All quotes from Ludwig von Bertalanffy’s

Has technological power increased human happiness? Is a scientifically controlled society desirable?

This is a question not just of abstract theory and specialties in the Ivory Tower of academic science. Rather, it is part of a far wider question: that science, and a science of and for man in particular, has become deeply problematic in our days.

Science has conquered the universe but forgotten or even actively suppressed human nature.

Training, education, and human life in general are essentially response to outside conditions: beginning in early childhood with toilet training and other manipulations whereby socially acceptable behavior is gratified and undesirable behavior blocked; continuing with education, which is best carried through according to Skinnerian principles of reinforcement of correct responses and by means of teaching machines; and ending in adult man in an affluent society which makes everybody happy, conditioning him, in strictly scientific manner, by the mass media to be the perfect consumer—that is, an automaton properly answering in the ways prescribed by the industrial-military-political establishment.

The behavior of animals such as rats, cats, and monkeys provides the necessary bases for interpretation and control of human behavior; what appears to be special in man is secondary and ultimately to be reduced to biological drives and primary needs.

Complete relaxation of tensions—say, sensory deprivation, but even boredom—does not lead to a beatific state of nirvana but rather to mental disturbance; in the first case, to psychosis-like states, in the second to the experience of meaninglessness, sometimes culminating in existential neurosis and suicide.

The image of man as robot is a projection into science of the Zeitgeist of the period, as, in the last resort, all basic theoretical notions are. Man as a machine that can be programmed; all those machines equal like automobiles coming from the assembly line; equilibrium or comfort as ultimate value; behavior as a business transaction with minimum expense and maximum gain—this is a perfect expression of the philosophy of commercial society.

If rats in the experiments, as has been said, are handled by a giant high as a tower to them, and have to comply with his whims, we similarly have to conform to a leviathan-like society, handling us in similar ways. As the mental capacities of man are somewhat higher than those of rats, the results of deprivation, suppression of natural potentialities, and reduction to automaton-like response are more drastic; and you have what is very properly called the rat race of modern life, meaninglessness, existentialism, beatniks, neuroses, and the rest.

Psychology in the past fifty years was a fight against what has been called the anthropomorphic fallacy, that is, imputing to animals human sentiments and capabilities. But it was forgotten that there equally is a zoomorphic fallacy, canceling any difference between animal and man.

When the intellectual élite, the thinkers and leaders, see in man nothing but an overgrown rat—and manipulate him accordingly and successfully—then it is time to be alarmed. A low in the spiritual barometer has been reached which can only predict hurricane and impending disaster.

Precisely in affluent society, with gratification of biological needs, reduction of tensions, education and conditioning with scientific techniques, there was an unprecedented increase in mental illness, juvenile delinquency, crime not for want but for fun, the serious problem of leisure in an automated society, and the appearance of new forms of mental disorder diagnosed as existential disease, malignant boredom, suicidal retirement neurosis and the like—in fact, all symptoms of a sick society.

The “image of man” is not a theoretical question; it is a question of preservation of man as human. One need not be a mystic like Teilhard de Chardin to see in evolution the evolution of mind. With robot psychology and technology, we have partly succeeded in the reversal of the evolutionary trend.

Man’s “biological helplessness” at the same time makes him “open to the world.” Animals are safe in the cocoon of their ambient or Umwelt, which is woven from their sensory equipment and innate reactions. The rest of the world does not exist for the particular species. Here, however, is a being lacking such cocoon but endowed with unique brain power. Therefore, any part of the world, from galaxies inaccessible to direct perception and biologically irrelevant, down to equally inaccessible and biologically nonexistent atoms, can become an object of “interest” to man. He invents accessory sense organs to explore them, and learns behavior to cope with them. Precisely the lack of organic and instinctual adaptation make him capable of conquering the whole planet, and regions beyond.

Symbolic systems may become more potent than man, their creator. Then symbolic entities—status, nation, society, party, what have you—may govern man and human behavior more strongly than biological reality or organismic drives. This is the basis of the most sublime achievements of man; it is also the cause of all the follies of human history.

Symbolism is the very basis of human nature and the human predicament. All specifically human behavior, achievement, work, and suffering can be expressed in terms of symbolic activities.

As there are intermediates between nonliving and living nature, so we also have to seek for the evolution of symbolism. By and large, the notion of emergence appears to be correct: each level of the universe—atom, molecule, cell, organism, society, symbolic universes (with any number of interpolated levels)—has its characteristic properties and laws which cannot be simply derived from or reduced to those of the respectively lower level; in every plane there is also a gradation from lower to higher, and we can understand it, not by reduction pure and simple, but by adequate expansion of our conceptual schemes.

A fish or bird “showing off” by exhibiting its colors, going through a series of menacing postures and gestures, etc., indeed does the same as the owner of a new Cadillac running it 90 m.p.h.

There is that mysterium tremendum et fascinosum: that a biologically inferior and helpless organism in the unique way of symbolic activity transcends and vanquishes nature and evolution. Symbolism, if you will, is the divine spark distinguishing the poorest specimen of true man from the most perfectly adapted animal.

The decisive step seems to be that man, in one way or the other, made an image of things apt to be their representative. It is probably not so important whether this was a graven image—such as the paleolithic carvings of animals—or an acoustic image—the first word of representative language. But it was decisive that man, in some way, dissociated something from himself which was to stand in for something else.

There is no good in denying that our time is one of nihilism in Nietzsche’s sense—of breakdown and devaluation of values, feeling of meaninglessness of life and human endeavor, manifesting itself in a spectrum from silly fads to crime and mental disease. Just because traditional values have become problematic, there is a frantic search for new ones and for a basis of values in general, which was alien to periods when a value system—the Christian, that of the British gentleman, or of scientific perfectionism, as the case may be—was taken for granted.

His very self is a social product, or itself a society, which becomes self-conscious only as it becomes aware of other selves.

Who tells how to apply the yardstick of preservation of life, survival, and advancement of the species?

Each little group is in a state of perpetual warfare with nature and other little groups—not very different from packs of wolves or herds of rats. But, precisely for this reason, intragroup aggression must be controlled if the group is to survive; that is, by and large, the commandments, Thou shalt not kill, not rape, not steal, and so forth must be obeyed for purely biological reasons. Even more, a strong “bond”—Lorenz’ of comradeship, friendship, love must develop within the group—that is, very positive moral virtues. .

Mankind have slaughtered each other for unworkable altars; that is, for symbolic contraptions—nation, religion, dynasty, democracy, communism, whatever you want—created by man’s so-called reason.

Man’s achievement obviously is not in the organic lines; many animals are prettier, faster, stronger, an so forth. Man’s monopoly is just what we have tried to define—his symbolic activities and universes.

While traditional morals gives precepts for the behavior of the individual, there is no code for the behavior of complex social organizations. In fact, such social entities do have rules of behavior different from individual morals so that “there are certain circumstances where it would be immoral, from the standpoint of responsible representative behavior, not to do things immoral and even illegal from a personal point of view.”

It is the problem of the ius gentium or international law tossed around since the jurists of the seventeenth century and still unsolved by the United Nations: that the individual in a society is bound by moral and legal rules and can be police and prosecuted if he breaks them, but that the same is not applicable to social entities.

The moral concepts applying to social systems are different from those applying to individuals. So organizations can do and actually do with impunity many things which would be immoral and punishable in the individual, and conflicts naturally arise between the moral values in the individual and in the superordinate social sphere.

A value system necessary for our complicated civilization has not yet evolved. The traditional ethical codes give rules for individual behavior, but none for those complicated social systems that have arise, where the dramatis personae are not human beings, but abstract entities acting as if they were individuals, by means of legal or political fiction. Operating the colossal social structures of our time—from businesses to national states to mankind as a whole—with the ethical concepts of a nomadic bronze-age society of three thousand years ago is like operating an atomic reactor with the technology of a bushman.

Moral exhortation to the individual and even his personal honesty are patently ineffective; the problem is to expand moral codes to the inclusion of higher social entities and, at the same time, safeguard the individual from being devoured by the social Leviathan.

We are seeking another basic outlook—the world as organization. This claim—if it can be verified—would profoundly change the categories of our thinking and influence our practical attitudes.

In biology, as well as the behavioral and social sciences, we encounter many phenomena which are not found in inanimate nature and for which no concepts were provided in the system of physics. We cannot speak of living things and of behavior except in a functional manner, that is, regarding their parts and processes as organized in view of the maintenance, development, evolution, etc., of the system.

Physical processes follow the second law of thermodynamics, which prescribes that they proceed toward increasing entropy, that is, more probable states which are states of equilibrium, of uniform distribution, and disappearance of existing differentiations and order. But living systems apparently do exactly the opposite. In spite of irreversible processes continually going on, they tend to maintain an organized state of fantastic improbability; they are maintained in states of non-equilibrium; they even develop toward increasingly improbable states, increasing differentiation and order.

In the biological, behavioral, and socio-cultural fields, events directed toward future goals appear to be prevalent. Physical causality provides no model for this; more precisely, goal-directedness and dependence on future events are declared to be unscientific phantoms or metaphysics.

Speaking in terms of natural philosophy, as against the world as chaos, a new conception of the world as organization seems to emerge.

Living systems are maintained in a state of fantastic improbability, in spite of innumerable irreversible processes continually going on.

In open systems, we have not only entropy production owing to irreversible processes taking place in the system; we also have entropy transport, by way of introduction of material which may carry high free energy or “negative entropy.” Hence, the entropy balance in an open system may well be negative, that is, the system may develop toward states of higher improbability, order, and differentiation (although, of course, entropy increases in the larger system consisting of the organism and its environment). This is what actually applies in living organisms.

Progress in high-molecular chemistry, electron microscopy, molecular biology, and allied fields will progressively elucidate “laws of organization” at the various biological levels.

Evolution “from amoeba to man” differentiates the basic life functions, first present in a single cell, into a multitude of tissues, organs, specialized functions, behavioral mechanisms, and so forth. Social organization pass from a primitive amorphous state to the formation of ever more elaborate groups, organizations, division of labor, etc. Something similar may even apply in cosmology when, according to one theory, the primeval atom, with the great bang at the beginning of the world process, burst out to differentiate into a hundred or so species of atoms of the chemical elements.

Nobody presumes that an atom, crystal, or chemical compound is the handiwork of a vitalistic demon; but neither is it the outcome of accident. Structure and formation of physical entities at any level—atoms, molecules, high-molecular compounds, crystals, nucleic acids, etc.—follow laws which are progressively revealed by the respective branches of science. Beyond this level, we are asked to believe, there are no “laws of nature” any more, but only chance events in the way of “errors” appearing in the genetic code, and “opportunism” of evolution, “outer-directed” by an environment. This is not objectively founded science, but preconceived metaphysics.

Evolution appears to be more than the mere product of chance governed by profit. It seems a cornucopia of évolution créatrice, a drama full of suspence, of dynamics and tragic complications. Life spirals laboriously upwards to higher and ever higher levels, paying for every step. It develops from the unicellular to the multicellular, and puts death into the world at the same time. It passes into levels of higher differentiation and centralization, and pays for this by the loss of regulability after disturbances. It invents a highly developed nervous system and therewith pain. It adds to the primeval parts of this nervous system a brain which allows consciousness that by means of a world of symbols grants foresight and control of the future; at the same time it is compelled to add anxiety about the future unknown to brutes; finally, it will perhaps have to pay for this development with self-destruction. The meaning of this play is unknown, unless it is what the mystics have called God’s attaining to awareness of Himself.

Perception is not a passive mirroring of a world outside like a color photograph; rather, incoming informations are, by a creative act, organized into a universe.

Only in the last three or four hundred years has the magical world picture been supplanted by that of science.

At the end of physical research, man confronts himself alone.

The systems concept implies a new epistemology—in short, replacement of absolutistic by perspective philosophy.

We should recognize, in line with psychological research, linguistics, critical philosophy, modern physics, etc., that each world view is a certain perspective of an unknown reality, seen through the spectacles of generally human, cultural, and linguistic categories.

Thus the construction of the world as consisting of these two components, clear enough at the time of classical physics and rationalistic psychology, has become insufficient at the levels of both phenomenology of immediate experience, and of scientific construct. Again, it appears as a “perspective,” which has a definite place in history; but it would be overbearing and naïve to consider it a true representation of ultimate reality.

The organism, far from being a collection of atoms moved by “blind” physical forces or a machine of classical physics, ever more appears as the “grand reason of the body” of which Nietzsche was speaking.

One sees in history a continuous progress of mankind, often interrupted and reversed, it is true, but in its totality showing an upward course.

Socio-cultural phenomena are neither an additive result of individual actions, nor born by an undifferentiated humanity, but by super-individual “systems” whose laws are open to further investigation.

Modern civilization is unique in certain respects, and in this way is incomparable to the civilizations that flourished and perished in the past. The distinguishing features are quite obvious. One is technological development, which permits control of nature as never before achieved, making possible the replacement of an economy of want by an economy of abundance. The other is the global nature of our civilization. Previous ones were limited by geographical boundaries, and comprised only limited groups of human beings. Our civilization comprises the whole planet and even reaches beyond in the conquest of space. Our technological civilization is not the privilege of comparatively small societies such as the citizens of Athens or of the Roman Empire, of Germans or French, or white Europeans. Rather it is wide open to all human beings of whatever color, race, or creed.

We have to reckon with the stark reality of another civilization which is now emerging: a mass civilization, technological, international, encompassing the whole Earth and all of mankind, in which cultural values and creativity of old are replaced by novel devices.