Albert Einstein observed that everything has changed since the day that the power of the atom was unleashed except for one thing: the way we think. We have a terrible history of solving our problems with violence when we should know better, and he implied that we must think anew or we will end up being destroyed by our own folly.
We are in the midst of a global crisis. Political and economic theories further divide and inflame a world fervid from centuries of national, racial, cultural, and religious intolerance. Technology has enabled us to view the universe from new perspectives, and the results have been chaotic: Old answers of how the universe works have been discarded and new answers have replaced them. The structure of religion has ultimately depended on and interacted with prevailing worldviews, and with every increase in scientific knowledge of natural forces there has been less need for divine intervention in earthly affairs. But a moral compass is not to be found in the contingency of a physical world where one cannot prove that a particular path is the correct one to take. Time passes, paths split, and the world is changed forever in the flash of an unexpected event. It cannot be said with certainty that there does not exist in the physical universe a principle that unites design and purpose with phenomenal reality; it can only be said that as yet there is no science that can unite them.
Ever since the Milesian Thales denied the mythological origins of our physical world, Western philosophy continues to seek the underlying facts that provide logical sense to causal relationships of phenomena. In the fifth century B.C., Democritus of Abdera claimed that nothing exists except atomos and empty space; all else is opinion. Many centuries have come and gone with an ever-changing palimpsest of opinion that has served to reconcile humankind with an uncertain world. The methods for reconciliation have progressed from magic to religion to what is now a cosmology based on quantum physics and relativity theory, but they all have reduced the material world to multiform transcendental events upon which the brain constructs a phenomenal reality in space and time that is ultimately paradoxical and counterintuitive.
A time like the present has never been, but what has not changed is the uncertainty of what we know and the consequences of what we do with this knowledge. Much of what we do is based on collective beliefs about life and the universe, but group attitudes are influenced by science and religion only when there is a perceived need. Group attitudes result from the reshaping of ideas to best serve a cultural purpose, with scientific and religious truth having less relevance when compared with human emotion. Human society has always been pragmatic with “truth” being less a fixed transcendental or material reality and more an adjustable instrument for solving problems, changing as needed as problems change.
What we think does not necessarily affect the way we will behave when circumstance creates new fears or awakens old ones. The compelling drive for predominance and the need to acquire and defend territories shape much of human social behavior, but they are manifestations of animal instincts inherited from a time much older than the human footprint on this planet. Although our perceptions change as knowledge increases, archetypical survival instincts do not. New technologies extend the limited capabilities of the human sensory apparatus to facilitate the ever deeper probing into the infinitesimal and immense space of the universe. But they do not enhance the noetic processes of the brain that evolved concurrently with the senses to be of use to the human organism for its survival while hunting and scavenging the same prey favored by lions and hyenas in Africa’s sub-Saharan savannahs. Humans continue to be primarily impulsive and emotional animals, and only recently was the capacity for abstract thinking added to this mix. So instead of comparing ourselves to the saints, we need to look no further than the anthropoid apes to marvel at how far this new addition to our brains has taken us in such a short period of time.
The pace of technological innovation outstripped the biological evolution of its creator by leaps and bounds during the 20th century. With much of the human brain having been built from an archaic design using recycled parts, its evolution slowly plods along like Aesop’s fabled tortoise while the hare of technology that it creates foolishly races ahead and overwhelms the human brain with data beyond its capacity for synthesis. Knowledge is fast becoming a dispiriting accumulation of factual information that is devoid of any meaning, causing popular ignorance to flourish during a time of unprecedented learning.
New technologies also continue to change the environment in which we live to be less like the one in which we evolved. The hominid has changed very little biologically since the days of the cave-dwelling Cro-Magnon, but it now uses automobiles and elevators to get to its caves. This is without question the most prolific period of technological advancement in history, but it is also proving to be the deadliest in terms of the efficacy of technology when used destructively. Clubs and spears have been traded for newer technologies that have the capability of efficiently dispatching the whole of our species and taking much of animate creation along with it.
Contemporary views of our world continue to be fashionable misconceptions of reality that fluctuate in the realm between faith and doubt. Some think that it is better to believe the facts about our world as best we can know them. Others think that it is better to believe the words of incurable romantics as best we can understand them. There is beauty in each approach to asking the larger questions of our time, but they are equally perilous when used as rationale for human conduct. Therefore, it is not surprising that the average person relies on the arbitrament of authority, a sort of 21st-century scholasticism, to reconcile unfathomable scientific analysis with implausible theologic synthesis.
Be informed of all sides of an issue, because without diversity of opinion, learning would be as unhealthy and dull as a steady diet of mush. But beware of what is believed to be true and right by the influential select few, because this has often led to power and control with calamitous consequences for the many. So when an authority volunteers to help you to think anew, it is better to do it yourself.
Harold Williamson is a Chicago-based independent scholar. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2002, Harold Williamson and American Mensa Ltd.
Author's note: When this was first published, it was necessarily generalized due to editorial constraints. But allow me be more specific with a case in point about my conclusion: "...beware of what is believed to be true and right by the influential select few [the Bush administration], because this has often led to power and control with calamitous consequences for many. So when an authority volunteers to help you to think anew [preventive war], it is better to do it yourself."
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