Science and Myth (Henri Atlan)

(page from Stéphane Mallarmé, “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance”) (found at:

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.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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4 Responses to Science and Myth (Henri Atlan)

  1. nitzan says:

    I agree. I liked him as a person and was intrigued by some of his speculations, but overall way too much sounded like a somewhat inconsistent (and a little naive) philosophical processing. I can’t say much about his biology but the meeting of the two seemed as arbitrary as it was suggestive. So much has been done on Spinoza alone for the past few decades (much thanks to Deleuze)…
    Loved your comment about the Bavli Rabbis.

  2. hayyim rothman says:

    i have not read the author you are talking about, but solely based on what you have said its entirely unclear to me how spinoza could serve as a counterbalance to the mechanistic/deterministic worldview of contemporary science. spinoza offers a fairly strong critique of subjectivity. this also ties into the connection with kabbalah: i was recently looking into harry wolfson’s dismissal of solomon maimon’s view (in givat ha-moreh) that spinoza’s notion of attributes in relation to substance is to be interpreted along the lines of the doctrine of tzimtzum found in shaar hashamayim. wolfson claims that the reason this cannot be the case is b/c tzimtzum entails volition whereas spinoza presumes necessity. i think he is right about the dismissal but wrong about the reason. the reason that there can be no tzimtzum for spinoza is b/c it would entail self-constraint and this violates the principle of conatus, which takes as a given that nothing will be constrained except externally. in any event though, conatus is an activity out of necessity and it specifically rules out chance b/c given the universal activity of conatus even if we cannot exactly trace the threads of causality (hence our perception of contingency and, therefore, free-will) they are nonetheless there absolutely……

    but, again, havn’t read atlan, so perhaps this is all irrelevant?

    • zjb says:

      Hi Hayyim, I think Atlan’s point is to mix up scientific (including Spionzan) determinism with sparks of randomness.

  3. hayyim rothman says:

    i see. well, then i will have to read the book.

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