The Crisis Confronting Humanity

And how to deal with it

Humanity is confronted by two great problems of learning: learning about the nature of the universe, and learning how to become civilized. We solved the first problem when we created modern science in the 17th century, but we have not yet solved the second one. This puts us into a situation of unprecedented danger. All our current global problems have arisen as a result. For, in solving the first great problem, we created modern science and technology, the astonishing intellectual success of which has bequeathed to us - to some of us, that is - unprecedented powers to act. This has led to much that is good; it has made the modern world possible. But, in making possible modern industry and agriculture, modern medicine, hygiene, travel and armaments, it has also led to global warming, population growth, destruction of natural habitats, rapid extinction of species, pollution of earth, sea and air, the lethal character of modern war, and the threat posed by the existence of nuclear armaments. All this is the outcome of solving the first great problem of learning without also solving the second one.

The key to dealing with the crisis that faces us is to learn from our solution to the first great problem how to solve the second one. Instead of blaming science for our troubles, we need to learn from scientific progress how to make social progress towards as good a world as possible. This is an old idea. It goes back to the French Enlightenment of the 18th century. Unfortunately, the philosophes of the Enlightenment, Voltaire, Diderot, Condorcet and the rest, set about putting a thoroughly botched version of this profoundly important idea into practice - and it is this botched version that was further developed in the 19th century by Mill, Marx and others, and built into academia in the early 20th century with the creation of the social sciences. The outcome is academia devoted to the pursuit of knowledge - a kind of inquiry damagingly irrational when judged from the standpoint of helping humanity make progress towards a better, wiser world.

In my recently published ebook Two Great Problems of Learning: Science and Civilization (Rounded Globe, September 2016), I spell out just what the philosophes of the Enlightenment got wrong, how and why this still profoundly damages academia as it exists today, and what we need to do to put things right. We need urgently, I argue, to bring about a revolution in academic inquiry world-wide so that the basic aim becomes, not just knowledge, but rather wisdom - wisdom being the capacity and the active endeavour to realize what is of value in life for oneself and others, wisdom thus including knowledge and technological know-how, but much else besides.

Already my ebook has received a review - by Richard Vytniorgu in Metapsychology. Vytniorgu commends me for my “clarion call to a particular re-structuring of academia” but then criticizes me severely for arguing that academia should devote itself to helping humanity learn how to make progress towards a civilized world. He declares that I believe in “the possibility of cosmic perfectibility through rational human means”. He says that what I advocate “sets up impersonal concepts such as ‘civilization’ and ‘wisdom’ as a common good (or idol) to which actual individuals are liable to be sacrificed - sacrificed because of an Enlightenment belief in the possibility of such concepts’ perfectibility”.

I am horrified. I can find none of this in my book, and much that stands in stark opposition to it. In the book I first indicate what I take civilization to be when I say:-

“One could surely say, entirely uncontroversially, that absolutely minimal requirements for civilization, for global wisdom or enlightenment, are: (1) people do not periodically slaughter each other in their millions; (2) people are not politically enslaved by brutal dictatorships; (3) millions do not live in extreme poverty while millions of others live in comparative wealth; (4) the human world shows some respect for other forms of life on the planet and does not indiscriminately exterminate other species; and (5) the way of life is sustainable in the long term. Our world, despite all its scientific, technological and intellectual sophistication, satisfies none of these five elementary requirements for civilization.”

It seems to me very odd to say that, in advocating that we should try to do something about these ills that beset our world I am, by implication, advocating that individuals be sacrificed - sacrificed essentially to alleviate human suffering! This criticism seems especially unfounded given that I explicitly criticize far left and far right political programmes of the past that have indeed sacrificed individuals for a distant goal. More to the point, what I argue for in my ebook is in part designed specifically to prevent people being sacrificed for the attainment of a distant political goal.

In his review, Vytniorgu ignores what is perhaps the central theme of the book: what it was precisely that the philosophes got wrong, and what we need to do to put matters right. In seeking to learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress, they (1) failed to capture correctly the progress-achieving methods of science, and (2) failed to apply these methods properly to the task of making social progress towards an enlightened world. The philosophes thought, as everyone still thinks today, that (1) the basic intellectual aim of science is truth, the basic method being that theories should be accepted on the basis of evidence, no substantial thesis about the world being accepted permanently as a part of scientific knowledge independently of evidence. But this is false. Physicists only ever accept unified theories even though endlessly many empirically more successful disunified rivals can always be concocted - rivals that are ignored precisely because they are disunified. This means physics accepts implicitly that the universe is such that all disunified theories are false. Science accepts that some kind of unified pattern of physical law runs through all phenomena. The basic aim of science is not truth per se; it is rather truth presupposed to be unified. Precisely because this aim is profoundly problematic, it needs to be made explicit within the context of physics so that it can be critically assessed, so that alternatives can be developed and assessed, in an attempt to improve the specific aim that is pursued. We need a new conception of science - aim-oriented empiricism - which sees science as making a hierarchy of metaphysical assumptions about the nature of the universe, these assumptions becoming less substantial and problematic as we go up the hierarchy. In this way we create a framework of relatively unproblematic assumptions and associated methods, high up in the hierarchy, within which much more problematic assumptions and associated methods, low down in the hierarchy, can be improved as our scientific knowledge improves. There is something like positive feedback between improving scientific knowledge, and improving aims and methods - improving knowledge about how to improve knowledge.

Failing to get the progress-achieving methods of science into sharp focus was the less serious of the philosophes’s blunders. Far, far more serious, was the monumental blunder they made in applying these methods. Granted that the basic idea is to learn from scientific progress how to achieve social progress towards an enlightened world, they ought to have applied appropriately generalized, progress-achieving methods of science directly to social life. Instead, disastrously, the philosophes applied scientific method to the task of improving knowledge about social life, to creating and developing the social sciences. Instead of helping us learn how to become a bit wiser and more enlightened, the philosophes sought to help us acquire knowledge of social phenomena. This botched version of the profound Enlightenment idea was then developed further throughout the 19th century, and built into academia in the early 20th century with the creation of academic disciplines of anthropology, economics, sociology, psychology, political science.

For over two centuries, we have put into practice a seriously botched version of the magnificent Enlightenment idea. It is long past time to correct these ancient blunders and put the Enlightenment idea properly into practice. This involves, first, getting clearly into focus the progress-achieving methods of science, generalizing them so that they become fruitfully applicable, potentially, to any worthwhile human endeavour with problematic aims, and then applying them, not to social science, but to social life - to government, industry, agriculture, finance, law, the media, international relations, personal life.

It is not just in science that aims are problematic. This is the case in life too. Our aims at the personal, social, institutional, national and global levels are often profoundly problematic. Above all, the aim of making social progress towards a wiser, more civilized, more enlightened world is inherently and profoundly problematic, for all sorts of reasons. If we are to make real progress towards a world a little more civilized than the one we live in at present, it is essential that we learn to do, in social life, what science does - even though in the case of science this is at present obscured by the official conception of science of standard empiricism. We need to represent problematic aims in the form of a hierarchy, aims becoming less specific and problematic as we go up the hierarchy. As a result, we create a framework of relatively unproblematic aims and associated methods, high up in the hierarchy, within which much more specific and problematic aims and associated methods, low down in the hierarchy, can be progressively improved as we act, as we live, in the light of discussion and what we experience, what we suffer and enjoy, as a result of what we do. As a result of putting this aim-oriented rationalistic methodology into practice in life (generalized from science), it becomes possible for us to learn how to develop and assess rival policies, political programmes, proposals for action, philosophies of life, somewhat as theories are developed and assessed in science. There is, in particular, the possibility that people with conflicting aims and ideals can learn how to resolve conflicts cooperatively within the framework of aim-oriented rationality, the different levels making it possible to distinguish where there is agreement (at the upper levels of the hierarchy) from where there is disagreement (at the lower levels). The fundamental idea would be to help people discover how to resolve problems and conflicts in increasingly cooperatively rational ways, to the extent that this is feasible.

What, then, of Vytniorgu’s charge that I am in favour of sacrificing individuals for the perfectibility of the concepts ‘wisdom’ and ‘civilization’? One should note that this charge, if correct, makes me, in a sense, worse even than such monsters as Hitler, Stalin and Mao-Tse-tung. They sacrificed individuals - millions of individuals - for a future society they hoped to achieve; I am charged with advocating the sacrifice of individuals for nothing more than the perfectibility of concepts.

As it happens, a quite basic impulse behind the argument of my ebook is to counteract the horrors of Hitler and company - and the legacy they have left us. Nowadays, anyone who suggests we should take seriously the task of creating a better world is treated with grave suspicion. John Gray, in book after book, has poured scorn over the idea that progress is possible.1 Vytniorgu’s criticism of my ebook is yet another expression of this popular view. It is widespread partly in reaction to the horrors produced by those in the past, whether of extreme left or right, who sought to attain a political goal by dictatorial means. But it is also widespread because so few have any awareness of what we need to do if we are to make some headway in becoming a bit more civilized without sacrificing individual people along the way - let alone millions of them.

What do we need to do? Put aim-oriented rationality into practice. This includes strengthening and spreading traditions of democracy, free speech, individual liberty, social justice, peaceful resolution of conflict. It includes transforming universities so that they put the Enlightenment idea properly into practice, thus becoming devoted to helping humanity make progress towards a better world by increasingly cooperatively rational means. And there are two further ways in which aim-oriented rationality is relevant. Utopian projects of the past have resulted in deaths, even millions of deaths, because too many have believed, with absolute, dogmatic conviction, in the attainability and desirability of some fixed political objective. Central to aim-oriented rationality is the idea that aims are all-too likely to be problematic, and in need of improvement. We are all-too likely to try to attain a goal that is unrealizable, undesirable, or both. Above all, the aim of making progress towards a good, civilized world is inherently problematic; here it is essential we implement aim-oriented rationality. Aim-oriented rationality renders the destructive fanaticism of past utopian projects quite impossible. Secondly aim-oriented rationality, applied to social endeavours, of one kind or another, is inherently social and cooperative in character. It is the very opposite of handing dictatorial power to one individual that is such a striking and horrifying feature of Hitler’s Germany and Stalin’s Soviet Union.

  1. See for example J. Gray, 2004, Heresies: Against Progress and Other Illusions, Granta Books, London.

About Nicholas Maxwell

Nicholas Maxwell is Emeritus Reader at University College London, where for nearly thirty years he taught philosophy of science. Much of his working life has been devoted to arguing that we need to bring about a revolution in academia so that it seeks and promotes wisdom and does not just acquire knowledge. He has previously published eight books on this theme:

  • What’s Wrong With Science? (Bran’s Head Books, 1976)
  • From Knowledge to Wisdom (Blackwell, 1984)
  • The Comprehensibility of the Universe (Oxford University Press, 1998)
  • The Human World in the Physical Universe (Rowman and Littlefield, 2001)
  • Is Science Neurotic? (Imperial College Press, 2004)
  • Cutting God in Half – And Putting the Pieces Together Again (Pentire Press, 2010)
  • How Universities Can Help Create a Wiser World: The Urgent Need for an Academic Revolution
  • Global Philosophy: What Philosophy Ought to Be

The latter two published by Imprint Academic in 2014. He has also published many papers on this theme and on such diverse subjects as scientific method, the rationality of science, the philosophy of the natural and social sciences, the humanities, quantum theory, causation, the mind-body problem, aesthetics, and moral philosophy. In 2003 he founded Friends of Wisdom, an international group of academics and educationalists concerned that universities should seek wisdom and not just acquire knowledge.


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