Arthur Koestler

Janus: A Summing Up

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Janus: A Summing Up Summary

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Janus: A Summing Up is a 1978 philosophical work by Hungarian-British humanist, journalist, and author Arthur Koestler. Written during his battle with Parkinson’s disease, it is a reflection on the past thirty years of his writings about human intelligence, creativity, biology, and philosophy. The book attempts to synthesize his past works into a systematic model for the encouragement of human achievement and critical thinking. Most ambitiously, the book attempts to organize the physical and social sciences into a single metaphysical framework. While sometimes dismissed as pseudoscientific in nature, the book established Koestler as one of the foremost Renaissance Men of the mid-twentieth century.

The first part of Janus: A Summing Up synopsizes nearly two-dozen books and many more essays that Koestler published during his prolific career. Many of these works, such as “Yogi and the Commissar,” meditate on the limits of free will and the inescapable power structures in which humans live and work. Insight and Outlook ties together ethics, aesthetics, and science by showing how the seemingly disparate fields harmonize and influence each other. Trail of the Dinosaur turns to ecology, particularly the future of the Earth given the progression of climate change. The Sleepwalkers discusses the origins of creativity by exploring the lives of geniuses such as Brahe and Kepler, and The Act of Creation is a treatise on the intrinsic value of creativity. Koestler’s works Beyond Reductionism and The Ghost in the Machine both criticize the insufficiency of reducing physical phenomena into the language of any one science, advocating instead for an interdisciplinary ecosystem of knowledge production. Some of his later, more speculative works, such as The Heel of Achilles and The Roots of Coincidence, explore paranormal phenomena through the lens of the emerging field of quantum physics.

Next, Koestler ties together the many different subjects throughout his oeuvre by explaining how every line of scientific and philosophical inquiry is rather deterministic, mapping onto an arrangement called a “holarchy.” All of the phenomena that humans observe, he argues, invite the creation of theories that tie into each other, and ultimately feed back into how we perceive those same phenomena. He calls each level of organization a “holon,” and uses as an example the increase in complexity as observed phenomena increase in scale from atom, to molecule, to organelle, then on through cell, tissue, organs, and body. Each holon is a relatively complete system, with its own properties and obedient to its own rules. At the same time, each level of organization is also dependent on the system in which it is embedded. Here, Koestler utilizes the metaphor of Janus, the two-faced Greek god. Like Janus, holons look both inward and outward. The behavior of a holon cannot be understood by looking at just one side. By looking at its inner properties, we can learn its basic principles, and by looking at its behavior in the context of other holons, we can deduce how its properties contribute to its holarchy.

Following from his theory of holarchies, Koestler argues that nature cannot be reduced into scientific knowledge. Rather, scientific knowledge merely gets better at enabling the creation of useful tools for humans to interact with it. Koestler argues against various theories that he views as reductionist; for example, neo-Darwinism, which holds that the sum of the history of biological evolution has consisted of a series of random mutations. He argues that no highly complex and interrelated feature of life, such as the lens of an eye, could develop out of a mass of mostly useless mutations. In response to this theory, Koestler proposes that evolution itself is an expression of constructive free will. As examples of extremely high-complexity objects of study that evolved in humans, he points to humor and creativity, suggesting that we can make valid and rigorous scientific inquiries into them. These fields might help us understand why we are unique from other species, and also give us insights into their minds.

Janus: A Summing Up is a comprehensive survey of Koestler’s prolific and cogitative literary life. Though it has been accused of being overly mystical in its analysis of scientific topics, Koestler’s point is perhaps that mysticism can open up new perspectives for looking at natural phenomena.