Our Modern Crisis

From Out of the Labyrinth

Twentieth-Century science has showered mankind with blessings. It has brought him material ease, and expanded his mental horizons. But it has also brought him great mental uneasiness, and a gradual loss of focus on familiar ethical and spiritual guidelines—"truth, honor, and justice"—which have been the bulwark of every great civilization of the past. Absolutes now seem to be an unattainable dream. Our present is a new and unfamiliar world of relativities. It is important that we find some meaningful substitute for our lost sense of meaning.

Chapter One: The Crises

It is commonly accepted that we are living in an age of crisis. The signs can be seen everywhere: in the grim global opposition of incompatible social ideologies; in the spiritual confusion that has been stirred up by modern science; in the challenge to old moral concepts of a cynical, and growing, amorality; in a way of life whose frenzied pace is assaulting our very sanity. We talk of peace, yet know in our hearts that peace is not a natural offspring of nervousness, fear, and doubt. We talk of prosperity, yet spend ourselves into worrisome debt. We cry "Liberty!", yet equate this ideal with the freedom of other men to be exactly like-but only like-ourselves. We praise equality, yet the very word is often made a penalty for excellence, and "togetherness" becomes a slogan with which initiative is subdued.

Science, bestower of so many blessings, has brought us also what may be the greatest test mankind has ever faced. The problem is not whether scientific progress will be the cause of man’s destruction. At stake, rather, is our ability to match outward achievement with inner enlightenment.

Humanity in its present danger may be compared to an imperfectly balanced flywheel, which serves well enough so long as its turning is slow, but may be shaken to pieces as its speed increases. Scientific progress will very possibly spin us to destruction, if the imbalances in human nature are not corrected as conscientiously as mistakes are in mechanics, or in the physics laboratory.

The vital question is, can these imbalances be corrected?

Goals can at least be worked toward if we consider them attainable. But what if we are convinced, instead, that they do not even exist? Even those most objective of men, the dedicated scientists, labor as patiently as they do only because of their faith in the possibility of achievement. It would be ridiculous to struggle if one were certain that all struggle was futile.

It is here that we find the core of our contemporary difficulty. We speak of the need to grow, morally and spiritually, but while talking earnestly of "new values," we find a growing suspicion, voiced more and more frequently, that in fact there are no values. Our long-held view of a universe that is governed by Right is being challenged by a contradictory concept of a universe that is not governed at all-a universe that is essentially irrational and meaningless.

What final meaning, indeed, are we to ascribe to a scheme of things in which all the once-fixed "realities" are found to exist merely as relativities-in which time itself has no absolute definition? (Einstein’s discovery that time is relative signifies that a young man might, conceivably, travel in a space ship to some distant star and return still in his youth, to find the contemporaries he left behind him aging or dead. A voyage that required only a year according to his reckoning might have consumed forty years here on earth.)

Euclidean geometry, the crystal logic of which was for centuries considered a "necessity of thought" and a virtual proof of the perfection of God’s law, is no longer seen as a logical necessity at all. A hundred years ago, Lobachevsky and Bolyai, working separately, proved that quite different, and perfectly self-consistent, systems can be built on other sets of axioms.

One of the new geometric systems that resulted from this discovery, that of the German mathematician, Riemann, conceives the vastness of space as actually finite. Scientific men are convinced that space really is governed by Riemann’s geometry, and not by Euclid’s.

To the natural question, "If space is finite, what’s outside of it?" the scientist’s answer is, "Nothing. You are applying human preconceptions to a situation where they do not obtain."

What earthly sense can we make of such an inconceivable scheme of things?

The longstanding argument as to whether light is a particle or a wave has at last been resolved in a hopeless (but proved) contradiction: It is both.

Where, indeed, is the plain, "down-to-earth" logic of a universe in which the earth doesn’t seem to exist at all? Or, if it exists, what is it? Not only a near vacuum-its atomic particles as distant from one another, relatively speaking, as the stars in the heavens-but the particles themselves are evanescent: energy, not solid substance. The eminent scientist, Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, called them mind-stuff, not even energy.*

Science today tells us that the categories of reason, far from being absolutes, are a sort of elaborate mythology in which words and concepts have meaning primarily as we give them meaning. They are true within the framework we ourselves have arranged, but are not true in any fixed or eternal sense. Euclidean geometry is true in its own way, and can be applied to the construction of a building. Yet, as far as science knows, there is no such thing as a straight line, the existence of which is the very basis of Euclid’s geometry.

The astounding discoveries of modern times have thrown all our accustomed thinking out of gear. Is there, one asks oneself, any absolute meaning in anything? Into what niche is one now to fit men’s previous conceptions of right and wrong? Can we logically conceive of moral absolutes, when creation itself seems to be ruled "absolutely" only by relativities?

If we feel the need for some solid foundation for our morality, the physical sciences certainly seem to provide us with none.

Many thinking men today have shifted their concentration away from this seemingly chaotic cosmos to the more comforting, because limited, phenomenon of man. Their decision seems practical. After all, life for us goes on as ever. Whatever the earth’s final nature, it is as solid as ever in the context of material laws and of man’s own experience. Nor has Einstein’s discovery of the relativity of time thrown our clocks out of kilter. If different systems of geometry can be at least self-consistent, we may well ask why we should not conceive of human life as some sort of self-contained "extra-geometric" system, ruled by laws that are, at least for mankind, absolute.

From a human standpoint, anyway, there might be some hope here of discovering lasting values, and thereby of defeating the depressing suggestion from science that no values exist. From our point of view, after all, there are such things as cooperation, honor, and honesty. There are also the opposite qualities-treachery, weakness of character, dishonesty-traits of which (we assume) all men disapprove. Perhaps it would be best for us simply to look at our own human problems in this rosy light, and with Omar Khayyam "the riddle of the universe let be."

We might indeed thus manage to leave science alone. But will science leave us alone? It hasn’t done so, not by a long shot. Even on our familiar human plane, science has roused the sleeping dragons of confusion.

Since the invention of electronic computers, close parallels have been found between their function and that of the human brain. In certain respects, in fact, the only noticeable difference is that our electronic counterparts work so much faster and more efficiently than we can. (If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need their services.)

Electronic brains are "programmed" to think in particular channels. They function only in those channels. Human brains, likewise-so we are told-think only as they are conditioned, or "programmed," to think. The pattern is more complex, of course, but scientists claim that the parallel is exact, and that even our sudden "inspirations" are due to prior conditioning. Thinking, in other words, is considered to be simply a sort of electronic "manipulation of memory traces in the brain."

Differences in outlook, perhaps as a result of such conditioning, can reach astonishing proportions. Most of us today look upon kindness as a universal virtue. But certain primitive peoples, notably in certain parts of Africa, look upon kindness as merely a sign of cowardice.

Again, we assume that we have fairly clear notions of what it means to be brave. There are tribes in Borneo, however, that contradict all these notions. They consider it a sign of manly courage to kill the unsuspecting child of some enemy tribe with a poisoned dart from behind a tree.

There are people who believe it a virtue to steal, and still others by whom an inability to lie cleverly is viewed with scorn-not only as indicative of incompetence, which would at least be understandable, but actually (in the case of certain gypsy tribes in Tuscany) as a mark that one is without truth!

Obviously, from a standpoint of comparative beliefs, right and wrong are not such fixed values as we have been brought up to suppose. And this lack of fixity seems all the greater when scientists tell us that a man’s beliefs can be manipulated-to what extent no one yet knows-by expert conditioning on the part of others.

Personality itself, that subtlest phenomenon of human nature, can be changed with a surgeon’s knife. Prefrontal lobotomy, the brain operation that won for its discoverer, Dr. Egaz
Moniz, the Nobel prize in 1949, has been performed on countless thousands of
mentally disturbed people, freeing them of anxiety, delusions, epileptic fits,
and other abnormal nervous conditions. But the operation has also been found to
produce definite changes in the personalities of the patients. It has made them
shallower, less sensitive. Drs. Walter Freeman and James W. Watts, two leading
specialists in this field, reported: "It is becoming more and more plain that
patients who undergo lobotomy must sacrifice some virtues, some of the driving
force, some of the uplift, altruism, creative spirit, soul or whatever else one
would like to call it."

And of course, there is that old skeptics’ delight, the doctrine of evolution. Biologists today make as good a case as one can imagine for meaninglessness. They are more or less unanimous on the point that life has evolved by sheer accident, and not by any meaningful design. The findings they submit in support of their claim are innumerable.

These and other similar discoveries of our times, bolstered by those of the grander cosmic relativities, are reducing to shambles the hopes of many thinking persons of finding fixed values anywhere.

Who knows? Perhaps they are right. But if they are, what must the conclusion be?

We have seen times when, without any encouragement from objective science, large numbers of men have turned cynical about any ultimate or basic verities. The Greeks passed through such a period. So also did the Romans. So likewise, in fact, has almost every other dead civilization, and the period has always coincided with its decadence and dissolution.

Let us face it: It takes moral vigor to build a strong and peaceful society. It takes moral vigor to resist the demands of immediate ease over those of lasting fulfillment. Where is the man who, believing in nothing sincerely, will stand by anything or anyone through life’s storms and trials? He will be a drifter, rather, moving with the currents of personal convenience.

No doubt the world will always have its share of cynics. Even when spiritual beliefs have been widespread, there have been men who seized power by murder, or who sold their conscience for a fat purse. But if the notion were to gain popularity that such behavior is as good, "relatively" speaking, as any other, the natural urge for pleasure and self-aggrandizement might well become as contagious as any disease. The examples of history suggest forcefully that such a notion, unchecked, might easily spread to epidemic proportions.

For men are their philosophies. They are swayed not so much by events as by ideas. What, then, of an age when leading thinkers, bolstered by factual evidence from the respected sciences, assure us that life is fundamentally meaningless, and that there is no real purpose in anything? Science may indeed bring us some final enlightenment, but let us hope it is not the light engendered by the Final Bomb!

For hope we must. It goes against every natural instinct to view with aplomb the prospect of final disaster. To have faith in nothing would be to renounce our very humanity, and to ally ourselves with the incurious machines, clicking and buzzing our way through life absorbed only in matters of the moment.

In every respect, our crisis today may be summed up as a crisis of purpose, as a desperate search for something tangible in which we can truly believe. Without beliefs of some sort, and without at least some sense of life’s meaningfulness, life itself is in danger of becoming a tortured nightmare, an anguished scream of insanity.

Yet our beliefs must be honest; they must be based on intelligent inquiry. We cannot seek refuge from unpleasant facts in mere wishful piety. Some writers have tried to do so, but theirs are not forceful voices in our age. Let us face it, belief that is no more than wishful thinking already is insanity.

True meanings we need now, if civilization is to be merely preserved, let alone to soar to new heights. If we can regain faith in such meaning honestly, a faith in something more tangible than the fact that we don’t want to be blown to bits, or enslaved by some alien power, then and then only may we acquire the moral weapon we need to overcome the many crises now surrounding us as a people-and more than that, threatening our existence as a race.

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