The inclination to judge something – a person, an idea, a situation – as either good or bad and then to react accordingly is part of our biological heritage. It is what the brain does. Viewed in terms of evolution, one can appreciate why this happened. The organism – our body – has a survival instinct. It wants to live. In order to do that, it needs to recognize food and water that is safe to consume. It needs to recognize that a sabre tooth tiger poses a physical threat. It needs to distinguish between a human being who approaches with hand outstretched in welcome and one in whose hand a bloody knife is wielded.
So far as its capacity to judge goes, the human brain’s evolution has been intense and even sophisticated. Perhaps complex is a better word. Having figured out that fire was useful in many ways – it provide light against darkness, heat to be warmed by and to prepare food by – the human brain proceeded to tackle the question of how to make fire safely, consistently and predictably. Lightening is not the best or mots reliable source of fire! And then, having so learned how to make it, one learned how to carry it and nurture it and shape it to circumstances. There is a difference between a cooking fire and a light by which to walk through shadows. You can follow this developing – track it – from those first dangerous and uncontrollable fires all the way to figuring out how nuclear fission works. It’s just a process, one step leading to the other.
Seeing that process, can we also question it? I don’t mean challenging it on academic grounds – arguing about whether it tracked this way or that way and when the specific movement occurred and so forth – but rather: can we question its necessity? For example, cooked meat offers a greater degree of safe and sustainable nourishment than uncooked or undercooked meat. When the winter winds blow, a fire is not just a question of comfort but of survival. Can we agree that at that level, the brain’s activity made sense? That the emerging understanding of fire – as a form of energy that once harnessed facilitates in helpful ways the biological imperative to survive – was a net positive.
But the brain didn’t stop there. It kept going. It figured out at some point that the destructive powers of fire – fearful in the extreme – might also be contained in ways that could be directed at one’s enemies. Fire wasn’t just a personal boon but a weapon, too. And so we kept studying it and refining our use of it. We did something similar in the field of agriculture and shelter, in politics and economics. And at some point – it is hard to say precisely where and when – we crossed a line. We stopped seeing the evolution of mechanics and culture in terms of what could sustain the organism. Or rather, the evolution outstripped our capacity to evaluate each development on its merits. The brain just goes. And goes.
Thus, the sensibility of fire eventually becomes nuclear power and we have nuclear power plants and nuclear weapons. The comfort and security that our far distant ancestors could only dream about has become a reality. But at the same time we have introduced an instability that effectively renders all our progress moot. We have made it very easy to ruin the world. Our ancestors wouldn’t have conceived that. Wise minds would have created differently.
For example, I often remark to myself while wandering through old New England cemeteries – a habit of mine – how tragic it is that so many children died before reaching adulthood. In 1850, amongst white families, nearly 217 infants per 1,000 died. In black families, the rate was 340. The infant mortality rate in the U.S. over the past three years averages just over seven deaths. That’s quite a reduction. And – certainly as a father and hopefully as a member of the human race – I am corresponding gratified that medicine has evolved in ways that make that reduction possible. I don’t think anybody would argue that’s a bad thing.
Yet the same human brain that managed to creatively and technically solve such a tragic problem also cast a violant pall over the world in which those children live longer. In 1850, disease and malnutrition could wipe out close to thirty percent of children. Nuclear war can take out virtually all of them.
That’s not a win-win situation.
It is, however, a powerful example of incoherence: devoting our problem-solving capacity to a “solution” that can only yield greater problems.It is easy to see how saving children’s lives makes sense – but nuclear power and weapons are hardly so logical. It is as if we are unable to discriminate or exercise control over the effects of our reasoning. Politicians might argue that nuclear missiles ensure a nation’s survival but this is only true – if it is true at all – under such grim scenarios that nobody should want to make the argument. Means and ends are wildly out of alignment. And we seem increasingly incapably of making them coherent – that is, bringing them into alignment.
I am interested in the possibility that we cannot solve this problem by the means at our disposal. Thought – the brain’s output – is powerful, often in admirable ways, but it lacks the means to self-correct. What I am calling wisdom is really just the capacity to be self-aware and self-reflective and it seems to be largely if not entirely absent. Wisdom sees the incoherence inherent in thought and sees too the way that thought denies its incoherence – by obscuring it or by projecting it outward. In this sense, wisdom is not a new way of thinking but a way of being aware of thinking. If we can watch thought – at the personal level and the cultural level both – without judging it then we create some space in which a new movement is possible.
It is easy to say that nuclear war is not rational. Plenty of writers and thinkers and soldiers and politicians have said that over the years. Ever since the first bombs were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima, there have been voices challenging the ethics and morality of utilizing such power. But the presence of those voices – the persuasiveness of their arguments, their organization into focused collectives, and so forth – has done nothing to slow or contain the growth of that power. We have created and set loose the very chaos and instability that we once sought to inure ourselves against.
If we see this, then we might begin to say that opposition as we traditionally understand it – logic, persuasion, demonstration and so forth – are not working. Perhaps we might even begin to see that they are part of the problem because they arise from – and reinforce – the source of the problem. If we can look at this without judgment – if we can be aware of what is happening and our thought is implicated in what is happening, then we can become aware of the incoherence, which is often quite subtle, quite hard to catch. But even a glimpse – just seeing that what we are doing is not working either at the production of nuclear power end or at the opposition to that power – can help us to establish a ground from which some new possibility might emerge.
Indeed, it seems to me that under present circumstances there is no greater calling.