Sunday Contemplation for Monday — Finding Wisdom — Aristotle and the Nicomachaen Ethics

aristotle

At his best, man is the noblest of all animals; separated from law and justice he is the worst.

— Aristotle, Politics, Book 1, Chapter II

As a youth my father told me that all of the important questions about the world were first posed by the Greeks.  Aristotle had many good answers.  In reading him it is hard to believe that over two thousand years separate us from this brilliant mind.

The world that Aristotle inhabited in the 4th century B.C. was quite different from our own.  Civilization was quite new to our species.  Life was short.  Defenses against disease and injury were nonexistent except by the body’s own natural defense mechanisms and ability to recover.  The very nature of disease and bodily processes were not understood.  Food and shelter were contingent on the vagaries of the weather and easy availability of useable resources.  Tools were crude and most efforts very labor intensive.  Large areas of the globe were lawless.  Science as we would define it today was not possible nor conceivable.  The forces and laws of nature were described as the acts of gods, demons, and other fanciful creatures.  Tribal genesis stories abounded from every corner of the globe.  Where some form of law did exist, superstition and tribal loyalties largely trumped all other forms of social organization and individual concerns.  The Greek city-states, in particular, constantly warred with each other to claim hegemony over the Aegean peninsula.  Modes of transport were limited and crude.  Our species was even still hunted as prey by a number of apex predators.

That a man of Aristotle’s characteristics could emerge from that world is truly amazing.  He was, long before that word was invented, a Renaissance man for his time.  He explored natural history, which seemed to be his first passion.  He studied and classified the animals that he found around him.  As a matter of fact, his classification was in many ways superior to the Linnaean taxonomy that we use today, particularly in the manner in which he separated out vertebrates from invertebrates.  He also studied the stars, the weather, and a host of other subjects.  Many of his classifications and observations have turned out to be valid, based as they were in empirical methods.

His thirst for knowledge seems to have been insatiable.  But probably his most important contribution to our species were his ethical and political writings, in particular, the Nicomachean Ethics.  They anticipate every modern notion of ethics and morality that we value today, and qualify as a literature that transmits wisdom.  But it is worth noting that Aristotle’s writings did not come down to Western Civilization as a continuous tradition.  The line was severed with the long decline and fall of the Roman Empire.  Also, the nature of the medium used for transmitting written knowledge–papyrus–tended to deteriorate over time, particularly in wetter climates.  As Rome fell the great libraries of the east also were destroyed, some from warfare but most others through religious fanaticism, which viewed any knowledge other than that received from their theology to be a grave threat needful of destruction.  With the fabric of civilization torn apart, many centers of learning and the contents therein were abandoned and neglected, their contents left to deteriorate and crumble.

It was not until about the 12th century that Greek philosophy and Aristotelian literature was reintroduced to the West.  This occurred through several routes: the literature that made its way back to Europe from the Crusades, the efforts of William of Moerbeke, the Jewish translations from Greek to Arabic and then to Latin of the Classical works that were introduced through the Arab conquests of Eastern Europe and Spain, through the Italian trading states and Sicily, and through the efforts of the Al-Andalus polymath Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and other Arab translators and commentators of Classical works.  Thus, the travels of Aristotle’s ideas trace the history, conquests, and conflicts of the first 14 centuries of the modern era.

For Western Europe it was as if Aristotle’s ideas were introduced to Western Civilization anew.  The threat from this reintroduction was first and foremost to religious belief (tied as it is to social and political power structures), which had relied first on the metaphysical writings of Plato to support the idea of revealed truth.  Aristotle’s approach was to base conclusions about the world on observation, which allowed an alternative view of reality that conflicts with the doctrine of revealed truth.  To the monotheistic religions this was an unacceptable proposition.  The Western Christian church, in particular, sought to root out all influences of what we now know as empiricism, equating it with paganism and atheism.  (Not to mention the feared influence and association to Arabic and Jewish sources).  It was thus not until Thomas Aquinas used Aristotle’s logic and ethics–co-opting both and turning them on their heads in support of the Western Church fused with Plato–that the threat was deemed past.  So much was Aristotle absorbed into the Catholic and Christian cannon that it is difficult to know where religious ethics and logic begins and Aristotelian ethics and logic ends.

This hybrid Aquinas Aristotle, particularly in the use of logical deduction to support circular reasoning, came in the eyes of Renaissance and modernist thinkers, particularly in the rapidly advancing sciences, to be the core edifice to be overthrown in order for civilization to advance–and rightly so.  But the guilt by association and fusion also unfortunately relegated all of Aristotle’s unadulterated works to serve as mere historical examples in the evolution of Western philosophical thought and ethics in pre-modern times.  Only recently has the taint of intellectual oppression and retrograde beliefs been wiped from his legacy so that he has enjoyed a second rediscovery and revival of sorts.

Thus, the Aristotle that comes down to us is once again the polymath that learned from and exceeded the achievements of his teacher, Plato.  Ethics and philosophy prior to Aristotle was largely metaphysical and theoretical.  The approach in discerning reality was to assume creation.  For example, for Plato the “idea” of the elephant came first.  This idea is the ideal and perfect elephant living in its perfect environment.  All of reality is a corruption of the perfect idea of the elephant.  One can see why this approach would appeal to a theological mindset. It also happens to be pre-scientific gibberish.  But Aristotle was a practical man.  For him the elephants that we see are what nature intended–an elephant is an elephant, all the rest is nonsensical word salad.

Thus his ethics were also practical and they provide the first practical guidance on how to live a good life.  He actually wrote three different treatises on ethics but the most effective distillation of his views are found in the Nicomachean Ethics, which were based on lectures he gave at the Lyceum.  There is much in Aristotle that synthesizes what he learned from Plato but he goes further than his teacher to more practical matters.  This was a dangerous tact to take.  As long as philosophers talked about theoretical topics they did not threaten the power structure and were allowed to freely give their advice, especially if some of it was useful to those in power and influence.  Aristotle chose a different path and it is one that caused him much trouble later in life and led him to flee Athens from charges of impiety.

Aristotle bases his ethics on his observations of the natural sciences and so rather than taking a theoretical approach to what is right and wrong–or the age-old problem of the “is” versus the “ought,” his ethics is, instead, based on what he sees in the differences between animals and people.  As we read Aristotle we can see that his system of thinking flows logically from observations of the natural world to the differences in humans that make us so, to his ethics, which then influences his prescriptions for government.  According to Aristotle the key feature that distinguishes humans from other animals is our ability to reason.  It is this facility that provides our advantages over other creatures.  Our rational selves also allow us to choose to live well, to strive for excellence, and to seek what is good or virtuous.  Thus he distinguishes between self-interest, or the intermediate definitions of happiness, and the higher order of happiness and living well–what is good–as something that can only be achieved through virtuous action.

Thus, In this way he was not talking about good things individually but the ultimate definition of good.  The three characteristics in asking this question of what is good are to determine whether it is desirable for itself, it is not desirable for the sake of some other good, and all other goods are desirable for its sake.  His conclusion is “Happiness (flourishing), then, is found to be something perfect and self-sufficient, being the end to which our actions are directed.”  (Book 1, Chapter VII).  For example, seeking wealth, which seems to be the overarching obsession in our own age, cannot be a good for its own sake under this definition.  On the contrary, pursuing wealth, or some of the other pleasures of life as ends in themselves are a perversion of happiness, since they cannot in and of themselves lead to the ultimate happiness or good.  Wealth, power, influence, etc.are not new concepts and they were certainly all too well known by Aristotle and others of his age.  But, he tells, us that these are intermediate goals that can only be determined to be either good or bad in the manner in which they contribute to the ultimate good, which is human flourishing. He tells us, “…the good for people is an activity of the soul in accordance with virtue, or if there are more kinds of virtue than one, in accordance with the best and most perfect kind.”

In this way he anticipates Epicurus, though coming to many of the same conclusions through different methods.  His conclusion that it is human flourishing that is the ultimate good based on natural history also (informs and) anticipates by over 2,000 years the work of Sam Harris in The Moral Landscape in our own time.

But what exactly is a virtue?  He tells us that, rather than a hard and fast list of prescriptions that we must memorize, that virtue is one that is defined by its balance in avoiding extremes.  In Book 2 he states: “So virtue is a purposive disposition, lying in a mean that is relative to us and determined by a rational principle, and by that which a prudent man would use to determine it. It is a mean between two kinds of vice, one of excess and the other of deficiency…”  Once again, Aristotle is arguing for the use of our reason, which we would most closely associate today with the scientific method.  The truth is out there, he tells us, it is up to us to find it through observation and the use of our intellect.  Such determinations are imperfect things and are always open to additional study and revision.

This is not to take Aristotle’s relative methodology too far, which has been a criticism–albeit a naive one–that such “relative” methods can lead to injustice.  On the contrary, he uses reason to demonstrate that there are universal actions and feelings that are always wrong.  These include spite, shamelessness, envy, adultery, theft, and murder, among other deficiencies.  It is not that these things are wrong in their own right, that is, “envy is wrong simply because it is wrong,” but act against virtue and justice in their own way and, as such, are therefore wrong.  Aristotle is always the practical man.  In his discussion he points out that wisdom is achieved by the virtual person by a combination of knowing what is just and then applying experience through logos (reason) to act on it.  Later in Book 5 he tells us, “…(Justice) is complete virtue in the fullest sense, because it is the active exercise of complete virtue; and it is complete because its possessor can exercise it in relation to another person, and not only by himself.”

Much has been made of lately that somehow Aristotle supports the modern radical concept of self-interest, especially in the Ayn Randian and libertarian veins of thought, but this is another attempt of appropriation similar to that of Aquinas and nothing could be further from the truth.  One need only go to his Politics, which was an extension of the Ethics, to see this.   “He who is unable to live in society,” he wrote, “or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god.”

Such self-interested pursuits are defective and cannot serve the overarching virtue.  For Aristotle concludes in Book 10 that in order to achieve happiness (flourishing)–or something close to it–human beings must live in communities that foster good habits and govern to provide the conditions to live a well-lived, or virtuous, life.  While contemplation would probably provide the greatest amount of happiness since it provides individuals with the greatest opportunities to pursue reason and the answer to their questions, those who achieve wisdom and have the resources to do so as defined by the virtues are bound to contribute to the community, which is found in his writings known as the Politics.

We can see the influence of Aristotle, despite the taint of his philosophy by its appropriation by Aquinas, in the Enlightenment philosophers and he thought influenced other thinkers and the founders of our own country.  For example, Jefferson explains, in speaking of the Declaration of Independence, that “All its authority rests … on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.”  John Adams, in an essay penned on the eve of the American Revolution, defends the position of the colonists asserting that the revolutionary principles are consistent with what all reasonable people would support since they “are the principles of Aristotle and Plato, of Livy and Cicero, and Sidney, Harrington, and Locke; the principles of nature and eternal reason; the principles on which the whole government over us now stands.”

We must not take Aristotle’s Ethics too far or read too much in them.  He lived, after all, in a pre-scientific age that was, to borrow the words of the historian William Manchester, in “a world lit only by fire.”  His writings are not imbued with magic or divinely inspired.  But he points the way in basing morality and ethical conduct on “natural law” as opposed to that flowing from received authority, power, or wealth.  Later, in his politics, which is seen as a continuation of the Ethics, he comes to some interesting conclusions regarding governance, though they come down to us in fragments.

For example, he provides us with what we still use his taxonomy of types of governance, defining governance in terms of governments of one, governments of the few, and governments of the many.  In Book 2, chapter ii, he grapples with the dangers of totalitarianism and oligarchy–and the ability of the powerful to sway public opinion–concluding that “a state which becomes progressively more and more of a unity will cease to be a state at all. Plurality of numbers is natural in a state; and the farther it moves away from plurality towards unity, the less of a state it becomes and the more a household, and the household in turn an individual.”

He also, in Book 3, chapter IX, separates out the role of the state from one based on wealth and power and one based on total equal distribution of resources (what we would today define as communism).  In this way he posits that the role of the state isn’t only to provide defense or to define justice by economic measures in either extreme. “A state is not a mere society, having a common place, established for the prevention of mutual crime and for the sake of exchange…Political society exists for the sake of noble actions, and not of mere companionship.”

He ties the role of a good state to his Ethics, “So it is clear that the search for what is just is a search for the mean; for the law is the mean.”  A good citizen and a good government eschews extremism of any form and embraces inclusiveness.  “Justice therefore demands that no one should do more ruling than being ruled, but that all should have their turn.”  This does not, however, include those who do not live virtuous lives.  Wealth and power on the one hand, and popularity on the other, are extremes that undermine the purpose of government.  “A state is an association of similar persons whose aim is the best life possible. What is best is happiness (human flourishing), and to be happy is an active exercise of virtue and a complete employment of it.”  Jefferson himself echoed this purpose in his Autobiography, “Instead of an aristocracy of wealth,” he wrote, “of more harm and danger than benefit to society, to make an opening for the aristocracy of virtue and talent, which nature has wisely provided for the direction of the interests of society and scattered with equal hand through all its conditions, was deemed essential to a well-ordered republic.”

In conclusion, in Book 8, chapter ii, he holds that education must be established to support this goal.  “But since there is but one aim for the entire state, it follows that education must be one and the same for all, and that the responsibility for it must be a public one, not the private affair which it now is, each man looking after his own children and teaching them privately whatever private curriculum he thinks they ought to study.”  Once again, the wisdom of this prescription can be found from Jefferson throughout our formative years as a democratic republic, reaching well into the early 20th century.

One can see where these ideas would be viewed as dangerous to the Medieval Mind when they were reintroduced, which was governed under the concept of divine power being granted to temporal rulers, thus making it all the more urgent that his teachings be appropriated.  But they would be dangerous in any age and it should not surprise us that various individuals, governments, and organizations attempted to expunge his writings from history.  His prescriptions on ethics and governance were of great import in his own time, since he schooled the man who became known as Alexander the Great.  That his teaching did not fully impact his time is borne out by history.

Upon Alexander’s death his ideas became conflated with Macedonian influence and domination which under new-found Athenian independence was considered treasonous.  It was while fleeing Athens that he died.  Thus, the man we view as a giant today was, in reality, simply a man, albeit one of great learning, who sought to influence his own times with a better way of living.  He is considered a giant of philosophy not because of who he was in his own time but because of the strength of his ideas, which speak to us today.

We can see his influence, synthesized and informed by the experience of later generations of thinkers, in these concepts:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity,…”

These ideas are still being challenged by old concepts in updated clothing.  The challenge to civilization has always been the conflict between the interests of wealth and power on the one hand and justice dedicated to the public good on the other; and whether legitimacy and the definition of justice is derived from reason in which the truth can be found by people of education, or from some higher authority based on privilege or revealed wisdom.

Sunday Contemplation — Finding Wisdom — Werner Heisenberg

Modern education seems to be failing us, but we seem to be at a loss as to why that is the case.  I would posit that it is because a large portion of the populace is ignorant of the most exciting discoveries and insights of the late 20th and early 21st centuries.  My Sunday contemplation has focused on that literature that offers wisdom regarding human insight, but what of insights into our universe that point into larger ones that include the human condition and our social structures and perceptions?

Werner Heisenberg, the father of modern quantum mechanics, whose concept of the origins of the universe and the contingent nature of cause-and-effect at the level of quanta proved to be the correct theory over Einstein’s unified theory.  This is the context of the oft used Einstein quote that “God does not play dice with the universe.”  Einstein was wrong–the universe is not fully predictable, there is uncertainty in outcomes.  At our level of existence we measure this amount of “free will” by probabilities: outcomes based on the condition of the universe at any particular point in what our brains interpret as “time.”  This is a concept that is often misinterpreted by polemicists and others.  The universe and its processes, such as evolution, are not based on “randomness.”  The universe is deterministic but with some variation in prediction.

werner heisenberg

What marks Professor Heisenberg for mention today is not only his insight into the technical aspects of the physical universe but understanding how these discoveries inform the human condition.

The source of this wisdom comes from his book Physics and Philosophy.  It is a fairly slight tome and a good book for the layman interested in a survey of the physical sciences written by the man responsible for many of the 20th century’s most important discoveries from the point just prior to the next wave of discoveries that would confirm, strengthen, and advance them.  He writes on the history of the theory of quantum theory and how it has changed our view of the universe and the older philosophical traditions that were either displaced or modified by it.  His exposition regarding other areas of our knowledge begins on page 60 speaking from the perspective of 1959, in which he speculates on things that still need to be proven in the other natural sciences and the role of human language in understanding nature (bold for emphasis added by me).

“…(T)he structure of present-day physics the relation between physics and other branches of natural science may be discussed. The nearest neighbor to physics is chemistry. Actually through quantum theory these two sciences have come to a complete union. But a hundred years ago they were widely separated, their methods of research were quite different, and the concepts of chemistry had at that time no counterpart in physics….When the theory of heat had been developed by the middle of the last century scientists started to apply it to the chemical processes, and ever since then the scientific work in this field has been determined by the hope of reducing the laws of chemistry to the mechanics of the atoms. It should be emphasized, however, that this was not possible within the framework of Newtonian mechanics. In order to give a quantitative description of the laws of chemistry one had to formulate a much wider system of concepts for atomic physics. This was finally done in quantum theory, which has its roots just as much in chemistry as in atomic physics. Then it was easy to see that the laws of chemistry could not be reduced to Newtonian mechanics of atomic particles, since the chemical elements displayed in their behavior a degree of stability completely lacking in mechanical systems. But it was not until Bohr’s theory of the atom in 1913 that this point had been clearly understood. In the final result, one may say, the concepts of chemistry are in part complementary to the mechanical concepts. If we know that an atom is in its lowest stationary state that determines its chemical properties we cannot at the same time speak about the motion of the electrons in the atom.

The present relation between biology, on the one side, and physics and chemistry, on the other, may be very similar to that between chemistry and physics a hundred years ago. The methods of biology are different from those of physics and chemistry, and the typical biological concepts are of a more qualitative character than those of the exact sciences.  Concepts like life, organ, cell, function of an organ, perception have no counterpart in physics or chemistry. On the other hand, most of the progress made in biology during the past hundred years has been achieved through the application of chemistry and physics to the living organism, and the whole tendency of biology in our time is to explain biological phenomena on the basis of the known physical and chemical laws. Again the question arises, whether this hope is justified or not.

Just as in the case of chemistry, one learns from simple biological experience that the living organisms display a degree of stability which general complicated structures consisting of many different types of molecules could certainly not have on the basis of the physical and chemical laws alone. Therefore, something has to be added to the laws of physics and chemistry before the biological phenomena can be completely understood.

With regard to this question two distinctly different views have frequently been discussed in the biological literature. The one view refers to Darwin’s theory of evolution in its connection with modern genetics.  According to this theory, the only concept which has to be added to those of physics and chemistry in order to understand life is the concept of history. The enormous time interval of roughly four thousand million years that has elapsed since the formation of the earth has given nature the possibility of trying an almost unlimited variety of structures of groups of molecules.  Among these structures there have finally been some that could reduplicate themselves by using smaller groups from the surrounding matter, and such structures therefore could be created in great numbers.  Accidental changes in the structures provided a still larger variety of the existing structures.  Different structures had to compete for the material drawn from the surrounding matter and in this way, through the `survival of the fittest,’ the evolution of living organisms finally took place.  There can be no doubt that this theory contains a very large amount of truth, and many biologists claim that the addition of the concepts of history and evolution to the coherent set of concepts of physics and chemistry will be amply sufficient to account for all biological phenomena. One of the arguments frequently used in favor of this theory emphasizes that wherever the laws of physics and chemistry have been checked in living organisms they have always been found to be correct; there seems definitely to be no place at which some `vital force’ different from the forces in physics could enter….

    When one compares this order with older classifications that belong to earlier stages of natural science one sees that one has now divided the world not into different groups of objects but into different groups of connections.  In an earlier period of science one distinguished, for instance, as different groups minerals, plants, animals, men.  These objects were taken according to their group as of different natures, made of different materials, and determined in their behavior by different forces.  Now we know that it is always the same matter, the same various chemical compounds that may belong to any object, to minerals as well as animals or plants; also the forces that act between the different parts of matter are ultimately the same in every kind of object.  What can be distinguished is the kind of connection which is primarily important in a certain phenomenon. For instance, when we speak about the action of chemical forces we mean a kind of connection which is more complicated or in any case different from that expressed in Newtonian mechanics. The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.

    When we represent a group of connections by a closed and coherent set of concepts, axioms, definitions and laws which in turn is represented by a mathematical scheme we have in fact isolated and idealized this group of connections with the purpose of clarification.  But even if complete clarity has been achieved in this way, it is not known how accurately the set of concepts describes reality.

     These idealizations may be called a part of the human language that has been formed from the interplay between the world and ourselves, a human response to the challenge of nature.  In this respect they may be compared to the different styles of art, say of architecture or music.  A style of art can also be defined by a set of formal rules which are applied to the material of this special art.  These rules can perhaps not be represented in a strict sense by a set of mathematical concepts and equations, but their fundamental elements are very closely related to the essential elements of mathematics.  Equality and inequality, repetition and symmetry, certain group structures play the fundamental role both in art and in mathematics.  Usually the work of several generations is needed to develop that formal system which later is called the style of the art, from its simple beginning to the wealth of elaborate forms which characterize its completion.  The interest of the artist is concentrated on this process of crystallization, where the material of the art takes, through his action, the various forms that are initiated by the first formal concepts of this style.  After the completion the interest must fade again, because the word `interest’ means: to be with something, to take part in a process of life, but this process has then come to an end.  Here again the question of how far the formal rules of the style represent that reality of life which is meant by the art cannot be decided from the formal rules.  Art is always an idealization; the ideal is different from reality — at least from the reality of the shadows, as Plato would have put it — but idealization is necessary for understanding.

    This comparison between the different sets of concepts in natural science with different styles of art may seem very far from the truth to those who consider the different styles of art as rather arbitrary products of the human mind. They would argue that in natural science these different sets of concepts represent objective reality, have been taught to us by nature, are therefore by no means arbitrary, and are a necessary consequence of our gradually increasing experimental knowledge of nature.  About these points most scientists would agree; but are the different styles of art an arbitrary product of the human mind?  Here again we must not be misled by the Cartesian partition.  The style arises out of the interplay between the world and ourselves, or more specifically between the spirit of the time and the artist.  The spirit of a time is probably a fact as objective as any fact in natural science, and this spirit brings out certain features of the world which are even-independent of time, are in this sense eternal.  The artist tries by his work to make these features understandable, and in this attempt he is led to the forms of the style in which he works. Therefore, the two processes, that of science and that of art, are not very different.  Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles of art are different words or groups of words in this language….

Here is a truly beautiful mind grounded not just in mathematics and scientific theory, but informed by human experience.  In the rest of the work Heisenberg outlines the philosophical implications of modern physics on the history of human thought.  His conclusion speaks to our own time, 55 years from where he stood.  Though his primary concern was in the conflict between the West and the Communist dictatorships–and the possible use of nuclear weapons for which modern physics, he felt, bore a great deal of responsibility–he also foresaw a different type of conflict.  This was coming conflict originating from those parts of society upon whose foundations relied on, to use his term, narrow doctrines of understanding which would feel threatened as the coming discoveries in modern physics would reveal new knowledge of the universe and humanity’s place in it.  His final note is hopeful but what other choice did he have but to be hopeful?  The alternative is the extinction of the human species, and perhaps it is that–self-preservation–that will bring about, in the end, his final sentiment.

“…Finally, modern science penetrates into those large areas of our present world in which new doctrines were established only a few decades ago as foundations for new and powerful societies.  There modern science is confronted both with the content of the doctrines, which go back to European philosophical ideas of the nineteenth century (Hegel and Marx), and with the phenomenon of uncompromising belief.  Since modern physics must play a great role in these countries because of its practical applicability, it can scarcely be avoided that the narrowness of the doctrines is felt by those who have really understood modern physics and its philosophical meaning.  Therefore, at this point an interaction between science and the general trend of thought may take place.  Of course the influence of science should not be overrated; but it might be that the openness of modern science could make it easier even for larger groups of people to see that the doctrines are possibly not so important for the society as had been assumed before.  In this way the influence of modern science may favor an attitude of tolerance and thereby may prove valuable.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of uncompromising belief carries much more weight than some special philosophical notions of the nineteenth century.  We cannot close our eyes to the fact that the great majority of the people can scarcely have any well-founded judgment concerning the correctness of certain important general ideas or doctrines. Therefore, the word `belief’ can for this majority not mean `perceiving the truth of something’ but can only be understood as `taking this as the basis for life.’  One can easily understand that this second kind of belief is much firmer, is much more fixed than the first one, that it can persist even against immediate contradicting experience and can therefore not be shaken by added scientific knowledge.  The history of the past two decades has shown by many examples that this second kind of belief can sometimes be upheld to a point where it seems completely absurd, and that it then ends only with the death of the believer.  Science and history can teach us that this kind of belief may become a great danger for those who share it.  But such knowledge is of no avail, since one cannot see how it could be avoided, and therefore such belief has always belonged to the great forces in human history.  From the scientific tradition of the nineteenth century one would of course be inclined to hope that all belief should be based on a rational analysis of every argument, on careful deliberation; and that this other kind of belief, in which some real or apparent truth is simply taken as the basis for life, should not exist.  It is true that cautious deliberation based on purely rational arguments can save us from many errors and dangers, since it allows readjustment to new situations, and this may be a necessary condition for life.  But remembering our experience in modern physics it is easy to see that there must always be a fundamental complementarity between deliberation and decision.  In the practical decisions of life it will scarcely ever be possible to go through all the arguments in favor of or against one possible decision, and one will therefore always have to act on insufficient evidence.  The decision finally takes place by pushing away all the arguments – both those that have been understood and others that might come up through further deliberation – and by cutting off all further pondering.  The decision may be the result of deliberation, but it is at the same time complementary to deliberation; it excludes deliberation.  Even the most important decisions in life must always contain this inevitable element of irrationality.  The decision itself is necessary, since there must be something to rely upon, some principle to guide our actions.  Without such a firm stand our own actions would lose all force.  Therefore, it cannot be avoided that some real or apparent truth form the basis of life; and this fact should be acknowledged with regard to those groups of people whose basis is different from our own.

Coming now to a conclusion from all that has been said about modern science, one may perhaps state that modern physics is just one, but a very characteristic, part of a general historical process that tends toward a unification and a widening of our present world.  This process would in itself lead to a diminution of those cultural and political tensions that create the great danger of our time. But it is accompanied by another process which acts in the opposite direction. The fact that great masses of people become conscious of this process of unification leads to an instigation of all forces in the existing cultural communities that try to ensure for their traditional values the largest possible role in the final state of unification.  Thereby the tensions increase and the two competing processes are so closely linked with each other that every intensification of the unifying process — for instance, by means of new technical progress — intensifies also the struggle for influence in the final state, and thereby adds to the instability of the transient state.  Modern physics plays perhaps only a small role in this dangerous process of unification.  But it helps at two very decisive points to guide the development into a calmer kind of evolution.  First, it shows that the use of arms in the process would be disastrous and, second, through its openness for all kinds of concepts it raises the hope that in the final state of unification many different cultural traditions may live together and may combine different human endeavors into a new kind of balance between thought and deed, between activity and meditation.