Monday, July 30, 2007

A Second Enlightenment

by Chris Thomson, School of Consciousness

There was a time when my home country, Scotland, punched well above her weight in inventiveness. Many things that we now take for granted had their origin in Scotland. The list is long – television, refrigerator, microwave ovens, tarred roads, pneumatic tyres, golf, the steam engine, radar, modern banking, antisepsis, antibiotics, quinine, the fax machine, logarithms, iron bridges, and many other things. Scotland’s inventiveness is relatively well known.

What is not so well known is that much of the intellectual basis for the modern world was developed in Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment (roughly 1740-90). Of the personalities involved, Adam Smith and David Hume are the best known, but there were others who made important contributions, such as Thomas Reid, Adam Ferguson and John Millar. It is difficult today to appreciate just how influential Scotland was in those days. Scotland’s intellectual leadership in that era was so powerful that Voltaire was moved to write: “...we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation.”

The First Enlightenment gave us modernity, namely the ideas, values and practices that have shaped the modern world. In other words, it gave us the modern economy, modern medicine, modern education, modern science and modern government. Few would deny that, for a long time, modernity made life better and easier for many people. It raised the material living standards of many; it increased life expectancy; it enabled us to address many forms of ill health that had gone unaddressed before; it brought education to the majority; it vastly increased our knowledge of the physical world; it gave us some very useful technology; and, in theory at least, it allowed most adults to participate in the big decisions that affect them.

Modernity – past its sell-by date
However, something has gone very wrong. We have just come through the most murderous, destructive century in human history, with major holocausts on every continent, in which over 150 million were slaughtered in systematic massacres of racial, ethnic, political and religious groups. The present century has not begun well. As the 21st Century gets under way, wars are raging on three continents, inequality within and between nations continues to increase, mental and emotional illnesses are epidemic, social breakdown is becoming the norm, and nature and the planet are more seriously threatened than ever.

While it is true that many of us are materially richer than ever, we are in many important respects poorer than ever. We have more money and things than we ever had, yet how many of us are truly happy? We receive more schooling and training than ever, yet greed and superficiality are the hallmarks of modern culture. We have more technology and scientific knowledge than ever before, but we seem less able than ever to use them wisely. As Martin Luther King said: “Our scientific power has outrun our spiritual power, we have guided missiles and misguided men.” And although we continue to call ourselves “democracies”, many of us feel that this has become a fiction and wonder what the point of voting is when the outcome of elections is determined in a few marginal constituencies and when prime ministers ignore the people’s views on major issues, such as war.

There is a growing sense that modernity, appropriate for its time, has outlived its usefulness and that any benefits it brings are now hugely outweighed by the problems it causes. What we have long assumed to be the main solution to our problems may have become their main cause. The economics, medicine, science, education and politics ushered in by the Enlightenment served us well for a long time, but they are no longer fit for purpose. The time has come to replace modernity with ideas, values and practices that are appropriate to the very different conditions of the 21st Century. The time has come, in other words, for a Second Enlightenment. Whatever else this turns out to be, it will take us beyond modernity and provide us with an economics, a medicine, an education, a science and a politics/governance that are better suited to the conditions of today. For me, a useful starting point in understanding what the Second Enlightenment needs to be is to get to the roots of modernity and to understand why it is causing so many problems.

The Roots of Modernity
Modernity has its roots in the worldview of modern science. At the heart of this worldview are some core beliefs (although many scientists would call these beliefs “facts”):

  • The universe and everything in it, ourselves included, is physical. Science may talk about a universe that consists only of “energy”, but they leave little doubt that they believe this energy to be physical

  • For science, there can be nothing beyond this physical universe

  • The universe has no intrinsic meaning or purpose
Science has become so powerful and influential that all metaphysical, religious and philosophical claims that contradict it tend to be rejected. Yet if, as science insists, the universe began suddenly for no reason (the “Big Bang”) and life on this planet emerged by chance, then the world that science wants us to believe in must be totally meaningless. The fact that this statement, as part of that world, must also be meaningless is little consolation! A life without meaning is a bleak life indeed, which is no doubt why millions of people around the world are desperately seeking for deeper, lasting meaning. There is little doubt in my mind that one of the main features of the modern world is loss of deeper meaning. A lot of people feel that there is little purpose in their lives. This is having far-reaching effects.

The modern world also suffers from loss of wisdom. If science rejects the accumulated wisdom of the ages in favour of its own empirically derived body of knowledge, then, since science is the dominant form of knowledge today, wisdom is effectively devalued. Our modern obsession with having to prove things has marginalised two important aspects of wisdom, namely intuition and common sense. Perhaps we should not be surprised that, with wisdom marginalised in these ways, we have become the most dangerous and destructive form of life on the planet.

Thirdly, the modern world is also characterised by loss of consciousness. By this I do not mean that we are all unconscious, although one might be forgiven for believing this at times. What I mean is that working to become more conscious has become a rarity in modern societies, partly because education in its true sense has largely been replaced by its opposite, schooling, but also because too many people have become overdependent on “experts” for their knowledge and wisdom and are therefore not in the habit of thinking for themselves. I think it is very significant that non-modern (“traditional”) societies place a very high value on the exploration and development of consciousness, while this is still regarded as a “fringe” activity in the so-called developed world.

Finally, I believe that the modernity has led to loss of ecology. The few societies around the world that have retained wisdom and deeper meaning know just how important it is to live in harmony with each other and with the planet. How many of us can put our hands on our hearts and say that we truly live in harmony with each other, let alone the planet? The modern world has made many of us desperate and insecure. It is little wonder that we engage in frenetic activity, such as work, shopping and travelling, when we should be finding ways to live gently and simply, with ourselves and with the world around us.

The Rise of Economism
When we add together loss of meaning, loss of wisdom, loss of consciousness and loss of ecology, there is not much left going for us. This may be one of the reasons that we now live in an era of unprecedented materialism. For many people, acquiring and consuming material things must seem like the only meaningful thing left for them to do. Our economics, our politics, our medicine, our education, our science, our politics and our culture have become steeped in material values and beliefs and the behaviours that flow from these. We are paying a high price for this, as we exploit and damage each other and the world. Meanwhile, it is short step from materialism and loss of wisdom to economism, one of the more recent additions to modernity.

Economism is the tendency to view the world through the lens of economics, to regard a country as an economy rather than as a society, and to believe that economic considerations and values rank higher than other ones. Economism is clearly evident these days and is a strong influence in business and political circles. It is a very narrow way of seeing the world. It prevents us from seeing whether we are making genuine progress. We assume that if there is more money and economic activity (economic growth), things are getting better. In reality, they might be getting worse and our devotion to economic growth and things economic is probably one of the main reasons for this.

The Second Enlightenment
All in all, modernity has given us a lot, but it came at a price. There are now many who believe that the price is now too high and that it is time to bring back meaning, wisdom, consciousness and ecology into our lives and to find ways of going beyond materialism. As we do this, I believe that we shall find that we are simultaneously creating a new kind of economics, a new kind of medicine, a new kind of education, a new kind of science, and a new kind of politics. It is impossible to predict exactly what they will be, but, if they are imbued with meaning, wisdom, consciousness and ecology, they may look something like this…

  • The new economics will be about enhancing people and planet, rather than exploiting them. At the heart of the new economics will be love and wisdom and ecology. This will bring with it new kinds of relationships, new kinds of businesses, and new kinds of institutions

  • The new medicine will be about self-reliance, wisdom and ecology in health and health-care, rather than about dependence on experts and technology. In the new medicine, medical treatment will be the exception rather than the rule, because the main focus will be on staying healthy

  • The new education will be about bringing out the best and uniqueness in each individual, rather than schooling them to believe certain things and to behave in certain ways, which is what usually happens today in our schools, colleges and universities. At the heart of the new education will be the development of wisdom, consciousness, meaning and ecology

  • The new science will be about applying the whole of the human being to the search for knowledge, rather than just the physical part, as at present. Science of the physical will continue to give us much that is useful. However, in the new science, knowledge of the physical will be complemented by knowledge of the spiritual, and that will make a big difference

  • The new politics will be about the return of power to people and communities, rather than having power concentrated in the hands of politicians and the few. At the heart of the new politics are two ideas - the idea that most power stays at the local level, where it belongs, and the idea that everyone has something useful to say and contribute
None of this is to suggest that we throw the baby out with the bathwater. There are many aspects of modernity worth retaining. For example, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with market economics. What is wrong is the set of values and goals that have come to inform it. And there is nothing intrinsically wrong with modern medicine. What is wrong is its belief that it can effectively address the whole spectrum of health problems, when in practice it is good at addressing only parts of the spectrum, such as mechanical repair, emergency intervention and infectious diseases. It is the same for modern education, modern science and modern government. Each has useful aspects that are worth preserving, but each is causing at least as many problems as it purports to solve. It is worth adding that the problems caused by modernity are exacerbated by politicians who, with few exceptions, are wedded to modernising, which is modernity in the form of government policies. The problems caused by modernity, such as climate change, stress and social disintegration, will just get worse so long as modernity remains the prevailing way of seeing and doing things. We will be able to solve the big problems of our time only when we replace modernity with a set of ideas and practices that are kinder to us and to the planet.

None of the above will be easy. People will not willingly give up the habits of a lifetime, and many in power will resist tooth and nail. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves, engaging in the kinds of changes I have suggested here will be the most difficult thing we ever do. Transformation may seem attractive in theory. In practice, it is usually messy and painful.


Anonymous Alastair said...

Fantastic article. It seems to encapsulate my recent thoughts. Ha s this second enlightenment started? I look to Mohammad Yunus for tackling poverty with 'social business' and Polly Higgins for seeking 'Ecocide as a crime against humanity. I wish for an enlightened free Scotland to set an example by freeing itself from its warring UK state

September 13, 2012 1:45 PM  

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