Chance or Reality and Other Essays
by Stanley L. Jaki.
University Press of America, 1986.
258 pp., $14.50 paper.

The dominant pathological feature of our times often seems an adulation of growth. That bigger is better and that the self is to be fulfilled are characteristic deductions from absurd premises, when they are not absurd premises themselves. They are absurd because pathological, and pathological because cancerous.

In the late Sixties, when everyone was “turning on,” a microbiologist friend suggested that that phrase was a good definition of cancer. A cancerous cell was a “turned on” cell, a cell whose hierarchy and sequence of functions had broken down and whose repertoire of activities was, consequently, being activated chaotically. Likewise our world, our society, ourselves. We have been sold, and willingly bought, a bill of goods, in which quality and hierarchy are banished and quantity reigns. Bigger is better. Be yourself. Turn on.

Although he never uses the word, Father Jaki is directly concerned with this cancer in his powerful work. Few collections of essays deserve to be called powerful. The genre is structurally alien to concerted effect. This is an exception. Its themes are limited, and intricately interwoven: the defense of objective reality against scientistic solipsism and pragmatism; the rejection of the separation of science and humanities into separate cultures and the insistence on their mutual relevance; the importance of theology to science (most centrally, the connection between the Christian doctrine of creation and the rise of modern science as a self-sustaining project); and the qualitative validation of the quantitative. The argument of the volume is clear and cogent. Its scholarship bridges the gap between the supposed “two cultures” and is truly admirable. And the industry and assiduousness to which the footnotes give evidence are amazing. Much of the first two essays is concerned with the defense of objective reality, of ontology, against the drastic interpretation which the Copenhagen school put upon Heisenberg’s indeterminacy or uncertainty principle. Despite argumentation to the contrary by men of such stature as Max Planck and Albert Einstein, that school made the all too facile leap from the principle’s statement about the limit to precision of measurement to an assertion about the supposedly consequent absence of causality (a leap which Jaki has elsewhere called a rape of pure and simple logic). Consequent upon the Copenhagen caper came the rejection of causality as a way of thinking, the ruin (in thought) of strict interaction at the fundamental level of nature, and “the dismissal of objective reality itself.” Thus, “from mere probability with respect to being it was only a short step to despair about the rationality of existence.”

Enter “chance,” the darling of derelicts and desperadoes in thereal world, and the apparent imperial mistress (cf. the “O! Fortuna …” of medieval despair) of most mathematics and theoretical physics today. But what is chance? Jaki asks whether it is something real,something ontological, or “merely a mathematical device.” Can there be, for instance, in connection with the last alternative, a mathematical theory of randomness without “at least one subtly concealed non-random parameter in the ensemble”? Whichever alternative is chosen, there appear consequences which are not to the liking of the subjectivist or solipsist.

And solipsism seems to be the natural conclusion of much contemporary thought, even in science. Various multi-world theories have been proposed (“there are as many worlds as there are observers”), Jaki points out. One is reminded of a brief bit of high doggerel (Housman comes to mind as the author, but my memory is vague here):

Good creatures, do you love your lives
And have you ears for sense?
Here is a knife like other knives,
That cost me eighteen pence.
I need but stick it in my heart
And down will come the sky,
And earth’s foundations will depart
And all you folk will die.

But perhaps beyond the absurdity of solipsism lies the further absurdity of autophagic (self-consuming) statements (e.g., classically, “I met a man from Crete who said to me, ‘All Cretans are liars’ …”). A particular twist seems to be given to autophagism by those scientists who use the success of quantum mechanics in measuring and predicting action and reaction in the objective world as a proof of the theory’s (drastic) contention that there is no objective reality.

The fine conclusion to the second essay (“From Subjective Scientists to Objective Science”) recalls important contentions made throughout the first two essays, such as that “the very assertion of causality and reality imply a kind of reasoning or rather mental judgment [“logic” as one form of reasoning is subsequently detailed] which is very different from statements of mathematical physics.” The extensive argument there reminds one of Kafka’s somewhat cryptic but slowly revelatory comment (I paraphrase): truth is indivisible, therefore cannot know itself; he who seeks for truth must be false. Perhaps, like the argument about virtue in the “Meno,” and unlike various forms of pantheist reductionism, the adage points us in the right direction.

The third, fourth, and fifth essays are concerned with Jacques Maritain and G. K. Chesterton as sane thinkers reflecting about science and scientism, and Goethe as a rather insane one. For instance, Maritain described science in his very first published article (La science moderne et la raison, 1910) as a diminished knowledge, accurate to the extent that its object is restricted. He also spoke pointedly of intellectual fashions and of “associative [as opposed to rational] influence or sub-intellectual induction” in science, features of the scientific project which give rise to mindsets and worldviews, which in turn deliver one illusion after another in the name of science.

The next two chapters examine the history and structure of the “two cultures” debate over the last century or so. C. P. Snow’s covert Marxism and scientism are noted alongside Leavis’s overt intemperate literateness. Jaki’s startling familiarity with a wide array of sources is happily illustrated here by a delightfully amusing citation from the poetry of e. e. cummings (used to make a point about common sense, human sensitivity, and reality, e.g., that “consciousness is not the subject matter of physics”):

While you and i have lips and voice which
are for kissing and to sing with

who cares if some one eyed son of a bitch
invents an instrument to measure spring with?

As the argument progresses in the second of this pair of essays we move with the behavioralists beyond freedom and dignity to mechanics and chemistry, to an epiphenomenal view of the nature of knowledge, to libertinism and to control for control’s sake. We are reminded that, on the basis of quantitative considerations alone, we cannot have meaning, purpose, values or immortality, and that “the central issue in our culture is the question of knowledge in an age of science,” for we cannot escape the fact the “the scientific strategy, however limited in its scope, is a most integral part of our humanity.” That question is a philosophic question, a question of limits. Jaki suggests that James Clerk Maxwell’s relevant adage should be carved into every desk in every laboratory and science classroom: “One of the severest tests of a scientific mind is to discern the limits of the legitimate application of scientific methods.” Man is man by virtue of the use of both science and letters.

Chapter 8, “The Role of Faith in Physics,” returns us to an earlier consideration in the volume, classically put in the words of Einstein that “belief in an external world, independent of the perceiving subject, is the basis of all natural science.” But, true to his truly rational position and our common tradition of faith as a rationale obsequium, Jaki allows that we may legitimately go along with Huxley’s statement that blind faith is the one unpardonable sin. (Jaki has characterized Einstein’s naive but well-intentioned and basically perceptive forays into philosophy as inarticulate, and his position as fideistic.)

The next chapter, “Theological Aspects of Creative Science,” highlights a central theme of much of Jaki’s work, including that of the following two chapters, “The University and the Universe” and “The Greeks of Old and the Novelty of Science.” That theme is the centrality of the Christian doctrine of creation to the development of science as a self-sustaining activity in Western culture. Put simply, this argument suggests that, while the rest of the world seems to have been overly empirical (and thus developed only technologies), the dominant Greek thinkers were too rational, deducing the nature of things a priori from the supposed eternity and rationality of the universe (things done “for the best,” as with “Mind” in the “Phaedo”). In more recent times the two extremes have met in a strange intellectual bedfellowship. J. S. Mill, for instance, attacked the licitness of the concept of the universe (as did Kant from another direction). He attempted in his System of Logic, which suggested that the world might consist of rational and irrational parts, to destroy metaphysics, which springs from “the notion of a fully rational universe,” by rooting it out of its stronghold in mathematics and physical science.

For science to come to birth, this argument continues, Christianity’s insistence on the creation of the universe is necessary. Christianity gave to the universe both a necessary and a contingent character so that, antecedently assured of its rationality and of the ability of the human mind to approach a knowledge of it, yet aware of the universe’s dependence on a choice external to it, we must check and revise our deductions from a priori propositions against empirical observation and induction.

There are several delightful turns of phrase in the volume and some fine humor, as well as a few grammatical muddles and inappropriate uses of words. More editorial attention would have served the author well. But none of this need be dwelt on here, for it is a minor matter. It is quite important that the volume be read and understood by as many people as possible. In a world gone cancerously mad, Jaki prescribes restraint and sanity.  

Dr. John Lyon was at the time of writing dean of humanities at Indiana Academy for Science, Mathematics, and Humanities, an innovative honors school associated with Ball State University.