“Today we may be living in the most peaceable era in our species’ existence.” Chances are this statement strikes you as counterintuitive. Rest assured that its author, Harvard professor Steven Pinker, anticipated your skepticism. Pinker is a cognitive scientist and one of the world’s foremost writers on language, mind and human nature. He has been named Humanist of the Year and was listed among Prospect magazine’s “World’s Top 100 Public Intellectuals,” Foreign Policy’s “100 Global Thinkers” and Time magazine’s “100 Most Influential People in the World Today.”
His 2011 book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, charts the historical trajectory of violence and presents a case for a verifiable drop in the rate of reliance on violence in human civilization. Professor Pinker knows this conclusion will contradict the prevailing impression most people have of the perils of the present day. He considers the tendency to distort the danger of the modern era a “cognitive illusion” reinforced by the “if it bleeds it leads” media template.
While acknowledging that humankind’s capacity for destruction has increased (relative to the proliferation of nuclear weapons), Pinker insists that the rate at which humanity resorts to violence has been receding and continues to decline. He suggests that we erroneously glamorize the past as genteel and exaggerate the present as overly perilous. Among the factors to which he attributes the trend away from violence is what he calls the “escalator of reason”—the increasing cognitive capacity of human beings. As an evolutionary psychologist, Pinker foresees a path of human adaptation and development from aggression to increased empathy.
One example of enlightened human reasoning offered is humanity’s rejection of the God of the Hebrew Scriptures:
“The Bible is revered today by billions of people who call it the source of their moral values. . . . Yet for all this reverence, the Bible is one long celebration of violence. . . .
“The Bible depicts a world that, seen through modern eyes, is staggering in its savagery. . . .
“If you think that by reviewing the literal content of the Hebrew Bible I am trying to impugn the billions of people who revere it today, then you are missing the point. The overwhelming majority of observant Jews and Christians are, needless to say, thoroughly decent people who do not sanction genocide, rape, slavery, or stoning people for frivolous infractions. Their reverence for the Bible is purely talismanic. In recent millennia and centuries the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts (the Talmud among Jews and the New Testament among Christians), or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the Bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.
“Christians downplay the wrathful deity of the Old Testament in favor of a newer conception of God, exemplified in the New Testament (the Christian Bible) by his son Jesus, the Prince of Peace.”
Here Pinker portrays Jesus as a human construct—a complete makeover of the God concept. Because the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is perceived as a violent bully, He is distasteful to modern sensitivities. Therefore, through the “escalator of reason,” humankind has reinvented and replaced Him with Jesus, who is more suited to our empathetic evolutionary state.
However, this theory fails to recognize the close relationship between Jesus of the Apostolic Writings and the two divine Beings of the Hebrew Scriptures. Jesus said His mission and message came from the Father (John 5:19–20, 30). He tells His followers that if they have seen Him, they have seen the Father (John 14:9–11). Jesus is completely and consistently aligned with His Father (John 17:4–5, 11, 21). His definition of violence, too, differs from the mainstream; to Jesus, to hate another person is akin to murder.
For many, Pinker’s empirical premise and the suggestion that faith can be placed on enhanced human reasoning remains unsatisfying. Even while striving to be empathetic, they will lock their doors tonight and pray as Jesus taught, asking to be divinely delivered from evil in all its forms.
David Hulme and Tom Fitzpatrick
Victor Davis Hanson notes that “conflict will remain the familiar father of us all—as long as human nature stays constant and unchanging over time and across space and cultures.” This statement seems apt. Yet throughout history some have actively embraced the idea of war as father of all, rather than viewing it as a sad fact of the human condition in desperate need of remedy.
It was the pre-Socratic mystic, Heraclitus, who originally said that “war is the father of all and the king of all” (see John Burnet, Early Greek Philosophy, p. 136). Martin Heidegger, the twentieth century philosopher, and in his lifetime a proactive member of the Nazi party, had read Heraclitus’ word “all” as not simply a sociological observation as Davis Hanson does, but in the sense of fundamental being. In other words, Heidegger believed that Heraclitus described war as governing absolutely everything (see Gregory Fried, Heidegger's Polemos: From Being to Politics, p. 30).
Where did the active embracing of the idea of war as “law” ultimately lead? Richard Gelding notes that the philosopher Karl Popper had discerned an “elitism” inherent in the fragments of Heraclitus, and that Popper ‘”saw in Hitler the grim results of this elitism” (Remembering Heraclitus, p. 110). In a 1942 speech Adolf Hitler proclaimed that Heraclitus’ concept of war in the context of a world in which the stronger overcomes the weaker, amounted to “an iron law of logic” (Hitler and the Germans, p. 141).
The realities of warfare and violence form part of human relationships, national conflicts and the present state of physical nature. But the upholding of what might be termed a spirit of violence as a virtuous “truth”, as something to be embraced by human beings, is a deception that only ends in total catastrophe, as we know from the history of the twentieth century. In the final analysis, it comes down to who or what we allow to be father and king of us all.
David Hulme and Daniel Tompsett
How much can we learn unconsciously by just going through the motions? This type of passive learning is exactly what the Mobile Music Touch (MMT) device is able to help its users accomplish, according to Thad Starner an Associate Professor at Georgia Tech University’s School of Interactive Computing and pioneer in wearable computing. The MMT is worn on the hand and stimulates individual fingers in coordination with music to teach the wearer how to play a song on a piano while doing other tasks such as reading a book or watching television. Using the MMT for 30 minutes, students testing the device were able to learn a simple piano piece while at the same time studying for exams. The product of such unconscious learning is sometimes referred to as muscle memory. Professor Starner terms it Passive Haptic Learning. Devices similar to the MMT may have major implications for the field of Neurological Rehabilitation for patients who have suffered strokes or other traumatic brain and nerve damage. Theoretically, haptic learning devices could help neuro-trauma patients by stimulating neural pathways and helping muscles to go through normal motions. The brain’s continual ability to form new information pathways—neuroplasticity—makes this type of rehabilitation and learning possible.
If our minds can learn unconsciously by simple stimulation of our muscles, what other things might we be learning without even realizing it? Generally, we think about actively putting our minds to whatever we want to learn. It appears that our minds can also effectively learn by passively soaking up information. This is worthwhile considering while we are just going through the motions. For example, what effect might passive observation of violence and brutality have on us?
It seems not a day goes by without a news report about environmental pollution in one form or another. Beijing is well-known for its shockingly poor air quality. As a result, last year saw highways closed and flights canceled due to diminished visibility. Other cities try to cope with trash mountains — Mexico City recently shut down its Bordo Poniente landfill, the largest in the world, due to its encroaching on human habitation and seepage into the local aquifer. But authorities failed to make adequate alternative arrangements, compounding the disposal problem.
Pollution of the entire earth’s water supply is evident in the fact that there is not a clean river anywhere on the planet and in the fact of frequent catastrophic oil well and oil tanker spills, not to mention huge oceanic garbage patches of floating plastic microfibers. The problem of seaborne plastic pollution is growing alarmingly each year.
Plastic is not readily biodegradable and is swallowed by marine life, thus entering the food chain. The concern is that the chemical composition of acrylic, polyethylene, polypropylene, polyamide and polyester may be harmful to marine life and human life once ingested.
If that were not enough, now we’re told that Americans, who spend 90 percent of their time indoors, are subject to sufficient air pollution from carpets, paint, wood products, cleaning products, computers, etc., to pose a serious health threat.
And there are more pollution issues to concern us:
There’s surely no question that life has speeded up of late. In the minds of many, it seems to be linked with the technology of delivering more and more easily accessible information. We have long been told that we are in the Information Age.
About 20 years ago I interviewed the late Neil Postman, who had written Amusing Ourselves to Death and later Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. He warned back then that so much information was raining down on us from so many sources that we were becoming overwhelmed. He said that without context, it is impossible to make sense of it all. Today we have e-mail, smartphones, and social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter to add to the mix. Many of us are connected all the time, constantly attentive, always replying, never quiet.
But is this always helpful or valuable? Usually, there is a price to pay. As the editors of the Hedgehog Review write in their Summer 2011 issue, “We spend more and more time in front of screens and less and less time in face-to-face communication, as well as less and less time by ourselves without some means of electronic communication to distract us from any possibility of solitude.”
Postman also made the comment that all scientific or technological progress is not necessarily human progress. Just because technology is available does not mean that it is of benefit to the human being. In any case, we should not allow machines to dictate our pace of life. We should not become tools of our tools. God made us to function within limits. His created world operates within certain time frames. Trees grow at a regulated rate. There is nothing to be gained from hurrying. Human beings take about nine months to develop in the womb. It is not helpful to rush the process to completion. Our minds and bodies operate within limits. Most people need seven to eight hours of sleep each night. We need to dream. We cannot operate for long without rest. And we are not made to be perpetually connected.
When Postman spoke of the need for context, he meant the way in which we frame life. How is information and its flow governed by the frame within which we live? For those who want to live according to biblical principles, the frame is exactly that: the Bible. What does God’s Word tell us about time to fulfill our responsibilities and time to think?
One scripture that comes to mind is Ephesians 5:15–16: “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (English Standard Version). The sense is redeeming, buying back or buying up time so that it can be effectively used, because we are living in a difficult world that does not reflect God’s values. So in respect of how we use time, we should be getting our priorities right, not wasting time that could be more beneficially used.
And there is more to consider when we talk about having the time to think. The Bible is filled with exhortations to meditate on God’s way so that we can live wisely. But meditation takes time—time that has been set aside for this specific purpose. It cannot be done when our days are filled to the maximum with distractions.
Perhaps we all need to take time to consider whether communication technologies and pace of life have been taking us away from the source of our life.
New documentary evidence revises what was known about Mao Zedong’s “Great Leap Forward” (1958-62). His drive to surpass Britain in industrial and agricultural output within 15 years meant mobilizing millions of peasants and housing them in communes. They moved billions of cubic meters of earth by hand in ill-advised water conservation schemes that ultimately failed. They melted down metal of all kinds in backyard furnaces in an effort to boost steel output, but produced mostly useless pig iron. Ever-higher grain quotas were demanded for export. All of this was done at great individual cost, only to bring on the ravages of possibly the worst famine in human history.
Mao’s Great Famine (2010) by historian Frank Dikötter, chronicles the ghastly four-year period that resulted in the peacetime death of millions. The word “famine” disguises the brutality of the catastrophe, for many were deliberately deprived of food and rest. The revised estimate of those lost is more than 45 million -- a number based solidly on Chinese sources.
Mao was not able to bring about the progress he proposed. Nor did he care about the human suffering he was engendering. According to Dikötter, “At a secret meeting in the Jinjiang Hotel in Shanghai dated March 25, 1959, Mao specifically ordered the party to procure up to one third of all the grain, much more than had ever been the case. At the meeting he announced that ‘When there is not enough to eat people starve to death. It is better to let half of the people die so that the other half can eat their fill.’”
Like so many other false messiahs throughout history, Mao did not deliver on his version of Utopia and destroyed untold lives in the process.
Despite the early 21st century’s worldwide economic disruption, the 2010 report from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) puts annual worldwide military expenditure at $1.63 trillion—up more than 50 percent since 2000.
In a world that yearns for disarmament and peace, warfare has become a globalized problem. The defense industry is a key element in the equation, answering the demands of military establishments and various governments that need jobs creation and the growth of defense-related exports to further domestic prosperity.
This raises fundamental moral questions, though not for the first time. Following World War II, American general Omar Bradley summarized the moral deficit that had emerged after that conflict. In 1948 he said, “The world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience. Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace, more about killing than we know about living.”
Despite Bradley’s perceptive analysis, a wartime colleague, U.S. president Dwight D. Eisenhower (1953–61), oversaw the phenomenal postwar growth and development of the American military-industrial complex. Yet when it came time to step down from office, he made a speech in which he warned about the dangers inherent in the relentless pursuit of supremacy by military-industrial means. He said, “In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.”
Today the military-industrial complex is far more powerful and influential than Eisenhower could have imagined. SIPRI calculates the U.S. share of 2010 armaments purchases at 43 percent of the world’s total. China comes a distant second at an estimated 7.3 percent! The reason usually given is that the United States has obligations worldwide, whereas other nations do not. And while there have been ups and downs in spending and development over the past several decades, the future of the industry now seems to depend on five factors. According to military and defense analyst Richard Bitzinger, they are the hierarchical nature of the global arms industry, defense spending, the global arms market, the globalization of armaments production, and the emerging information technologies–based revolution in military affairs.
Read more in the series Global Problems, Global Solutions.
It’s an undeniable fact that that this world is filled with injustices of every conceivable kind. From ethnic cleansing to wrongful conviction and imprisonment; from theft of retirement funds to the disadvantaging of the poor; from corruption and failing government to female genital mutilation and child soldiers; the list is long and injustice touches everyone at some point in life. Who has not known of or experienced unfair treatment?
Take the seventeen people having served time on death row in the U.S. who are now free due to the advent of DNA testing. According to the New York based Innocence Project, more than 270 people have been liberated in this way in 34 U.S. states after years of wrongful imprisonment.
Then there is the injustice of the death of other innocents. The Nazi bombing of Britain killed an estimated 40,000 civilians between September 1940 and May 1941 – about half of them in London. The well-known 1945 Allied firebombing of the German city of Dresden killed more than 22,000 civilians -- men, women and children. Later that year the pleas of scientists, including Albert Einstein, to spare innocent Japanese civilians went unheeded and the U.S. unleashed two atomic weapons immediately killing 80,000 in Hiroshima and 40,000 in Nagasaki, with tens of thousands more dying from injuries and radiation related illnesses. Of course, these numbers are but a small fragment of all the innocent deaths of the past century.
Jonathan Glover’s Humanity, A Moral History of the 20th Century is a chronicle of some of the worst injustices. It deals with “the psychology that made possible Hiroshima, the Nazi genocide, the Gulag, the Chinese Cultural Revolution, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and many other atrocities.” The psychology is of course what we cannot easily escape, because it is fundamental to human beings. But Glover is not pessimistic or despairing. He believes that “we need to look hard and clearly at some of the monsters inside us. But this is part of the project of caging and taming them.” This is certainly the beginning of a way ahead, but can we really do it alone?
Do we have the resources within us?
Justice is about fairness, equitable treatment, impartiality, objectivity, rights –the English term is rooted in Latin “justitia” from “jus,” law or right. Underlying fairness and equity is the moral obligation to do what is right. Judicial systems have tried to develop means of ensuring fair treatment and imposing appropriate penalties on those proven to have abused others and done wrong. What such systems have never been able to eradicate is human error, corruption or the downward pull of human nature. Despite best intentions, injustice remains potential in all our attempts at fairness.
According to the 2011 annual report of the International Commission of Jurists, “Despite the fact that 160 States are parties to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), and should therefore have incorporated its provisions into domestic law and provide judicial remedies to individuals alleging a violation of their rights, victims continue to face tremendous difficulties in accessing justice.”
The reason that societies have such problems is that justice and righteousness (right thinking and living) are not natural to the human sphere. These godly characteristics may be practiced individually now and will ultimately become the basis of all society. Injustice will give way to justice when righteousness becomes the standard for all behavior. The prophet Isaiah knew this well. Speaking of a future godly global ruler, he said, “Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this” (Isaiah 9:7; see also 16:5)
This is understood to be a reference to the coming of the Messiah. Yet Christ did not fulfill these aspects of his prophesied role when he came in the first century. This is for a future time when universal justice will become reality. As Matthew wrote about Jesus in his gospel, “Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles (the nations)” (Matthew 12:18). This is also a quote from Isaiah, where he shows that the Messiah will be persistent in his pursuit of fairness and equity for all -- “He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law” (Isaiah 42:4).
How we come to know what we know is at the center of an often fierce battle being waged against religious belief. Several leading writers have recently authored books with the intent of showing that belief in God is irrational, one even describing anyone so disposed as “stupid.”
In this battle the lines are drawn between knowledge that is based on scientific method and that which is not. The atheist says that the rational process of identifying a problem, collecting data through observation and experimentation, and developing and testing hypotheses yields humanity’s base of useful knowledge. And, they claim, it is our only way of acquiring such knowledge. We are, after all, physical beings who rely on five senses, and what we receive this way is knowledge of the world and the universe we inhabit.
It is a process that in many respects serves us well. We have made, for example, enormous medical and technological advances by following the scientific method. Human knowledge of the universe has expanded. But is it the case that all knowledge comes only through the physical senses?
Consider for a moment that the attack on religious belief is not new. God’s supposed death is not a recent occurrence. About three thousand years ago, the psalmist David wrote, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God’” (Psalms 14 and 53, English Standard Version throughout). There were deniers of God back then and no doubt well before. But David and other ancient wisdom writers knew that not all knowledge is derived from physical sources, through the five senses. Do they have something to offer us today? What if some knowledge is only available from a nonphysical source, and that is where the sages direct us?
Biblical figures such as the Apostle Paul were well aware of the philosophical issues of their time and had some interesting things to say about sources of knowledge.
Wendell Berry is first and foremost by his own description a Kentucky farmer, though he is also a renowned author of essays, poems and novels. The global cult of bigness and the dis-ease that it causes is one of his passions. This is, of course, related to the development of technology for its own sake. While much of his writing addresses ecological concerns, he also discusses the broader human condition and the restoration of health and peace. In The Unsettling of America, Berry shows that the demise of small-scale agri-culture is indicative of the crumbling of culture itself. The machine has taken over from man, industrialized agriculture has won the day, and humans have been dislocated. Moreover, it is the future forms of our technology that enslave us. And it is not just on the farm that the pressure is felt: “All our implements—automobiles, tractors, kitchen utensils, etc.—have always been conceived by the modern mind as in a kind of progress or pilgrimage toward their future forms. The automobile-of-the-future, the kitchen-of-the-future, the classroom-of-the-future have long figured more actively in our imaginations, plans, and desires than whatever versions of these things we may currently have. We long ago gave up the wish to have things that were adequate or even excellent; we have preferred instead to have things that were up-to-date. But to be up-to-date is an ambition with built-in panic: our possessions cannot be up-to-date more than momentarily unless we can stop time—or somehow get ahead of it. The only possibility of satisfaction is to be driving now in one’s future automobile.”
Of course, the relentless economy powering such “achievements” pays little or no attention to resource depletion, pollution, or the dislocated human being. It depends on the illusion of limitless quantities. To make this reality, Berry writes, “we would have to debase both the finite and the infinite; we would have to sacrifice both flesh and spirit. It is an old story. Evil is offering us the world: ‘All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.’ And we have only the old paradox for an answer: If we accept all on that condition, we lose all.”
Like E.F. Schumacher, Berry links the problem in its essence to the tempter of Christ, the archenemy of humanity.
In a 1981 work, The Gift of Good Land, Berry explores the tragedy of “progress” via dislocation by reflecting on a visit to Peru. There peasants from the uplands who grew a huge variety of potatoes, using small-scale techniques and organic methods, gave up their ancestral lands and became dislocated by voluntarily moving to the slums of Lima, where they could watch American entertainment on television.
Decades after these works, Berry is still vexed by many of the same concerns and the issues arising from the global “order.” The difference is that the natural world is now in far worse condition. What has not changed are the spiritual precepts that undergird his prescription for healing. He writes, “Most of the important laws for the conduct of human life probably are religious in origin—laws such as these: Be merciful, be forgiving, love your neighbors, be hospitable to strangers, be kind to other creatures, take care of the helpless, love your enemies. We must, in short, love and care for one another and the other creatures. We are allowed to make no exceptions. Every person’s obligation toward the Creation is summed up in two words from Genesis 2:15: ‘Keep it.’”
It is intriguing that he understands spiritual law to be the basis of right use. Another of Berry’s related concerns is that American Christianity has not lived up to its founding documents. Because it has focused on saving souls in the land to the exclusion of practicing religion on the land, it has failed to recognize the sanctity of creation and the laws that support it. In this context Berry quotes Professor Ellen Davis, who writes: “Sound agricultural practice depends upon knowledge that is at one and the same time chemical and biological, economic, cultural, philosophical, and (following the understanding of most farmers in most places and times) religious. Agriculture involves questions of value and therefore of moral choice, whether or not we care to admit it.”
Taken from a chapter I wrote for Access, Not Excess: The Search for Better Nutrition by Charles Pasternak (ed) (Smith-Gordon February 2011)