Amnon Katz was a physicist, aerospace engineer, pilot, publisher, thinker, poet and essayist. At the time of his death in October of the year 2000, he held an endowed chair in aerospace engineering at the University of Alabama. For more biographical information about him, follow this link. For his CV, click here.
At the request of one of his friends, I made his article “Greater than Ourselves” available in the form of two image files from the Inverted-A Horn on our sister site, Inverted-A.com. There I posted a perfectly legible copy that is made available to the public free of charge and without advertising. But those who want a searchable text, I provide it here on PubWages, accompanied by advertising.
GREATER THAN OURSELVES
by Amnon Katz
1. Duality of cause and purpose
Since time immemorial, there have been two ways of understanding the world around us and predicting what will happen next. On is in terms of the forces at play and what they cause. The other is in terms of some “purpose” being served. A falling pebble increases its speed because it is acted upon by the force of gravity. Or, the pebble increases its speed so that its kinetic energy makes up for the loss of potential energy, the “purpose” being to keep the total energy unchanged. A ray of light is reflected off a mirror in accordance with Snell’s law, which states that the angle of incidence and the angle of reflection must be equal. Or, a ray of light picks the shortest distance to the mirror and back…
Most laws of nature can be derived from a variational principle, i.e., nature contrives to make some function as small as it can be. Two or three hundred years ago, philosophers tried to read a great deal into this. They thought they recognized in it divine purposes, that the laws of physics worked to make our universe “the best of all possible worlds.” Contemporary science views these variational principles merely as powerful and elegant mathematical tools.
There seems to be a measure of confusion about cause versus purpose when it comes to more complex issues, such as the evolution of species, of societies and of nations.
2. “God’s Utility Function”
A friend called my attention to the publications of one Richard Dawkins, who made a career of explaining Darwin’s theory of evolution to the masses. As a sample, my friend gave me an article entitled “God’s Utility Function” (Richard Dawkins, “God’s Utility Function”, Scientific American, 1995, pp.62-67.) My first reaction was wonder. More than a hundred years after Darwin, is there still room for drawing new implications from the facts, which, by now, are well established and generally understood?
Dawkins appears intent on settling an argument with certain anti-scientific religious quarters, and that is what my friend mainly liked. Dawkins proceeds by championing the “Causes” point of view of evolution and denying the dual point of view of “Purpose”.
“God’s Utility Function” concentrates on cheetahs and gazelles. Dawkins writes: “Cheetahs … [are] well designed to kill gazelles. [They] … are… precisely what we would expect if God’s purpose was to maximize deaths among gazelles. Conversely, [gazelles are designed] for precisely the opposite end: the survival of gazelles and starvation among cheetahs. It is as though cheetahs are designed by one deity, gazelles by a rival deity. Alternatively, if there is only one creator of the tiger and the lamb, the cheetah and the gazelle, what is he playing at?”
“Maximize deaths among gazelles”? Really! If deaths among gazelles were maximized, they would all die, and the cheetahs would have nothing to eat. True, a common purpose in the evolution of cheetahs and gazelles is difficult to find along the lines of the wishy-washy, politically correct morality that is prevalent today. To find this common purpose, one must look beyond the individual cheetah and the individual gazelle and consider the best interests of cheetahs and gazelles as species.
Obviously, the cheetah is not doing any favors to the individual gazelle that it hunts down and kills. But it is doing a great service to the gazelle species collectively. It is ridding the species of a weaker member and making sure that only the most fit gazelles will reproduce. In passing, it also preempts the need for nursing home, hospital and undertaker. The gazelles reciprocate. By making themselves difficult to catch, they eliminate all but the fittest cheetahs. They also make sure that a stable population of gazelles is maintained to feed future generations of cheetahs. The process is cruel to individual animals, but preempts the suffering of the multitude of defective offspring, who in the animal kingdom are never born.
3. Beyond the individual
Dawkins refuses to look beyond the individual, and this may be what his admirers want to justify. It does not take a great leap of imagination to recognize that a lot goes on in the world over and above the selfish. All animals sacrifice in favor of their young. Many exhibit loyalty to a group far larger than the basic family. Worker ants will readily sacrifice themselves for their queen. I have seen on television how a wolf, the head of his pack, exposed himself to attract pursuers, while the rest of the pack, including mothers and cubs, went the other way. This was in Russia, and the hunters were using a helicopter. The phenomenon of risking one’s life for a cause ranges all the way from insects, to mammals to man.
Dedication to values greater than the individual is rewarded and perpetuated by the classical mechanism of natural selection. Groups, species, societies and nations that don’t practice such values succumb to those that do. It is immaterial whether the group loyalty traits are propagated by genes that pass from body to body or by ideas that leap from mind to mind. Natural selection works either way. The most useful physical traits propagate genetically and survive long after the individual in whom they originated perished. Social structures that uphold the most potent ideas and ideals survive long after the individuals who practiced them are gone. The ideas themselves persist even after the societies that they helped establish become corrupted and are swept away. It is thus that we practice today many of the ideals of justice and of the valor of the long gone Roman Empire.
4. God and Country
Before Monotheism, major gods reigned over territorial domains. National wars were conflicts between competing gods, whose anointed servants guided the fortunes of nations. Individuals could distill an image of the object of their loyalty in the form of a deity. The gods demanded service in toil and blood. In return, they gave their followers meaning, identity and pride. It was a social system oriented toward serving that which is greater than the individual. It was one that natural selection favored. Individuals reaped the physical and spiritual benefits of belonging to a successful tribe or nation.
Then came Judaism. A defeated Israel despaired of victory and traded the vision of national triumph for the fantasy of individual reward beyond the grave. Judaism’s off-shoot of Christianity catered to the weak, the meek, the losers. Religion was diverted towards the small. It still calls upon individuals to sacrifice, not for something larger than themselves, but for that which is smaller, the ones less fortunate or less capable.
There is room for charity, and so much of it is for the better. But there must be limits. If everybody sold his livelihood and distributed the proceeds to the poor, as Jesus advocated, the economy would collapse, and all would starve. Besides, as the good senator said: “If you subsidize poverty, you’ll have more of it.”
The same goes for easing individual suffering. Measures such as the filling of decayed teeth and the fitting of near-sighted eyes with corrective lenses have the effect of proliferating bad teeth and poor vision. Reduced infant mortality, even when accompanied by reduced birth rate, neutralizes the mechanism of natural selection. Obviously, we will not forgo some level of individual care, but here, too, there must be limits.
Regardless of how much charity and compassion is enough, individuals and nations both have a need for the old style devotion to that which is greater than the individual. Jesus, who, in effect, destroyed the national deities, was also the one to point to a possible reprieve. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12, 17). This may have been the earliest hint of the principle of separation of church and state. God was now constrained to deal in the small, but Caesar could still take care of the large.
In our days, “Caesar” is the nation. The nation as whole and its well-being, as distinct from the welfare of every individual within it, remain a vital ingredient in our mix of ideals. The laws of nature can neither be repealed nor circumvented. Nations that lose this ideal will succumb, some sooner, some later.
© 2000, 2011 Estate of Amnon Katz