Henri Atlan's radical, uncompromising Spinozism allows him to propose a complete revision of cognitive science and philosophy of mind, while showing that their current impasses stem from remnants of traditional dualism

cover for The Sparks of Randomness, Volume 1

Henri Atlan, The Sparks of Randomness, Volume 1: Spermatic Knowledge. Trans. by Lenn J. Schramm, Stanford UP, 2010.


The Sparks of Randomness, Henri Atlan's magnum opus, develops his whole philosophy with a highly impressive display of knowledge, wisdom, depth, rigor, and intellectual and moral vigor. Atlan founds an ethics adapted to the new power over life that modern scientific knowledge has given us. He holds that the results of science cannot ground any ethical or political truth whatsoever, while human creative activity and the conquest of knowledge are a double-edged sword. This first volume, Spermatic Knowledge, begins with the Talmudic tale about the prophet Jeremiah's creation of a golem, or artificial man. Atlan shows that the Jewish tradition does not demonize man for creating and changing living things—a charge often leveled at promoters of advanced technologies, like biologists, who are accused of "playing God." To the contrary, man is depicted as being the co-creator of the world.
Although Atlan believes that the fabrication of life "from scratch" will take place in the near future, he posits that this achievement will not really amount to creating life current biology and biotechnologies have demonstrated that there is no absolute distinction between life and non-life, no critical threshold whose crossing would be taboo. He also debunks and demystifies our belief in free will and our conviction, of theological origin, that there would be no possibility for ethics if free will were shown to be an illusion. Throughout, he combines science, religion, and ancient and modern philosophy in unexpected and inspired ways. His radical, uncompromising Spinozism allows him to propose a complete revision of cognitive science and philosophy of mind, while showing that their current impasses stem from remnants of traditional dualism. From his brilliant reflections on time, he also derives exciting considerations for medicine and epidemiology.

"Atlan seeks to integrate the mechanistic worldview common in the biological sciences into a form of absolute monism that draws upon Kabbalah and Spinoza. . . Steeped in the biological sciences and remarkably learned in Judaica, it will set a standard for new creative forms of constructive Jewish thought. Anyone interested in the relation between religion and science will do well to turn here."—Zachary Braiterman, Religious Studies Review

"Henri Atlan has undoubtedly become a great scholar and important international figure in the academic community. His approach to texts is original and stimulating, his ideas both lucid and insightful. He has written many volumes on a variety of subjects, but this one has special meaning due to the convulsions society has been undergoing in recent years. The book is steeped in psychology and religion, biology and sociology, mysticism and ethos. Drawing from Talmudic sources but also from secular ones, it is sure to find appeal in many circles."—Elie Wiesel

"As a physician, biologist, and philosopher, Henri Atlan occupies a preeminent place in the present-day French intellectual landscape, carrying on a grand French tradition of scientist-philosophers that goes back to Pascal. His Sparks of Randomness is dedicated to reflecting upon the lesson that Jeremiah learned from the golem: that we should not renounce attaining the perfect knowledge that makes us capable of creating life, but once we attain the knowledge, we should abstain from acting on it. This book is not only fundamental for the future of biology, cognitive science, and the human sciences in general, but also constitutes one of the most important readings of Spinoza ever produced."—Jean-Pierre Dupuy, Stanford University

Just finished reading Henri Atlan’s The Sparks of Randomness, vol1, Spermatic Knowledge.  Among the author’s many titles and honors, an incomplete list of Atlan’s vita include the French Legion of Honor, the French Order of Arts and Letters, Professor Emeritus of Biophysics and Direction of the Human Biology Research Center at Haddasa University Hospital in Jerusalem.
Atlan seeks to integrate the mechanistic world-view common in the biological sciences into a form of absolute monism that draws upon Kabbalah and Spinoza. The common coin between these two discrete forms of discourse is the encounter with the the molecular, the cellular, the non-human  –what Atlan calls the “alterity of the amoral and impersonal” (p.121). At the same time, he seeks to preserve random sparks of chance and choice that open up the range of human life against the type of determinism and control that characterizes so much work in the natural sciences.
The use of Jewish source material makes for a very wild ride. About this, I am either mildly ambivalent or just a little bit blasé. On the one hand, the citation work seems overstuffed. Atlan’s selection of background information and primary texts is anything but judicious. Packing in so much information and detail in long inserts along the margins of the page gets annoying. Also, it’s a little too cute, this trying to make the text mimic Talmud. The more serious problem is the conflation of vastly different texts in order to reconstruct some singular Jewish hermetic tradition. But okay, let’s take it from there. Atlan spins an excellent yarn. The text abounds with Edenic figures, demons and angels, and the play of the big Ein Sof with itself.
Atlan’s exploration of this biological-mystical interface offers a strong formulation of the new immanence, the new monism, in contemporary Jewish philosophy and theology. Steeped in the biological sciences and remarkably learned in Judaica, it’s worth the ticket.
Philosophically, I’m still not persuaded by one thing. Common to both the sciences and materialist forms of critical theory (is there any other kind?) is the complete aversion to anything that might subsist “outside” the material frame. While I appreciate the rigor that would close off any thought regarding an outside, I’m always caught up short. Too predisposed to superstition, I can’t help but think that this type of negation shuts down the work of the imagination and the work of thought before it can even begin to start. The dogmatic claim that “there is nothing outside” I find chilly and suffocating. While this is not exactly Atlan’s own position, it lends itself to this kind of a conclusion, which we hear in more definitive form from others.  For my part, I can’t help but think there’s always an outside to everything.
Atlan claims the rabbis as his own when he cites the famous passage from m.Hagigah warning against those who speculate on what is above, below, before, and after. I think it might be a false claim. In contrast to Atlan or Spinoza’s monism, the rabbis don’t deny the existence of the above-below-before-after. They just don’t think it’s worth talking about. On this, I’ll stay with the Babylonian rabbis against both the materialists and the mystics. Subtle bastards, the rabbis in the Bavli hit the mark, as they so often do, right down the middle. That’s why I always love them, even when I don’t.
Don’t get me wrong. Read Atlan alongside Mordecai Kaplan, Elliot Wolfson, and Arthur Green and so many others. More to the point, Atlan’s model of the relation between science and religion, between the non-human and human , makes for a uniquely open interchange. By the end of the book, it’s pretty clear where he stands, against biological determinism. Basing himself on Hume and Wittegenstein, Atlan’s critique of “causality” in the sciences I found very telling. In his view, genes don’t “do” anything. At the very end of the book, Atlan reveals his hand with the closing citation of Stéphane Mallarmé, “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance” (with the original typographical layout).
My attention was drawn to the conclusion of Mallarmé’s poem. Maybe it is the intention intended by the poet in the large caps scattered in the following order throughout the closing “stanza” of the original. This is the possibility that “NOTHING…WILL HAVE TAKEN PLACE…BUT THE PLACE…EXCEPT…PERHAPS…A CONSTELLATION.”
I like the Mallarmé, both “the poem itself” and its haphazard layout across the page. The recourse to chance reminds me also of John Cage, Cage’s interest in the I-Ching, and the role of random sounds in contemporary music. That makes Atlan’s Franco-Israeli-Jewish project also Franco-American.
When Atlan lays it all on too thick, and he does, when he threatens to take you down one more rabbit hole via yet another long winded digression, then start flipping pages. Don’t skim too fast, though, because you might miss something really important. - Zachary Braiterman

cover for The Sparks of Randomness, Volume 2

Henri Atlan, The Sparks of Randomness, Volume 2: The Atheism of Scripture. Trans. by Lenn J. Schramm, Stanford UP, 2013.


In this second volume of The Sparks of Randomness, Henri Atlan pursues his investigation of human life, which he grounds in a distinctive intermingling of the biological and cognitive sciences and traditions of Jewish thought. The Atheism of Scripture offers up a paradox: its audacious thesis is that the Word or revealed scripture can be better understood without God. It must be decrypted or analyzed atheistically, that is, not as divine revelation, but in and of itself. The first part of the book addresses contemporary science. It puts the evolution of ideas about life and knowledge as conceived by today's biological and cognitive sciences into perspective and shows how the genealogy of ethics must be approached in a new way. The second part takes up this challenge by putting classical philosophy in dialogue with the Talmud and the Kabbalah to advance a non-dualistic anthropology of the body and the mind.

cover for Fraud

Henri Atlan, Fraud: The World of Ona'ah. Trans. by Nils F. Schott, Stanford UP, 2013.


We can calculate financial fraud, but how do we measure bad faith? How can we evaluate the words of the pharmaceutical industry or of eco-scientific ideologies, or the subtle deception found in political scheming? Henri Atlan sheds light on these questions through the concept of ona'ah, which in Hebrew refers to both fraud in financial transactions and the verbal injury inflicted by speech. The world of ona'ah is a world of an "in-between," where the impossible purity of absolute Platonic truth gives way to a more relative notion—the near-theft, the quasi-lie. Today it seems that no discourse is safe from fraudulent excesses, be they intentional or no. As both philosopher and biologist, Atlan works on several registers. He forges links between the Talmud, the Kabbalah, and the big questions of our time, multiplying the bridges between science, philosophy, and current ethical dilemmas. In a context of financial and moral crises that appear to be weakening our democracies, Henri Atlan's work allows us to rethink the status of fraud in the contemporary world.

"Atlan reveals himself to be a rara avis, a French intellectual developing his theory within the context of Jewish traditional concepts. His book takes readers through a fascinating journey across the history of philosophy and religion, from the Pre-Socratics and the Orphics, through Spinoza, to contemporary issues of science ethics and political ethics in the postmodern world."—Guy Stroumsa

Henri Atlan: Selected Writings (Forms of Living) (Hardcover) ~ S... Cover Art

Henri Atlan, Selected Writings: On Self-organization, Philosophy, Bioethics, and Judaism, Stefanos Geroulanos and Todd Meyers (eds.), Fordham University Press, 2011.

English-speakers are being treated to a burst of translations of the works of Henri Atlan. Complementing this anthology of his writings, The Sparks of Randomness (Stanford 2011) has also recently appeared, and each work exudes the product of an extraordinarily eclectic mind grounded in the sciences, but whose scope extends well beyond to ethics and metaphysics. Atlan, a distinguished French and Israeli academician, is not easily characterized. Indeed, given the span of his expertise -- biomedicine, theoretical biology, bioethics, Spinoza, Jewish mysticism -- he holds a unique place in the firmament of contemporary philosophy. The very subtitle of this book of selected writings suggests a kaleidoscope of subjects that possesses no obvious unifying theme or trajectory of thought. One might pick up this book and think, correctly, that the author is a French physician-scientist, whose interest in Spinoza and Jewish thought has produced a strange omelet of topics. However, a hasty dismissal would deprive one of a fascinating tour of ideas leading to a mature philosophy. So while many might put the book down as either too scrambled or the subjects too technical, in fact, Atlan, throughout these essays, writes clearly and develops complicated concepts with a sympathetic eye to the non-specialist. The translations are excellent and the editors have provided a useful introductory overview. Once the mix of ideas is seen as a whole, the reader will perceive a philosophical medley worthy of serious consideration.
The anthology begins with Atlan's key essays on self-organization, which were early contributions to what would eventually become systems biology. These essays, which range over discussions of random Boolean networks, to mathematical treatment of redundancy, to historically-informed philosophical reviews of earlier theories, testify to the breadth of Atlan's scientific and philosophical sophistication. But beyond intellectual virtuosity, from this conceptual foundation Atlan's understanding of self-organization as a primary organizational principle reaches deeply not only into theoretical biology, but extends to all those human sciences that base themselves on formulations of human nature. In this regard, Atlan is one of the few philosophers today who is capable of basing a broad system of thought in a comprehensive understanding of the natural sciences, which is fully developed in a distinctive philosophy of biology.
Resisting the growing tides of reductionism that were ushered in with the rise of molecular biology in the 1980s and 1990s, Atlan championed a rival epigenetics (post-genetic processes) as critical to understanding the dynamics of development, physiology, and evolution. Mechanistic explanatory models of the dynamic, emergent properties characteristic of bio-systems demand a holistic approach, albeit coupled to elemental analysis (reductionism). To effectively capture those dynamics a physicist's appreciation of complexity theory is required, which Atlan coupled to a general intuition that macro- and microbiological processes require dynamic explanations of the plasticity, emergent phenomena, and non-linear, complex causation pathways characteristic of organic phenomena. The ready parallels drawn between the genetic code and the cybernetic analogy with computer programs, where the merger of 'information' and 'program' worked to again introduce the "argument by design" or the inscription of a homunculus into the gene, would not seduce him. As he observed, the function and goals of computers are externally prescribed, whereas organisms generate their own behavior, what he calls, the "self-creation of meaning."
So, instead of models built from classical simple mechanical or cybernetic systems, Atlan sees dynamic complexity at the heart of biological processes, and in his work on information theory, where others saw "noise" and error, he perceived the necessary resources for an organized physical system to develop increased complexity and thereby enhance opportunities for adaptive responses. So, 'noise' in one context becomes 'information' in another to provide new perceptions for organisms to use as they adapt to their environment. And from elements in associative exchange, self-organizational principles take hold to 'structure' the complexity.
This theory alone has had wide influence within philosophy of biology, but Atlan has extended the general tenor of his orientation to a wider array of biomedical issues. Primary among these are his cogent insights about our deep-set attitudes concerning life and its creation when confronted by the ethical challenges of various biotechnologies in reproductive medicine. Much of the recent French public interest in Atlan's writings may be attributed to his discussion of these issues, but here I am less interested in this aspect of his opus than with his larger philosophical ambitions, which this collection has been designed to capture.
To appreciate Atlan's work, one must recognize that his project seeks to draw the full philosophical significance of his ideas about self-organization in the particular context of the relationship between the mind and brain states, and from there he draws wide-ranging conclusions about personal identity and moral agency. For Atlan, mind and brain are, as for Spinoza, distinctive aspects of the same 'thing,' so consciousness must arise as a product of self-organizational neural networks as described in terms of unconscious and conscious mind. In his formulation, Atlan posits consciousness as the emergent property resulting from the memory of past neural sequences. The model begins with a series of states of a network that produce some effect, possibly by chance, which is then stored in memory. (This crucial element of chance, or error, is derived from Atlan's basic conception of a biological system self-organizing along both established and novel pathways, where noise and mistakes offer new opportunities for growth and development.) Then through association and memory the sequence is repeated, so that the last state, or a neighboring associated state, triggers the repetition of the sequence that produced it. Inspired by the Wittgenstein-Anscombe criticism of mentalist models of intentional actions, Atlan's model of goal-oriented behavior in a self-organizing network builds from Benjamin Libet's observations that deliberative actions actually occur before conscious awareness. Thus consciousness is a post facto event of observation or awareness of events already initiated and taking place. Accordingly, by self-organizational precepts, consciousness functions as a memory of constructing procedures, which transform "indetermination and randomness into structure and meaning by the dynamics of self-organized memory" (p. 327; emphasis in original).
Consciousness thus becomes part of ordering and signification to further an "intentional self-organizational" process, which strengthens and amplifies the original neuronal sequence. The sequence is transformed into a goal-oriented procedure by an apparent inversion of time, in which the last state causes the repetition of the sequence that produced it. Consciousness experiences the heretofore-unconscious bodily process from an 'observational' perspective, one embedded in neuronal circuitry but exhibiting a different kind of presentation we experience as consciousness. In sum, the mental, more specifically, the conscious brain, is an emergent property associated with memory of global self-organized brain states emerging from the dynamics of neural networks.
For Atlan, free will (the instantiation of consciousness as perceived in the apparent determination of choice or initiating voluntary action) is "merely an illusion created by ignorance of the causes of the body's affections" (p. 315). Indeed, establishing 'cause' can never be fully determined in biological systems. Not so dissimilar from Freud's own confrontation with the "arrogance of consciousness," Atlan has concretized "the unconscious" by a neuronal circuitry independent of an illusionary free will and, concomitantly, autonomy has been displaced by neuronal causality achieved through self-organization. The idea of freedom thus becomes a version of Spinoza's dictum that human freedom resides in the knowledge and internalization of our determinations (again, much as Freud opined, from a very different locus of thought). The consequences for conceptions of personhood rippling forth from that construction have been well rehearsed.
Atlan builds this revision of humanism from his version of psycho-physicalist unity, which, like Spinozist monism, makes no choice between idealism and materialism and instead perceives mind and brain as two attributes of a single unity. The clearest exposition of this construction, and its implications, is found in the 1998 essay, "Immanent causality: A Spinozist viewpoint of evolution and the theory of action" (pp. 216-36). There, Atlan argues that Spinoza's notion of immanent causality -- causa sui, cause of itself -- much like self-organization accounts for evolution "can be seen as the unfolding of a dynamic system or a process of complexification and self-organization of matter, produced as a necessary outcome of the laws of physics and chemistry" (p. 217; emphasis added). Yet we consciously think, and thus mind must be accounted for and its relation to body defined.
Citing Spinoza, the 'mind' is not some separate ontological entity and, correspondingly, it cannot determine the body's actions. Atlan develops a schema in which state I is the cause of state II. And within state I, mental mode A and brain mode B are two aspects of this initial state, and mental mode C and brain mode D are the resulting effects of state I. In Spinozist terms, A and C are modes of the attribute of thought, and B and D are modes of the attribute of extension, and, further, the causal connection between A and C is the same as the causal connection between B and D, not as parallel processes, but as the same. Simply, the two attributes of thought and extension are only two different expressions of the same substance, i.e., A and B are (as are C and D) one and the same. So, given the equivalence, how can Spinoza claim that A (mind) does not cause D (body) or B (body) does not cause C (mind)? Rejecting the two prominent resolutions of this dilemma, i.e., denying non-body mental states altogether or invoking parallelism to solve the apparent imbroglio, Donald Davidson instead argued that Spinoza must hold that a difference exists between a logical reason and a physical cause to explain the apparent confusion. The distinction is not ontological, but only reflects the inability to devise a language that allows us to describe mental events in physical terms, and vice versa. Atlan demurs.
Atlan builds his case by adopting Hilary Putnam's concept of "the synthetic identity of properties" (Reason, Truth, and History, Cambridge, 1981), which is distinguished from "analytical identity." For example, the physical magnitude "temperature" is identical to the "mean molecular kinetic energy" as defined by the kinetic theory of gases. However, this identity is not analytic, because the two sentences are not synonymous but are two different ways of expressing the same property. Analogously, Atlan asserts that such a synthetic identity may be applied to 'mind' and 'brain:' "a mental state is not the cause or effect of a given brain state, since it is this brain state, even though we cannot describe the mental state and the brain state by synonymous expressions" (p. 223). And to understand the causal relationship of mind and brain, Atlan draws the consequences of Spinoza's unique association of ontological monism and epistemic dualism, and accordingly revises Davidson's formulation of "anomalous monism" for a radical monolithic unity along Spinozist lines.
"What is at stake here is not the nature of the causal explanation, which, when adequate cannot be distinguished from the causal relation. What is at stake, rather, is the nature of the identity between C and D" (p. 230), which are united in the effected state II, as are A and B in I. A causes C or D, indifferently (and B causes C or D, indifferently) because C and D are one and the same, and then it is the collective state I (comprising A and B) that causes state II (comprising the two modes, C and D). The relation between A and C and that between B and D are both different ways of describing the relation of state I and state II. The particular descriptions cannot displace one another.
Atlan illustrates his argument by using the synthetic identity of 'temperature' and 'mean molecular kinetic energy' on the one hand, and of 'pressure' and 'force of molecular collisions,' on the other hand. The effect of temperature on gas pressure as described in the macroscopic thermodynamic domain (as A causing C, above) is the same as the effect of molecular kinetic energy on the force of molecular collisions as described in the microscopic domain of molecular kinetics (as B causing D, above). Here, two distinct descriptions of the kinetic theory of gases have been substituted by formal analogy for mental and brain states, respectively, and in so doing Atlan has applied synthetic (but not analytical) identity to show the relationship of mental and brain causal states. Both descriptions capture the same reality, but with two different methods of understanding.
The difference from Davidson's position is that we introduce the dualism of descriptions, not within the causal relation -- which remains as one and which includes both the causal relation and the explanation, assumed to be adequate -- but within the identity of the event, where mental C and physical D, although identical, need different descriptions, which cannot replace one another when related to A and B, respectively. (p. 231)
Spinoza's radical reconfiguration, contemporized by Atlan in his self-organizational theory, not only has broad implications for philosophy of mind (most directly, characterizing consciousness), but the theory also has broad implications for the metaphysics of personal identity and ethics. The loss of simple causation, the displacement of linear logic, and the absence of organic telos by physicochemical and molecular biology has steadfastly placed 'life' into a non-purposive, materialist universe, and with that development, an entire edifice of philosophy must be re-designed. In "Internal purposes, vitalism, and complex systems," (1991, p. 177-191), Atlan explains how organic teleology became a relic of a discarded vitalism, which in turn disrupts the scientific universality of linear rationality that undergirds humanist ethics. Atlan's interpretation of contemporary biology's epistemology has driven Kantian morality into a corner of no escape, for in a probabilistic, deterministic universe, autonomy has been lost and free will has been banished. And then where does moral philosophy reside? Atlan is primarily concerned with the crisis ethics faces when confronted with the alternative configurations of "man the machine" and moral subjects considered in some supernatural formulation. He falls back on pragmatic ethics and instead of some essentialist conception of the human, he settles for the law, a cultural construct, which in its historical practice displaces any conceit of an ethical ontology based in revelation or deontological necessity.
Atlan arrives at this ethics by recognizing how different modes of knowledge must remain in dialogue just as they must remain distinct. The reality of the person is not grounded in facts -- biological or psychological -- but rather in a fuller reality of experience, relationships, history, and belief. This vision of the person, residing at these interfaces, exemplifies his style of philosophy, one that draws its strength from his ability to synthesize diverse discourses -- ranging from biology to interpretations of Biblical stories and Hebrew language. (Of note, The Sparks of Randomness freely interpolates biology and ancient Midrash around the themes considered here, but with a much fuller development of determinist trends in Jewish thought as a repository for understanding moral and legal responsibility in the absence of free will.)
In conclusion, at age 80, Atlan has remained loyal to his own agenda, eschewing the calls of French existentialists and the postmodernists who followed to connect his work to the philosophical tradition of Bachelard and Canguilhelm, which may be broadly characterized as an attempt to draw the fullest philosophical conclusions from the science of the day. Atlan has conceived his own project along these lines while carefully avoiding the seductions of over-extending conclusions from the laboratory to misguided extrapolations in different spheres of thought. He easily moves between the scientific and the technical, the philosophical and the poetic, and he does so ever aware that while these languages must co-exist, they may (but should not) be confounded, for "the perception of reality is always pregnant with the imaginary, but the latter never takes the former's place; where the rationalities of science and of myth can subsist side by side without being confused and can criticize each other" (p. 255). In Enlightenment to Enlightenment (SUNY 1993), Atlan offered an extended argument about the legitimacy of different forms of knowledge and illustrated how easily they were conflated and erroneously employed when misapplied from one domain to another:
an anthropology of knowledge remains possible; but instead of being an explanatory and unifying meta-theory, it becomes the locus of dia­logue between contradictory conceptual frameworks that determine dif­ferent modes of defining what makes a fact a fact, different theories and different criteria of relevance. Even though criteria of truth can function in each of these frameworks, no single criterion traverses all of them. In terms of our own discussion, even though each game has its rules, there is no unique rule for playing with the games. (Atlan 1993, p. 370)
Accordingly, reality becomes a refraction of different ways of seeing and being, of organizing randomness and creating different forms of order.
In sum, as if such a summation is fair to the diversity of his thought, Atlan has re-captured Spinoza's dialectic of Natura naturans and Natura naturata that recognizes, in principle, that a multiplicity of forms, descriptions, and explanations are required to capture reality. So, instead of a singular epistemological strategy or disciplinary knowledge base, Atlan celebrates how a collective of diverse perspectives offer insights not available from any one of the refractions alone. Putatively, in their syntheses, novelty should appear. Reading Atlan, this intuition is amply confirmed and richly rewarded. - Alfred I. Tauber