Magazine article The Futurist

Is Transcendence Necessary?

Magazine article The Futurist

Is Transcendence Necessary?

Article excerpt

The futurist broke a house rule to bring you the foregoing speech by Vaclav Havel. The rule is that we do not publish material that has previously appeared in another periodical. Havel's speech, made in a ceremony in Philadelphia in 1994, was carried by the New York Times and other media. However, many readers missed seeing Havel's remarkable statement, so we are reproducing it here.

Havel addresses some of the great issues of our time in a way that compels our thoughtful attention. (He is, after all, a dramatist.) So we hope readers will excuse us for giving them a text that some will have seen before. We also believe that Havel's statement deserves a more critical examination than it has received so far.

Havel rightly focuses attention on today's great political task: the governance of a multicultural world. Rapidly improving communications and transportation have largely nullified the natural barriers that once kept each of the world's tribes and communities apart from most other peoples who spoke different languages, practiced different religions, and had different skin colors and facial features. Now people everywhere are forced to live in an environment filled with alien peoples, languages, customs, governments, and ideas.

The sudden mixing of peoples and cultures - through migration, telecommunications, and soaring intercontinental trade - tends to devalue and destroy the familiar community and culture of the past. The customary order of society crumbles, and many individuals often find themselves disoriented and even lost, a phenomenon described by Emile Durkheim as anomie and by Alvin Toffler as "future shock." Amid this turbulence, some people seek salvation in a fervent reassertion of tribal beliefs and customs. This resurgent dedication to traditional values - or some aspects of them - often becomes a virulent force producing riots, bombings, and assassinations.

Havel suggests that responsibility for these modern troubles rests with science, but that exaggerates science's role in the technological progress that disrupts traditional practices and lifestyles. Many of the most significant technological developments were achieved with only modest input from scientists. The automobile and the airplane, for example, were developed principally by mechanics and engineers.

Exaggerating the role of science allows Havel to blame it for the modern malaise that worries him. He frets that the universe revealed by science does not accord well with ordinary human thinking and feeling: Science, he charges, has failed to enable us to understand our lives and live at peace with ourselves and our surroundings.

Most scientists would agree that science has not produced a satisfying religion or philosophy to assuage the pangs of the modern heart. The scientists would argue that the responsibility for that lies not with science but with religion, philosophy, or perhaps psychotherapy. However, Havel offers a more challenging idea: The rudiments of the desired spiritual renewal can be found in science itself - "a science producing ideas that in a certain sense allow it to transcend its own limits."

He offers two examples from this "self-transcending science" - the Anthropic Cosmological Principle and the Gaia Hypothesis. The Anthropic Principle suggests that the universe was expressly built for humans, and the Gala Hypothesis portrays the world around us as a living Earth Mother. …

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