The Enlightenment Bug
The last millennium saw humanity split among reason, humanism and faith. In this millennium, let’s reunite these essential human activities.
While the world is eagerly anticipating the Y2K apocalypse, a far more serious “bug,” created 300 years ago, gets very little attention-a situation we need to recognize and rectify.
I am talking about the Enlightenment, when people decided to split reason from faith and from the literature of the ancients.This dissociation freed science and technology from the shackles of religion and fueled the Industrial Revolution. The success of industrialization confirmed the wisdom of this division and reinforced the three-way separation among “techies” (who put their faith in technology), the “humies” (humanists) and the religious believers. But with success came problems. Techies began questioning their purpose. Humies became disaffected with gadgets and materialism dominating ideas. Youth, sensing something was missing, turned to drugs. And people focused increasingly on themselves, celebrating possessions and lamenting depressions. Governments separated faith from reason in the school curricula. A politically correct population became increasingly reluctant to say “God.” And universities isolated techies from humies in neat cubbyholes. By now, the split has become so ingrained that we’re not even aware of it.
Might it heal by itself? The last millennium was dominated by faith. In the new millennium,this dominance is shifting toward technology-people stand awestruck by the miracles of information technology, biotechnology and materials science, which promise to transform our behavior, our being and our surround. But since technology thrives on knowledge and reason, the new era, left unchecked, will aggravate the split, not heal it. Today, the split serves no purpose and we must make an effort to heal it ourselves. Here are the reasons:
Until recently, an educated person was someone who understood the best of what has been written and said. If you needed technology, you bought it, like potatoes, to serve your loftier humanistic goals. Technologists became known as practitioners of “the servile Arts.” This view made sense when technology was a small part of our lives, but it is no longer valid.
Today, higher purpose may even originate with technology, as in the techie idea of a Web site through which people, world-wide, would post their needs or offers of human help, looking for the right match, free of charge. In the future, technology will be as important a driver of noble new endeavors as humanistic ideals were in the past. Staying split will keep us from discovering this new terrain.
Tomorrow, we’ll be unable to cope with the world around us if we insist on wearing single-color glasses that let us see only things technological, or humanistic or spiritual. For the world is not neatly partitioned into these bins. Every decision we make, from choosing a school to running a country, will increasingly involve issues that are intertwined across these artificial divisions. We need to heal the split, to find our way through the maze of an increasingly complex world.
If we remain fragmented, we’ll be unable to fulfill potential, because we will be running on only some of our cylinders. Human beings have lived for thousands of years without this split. And we were not always as impressed with reason as we have been in the last few centuries. It is ironic, yet inescapable, that so many thinkers were seduced by reason. We can’t help but be impressed by this unique capability of our brain, which in its exquisite architecture and processes holds our awesome power to think. But what does reason have to do with the love of a child, the beauty of flower, or the eternity of stone? At this, the beginning of the third millennium, the Enlightenment bug has caused us to overrate reason at the expense of faith, and technological reason at the expense of humanistic ideas.
Another reason for repairing this bug is people’s inherent need for spirituality, which, psychologists
tell us, offsets the powerlessness we feel before the mysteries that surround us. In an increasingly rational world, how might our children fulfill human need that has led billions to religion throughout the centuries? Never mind grandstanding on the easy answer that the state shouldn’t glorify any particular sect in the schools. Good. Let’s not take sides. Now what? Will learning in this millennium stay chained to reason? What
of birth, friendship, love, marriage, illness, divorce, conflict, death, origin, purpose?
We don’t know enough to answer these questions. But we should know enough not to be so smug in a one-sided adulation of reason, technology, humanism or spirituality. Let’s take a cue from the long history of our species and begin integrating our divided selves toward becoming, once again, whole. This does not mean we should all strive to become spiritual technologist-humanist dilettantes. Our differences will persist and continue to delight us. Rather, we should reach within, and awaken, listen to, and nurture the pieces of our split-apart selves, encouraging especially the ones we can barely hear. And we should begin doing so with our children at home, with teachings and curricula in our schools and universities, and with our daily activities in our professional and personal lives.
This unification is not easy. But it is worthy of our millennial resolution. Let’s fix the Enlightenment bug and, once again, stand in awe before the sunset, the wheel and that which may lie behind them.