That the world is suffering from a virulent bipolar condition is beyond question. I think we are all familiar with the various polarizations that the world seems to be hopelessly stuck in. Perhaps the most prevalent one is the split between belief systems in general and science. There are also the schisms of the isms: Islam v the West; Islam v Islam as in Sunni v Shiite; political correctness v religious fundamentalism and the polarization of left v right in many western countries. This, as we see, causes extreme violence, real and virtual. We are all too aware of the viciousness of the real kind. As for the viciousness of the virtual, we have ideologues in the US, for instance, caught up in so-called culture wars, calling for the total elimination of their opposition as if they were some kind of alien species.
Globally, nationally, locally and individually we are in the grip of a bipolar epidemic that is so prevalent we do not seem to recognize it even in its most flagrant manifestations.
For example, George W. Bush in justifying his opposition to embryonic stem cell research once said, “Sacrificing life to save other life is just wrong.” That statement seemed to be accepted at face value by the press, politicians and public. It went unnoticed as evidence of a severely polarized mind.
George W. Bush claims to be a man of faith and is convinced that his belief provides him with a coherent worldview. But that is a conviction that does not hold up when looking at the big picture. For example, President Bush believes that he is serving the greater good by sacrificing American lives and the lives of others in the pursuit of “Iraqi freedom". So, generally speaking he believes that there is such a thing as the greater good and that it is worth sacrificing human life for.
Now, the greater good is also served by combating disease, yet President Bush is unwilling to sacrifice what he considers to be human life in the form of embryonic stem cells in that battle. Hmmm? Adult human beings are okay to sacrifice but a clump of cells is somehow sacrosanct? But, one might say, those adults voluntarily signed up to sacrifice themselves in combat while stem cells represent innocent life with no say in what they might be subjected to. Well then, let’s not forget all the unavoidable collateral damage that occurs in war. Innocent children, with no say in what they might be subjected to, will be killed and maimed. Nevertheless, one might argue, the outcome of embryonic stem cell research cannot be known, so the sacrifice might not be worth it. But the outcome of a war cannot be known either.
No matter how one wishes to parse this issue it is the President who is deciding to sacrifice human life in Iraq for what is perceived to be the greater good. And if you believe that you are justified in sacrificing human life for the greater good in that instance then you must apply the same reasoning with respect to cellular life as well. Also, to sacrifice embryonic stem cells seems a pittance in comparison to the suffering caused by armed conflict.
So, there is a little example of bringing the big picture to bear on a particular individual’s bipolar condition. It’s not difficult to do. However, using the big picture to scrutinize any belief system can pose a threat to one’s own. The big picture doesn’t favor any particular ideology and challenges them all. Religious fundamentalism and political correctness, for instance, would both be severely compromised if viewed through such an all-encompassing frame of reference. This is, perhaps, why we are somewhat reluctant to refer to the big picture in forming our view of things.
One of the casualties in ignoring the big picture is the kind of authentic discourse that Jacques Monod talked about in his book Chance and Necessity published in 1970. Authentic discourse is guided by knowledge. Knowledge of ourselves and the world around us. It has to do with being aware of how what we say over here stacks up against what we said over there and how it all relates to other relevant matters. Monod wrote, “Authentic discourse…lays the foundation of science, and returns to the hands of man the immense power that enrich and imperil him today. Modern societies woven together by science, living from its products, have become as dependent upon it as an addict on his drug. They owe their material wherewithal to this fundamental ethic upon which knowledge is based, and their moral weakness to those value systems, devastated by knowledge itself, to which they still try to refer. The contradiction is deadly. It is what is digging the pit we see opening under our feet. The ethic of knowledge that created the modern world is the only ethic compatible with it, the only one capable, once understood and accepted, of guiding its evolution.”
Knowledge, real world knowledge is what needs to be referenced in forming the big picture. Edward O. Wilson put it this way in his book On Human Nature, “To chart our destiny means that we must shift from automatic control based on our biological properties to precise steering based on biological knowledge.”
These quotes from two of the great minds of the 20th century deal with the impact of knowledge on traditional belief systems and the need to employ that knowledge in shaping our institutions of thought and practice in order to afford a clearer view of what we are doing and how to get to where we need to be.
Without the kind of reality check suggested by Monod and Wilson we will always be in danger of deceiving ourselves about our true intentions. If we do not refer to biological knowledge then we will continue to be controlled by biological properties. Thinking that our societies, our cultural institutions are somehow exempt from real world considerations because we believe them to be heaven sent or pure inventions of the human mind has unfortunate real world consequences - like the unfettered growth of government bodies.
Here, for instance, is some real world knowledge; any group of living organisms, human beings included, will behave as a living organism itself. Any such group will form, to one degree or another, an US v THEM mentality with respect to their group and the rest of the world. Greater allegiance will be extended to group members than to the society at large. Groups, like the tribes they are, put their welfare above all else. Bad behavior on the part of individuals belonging to a particular group will be handled discretely. Cops protect other cops, priests protect other priests, etc. Groups, as tribes, as living organisms, are vitally interested in seeking their own advantage. Their instinct is to survive and, thus, increase in power and number and find ways by which to ensure their continuance in perpetuity.
The welfare bureaucracy in the United States is an excellent example of the survival instinct inadvertently taking charge of a particular group seemingly concerned with other matters. Welfare was formed for the purpose of lending financial assistance to the needy, to see them through the tough times and get them back on their feet. However, operating as a living organism, the welfare agency naturally became more interested in its own survival. The agencies survival depended on the number of people in need of its services. So, rules and regulations were formulated that made it nearly impossible for welfare recipients to escape the agency’s clutches. Eligibility requirements were broadened so the agency could cast its net ever wider, entrap ever more and more people into its web of dependency and, so, ensure the growth and prosperity of the agency. Welfare recipients were not allowed to get a job, to have a savings account or to get married, although having children was fine and even encouraged. The children of welfare recipients were, after all, the agency’s future. From this overview it’s plain to see that the welfare agency was primarily concerned with its own survival. Of course, it never occurred to the welfare workers themselves that they were doing anything but administering to the needs of the indigent. A living organism does not, as a rule, scrutinize its means of survival.
So, there you have it, an example of being controlled by biological properties for lack of biological knowledge. The welfare agency behaved as a living organism seeking its own advantage.
A welfare agency enlightened by knowledge would have been better able to appreciate what its role was and fashion itself accordingly. It would have realized that its true objective would be to lessen the need for a welfare agency rather than to increase it. That conclusion could only be reached by engaging in authentic discourse.
But how alien is the term authentic discourse to our ears today? It is absolutely alien in a world dominated by commercially sponsored journalists, religious fundamentalists and the thought police of political correctness. It’s a world where rabid ideologues of whatever stripe spout forth the most grating inanities as if they were pearls of wisdom.
The world is beset by extreme ideological fervor from all quarters. It is an extreme world in every respect. You may be extremely cynical about the prospect of any social, political or religious ideology having anything worthwhile to offer and extremely convinced that nothing whatsoever can change things for the better.
Or you may be extremely convinced that your own particular ideology has all the answers, espouses all the right values and that all other ideologies are bogus and must be eradicated. But, “Those who think all virtue is to be found in their own party principles push matters to extremes. They do not consider that disproportion destroys a state.” Aristotle made that observation over two thousand years ago. In 1796 President George Washington agreed with him in his farewell address. He warned our then burgeoning nation against ideological fervor and its corrosive effects on a free society. He called it “Spirit of Party” and described it as “A fire not to be quenched, it demands a uniform vigilance to prevent its bursting into a flame, lest instead of warming it should consume.”
That great wisdom, it seems, has been greatly ignored. And we are presently beset by a blaze of warring ideologies that continues to become more and more inflammatory for lack of “a uniform vigilance” to control it. Providing such vigilance can be achieved, as we shall see, by engaging in authentic discourse with respect to utilizing the big picture.