PAPERS

LETTER TO ARTHUR KOESTLER

by     Reginald O. Kapp


Arthur Koestler,
Alpbach,
Tyrol,
Austria,
28th August 1964

(emphasis in bold is not in the original, but is added by JK)

Dear Arthur
First I should like to thank you and Cynthia for your kindness to me during my stay in Alpbach. It was a memorable week.

I have still not finished reading The Act of Creation. The reason is not lack of time, but because ever so often I have to put the book down to follow a line of thought that it stimulates. One of these is becoming increasingly insistent…. The point is important in the history of science, but it is best illustrated by a particular instance, and I shall choose (Prof) Medawar’s review. Reviews by others like Eysenk and Newth do not illustrate the point. Those two are in a groove and intellectually mediocre.

Not so Medawar. He writes with a sense of responsibility and must regard himself as the spokesman of scientists on his own high intellectual level. In his review he is defending something against a danger that is threatened by your book. He can write with the assurance that his defence will be approved by his fellow scientists. The review presents two riddles, and one can find in the history of science inumerable examples of the same riddles. It is for this reason that it is necessary to try to solve them. First let me name the riddles.

1.   What is Medawar defending? What common feature do all these beliefs have that have been defended in a similar manner on similar occasions in the past?

2.   How can one account for Medawars choice of weapons? This question is really puzzling. Contrast the character of the book and the character of the review. The book is richly documented with facts based on scientific discoveries that are well authenticated. The logical reasoning is acute and inescapable. The presentation is so clear that each point tells.

Medawar does not like the argument and finds it necessary, in the interests of science, to counter it. But he does not employ facts and logic. Instead he employs the method of discrediting. ‘The book is over-written’ he says, ‘It is filled with anecdotes of doubtful authenticity. The author does not understand the working of a scientist’s mind’. The purport of the review is that scientists will do best to take no notice of the book. If any ambitious young scientist asked Medawar or any of his colleagues for advice, he would be told that he had better not undertake any research programme that might be stimulated by your book.

Let me spare you the score or so of further examples that could be quoted and come straight to a couple of recent times that will prepare your mind for the credo incognitum that Medawar is defending. I select the following belief. When I was young we all believed that measurements made in a plane surface with the help of rulers compasses, set squares and other draughtsman’s instruments would confirm Euclid’s geometry. We believed that a computer set to evaluate pi and an evaluation performed by a draughtsman would give the same value to an indefinite number of decimal points if performed with sufficient accuracy. No one said so. It was simply taken for granted. It took Einstein’s genius to discover that this belief was a credo incognitum. It was no more than a hypothesis which needed to be tested and verified as any other. When tested, it failed. Einstein attacked that particular fortress.

I should like to be able to say that the fortress was captured and destroyed, but unfortunately that has not happened yet. It has been bypassed a little way as the fortress of the flat earth was by passed a little way. But it still stands in the way of progress. I look upon this as one of the tragedies of modern times.

The significance of the word ‘incognitum’ must claim our attention for a while. Half a century ago discussion on general relativity referred to the non-Euclidian character of space quite frequently. The belief that no other geometry excepting Euclid’s was physically possible became vocal. In other words, the fortress was named. But this happens rarely today. The pivotal conclusion on which general relativity depends, namely departure from Euclidian geometry, is ignored. Relativity is discussed in many other terms, but only very rarely in terms of geometry. An interesting feature of a credo incognitum is that there is a taboo on giving it a name.

Much ought to be said about the naming taboo, but I do not want to make this letter longer than necessary. So I shall be content to quote from my own experience what may help towards an understanding of it.

When I was quite young someone told me that a certain scientist, whose name I have forgotten, had enunciated the principle of the indestructibility of matter. My reaction was one of irritation. How characteristic, I thought, of a certain type of pompous and ambitious scientist. He gets his name attached to a principle that is not even worth mentioning. It is downright dishonest to announce as one’s own discovery a fact that everyone knows to be true and no one would ever doubt. Therewith, as I know with a blush today, I was conforming to the naming taboo. It may be that if that particular credo incognitum had not been named I should never have recognised it as a hypothesis and never have reached the point when I could understand that the hypothesis was false. We insistently impose the naming taboo as a means of preserving a credo incognitum from attack.

I hope the above illustrations are numerous, clear and cogent enough to lead naturally to the credo incognitum that Medawar is defending. I doubt whether a mere name will suffice to convey a proper picture of this fortress, but I must begin by giving it a name. In the minimum of words it is: ‘what acts, acts from somewhere.’

Suppose anyone wanted to refute one of your conclusions. He could begin with this statement: ‘In view of the generally accepted fact that what acts, acts from somewhere, it follows that….’ Step by step this reasoning would lead to the conclusion that there can be no such thing as an act of creation, that teleological statements are meaningless, that mind is no more than a synonym for brain, etc etc. I have given much of this reasoning myself in Science versus Materialism, and even more in Mind, Life and Body. In both books I have done my best to represent the kind of argument that Medawar could have used if he had been able to counter your facts and logic by his facts and logic. But he was prevented from doing so by the naming taboo. To name a credo incognitum is to risk that its walls will collapse as did the walls of Jericho to a blast of a trumpet. This is why Medawar is prohibited from using the arguments that he feels instinctively are sound ones.

Whatever Medawar is defending must be something that he feels has the support of facts and logic. One should therefore expect him to base his defence on facts and logic. But instead of using these clean weapons, he uses dirty ones.

So the second question can be worded like this: why does Medawar make out a bad case for whatever he is defending while he and his colleagues are all convinced that he has a cast iron case? This situation arises so frequently that an understanding of it is urgently called for.

Now let me generalise. I shall begin with a cliché. It is often said that science is steadily marching forward along an extended front and continuously conquering new ground. The metaphor can be expanded and then it ceases to be a cliché. Let me add that there are numerous fortresses which from time to time delay the advance. It is the nature of these which calls for investigation. The banal description would be that they are made up of prejudice, superstition, ignorance and self-interest; that they are manned by misguided laymen. I am sure that the truth is different. Let us examine one of these fortresses so as to arrive at a useful generalisation. I shall choose one that could be named ‘the belief that the earth is flat’.

That this belief held up the progress of science would not be doubted by anyone today. But several other important things can be said about it. One is that the belief was held, not only by misguided laymen, but by contemporary scientists. It emerges from The < too clearly for the comfort of the scientific world that similar fortresses have always been manned by scientists.

Another significant fact is that the fortress was by-passed long before it fell. It is pointed out in The Sleepwalkers (I have not got the reference, but think my memory is correct here) that navigators used the stars for finding their position on the high seas by methods inconsistent with the belief in a flat earth. Some ground was gained in the rear of the fortress while it still stood. But the ground could not be consolidated, and its extent was limited. When, however, belief in the flatness of the earth was abandoned by the scientific world, science advanced rapidly over an extended front.

Another, and perhaps the most significant feature of this fortress is that it was not named while it stood. At that time men will have been saying ‘I believe in God, I believe in Angels.’ Many beliefs could be designated as a credo and were held consciously and expressed in words. People were articulate about such beliefs. Not so with the belief that the earth is flat. I do not think many, if any, scientists will have said ‘I believe that the earth is flat,’ as they will have said ‘I believe in a life hereafter.’ No scientists would have started an argument with the words ‘In view of the universally accepted view that the earth is flat, it follows that….’ People believed in the flatness of the earth without saying so. They did not regard this as a hypothesis but as a fact, and one not needing to be stated. I think a name is needed for a fortress of this kind. I shall say that it is a credo incognitum.

One can quote innumerable examples of similar fortresses. Belief that the earth is at the centre of the universe was a credo incognitum. I doubt whether scientists were articulate about this belief. For them it was a fact and might be illustrated when they made a diagram. It did not require expression, as religious beliefs seem to do.

In The Act of Creation you frequently bypass this fortress and show what alluring territory lies behind it. When I am reading I repeatedly put the book down in frustration because I know that the ground you have gained cannot be consolidated. The defenders of the fortress are so convinced that facts and logic are on their side that they will ignore all the facts and logic produced by you as irrelevant.

May I now come to some conversations we have had about the reception of my own work. I told you that I would not be satisfied if sundry of my theories were generally welcomed and applauded unless something else happened which I was unable to define. I am now clear on the matter. In my books I have attacked several fortresses that deserve the title credo incognitum. One of them is the above mentioned belief that what acts, acts from somewhere. In Science versus Materialism I have quoted from leading scientists who had been writing at the time and who were certainly on Medawar’s intellectual level. I am sure that I did full justice to the views that had been expressed.

On re-reading Science versus Materialism I am struck by the discrepancy between the high intellectual level of the men whom I quote and the low intellectual level of the things that they said in defence of their credo. Like Medawar when he reviewed your book, they were convinced that their credo was unanswerable, but they were inhibited from using the best arguments. I tried to do this for them, particularly in Mind, Life and Body, where I am sure I presented a more cogent case for each and every variety of materialistic and monistic credo than the believers in it have ever presented. They did not welcome this but resented it. I had defied the naming taboo.

Other fortresses that I have attacked are the above mentioned credo incognitum that matter plus energy is indestructible, and the one that I have expressed in the form of belief in a Cosmic Statute Book. These and perhaps some others form a cluster of fortresses that support each other. When one has fallen the others are more exposed to attack. And so long as one stands any conquered ground cannot be consolidated.

I am not content with by-passing fortresses. In other words, I should feel frustrated if this or that theory of mine were welcomed and the fortress were to remain garrisoned. I see my task as three-fold, but the different parts of it are inter-dependent. One part cannot be accomplished unless each of the other two is also accomplished. The parts are as follows.

First I want to bring about a change in the attitude of scientists, such as they will be on the lookout for any credo incognitum that stands in the way of progress. I should like it to become a routine matter for those metaphorical fortresses to be the subject of reconnaisance and eventually attack. To avoid metaphorical language, I should like the scientific world to be better aware of the many occasions where something that is accepted blindly as a fact is in truth no more than a hypothesis that needs to be tested for its validity.

Secondly, I should like those fortresses that I have attacked in my various books to be abandoned by their garrisons. Put differently, I want my Principle of Minimum Assumption, my hypothesis of Symmetrical Impermanence, (non-indestructibility of matter) and my theory about the reality of diathetes to be accepted, together with all their implications.

Thirdly, I should be reassured if the various implications from the above theories that I have developed were proved true, but I regard such things as my Theory of Gravitation, my Theory of the Formation of Galaxies and of Stars, my Theory of the Nature of the Atomic Nucleus, the theory that I have presented very tentatively in Mind, Life, and Body concerning the way in which a diathete may interact with matter – I regard all these primarily as promises of the reward to be obtained from giving up an untenable credo incognitum.

With best wishes to Cynthia
Yours sincerely

Reginald.O Kapp

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