Time for a reality check?


My father died from prostate cancer in February 2008.

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Baron Alexander (Sandy) von Behr, 1926-2008

I had the difficult task of trying to summarise his philosophical views at the semi-public lunch held in his memory a few months later. In the end it wasn’t a long speech, but I couldn’t finish it so my brother had to step in at the end. I reproduce extracts from it below for a wider audience as I am wondering whether we truly understand ‘reality’ in the current turmoil that is modern-day global society, with all its twists and turns. Has the time come for a reality check?

“Now that you have heard about my father’s life, I would like to tell you a little bit more about his philosophy of life. I will do this by reading you extracts from two Nobel Prize laureates and a Sonning Prize laureate, whose wisdom he clearly respected, and finish by reading short pieces from his own writings.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.  It was the experience of mystery — even if mixed with fear — that engendered religion.  A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds: it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitute true religiosity.  In this sense, and only this sense, I am a deeply religious man … I am satisfied with the mystery of life’s eternity and with a knowledge, a sense, of the marvellous structure of existence — as well as the humble attempt to understand even a tiny portion of the Reason that manifests itself in natureAlbert Einstein, Physics Nobel Laureate.

The next writer is referring to Frank Knight, a famous 20th Century American economist.

He came across as a man engaged always in a search for ideas.  He puzzled over principles, from the commonsensical to the esoteric, and he stood continuously amazed at the arrogance of those who spouted forth the learned wisdom.  Knight gave us who bothered to listen the abiding notion that all is up for intellectual grabs, that much of what paraded as truth was highly questionable, and that the hallmark of a scholar was his or her courage in cutting through the intellectual haze.  The willingness to deny all Gods, the courage to hold nothing as sacrosanct – these were the qualities of mind and character that best describe Frank Knight … (who left a few of us) with the awful realization that if we did not have the simple courage to work out our own answers, we were vulnerable to victimization by false gods. James Buchanan, Economics Nobel Laureate.

I do not regard myself as an expert in either science or philosophy. I have, however, tried hard all my life to understand something of the world we live in. Scientific knowledge, and the human rationality that produces it, are, I believe, always fallible, or subject to error. But they are, I believe, also the pride of mankind. For man is, so far as I know, the only thing in the universe that tries to understand what it is all about … This volume is permeated by a conviction that … scientific knowledge is, despite its fallibility, one of the greatest achievements of human rationality – and that we can, through the free use of our always fallible reason, nonetheless understand something about the world and, perhaps, change it for the better. Sir Karl Popper, Sonning Prize laureate.

Finally, words from the man whose life we are commemorating today.

For realists, scientific progress consists generally in generating increasingly accurate and extensive descriptions of a largely invisible, to the naked eye, world. Realists like me are positive and optimistic, viewing the cognitive human situation and condition as a splendid opportunity to find out what’s going on: mostly in order to try and make something good happen, as we pole ourselves precariously along William Calvin’s ‘River that Flows Uphill’, in direct opposition to the forces of entropy … Man, the current (and probably the final) torch-bearer in the evolutionary race to achieve a superior imaginative consciousness, has outstripped all analogous planetary competitors.  It seems increasingly clear to me to me that the primate end-product, composed largely of ‘watery polymers’, is indeed the ultimate teleological model for replication throughout our universe.  There is no longer any need to await any further improvement to our mental faculties: we must now use what we already possess to try and make our world a better place for everybody.  Indeed, with the relatively rapid acceleration of centripetal forces recently discovered, there may not be too much time left before we lose touch with everyone else: we already are out of effective touch … It will indeed be a great pity if, as H.G. Wells already suggested 80 years ago, the distrustful bellicosity needed to secure mankind’s initial ascendancy turns out to be irreversible, and thus inappropriate for accomplishing the remainder of his evolutionary potential.  If that is the case, then it will have been a glorious but tragically short story — and one which may never be repeated.

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