An Introductory Note
by V.V. Raman
Over the ages, at various periods and in different regions of the world groups and communities, sometimes even nations, have felt threatened to the point of thinking they were at their last phase of existence. But never before in all of human history have thoughtful and informed people the world over felt so pessimistic about humanity’s future. Ominous aspects of changing weather patterns with possibilities of catastrophic rise in sea-level, melting of polar glaciers, a toxic physical environment, assurances of earthquakes of high Richter-scale, uncontrollably growing populations, and diminishing material and energy resources are among the many dangers confronting our species. Add to this the never-ending inter-religious and inter-sect hate and hurt, suspicion and self-glory: and we quickly realize that we are really in a spry state. There are no easy solutions to these mounting challenges.
But we also know that a good many technically competent people and countless men and women of goodwill everywhere are striving to alleviate some and eliminate other problems. In this month’s Perspectives a number of IRASians are reflecting on this topic.
Incidentally, this is the twelfth and last edition of the bimonthly IRAS Web Journal I initiated upon being elected President in August 2011. I wish to thank all our members for entrusting me with the responsibility of IRAS Presidency and the support they have given me during these months. As I take leave I wish you all and the organization the very best in the years to come.
I would like to thank our webmaster Larry Davis for regularly bringing out our bimonthly Web Journal in an aesthetically enjoyable format.
Comments on their views may be posted in the IRASNET or IRASRN listserves.
on the human predicament
In some ways, I am skeptical of the immediate relevance of the science/religion conversation to the crises affecting the world today. That is to say, if one takes each as a whole, reduced to their lowest common denominators, one has little choice but to observe a disconnect between primary points of concern. The science/religion conversation is involved in questions of ontology and language; the crises affecting the world today have the potential to involve all but a few human beings in a life-and-death struggle for resources. The disconnect will become evident at once.
Moreover, I believe that we are deluding ourselves if we promote a particular resolution of the science/religion conversation as an answer to the world’s problems. This attitude comes out of the academic climate of the sixties and seventies, according to which the great and good of the developed world might lead the way toward a higher level of consciousness at which it would naturally follow that we no longer engaged in gratuitous violence or the wasting of the world’s resources. The fact is that individuals have always had sufficiently high levels of consciousness to behave well; individuals have eschewed violence and taken responsibility for their role in the degradation of the environment; and it has not changed matters on a global level. The channels of communication and power that determine what sectors of society will take ethical perspectives on board are not directly connected to the levels on which the science/religion conversation takes place.
This is not to say that the science/religion conversation has no relationship to what goes on in the world today. It might even be said that every aspect of today’s world can be approached from one or another perspective, and many from both. There are particular aspects of both science and religion that can be interrogated from the standpoint of those in the world who are negatively affected. For instance, there are many contexts in which the situation of women is untenable due to religious beliefs; there are religious beliefs that are at once diametrically opposed to science and untenable on environmental grounds; there are scientific practices that are potentially exploitative and oppressive, such as experimentation on unwilling or uninformed human subjects, or the hiring-out of science to global corporations with no sense of the global political and environmental context.
The hope of the science/religion conversation in facing these examples has been that one will serve to temper the other. The assumption behind this hope is generally that humans are complex beings and where one “flavor” of human consciousness proves callous or otherwise limited, another can take the problem up from another perspective and impose a humane influence. In practice, this has at times been the case. We can conclude as “conversers” that it will potentially help the world more than not for us to keep our hand in. The difficulty is in understanding why this is. It is all too tempting to conclude that science or religion has observed a specific lack in its counterpart and rushed in to fill the gap. While it is possible to deduce as much by default—for example, that a belief in the inequality of women is counter to science—this default assumption veils all too many failures on the same counts by both sides (for instance, male-dominated religion and science). Yet there may be hope in the effect that a shift in perspective so often seems to have on human psychology: the shift in consciousness that appears to come from seeing with new eyes, whether or not those new eyes all on their own see differently. Finally, the discipline of comparing and acknowledging differences of perspective may in its own right be humanizing, in that it prevents any one perspective from too much belief in its own infallibility.
the human predicament today
When I Googled "Human Predicament" the second item was a wonderful essay by Paul and Ann Ehrlich titled "Solving the human predicament", Int. J. Env. Studies (2012). Their article provides a well-written list of problems with excellent ideas for solutions from physical, biological and social scientists and others. However, the social/religious process of motivating people to act wisely as needed to implement those excellent ideas seemed missing to me. As Einstein said, "Religion without science is blind and science without religion is lame". Both are needed in dealing with the predicament before us. IRAS is the main citizen based organization that I know of that seeks to build the needed sturdy bridges between mainstream science and mainstream religion. In this essay I'll focus on one of the items from the Ehrlichs' article that is related to this topic. It is the section on p. 563 titled: "Bottom-up reform of governance systems and institutions".
I'd like to see IRAS expand its membership to a broader group of "bottom-up" people involved with connecting science and religion. As one example, consider the scientistsincongregations.org group centered in Chico, CA. They were awarded a large Templeton grant that funded 36 congregations across the country to develop science/religion programs in their congregations. That grant award is now ending and it seems to me that the IRAS annual meeting could become a meeting place for delegates from those congregations. This is just a single example of what could become a consortium of Ehrlich's bottom-up groups that meet and interact with each other to learn what people are doing to deal with the predicaments that are facing our society. Another example could involve planning for using next years' conference on Transhumanism to reach a new group of young people who have a novel vision of the future. Wouldn't it be nice if the new attendees who came for that topic, left the conference with a new appreciation of how transhumanists, religious humanists, secular humanists and theists could all work together and forge the sort of strong bottom-up yokings imagined by the Ehrlichs.
For this plan to succeed IRAS would need to develop new approaches that would enable folks from such diverse backgrounds to feel welcome. It might mean that in addition to the present IRASnet discussions there could be a forum where the broad diversity of religious and secular and trans individuals can interact with the specific purpose of what can we do to educate each other and our associated groups about the predicaments that will be facing our grandchildren.
Finally, let me share one of my personal BHAGs (Google if you forgot) for dealing with these challenging problems. It is closely related to the Ehrlichs' section on p. 561: "Completely overhaul educational systems ". I am pained to see how little connection there is between my university in Berkeley and the adjacent Graduate Theological Union (GTU). The GTU consists of nine schools of theology plus a Center for Theology and Natural Science plus a wide variety of religious institutes (see gtu.edu for details). There is so much that could be accomplished in cross fertilization of ideas and outlooks among faculty and among students to enable each group to prepare for the future. It's the above Einstein science/religion quote again. I keep asking myself what can I do to help. A potential role model for me for this bridge building is the Zygon Center in Chicago that has taken steps of making connections between the religious and secular communities. I'm eager to work with IRAS members to extend Zygon Center approaches to other locations, like Berkeley, where theology and secular schools are largely non-interacting neighbors. It's a personal BHAG. It inspires me and I expect to be discussing it with IRASians to help me come up with plans to actualize that audacious goal.
Our human predicament
Our human predicament is threefold. We are facing not just one crisis but a “storm of crises.” An underlying cause of these crises is that we have been too successful. Furthermore, we are not morally equipped to deal with this twenty-first century storm.
The storm we are in includes exponential population growth and, where population is stable, an increase in material standards of living that depletes the planet’s resources; a growing gap between the wealthy and the poor; starvation and malnutrition in many societies while there is an obesity epidemic in others; economic and political instability, mass violence, genocide, war, and terrorism; an increasing rate of species extinction that may affect the foundations of food chains; and global climate change.
These are not things that are just happening to us. They are the result of a human success story. After millennia of living in small societies consisting primarily of kin-groups that struggled against the constraints of natural selection, in the last five centuries humanity has “broken loose.” With the scientific discoveries of micro-organisms, sanitation, and modern medicine, we have reduced infant mortality and increased the human life span, thereby eliminating a major selection pressure on over-population. With discoveries of how to use fossil fuels, nuclear energy, and other natural resources, we have built complex industrial societies, the processes of which pollute land, waters, and sky with waste, including greenhouse gases. With new technologies of communication (from radios and telephones invented a little more than one hundred years ago to our contemporary internet and satellite global communication systems) there is a growing awareness of the inequalities of wealth. With the continuous inventions of new technologies and increasing knowledge of events worldwide, we are experiencing increasing rates of change that heighten stress as we try to live in the midst of the growing storm that will not go away but will only get worse.
Confounding this predicament is that we are not morally equipped through our biological evolutionary heritage to deal with a storm this size. While we may be able to recognize the storm of crises and our role in bringing it about, we lack the capacity to be motivated to deal with it. Millennia ago we came into being in small-scale societies whose basic task was to survive until the next generation could reproduce itself. The motivational systems of our brains have evolved for individual self-interest, kin-group cooperation, and reciprocal interactions--all for the immediate future of those with whom we live in direct contact. We do not have the emotional brain systems that will motivate us to act on behalf of a global human community, of multi-species ecosystems, and of the infrastructure of the entire planet.
One hope for a more positive future will involve culturally evolved political, economic, and religious and other value systems that can guide and motivate human living for the good of the planet for the long-term future. Unfortunately, our current array of most of these cultural systems are oriented to the good of a few and not the good of all. Even religions at their best, focus on the enlightenment or salvation of individuals, or on small scale efforts for social justice and “green” communities. At their worst, the value systems of religions, politics, education, and economics contribute to in-group/out-group competition, even to the point of war and the degradation of our planet.
Our human predicament is the storm of global crises that we are facing, created by our own scientific-technological success--a storm that we may be incapable of navigating because we have evolved to live in simpler, smaller scale systems of interaction among humans and between humans and the rest of the world. Our critical challenge is to acknowledge our evolutionary heritage and to find ways to develop the motivation to act globally for the long-term well being of all.
What Hopes are there for Humanity's Predicament?
I believe that there is really only one hope for humanity's predicament, and that is to bring the world's population into harmony with its "carrying capacity." That does not necessarily mean reducing the population, because the earth might hold as many as 10 billion people if we could harvest enough sunlight to produce adequate water and food and shelter. But this solution is only a necessary condition, and not a sufficient condition, for avoiding the worst consequences of the predicament we have got ourselves into. Obviously we will also have to develop institutions and international agreements, find meaningful work for most of the world's citizens, and develop philosophies that move us in better directions. I have elsewhere argued that the philosophy of "Religious Naturalism" is the only way I can imagine for creating harmony between the earth's physical environment and our internal psychological/sociological environment, but if the population were low enough (in comparison to the carrying capacity), we'd buy some time to either develop the Religious Naturalism philosophy, develop even better philosophies, or modify the ancient ones -- and I admit that modifying the ancient ones is perhaps more likely to happen than persuading the world to develop my precious Religious Naturalism.
There is another question, namely "even if getting the population in sync with the carrying capacity is the right answer, how do you do THAT?" Interestingly, and as I argued in a 1996 Zygon article, there are pretty good proposals on the table for accomplishing that. I'll only mention one here, perhaps the most powerful one, and that is educating young women. It is known that if we do that, women will have fewer children and have them later and better care for the ones they have. Not to mention all the inventions and insights that education will allow them to develop for the sake of the whole world. This strategy is already being implemented, as are others that give reason for hope.
What Hopes For Humanity's Predicament? What Can We Do?
Joe Ted Miller
Well, what is it, this “predicament” of ours, our humanity’s? What’s behind or underneath this pre-dicament, this predication, this saying before or is it a “before saying”? Ah, that might be getting closer to what we now mean by a predicament, an impinging or trying situation. Did our humanity get into this trying time because we didn’t speak before it happened even when we saw it was going to happen, amost pre-saying it, predicting it? Some would say so and some would say they themselves warned us or their ancestors did long ago! What then is our “predicament”? Some would say that we are too tied to our past and therefore limited by it. Others would say that we have disowned our past, moved beyond it too much, and therefore have lost it’s nurturing benefit. Strange isn’t it that we put so much or so little emphasis on our yesterdays and blame or credit them for our todays and our attitudes toward the possibilities and probabilities of our tomorrows. I think and feel and intuit that we need the value of where we have come from to understand where we are and to discern where we want to be. We need to pull it all together. Why don’t we? That’s part of our predicament.
If we look at our national politics or the politics of our nation in all its parts we can sense this predicament. Others in their nations can do the same. We each need to peer into where we are and use our binoculars and magnifying glasses to discover the signs of our past still having helpful or harmful effects on our present. Then we can share together what we are seeing. Only then can we try to figure out the way out of our predicament, only when we have uncovered how we got here. This is where joint effort is so important. It can’t be just “bi-partisan” or “omni-opinioned”. It has to be mutual search to understand what has been and what is together so that we can get a better handle on the might be that we together want to be. But how do you do that when each person tends to be biased by their own vision, their own discernment, and their own interpretation of what they see?
We need to be willing to enter into the solving of the predicament with each our own willingness to change our mind and our feelings based on what we observe if we come to understand it as different from what we thought or presumed it to be before our mutual effort at discernment. Only then does the polylogue become creative and promising of “the more” that might be waiting to be unearthed. That “more” might indeed be very “other” than we ourselves or any one of us thought it was or was going to be. Only then will the more full “right thing” emerge and indeed the whole will be greater and other than the sum of its parts, of its constituents. It’s the way the mix of ideas of persons come together in the pursuit that the most beneficial next step emerges. No one of us can take credit for the whole but only for parts of the whole each of which may well have been transformed by the dialectic of a more full comprehension.
In a word or a few words, our humanity’s predicament is “stalement” (stalemated). We are becoming “stale” from not sharing our talents together around the world. We are more and more technically connected, even skyping one another’s externality but we are not really in touch with our own fullness of our own humanity much less knowing and appreciating that of one another around the world or even in our own living places. We are encapsulated in our own preferences, views, politics, religions, marriages or relationships, families, occupations or retirements. We need to continually “re-tread” ourselves so that we can each graduate again and again from where we have been to the potential of where we might be if we travel together and discuss and share our care along the way.
the nag hammadi predicament
How can we achieve the sense of cosmic multidimensionality expressed in the Gospel of Thomas found at Nag Hammadi in 1945? For each of us in our 21st century world this is our predicament. What is expressed there goes far back in time, in fact as far back as the Upanishads and the Eastern thought that grew out of it. It may have extended even further back as is seen in the caves in southern France and in Spain. Jesus was born into a world strongly influenced by this cosmic multidimensional thought. There was town near his home with the name Sepphoris. It was a model Roman city/town. He may even have experienced Greek theater there. There is conjecture that his father was not a cabinet maker but a scaffold builder. The father and son may have been applying their trade in that city as it was being built. This of course is all conjecture as the evidence is scarce and what evidence there is distorted by the vagaries of Aramaic and Greek translation. Another influence should be mentioned, and we do have evidence of this. During the short period of his ministry, Qumran Essene thought existed throughout his geographic area. It may have had an influence on him. It was strongly anti-Temple and in some respects esoteric. It could have served as the foundation for his popularity. The order of the Essenes with its monastic headquarters by the Dead Sea, but extending all over Judea and in all likelihood into Egypt, Rome and Asia Minor, would have served as a ready-made matrix on which the new Christian association of communities were built.
So, however one frames the mindset of those in and around Jerusalem at that time, there is no question that a Gnostic undercurrent of thought with its esoteric multidimensionality had taken hold and that it set the foundation for the spread of the word of Jesus of Nazareth.
This same multidimensionality of thought is now beginning to dominate our present age. We have the physical sciences joining in with essentially the same understanding of an all-inclusive cosmic inner/outer dimensionality to the universe. We also have the Jungians moving in the same direction with their deeply psychological synchronistic interpretations. All of this is being defined by the physical sciences with the words; “Implicate Order.” This expression implies the same cosmic determinative consciousness as early historical movements such as Gnosticism and Essene thought. (There is even some speculation that out of Essene thought came the esoteric elements of Jewish Kabbalah we see being practiced today.)
We can therefore conclude that the English translation of “The Kingdom of God” as Jesus used the term in the Gospel of Thomas expressed a view contrary to that held by today’s Christian Catholic and Protestant Orthodoxy and more in line with modern thought. And herein lies our problem—and our predicament.
Jesus spoke in conditional terms of our finding this Kingdom of God. He used the words; When you come to know yourselves. He said that actualization calls for self-realization. He was calling for a metamorphosis of human thought in order for The Kingdom of God on this Earth to be revealed. Here are his words from the Gospel of Thomas (English translation from ancient Coptic):
The Gospel of Thomas
(77) I am the light that is over all things. I am all: from me all came forth, and to me all attained. Split a piece of wood; I am there. Lift up the stone, and you will find me there
(3) The Kingdom of God is inside of you, and it is outside of you. When you come to know yourselves, then you will become known, and you will realize who you are.
Here is my translation into modern English:
There is a cosmic consciousness in everything material and immaterial. Within it is an Implicate Order. This cosmic consciousness and Implicate Order is inside of you and it is outside of you. The sole purpose of your life from your birth to your death is to find it. How can you find it? First you must come to know yourself. Then and only then will your thoughts, your actions, your being; all of you become integral to this cosmic consciousness and Implicate Order. Then and only then will your life will be changed. Then and only then will you know that you have always been known by it.
Can you and I change the way we think? Can we escape from the rigidity of the thought that encapsulates us? Are we capable of being what Plato said we were capable of? (He was the first to use the term ‘gnostikoi’, meaning those capable of knowing.)
I repeat: For each of us in our 21st century world this is our predicament.
What hope for humanity's predicament? what can we do?
Gigaworld: Why the Earth should have one billion people, and how to get there from here. This is the title of an imaginary book that I hope someone will write soon. Humanity's predicament comes from things that are good in themselves, like health and wealth, but things that also allow the population to grow and each person to consume more in a way that now threatens our future. Can we or should we do anything to intervene? Gigaworld could provide a hopeful answer.How many people can the Earth support? This is the title of an actual book (Joel Cohen, 1995), and includes a range of estimates, from less than 1 billion to 1000 billion. Asking "can support" doesn't yield a clear answer, and asking "should support" is more problematic, begging questions of values, ethics, science, and religion. But I don't think we can hope to avoid the question. I hope we (humanity) can achieve a consensus that people should generally be healthy and happy, sharing fulfilling lives in harmony with the rest of nature. As far as we know, this requires significant use of energy and resources, economic activity which can be measured (crudely) by GDP. Globally this is about $7000 per person per year, and is about 5 times that in the US. Most people are dissatisfied with living at the global average economic level and work hard to better themselves. The Earth's carrying capacity is limited, so there is a trade-off between population and wealth. Our hope is to live well, sharing the world with enough well-off neighbors to create a dynamic and diverse culture, but probably fewer neighbors than the 7 billion living today. This is the case for Gigaworld -- 7 times fewer people, but maybe 7 times richer and with more equitable distribution.
Such thinking has a long and checkered history. The overpopulation catastrophe predicted by Thomas Malthus over 200 years ago didn't happen, and neither did the economic collapse scenarios of The Limits to Growth from 1972. Population control policies by governments can be coercive and affect ethnic groups differently -- "they" are trying to get rid of "us!" Eugenics is blighted by its association with Nazi death camps. Nevertheless, many respected scholars and leaders like those supporting the UK charitable group Population Matters make a strong case, especially for education and voluntary family planning. My wife and I were persuaded in the 1970's, and had only two children who have now followed suit and each have only two of their own. We're not unusual -- most of the affluent societies in the world now have fertility rates less than replacement. So could the subtitle of Gigaworld be easy, could "how to get there from here" be "just wait?"
The hope that population will take care of itself is naive, and the expectation that every country and ethnic group in the world will automatically become like us if we just wait is hubris. Active engagement is required to bring the benefits of science, technology, education, and justice to more people in more places. Humanity's challenge is to share this enlightenment and the good life that it brings with everyone, without domineering coercion. But if my family and I got the message fifty years ago when the population was 3 billion, why do I now have to worry about a population beyond 7 billion? Is it fair to have to share the Earth's resources with others whose presence I didn't invite? Tribal hostility can grow from such questions, and we do need ways to get everyone onboard. I imagine a book like Gigaworld that would make a persuasive case that we are all in this together, and convince not just an educated elite but a commanding consensus of people everywhere. I hope we can do it, and I hope you do too.
the predicament of humanity
Humanity is in the process of transformation and has made tremendous strides, but now finds itself in a dire predicament faced with existential threats of its own making including WMD’s, Population explosion, Climate Change, depletion of resources and lately a steep rise in extremism, solutions to which seem beyond our grasp.
Staggering progress and successes of science have created a false sense of “matter being all there is”, knowing well that modern science demands the presence of things like Superstrings, Dark matter and Dark energy, all mathematical concepts, needed to balance our equations, in an effort to make sense of reality.
Our tendency is to find technical fixes to such problems ignoring the saying of Einstein that “Problems created at a certain level of consciousness cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness” This calls for a paradigm shift in our thinking and actions. The clamor for change is everywhere but with no clear articulation of its direction. Globalization is occurring under pressure from the march of Technology, but clearly our political, social, and economic institutions have not kept pace leading to build up of severe stresses and strains, signs of which are appearing all over the world. Philosopher Loyal Rue correctly says that” Wisdom demands that we live in harmony with Reality” but just how do we ascertain what Reality really is?
Undoubtedly the human mind is the acme of evolution. It appears to have unlimited potential but what is the basis for assuming that it can find answers to all problems. This Bottom-up thinking of the human mind, albeit marvelous has severe limitations, increasingly being recognized by science. Science by definition is “Relative” It keeps progressing but is not able to discover the Absolute unchanging values which are the very foundation of human civilization. For example, can science give a basis for universal statements like “It is a self-evident truth that all men are born equal? In fact science is more likely to enquire; “Are they really born equal?” Answers to such Absolute values can come only from Top-down guidance from the All – powerful, all knowing Divine Creator.
But what is the evidence of the existence of such a Creator skeptics ask? A Creator perforce has to be more complex than its Creation and such a Being simply cannot be taken on faith alone. The claim demands first rate, incontrovertible evidence of its existence, and the onus of proof lies squarely on the believer. Carl Sagan is the only skeptic, to the best of my knowledge, who has proposed objective tests to ascertain the reality of a Creator. It is amazing how Sagan’s observations have been answered by Revelation1
Ancient scriptures have over time relayed Creator’s Guidance in form of Testaments. As man’s consciousness evolved, such guidance developed till it could be encapsulated in complete documentation as the final Testament - the Qur’an. Observe what happened in 7th century Arabia? A prophet appears in that sterile land with a revealed Book of Guidance and a marvelous revolution in human affairs and ideals results which stands unmatched in annals of world history. As Thomas Carlyle poignantly states “He (Prophet Muhammad) was to kindle the world, the world’s Maker had ordered so.”
The Qur’an is but a reconfirmation of the truths of previous Divine Scriptures whose texts got lost or corrupted over time. Qur’an is not a monopoly of the Muslims. As a final Testament its teachings are entirely relevant today and are timeless. It is a veritable owner’s manual of mankind and a Universal Constitution.
“Soon will we show them our Signs in the (farthest) regions (of the Universe), and within themselves, until it becomes manifest to them that this indeed is the Truth” (Qur’an 41:53).
The Qur’an brought about an unprecedented revolution in human affairs and thought then and is capable of doing the same now to end the Predicaments humanity has created for itself. Humankind is at a crossroads in the next phase of human evolution. Fortuitously humans are consciously able to participate in the unfolding of a new era, but if left unheeded, we can plunge deeper into the abyss of confusion.
The only way of “wisdom” advocated by La Rue to live in harmony with Reality and end Humanity’s Predicaments is to implement the Creator’s Design by a think tank like cooperative investigative approach. It stands to reason that only the Creators laws would be optimally suited to His Creation.
humanity's predicament today
To be caught up in a predicament means that there is no longer one right decision to make, one right action to take. Whatever one does, there is a price to pay, a sacrifice to make, a loss to accept. Any outcome is as bad as any other, as any gain is spoiled by a corresponding loss. So why should one want to decide? Trying to postpone the pressing decision as long as possible is a very understandable strategy and often the predicament is not solved from within, but by a forcing from outside, which breaks the agonizing inner paralysis. What happens then might be different from anything one has envisioned before.
I still remember my first encounter with what I think is humanity's deepest predicament. Our biology teacher confronted us with the example of a bunch of yeast growing in a cask of grape juice, with all its preprogrammed disasters of massive population breakdown. The ecological lesson for us to learn was rather obvious. I still remember my teachers wording that we humans should not be as stupid as that bunch of yeast, but act prudently on our limited planet.
Now, only 40 years later, there is no doubt that humanity's biggest problem, underlying every other pressing global problem, is overpopulation. Are we, in the end, as stupid as yeast? Or is yeast just as prudent as we are? In Konrad Lorenz's famous little book “The Eight Capital Sins of Civilized Humanity”, from 1973, overpopulation ranks as the top sin, and Lorenz did not hide his angry desperation about any one of these eight “stupidities” of mankind. His voice was a doctor's who sees that his lamenting patient just goes on destroying himself albeit he repeatedly vows betterment.
But could we really have d o n e better? I doubt. The root for humanity's predicament today lies very deeply burrowed in the primordial phenomenon of growth, which itself is the visible outcome of a still more basic phenomenon, the positive feedback loop.
Growth plays a crucial and dialectical role for the phenomenon of life, and most of all for the building up of the higher multicellular life forms. As it is, it also harbors an inextricable dilemma. Systems that rely on the dynamic of growth for their existence ultimately also get into lethal trouble because of this dynamic, be it unstopped growth or the impossibility to grow further. It is not by accident that we on the one hand associate growth with freshness, youth, optimism, and upward movement, and on the other hand with impending disaster and breakdown. We love to see a child grow but we hate to know a cancer grow. Our body provides us also with another sobering lesson. There is no way to freeze a however perfectly working dynamic state, it is always only a transition from one state into the next. We recognize this issue again when we consider the obvious impossibility to freeze economic prosperity when it's just running optimal. If one understands economy in its inner dynamics as a direct continuation of biology, the crucial role of growth is more than obvious. However clear-sightedly and ecologically concerned we might condemn the excesses of the global pursuit of profit, our hearts immediately sink when we hear about predicted shrinking economic growth.
But we have to be careful here to discern between two different aspects of growth: a system's dynamic state of growth and the accumulation of the products of this growing process. Enhanced growth via cell proliferation, for example, is indispensable for producing the amount of cells needed for building up the dynamically structured order of a complete organism. The big counter-player for establishing structural order is the ubiquitous entropic degradation of order. Growing a bit faster than decaying - this, I suggest, is in principle how a hierarchically nested dynamically ordered structure can be established. And a certain amount of ongoing growth processes is always necessary to constantly replenish the inevitable losses in the system's structure. In an organism, which has an upper limit of size, life can thrive for a while on this order, but ultimately the structure breaks down, as it neither can grow further, nor orderly downgrade its complexity again.
This growth-for-order principle reappears again on the level of social organization. It is ultimately the pressure built up by the accumulation of people, which forces the system to always again find new and more efficient ways to order these people into hierarchically nested fractal social structures and to organize their living. The latter is economy in its most basic meaning, and population accumulation is the ultimate reason for all we have achieved up to now. But in human social structuring there is in principle no upper limit of size, and the accumulation of people therefore has no built-in stop. Our capacity for mutual aggression and warfare may be conspicuous due to its repugnancy, but actually the effects of our much less conspicuous but all the more astonishing capacity for peaceful coexisting in even extremely dense populations by far trump the population losses due to our aggressiveness.
The predicament now is rather obvious. It is basically not the phenomenon of growth as a dynamic state itself, which is the problem, but the up to now accumulated numbers of people. However, no single one of us is responsible for being here. It is impossible to imagine any ethical way how humanity could deliberately and methodically prune itself, like one has to prune a plant that has grown too big in its limited pot, to give it the possibility to grow again, so that it can thrive. Probably I am not the only one to suspect that climate escalation might overtake this radical pruning role. Can one call this a “hope”? I don't know.
thoughts on our predicament
V.V.'s request asked for ideas about immediate changes we would advocate as a means to right the predicament in which humans currently find themselves. Unfortunately I have no ideas for changes that are likely actually to be made in the immediate future. So I will talk a bit more about the end state we need to create, with no good ideas about how to get there.
I believe one of the most important goals humans need to adopt is a major decrease in the size of human population. It would certainly be best if we could accomplish this in a humane manner. If we do not intentionally make the changes necessary to bring this about, it will come about in a very undesirable manner by itself.
As far as I can tell the major contemporary forces arguing against steps that are likely to have this effect in a humane manner are the forces and voices of authoritarian religions. This brings us to an even larger problem underlying not only the population problem, but several other problems as well. That is the belief that our ideas about morally good and bad behavior come from God. We have the opinion that God tells us, or our religious "superiors," how we should behave. If we behave in the manner in which we should, according to what God tells us, we will go to him in heaven when we die.
We think that what we need to do is read what God tells us in the holy scriptures, or to listen to those who have done so, in order to understand how to behave properly. However, what actually happens is that we bring our culturally endowed ideas about right and wrong behaviors to the scriptures, and interpret the scriptures as supporting the ideas we have already formed about good and bad behaviors. This should be apparent from the fact that different people find scriptural support for so many different kinds of beliefs about good and bad behavior. But true believers, which seems to include the majority of living humans, remain convinced that they have the correct interpretation of the important passages in the scriptures while other interpretations are wrong.
There are at least three major problems with this way of using ancient written material. The first is that finding areas in the scriptures that seem to support our opinions relieves us of the need to justify our own ideas about right and wrong behavior. If God says it, it must be so! For most people that is quite sufficient justification. Another, more serious, problem is that God's statements about right and wrong behavior as they are presented in the scriptures do not change, though the interpretations do change. However, as the lifestyles of the humans change, different ideas are frequently needed about right and wrong behaviors. And this brings us to the third major effect. That is the failure to realize that the function of human behavioral rules is primarily to create the many different institutions or features of our societies. However, the effects of behaviors that served vital functions in the past, may become quite destructive under new living conditions. This is what has happened to earlier ideas about having children. Under the living conditions in which a large percentage of infants died before reaching reproductive age, large families seemed desirable. Today modern medicine enables a much larger percentage of humans infants to survive. So large families now contribute to the overwhelming problem of over-population.
What we need to do in order to escape from the idea that we can get our ideas about right and wrong from scripture is modify our assumption about the relationship between religion and ethics. Basic right and wrong types of behavior were being followed within the social systems of our primate ancestors long before religions became well enough established to have any effects upon ethics. All social systems depend upon members not arbitrarily killing other members of the same social system. This is the way the commandment against killing has primarily been interpreted. But language could not have developed in order for that "rule" to be thought or expressed if it had not already been followed, probably for millions of years, before these necessary steps of what we now consider to be ethical rules were developed. Similarly, it is likely that one of the necessary social steps leading to human social living--the existence of personal possessions--was very crudely in place before much language (and intellectual) development had occurred. The existence of personal possessions depends upon certain behaviors on the part of all members of the society. No social animals have incorporated these behaviors into their social living except the ancestors of humans, as well as modern humans. Basically the behavior involves relating a particular material object to a member of the social system and not taking (or "stealing") the item. Personal possessions depend upon a "rule" (which may not be recognized as a rule by those following it) against stealing. Again, this would have developed before significant religion had come into existence. Without these two "ethical rules"-- that against killing other members of the social group and that against stealing--humans could never have developed. Other behavioral rules, both ones shared by other social species and others peculiar to humans also developed before the human ancestors became well enough "humanized" for religion to begin exercising influence.
The behavior patterns established increasingly strong and comfortable social systems. However, the social systems also contained a variety of temptations for individuals within the social system. As societies became increasingly large stealing, for example, would have been a major temptation as none of the participants had genetic restraints against stealing in the way they had genetic restraints against killing other members of the social system. As the societies developed more changes of the type now typical of human societies there would have been increasing temptations to behave in a variety of manners that might enhance the lifestyle of the deviant person but would undermine the social system if the behavior were to become common. The behavioral restrictions establishing personal possessions, for example, can tolerate certain amount of abuse. But stealing still must be recognized as forbidden behavior, and avoided by the overwhelming majority of the members of the social system. Without rules prohibiting stealing there simply is no such thing as personal possessions.
This is where religions began to influence the systems of ethics. Religions provided much more powerful "restrictions" against behaviors threatening the social order, and thus the existence of the social system. They did so by convincing people they would be "caught" by a non-human force and receive horrible punishment for their errant behaviors. This belief in horrible punishment provided strength to the social order by deterring types of behavior that would undermine the social system were they to become acceptable or common behavior.
None of these developments were intentional. No one understood why the behaviors were so important. But sufficiently large numbers of the social members had vague feelings of certain behaviors being right and others being wrong. These feelings were sufficient for prohibitions against certain types of behavior to be included in the religions, and those societies with sufficiently strong prohibitions--the societies with religious systems--were the ones to survive. Religious systems were not the origins of right and wrong social behaviors. But they were very important in enabling the social behaviors to accomplish what they needed to accomplish in order for the social systems to continue evolving into forms enabling them to encourage development of human characteristics.
It is important to realize that humans create values, although other animals may be said to follow certain biological values. The fact that humans create values does not mean our values must be arbitrary or stupid. Just the opposite. Thinking our values come from God, so they do not need intelligent justification, is what creates a variety of outrageous values. If we are aware of creating values, we can be aware of creating intelligent values. That is: values can be created in a stupid manner, or in a very intelligent manner. It is our choice. An essential element of making this choice into an intelligent choice is the realization that our most important ideas about right and wrong behavior serve functions that are vital to the existence of our social systems, and thus vital to the continued existence of our species.
The idea that our most important ideas about right and wrong behavior come from God is a myth that has outlived its usefulness and is now becoming extremely destructive to the continued existence of humans. We now have sufficient consciousness and knowledge to be able to understand that different types of behaviors have various effects or functions within human social systems. Our scientific knowledge can enable us to understand what circumstances now are threatening the continued existence of our species. It can also provide understanding of what behaviors need to be restricted or required in order for our presence as a species not to wreck such damage upon the life-supporting environment of the planet earth for it to become no longer capable of supporting the existence of humans and many other species of animals and plants.
Intelligent non-authoritarian religions or religious institutions may provide an excellent basis for the creation of very intelligent values. But the religions themselves as well as the values they may support, need to be recognized as humanly created social institutions that serve specific end results.
(I realize I have made a number of controversial assertions in this brief essay with limited grounds for the for their assertion. I believe I can provide more solid grounds for each of these assertions. However, the bases for the assertions will be more of my own thoughts on the matter. I am not consciously basing these claims on the work of any other specific person or persons.)
our predicament, our choice
Many years ago when I was at an impressionable age, I shuddered as I read the following words of warning from an author, respected as a philosopher and a pacifist: “The human race has survived hitherto owing to ignorance and incompetence; but, given knowledge and competence combined with folly, there can be no certainty of survival. Knowledge is power, but it is power for evil just as much for good. It follows that, unless men increase in wisdom as much as in knowledge, increase of knowledge will be increase of sorrow.”
The Impact of Science on Society: These words of Bertrand Russell kept me haunting for days at the time as if it were a prophecy of some sort that I heard. Today it seems that that prophecy is close to fulfillment unless we take action. We can indeed ignore the import of those words only to our peril.
However, from where can we derive that wisdom that might ‘lead us from darkness to light’? Where lies the source from which the largest aggregates of humanity derive their norms and values and seek guidance in times of need? In the long run, the search leads us to our religious traditions. Let us recognize that even many of our so-called secular values are derived from the same source, only stripped off from theological trappings.
Swami Vivekananda (whose 150th birth anniversary is being celebrated this year with much enthusiasm, mostly in India but also abroad, especially in USA where he made his debut as a religious leader at the First Parliament of World-religions, held in Chicago in 1893) was quite sure that, to put it in his own words:
“Of all the forces that have worked and are still working to mould the destinies of the human race, none, certainly, is more potent than that, the manifestation of which we call religion.”
This is also why he firmly believed that when we will truly succeed in creating ‘harmony’ among religions of the world, it would unleash a colossal force that would transform the global society.
Nevertheless, creating ‘harmony’ among religions has remained to this day as an unfinished project. Certainly a few sporadic efforts have been made but the goal is yet to be attained in its fullness. Consequently, we have not been able to derive the benefits of the overall transformation – in thought, speech and action – that could make a tremendous difference in our collective lives.
The question that we now need to ask is: Are we ready to choose to apply our energy and time in a sustained manner to make this happen? This can be expected to profoundly affect our personal, inter-personal relationships, and thereby our institutions that stand in the intersections of religion, politics and society.
It seems to me that the science-religion forums are among those that can take up this initiative. Repeated discussions and deliberations on multiple aspects of this vast and complex area of investigation will gradually show which issues are really the crucial ones that need to be addressed. Yes, this is one of the most challenging tasks that humanity has ever faced and demands continuous work. But then, what can be more worthwhile than to seek to derive and share the ‘wisdom’ from diverse religions of the world when without it our ‘survival’ seems to be at stake?
Then again, we may be in a perilous time but still our time is not without hope. The sharing and the aspiration to share scientific knowledge and technology in the global scene that have facilitated travel and communication in an unprecedented manner, can equally provide us with ‘tools’ needed for crossing those ‘boundaries’ that are not erected by Nature but by ourselves. If ‘Knowledge is power, but it is power for evil just as much for good’ – as Russell said - then the options before us is to choose whether or not to employ our present capabilities and the limited time available to each of us, working to bring about a future when no part of human suffering will be seen as ‘man-made’.*
humanity's predicament and hope
Since from diagnosis, define the predicament. Humanity has not sufficiently understood the human mind. Its initial successes threaten to undermine the quality, and even the viability, of human life on earth; through overpopulation, resource depletion, environmental degradation, weapons technology, etc. The hope is that humanity can understand the human mind, to not only avert the worst consequences of the interacting cluster of crises it has created, but achieve a planetary human culture in which the adaptive evolution of each individual is harmonious with the adaptive evolution of the species.
What can we do about it? An institute for religion in an age of science can approach the predicament from both scientific and religious perspectives, supporting areas of constructive overlap and appreciating areas of difference. Religion and science are products of that same human mind. Both contribute to, and undermine, human viability.
Definitions of religion and science vary; here are two.
So: religion yields morals and science yields models. The morals of religion are useful to the extent that they are in harmony with the needs of the time, place and people, and are harmful when rigid and lacking in enlightened guidance supplied by mentors enlightened by spiritual (that is, self-transcendent, unity-producing, top-down reorganizing) experience. The models of science are useful to the extent that they illuminate the world within and around us, but harmful when they claim to be comprehensive, because they inevitably ignore what may, for the time being, lie outside their parameters.
Our Institute for Religion in an Age of Science can support understanding of how religion can be better religion, and science be better science, showing where bridges do or might exist, and respecting the uniqueness of each domain. Since the hope for humanity lies in understanding the human mind, science and religion may each contribute uniquely, especially in the areas of neuroscience and spirituality, respectively. The interconnectedness of all life can be approached externally, through scientific research and modeling, and internally, as perception of the whole, and the individual’s reciprocal relationship with it.
what hopes for humanity's predicament? what can we do?
K. Helmut Reich
As on previous occasions (e.g. Reich, Zygon 43, 2008, 705-718; 47, 2012, 308-321), these remarks rest on my obervations and reflections during a long life as family member, active participant in WW II and prisoner of war, student, engineer, researcher in physics and psychology of religion, manager, traveller (including living and studying altogether for seven academic years in France, Great Britain and the USA), lecturing in Australia, Europe, Japan, South Africa, etc. I rubbed shoulders with Nobel laureates in my work at CERN, Geneva, Switzerland, and at Harvard University, and met many outstanding insightful persons at conferences and through reading their works. If Humanity’s predicament is not better than it is actually, a reason is to my mind that too many fellow citizens do not follow such people’s insights but rather the views of populist politicians (bent on keeping / increasing their power) and sensation-gripping media (mainly interested in increasing their audience).
As a result of all this I conclude that in today’s world factual knowledge, realistic views, and patient competent analyses of lived experience do not get the hearing they deserve if one wants to determine the best sustainable course of action. A symbol of this state of affairs is the (exclusive) use of digital clocks. Whereas an analogue clock (also on church spires, in the market place, etc.) makes us conscious of the flow of time (past, present, future) and related states and events, a digital clock evokes nothing of the kind: We live in an eternal present without link or obligation to the past or the future.
Here is a first example of a desirable analysis, Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists (Pantheon / Hamilton 2012). One could characterize it as the mirror image of the views of Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, etc.: Instead of condemning religion because its message is considered not true by scientific standards and moreover harmful for humanity, de Botton sees the centrality of religion not in the question of whether there is a god or not but in its help to develop morally good individuals living in a trusted community with shared views; this thanks to religious services held in churches (a familiar, positively influencing environment including beautiful paintings, impressive music, etc.) where all participants are mutually accepted as brethren in faith, and rituals that further self-examination and remind participants of the flow of time and related developments (e.g. Easter and Christmas celebrations; baptism, confirmation, marriage, burial).
The gist of de Botton’s argumentation is that atheists equally need and could usefully benefit from similar developmental assistance and community building by means of corresponding rituals and meeting places acceptable to them. He makes some proposals in that direction and experiments therewith in the London area. It is hoped that many persons participate and help shape successful ways to reach the indicated aims.
Second example: Dumbing Down—Culture, Politics and the Mass Media, edited by Ivo Mosley (Imprint Academic 2000). The moral strength of this analyst is notably apparent from his book-length critic of his father Oswald’s fascism.
In a nutshell: “Never before in human history has so much cleverness been used to such stupid ends. The cleverness is in the creation and the manipulation of markets, media, and power; the stupid ends are in the destruction of community, responsibility, morality, art, religion and the natural world” (from the back cover and p. 1). Mosley continues (p. 1) “As a result, a kind of numbness has taken on. In the face of an uncertain and alarming future, which holds little inspiration for present living, people fight off gloom and stupefaction by withdrawing into trivia, sensation-seeking or addictions to money, drugs, or power.” This is known as Dumbocracy, being the rule of cleverness without wisdom, looking always for the short-term gain, forgetting that we could exist on this planet for a long time.
Given space limitations I have to leave it to the reader to explore what Dumbocracy means in Government, Culture, the Media, the Visual Arts, Education, Science, and the Environment.
transforming human hearts
In Critias, Plato comments on mountain deforestation and the resultant soil erosion. Around 78 CE Pliny describes in his Natural History how the Romans demolished mountains to obtain gold. From the beginning we have been willing to destroy the environment to benefit the privileged. The march of technology has brought great benefits and great harm. What has now changed is our ability to rape the environment on a scale never before imagined. For just as long, humans have been willing, to abuse, enslave and torture other human beings. According to the United Nations, the slave trade today is as vital as it was 150 years ago. Torture, genocide and weapons of mass destruction are still with us today, not ancient history.
We treat people as objects; we abuse objects, so we abuse people. We live a corporate life where neither people nor things have an intrinsic self-worth; only a utilitarian worth. It is not a matter of who is in charge; it is an evil deep within the human heart.
Left to our own devices the rich (the developed world) will not voluntarily give up their lifestyle. The increasing disparity of wealth and power will continue to bifurcate the world; science, technology, natural resources and people will be used to achieve this end. There is a chorus of economists and technicians who claim that any damage to the environment or social structures can be overcome with the correct technology, economics and legal system. They are the voices that justify the carnage, but they are wrong.
I put no faith in science, technology, politics, economics, organized religion, any form of secular ethics, or social activism to solve these problems. As long as the human heart does not see the intrinsic value of all of nature, and every person on the planet, these problems will persist and grow.
We need to transform the human heart. It is occurring within religious organizations and outside of religious organizations. There is no software application or social media that will make this happen. There is no form of “therapy” that will suddenly transform us, no magic “love pill” we can take, no philosophic or religious argument that allow us to suddenly see the evil we have been about.
The required transformation happens one individual at a time. It requires that we see the world through the eyes of the other. We need to see all of nature; rocks, vegetables, minerals, animals, and people as our neighbors on this tiny planet. This includes not only the world of today, but the entire world of tomorrow; the generations yet to come. We need to understand what it means to love all of our neighbors as ourselves. The number of people who are walking this path is growing. It is a new form of evangelism. It is significant enough that it is meeting opposition and attempts to co-opt it in order to maintain the status quo.
My faith lies in the belief that God created the human heart so that when it is confronted with poverty and injustice, it ultimately cries out for justice. It takes effort to harden one's heart so this is not so.
What can we do? Open our eyes so that we can see, open our ears so we can hear. Let the sights and the sounds that we encounter touch our hearts stimulate our thoughts and drive us to take both individual and collective action. To borrow from Saint Paul; we are all one body, but we bring to that body different gifts. We are called to be our unique selves and use our unique gifts to serve one another. We need prophetic voices within each of our communities pleading this case; my communities are the Christian Church and the academic world.
This is where all of human history points, to the evil that humans have done, to the need for repentance and to “learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” (Isaiah 1:17)
No longer can we see this solely in human terms, but we need to see all of creation as being oppressed and seeking justice.
Paul H. Carr
Our high standard of living comes at the expense of increased global warming. Growing carbon dioxide levels from fossil fuel burning are now 31 per cent higher than in the last million years. Temperatures and weather extremes are increasing. (1).
Humanity must limit these increases. Our predicament is that developing countries like China and India are increasing their fossil fuel burning to enhance their standard of living.
Could the Arab Spring be a precursor to the 2030-crash in the world’s food production per capita predicted in MIT’s “Limits to Growth?” Published in 1972, its dire predictions from the population explosion, and climate change, and resource depletion have been accurate to date. Can new technologies save us in time?
Syria’s 2006 to 2011 drought caused 800,000 farmers to leave their land and move to crowed urban areas. They and the unemployed youth from the population explosion, which started in 1980, are manning the present revolution.
Record-high food prices helped spark the Arab Spring. Egypt must import grain to feed its exploding population. The severe drought in the summer of 2010 caused Russia, a major grain exporter, to stop shipping grain outside its borders, driving up food prices.
The 2012 drought in the US Midwest was the worst since the Dust Bowl. Half the corn crop was lost resulting in a $20-$25 billion loss in crop insurance. Corn-futures prices were the highest in history.
Can new technologies save us? For example, the article “Wild Plants to the Rescue” published in the “American Scientist,” May-June 2013 describes research underway to develop perennial wheat. Its deeper roots could withstand severe draught from increased global warming and stabilize the soil erosion that was the source of the Dust Bowl.
The Gates Foundation is investing in birth-control technology. Melinda Gates plans to use the foundation’s billions to revolutionize contraception worldwide. The Roman Catholic right is pushing back. Is she ready for the political firestorm ahead? Her Catholic faith has always informed her work. She has said from the very beginning that we, as a foundation, we will not support abortion.
The Gates Foundation is serving the other piece of the Roman Catholic mission, which is social justice. The Depo-Provera contraceptive is popular in many poor countries because women need to inject it only 4 times a year.
The June 21, 2008 cover article in “The Economist” envisioned an oil-free, non- carbon-emitting transportation sector with electric vehicles charged by wind, solar, and nuclear power plants. Today, electric cars like the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi-i, Tesla Model S, and the plug-in hybrid Chevy Volt now get the equivalent of 100 miles per gallon. Hybrids like the Toyota Prius typically get 50 mpg. If Jesus were to return to earth, what car would he drive?
The cost of solar photovoltaic cells has in the last year come down to 10 cents per kWhr, less than what most people can buy from the grid. Companies will install roof-top solar cells at a nominal cost to the homeowner in return for a 20-year contract.
Conservation and efficiency can reduce our use of fossil fuels. Steven Chu, President Obama's former Secretary of Energy, has said that conservation is “sexy” and it can be high tech. The nation's energy secretary has pushed for the next breakthroughs, along with energy efficiency.
The US energy use and per capita carbon emissions are the highest in the world. Our emissions are twice those of Europe and the former Soviet Union. The US energy use is four times that of China and the rest of the world. With 5 per cent of the world’s population, the US is using 20% of its oil.
Nature is the capital on which capitalism is based. In the long-term, our world’s economy will be constrained by ecology. The world’s exponential population explosion cannot continue indefinitely. There are indeed limits to growth.
The environmental challenge is to balance the beauty of nature with its utility. Is beauty “in the eye of the beholder” or an encounter with the Divine? Without divinely created beauty, nature becomes an object that may be ravaged. For example, the tar sands oil fields can be beautiful in the eye of its owner because they are source of black gold. Can we re-envision beauty to transform our relationship with nature in time?
(1) Carr, Paul H. “Weather extremes from anthropogenic global warming.” Natural Science Vol 5, No. 1A, 130-132, (January 2013
Copyright 2013 by The Institute on Religion in an Age of Science