Life, at its most basic level,
requires just two things: sustenance and reproduction. Scientists like to break things down further, adding metabolism, growth,
adaptation, organization, and response to stimuli as necessities for life, but ultimately, what it comes down to, is that
if enough members of a species can feed themselves and reproduce, that species will continue on. Competition, as Darwin noted,
is a deciding factor (along with, as we now know, cooperation). But conflict is inevitable, so some form of self-protection,
for all species, is required. Early
man had the same survival issues, along with shelter and (apparently) some need for personal or cultural expression. But that
was pretty much it: food, shelter, sex, security and culture1.
For most of us in the developed world, survival is less of a physical
problem than it is an economic one. Yet those same five survival concerns of our ancestors cover almost all of modern man's
interests and activities today. The wealthiest and most advantaged of us still want the best home and food, a good family
life, some sense of security, and a rich cultural life. And that's not much different from what the poorest and least advantaged
in the third world want - or the poorest and least advantaged just a few blocks away. In the broadest sense, little has changed
over time, and little is different across cultures.
all want the same things; for some it is a matter of survival, for others, a measure of success. The differences are, however,
substantial - and all but the most heartless of us would like to see the inequities lessened. On top of that, the effect we
are having on the environment is now of major concern. That goes for those of us in the developed world who use
too much of the earth's resources, and those in the third world, who at times overuse what's available because that's
all that is available. As a result, the very survival of mankind as a species is now an issue for everyone, from the poorest
to the richest. We face many problems, and we look for solutions in many directions.
life and survival are matters of research. There are still many unanswered questions, but there is also great hope. Science,
after all, is more than just a method of understanding and explaining things; it is now relied upon to improve things: the
human condition being first and foremost. We seem to be, on several scientific fronts, at the very doorstep of discoveries
that will truly change the world. As methodologies become more sophisticated; telescopes, microscopes and computers, more
powerful; as the amount and variety of data increases, and our understanding of the way the world works improves, so
does the excitement and passion. Many, within and outside of the scientific community, believe that science, and only science,
has the potential to improve lives, solve the world’s problems, and to ensure our long-term survival. Some believe,
with all the conviction of a religious fanatic waiting for the apocalypse, that that day is just around the corner.
Will science, one day, solve
all of the world’s problems? Maybe so, no one knows. It seems unlikely, though. The truth is that science, scientific
discovery, technology – what used to be called “progress”, has caused almost as many problems in the world
as it has solved. Chemicals which were once a boon for agriculture proved to be an environmental disaster. Medical developments
which saved millions of lives in the third world resulted in population growth that led to starvation and millions dying.
Breaking the genetic code was celebrated with little thought to the potential problems and controversies it would create.
No one knows where genetic engineering will lead, but there will certainly be unintended consequences. New discoveries are implemented every day, each with unknown side effects, and the lag-time between the unforseen
and often problematic externalities and their eventual solutions can be years, even decades - and when it comes to extinctions,
never. In the meantime we must live our lives assisted by the blessings - and surviving the curses, of science.
Science and technology, it seems, cannot be counted on to solve any problems
without creating others. There are always externalities which can be as challenging, or more challenging than the original
problems they had attempted to solve. The scientific method, when it comes to practical application, is, in fact, flawed -
even allowing for the fact that, over time, many of the problems which science causes get resolved: that most toxic pesticides
have been replaced with less toxic or purely natural products and processes, that the ability to produce and distribute food
might eventually eliminate hunger altogether, that through trial and error, the complications inherent in genetic engineering
will be sorted out and it will fulfill its promise of unlimited benefits for mankind and all living things. Maybe so, but
don’t count on it.
The problem with the scientific
method is that it is inherently, by nature and design, non-holistic. The scientific method suffers from a kind of acentropia2. It sees far into space and deeply into
matter, but its perception of the immediate human condition is blurry. The everyday lives of people: culture, family, art,
emotion and a thousand other qualities of life - even the passion that so so many scientists feel, are beyond the capabilities
of the scientific method.
The social sciences, designed to address those very issues, have proved, in their partnership
with government, to be just as much of a mixed blessing. Public housing is a disaster, welfare, a failed solution, and public
education seems to be getting worse rather than better, by every measure. The study of the mind - and the brain,
in particular, and how it works, is also generating a lot of enthusiasm. Cognitive science is drawing from biology, psychology,
neuroscience, anthropology, even the humanities - to bring us a clear picture of how we think, how we behave as humans and what
motivates us. But explaining things is a far cry from improving things.
Should all research be halted? Of course not. Should we be a little more cautious about utilizing
the latest discoveries? Probably. But are there other methodologies for addressing the world’s problems? There are.
And are there other ways of looking at life? Absolutely. Our well being, maybe even our survival as a species, depend upon
Some people put a lot of faith
in politics. Throughout history, people have sought political solutions for whatever problems seemed most pressing at
the time. Even as they protested the excesses, mistakes and corruption in whatever existing government there was, they seemed
to believe wholeheartedly that it would be different the next time, that their candidate, party platform, set of legislative
proposals or entirely new form of government would set things right - once and for all. The fact that their hopes and dreams
had been dashed time and time again seems to matter not one whit. The relative glee or outrage they exhibit with every new
political development is on a par with that of the scientific community regarding new discoveries. Again and again, political
rhetoric has promised a whole new society, even as science has promised a whole new world. Will it ever happen? History says
Do the right laws and leaders
matter? Absolutely. Are peace, social justice and a clean environment goals worth striving for? Sure. But shouldn't the
promise of political solutions be regarded with the same caution as the promises of science and technology? Only a fool would
Many of the religions
of the world have worked tirelessly over the ages to improve conditions for the less fortunate - and to inspire the more fortunate.
Their methods, however, have, at times, been as brutal as those of any genocidal dictator. As a result, blaming all of the
world's problems on religion is now in fashion, coupled with the supporting belief that the concept of God is, in and
of itself, an illusion - and a destructive one at that. Oddly, these new atheists often proclaim their belief in the non-existence
of God with the same fervor as their theistic adversaries.
The fact is, no one knows whether there is a deity or not. That, in fact, is the nature of faith,
to address issues which simply cannot be known. Some people find solace and strength in their belief; others use it as justification
for the most heinous crimes. But there is no documented correlation between belief, or lack thereof, and criminality (or morality).
Surely it would be better if both sides focused on the uncertainty, allowing for the possibility that the other side might,
in fact, be right. After all, when it comes down to the everyday lives of people, what they believe has no consequences.
What people do, on the other hand, how they live, the choices they make and actions they take affect everyone.
In any case, the primary focus of religion isn't this life
at all. Most religous traditions minimize, at the very least, the importance of physical life. Only in the
afterlife will mankind attain everlasting peace. In the meantime, though, Deity or not, most of us would agree that
we should make the time we spend here on earth as pleasant as possible: for ourselves, for one another, for all living things.
In this world, 21st century earth, survival is mostly dependent upon one single, easily
transferrable resource: money. And money is the domain of the corporation. The corporation is astonishingly efficient at turning
the world's resources into cash, transforming those resources into products (useful or not) and then exchanging those products
for cash once again. The overall improvement in the quality of life for most people in the world over the last few generations
could be said to be the direct result of products made and sold by corporations. By that standard, the corporation is far-and-away
the best organizational system for managing the earth's resources. It has certainly been successful.
Yet, the corporation, as much as science and religion,
could be and has been blamed for all of the world's problems. Even corporations themselves acknowledge that a more environmentally
and socially conscious approach to business would be better, not only for people and the planet, but the corporation itself
- if only because it makes for a better public image. In fact, the greening of the corporation might possibly become the most
significant transformation in modern corporate history. The state of the environment is not only big news, it is big business.
The profit motive, some think, will be turned into a prime mover in the race to save the planet.
Maybe that's the answer: that business, technology and government will collectively
solve the world's problems, their faith, whether in God or science, urging them ever onward and upward. To many within
those institutions, it is. Others aren't quite so sure. The melding of flawed institutions will not eliminate their flaws.
Some would say that what the NGOs3 offer is
the final piece of the puzzle. Uncorrupted by the profit motive, they can concentrate on their single common goal; to make
the world a better place. They combine (in theory) the best of science, the cooperation of government, and corporate structure
with a humanitarian, if not necessarily religious, perspective. Their mission is clear and their motives (by their own account,
of course), without question. Yet even they are not without their critics.
NGOs have been around since the middle of the 19th century, but over the past several
decades they have been growing, in size and number, at an unprecedented rate. Billions of dollars pass through NGO hands annually,
but in spite of recent attempts to increase their accountability, there is really no broad, consistent way to gauge their
effectiveness. They are inherently inefficient and often ineffective, sometimes counter-productive - even having,
at times disastrous results. Additionally, they often simply add another, or several, layers of beaurocracy to the corporations,
governments and educational institutions which fund them.
Surely NGOs are needed when tragedy strikes or when other institutions fail, but in-and-of-themselves, they
offer nothing in the way of reliably managing people and resources. In other words, they may be useful, even essential
during exceptional times, but offer little for normal times - and absolutely nothing in the way of a sustainable
Finally, at the very pinnacle
of the various attempts to help mankind is the new media/entertainment complex of celebrity. Oprah, Bono and a multitude of
others lend their influence to event after event to raise charitable funds. Almost without exception, they are universally
praised, much publicized, and highly successful (at fundraising). But aside from their promise, two aspects of this
phenomenon are universally ignored: where the money comes from, and where the money goes. Whether the event ultimately
had a positive or negative outcome, or any effect at all, is never considered. The promise is everything – but both
cost and results are simply not an issue. Yet these events are celebrated with all the enthusiasm that surrounds every
other promise of a whole new world.
So what are we left with? Four or
five choices, a mix and match of institutions and beliefs which dominate our lives and to which we look for answers to our
problems. All are inherently flawed and ultimately unreliable. Sometimes they work in unison; at other times they seem diametrically
opposed. Many of us commit ourselves to one or the other (those of us who have a choice), convinced that we must, unaware
(apparently) that there is, and always has been another, better, option.
To fully understand that option, we must return to those original five issues, the things that
have been common to humankind throughout history - and still drive our behavior today. The things which no one should do without
and which, in fact, no one needs anything other than4: a fine home, a good diet, a safe and secure environment,
a loving family, and a community rich in culture. Think, for a moment, about them. They are the essence and focus
of life, whether one is in survival mode, or on the path to success.
:: :: ::
1) While food, shelter, sex and security are themselves aspects of culture, it is used here to refer to the artistic, societal
and institutional aspects.
2) Myopia is nearsightedness; Hyperopia, farsightedness. Acentropia: ©2008 - The Sequitorian
3) Non-governmental (non-profit) organizations.
4) This does not preclude spiritual needs.
©2008 - The Sequitorian Society