not only unacceptable to the vast number of men, whose anxiety it can only perpetuate and worsen; I also, believe it is absolutely mistaken, for two essential reasons.

Each of these two points needs to be briefly developed.

Ethics and knowledge are inevitably linked in and through action. Action brings knowledge and values simultaneously into play, or into question. All action signifies an ethic, serves or disserves certain values; constitutes a choice of values, or pretends to. On the other hand, knowledge is necessarily implied in all action, while reciprocally, action is one of the two necessary sources of knowledge.

In an animist system the interpenetration of ethics and knowledge creates no conflict, since animism avoids any basic distinction between these two categories: it sees them as two aspects of the same reality. The idea of a social ethic founded upon the so-called 'natural' rights of man also reflects this outlook, displayed, but much more systematically and emphatically, in the attempts to delineate the ethics implicit in Marxism.

From the moment objectivity is made the conditio sine qua non of true knowledge, a radical distinction, indispensable to the very search for truth, is established between the domains of ethics and of knowledge. Knowledge in itself is exclusive of all value judgment (except that of 'epistemological value') whereas ethics, in essence non-objective, is for ever barred from the sphere of knowledge.

It is in effect this radical distinction, laid down as an axiom, that created science. I am tempted to suggest that if this unprecedented event in the history of culture occurred in the Christian West rather than in some other civilisation, it was perhaps partly thanks to the fundamental distinction drawn by the Church between the domains of the sacred and the profane. Not only did this distinction allow science to pursue its own way (provided it did not trespass on the realm of the sacred); it prepared the mind for the much more radical distinction posed by the principle of objectivity. Westerners often have trouble in understanding that for certain religions there is not and cannot be any distinguishing between sacred and profane: for Hinduism, everything comes within the bounds of the sacred; the very concept of 'profane' is incomprehensible.

But let us return to our main point. The postulate of objectivity, denouncing the 'old covenant', at the same time forbids any confusion of value judgments with judgments arrived at through knowledge. Yet the fact remains that these two categories inevitably unite in the form of action, discourse included. To abide by our principle we shall therefore take the position that no discourse or action is to be considered meaningful, authentic, unless - or only insofar as - it makes explicit and preserves the distinction between the two categories it combines. Thus defined, the concept of authenticity becomes the common round where ethics and knowledge meet again; where values and truth, associated but not interchangeable, reveal their full significance to the attentive man alive to their resonance. In return, inauthentic discourse, where the two categories are jumbled, can lead only to the most pernicious nonsense, to the most criminal, even if unconscious, lies.

It is in 'political' discourse (and I mean 'discourse' in the Cartesian sense), of course, that this hazardous amalgamation is most consistently and systematically practised. And not by professional politicians alone. Scientists themselves, outside their field, often prove dangerously incapable of distinguishing between the categories of values and of knowledge.

Animism, we said earlier, neither wants nor for that matter is able to set up an absolute discrimination between value judgments and statements based upon knowledge; for having once assumed that there is an intention, however carefully disguised, present in the universe, what would be the sense of such a distinction? In an objective system the very opposite holds: any confusion of knowledge with values is unlawful, forbidden. But - and this is the crucial point - the logical link which radically binds knowledge and values - this ban, this 'first commandment' which ensures the foundation of objective knowledge, itself is not, and cannot be, objective. It is a moral rule, a discipline. True knowledge is ignorant of values, but it has to be grounded on a value judgment, or rather on an axiomatic value. 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 reached from 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. To assent to the principle of objectivity is, thus, to state the basic proposition of an ethical system: the ethic of knowledge.

the ethic of knowledge

In the ethic of knowledge it is the ethical choice of a primary value that is the foundation. The ethic of knowledge thereby differs radically from animist ethics, which all claim to be based on the 'knowledge' of immanent, religious or 'natural' laws which are supposed to impose themselves on man. The ethic of knowledge does not impose itself on man; on the contrary, it is he who imposes it on himself, making it the axiomatic condition of authenticity for all discourse and all action. The Discourse on Method proposes a normative epistemology, but it must also be read above all as a moral meditation, a spiritual exercise.

Authentic discourse is in its turn the foundation of science, and it gives back to man the immense powers that enrich and threaten him today, that free him but might also subjugate him. Modern societies, woven together by science, living from its products, have become as dependent upon it as an addict on his drug. They owe their material power to this fundamental ethic upon which knowledge is based, and their moral weakness to those value-systems devastated by knowledge itself, to which they still try to refer. The contradiction is deadly. This is what is digging the pit we see opening under our feet. The ethic of knowledge that created the modern world is the only ethic compatible with it, the only one capable, once understood and accepted, of guiding its evolution.

Understood and accepted - could it be? If it is true, as I believe, that the fear of solitude and the need for a complete and binding explanation are inborn - that this heritage from the remote past is not only culturally but probably genetic too - can one imagine such an austere, abstract, proud ethic calming that fear, satisfying that need? I do not know. But it may not be altogether impossible. Perhaps, even more than an 'explanation' which the ethic of knowledge cannot supply, man needs to rise above himself, to find transcendence. The abiding power of the great socialist dream, still alive in men's hearts, would indeed seem to suggest it. No system of values can claim to constitute a true ethic unless it proposes an ideal transcending the individual self to the point even of justifying self-sacrifice, if need be.

By the very loftiness of its ambition the ethic of knowledge might perhaps satisfy this craving for something higher. It puts forward a transcendent value, true knowledge, not for the use of man, but for man to serve from deliberate and conscious choice. At the same time it is also a humanist ethic, for it respects man as the creator and repository of that transcendence.

The ethic of knowledge is also in a sense 'knowledge of ethics', that is, of the urges and passions, the needs and limitations of the biological being. It is able to confront the animal in man, to see him not as absurd but strange, precious in his very strangeness: the creature who, belonging simultaneously to the animal kingdom and the kingdom of ideas, is both torn and enriched by this agonising duality, expressed alike in art and poetry and in human love.

Conversely, the animist systems have to one degree or another preferred to ignore, denigrate or bully biological man, and to make him fear or abhor certain traits inherent in his animal nature. The ethic of knowledge, on the other hand, encourages him to honour and assume this heritage, while knowing how to dominate it when necessary. As for the highest human qualities, courage, altruism, generosity, creative ambition, the ethic of knowledge both recognises their socio-biological origin and affirms their transcendent value in the service of the ideal it defines.

the ethic of knowledge and the socialist ideal

Finally, the ethic of knowledge is, in my view, the only attitude which is both rational and resolutely idealistic, and on which a real socialism might be built. For the young in spirit that great vision of the nineteenth century still persists with grievous intensity. Grievous because of the betrayals this ideal has suffered, and because of the crimes committed in its name. it is tragic, but was perhaps inevitable, that this profound aspiration had to find its philosophical doctrine in the form of an animist ideology. Looking back, it is easy to see that, from the time of its birth, historical messianism based on dialectical materialism contained the seeds of all the dangers later encountered. Perhaps more than the other animisms, historical materialism is based on a total confusion of the categories of value and knowledge. This very confusion permits it, in a travesty of authentic discourse, to proclaim that it has 'scientifically' established the laws of history, which man has no choice or duty but to obey if he does not wish to sink into oblivion.

This illusion, which is merely puerile when it is not fatal, must be given up once and for all. How can an authentic socialism ever be built on an essentially inauthentic ideology, a caricature of that very science whose support it claims (most sincerely, in the minds of its followers)? Socialism's one hope is not in a 'revision' of the ideology that has been dominating it for over a century, but in completely abandoning that ideology.

Where then shall we find the source of truth and the moral inspiration for a really scientific socialist humanism? Only, we suggest, in the sources of science itself, in the ethic upon which knowledge is founded, and which by free choice makes knowledge the supreme value - the measure and guarantee for all other values. An ethic which bases moral responsibility upon the very freedom of that axiomatic choice. Accepted as the foundation for social and political institutions, and as the measure of their authenticity and their value, only the ethic of knowledge could lead to socialism. It prescribes institutions dedicated to the defence, the extension, the enrichment of the transcendent kingdom of ideas, of knowledge, and of creation - a kingdom which is within man, where progressively freed both from material constraints and from the misleading servitudes of animism, man could at last live authentically; there he would be protected by institutions which, seeing him as both the subject of the kingdom and its creator, would serve him in his unique and precious essence.

This is perhaps a utopia. But it is not an incoherent dream. It is an idea that owes its strength to its logical coherence alone. It is the conclusion to which the search for authenticity necessarily leads. The ancient covenant is in pieces; man at last knows that he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he emerged only by chance. Neither his destiny nor his duty have been written down. The kingdom above or the darkness below: it is for him to choose.