Friday, November 19, 2004

Being human in the 21st Century

A recent post (Jihad, McWorld, civic education and Dr Seuss) glanced over the question of human being in 21st Century.

One of the central challenges is an honest and healthy relationship to scientific knowledge.

A good starting point is thinking like this:

If we don’t want to fool ourselves or be lulled into complacency by myths, then to understand the universe – and our place in it – we need a healthy exposure to the uncommon sense of science.

Those who doubt the reality of evolution must also not believe in the existence of antibiotic resistant bacteria, a graphic and potentially lethal example of evolution in action, not over millennia but over months and years. As for Earth’s age, the very same laws the govern radio-active decay, which provides a tick-by-tick measure of time eon and after eon, also describe the flow of electrons in cell phones, computers and televisions.

(from the Foreword to The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2004, edited by Tim Folger and Steven Pinker).

Are there dangers in science? Of course. Among them may the undermining of free will. The astrophysicist Paul Davies explored this in his contribution to the Sep/Oct 04 Foreign Policy series The World’s Most Dangerous Ideas:

Belief in some measure of free will is common to all cultures and a large part of what makes us human. It is also fundamental to our ethical and legal systems. Yet today’s scientists and philosophers are busily chipping away at this social pillar—apparently without thinking about what might replace it.

What they question is a folk psychology that goes something like this: Inside each of us is a self, a conscious agent who both observes the world and makes decisions. In some cases (though perhaps not all), this agent has a measure of choice and control over his or her actions…

All this may seem like common sense, but philosophers and writers have questioned it for centuries—and the attack is gathering speed. “All theory is against the freedom of the will,” wrote…Samuel Johnson.

Physicists assert that free will is merely a feeling we have; the mind has no genuine causal efficacy...The rise of modern genetics has also undermined the belief that humans are born with the freedom to shape their individual destinies…

These ideas are dangerous because there is more than a grain of truth in them. There is an acute risk that they will be oversimplified and used to justify an anything-goes attitude to criminal activity, ethnic conflict, even genocide. Conversely, people convinced that the concept of individual choice is a myth may passively conform to whatever fate an exploitative social or political system may have decreed for them. If you thought eugenics was a disastrous perversion of science, imagine a world where most people don’t believe in free will.

The scientific assault on free will would be less alarming if some new legal and ethical framework existed to take its place. But nobody really has a clue what that new structure might look like. And, remember, the scientists may be wrong to doubt free will. It would be rash to assume that physicists have said the last word on causation, or that cognitive scientists fully understand brain function and consciousness. But even if they are right, and free will really is an illusion, it may still be a fiction worth maintaining.

Here’s a central issue (beyond the immediate danger of gross simplification - evident from past episodes such as social Darwinism): there is "more than a grain of truth" to the notion that freewill is illusory; but we cannot live without it, any more that we can live without the notion – more than notion – of time, however illusory it is in fundamental physics.

Truly, there’s a Koan here on which to meditate.

Turning to the grubby real world of ignorance and politics, then, people who are trying to wake up need to show a little humility. What expressions for spirituality in the cosmos and solidarity with other humans and life if not the ones mediated through traditional cultures?

The question has specific, time-related political relevance, and calls for solidarity with people who situate themselves within religious traditions, such as the very San Francisco rabbi Michael Lerner in his 3 Nov reflection on the Democrats and religion after the US presidential election:

In the Right wing churches and synagogues…voters are presented with a coherent worldview that speaks to their "meaning needs." Most of these churches and synagogues demonstrate a high level of caring for their members [emphasis mine], even if the flip side is a willingness to demean those on the outside.

Instead of assuming that most Americans are either stupid or reactionary, a religious Left would understand that many Americans who are on the Right actually share the same concern for a world based on love and generosity that underlies Left politics, even though lefties often hide their value attachments.

Yet to move in this direction, many Democrats would have to give up their attachment to a core belief: that those who voted for Bush are fundamentally stupid or evil. Its time they got over that elitist self-righteousness and developed strategies that could affirm their common humanity with those who voted for the Right. Teaching themselves to see the good in the rest of the American public would be a critical first step in liberals and progressives learning how to teach the rest of American society how to see that same goodness in the rest of the people on this planet. It is this spiritual lesson-that our own well-being depends on the well-being of everyone else on the planet and on the well-being of the earth-a lesson rooted deeply in the spiritual wisdom of virtually every religion on the planet, that could be the center of a revived Democratic Party.

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